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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Bible Text: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29 | Preacher: The Rev. Natalie Johnson | Series: 2021 | For many of us, we have been “trained” through our years of hearing Scripture read and sermons preached to look for the redemptive line in a gospel narrative. There are times, perhaps, that we find it easy – or, maybe more comfortable – to enter a text and immediately ask the “so what?” questions that help us tease out the moral of the story, so to speak. The details of the story itself become somewhat extraneous in our interpretations and attempts to make sense of the implications of what we read and hear. This can be especially the case when we encounter a gruesome tale like the beheading of John the Baptist from our gospel reading this morning. It is tempting to skip over the scandalous details and quickly identify John as our innocent hero who is unjustly murdered, and, with our eyes trained squarely on John, extrapolate a kind of commentary on the relationship between suffering and discipleship. And indeed, this passage from Mark has been used by countless scholars as “proof” that being a disciple of Jesus will put us at odds with the powers and principalities of this world, which will inevitably lead to our own suffering.

While this connection between discipleship and suffering is not false, I wonder if this interpretative stance too readily lends itself to our own identification with John, seeing ourselves as the bearer of prophetic faith left to stand defiantly against corrupted power. Is it really John whom Mark intends our gaze to fall upon as we hear this story? Mark has this (sometimes) frustrating habit of inserting one narrative episode between two parts of another. When we zoom out to the larger context of our story today, we see that this passage is one such insertion: having been rejected in his hometown, Jesus sets out teaching in all the surrounding villages. He calls together the 12 disciples and sends them out to proclaim the message he’s taught them and to bring healing to the people in his name. Their success in exercising the authority Jesus conferred on them becomes news-worthy, fertile ground for speculation and wondering at the highest local level of power and dominance. Jesus and his disciples have made a name for themselves and in doing so have caught the attention of the political powers. In the narrative flow of the gospel, this leads to a flashback episode recounting the details of another individual who caught the attention of the political powers because of the message he preached and his ultimate demise. After this seemingly abrupt shift from Jesus and his disciples to Herod and John, Mark continues his narrative with the return of the 12 whom Jesus had just sent out on their first missionary journey. He attempts to take them to a deserted place that they might find rest; but the crowds who have begun to follow Jesus don’t take the hint and, seeing them, Jesus has compassion on them and miraculously feeds over 5,000 people.

Embedded in this larger context is a question about the various responses to the gospel message that are possible. Indeed, the killing of John foreshadows the ultimate response of the political and religious elite and their rejection of the radical and revolutionary message of Jesus. When this interpretative line is drawn, we are beckoned to cast our gaze not only on John in this flashback episode, but on Herod. And as a result, the seemingly clear-cut line between discipleship and suffering that is so easily identified when we gloss over the details of the story becomes muddled and far less clear as the singular point of the story. 

In his Jewish Antiquities, the ancient historian Josephus interprets John’s execution from a purely political point of view: he recounts that John’s “eloquence in criticizing corruption was so compelling that it might start a revolt, so [Herod] had him killed” (18.118). Matthew offers a similar motive for John’s execution, stating that Herod feared the people, presumably because he thought John had the influence and power to incite a rebellion against him (14:5). And then there’s Mark. In Mark’s account, Herod is intrigued by John, so much so that he protects him (albeit while he has John in custody) from the murderous intentions of his wife who took such offense at John’s condemnation of her marriage to Herod. The “king,” on the other hand, found himself filled with curiosity and, Mark tells us, even enjoyed listening to John. It is a curious thing indeed that Herod enjoyed listening to the man who pronounced judgment on Herod’s marriage and condemned it as incestuous adultery! But something about John and the portrait of truth he painted for Herod compels Herod to keep listening, to question, to ponder. My friend, Debie Thomas, suggests in her commentary for this week’s readings that Herod’s fascination with the truth John proclaims is illustrative of the human desire and hunger for truth – Herod dances around the truth, desiring to hear more and yet fearful of the implications. He remains uncommitted and keeps truth at arms’ length, “fearing it and needing it all at once.” [1]

But truth demands more than being kept at arms’ length. There comes a point in each of our lives when we must fully embrace the gospel truth, when we must decide to “move from a perplexed fascination with truth to a faithful stewardship of truth.”[1] That moment came for Herod as he faced the choice of saving face in front of the Galilean elite, on the one hand, and of standing on the side of justice, on the other. Here is the palpable presence of grace, in this particular moment, waiting to be accepted or rejected. And Herod chooses wrongly. He errs on the side of self-protection and preservation, allowing his lust for preeminence to bolster his resistance to the truth. The truth challenged Herod’s absurd pretense to sovereignty and threatened to unravel his projection of power and control. The truth, if accepted and embraced, would lead to losing what he had, to embarrassment, to the exposure of his hypocrisy. 

When our eyes linger on Herod, rather than John, in this story, we come away with a different understanding of its meaning – that the transformation produced by embracing the truth cannot be effected by a casual fascination with the truth. Will our prophetic faith inevitably put us in conflict with the powers and principalities of this world? The New Testament witness gives us a clear and resounding “yes” to this question. But the episode of John’s execution in Mark’s gospel compels to see something else entirely. It beckons us to ask how alike we are to Herod rather than to John. Our similarity likely is not to be found in our own attempts to murder or execute another human being. But, to quote my friend Debie once more, 

I wonder if the questions we need to ask ourselves in light of Herod’s story are subtler ones.  No, I don’t go around killing people.  But do I care too much about what other people think of me?  Do I value my status, reputation, and popularity more than I do the truth?  Am I so bent on conflict-avoidance that I harm others with my passivity?  Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?  Is my inner life and my outer life misaligned, one always covering for the other?

These are personal questions on the one hand, but very public ones on the other.  When I choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?  When I decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly for me to pursue, who suffers in the long term?  Whose vulnerability do I depend on and benefit from to keep my own comforts intact?[1]

This morning we prayed that God would grant us the ability to know and understand what things we ought to do, and the grace and power to faithfully accomplish those things. Mark’s telling of John’s execution suggests that our appropriation of God’s work to bring us into truth and to empower us to live into truth depends on our ability to fully embrace the truth, to leave behind notions of self-preservation and behaviors that protect our pretense to power and control. Our invitation this morning is not to embrace the reality that pain will inevitably be part of our discipleship journey, but to recognize what exactly is on the line when the good news of Jesus’ gospel is rejected. 

May God give us the courage to stand on the side of justice and truth, to allow the truth to bear the fruit of transformation in our lives and in the lives of those we encounter along the way.

[1] Thomas, Debie. “Greatly Perplexed,” July 4, 2021. https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3065-greatly-perplexed.