Sunday, July 12, 2009
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10B] - July 12, 2009 (Mark 6:14-29 and Amos 7:7-15)
Every now and then in society’s general ongoing conversation about religion and matters of faith you may have heard the criticism, as I have, that the Bible is out-dated, irrelevant, and boring. It seems that some feel, for whatever reason, that it is trapped in an era so removed from ours, that it speaks of philosophies and histories that have too little in common with our own to make any modern sense. Others get fooled by the long, poetic passages and tiresome prophecies from a world so distant or ancient that they write its message off entirely.
To tell you the truth, I’m ashamed to say there are times I’ve been prone to think it, too. Even the gospels of the New Testament, where my head, by necessity, spends so much of its time buried, start to take on a museum-exhibit-like quality, and I’m like an archaeologist trying to uncover hidden facts and truths about a magical land long ago. It can seem, under even this well-meaning microscope, that it’s just not real.
And then—surprise!—against all the criticism that our Scriptures are tedious or unrelated or old-fashioned comes today’s gospel text, situated right in the middle of Mark’s gospel. It has all you need for an “R” rating: exotic dancing, lust, love triangles, violence and gore. Power politics are present, as is a dirty dungeon cell where torture no doubt takes place, and, at the end of the story, a real human head served up on a platter. Isn’t this reality, folks? Shocking, explicit …and all too normal. Turn on the television—either to a movie or the daily news or even CSPAN these days—and you’re not likely to find anything more graphic or less relevant to our time than this. Mark’s report of the scenes surrounding John the Baptist’s murder is as lurid as the stories that fascinate us in the tabloids. In fact, we had a difficult time finding an appropriate image for the front of this morning’s bulletin because most of the ones that were suggested depicted a young woman with a severed head on a plate—and that just doesn’t seem churchy. Within the context of our delicate “churchiness,” or our stereotypes of the Biblical world, and even within the context of Mark’s own gospel, this story of John’s sad fate offends us, or at least catches us off-guard with its very real-ness.
As the story goes, Herod Antipas—who is here named “King”—hears the reports of Jesus and his disciples acts of mercy and power on behalf of God’s kingdom, and how the townfolk all around are starting to get stirred up, and begins to fear that John the Baptist, whom he himself has had murdered, has come back to haunt him. Herod is afraid, you see, that justice is about track him down and find him, Night-of-the-Living-Dead style. John was murdered by Herod, somewhat begrudgingly, as the result of a rash vow Herod had made—now follow this!—to his wife’s daughter. He had seen this young woman dance at his birthday party and it pleased him so much that, like so many other crazy, intemperate monarchs, he offered her anything in the world, even half his kingdom.
As you could guess, this tiny dancer whom Herod wants to hold close is not likely his actual biological daughter. It is probably his step-daughter and niece, (yes, still eww), the child to his new wife, Herodias. She, as it turns out, was also married to Herod’s brother, Philip. Herodias has it in for John the Baptist because John has functioned like some type of Billy Graham-cum-Ken Starr, publically calling their relationship into account and letting them know it wasn’t lawful. Herod, ever keen to garnish his religious credentials with the local Jewish population, is a little afraid and mesmerized by John, and so instead of actually knocking him off and thereby angering John’s devoted throng of followers, Herod merely imprisons John in his dungeon. With John at a safe distance, Herod can continue to keep tabs on John and also listen to his intriguing preaching.
Herodias, on the other hand, has no subjects to please, and she develops quite the need for revenge. So, when she gets wind of this lust-induced vow that her husband makes to her daughter, the tiny dancer, she immediately sees it as the perfect opportunity to disconnect John the Baptist’s body from his ever-preachy, ever-pontificating head. The daughter, who certainly seems to be under the thumb of her mother, passes up the sweet offer of half of Herod’s kingdom gallops off to Herod with the request, and, pretty soon…voila! Head on a plate!
Nope, this isn’t what we’re used to every Sunday, is it? In fact, next Sunday we’ll hear nothing of Herod and Herodias, and, to be sure, Mark never mentions them again at all in his gospel. So why, all of the sudden, do we switch gears like this? Why do we go from Jesus and his merry band of disciples, now fully incorporated and commissioned in his ministry of God’s kingdom, making their way through the Galilean countryside, casting out demons and healing the sick, to this, something that comes straight out of a bad soap opera?
Some have always noticed that it is a bit of foreshadowing. That is, John, the forerunner of Jesus—the one who came before him to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry—meets the same fate that Jesus will. His disciples don’t know it. Jesus hasn’t breathed a word about his death yet, either, but John’s imprisonment and quick demise become a glimpse into what might happen with Jesus when he comes before the authorities. Notice, too, how Mark explains how John’s disciples come and remove his body from the prison and place it in a tomb. This will all sound strangely familiar in a few more months.
But I think there is something more at work here with this dose of treachery at the hands of the rulers. The story of John’s beheading stands in the middle of Mark’s gospel, and in the middle of our conscience, as if to say, “This is what Jesus is up against.” This kind of scary, dangerous, murky sense of justice and what’s right and wrong is always what God’s grace is up against.
Interestingly, the scene in Herod’s palace follows the part in Mark’s gospel where everything is finally going so well. It is where our episode left off last week, when our heroes—Jesus and his disciples—are making their rounds through Galilee with roaring success in the ministry department. They are healing and preaching, and people are repenting and joining the cause of God’s kingdom by the hoards. In fact, when the camera fades away on our scene today as the decapitated body of John being moved to its tomb, it resumes on the happy, verdant banks of Lake Galilee where, we are told, the disciples gather around Jesus and regale the stories of their success. Yes, with that type of framing, the picture at Herod’s macabre birthday feast becomes a harsh reminder of what God’s grace is up against.
Centuries before, a young orchard worker named Amos had discovered what God’s word was up against when God appointed him a prophet and told him to go stand in the courts of Israel’s corrupt and depraved King Jeroboam and preach repentance. The word that Amos bears of justice and concern for the poor find itself up against a whole system of fraud and dishonesty like a plumb line finds itself up against a crooked, tottering wall. How distressing to find that John the Baptist’s words, and Jesus’ disciples’ works of mercy—in that time and in ours—find the same thing: that creation is magnificently out-of-whack. Like ancient Israel’s leaders had long begun to build their society on warped concepts of justice and mercy, treating the poor and oppressed as commodities or property rather than as humans loved by their Creator, we find that our own notions of fairness and equality often fall far short of God’s intentions.
This kind of crookedness and wickedness is always what God’s grace is up against, whether it is in our own national institutions, or entrenched economic systems, or our church structures and policies. It’s the kinds of things that some of these quilts and shawls will no doubt find themselves up against, wherever they go: Victims of homelessness or terrorism and war, the training children for suicide bombings, the day trafficking of humans for the sex trade. Governments with apartheid systems in place, as well as ones whose racist policies are more subtle. Agricultural policies that keep some nations perpetually poverty-stricken. And we must not forget ignorance and indifference in our own hearts.
This—and more—is all what God’s grace is up against, but it is also what God came to save. This—and so much more—is what God’s goodness is up against, but it is also what God came to love back into line. Ephesians, chapter one: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.”
Herod, he lavished money, sex, power on his subjects. God, he has lavished his grace on us, his children. And perhaps the big challenge of our journey together is not to let the crooked nature of what we see in the world, the corrupting connivance of sin, become the standard. The big challenge is not to get so accustomed to the ways we all fall short that we start thinking that’s just the way it has to be, to see the fallen specter of God’s creation and call it normal.
No. Rather, it is God’s plumb line of and love and forgiveness and Jesus that is now normal—that is dynamic and timely and not boring and very, very real. It has been lavished on us, and we are to lavish it on the rest of the world. The standard for what is real this world is not our sin, but God’s grace in Christ.
And what about the rest, then, that world of hurt we call “reality” from time to time? Well, that’s just the old, irrelevant, part crumbling away because it cannot stand. It cannot stand against the plumb line of grace. It, too, is being torn down and then gathered up in him for the new, grace-filled kingdom God’s people are building in Christ. It is being torn down--even by things like quilts and shawls--and rebuilt in an eternal palace of justice fit for our King.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
(image: "The Beheading of John the Baptist," Carel Fabritius, ca. 1640)