Hi folks, It is not very often that a pastor gets to hear good preaching, When the choir was on Monhegan Island last month for our “Monhegan Mission”, the pastor of the week, the Reverend Summer F. Shaud, preached this sermon. I was so impressed that I asked her for a copy of it to share with all of you and with the readers of our website. She graciously agreed. Wayne
Sunday, July 15, 2018, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Summer F. Shaud
Monhegan Community Church
Mark 6: 14-29
You may know that in some churches the custom after the Scripture reading is for the people to respond by saying, “thanks be to God.” It’s just as well that this isn’t one of those churches because it would be pretty hard to say “thanks be the God” after a reading like that. What a story! If this were on a network TV show there would probably be a warning for disturbing content that would air before the episode. We’re not used to Bible story quite this grisly. There’s a level of violence here that feels gratuitous and shocking, more like an episode of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, than the usual Bible story.
This reading about the gruesome death of John the Baptist begins, somewhat confusingly, after John the Baptist is already dead. Herod is hearing word of Jesus’s ministry in the countryside, and people around him are speculating that perhaps this Jesus of Nazareth is really Elijah, raised from the dead, or another of the prophets of old. But Herod thinks that instead of Elijah, Jesus must be John the Baptist, saying “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” And then it’s as if the author of Mark’s gospel suddenly realizes that he’s forgotten to tell you that story yet, so then he does.
And it’s a story straight out of a soap opera. Herod had married his brother Phillip’s wife, a woman named Herodias. Now, just to be clear, Herodias had not divorced Phillip. She was still married to him while also married to Herod. Further, a deep dive into Herod’s family tree reveals that in addition to being his sister-in-law, Herodias was also his niece. So, that was the level of familial entanglement there. And John the Baptist, never one to shy away from confrontation or awkwardness, comes right out and tells Herod that his marriage is unlawful in the eyes of God. Herodias hates John the Baptist for that and wants him to be put to death, but Herod refuses because–and this is interesting–he liked to listen to John speak, even though he often left feeling greatly perplexed. And so because of that, Herod agrees to imprison John, but not have him killed.
But then: for Herod’s birthday, a banquet is planned, with all the political and social elites of Galilee in attendance. During the banquet, as part of the entertainment, Herod’s step-daughter, the child of Herodias, dances for the guests. Now, in the popular imagination this already-scandalous story has often been made even more scandalous with the suggestion that this dancing was more like exotic dancing, and in the Oscar Wilde play based on this story, the playwright imagines this dance as the now-infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” But please note, there’s not a single word in this passage to support that interpretation; the dance might have been sexually charged or not, the Gospel-writer doesn’t dwell on it either way. What’s far more noteworthy here is what Herod says after the dance, making an oath, telling the girl that he’s so taken with her dancing that he’ll give her anything she asks for, up to half his kingdom. The girl rushes out and asks her mother Herodias what to ask for. Herodias sees her chance, and tells the girl to ask for the head of John the Baptist. So the girl rushes back in and asks for John’s head “on a platter.” King Herod is grieved by that request, probably realizes instantly that he’s just been duped by his wife, but he goes ahead, because of what we might call a toxic insecurity–he’s afraid his guests will think less of him if he goes back on his word, so despite his misgivings he sends guards to behead John in his prison cell, and bring his head into the banquet on a platter, which they do.
Having spent considerable time with this story over the past week, I’ve decided that it’s not actually the beheading that makes the story so disturbing. It’s the platter. Beheading is violent, obviously, and weirdly specific, but it’s not unheard of or bizarre. It’s the platter that makes things bizarre–the image of John’s head being carried into a banquet on a serving platter. That’s what makes this story so horrifying and indelible. In the Gospel narratives, John the Baptist has a hallowed status because of his role as the precursor to Jesus, the one who prepared the way for Jesus’s own ministry. So it’s shocking, then, to read this account of his most unceremonious death, given no due process, and not even being killed as a result the king’s own will, but instead reduced to a plaything of the elites. There’s a shocking dissonance between John’s seriousness and courageous ethical witness, and the casual cruelty of the king and his social class.
But while the circumstances of his death are senseless and absurd, it wouldn’t be accurate to call them random. Because the reason that John is sitting in the king’s prison while this dinner party unfolds, the reason he’s drawn the ire of Herod’s wife Herodias, is 100% because of John’s own choices. It’s because of his decision to condemn the king’s immoral marriage, even knowing that the king’s power over his life was absolute. That choice to speak out is a classic example of speaking truth to power.
John paid a price for his outspokenness and his disinterest in making nice, in civility we might say, and so too will Jesus pay a price. In this way the ministries of both Jesus and John were deeply political, and I don’t mean “political” in the sense of who to vote for. I mean that the kingdom Jesus preaches is a direct challenge to our comfort with the status quo, and our all too easy willingness to go along with the cultural presumption that might makes right. Or wealth, or status, or fame, makes right. This gruesome story stands as a stark reminder that if we proclaim God’s kingdom of justice and mercy and grace, as with Jesus and his forerunner John, there will be a price to pay.
There’s always the danger in religious circles to think that if you’re on God’s Team then everything will be great. Even today you don’t have to look far to find a church that will promise you that if you only believe, and maybe write them a check, you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise. God will heal every disease and conquer every foe and you’ll be blessed by financial abundance. To those enamored by this so-called Prosperity Gospel, this disturbing story is a shot of sobering reality. John had made his peace with the cost of discipleship. John understood where his commitment to the way of Jesus would lead him. And he was willing to pay that cost.
Are we? All of us who would follow Christ are called to confront, as well as we can, the wrong that we see around us, and confrontation is never comfortable. In a moment when it seems to many that our culture’s values have never been more at odds with the life of Jesus, have we started to ask ourselves where we, personally, individually, will make our stand? What are we willing to give up for love? How uncomfortable are we willing to be for justice? Do we dare make waves in our families, in our social circles, in our workplaces? Are we willing to throw off long-held identities that we can no longer reconcile with the Gospel of Jesus?
Clarity in life is often hard to come by, especially if you spend at least some of your time living in a banquet hall where there is so much power and so much entertainment and so much to eat and drink that the faithful choices can become hard to see–until distant lives have been harmed or even lost and we are somehow involved, if not directly responsible. It just might be that some of us who try to follow Christ have< been following too-safe a course, sitting in too-comfortable seats at the banquet, so much so that we need this gruesome, disturbing story to reroute us back to following the One whose path was full of danger and whose final destination was the cross. May we each examine our hearts and commit ourselves to the way of love, justice, and mercy, knowing that as we do, we walk a well-trodden path, and we do not walk alone. Amen.