Today’s sermon is on a tough subject, the beheading of John the Baptist. The question is then asked for this and other tragic events like JFKs death and 9/11: God, where were you? Either listen to the audio below or read the text.
Today’s reading about the beheading of John the Baptist is a tough, tough story to hear, and pretty tough to talk about too. It got me thinking, maybe it would help to talk about some other tough stories, our own stories, from memorable events in our lifetime. To gather stories I posted a message on facebook, asking people to share their memories from either the day JFK was shot, or from 9-11. Stories came pouring in, and within a day, 36 different people shared their memories from one of these days. It was so many stories I wasn’t able to include them all. These stories are good reminder of how tragic events can imprint images in our head and heart. Over time they become part of who we are.
As an example, a seminary friend Nancy, remembers the day JFK was shot vividly. She remembers coming down the stairs, seeing her mother had the television on, and that her mom seemed upset and was crying. Nancy says she doesn’t remember any images from the television but she remembers everything about her mother; her shoes, her socks, her dress. Nancy says she could pick out exactly what her mother was wearing if you showed her those clothes today. What’s amazing to me about this memory of the day is Nancy’s age. She was three years old.
For those of you who were also alive in the early 60s, a question: Where were you the day John F Kennedy was shot?
Pat Carney was in South Boston. She describes JFK as a hometown hero. Pat was a Junior at a Catholic high school and remembers the nun teaching US History being called on the school intercom. The nun announced that JFK was shot, then said a quick prayer and dismissed the class. Pat and a few friends then ran over to the church to light a candle & pray. Shortly after a few classmates ran into the church & told them JFK had died. Pat remembers crying in that church alongside her friends, shedding tears for his wife and children.
Our Music Director, Shirley Luttio, was halfway across the world when JFK was shot, in Kujiranami, Japan. Shirley was four years old; she remembers asking her mom if the president went to heaven that day. She was concerned about where he was.
Where were you, on 9/11, 2001?
Gregg Marconi was 30,000 feet in the air, serving as a flight attendant on a plane traveling from Miami to Raleigh. When the flight crew tried to continue onto their next scheduled stop, West Palm Beach, they got an inch away from the gate and stopped. They were told a small private plane had hit the Twin towers, and the airport had been closed. Gregg’s partner was at the dentist at the time, and had no idea what city he was in. When Gregg finally got his phone there were ten voice mail messages from his partner. Gregg was stuck in Raleigh for two days until he was finally able to get a rental car and drive home.
Catherine Turnipseed grew up in New York, so 9/11 was especially hard for her. She was in college, in Tampa, and remembers getting several calls that day. Every time the phone rang fear rushed through her heart. What disaster would she hear about when she answered? Her father was working at JFK airport that day and called. He told her about watching both planes hit and seeing the buildings collapse from his office on the runway. Catherine tells me her father is Italian, a man’s man, and she could probably count on one hand how many times he’s cried. It wasn’t many. This day was one of them.
A college friend, Heidi, was about 10 miles from O’Hare airport in Chicago, at work teaching grade school children. She remembers hearing about the attacks over the phone, and then turning on the radio to hear more. The most eerie thing she remembers about the day was the silence. Being so close to O’Hare the school was directly under numerous flight paths. On a normal day she had to stop speaking every 15 to 30 seconds as jets screamed overhead during their final descents. That day, the skies were empty except for fighter jets. She says and lack of noise from the planes left a void. It was truly a deafening silence.
All this bad news from our lives brings us to the gospel reading today. There is some very bad news for Jesus’ older cousin, John the Baptist. King Herod liked John the Baptist, and knew he was a holy man, a prophet. But John the Baptist was doing what prophets do sometimes, they speak truth to power. And sometimes that has consequences. John knew Herod had married his brother’s wife, and told Herod plainly that was against the law. To keep things quiet Herod put John the Baptist in prison. This arrangement worked for a while, until it was time for Herod’s birthday party.
As part of the birthday festivities Herod’s daughter danced for him. She danced so well for dad and the guests that Herod made her a promise: Ask for anything, daughter, and it’s yours. That sounds like a pretty good party, right?
But then the story turns. The daughter, who scholars tell us was likely 9 or 10 years old, asks her mom for advice. Mom, sensing an opportunity to be done with someone talking trash about her husband, says something shocking. She tells her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. The daughter listens to mom and asks for it. Herod, not wanting to break his promise in front of the guests, orders it to be done, and before you know it there John the Baptist’s head is, sitting on a platter.
The beheading of John the Baptist was pretty big news for many people at the time. Perhaps it was similar to how we view some of our own dark news days like the death of John F Kennedy or the events of Nine Eleven. Imagine asking Herod’s daughter that same question, where were you, the day John the Baptist was beheaded? “Well” she may reply, “I was at a birthday party for dad, and I danced. There was joy, there was clapping. And then things went very, very bad. “
Or imagine asking one of the apostles, where were you, the day you heard Jesus’ cousin was beheaded? “I was out healing the sick, just like Jesus taught us to do” the apostle may say. “Life was wonderful, magical. And then the messenger came and told us the horrible news. I’ll never forget that day.”
I’d add maybe one more question about that day, a question for God. God, where were you, the day John the Baptist was beheaded? Because looking at the text for today I don’t see you. It just ends with a head on a platter, and the disciples coming to take his body away to bury it. And that was that, John was dead.
For those of us that were around for the death of JFK or Nine-Eleven we may ask the same question. God, where were you the day JFK was shot? God, where were you the day the Twin Towers fell? Those are hard questions.
Good News – then
But you didn’t come to church this morning to wallow in the news of dead prophets, dead presidents or, terrorist attacks. At least I hope you didn’t. There is good news to share today.
Right before where the gospel reading picks up Jesus sends the twelve apostles out to heal the sick. Word of his ministry was starting to get out. A movement was underway. And right after the beheading the text moves to Jesus feeding the 5,000. So while it’s hard to see God on the day John the Baptist was beheaded it’s really easy to spot God right before, present with Jesus and the apostles as they went about their business healing. And it’s easy to spot God right after, present again with Jesus and the apostles as they participate in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000.
Think about those three events together. First the apostles are sent. Then John the Baptists is killed. Then the miracle of feeding the 5,000. First sending. Then death. Then miracle. Sound familiar? It kind of sounds like the Easter story to me. That even on the darkest of days God is present. Present with Jesus during his death on a cross. Present with the apostles and other followers during their pain. Present with us, in our pain.
Good News – our past
There is good news in our darkest times too, even from a horrific day like Nine Eleven.
Catherine Turnipseed shares her father’s story of 9-11 every year with her students, along with many other personal stories from her family and friends. Where was God that day for Catherine? She says the day taught her something about God’s mysterious ways. She learned that day God makes us all special, and actively shapes our lives, even in times of tragedy. Catherine says she values the chance to pass these lessons about the day, lessons about God, on to her students.
Where was God that day for a friend of mine from seminary? She found God in church, sitting next to her husband. The two went to their faith community the night of the attacks to seek solace. Their marriage wasn’t in the best place at the time; it had been 13 months since they’d gone to church together. Exactly one year later, on 9/11/2002 the couple welcomed their second child into the world. Looking back on this day she now describes 911 as a crucial moment in healing her marriage. God was present on that day almost fourteen years ago, healing a marriage, and is still present, walking alongside the couple today.
Where was God that day for Becky, a college friend, on 9/11? She was eight months pregnant with her daughter. Becky says she recalls being horrified that she was about to bring an innocent child into such a dark place. But the experience gave her and her husband Bill resolve. She tells me they decided to do everything in their power to raise their child to be loving and kind to everyone she would meet, and reject hate in any form. God was present on that day for Becky, giving her new insight on how to raise her soon-to-be-born child, and teach her in the ways she should go. God continues to be present with Becky and Bill as they raise their daughter, now thirteen years old.
Good news – today
Where is God today, for you? Some days it can be harder to see God then others. Maybe you’re having one of those days. I sure struggle to see God some days, maybe you do too. Perhaps you’ll experience God in the music today. At least some of you will. Shirley has been leading music in churches for a while now, I’m guessing she’d agree. You can’t please everyone, at least all the time, right Shirley?
Or maybe you’ll find God in the sermon today. At least I hope a few of you will. But if you don’t that’s ok. Not everyone finds God in every sermon. It just doesn’t always happen.
One place I find God a lot is right after the service, in the narthex, during coffee hour, talking with many of you. God is present with us in our faith communities, in our conversations. For me it’s easy to find God among God’s people most days. But even then it doesn’t happen every single time.
Here’s one place you can find God consistently, even in the dark times. It’s in communion. We are given the gift of Christ because God so loved us that God wanted us to know that we are loved. God wanted us to know that God knows what it is like to suffer, to feel pain, to feel hurt. And that God never leaves us because God is an intimate presence in our life.
God gave us Christ to show us the way. To show us that within all the bad news we may experience, we are given the mark of baptism and the bread of communion. God will not fail us. God will not forget us.
In a few moments you will be invited to be a guest at the Lord’s Table and we will hear the words “This is the body of Christ given for you.” Each week we are reminded “this is the blood of Christ shed for you.”
God is part of us. God is with us. The bread we take, the wine we drink, and the cleansing waters of baptism show us no matter what, at all times, we are never forgotten.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.