"Faced With Change? Keep Moving!"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 16, 2006

Psalm 24; Mark 6:14-29

    The authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke captured in vivid detail the story of the senseless and ruthless murder of John the Baptist.  In this story we have all the makings of a drama that would rival anything that we might find in our culture, a culture that feeds itself on a steady diet of crime and violence.  We find such themes on the news each evening as well as in the riveting episodes of no less than four separate series featuring Crime Scene Investigations (CSI).

     At the beginning of our lesson, Herod had seduced the wife of his half-brother Philip and then encouraged her to leave her husband and marry him.  In doing so, Herod broke the Hebrew Law (Leviticus.18:16), an act that outraged the Jews.  This prompted John the Baptist to condemn publicly Herod’s behavior.  John continued his denunciation of the first couple each time he faced an audience of listeners.             

     Herod’s new bride grew so intolerant of John’s urgent, persistent public condemnations that she wanted him dead.  Herod had respect for John but remained constantly disturbed and upset by his constant railing against the king.  None of us likes to be reminded of our less than perfect behavior by someone whose judgment we respect.            

     Herodias conceived a plan to rid herself of this dreadful human mirror.  Herod’s birthday was in the near future.  That occasion could provide an opportunity to finally rid herself this highly visible critic.  No doubt she planned the entire festive occasion with John’s death as her primary objective.  She brought in the best caterer.  Her guest list included every dignitary in the realm, the members of the King’s cabinet as well as the top military commanders.   

     She enlisted the services of her daughter, Salome, and invited her to perform a sexually provocative dance.  We have to remember that in the Jewish culture, women did not perform solo dances unless they were professional prostitutes.  Such a dance to the Jews would have been a disgusting, sensually arousing pantomime that was forbidden.  The fact that a princess of royal blood would perform such a dance reflected the character of both the mother and her daughter.                  

     There can be no doubt that Herodias knew her husband very well.  Because of the circumstances surrounding how she became his wife, she knew what would attract his interest.  She also knew how exaggerated Herod’s behavior would become after enough alcohol had been consumed.  

     Following Salome’s dance, Herod arrogantly exclaimed in a voice that carried over the gallery that he was so pleased by her performance that she could have anything she wanted, even up to half his Kingdom.  After a very brief consultation with Mom, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist.            

     After the request was made, the guests could have heard a pin drop.  There was dead silence.  All eyes and ears were trained on Herod.  Would their King honor his word?   After a brief pause, Herod sent a guard to behead John.  When the guard returned with evidence that the deed had been done, Herodias knew she had won.  The penetrating, insightful words of John the Baptist would never be heard again.  How interesting that we have many of his words today!

     There could have been nothing more unsettling to John’s disciples than the murder of their leader.  John’s death could have made his disciples doubt everything they had been taught. Where was God during this tragedy?  How could God allow evil to triumph?  Herodias had won.  In essence, this mean spirited, conniving manipulator defeated a prophet of God!  How was this possible?           

     Many of us also spend time questioning why certain events occur.  We may begin to dissect every component of an event because we want to know whom to blame.  Absolutely nothing we do, think or believe will change the content of any event we have experienced.  We cannot change the past.  John had been murdered and the longer his disciples remained preoccupied with his death, the more immobilized they became.  People can be held prisoner for most of their lives by some experience in their past.  They cannot move beyond it. 

     Some years ago, Lois and I were working with a wedding here at St. Matthew’s.  The bride’s parents had been separated and divorced for 12 years.  Her father had remarried; her mother had not.  Her father said something to her mother at the rehearsal dinner that evoked such a bitter response that she refused to attend her daughter’s wedding.             

     The mother had assumed the responsibility for making the bridesmaids’ dresses.  One of them she had not finished and that dress was to be worn by a woman who had traveled to St. Matthew’s from California.  On her wedding day, the bride was pleading with her mother on the office telephone to bring the dress to the church.  She explained how unfair it was to have her friend come from the West Coast and not participate in her wedding.             

     Isaac started to play the processional. We could not wait any longer.  Lois started the girls down the aisle.  In the narthex stood the one bridesmaid still in her sweatshirt and blue jeans.  The bride’s mother pulled into the parking lot.  The young woman saw her and immediately ran outside.  The dress was handed through the window and the car kept going.  She took off her clothes in our parking lot.  She ran toward the church as she pulled the dress over her head.  She slipped into her shoes and Lois zipped her up.  She entered the processional at the precise second when it was her turn to go down the aisle.  I cannot imagine what passing motorists must have thought about the weddings we perform here.    

     This drama occurred because the bride’s mother continued to nurture, nurse and feed an old hurt.  The energy that mother had created through the years had become powerful enough to cause her to choose not to attend her daughter’s wedding, a daughter whom she loved very much.  This same level of hatred is what filled the heart of Herodias.    

     Bitterness can become so controlling of our spirit that we will enter the future blighted and twisted as though we have thrown away every promise and hope of achieving our remarkable potential.  Greeting change with an attitude of “This I refuse to tolerate!” can do this to us.  We should never give anything that has such debilitating consequences this much power over us. 

     If we turn to the Gospel of Matthew, we read these words, “When Jesus heard the news about John, he left the area in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself.” (Matt. 14:13)  John’s death and the circumstances surrounding his cousin’s murder deeply affected Jesus.  He was faced with an unexpected event that he could not have anticipated.   No doubt stealth temptations came to Jesus, inviting him to consider what John’s death could mean to his own ministry.  

     Following the Matthew passage I just read for you are these words, “When the people learned that Jesus had withdrawn from the area in a boat, they left their towns and followed him on the land.  Jesus got out of the boat and when he saw the large crowd that had come to greet him, he was filled with compassion.  He taught them and healed their sick.” 

     In this Matthew passage Jesus revealed a strategy for dealing with change when the outcome is incomprehensible.  Jesus did not linger with the death of his cousin who had baptized him.  He understood that he must always keep his energy flowing away from him.  Rather than dwelling on his cousin’s death, he focused on those who walked around the lake to be with him.    

     When our energy folds back on us, it causes us to feel sorry for ourselves, feel betrayed, feel that circumstances are out of control, feel a sense of failure, feel that God has abandoned us or feel the need to blame someone for the quality of our experience, even though feeling all these emotions will not change what has happened.    

     Armed with perfectly sound, logical reasons justifying our rage and bitterness, we become our own worst enemy.  Like that bride’s mother, we create a smoldering bitterness that will continue to grow as long as we expend energy feeding it.  We act this way because our world is not the way we want it.    

     Jesus faced the dramatic change in his life and moved on.   How?  He prevented his energy, his thought patterns, from dwelling on something he could not change.  He did not allow the decision of Herod and the planning of Herodias to change his future.  He decided to focus on something he could change – he could teach people how to live more wholesome lives. 

     While we may have an answer for coping with life’s most unsettling events, mastering the skill of moving through chaos is far from easy.  It is very difficult to keep moving with hope when so much around us remains in chaos.   

     The other evening’s news featured heartbreaking stories from shopkeepers, homeowners and business people that had experienced the loss of everything, destroyed by rockets and bombs dropped by aircraft.  Places in both Lebanon and Israel have been so badly damaged that many people fear that the infrastructure of their cities will take years to repair.  Right now so many lives are in disarray.   

     It never matters who appears right or wrong in such conflicts – we civilians ultimately pay the price when chaos reaches its tentacles around our lives and pulls us into it. We find ourselves face to face with accelerating rapid change while caught in the crosshairs of conflicts imposed by governments and terrorists.  We as individuals cannot win.     

     The tool that will enable us to succeed spiritually is the same one Jesus used.  It was the one that allowed him to communicate, “You can crucify my body as vigorously as you want, but you will never succeed in preventing me from extending my love to all of you who are doing this.  You simply do not know what you are doing.”  This is the power that comes from being that proverbial light in darkness.  This is what it means to bring the creativity of God’s energy into moments when chaos appears to be winning.   

     All the people that Herodias personifies in this world – and there have been and will continue to be thousands of them – become ecstatic over their victories.  All of their victories, however, will remain hollow.  What have any of them actually won?  Certainly nothing that is substantive or timeless.  In fact, all they know how to do is destroy what others have built, a behavior by some people that has lingered around the margins of every society since the dawn of civilization. 

     Those of us who face change by moving through every phase of life sowing seeds of kindness and creativity -- constantly seeking new ways to keep our spiritual energy flowing away from us -- will change the nature of the chaos that appears to surround us.           

Our world is an environment of constant change.  This process is not going to stop. Recently John Holmes sent an email to me that had a quote at the bottom. “Without change – there is no improvement, there is no hope and there is no future.  Plan for change.”   

We must keep moving through the chaos of our world radiating our loving spirit.  As we do so, we bring God’s presence and power into every experience in ways we may never understand.  It was through this process that the Church was born, that the words of John the Baptist were preserved and that the Scriptures were handed down from generation to generation.  In this way, we co-create with God. Even though there is darkness, that darkness will never succeed in putting out our light.


     Loving God, we thank you that you fashioned us with the potential to radiate the qualities of your spirit.  We readily admit that some experiences cause us to question everything we understand about you.  The challenges of life often cause us to hide your gifts of spirit under the basket of our fears.  In our search for security, we often seek for it in our external world.  In our search for greater self-worth, we often seek the approval of others.  In our search for success, we often measure ourselves by the standards set by others.  This morning, lead us apart from the world that is constantly changing.  Help us find the peace that comes from you, whose love remains a constant source of strength and confidence.  Encourage our hunger for understanding, while you heal our desire for life to unfold exactly as we would prefer.  Amen.