“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
Less than a year ago, I lived off of Sugarloaf Street in South Deerfield. While living there, talk began about building a bunch of condominiums on the other side of Sugarloaf Street, on farmland that sat at the base of Mount Sugarloaf. The ones who were opposed to this building-project gathered around the slogan of SOS, which stood for “Save our Sugarloaf.”
Well, they didn’t succeed, and those condos are now being built. That’s why I was surprised to be driving down Rts 5 & 10 through Whately the other day when another SOS sign caught my eye.
I thought it was strange since it was in a different town and was up after the fact. Then I paid a bit closer attention to the SOS sign. It had nothing to do with the South Deerfield condos and Save our Sugarloaf. SOS in Whately stood for “Save our Strip Club.”
I know that none of you here at Hatfield Congregational Church have any notion whatsoever of a strip club in Whately, but just as an FYI, there is one there. Some of the locals call it the Whately Ballet for obvious reasons. And to add to the lore of the Whately Ballet, it’s located on Christian Lane of all streets.
I don’t know who it is that has the new SOS sign out in front of their house, but whoever it is they sure are worried about losing their strip club. I guess we all have to choose what’s worth the fight.
I bring this up as a light-hearted way to talk about the darker side of the battles we choose to fight, and I bring this up in the context of this morning’s Gospel. In the middle of July when our church schedule is a bit relaxed, when we’re a bit relaxed, it seems out of season to be talking about something as morbid as the beheading-execution of John the Baptist.
King Herod was a ruthless tyrant, but John the Baptist stood up to him anyway. He called him out even though he had to know the costs.
In addition to the violence of this story, there’s also the sordid nature of this King Herod episode. Not unlike the Whately Ballet, Herod’s step-daughter danced for this old man at his birthday party and greatly pleased him to the point that he promised her anything she wanted.
She came to ask for the head of John the Baptist, and that it be presented to her on a platter at this public birthday banquet. These are boorish people to say the least, and John knew this, but for him this was worth the fight.
This story is important in Jesus’ story too. Next week as we continue reading through Mark we’re going to skip over the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000. But there’s more to that story than first meets the eye.
It’s easy to miss, but there are military overtones to that story, and you can read it for yourselves in Mark 6. The 5,000 are staged in groups of hundreds and fifties, reminiscent of military units, and Mark concludes by telling us that all of the 5,000 were men.
Is there the possibility here that these 5,000 men were ready to accept Jesus as the Messiah, but as the long-expected Messiah, the Messiah who would pick up arms and fight to liberate Israel and overthrow the Roman Empire? Were they ready to start a holy war?
Does Jesus sense this and is this why Jesus sends His disciples immediately away in a boat, by themselves? He’ll catch up with them later. He just wants to get them out of there before they get caught up in this holy war fervor.
This miracle story overlaid with the possibility of holy war follows right after the story of the beheading of John the Baptist who dared to challenge King Herod. Now Jesus turns away from fighting with soldiers and weapons against everything Herod represents, but there are other ways to fight.
The link is clear between the gory execution of John the Baptist and what Jesus will attempt by ushering in another kingdom, the kingdom of God. If Jesus is to continue with His ministry, if He’s going to continue to fight His battle even if without weapons or soldiers, the message is clear that His life will be in as much danger as was John’s. Jesus realizes this and yet continues. It was worth the fight.
Jesus’ commitment to His gospel, Jesus’ commitment to us, is all-consuming. Not even the threat of death, even execution, is too high a price to pay. Jesus chooses His battle knowing full well the cost, and still He does not retreat. We mean more to Christ than even His own life.
That’s a pretty heavy message for mid-July and the mid-summer doldrums in church, but maybe it can awaken us to think about what’s worthy of our battles.
If people can put out signs to save their strip clubs, then we as Christians must choose our battles and be ready to stand up for what we believe.
Matt read for us earlier from the Epistle to the Ephesians and there’s an important line in there that says ever since creation God has planned, in the words of the Bible, “to gather up all things in [Christ].”
Through the ages, Christian thinkers have heard in this passage that just as God created everything and everyone, so has God saved everything and everyone through Jesus Christ.
Do you see how huge our field of battle is? We obviously can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something. We have to choose our battles.
This is why the work of the Benevolence Committee that meets after Service next Sunday is so important. Its work is part of our front line. It’s trying to help others as close as the elementary school just behind us and people in poverty and need across the globe. Maybe think about joining Benevolence or making a donation.
I’ll tell you what this church does very well. You support your community. I was at Town Hall a couple of weeks ago and a long-time resident and very active person had nothing but praise for the way this church has always been willing to help the town however we can, whenever we can.
And I’ll mention too that I am impressed with the way you take care of each other. You call, you visit, you cook, you give me a heads-up to check in on someone. All of that is important as we fight our battles to make this a better world.
So I know it’s the summer doldrums, but today’s Gospel makes absolutely clear how important our work is as Christians. Jesus sacrificed everything for this work, and as we heard in Ephesians everything and everyone matters to Him. We have to keep up the battle of our faith even now in the summer. Again, if people can fight for strip clubs, we have to fight for Christ even in summer.
In His name we pray. Amen.
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