A Risky Discipleship: Preaching Repentance and Teaching Justice

Text: Mark 6: 14-29

King Herod was shaking in his boots….

He made a terrible choice, a sin that caused him to feel ashamed, and he was sure his bad choice had come back to haunt him.

“Who is this Jesus?” everyone was asking. Herod was convinced that the only explanation for his incredible power was that he was John the Baptizer back from the dead. The weight on his conscience was enormous.

Herod killed his pet prophet, you see? His wife, Herodias, was enraged by John’s call to repentance and his convicting statements about their inappropriate relationship. John would call out, “Just because you’re the king doesn’t mean you get to marry your brother’s wife! The rules apply to you the same as they do to everyone else.” Herodias was enraged, but Herod deeply respected John the Baptizer. There was truth to what he said, even if the truth hurt his pride and challenged his behavior and worldview. Herod locked him up to appease his wife, but protected him until…

His young daughter graced his birthday celebration with a dance and Herod was so pleased that he foolishly promised her up to half his kingdom… how could he have imagined her request? He thought her an innocent child until she demanded his prophet’s head on a platter. A gruesome turn of events indeed. He could have said no. He could have stood his ground and continued protecting John from harm. But he chose to save face socially. Everyone heard his generous, bombastic promise.  He swore solemnly. They’d think him a liar, a coward, a blasphemer if he went back on his word. And so, the blood drained from his face, and he gave his daughter her horrible prize. She grimly turned it over to her mother, whose bitter grudge was satisfied.  And John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Of course, as students of the Word, we can say a few things in faith about this gruesome interlude in our lectionary cycle. First, we know that Herod’s fear-induced assumptions about Jesus are wrong. Having studied Mark’s gospel intensively since December, we know that every story works together to support Mark’s thesis statement that Jesus is not only the Christ, but also the Son of God. And as Son of God, he has a power unimaginable. He uses his power not to attain riches or climb a ladder to success, but rather freely offers his power to those who have no power. He gives away his power to raise the weak and the oppressed up from their suffering. He uses his power to implement God’s vision of justice for the world. And so, he cleanses lepers, restores sight to the blind, raises a little girl from the dead, restores dignity and community to a woman whose bleeding had isolated her for 12 long years. He heals on the Sabbath and eats with sinners.  He threatens the status quo.  He preaches repentance and teaches justice and the powerful hang him on a cross for such audacity.…

The story of John the Baptizer’s death is told as a flashback in the gospel of Mark, which is interesting because it functions as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ fate…. And not just Jesus’ fate, but that of the apostles who were sent out last week and will return from their missionary journeys next week. This text is a blunt and unpleasant reminder of the potential risk of discipleship.

While deeply rewarding, discipleship is dangerous because we proclaim a gospel that threatens the powers that be in this world. And Jesus calls us to the life of discipleship, to follow in his footsteps of teaching justice and preaching repentance. Jesus calls and empowers us to go out into the world around us and proclaim a gospel that the world doesn’t always want to hear, but that those who are suffering yearn for. Our gospel is good news for those who are poor, for those who are weak, for those who have been chewed up and spit out by the powerful.

The central symbol of our Christian faith is the cross, a symbol of Christ’s gruesome death and betrayal, and our reminder that God took on weakness and vulnerability for us, that God risked God’s self for us, that God suffered and is still most powerfully present with us in the places of suffering in this world. And as disciples that’s where we’re called to go. We see the injustice in the world and we preach repentance. We call a thing what it is. And that’s risky.

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen one example of this in our own community. While controversial, in response to the shootings in Charleston, the seminary made the bold decision to ban public displays of the Confederate flag on campus because of the way the flag is used by white supremacists to rally their cause and terrorize our African American brothers and sisters. In his Op-Ed for the Gettysburg Times on July 3rd, President Michael Cooper-White wrote “While [the Confederate flag’s] meanings differ among various groups in our society, these symbols’ impact among most African Americans in particular is overwhelmingly negative.  To allow their public display in the aftermath of the Charleston murders would signal gross insensitivity and a lack of empathy for the families of those gunned down, for our own students, staff and alumni of color, and for millions of our fellow citizens.  In a time when those wearied by the ongoing wars of racism are groping for signs of hope, it’s time to take down symbols that wound rather than heal.”

Of course, this decision has been met with a variety of responses: some positive, some disappointed but understanding, some quite negative.  At its core, this action by the seminary models for us what it means as disciples preach repentance and to teach justice, following  in the footsteps of Jesus.  Through repentance, this action calls the world to acknowledge past and present realities of racism and to turn back to God who has the power to forgive our sins and heal our divisions. And it teaches justice by showing the world that one way we live out our faith is by sacrificing our own power and freedom for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters with less power and less freedom. Of course there is every legal right to fly the Confederate flag and of course not everyone who flies it embodies the ideals of white supremacy, BUT because of deep pain the flag causes as a symbol of hate groups both past and present, the seminary has chosen the unpopular path to lay down its rights for the sake of our brothers and sisters whose rights and concerns have been historically devalued.  That’s justice as Jesus embodied it. And it is a risky venture indeed.

So, where is the good news this weekend for God’s prophets whose choice to follow Jesus sometimes leads down dangerous roads? Well, first, I would say that we are reminded that we are not alone. We walk in Jesus’ footsteps following all the prophets who have gone before.  And we walk these roads with Jesus by our side. While even Jesus ended up on the cross, we know that his death was only part of the story. As Christians, we are bold to preach repentance and to teach justice because we cling to this amazing hope in the resurrection.

Tomorrow our youth embark on a risky missionary journey of their own…. A journey where they will preach repentance and embody justice… a journey where they will accompany those who are suffering and be swept up in God’s radical hope of the resurrection.

When Detroit was announced as the location for this year’s National Youth Gathering, there were many across the ELCA who were thrilled, and many others who were shaking in their boots at the idea of sending their children to the big, dangerous, depressed city of Detroit.  Many were challenged to realize that the National Youth Gathering is not a vacation but a missionary journey, a holy pilgrimage out of our comfort zone and into a tangible experience of God’s unimaginable, transformative power.

Our youth are ready for this journey. They’ve studied together about the sin of systemic racism and how that contributes to generational poverty. They’ve studied Detroit’s history, they’ve read about its current reality and rebuilding. And now they go out with joy and excitement, proverbial staves in hand, to be transformed by the Holy Spirit and grow in their understanding of discipleship. May God grant them all the courage to soak up both the grim and the hope-filled realities of Detroit and to allow their experiences direct their footsteps to follow Jesus in preaching repentance and teaching justice to a world that needs more prophets. Amen.

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