PROPER 10, 07/15/18
In today’s Gospel we have the story, in flashback form, of how Herod came to execute John the Baptist. He clearly had mixed feelings about John. Then he was foolish enough to promise anything to his daughter (by tradition this was Salome, Herodias’s daughter). When she asked for the head of John, he was honor bound to grant her request – and maybe a bit relieved too. In the midst of a banquet in honor of Herod’s birthday, the severed head of John the Baptist is carried in on a platter.
The key to understanding this story lies in its placement in Mark’s Gospel. Just prior to this flashback Jesus has called the disciples and sent them out two by two – the Gospel we heard last Sunday. He gave them instructions about what to take or not on their journey and how to behave if they were not made welcome.
The story of Herod is interjected here. It is followed immediately by next week’s Gospel, which begins, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” This is prologue to the feeding of the 5000.
So – the story of Herod occupies time between Jesus sending out the disciples and their return. Especially because of this unusual placement and the fact that the story actually happened sometime earlier, leads me to see several possible ways of looking at it:
1. Consider the contrast between Herod bringing out the head of John the Baptist on a platter at a banquet and Jesus feeding the 5000 with bread and fish. That’s a topic for another sermon.
2. This story also functions as a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death. It suggests not only what might happen to the disciples, but especially what might happen to Jesus. As we’ve noted before, Mark shows us repeatedly that the disciples don’t seem to get this.
3. This is a cautionary tale. Jesus has called his disciples and sent them out to proclaim repentance and to cast out demons and heal people. This flashback to John’s death rather forcefully suggests what the consequences of their actions might be. To be a follower of Jesus sometimes requires that we speak truth to power. That’s what John did when he chastised Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and it is a dangerous thing to do. Some people who do it wind up dead – as in fact, many of the early Christians did.
For Christians in the 21stcentury, the value of the Herod story in this point in the Gospel of Mark is as a cautionary tale, especially falling as it does, right after lessons about call.
After emphasizing last week that every one of us is called by God and having flaws or weaknesses is no excuse, I hate telling you that answering the call might cost you your head. Obviously, responding to God’s call to us, does not cost everyone their life, but it’s important to understand that it will certainly cost us something!
To serve God is to give up our own agenda. It means we surrender our own wants and needs to the greater good that God seeks for us and for our communities. Serving God costs way more than whatever money we pledge to the church. Whether we serve by helping others with our time or money, both of those are a cost to us. They take time or money that we don’t then have to spend on ourselves or our families.
One time a person asked how, in our society and time, that could in fact cost very much. Later I remembered John Steinbeck’s telling about the integration of schools in New Orleans in his book, Travels with Charley. You probably remember some of the photos from that time – of a little black girl, dressed in a starched white dress and white shoes, walking through picket lines escorted by U.S. Marshalls, in order to go to school.
Morning after morning she was greeted by the “Cheerleaders” as they became known – a group of middle-aged white women who shouted vile, vicious, and even filthy insults. I pulled out the book and re-read his account. What I had forgotten was that there was someone else there.
(P. 255) “The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school. And here he came along the guarded walk, a tall man dressed in light gray, leading his frightened child by the hand. His body was tensed as a strong leaf spring drawn to the breaking strain; his face was grave and gray, and his eyes were on the ground immediately ahead of him. The muscles of his cheeks stood out from clenched jaws, a man afraid, who by his will held his fears in check as a great rider directs a panicked horse.
A shrill grating voice rang out. The crowd behind the barrier roared and cheered and pounded one another with joy. . .Across the street the U.S. marshals stood unmoving. The gray-clothed man’s legs had speeded for a second, but he reined them down with his will and walked up the school pavement.”
Steinbeck goes on to remember the kind people he has known in New Orleans. He notices that they are not present in this crowd. Maybe they felt as hopeless as he did, but he realizes that their absence left New Orleans misrepresented by what was being shown on TV.
And what do you suppose it cost that gray man to take his child to school each day? To stand up and say by his actions that he would not add his voice to those in the crowd? That he would not deprive his son of his schooling because of the prejudice against fellow human beings?
Whether he was Christian or not, acting out of Christian principles or not, his is the kind of behavior our baptism calls us emulate. Notice that he was speaking truth to power without actually saying anything. What if one other person had joined him? What if 20 other people had joined him?
We are living in perilous times right now. The “cheerleaders” of our day are building a rising tide of incivility and viciousness. It’s especially easy to ignore the politics of the day when we live in a small town in middle America, but we do so at our own peril. God calls us to love one another. Our baptismal covenant call us to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
I’d say we have our work cut out for us! We have the ability to say yes or no to God’s call, but God continues to call us and the Holy Spirit will accompany us, if we can just bring ourselves to say yes. Here am I, Lord, send me.