Pentecost 7/Lectionary 15B, Mark 6:14-29
This is one of those gospel readings where I want to put a question mark at the end of the concluding acclamation: the gospel of the Lord? That is to say, where is the good news in this passage, in this horrible story?
- The tale of Herod beheading John the Baptist and why he did it has it all:
- Herod as an arrogant leader puts on a boastful show at a birthday party he threw for himself, but is tormented by his insecurities about a preacher, John the Baptist, whom Herod had arrested and put into prison, but who also secretly intrigued Herod.
- The story includes what we would at the very least call a boundary violation, if not a kind of incestuous abuse of a stepfather being sexually attracted to his step-daughter.
- Then there’s Herod’s wife who had a grudge against John the Baptist because he preached that it was against religious law for her to marry Herod, her former brother-in-law.
- There’s also the exploitation of a young woman who danced publicly in salacious ways.
- Next, probably a drunken and driven by lust, Herod outrageously promised to give his step-daughter whatever she wanted, even half of his kingdom.
- And there’s the conspiracy between mother and daughter to have John the Baptist killed.
- All of which resulted in the horrific image of a righteous man’s severed head on a platter.
Made into a movie, this story certainly would be rated R, if not to say a pornographic X.
But this story does reveal in graphic detail what human beings are capable of. It reads like some of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Or those of Greek theater. Of novels and other artistic portrayals of the sordidness of the human condition. We are fascinated and repulsed at the same time.
The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is also descriptive of where we find ourselves in today’s world which has many sordid features. The kinds of things Herod and his court did still happen among public leaders, celebrities and sometimes also in the circumstances of our own families and the families of neighbors and coworkers. It’s the broken, sinful human condition.
One of the side benefits of the pandemic is that for those privileged, we’ve taken something of a hiatus from more active, direct involvement in this messy, fraught world of ours.
But now that the world is opening up again, we are also compelled to re-enter the fray. Some are dreading going back to it all.
Now that we are worshiping indoors again, and becoming more active, the concerns of the world are again directly on our doorstep. How are we called to respond to and engage this world?
The long and the short of it is that the mission field for the church today is fraught, is difficult.
Again, I ask, where is the good news in all of this?
The focus of the reading from Mark, even though it may not seem like it at first, is Jesus Christ. The focus is not Herod or Herodias, and not even John the Baptist. It was Jesus’ preaching and notoriety about that preaching that provoked again Herod’s anxiety and guilt and the re-telling by Mark of the story of the beheading of the baptizer.
That is to say, the good news is that Jesus enters into the fullness of fraught, human ugliness and is present there with a word from God.
It was the ugly world of Herod, a puppet ruler of Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire, that Jesus entered preaching and teaching and healing and exorcising demons all while proclaiming in word and deed that the dominion of God has come near.
The good news for us is that Jesus continues to enter this world, our world of fraught-ness.
Jesus continues to enter into our sordid world with a word: Jesus’ voice echoes through the scriptures and across the centuries and the great expanses of the globe with words in the languages of the nations that convict us of our sin, but which also graciously forgive us, and entrust us with the ministry of reconciliation.
We have heard again Christ’s word today, here in this place.
Jesus continues to enter into our world with a baptism by water, word and Spirit that initiates us into a share in his priesthood to nurture the healing and making wholesome our X-rated world.
Here in this place, we re-gathered with prayers of lament and praise, around the baptismal font where we have been initiated into Christ’s priestly ministry.
Jesus enters into our world with a meal, very much unlike the banquet Herod threw for himself on his birthday, a meal that offers the gift of Christ’s ongoing, real presence: This meal feeds us that we may be strengthened for the work entrusted to us to feed with healthy, spiritual food a malnourished world.
Here, at this table, we celebrate the meal of Christ, an antidote to the over-indulgence of the buffets of our decadent world.
In short, Jesus enters our world to be for us the plumb line described in the first reading from the prophet Amos. A plumb line, you’ll recall, is the string held down by a weight, a bob, to determine and define a precise vertical line. Jesus, as our plumb line, is the one who makes us right, righteous before God by grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
In other words, as we are called to enter the worldly fray by virtue of our baptism, we don’t do it by ourselves. Through the means of grace in word, water, bread and wine, Jesus fulfills the promises he made – “I will not leave you orphaned” and “lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”
And we are given gifts to do the work entrusted to us to seek to nurture God’s dominion.
Listen again to the words of gracious promise from today’s reading from Ephesians:
3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that before God, we should be holy and blameless in love. 5God destined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ; this was God’s good pleasure and will, 6to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace 8lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9God has made known to us the mystery of the divine will, according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:3-10)
As we have formally today re-gathered as a congregation, buoyed up by these words of promise in Ephesians, let us be about God’s work of gathering all people around Christ that all may know and enjoy wholesomeness and healing, that human feasting would be known for justice and holiness and not salacious over-indulgence.
In Christ, let it be so. Amen.