Shuck and Jive

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Fun's in the Fight: A Sermon

The Fun’s in the Fight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 12, 2010
Third Sunday of Advent

Gospel of Jesus 6:1-14

King Herod heard about Jesus’ exorcism and cures---by now, Jesus’ reputation had become well known. Some spread the rumor that he was Elijah, while others reported that he was a prophet like one of the prophets.

Earlier, Herod himself had sent someone to arrest John and put him in chains in a dungeon, on account of Herodias, because he had abandoned his first wife and married her. So Herodias nursed a grudge against him and wanted to eliminate him, but she couldn’t manage it, because Herod was afraid of John.

Now a festival day came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his courtiers, and his commanders, and the leading citizens of Galilee. And the daughter of Herodias came in and captivated Herod and his dinner guests by dancing. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish and I’ll grant it to you!” Then he swore an oath to her: “I’ll grant you whatever you ask for, up to half my domain!”

She promptly made her request: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter, right now!”

The king grew regretful, but, on account of his oaths and the dinner guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So right away the king sent for the executioner and commanded him to bring his head. And he went away and beheaded John in prison.

Jesus began to talk about John to the crowds: “What did you go out to the wilderness to gawk at? A reed shaking in the wind? What did you really go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? But wait! Those who wear fancy clothes are found in regal quarters.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 37, 39. Mark 6:14-29; Matthew 11: 7-8; 14:1-12
Luke 7:24-25; Thomas 78:1-2

Elizabeth Creamer

All I would say was not said in the dance

which, despite the reviews, was not me wholly

but a mimicry of what I learned as a girl

in the market following my mother
through back alleys to low-ceilinged rooms

where shrouded women whispered of power

as the starting salary for a beauty like me

who could polish her act until it gleamed

so bright it would mirror a man's self-image

like the silver platter at the feast that night.

No, all I would say was not said in the dance
but the bump and grind was my mother tongue,
breasts and hips an ingenue's scripted part.

The Baptist risked his neck to exhort a wasted king,

but for me, the daughter, he offered not one sermon.

If the man had only thought that I might think,

I would have chosen a different veil.

As it was, I danced.

It was the only way I knew

for a girl like me

to get a head.

The theme as you can read from the bulletin cover for this Third Sunday of Advent is Joy. That fits quite nicely don’t you think with the beheading of John the Baptist? It is a happy little story filled with drunkenness, sexual politics, the arrogance of the powerful, and violence.

It is a heartwarming tale for Christmas.

Most preachers will tell you that Advent is the most difficult season. Hymns are in a minor key, the texts are depressing, and the season itself has overtones of an apocalyptic end-times scenario.

Then of course there is our reality. Christmas is the season that is the driving force behind our consumerist economy. Forty percent of all retail goods sold during the year are purchased between Thanksgiving Day and December 25th. Ministers are supposed to make you feel bad about that, too. Even though many of us, in fact, probably all of us, count on high retail sales for the success of our businesses, investments, and incomes. We are, after all, interconnected. The Wise Men had no idea what bringing gifts to the Christ child would become.

And we have our own worries. Health, family, livelihoods, drama. Drama is a word I picked up from middle and high school students these past few weeks. They use that word often. Drama. It has to do with volatility and angst in social interactions. Drama. Drama at school. Drama at home. Drama at work. Drama at church.

Christmas with all of its pressures and expectations is certainly a season of high drama.

In that sense, maybe this story about John the Baptist does fit. Who doesn’t fantasize about beheading someone right about now?

If it makes it easier, the story is likely fiction. According to historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan, Mark probably adapted it from an earlier well-known story.

According to this story set in 184 BC, a Roman Senator, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius was expelled from the senate for this atrocious deed. It has to do with a woman. Flaminius was infatuated with the lovely Placentia. She was a notorious woman. Flaminius invites her to dinner. He is trying to impress her by bragging about how many people he has in his prison that he intends to behead. Placentia is reclining below him and tells him that she has never seen a beheading and wouldn’t he mind entertaining her?

According to the text, “the generous lover, ordering one of the wretches to be brought to him, cut off his head with a sword.”

This is all in the context of feasting and drinking. Flaminius is expelled from the senate for this not because the guy was innocent—he would have been beheaded anyway—but because that is no way to exercise power. You don’t execute justice to please a mistress at a party.

Mark’s story of Herod’s misuse of power likely recalls that story. Crossan, Jesus, pp. 35-39

John the Baptist was probably not beheaded because he criticized Herod for taking his brother’s wife. He was, however, executed by Herod. First century historian Josephus hints that Herod was worried that John and his wild-eyed preaching was going to lead to an insurrection.

John probably was an apocalyptic preacher who thought God would finally act (as God acted in Old Testament times) on behalf of Israel over its enemies. John is preparing these people through baptism to stage some sort of protest in anticipation of God’s activity. There were many who did similar things during this volatile period. It usually did not end well. The Romans simply massacred them.

Jesus hears that John is executed. John who baptized him. The writing is on the wall. You follow John the Baptist, you will likely end up like John the Baptist. According to our text:
Jesus began to talk about John to the crowds: “What did you go out to the wilderness to gawk at? A reed shaking in the wind? What did you really go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes? But wait! Those who wear fancy clothes are found in regal quarters.”
I think what Jesus is saying is that this is serious business. Standing up to Empire is dangerous. This could be your fate as well as mine. This work is not for those who wear fancy clothes or who are easily shaken like a reed in the wind.

Crossan and some other historical Jesus scholars say that Jesus had a different approach than John. Whereas John was apocalyptic thinking that the kingdom of God would come in a dramatic supernatural way (an analogy would be the modern day rapture believers), Jesus saw it differently. Jesus saw the kingdom of God as already present, within you and among you. He was like John in that he saw the present order of things as corrupt and unsustainable (to use a modern word).

Jesus, like John, rejected the values of domination and exploitation and peace through violence. Unlike John, Jesus saw this new reality, this new way or relating as something that exists now and that we can participate in now. As we look at the things that Jesus did we get a glimpse of what it might mean to participate and to anticipate this kingdom he spoke about.

What did he do? He welcomed all at the table. He transcended ethnic boundaries. He provided healing for families and communities, he resisted oppression not with violence but with non-violence. He declared that the poorest and the left out were the favored ones. He inspired people to hope and work for economic, political, and social justice.

For Jesus, the miracle of the kingdom coming is not a lightning bolt from the sky that wipes out the bad guys, but a gradual awakening and awareness of people living out the values of justice, peace, compassion, and truth.

This work by Jesus is no less risky than that done by John. Jesus was executed as well. Jesus is reported to have said,
“If anyone wants to follow me, let that one pick up a cross.”
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that do not want equality.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that are exploitative of people and of Earth.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time who think that a very few are destined to control the wealth of the planet.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time who advocate for endless war to achieve their ends.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that have no regard to the future beyond their own immediate future.
  • There are forces in the time of Jesus and in our time that will destroy lives and life itself to get their way.
Naming, resisting, and working to change these forces is risky business. It is not for reeds shaken by the wind. The question for each of us is this: Is it worth it?

Picking up the cross doesn’t sound like fun.
What is the difference if it is a losing cause anyway?

First, regarding losing causes.
I quoted Reinhold Niebuhr
last week and will do so again.
This quote from Niebuhr makes it into my loose-leaf Bible:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore, we are saved by hope.

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.
It is not up to us to decide beforehand what is or is not a losing cause. What is up to us is to decide what is the right thing and to do it. The outcome is not up to us. We cannot know in advance what our work today will produce tomorrow.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s last book before his death, A Man Without a Country, he tells the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor. Vonnegut said that Ignaz Semmelweis was his hero. He was born in 1818. He became an obstetrician, devoting his life to the care of mothers and babies.

Vonnegut also told the story of Ignaz Semmelweis during a commencement address. Vonnegut told this story in the context of the “forces” that I mentioned above, who Vonnegut called “the guessers”. Ignaz Semmelweis stood up to the guessers. Here is Vonnegut’s telling:
Ignaz Semmelweis …believed that germs could cause diseases. He was horrified when he went to work for a maternity hospital in Vienna, Austria, to find out that one mother in 10 was dying of childbed fever there.

These were poor people - rich people still had their babies at home. Semmelweis observed hospital routines, and began to suspect that doctors were bringing the infection to the patients. He noticed that the doctors often went directly from dissecting corpses in the morgue to examining mothers in the maternity ward. He suggested as an experiment that the doctors wash their hands before touching the mothers.

What could be more insulting. How dare he make such a suggestion to his social superiors. He was a nobody, he realized. He was from out of town with no friends and protectors among the Austrian nobility. But all that dying went on and on and Semmelweis, having far less sense about how to get along with others in this world than you and I would have, kept on asking his colleagues to wash their hands.

They at last agreed to do this in a spirit of lampoonery, of satire, of scorn. How they must have lathered and lathered and scrubbed and scrubbed and cleaned under their fingernails. The dying stopped - imagine that! The dying stopped. He saved all those lives.

Subsequently, it might be said that he has saved millions of lives - including quite possibly yours and mine. What thanks did Semmelweis get from the leaders of his profession in Viennese society, guessers all? He was forced out of the hospital and out of Austria itself, whose people he had served so well. He finished his career in a provincial hospital in Hungary. There he gave up on humanity, which is us, and our knowledge, which is now yours, and on himself.

One day in the dissecting room, he took the blade of a scalpel with which he had been cutting up a corpse, and he stuck it on purpose into the palm of his hand. He died, as he knew he would, of blood poisoning soon afterward.

The guessers had had all the power. They had won again. Germs indeed. The guessers revealed something else about themselves too, which we should duly note today. They aren't really interested in saving lives. What matters to them is being listened to -as however ignorantly their guessing goes on and on and on. If there's anything they hate, it's a wise guy or a wise girl.

Be one anyway. Save our lives and your lives too. Be honorable.
That was Kurt Vonnegut recounting the story of Ignaz Semmelweis. A sad story, on one level, for him personally. It shows that we do not know in advance if our cause is lost or not. An important story for us. We need to take the risks to stand up to the guessers-- the forces-- for what is right and good and decent.

That is why it is worth it figuratively, or perhaps literally, to pick up the cross and take the risk.

I am going to suggest that there is a bonus.

Beheadings notwithstanding, fighting the good fight can be fun and downright joyful.

I think another difference between Jesus and John the Baptist is that Jesus might have had a bit more fun. The gospels recount that people criticized Jesus because he and his followers feasted and ate and drank while John’s followers fasted and looked gloomy. Maybe that is why Jesus outlasted John. Jesus resisted the guessers—the forces—as much as John did, but Jesus had fun doing it.

Don’t forget to enjoy life—to consider the lilies—to enjoy what you can.

Joy is not found in the absence of drama, but in its midst.

This Third Sunday of Advent is for Joy. I think it is the joy of a good scrap.

Another individual who has made it into my loose-leaf Bible is Molly Ivins. Those who have been paying attention at sermon time, know that I have quoted Molly before. But as with all Scripture, it is good for the soul to hear it more than once. This is from an article whose title I borrowed for my sermon title, “The Fun’s in the Fight”:
So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.
Let us pray:

Tender God, touch us,
Be touched by us,
Make us lovers of humanity,
Compassionate friends of all creation.
Gracious God, hear us into speech,
Speak us into acting,
And through us, recreate the world.


  1. I guess there are 0 comments so far because everyone who might comment was there yesterday.

    I skipped church because of predicted icy road conditions, which never materialized . . . but even if I had attended, I would not have heard anything approaching this.

    Keep it up John.

  2. Tremendous... I'm printing it out and reading it to my sons for their Sunday School lesson.

  3. John,
    Thanks for this sermon. I've always admired Semmelweis and how got doctors to wash their hands, but I didn't know the rest of the story. Yes, indeed, don't give up on lost causes. Do what's right, and the devil take the hindmost.

    Pete of "Worshipping at the Church of Non-Realism.