On a camping trip to Ayer’s Rock, in central Australia, Lindy Chamberlain, cried out that her baby was gone. She had gone back to the campfire with her husband, while her nine week old daughter, Azaria, was asleep in the tent. Hearing Azaria cry, she went to check on her, but instead saw a dingo, a wild dog, walking away from the tent carrying something heavy. The baby wasn’t in the tent. Lindy, along with her husband, Michael, both claimed that the dingo had taken Azaria.
This story was quite famous in Australia, as the public followed the trial in the 1980’s. Here, in North America, the story of missing baby Azaria was made famous by the movie, “A Cry in the Dark” with Meryl Streep playing the role of Lindy Chamberlain.
Lindy spent three years in jail and gave birth to her fourth child while serving her sentence. Due to new evidence in the case, after eight years the conviction was overturned by a Royal Commission and Lindy and her husband Michael were acquitted of all charges. Both Lindy and Michael, however, did not rest and pursued the truth of what happened to their baby. As recently as this year, another inquest was held. The coroner, based on more new evidence in the case and also new evidence of dingo attacks on young children and infants, made the final ruling that a dingo had indeed taken baby Azaria and immediately issued a new death certificate stating cause of death.
Michael Chamberlain, a retired teacher and former pastor, said these words after that ruling:
“I cannot express strongly enough how important it is to pursue a just cause even when it seems to be a mission impossible.”
Just causes and truth telling are a major theme of today’s reading from Mark’s gospel.
Today we hear the sordid details of how John the Baptist, cousin and mentor to Jesus, loses his life.
Already imprisoned by Herod Antipas, we hear a tale of political manoeuvrings and manipulations. It is a story of justice denied, of lies and deceptions.
John has accused Herod of breaking the law of the Torah – found in chapters 18 and 20 in the book of Leviticus – that marrying his brother’s wife is considered an abomination: “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity, he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness, they shall be childless.” Interestingly, the result of this kind of impurity, according to the laws of Leviticus, will also be that the land “will vomit them out” as it had done with nations before them. In other words, the land itself will not sustain unholy living.
John came proclaiming a time of repentance, a time of turning to holy living, because God’s breaking into the world to restore it to just ways, to destroy evil, would come at any moment. John believed and taught that God would come and do the “great divine cleanup” as scholar and professor John Dominic Crossan puts it. So John the Baptist spoke the truth to the people in the Judean countryside. He spoke the truth, according to the law of Moses, to the powerful people.
Mark’s gospel tells us that John is thrown into prison for his efforts. He also makes an enemy in Herodias.
Herodias had been married to her own half-uncle, Herod Phillip, and they had a daughter. She then left him and went and married Herod Antipas, who was also her half uncle and who was tetrarch of Galilee at the time. Antipas was in the process of Romanizing and industrializing Galilee. His marriage to Herodias was for political alliance and power brokering. John tells them it’s an abomination, something loathsome in God’s sight.
Mark’s gospel goes on to tell us that Herodias wields the only power a woman of wealth had in those days and manipulates her husband. When her daughter dances in front of Herod’s officials for his birthday, she danced so beautifully that Herod says, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it…. even half my kingdom.” Wow, that must have been some dance!
Herodias seizes her chance and asks her daughter to ask for the head of John on a platter. And so we hear of this gruesome birthday party where a girl dances, a woman seeks revenge, and a man cannot go back on his word in front of his assembled guests. As the party winds on, John’s is beheaded and his head is presented as an offering to the powerful, and unholy, forces of his day.
It’s a grim story. And it foreshadows the fate of Jesus at the hands of Herod Antipas – who is fearful of this dawning and subversive kingdom of God, and yet intrigued by it. When Herod hears of Jesus, hears of his healings, his teaching, and the sending of his disciples to do the same, in his fear, Herod is convinced it is John come to life again. Herod is fearful of John’s truth telling and stands accused under the law of Moses. God requires holy living and God will break into the world to restore justice.
Back in early June, I attended a week of “Luther Hostel” at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. Our field trip for the day was to the six nations reserve near Brantford. But first we made a stop at the first Indian residential school in Canada: the “Mohawk Institute”.
This is where first nations’ boys and girls were taken from their homes and their families and sent to stay for most of the year, if not all, to receive an education. This education, however, was meant to erase the Indian in the Indian. This education was meant to “civilize and Christianize”. Our guide for the morning told us horrific stories of what happened in the years while that residential school was in operation. He told our group that some years were better than others, depending on who was running it at the time.
But the girls and boys were kept strictly separate from each other, even if the were brothers and sisters. Their aboriginal names were replaced with anglicized versions, or they were given a number and were identified solely by that number. When their parents came to visit, or if their parents came to visit, they were not to speak in their own language, making it difficult for them to communicate. There was very little food, mostly oats. There was neglect. And there was abuse. There were children who simply went missing.
It was hard to hear as he told us the stories. I had heard some before. I knew of residential schools and their programme of assimilation. Yet to hear them again hurt. And I walked away from that school saddened and ashamed.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is helping us, as Canadians, to hear the truth of our past and the impact on present generations of First Nations’ families who went through those residential schools, most often operated by churches and funded by the federal government. The commission’s mandate is to gather the stories and to tell the truth to us non-aboriginals, so that reconciliation and renewed relationships might be formed based on mutual understanding and respect. Its mandate is to be an accurate historical record and offer recommendations to the government of Canada with respect to the residential school legacy.
The schools began in the 1880’s. The last federally supported residential school closed in the 1990’s. As church, and as nation, we produced generations of lost souls. In the commission’s second year report, it has produced a publication called “They Came for the Children”. You can read it online at the commission’s website. One girl from Amos, Quebec said this about her entry into a school: “I was number 116. I was trying to find myself; I was lost. I felt like I had been placed in a black garbage bag that was sealed. Everything was black, completely black to my eyes and I wondered if I was the only one to feel that way.”
The truth is not easy to face. This is true especially when it comes to looking at ourselves – what we have done and left undone. We prefer to hide. Or to scapegoat, blame someone else. It’s easier that way.
Herod refused to hear the truth of what John was telling him. Herodias reacted in anger and vengeance. John tried to tell Herod and others that God’s kingdom was soon coming to wipe away all the unholiness, all the wrongdoing, all the lies and deception, all the injustice, so we had better get all our ducks in a row. In other words, repent, turn from our deceptive ways, and make ourselves clean by washing in the baptismal water.
But what do we do with that understanding of God breaking into the world to right the wrongs when people like John and Jesus, and others throughout the centuries, and even today, get bulldozed by the powers that be? Where is God’s kingdom come when injustice prevails, when souls are lost, when hearts and bodies are broken, when creation cries out for healing?
Jesus taught that God’s kingdom was already a present day reality, not just something that we wait for and would happen sometime in the future. As Crossan writes, “it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us.”
The kingdom of God is collaborative effort between God and us. It is a partnership between the human and the divine. Jesus says to us, “to see the truth of this presence of the kingdom, come, and see how we live, and then go and do likewise.” This kingdom needs God, but it also needs believers who search for it in truth.
The good news, in the midst of all of this, is that the kingdom of God is a present reality. We find it in the ordinary stuff of daily living. It’s why Jesus taught in parables – to show us that we find this kingdom in soil and seed; in an oil lamp on a night stand; in a tiny mustard seed; in bread and fish shared.
The good news, in the midst of all this, is that the kingdom of God is in ordinary people like you and me. It comes whenever we pray for it, whenever we search for it, in us and in others, whenever we hear the truth of it and speak the justice of it, and whenever and wherever we live the reality of it.
When we do these things, when all else seems impossible, the wonderfully possible happens.
Pr. Katherine Altenburg