At what cost?

John the Baptizer by Da Vinci

At what cost?

That’s the question for today.

It’s one I think of when I order eggs and bacon in the morning. You see, for that breakfast, the chicken who provides the eggs makes an important but not too terribly difficult contribution of two eggs. But the pig who provides the bacon makes a big sacrifice.

At what cost?

Every choice we make, every act we do, has a cost associated with it. Some are simple sacrifices – like the chicken who contributes an egg or two. Others carry more significant costs, like the pig who provides the bacon.

This week’s gospel lesson from Mark presents a clear example of the costs that result from the decisions of John the Baptizer and Herod Agrippa, Rome’s puppet king.

But in understanding this story we face some red herrings, some false interpretations which carry us away from the lesson left for us by the anonymous man who wrote the Gospel of Mark. Some see this part of John the Baptizer’s story as centering on the king’s daughter and wife – after all, they were the ones who demanded “the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.” But that’s not what this Gospel message is about.

Instead, it is about preaching truth to power and the costs that inevitably stem from that act in a totalitarian state. And it is about how we can live a Christian life right here in San Francisco today.

John the Baptizer spoke the truth about King Herod Agrippa’s second marriage. And he said it in a way that was both politically charged and very risky. “Mark’s audience would certainly have understood the implications of this story in light what it meant to challenge the establishment as followers of Jesus and truth-tellers in the face of injustice and Empire,” ELCA Pastor Sharron R. Blezard tells us.

Which brings us back to the question: At. What. Cost?

At what cost am I willing to serve as truth-teller to power?

At what cost am I willing to speak out publicly against injustice on behalf of the immigrant child separated from their parents; the red state child living in poverty whose parents still support the current president; those who live on the margin due to the color of their skin, the depth of their education; or vulnerable LGBTQ child who has been kicked out of their home by parents who fear a hate-filled God?

At what cost am I willing to protest like the Berrigan brothers in clear violation of the laws of the land? What if speaking out meant I might lose my job and livelihood? What if speaking out meant alienation from friends, family, the congregation I serve, or my denomination?

These questions aren’t just for preachers and pastors and priests. These questions are for each of us, for all of us. At what cost do you ask these questions? At what cost do you not ask them? And can we find some help in making these answers in today’s Gospel? Can we find some help in today’s Gospel?

St. Mark writing his gospel, detail from the crypt (fresco) by French School, (15th century)

Scholars tell us Mark’s gospel was written for an audience already Christian. It was intended to strengthen the faith of those who already believed, not to convert unbelievers. And that’s good news for us, because we are believers.

This Gospel may well have been written in Rome when the Emperor Nero was killing Christians. In that context – one where all of Rome’s Christians would be exterminated – it makes sense for the author to focus on those who believe and are therefore likely to be tempted to leave the faith. Remember our question: At what cost?

It may seem this story is sandwiched in between a pair of ministry stories –Jesus commissions and sends out the disciples and the feeding of the 5,000+. But Mark might be making a point with this placement.

First, Jesus is gaining strength and recognition. Then Jesus is rejected in his own hometown. In response, he grows his ministry by sending his disciples out to preach the Good News and heal the sick.

Second, following John’s death, Mark of Jesus and the disciples trying for some rest and relaxation. It doesn’t work: instead, we hear the story of feeding the 5,000+. But we who work in the church are reminded that even Jesus needed vacation time. Because the work is tough and sometimes dangerous. Just ask John the Baptizer, the prophet whose absolute dedication to truth-telling cost him his life.

So what about us today? At what cost are we willing to be a disciple of Jesus? At what cost are we willing to share the good news, speak against injustice, and bring about the reign of God? What are our fears and stumbling blocks? How are we to live as the body of Christ in this time in place, in our neighborhoods and at our jobs and all the places we go in-between?

We know the answer: we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength. And we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Sometimes – most times – that centers on how we treat the people we meet in our daily life. And sometimes it means we need to speak truth to power. And sometimes it may mean going against a law. Or two.

This past week, Pastor Paula White, chair of the president’s evangelical advisory board, tried to defended Administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. It did not go well.

First she, like most who support this president. Overlook the legal fact that people who come to our border to seek asylum are not breaking U.S. law. In fact, they are complying with it. They are not illegal. They are following the law, doing just what the law tells someone who seeks asylum here to do.

Second, she tried to defend an indefensible policy by claiming that Jesus did not live in Egypt illegally, that he must have immigrated to Egypt legally. Of course, there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest ancient Egypt had immigration control laws let alone border police. Nor is there any archeological evidence of a Trumpian Border Wall.

Third, she claimed Jesus “would not have been our Messiah” if he’d broken the law.” Well, that’s an important clue as to what’s wrong in America in general and the evangelical way in particular. What’s most important to Trump’s ally is following the rules, obeying the law, waiting for the walk sign, and living by the purity codes evangelicals read into scripture.

But Jesus was a rule breaker. Let me say that again: Jesus. Was. A. Rule. Breaker. And if a pastor does not understand that, then although they may memorize the whole Bible, they don’t understand a single word.

Jesus came to disrupt our lives, to turn us upside down and refocus us on loving God and our neighbor. Our rich neighbor and our poor neighbor; our white neighbor and our African American neighbor; our Asian American neighbor and our undocumented neighbor. Our straight neighbor and our lesbian or transgender or bisexual or queer or questioning or gay neighbor. The neighbor who agrees with our politics and the one who opposes it. And that is hard. But that is what we are called to do.

At what cost? Until we are out of our comfort zone. Until we have to take an unexpected risk or break a rule or abandon an outdated practice. Until we have given up and shaken up enough in our lives that we fell God’s love, for that is when we begin to reflect God’s love back into our lives for others to see and sense and feel.

Jesus was a rule breaker. He knew the risk: he knew what happened to John the Baptizer. Nevertheless, he persisted. And so should we.

Let us pray.

Steadfast God,

your prophets set the plumb line

of your righteousness and truth

in the midst of your people.

Grant us the courage to judge ourselves against it.

Straighten all that is crooked or warped within us

until our hearts and souls stretch upright,

blameless and holy,

to meet the glory of Christ.

May God’s people say: Amen.

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