Our story today reads much like a great tragedy.
Herod Antipas the King of Judea tries to follow in the footsteps of his father, Herod the Great. Yet, he will always fall short. Herod Antipas will spend his years as monarch struggling to maintain power and prestige in the region he governs. Though a king, he is still subject to the rule of the Roman emperor Caesar. Herod Antipas hangs in the balance between being ruled and being a ruler.
Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias. But, Herodias was the wife of his brother Philip. Herod Antipas had his own brother imprisoned and executed so he could have Herodias for himself.
That is what John the Baptist is so outspoken about. His speaking the truth of God throughout Judea calling for baptism and repentance may have gained him some notoriety about the region; however, it was another message that caught the attention of the king. John the Baptist spoke out against Herodias calling her an incestuous harlot. John also prophesied that Herod’s kingdom would fall, cursed the royal family, and foretold the Messiah’s ministry.
Herodias enraged by his critique convinces Herod to jail John. Perhaps Herod conceded wanting John close by until he himself could figure out if there was any truth to John’s message of impending doom for him, his family, and his kingdom.
This drama leads up to the birthday celebration of King Herod. He and his guests, the highest officials and wealthy dignitaries, eat too much and drink even more. King Herod convinces his step-daughter Salome to dance for him and his guests. Perhaps Salome knew the King lusted after her as he had done with her mother. Salome may have been seeking to please her step-father for some personal gain. Perhaps she did it to publicly display their own sexual relationship or perhaps to merit a gift for herself. All the men, including King Herod, look with lust upon Salome and are very pleased by the show she gives. Herodias is angered by her husband’s seeming desire for her daughter.
King Herod wants to please his step-daughter as much as she has pleased him and offers her anything she wants including part of his kingdom, which even her mother – his own wife – hasn’t been offered. Salome consults her mother, asking “What shall I ask for?” Herodias sees this as an opportunity to avenge the bad name John has given her. So, Herodias forgoes the opportunity to gain power and wealth for herself and her daughter. Herodias advised her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
King Herod is convicted. He hadn’t yet discerned if there was any truth to the message John the Baptist has been preaching. Was his kingdom and his reign coming to an end? What curse had he brought upon his household by taking his brother’s wife for himself? Should he repent? Was the Messiah really coming? Herod wouldn’t have time to discern the truth. He had but one minute to decide. Would he deny his step-daughter angering his wife so he could have a little more time with John? Or, would he succumb to the pressure to live up to his promise of anything for his step-daughter?
King Herod saves face and his power. He orders his guards to bring him the head of John the Baptist. And the scene ends with Salome kissing the forehead of John the Baptist delighting in her present from the King.
That rendering may have included some speculation about details the Biblical story left out. However, that is the story like Oscar Wilde told it in his opera, Salome.
The tragedy includes the death of John the Baptist, one of God’s prophets. But, that’s not the only tragedy of the story. The tragedy too is the life of Salome. Her father was murdered by her uncle, her mother’s new husband. Her mom took advantage of her to avenge John the Baptist’s crusade against her marriage to the king. And finally, her step-father was eyeing her as his latest love conquest.
Salome’s tragedy, the tragedy of a young person, reminds me of the tragedy our young people face. The great tragedy of our young people is bullying. I have heard so much rhetoric about the abuse youth face at the hand of their peers. Often, when I see things on TV, I can’t imagine that the youth around me experience bullying to the extent media makes of the issue. I didn’t really have a frame of reference for how bad the issue is…until I saw it at camp.
The youth arrived on Sunday afternoon and by Monday evening the counselors had told me that the youth were already having problems. Some boys had opened the shower curtain on other boys showering. So, Tuesday morning we reminded the youth of their call as Christians to love God and love others as we love ourselves. The counselors also talked in small groups to the youth about how they treat one another. We thought the issue had been handled.
Church camp has to be a safe space for youth to come to talk about their faith and experience the love of God through the counselors and other youth who respect them. Youth cannot be bullied in the place where they had come lost to be found, where they should feel included, and where their faith should be nurtured. The young campers had taken the risk to share their journey with other young people by coming to camp.
Still, after one talk, rumors were being spread about one taking meds or another liking someone else. After playing games Tuesday evening, there was a lot of trash talk. I had seen campers crying because their friends weren’t talking to them or over a break-up. One boy shared that he had tried to kill himself – he was being bullied because his peers thought he was gay. One girl wrote letters home about what a terrible time she was having.
Then, Tuesday night, while a camper had gone to the bathroom, someone stole his sleeping bag. It was nowhere to be found. He thought that it might have been taken by someone who had said he was going to get him back for cheating at our games. So, we had to have another talk with the campers.
This second talk was very clear that bullying would not be tolerated. The regional church, the Christian Church in Illinois and Wisconsin, has a policy that an incident of bullying is grounds for a youth to be sent home immediately. With all the various rumors, shower room antics, nighttime pranks, we had to name that if there wasn’t a complete transformation of their behavior, we would have no choice but to cancel camp and send everyone home. The second talk was a turning point. The youth not only shaped up; they also began to talk about how they had been bullied.
I found God’s providence in that the day’s Scripture reading was the parable of the lost coin and the lost sheep. In small groups, the youth shared how they had been victims of bullying. Each of the youth expressed how they had felt lost as the one left out and ignored. The youth on that day heard about the celebration God and the angels above have when a lost sheep is led back and included in the flock as one no longer left out and pushed away. The youth found unity that day. They were united in their experience of being bullied and having been found by God.
The pinnacle of their unity and coming to trust one another came Thursday evening during the variety show. The youth were invited to share their talent with one another. The campers came out of their shell and shared their best gifts with one another risking ridicule. They shared skits and were goofy. They sang and rapped.
One of the young ladies sang at the talent show about how she has been bullied. She was a good singer and great guitarist who found solace in music and expressed her emotions through song. She sang the song “Are You Happy Now?” by Michelle Branch. The chorus goes:
Are you happy now?
That she’s on the ground
And do you realize the words you say
Make bruises that don’t fade away
Are you happy now?
That you’ve brought her down
And she’s thinking that she won’t fit in
Cuz you said something’s wrong with her
Are you happy now?
The ones who earlier in the week had most been feeling left out took the greatest risks by doing solos. Most of them didn’t care if they messed up and just kept going without laughing from the audience. After each performance, the crowd affirmed their peers’ talent and gave them a standing O. It’s their version of a standing ovation. All the kids stand up, form an O over their head with their hands, and yell, O.
I’d love if you all gave me a standing O after all my sermons.
In our youth ministries, whether VBS, Sunday school, movie night, or otherwise, we need to be sure that the youth who come trusting to be treated well and respected find a safe place to be themselves and loved just as they are by adults and their peers alike. I pray that our ministries with youth and children affirm the gifts of our young people and lead to standing Os from everyone involved.