“Conspiracy Theory” – Sermon for July 15, 2018

Categories: Sermons

“Martyrdom and Death of John the Baptist”, painted choir-screen carving, Cathedrale d’Amiens (France), c. 1508-1519

“Conspiracy Theory”

A Sermon on Mark 6:14-29 for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached July 15, 2018, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


Estefany Galvez, age 18, lives in a trailer in the “Little Mexico” section of Norwalk, Ohio, a city of 17,000 just about 10 miles off the Lake Erie shore, half-way between Cleveland and Toledo.[1]  These days, the only other permanent resident of their beige double-wide is her younger brother, Alex, age 12.  A few short weeks ago, Alex and Estefany had another housemate, the one you might expect and hope for when you’re talking about a girl of only 18 and her 12-year-old brother—namely, their mother, Nora.  Estefany and Nora even worked together at Corso’s, the local flower and garden center.  But all of that changed one day, and when the night came that Estefany returned home from work alone, Alex hardly needed to hear the story to know what had happened.  You see, Estefany and Alex are both US citizens, having been born in and having lived their whole lives there in north-central Ohio.  Nora, their mother, on the other hand… is not.

In recent weeks, the situation facing people and families crossing the southern border of the US has garnered a lot of attention, around our country and—in fact—around the world.  The spectacle going on in McAllen, Texas, in particular, has not only made so many of us here simply aghast—after all, as I wrote in my recent newsletter article, when is the last time any of us witnessed the official voices of the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, all the liberal/mainline Protestant denominations, the interfaith community, and even the Mormons(!) all in agreement on anything?—it has also renewed calls in places like Canada and elsewhere to remove the US’s designation as a “safe third country” in the realm of asylum and human rights matters.

McAllen and elsewhere on the southern border are not the only places where questions of migration and immigration, citizenship and status, documentation and detention probe at and problematize the fabric of life for families, communities, and us all.  As Estefany-and-Alex’s story—which I read this past Sunday in one of Toronto’s major papers that I picked up as we were driving through Ontario on our way back from a family wedding in Michigan—as their story makes all too clear, you don’t have to be caught trying to cross the Texas border to face family separation.  In fact, you can be a US citizen and lifelong resident of Norwalk, Ohio, and still have your mother ripped away from you when you’re only 12 years old—by agents in tactical gear swarming places with barking dogs and beating helicopter blades, all working in the name of “The People of the United States of America.”

What’s happening today to Estefany and Alex, and to thousands of others in similar situations, it comes through no fault of their own.  They are US citizens, born and raised here.  And regardless of what side of the ideological divide you may stand on as regards their mother’s past choices, about whether to come here and by what means, the fact of the matter is, Estefany and Alex themselves have done nothing wrong.  Yet, they suffer anyway.

And to what end?  This question was not lost on Estefany herself as she and Alex were turned away for the 3rd time in a row from trying to see their mother after the raid that took her away.  Losing her patience at that detention center door, “ ‘Who benefits from this?’ she remembered asking.  Was it American taxpayers, who were paying to finance the raid and resulting deportations?  Or American workers, most of whom were so disinterested in low-paying farm work that Ohio had announced a crisis work shortage of 15,000 agricultural jobs?  Or Corso’s Nursery, a family-owned business now missing 40 per cent of it’s employees?  She wanted to know, out of 114 minimum-wage workers detained at Corso’s, how many were narcos, or rapists, or cartel members or killers for MS-13?  ‘These were just hardworking people, making $9 an hour and going about their lives,’ she remembered saying.”[2]


The Danish writer Karen Blixen—often known by her pen name Isak Dinesan—once said that “All sorrows can be borne, if you put them into a story.”[3]  I’m not sure that human experience quite bears that out, though, much as I might like it to.  After all, there’s a reason that Rabbi Harold Kushner titled his famous 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and not Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Kushner said as much himself when asked:  “Because,” the rabbi is said to have answered, “that book would have been three words long: ‘I don’t know.’”[4]

Do we always know why?  Can all sorrows be given shape and sense?  Do all of our experiences have meanings we can craft into bearable stories?

Take the story we’ve heard this day from the gospel of Mark.  “A faithless king forsakes his own wife to marry his brother’s.  When a prophet condemns the dishonorable marriage, the king’s new wife seethes, and the king, ignoring his conscience, imprisons the truth-telling prophet.  Soon afterwards, the king throws himself a birthday party, gets drunk, and invites his daughter to dance for his guests.  Her performance ‘pleases’ him so much that he promises anything she desires, even up to half of his kingdom.  The girl (spurred on by her mother) demands the imprisoned prophet’s death.  Unwilling to lose face in front of his guests, the king reluctantly keeps his promise.  Before the birthday party is [even] over, the girl receives the prophet’s head on a platter.”[5]

“This is a story, sure enough,” observes one commentator.  But, “is it a bearable one?”[6]

Is this story a bearable one?  Or simply a senseless one?  Senseless that a man should die “because a powerful woman has a callous heart and a lustful man has a shallow sense of honor.”[7]  “John is one of those people,” says this same commentator, “who does everything right, and suffers anyway.  Worse still, he dies disillusioned and afraid, unsure of his Messiah.  Worse still, he suffers a death that accomplishes nothing—no one is saved, no one is converted, and no one finds justice or mercy as a result of his execution.  As Teresa of Avila purportedly told God, ‘Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!’”[8]


People turn to scripture for all sorts of reasons.  Perhaps one of the most common things people go seeking in the pages of scripture is comfort.  When life presents its pain, is there some word that can speak of hope or the steadfastness of God in the midst of it…?  Hence the popularity at funerals and memorial services of the 23rd Psalm or Jesus’ words about going to prepare a place for us in his father’s house of many rooms.  Of course, people also go seeking inspiration—something to lift spirits and call us to greater and deeper purpose.  Or instruction—some form of guidance or teaching about how we are to live our lives in ways that more fully line up with what God intends for us.

Now, if you were flipping through the Bible looking for those things—for comfort, for inspiration, for instruction—somehow I have my doubts that you propbably would stop off at this story, this flashback in Mark about the killing of John the Baptist.   There certainly isn’t anything comforting about it.  Neither does there seem any easy or obvious inspiration or instruction here.

Another function, though, that scripture has, another way that scripture has the power to speak God’s word to us—albeit a way of functioning that a lot of popular conceptions of Christianity overlook—is as a mirror.  Sometimes the way that the Bible conveys something of God’s word to us is not so much in telling us something about God, but rather in holding a mirror up to us and our own lives, and thereby showing us something about ourselves.  As the great Protestant reformer John Calvin famously wrote at the very beginning of his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” and furthermore, that “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God” (1.1.1).[9]  So, sometimes the most important thing scripture can do is reflect back to us something true and real about ourselves, be that ourselves as individuals or more generally a word about our human condition and community.  This word, because it is a true word, is not always a pretty one, not always a word we’d like to hear.  After all, that is our human reality on this side of eternity—blessed and created in the divine image, yes, but also broken and in bondage to sin from which we cannot free ourselves.

That sort of mirror is what we get with today’s story, I think.  The scene of the killing of John the Baptist is not a comforting one or an inspiring one, or even a particularly instructive one.  But it is a mirroring one.  The world in which John the Baptist and Herod Antipas played out their respective roles is still very much the world in which we live.  “We still, right now,” writes one author, “live in a world where faithlessness is an accepted norm.  We still life in a world where the innocent are detained, imprisoned, tormented, and killed.  We still live in a world of sudden and random violence.  We still live in a world where young girls are made to be sexual objects for powerful men.  And we still live in a world where speaking truth to power is a rare and revolutionary act.”[10]


It just so happens, though, that we do live in a world where truth is still spoken to power, even if such acts seem all too rare and revolutionary.  At the end of the day, God will not let the truth be silenced.  Even when it is, in fact, killed, still God raises it up again.

The story we’ve heard does not only mirror back to us the tragedy and brokenness of our world—John the Baptist’s face shining back at us when we hear stories like Estefany’s and Alex’s, and countless others that seem little but senseless and unbearable.  Remember, rather, that we hear this story as a flashback in the narrative Mark tells, because, in fact, Herod is left wondering if the truth-teller he’d had killed wasn’t so dead after all.

We don’t know from the story how much time had passed since Herod had John the Baptist killed.  But we do know that in the words and actions of a group of people who were following one named Jesus, Herod came to fear that the word of truth and the word of God hadn’t been squelched after all.

Let me say that again.

In the words and actions of a group of people who were following Jesus, the powers and principalities of this world could see that the word of truth, and the word of God, were not dead at all, but living and active in the world.

Look, I know that it’s plenty hard for many of us to feel particularly hopeful or optimistic about the world these days.  Whether it’s the state of the nation or the state of our health, the headlines we see or the heartbeats whose ending we mourn, it all can feel senseless, futile, even unbearable.  That’s only true, though, if we are in this all by ourselves.  And that is not the case.  In all this journey, we are embraced by and wrapped up in something far larger than ourselves.  When John the Baptist’s voice is silenced, still others come after to carry the banner of truth.  When Estefany and Alex face an unbearable reality, others tell their story so that it doesn’t have to be borne alone, and so that, in fact, it might yet be changed.  When any of us face our wits end or even our life’s end, still others testify that what seems to be the end is but a beginning.

And finally, my friends, the One who is wholly other—the Holy Other—embraces us yet again, and leads us on.


Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.


[1] This story about Estefany Galvex and her brother Alex is drawn from Eli Saslow, “He’s a 12-year-old American. America took his parents away,” Toronto Star, 8 July 2018, A9 & A12-13.  Saslow’s feature article was originally published by The Washington Post on 30 June 2018; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/06/30/feature/are-you-alone-now-after-raid-immigrant-families-are-separated-in-the-american-heartland/

[2] Saslow, “He’s a 12-year-old…”, Toronto Star, A13.

[3] As quoted in Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958).  Arendt quotes from a 1957 interview with Blixen.

[4] Told in a private conversation with John Claypool, as reported in Bob Setzer Jr., pastoral commentary on Mark 6:14-29, in Feasting on the Gospels: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis & E. Elizabeth Johnson, vol. 3 – Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 180.

[5] Debie Thomas, “Bearable Stories,” Journey With Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, Since 2004, 8 July 2018; https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1835-bearable-stories

[6] Thomas, ibid.

[7] Thomas, ibid.

[8] Thomas, ibid.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 35.

[10] Thomas, ibid.


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