John the Baptist
Language is a funny thing. I’ve never been good at learning languages, but I’m fascinated by the history of words and how we come to use them. I believe that how we use certain words and phrases often reveals what matters to us.
I was reminded this week in a piece by Juliana Castro that verbs offer especially important clues to the way different cultures value and measure things.[i] In English, attention is something you pay. We talk about paying attention. In Spanish attention is something you lend. In German attention is something you gift. In Italian and French you “do” attention.
That American preference for the phrase “paying attention” has me thinking about all the ways that we have commodified attention. Everybody and everyone wants our attention, and they’re hoping that they can leverage it for a profit. You’ve probably had the experience of doing a Google search – or even just mentioning an idea near your phone – and suddenly your online space is flooded with ads related to whatever it is you were investigating.
I posted a few pictures from my national parks trip, and suddenly my timeline was full of ads for tents and backpacks and every kind of outdoor gear in the world. I want to say to the team at Facebook, “Look, just because I did glamping for a couple of days doesn’t mean that I’m going to go live in the woods now. You can stop.” But they’re hoping that I’ll pay attention – and that I will pay these advertisers for what they’re selling.
Notice how people pay attention in today’s gospel. Because that attention says a lot about the world of power that Herod occupies, a world in which everything has a price.
Herod is having a birthday bash. So he wants people to pay attention to him. He’s invited the courtiers and officers and leaders of Galilee because of course those are the people whose attention is most valuable.
They’re all paying attention to a young woman dancing, Herod’s niece turned stepdaughter. It’s a tangled family tree. Herod has essentially stolen his brother’s wife Herodias. John the Baptist had been calling attention to that move in a way that no one cared for, least of all Herodias herself.
Herodias, meanwhile, is paying attention to the politics of that party, looking for an opportunity to get her revenge against John the Baptist.
The young woman, who delights everyone with her dancing, doesn’t know what to do when Herod tells her she can have anything she wants, even half his kingdom. This game is out of her league. She’s been taught how to be the object of everyone’s attention. She has not been taught how to be the subject of her own life. She runs to her mother for advice.
The girl brings back the request prompted by her mother – the head of John the Baptist on a platter. That demand certainly gets Herod’s attention, and for reasons that are somehow related to keeping his word, Herod dispatches his soldiers to behead John.
This world is one in which everything can be bought or bartered, sold or stolen. Herod can take the wife that he wants. The men can make girl dance for their entertainment. Herodias can ask for a man’s head on a platter. It’s a stark and violent reminder that in this kind of world, whatever happens always comes at a cost to someone. In this case John pays the price for telling the truth about right and wrong.
This is how John dies. John, the one who told people to prepare the way of the Lord for Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus, the one who lived completely as himself. He dies because people gave their attention to the wrong things and didn’t want to be called out on it.
Jesus doesn’t play much of a role in this story. I added a few verses, though, borrowing the beginning of next week’s gospel because I wanted us to notice how the attention of Jesus and his followers works differently than that of Herod and his circle.
Notice that the disciples do not look away from the violence and the horror of their friend John’s death.[ii] They show up to claim the body. They make sure that John receives a proper burial, even as their hearts must be breaking to realize what can happen when you give your attention to doing what is right.
The piece that I read about language this week also reminded me that attention and tenderness share a root, the Latin word tendere, which means to stretch or to tense.[iii] It provides the root word for the ways that we say that we care, that we try, that we are exposed to being hurt. What makes us tender also makes us vulnerable.
After some of the disciples tend to John’s body, Jesus then tends to his disciples. And h does so with tenderness. He calls them away to a deserted place to get some rest. Jesus gives them attention, not to impress them or exploit them or make sure they owe him one. He tends to their needs because he loves them.
And though they encounter a large crowd that gets in the way of their plan to rest, Jesus also shows tenderness towards the people who have gathered. He has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
We’ll hear in a couple of weeks that familiar story of Jesus feeding the thousands. For now it is enough to remember that the way Jesus throws a dinner party is so much different than the way Herod does things.
This is the most fundamental way in which Jesus is a threat to the world that Herod leads. Herod pays attention only to what will serve his own interests. Jesus gives his attention to those from whom others turn away. The sick, the lost, the struggling, the worried, the anxious, the fearful.
What we give our attention to is an expression of our faith. If you were to do an audit of who or what gets your attention on any given day, what might it reveal? There would be some days that I wouldn’t be proud of. On those days my attention is claimed disproportionately by things that are ultimately not important: by my phone, by the anxious stories that take up space in my head, by the distractions that don’t deserve my time. The days I feel the most satisfied are the ones on which I’ve been able to give my attention to what I love most – the best parts of ministry, my friends and family, a good book, prayer and reflection, a chance to be with people and hear their stories.
As Christians we’re almost always better able to give our attention to what matters when we remember what Jesus has given first to us – not only his tender attention, but his very life. When our attention gets fixated on death or despair, Jesus transforms that death and despair into life and hope.
This week I hope that you won’t just pay attention. I hope you will give your attention. Give your attention to someone who needs it from you the most, without distraction and without expectation for repayment.
And I pray that you will receive the gift of someone else’s attention – with a holy tenderness that will nourish your soul. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] See endnote 1.
“Jesus said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi…where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’” John 1:38-39a
I read some strange things, but I never could have imagined the article I stumbled upon this week. In it I learned about an artist named Richard Hansen.[i] Hansen is known for creating art out of organic materials – banana skins and other kinds of food. He’s also, by the way, the current Guinness World Record Holder for having created the world’s largest connect-the-dots puzzle in 2017.
Last fall Hansen decided to create an 8-foot by 10-foot portrait of 19th century American writer Edgar Allen Poe out of – wait for it – earthworms. Living, squirming, fresh-from-the-ground earthworms. He first got the idea when he was taking a walk about ten years ago after a summer rainstorm. As often happens after a storm, he found himself dodging the earthworms on the sidewalk. Inspiration struck, and he was soon collecting earthworms and creating molds into which he could insert the earthworms. As the worms crawled into the various spaces within the mold, they created a picture. Hansen started with smaller projects and perfected his technique over time. Any guesses how many earthworms it took for the portrait of Poe? 7000.
What does Hansen want people to take away from his project? Here’s what he says:
“Of course, I want people to laugh and be entertained. I [also] want people to consider the small things in life and look at them a little bit differently. Almost all of us have had that experience of seeing worms on the ground as we’re going on a walk.” [But I hope my portrait will get people] “to just look at that experience in a new light.”[ii]
This is what I love about artists – that ability to look at something as ordinary as earthworms and see new possibilities. To see something in a completely extraordinary way. Artists need the skill to execute the vision, but it begins with seeing.
That invitation to see in a new way is found throughout today’s gospel. The first person who reminds us to take another look is John the Baptist. He points us directly to Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! John wants people to see Jesus, not just as a teacher or as a friend but as the Lamb of God. He uses an image that suggests sacrifice, hinting at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry that Jesus will in the end give his life for our sake. I’ve always wondered how people made sense of that image. I’m sure plenty of folks dismissed it as John being dramatic again, but John also invited people to look closely, to see that Jesus was the messiah.
It helps that John is able to give some eyewitness testimony. As we heard last week, John had the closest possible vantage point for the baptism of Jesus, and he tells people what he saw there: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John has witnessed some things. He has seen the Holy Spirit resting upon Jesus. He has heard some things too – the voice of God declaring Jesus to be God’s beloved Son.
I saw it, John says. I saw it all. And now I’m going to tell you about it.
The next day John does it again. He’s hanging out with two of his own followers, and Jesus walks by. “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Those two people are intrigued enough that they begin to wander with Jesus, and then Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”
Pause for a moment and consider what you would say if Jesus asked you that question. What are you looking for? What do you hope to see here? What do you hope will happen? What new possibilities do you seek?
These two disciples are clearly not prepared for that question, so they do what most of us do when confronted with a question we’d rather not answer. They change the subject. “Where are you staying,” they ask Jesus.
To which Jesus replies with an invitation: “Come and see.”
So they go with Jesus. And they see – at first literally. They see the place where he is staying. But after some time with Jesus, talking with him and seeing what he is up to, they come to a deeper realization – one that we hear when Andrew goes off to find his brother Simon Peter and reports, “We have found the Messiah.”
It all starts with an invitation to see. To see Jesus. To see that Jesus offers new beginnings, new hope, new life. To see how Jesus sees us – with love and with forgiveness, which makes the rest possible.
On this weekend when we honor Dr. King’s legacy, it’s good to remember how much he helped us see the world in new ways – to see that many things that were technically legal were spiritually and morally wrong. Dr. King summoned church folks – especially white church folks – to help bring about change, and he was often left disappointed. As he writes in “The Letter From a Birmingham Jail”[iii]:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement…all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
That phrase always convicts me : “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” I read this letter at least once a year because it makes me look more closely at my own complacency. It makes me ask: How, in the name of Jesus, am I continuing to learn about the experiences of people of color? How, in the name of Jesus, am I working to challenge and disrupt racism? How, in the name of Jesus, am I learning to see what I might not want to see – and then do something about it?
I don’t always feel capable of doing that work. But Jesus sees me – and sees you – as someone who is capable of doing that work, not because of our own strength but because of his.
Jesus looks at ordinary people like us and sees new possibilities. He sees us as more courageous and more creative than we feel on most days. And so he says to us: “Come and see.”
Come and see what you did not expect to see.
Come and see your neighbors as people who are precious to me. Every last one of them.
Come and see what God is up to in the world, the change that God makes possible.
Come and see the new pathways that God is opening.
Come and see. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ