Monday, August 29, 2016

Homily for the Passion of John the Baptist

This homily was given at the beginning of the school year at a gathering of staff and faculty.
Twenty miles south of the spot where Moses pointed the wandering Israelites to their new land that flowed with milk and honey, stands a lonely mountain peak that overlooks the lowest place on earth. Across from it, the Dead Sea, sat the Essene monastery where John the Baptist may have frequented. It is not highly desirable real estate, but it was the spa where King Herod would safely throw lavish parties amidst the mountains of rock that served as natural defensive borders. Herod and his guests needed to be fit in order to scale the vertical ascent that led to this protected enclave. On a clear night, if you squinted, you might be able to see Mount Zion and the city of peace - Jerusalem, but their arduous trek to this peak made them feel distanced from the holy activities at the Temple. I walked around this former palace. It was grand in my imagination but exceedingly small in its dimensions and I peered into the room where Salome’s dance was held. With all those guests, where did she have room to dance? It must have not been that exotic after all. Surely, John the Baptist would have been imprisoned upstairs and outside in the scorching sun by day and the unforgiving cold at night. As I sat down to begin my prayers, my heart erupted and I bleated out this question to God: John died in this small, unnoticed place because of a grudge? How meaningless! I thought: we must never allow our unresolved needs to snuff out the life of another person again. Yet, it happens daily.
            We kill the spirit of another person when we hold onto grudges or feel dishonored because of an incident we do not fully investigate or understand. We snuff the life out of another person when we allow our career ambitions and our puffed-up sense of self to lose sight of the goal or mission. We thwart the growth of another person when we feel threatened by someone else’s authority or we cannot effectively establish our own positions of authority. We marginalize and exclude people or act with passive-aggression. Our unmet needs, our insecurities, or fears turn us into Herodias and Herod – and we may not even realize the effect we have upon God’s kingdom.
            Fortunately, we are a community of faith that wakes up each day with new opportunities to establish right relations with each other. From whichever faith tradition we come, we are a people of goodwill and we can start again. We are in a jubilee year – a Year of Mercy, and mercy is defined as “loving enough to enter into the chaos of another person.” Mercy is the quality that is victorious over hatred, violence, and sin, and a mature understanding of sin is “a failure to even bother to love.” Mercy bothers us to love - even those who we do not want to love. We are God’s people of mercy, and mercy is not easy to understand or to put into practice, but for people of goodwill, it is not merely an option, but our necessary path to new life as one united community.
            In the Old Testament, the Lord God asks three basic things of us: to be kind, to be slow in making rash negative judgments, and to be merciful. Kindness is under-rated because it is seen as a condition of weakness, but we never explore its surprising power to change the course of lives. Judging – It is far better for us to respond rather than to react because we will probably get unexpected insights and a softened heart as we compassionately listen to another person. Mercy, well, this is our year to learn how to love better. Jesus in the New Testament asks us to learn two traits from him – to be gentle and humble of heart, often qualities dismissed by this world’s standards, but they carry the wisdom of the cross as Paul writes about in 1st Corinthians. Kindness, a compassionate understanding heart, mercy, gentleness, and humility: Our grudges, Herodias’s grudge, have no power in the face of these. This is the way forward in mercy. They give life and build up.

            We start at the cusp of a new year. Is it possible to start afresh? Can we move forward, forgetting whatever it is that lays in the past and forge deeper friendships in the Lord? Life is much more enjoyable when we embrace and welcome and reconcile. Can God transform any lingering grudges we have into new possibilities? New hopes? Of course. Through Christ’s mercy, John the Baptist lives on. Through mercy, someone you do not expect may give you new life.