In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

On this day, 26 years ago, the worst massacre on European soil since the horrors of the Holocaust began to unfold in a small mountain town in the Eastern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was at the time, part of the former Yugoslavia. Those who lived through the 1990s will likely remember news coverage of the bitter conflict that raged for years in that part of southeastern Europe. The worst atrocity of that conflict, however, unfolded in the small town of Srebrenica. Though the town had been declared a United Nations safe area, and was ostensibly under the protection of UN peacekeepers, on July 11th, 1995, Bosnian Serb troops entered Srebrenica and began shortly thereafter, a systematic killing of Bosnian Muslims. Defenseless civilians, mostly men and boys, were rounded up and slaughtered. The bodies quickly put into mass graves that were discovered in the months after the war ended. The best estimates indicate that over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered in the span of just a few short days, and what has been identified by the international community as genocide. Over 1000 persons remain missing or unidentified to this day.

The chilling events of those days are recounted in a deeply moving film released last year called, “Quo Vadis, Aida?” The title being the Latin for, “Where are you going, Aida?” The film tells the story through the lens of a Bosnian Muslim woman from Srebrenica, a translator for the Dutch UN peacekeepers who had been charged with maintaining and protecting the safe area. As the chaotic events unfold, and Aida comes to realize that the thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys, trapped in the town, are being gathered up and killed, she desperately searches for a way to save her husband and two sons from certain death. The power of the film lies not only in its depiction of the horrors of those few days, but also in its portrayal of the consequences that lasts for years, even a lifetime for those who lived through them. Violence and trauma of such a nature change lives forever. The film has received widespread acclaim and earned an Oscar nomination last year. It’s heart-wrenching and at times, difficult to watch, but I so highly recommend it to you.

Watching it brought back powerful memories of my own visit to Srebrenica. Several years ago, during a summer, I spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina working at a summer camp for children. My colleagues and I agreed that during our time there, we felt called to make the journey to that place, to pay respect to the victims. One morning, we took the long journey from the capital city Sarajevo, through the mountains to tiny Srebrenica. I don’t think a place can ever fully recover from the atrocities of genocide, and that town certainly hasn’t. It was quiet and empty, eerily so. We dedicated our time to the memorial and cemetery for the victims. There, over 6,500 gravestones fill a large field, each one representing a life taken in those days of July 1995. As I stood in the middle of that cemetery, surrounded by a sea of white gravestones, as far as I could see in every direction, the only thing I knew to do was fall to my knees and weep. To be confronted with so much death, so much loss and pain, to be confronted with the reality that the hatred of another group of humans had motivated such senseless and brutal violence and killing. It was, to be honest, overwhelming. What can we do when confronted with the horrific consequences of hatred, violence, and indifference to the precious nature of human life? What can we do when confronted with the worst that humans can do to each other?

Today’s gospel reading from Mark offers no easy answers to these questions, but instead plunges us into a story of conspiracy and murder in the form of the rather gruesome account of the beheading of John the Baptist. John is a figure we most often focus on during the season of Advent when his message of repentance calls us to preparation and examination. As we await the joyful celebration of Christmas. We also remember each year in early January, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the role John played in baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan. I don’t think we often take note of what happened to him after that though, In the verses immediately following Jesus’s baptism, Mark’s gospel tells us that John was arrested. And we are also told that it was after his arrest, that Jesus then began his own ministry. I think we can see in this sequence something of the comment John makes in speaking of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The passage before us today tells us that it was King Herod who had ordered that John be arrested and placed in prison because he had spoken against Herod’s marriage to Herodias. She was Herod’s brother’s wife, and as such Herod’s marriage was not lawful according to the book of Leviticus, a fact which John made known to the king. John’s prophetic words of condemnation earned him the ire of Herodias, who bore a deep grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But it was not so easy for her to see that desire fulfilled, as her husband feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. Herodias held on to her grudge. She held on to her hatred and resentment and allowed it to infect her heart and dominate her thoughts.

Finally, an opportunity came when Herod threw a festive birthday celebration. A rare mention of a birthday party in the Bible, and given the events that subsequently unfolded, one that did not win the idea much favor with some Christians across the centuries. Gathering together important leaders and officials of Galilee, Herod threw a lavish banquet. And in the midst of the festivities, his daughter came and danced for them. The text calls her Herodias, but she is most often called Salome in keeping with the word of the first century historian, Josephus. Whatever her name, her dancing pleased Herod, who then made a rather rash vow, telling her, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you. Even half of my kingdom.” The girl was thus pulled into a vicious web of violence and conspiracy.

She went to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?” Herodias, so consumed with rage and bitterness against John, immediately told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Her request is particularly disturbing. Not only does she want him dead, but she wants his head as a sort of prize. And so, her daughter returned to Herod, who was deeply grieved by the request. He had made his vow, and though his grief at the consequences of his foolish oath appear indeed genuine, surrounded by figures of such importance leaders and officials, he felt he had to keep his word. And so, he ordered that the great prophet be killed, and his head delivered on a platter to his daughter, who in turn, brought it to her mother, Herodias. Thus, bringing to completion her long desired revenge.

There is no happy ending, no pleasant resolution in our gospel story today. Vengeful Herodians has her way. Herod, the high-ranking political official, orders the killing of an innocent man with no consequences. Unlike almost every other Sunday of the year, Jesus is not part of the gospel story. What are we to make of it? Incidents of senseless violence often leave us feeling completely helpless and unsure what we can do. We can, in turn all too easily, lean into that attitude of helplessness and thus absolve ourselves of any responsibility. The story of John’s beheading might not offer us a word that touches and warms the heart, but it does offer us a call to action. That call is to be peacemakers in a world filled with violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says in the Beatitudes from Matthew 5, “For they will be called children of God.”

The call to be a peacemaker comes, I think, in two forms. One that looks outward, and another that looks inward. First, looking outward. The call is to bear witness, to speak out against violence, to never let past events be forgotten, and to work that they are not repeated in the future. It might look like supporting efforts and organizations that work for peace in various parts of the world. Or supporting the work of those who help folks rebuild their lives after living through experiences of extreme violence. Or consider the ministry of the Gun Violence Prevention Group here at the Cathedral, that works to end the scourge of gun violence in this city and in this country. Our gospel reading offers us a simple, yet powerful example of bearing witness, when in the last verse, we are told that John’s disciples came, took his body, and placed it in a tomb. Thus, giving him a proper burial. A brief moment of dignity in the aftermath of a violent and unjust death. To bear witness is a powerful thing, to remember is a powerful thing. Don’t ever discount that.

The second component of the call to be peacemakers draws us inward. To look at ourselves, to really examine the hatred and bitterness that infects our own hearts. It can be easy for us to look at a figure like Herodias and think, “I would never act in such a way. I would never allow hatred to so consume me that I would orchestrate the killing of another human being.” It is a much more difficult thing, however, to look within our own hearts and confront the hatred, resentments, and fears that are within us. And to recognize just how corrosive these things can be, and just how easily they can be translated into actions that hurt and harm others. If you want to be a peacemaker, look inward at yourself, pray and ask God to daily convert your heart. From that foundation, you can live your life in a way that radiates out the peace of Christ. It might not seem like that immediately changes anything, but I promise that it sends out a ripple effect that really does have an impact.

Twenty-six years after the genocide at Srebrenica, the wound remains very much open in the small country of Bosnia. Earlier today, 16 victims were buried at the memorial cemetery after their remains were finally identified in the past year using DNA analysis. We pray those families find some sense of peace. This day, such violence leaves a lasting impact and much healing remains to be done. The work of being peacemakers in our world is very much ongoing. Amid the over 6,500 gravestones in that cemetery at Srebrenica, there stands a pillar with a prayer I offer that summer day, many years ago, and that I offer again on this 26th anniversary. It says this, “In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate. We pray to all mighty God, may grievance become hope. May revenge become justice. May mother’s tears become prayers. That Srebrenica never happens again, to no one and nowhere.” May these words be for us, more than simply a prayer, but a call to action. A call to be peacemakers in our own day. May almighty God take us and make us instruments of peace.


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