8TH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, 7-15-2018
Pentecost 8 B 2018
Texts: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
“What shall I ask for?” Mark 6:24
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Dance leads to Death! Herod gets a head with John the Baptist! Birthday Bash leads to beheading!
I wonder how the National Inquirer of Jesus’ day would have headlined the events we heard about this morning. What would the Jerusalem Journal or the Galilee Gazette report in bold font? Who would they quote?
As a front page story this has everything the public could possibly want: Salacious details, adultery, brash promises, political intrigue, the rich and famous acting badly, an innocent man meeting his demise. Really, someone should take this story to the big screen.
But somehow the ending is all wrong. The story ends with the burial of the innocent man. There is no revenge scene where John’s followers storm the palace and take Herod and his minions captive and overturn his rule. There isn’t another bloodletting where the good people, pushed to the point of no return, in turn exact the same treatment for Herod and his helpers. Let’s face it, the ending, while gory, is pretty unsatisfying. It doesn’t satisfy our feelings of righteous indignation and petty appeasement.
John, the victim of Herod’s midlife crisis and political insecurities, is laid in a grave by his followers and that is that. Or is it?
Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, divorces his wife in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Herod Philip. It is the daughter of Herodias, who is also known as Salome, that dances that famous dance that so excites her uncle and now step-father, Herod, and his guests that he makes her an offer he wishes later he could retract. “Ask me for anything you want, and I will give it to you. Whatever you ask I will give to you, up to half my kingdom.”
This young girl, while not innocent in all of this, is still a pawn in the hands of her mother. Not knowing what to ask for she goes to her mother for guidance. Her mother instead gives her murderous advice. This was an opportune time; this was a way for Herodias to get what she wanted. She had nursed her resentment and hate for John for publically calling out her illegal marriage to Herod Antipas, and now here is the moment she has been waiting for. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.”
Her daughter goes back inside and in front of all of Herod’s guests, the politicians, the military commanders, and the courtiers, asks for the unthinkable. And then the girl asks for something else, she wants his head on a platter. Obviously, revenge is best served cold on a plate, in front of everyone.
Herod is distressed by this request. He likes John. There is this pull to listen to him. Herod has protected him up until this time from Hernias. But now, rather than argue, rather than reason, rather than look weak in front of everyone, Herod dispatches the executioner.
This story may seem foreign to us. After all, it happened over two thousand years ago. But are the power politics, the need to look competent and strong in other people’s eyes, the immense insecurities that lead us to make self-serving decisions for ourselves and possibly fatal decisions for others, the need to show-up someone who has embarrassed us in public in order to get back at them, really so different in 2018?
I would propose that the human heart is not so different as it was in Herod’s time. Think about it-how many of us growing up would have done just about anything to win our parent’s approval?
How many of us would be happy to see someone who has shamed us or made us publically uncomfortable get their comeuppance? Wouldn’t we feel some satisfaction to see them get, even in a small measure, what we think they deserved? And how much better would we feel if everyone else saw it too?
Which one of us has not been in a politically loaded situation where we could have said something truthful and bore the consequence of bucking the boss, or decided to just let the matter slide, justifying our silence by thinking it wouldn’t matter anyway?
This is the stuff of everyday life. These are the situations that eat at us and keep us awake at night. This is part and maybe even the heart of the human condition. These are decisions we have to make every day.
It is no accident that this text is put smack dab in the middle of Mark’s Gospel and immediately after Jesus’ rejection in his hometown and his sending out the disciples two by two to preach, teach, and heal. There is a message in this placement. We are far closer to being the conflicted Herod than we want to admit. Conflicted by wanting to be better and to do better, but living in a world and reality that rewards us for doing otherwise. We may never have the power to sentence another to death, and thank God for that, but we need to admit that the temptation to bow to society’s demands and our cultures expectations is great.
Following Jesus means speaking truth to power and not expecting the Herod’s of this world to say, “Why thank you! I had never thought of that before! I’m so glad you pointed that out!”
Following Jesus is speaking the truth to power and expecting that the consequences of doing so may well be severe. There will be suffering. We may be treated horribly and unfairly, our motives questioned and our lives upended. Such was the life of John, who pointed to Jesus. Such was the life of Jesus, who was crucified in part as a result of political expediency. And such has been the lives of those disciples who have faithfully followed Jesus for the last two millennia.
This message in Mark’s Gospel tells us that should we decide to follow Jesus, should we decide to take on the role of disciple, we had better be ready to possibly have our heads put on a platter too.
To follow Jesus is hard work. To not fall into, acquiesce to, hope to silently slide by so as not to attract attention and be complicit in the same patterns of distrust, mistrust, political and relational expediency, will take everything we have and more to deal with in a faithful manner.
This is not an easy message to preach or teach. This is not an easy Gospel message to follow. This is not something that will sell tickets and appear on the big screen leaving us truly satisfied after a mere two hours of watching these characters stroll by. A life of discipleship isn’t escapism entertainment.
What we have this morning is a sobering dose of reality-reality in first century Palestine and reality in twenty-first century America. The human heart hasn’t changed that much in 2000 years.
But here is the amazing part of this story. There is an alternative reality-a reality where truth does in fact matter, where compassion and sympathy, mercy and understanding are the foundation for life together in community. If the gospel is about anything it is about God’s truth being spoken into and lived out in this world.
The hope in this story is that we are all invited to a different kind of banquet. Not a banquet of political intrigue and rash promises; not a banquet where resentment and anger are served cold on a platter, but a banquet where all are welcome, where past mistakes and insecurities do not haunt us, and where we are promised not half of a kingdom, but the entire kingdom of God.
The hope in this story is that as bad as things may get, we believe that God will indeed prevail, that love will ultimately win the day, and that our story, the story of God’s people, does not end at the grave.