Sunday, July 12, 2009

Discretion


Falstaff: "The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life."
(Shakespeare, Henry IV)

The Rev. Mary Cat Young was our preacher today, and she had the task of performing a double baptism after reading the tale of the beheading of John the Baptist and his head being served up on a platter to Herodias. I want everyone to consider how they might handle this problem. Mary Cat honestly said that it was too gruesome a thing to preach about before a baptism and used her discretion by talking instead about her own baptism. Maybe she was right to do so, for if you can't do it, admit it and go on rather than gross out the congregation and visitors with too many graphic details.

One thing can said for liberal preaching, it is intended to make you feel good. So why do I often come out with that uncomfortable feeling that something is missing or wrong? Maybe because there is an unsaid suggestion that we in the pews should not hear talk of headless baptizers, bloody battles, sin, the fear of God, or the wrath of God. Or that such talk keeps people from hearing the Gospel message of hope and love. I believe this is a reason why many Sunday services in the Episcopal church will leave out some of the "ugly bits" in either the Psalter, or the O.T. reading, the reading from the Epistles, and, of course, from the sermon. For years, I was content to listen to this expurgated version of Christianity, and was falling into the classic trap of believing that God's goodness should fall within my human understanding of goodness. To hear the story of John is painful to us. Where is God's goodness in that? Many believe that pain cannot be good, so let's not talk about those painful bits.
How can people get over the indoctrination of "feel good" worship and be able to explain Christianity to their disbelieving friends and acquaintances? Shouldn't we study those painful passages in more detail and try to reconcile them with the loving passages?

Today's lessons showed us, quite graphically, the cruelty of sin, and the power that authorities hold over our lives. Of course, Jesus proved that He, not earthly kings like Herod, has the power over life and death. But still, the question of pain occurring to good people, such as John's imprisonment and beheading, comes up. Was it his fault due to a lack of discretion? Did he have to die? How can we explain it? Do we run from the problem?

No!

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more"
(Shakespeare, Henry V)

I for one can't run from that awful image of John's disheveled face and bloody neck on a platter. It seems to me to be a problem of getting past the picture. I tried to get past it by looking into the root causes of evil and cruelty, the Christian response to evil, and how to get from point A to point B. I looked at today's Gospel reading and saw a story that shows us how the world treats prophetic witness, and the story made me examine why God's world works in this way. Then I looked at how John's baptismal ministry is remembered, and how, through Jesus, we are given the sacrament of Baptism. And maybe in the course of my exploration, I saw one of God's miracles. The miracle that we witnessed today: two people, one a child, the other an adult, are now, through the sacrament of Baptism, part of the body of Christ. I witnessed them renounce Satan and turn away from the forces of sin and evil. Those forces that threaten all that is good. Only through a miracle can such forces be overcome.

No pain, no gain. No cross, no crown.

6 comments:

  1. Excellent writing. Great use of Shakespeare.

    May God bring those two new Christians to make good on their baptismal vows.

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  2. Perhaps Herod's beheading of John was his way of skipping over/eliminating/not contemplating the ugly message of sin and judgment and the call to repentance. That is, when the message is uncomfortable, change the message. Failing that, get rid of the messenger.

    Cheers.

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  3. Rubashov9:23 AM

    I've just found your blog recently, but you put into words a lot of what I think in church too. Yesterday we heard about John, then the preacher got up. She started out by explaining how Herod's wife was unhappy because John said her marriage to her brother-in-law is immoral. Then she said John's example asks us if we will challenge the "immorality and injustice" in society. I wasn't sure why injustice jumped in there, but okay...

    Then she got going, and a bit later she asked if we were ready to challenge the "structures and systems that cause injustice, violence, and immorality." Wait a minute, I thought, how come immorality is slipping so far down the list? Near the end, after a discussion of Liberation Theology, she quoted someone as saying "there are structures of hierarchy and oppression in our seminaries, churches, and families." Well, okay, Herod was oppressive, but isn't there a lot more going on in this passage than "dictators kill people unjustly?"

    For example, doesn't the gospel actually say that John died for his bravery in saying Herod's marriage was illegal? That John the Baptist, for goodness sake, condemned other peoples' marriage? As if an Episcopal preacher would touch that with a ten foot pole.

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  4. Welcome Rubashov,

    I am glad that you bring your "Sunday ears" with you.

    "Justice" is an Episcopal code word these days. I leave it to you to investigate further.

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  5. Anonymous5:06 PM

    As expected! I won another bet - I told my family that Mary Cat's decision to not to scare the pants off of our soon to be baptized with stories of jealousy, blood, gore and murder would not sit well with you and I was right! WOOO HOOO! I bet you love horror flix!

    Signed -
    The original C2G

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  6. Wrong again Sherlock. I hate em.

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