The Cost of Standing for the Right Thing

7-15-18  Scripture:  Mark 6:14-29

Theme:   A faith that costs nothing might be worth just that – if faith is to be understood as grounded in reality.  Reality is a costly thing, exacting a price for life based upon circumstance and choice – and it is the latter that determines how we live in the former.  As faith orients choice along the template provided by God – a template that died for the sake of love – we are given what is needed to face any circumstance, even as it leads to suffering or sacrifice.

         This past week, studying the text for today, I came across something I found quite interesting regarding the outcome for those who followed Jesus most directly – namely, the 12 disciples.  Here’s the traditional (which means for the most part, non-Biblical) understanding regarding their how they died:

1.    John died of extreme old age exiled to the island of Patmos.

2.    Judas Iscariot, after betraying his Lord, hanged himself.

3.    Peter was crucified head down during the persecution of Nero.

4.    Andrew died on a cross at Patrae, a Grecian colony.

5.    James, the younger, son of Alphaeus, was thrown from a pinnacle of the temple, and then beaten to death with a club.

6.    Bartholomew was flayed alive in Albanapolis, Armenia.

7.    James, the elder son of Zebedee, was beheaded at Jerusalem.

8.    Thomas, the doubter, was run through the body with a lance at Coromandel, in the East Indies.

9.    Philip was hanged against a pillar at Heropolis.

10.                  Thaddeus was shot to death with arrows.

11.  Simon died on a cross in Persia (what we now call Iran).

12.                  Matthew was first stoned and then beheaded.

Do you know what my automatic reaction to this list was?  I realized I have the right name!  Only John lived to a ripe old age, dying what might be called a natural death, even though he was in exile.

That might have been my first thought, but it was not my most important realization.  And that was this:  once upon a time, YOU COULD BE KILLED FOLLOWING JESUS.  And not just killed – tortured, beaten, stoned, beheaded, flayed, speared, hanged, and even crucified upside down.  Thank goodness times have changed!  Thank goodness we took out that dying part of our faith – and made faith something much more comforting, predictable, and appealing.

But perhaps we’ve made faith in Jesus Christ something unreal in the process?  Perhaps we are faced with a dilemma here of conflicting desires – that we desire comfort, righteousness, and peace, but that we also desire truth, justice, and integrity – and these two groups of desires often work against each other.  One’s comfort comes at the expense of someone else suffering; one’s righteousness is established at the expense of truth; one’s search for peace at any price diminishes one’s integrity.

Today’s scripture lesson brings about such considerations – especially in light of the inescapable premise that being faithful to Jesus always involves the possibility of difficulty.  Beheadings aside, we all know that our faith calls us to be and do some very difficult things – loving the enemy, helping the hurting, forgiving the one who hurt us, standing up for the oppressed, speaking out for justice when it would be so much easier to just be quiet.  We want to be faithful, but we don’t want to suffer – yet the two are often inseparable.

         I sense this sort of contrast of competing desires described quite precisely in our scripture lesson today.  Herod was a nasty king, an immoral leader, and John the Baptist had called him out on his immorality.  Herodias, who was Herod’s brother’s ex-wife, hated John for trying to shame her ex-brother-in-law who was now her husband; it says in the scripture, “Herodias had a grudge against John, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

I find this statement extraordinary and even unbelievable except for something I see evident in humanity even today – that there is something profoundly attractive in the truth.   Attractive not in the sense of its pleasant appeal, but in our longing to know what is real.  In this day where we hear claims of “fake news” and “alternative facts” when questionable behavior or statements are being challenged, our sense of offense is a good thing, for underneath it all is a great motivation and need to know what is true, what is real, what is clear.  Is it fake news, or is the truth embarrassing?  Are these alternative facts, or an attempt to divert attention away from what’s really going on?

         This brings up another point that we see in the scripture lesson – namely that people will do almost anything to avoid a truth that is painful.  I remember an experience as a young boy before my first motorcycle (yes, I know it is hard to imagine, but there was a time in my life when I did not have a motorcycle!).  I wonder if you can guess what my favorite mode of transportation was before I entered the glorious world of dual-wheeled motorized travel?  DUAL-WHEELED MANUAL TRAVEL!  I was the proud owner of a 1971 Schwinn Stingray, complete with banana seat and off-road knobby tires.  I loved that bike; I rode my bicycle everywhere; wore down tires every year; tuned and greased and adjusted my bike personally; polished its chrome (all three square inches of it) and put Armor All on the banana seat.  I was very proud of my Schwinn Stingray; I was also proud that I was a good rider, obeying traffic rules, signaling with my arm for turns and stops; and if helmets were available or recommended, I’m sure I would have worn one (this was the day before such things as bicycle helmets and seatbelts in cars were popular).

         And then, one day, it happened.  I was riding all over the neighborhood, when I heard a horn behind me; I turned and looked and saw red and blue flashing lights.  I police car was motioning for me to pull over.  I thought it was some sort of joke – I hadn’t done anything wrong.  But there I was, with the officer claiming that I had performed a “rolling stop” through a stop sign.  He gave me a ticket (actually, it was a warning ticket) and told me to ride more safely. 

         I was angry, frustrated, outraged, but mostly crushed – my perfect, unblemished record of perfect bicycling was over; my life of crime and immorality had just begun.  I remember going back home with a sense of despair —  I sat in the garage trying to figure out how to not let my parents know, I actually burned the ticket so there would be no evidence; after my tears had dried, I went inside, pretended everything was good, put on a good show to not let on how devastated I felt.  I actually covered my tracks fairly well.

         But the truth never really goes away, does it?

I wasn’t then, but I am now, very grateful I have a strong conscience, for it worked on me from that moment I decided not to tell my parents.  It worked on me for a long time, maybe even ten minutes, before I exploded in confession and told them I had received my first ever bicycling ticket.  My mom, who should have been devastated, said, “Oh, that’s too bad.  Try to ride more carefully from now on.”  My father, who also should have been devastated, said something he said all the time:  “Well, you learned something.”  And then they went on as if nothing profound had happened.  This experience taught me that often it’s not that big of a deal, to face the truth – but the path to get there can be hell.

Herod and Herodias can be thought of as caught in a lie and refusing absolutely to face the truth; this resulted in John’s death.  It might be tempting to say that John lost in that encounter, but I’m not so sure; if the value of life is to be found in more than biological operations of pulse, breath, and mobility, then John was clearly the winner. 

Some things are worth standing up for, even to the point of suffering – truth is one of those things, especially when lies are presented in its place.  I feel that this is the kind of thing happening in our society today, with all the outrage, protests, outbursts, and demonstrations – in many of these expressions, it is the fear of losing sight of what’s true that drives people to face the scrutiny of others; it is the demand for truth that has placed them in the crosshairs of those who prefer power over truth to speaking truth to power.

It is perhaps obvious that the most important truths require life’s orientation or reorientation around them to endure and manifest the needed outcome they provide.  And reorientation can be a very painful thing.  We like the inertia of the status quo, the familiar, the normalized – and when we challenge these things, resistance is inevitable.  But our faith is not real unless it dwells in God’s truth, and unless it is guided by the love of Jesus – two of the most difficult things to maintain in the face of a hostile and selfish world.  What motivates us as people of faith is that the world needs what we offer in Christ – if we do not speak for truth, who will?  If we do not stand for justice, who will?  If we do not offer love without condition, who will?  Maybe that’s the thought going through John’s mind – “If I do not speak truth to Herod’s power, who will?”  It may be that this is what is meant by the phrase “the world needs its martyrs;” we need those who demonstrate even unto suffering the significance of what God intends for us all – justice, mercy, opportunity, peace – and above all, to be loved without condition.  And we all have a part to play in such demonstrations as people of faith.

I’d like to close with words I’ve shared before, words that again seem most fitting for this scripture.  These are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book “The Cost of Discipleship”, where he talks about the price we pay for the faith we profess:  He says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.  (―Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.)