The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, and if we go by that definition, today’s gospel story is anything but good news. Today we heard the gruesome story of the beheading of John the Baptist, who is at the whim of Herod and his family, and, no, this story has no redeeming quality. The death of John is no noble sacrifice, but brutal, senseless, and unjust violence. We don’t hear it in today’s gospel, but Jesus is very upset about the execution of John, he grieves, and he withdraws as he hears the news. Evil forces are at work in the world, and Jesus knows it well.
Now this is not the only incident of senseless and shocking violence in the Bible. What we call the Old Testament is full of it – thousand fall in battle, women are raped, whole tribes are enslaved – and even in the New Testament we witness again and again how the powerful come down on the weak. Herod has John the Baptist beheaded, Herod’s infamous father, Herod the Great, orders the slaughter of all boys 2 years and younger in Bethlehem. Stephen, one of the first apostles, is stoned to death. And we mustn’t forget how Jesus, God self, is tortured and killed on the cross.
Violence of course is nothing new to us. Gruesome beheadings still happen in this world today; there are those repulsive ISIS videos, and news of ruthless drug cartels in some Latin American countries decapitating victims. And there is something especially cruel about this kind of murder, since any dismemberment doesn’t only destroy the body, but violates the wholeness and dignity of the entire person. In ancient times, there was the strong belief that people would enter the afterlife physically – imagine the way Egyptian pharaohs were buried, with food and weapons and even servants – and a severed head was an extremely cruel measure to prevent someone from entering the next life. Maybe that’s why we are still extremely repulsed today when we hear of – or even, thanks to the media – witness beheadings.
Now the chances that anyone here will meet such a fate are extremely slim, thanks be to God. Yet most of us know firsthand about violence. Those who lived through World War II have experienced violence, destruction, and death. Some in this congregation shared horrendous stories with me about their experiences in the war, the horror, the fear, the trauma. There are those still present today who had much to suffer and endure in the aftermath of the war; I just remember the stories my grandmother, a refugee from Silesia, told about the constant fear of being raped. My grand aunt, as she was fleeing Silesia, had to witness how almost her entire family was blown up by a landmine. And I am sure some here would have stories like those to tell.
Some may have experienced domestic violence, be it at the hand of a parent or of a spouse. Some may have experienced social violence. Some may have experienced economic violence. Some may have experienced violence at the hand of bullies. And we all bear our scars – sometimes physically, always emotionally.
Violence seems to be part of the fabric of the world we live in, a consequence of the fall and the expulsion from paradise. A random bullet kills a young woman on a pier here in San Francisco. After the murder of nine African-American Christians in Charleston, black churches are burning again in the South. In the U.S., more people than in any other country in this world die in skirmishes with the police – and the vast majority of those killed are people of color. And more people than in any other country not fighting a war on its own turf die of gun shots, be it intentional or accidental. Domestic violence, mostly against women, is often still considered a cavalier’s offense and a private matter. And especially here in the U.S., people have this strange infatuation with violence – just look at the number of so called ‘action movies’, which hit theaters every year.
And a more subtle violence exists as well. Yes, there is such a thing as social or economic violence. In the psalm we prayed today, we heard how people long for God’s presence and the day when righteousness and peace kiss each other; other translations say justice and peace. No justice, no peace – the ancient people of God already knew that.
And the prophet Amos, about whom we heard in our lesson from the Old Testament today, was sent to Israel to prophesy doom over the people. And why did God condemn the people? Not because of sexual deviation, as some might guess, but because of the economic violence against the poor and weak in society. In the ancient Mosaic laws, there are actually plenty of rules about the just distribution of land and goods. Those ancient laws even prescribed a regular redistribution of possessions, especially the possession of land, and the forgiveness of debt, in order to prevent rampant inequality. Everyone living in the covenant with God is meant to be protected by these laws – even the stranger is supposed to be treated with dignity and compassion. Now if we took those words of God as seriously today as some other verses…
In today’s lesson, we get a little snippet about the reaction to his prophecy: Amos is urged to go back to his homeland and prophesy there. People don’t heed, people don’t want to heed the word and the warning of God, as if God’s voice could be made void by not listening – and, be it coincidence or not, shortly thereafter Israel is sacked by the Assyrians in the year 722.
Jesus continues in the tradition of Amos as he condemns inequality and the disregard of the poor and the weak. But then Jesus decries any kind of injustice. As I already mentioned, Jesus is upset when he hears of John the Baptist’s cruel and undignified death. He knows that evil hasn’t been overcome yet, and that what we call sin is alive and well in the world. And Jesus’ prayer is: Our father in heaven, hallowed be thy name – thy kingdom come. And we sense in this prayer the desperate longing for God’s kingdom to come and conquer all evil – may thy kingdom come – as much as we sense the defiant hope that, indeed, God’s kingdom of peace and justice will conquer all – thy kingdom will come.
But then think of the next line in the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come – thy will be done. I think these two lines are linked like that on purpose. God’s kingdom is realized where God’s will is done. What is God’s will? We may argue about the details, but we know about the ultimate vision of God’s kingdom, which Jesus likens to a big party to which all are invited, or a tree in which all birds under the heavens find food and shelter, or a house with many mansions. John, the author of the Book of Revelations, gives us visions of the City of God, with gates that are wide open to welcome all – a place where suffering and mourning and crying and death will be no more. No more inequality. No more need. No more violence. No more suffering. No more hate. No more death. I think we get the idea what God’s will is for all of creation.
And Jesus prays that this will be done. May it be done – and: it will be done! And that’s where we come in. Now we may pray and think, ah, it’s up to someone else to do God’s will. But we are the ones who, in the end, carry on the legacy of Jesus Christ. We are the ones who are called to act according to God’s will, and to live into the great vision of God’s kingdom.
Most here have experienced violence in our lives – and it hurts, and we know that it ain’t right and just. The least we can do to live according to God’s will in our world today is to have true compassion with all those who suffer from all the obvious and maybe not so obvious forms of violence in this world today. To pray for them. To help wherever we can. To speak up for those who suffer. To interfere, if we can, and to not look away when we witness violence against any of our brothers or sisters, or all of God’s creation, for that matter. To be honest with ourselves as we examine our own behavior – we may not threaten with guns and lash out with fists at people, but how often do we hurt someone with words? How often do we pass on gossip at the expense of someone else, how often do we commit slander? How often do we let our prejudices get the best of us?
We live in a world that is still far from heaven. Yet: the kingdom of God is already growing among us. God’s will is done, often in small and unnoticed ways. There is hope. And we all are bearers of this hope. We all have the power to do God’s will – and thus help God’s kingdom grow just a little more. And whenever we do see glimpses of God’s kingdom, moments when justice and peace kiss each other, and there is relief from suffering, hopefully we will want more of this and live more and more faithfully into this vision.
Jesus Christ died for this vision. Jesus Christ died for us and for all of God’s beloved creation. So may our fervent prayer be: Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done – on earth – as it is in heaven.
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