The Rev. Jennifer Adams - July 15, 2018 - Proper 10, Year B: Mark 6:14-29
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29)
In my just over twenty four years of preaching in this place, I’ve managed to preach on this gospel passage only one other time. And I consider that avoidance to be one of my greatest scheduling victories. This story comes up in this form once every three years, and so I’ve only faced it about eight times. And I’ve managed to sneak out of the pulpit six out of those eight.
But, given the lack of a second clergy person at this time, and my making the non-lectionary based decision to take vacation in early August, here I am with John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And even reading it is horrendous. This is without argument a horrible story. We’d all avoid it if we could. But none of us (except those of you visiting this morning – thank you for being here, sorry for the text) are on vacation this morning! We have been called to church. And this is our gospel text. So, here we go.
First, since this is a horrible end to a prophet’s life, we need to acknowledge that often stories like John the Baptist’s end this way. Prophets’ stories rarely have a happy ending, because while prophets always have a hopeful message, it’s never a happy one. Prophets speak hard words. They share hard truths. That’s what makes a prophet a prophet. And often they communicate by shouting their message in the wilderness, or in the towns or throughout the streets of the cities.
In fact, we heard Jesus say in last week’s gospel reading that “prophets are not without honor except in their hometown.” And you’ll remember in that story that even Jesus could “do no act of power” in that moment. Prophets it seems are in the most danger when their message hits home. Because even if only in word, prophets are perceived as a threat of one kind or another to those who do have power.
And according to this story, John the Baptist had told Herod that he didn’t think it was a good idea for Herod to take his brother’s wife as his own. Which is about as close to home as you can get. John had said many other hard and “prophetic” things too – frankly things that ranked much higher on the “it takes a prophet to say them” scale but that’s the one shared in this passage. And so, like many prophets before him, and like so many prophets after him, John the Baptist was imprisoned. And then he was killed.
Now what happened in this gospel is terrible and pretty gruesome. We all get that. But how it happened is sort of fascinating. Because how it all happened makes this far more than a story about John the Baptist. I’m not sure this passage is even primarily about John the Baptist. It reveals to us the hazards of leading a prophetic life, but I actually think that even more than that, it’s a story about Herod and what it reveals about him and about us too.
This story exposes the inner wrestlings that those in power, which is all of us in at least some dimensions of our lives experience on an all too regular basis. When prophets can do no act of power, others still can. But it’s hard. Sometimes it’s very hard. In this morning’s collect, we prayed for God to “mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, that we may “know and understand” what things we “ought to do,” and that we also may have “grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” In this morning’s gospel, Herod was caught right in the middle of that prayer. He knew what he ought to do; he even had the power to do it. What Herod couldn’t quite grasp or be grasped by was the grace he needed to accomplish it.
Herod couldn’t find an easy way out. Because sometimes there aren’t easy ways out even for Kings. And I think that those in power can forget how to trust and listen to the inner wrestle that happens in those moments. We all need grace at times, to help us.
Herod had made a public oath to his daughter to give her anything she wanted (mistake number one – sorry kids.) Herod figured she’d ask for money, or as he put it, “half of the kingdom,” because what else would the child of a King ask for? Had it played out that way, Herod would have gotten the chance to show what a gracious man he was in front of all of those people. Not a bad plan when you think about it. Until, when the request came in and it wasn’t for money or for half of the kingdom at all. It was for John the Baptist’s head!
And that’s when it got complicated, because we’d been told just a few verses before that what Herod thought of John. Herod “feared John,” the gospel said, “knowing that John was a righteous and holy man.” And Herod, “protected him,” which is interesting, isn’t it? When he heard John speak, “Herod was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” So, Herod knew that John was saying important things, he just didn’t know what to do with those things. Herod was “perplexed” by John, but he “protected” John and he “listened to him.” Which is sometimes the best we can ask of leaders. In fact, for a leader to say, “I’m perplexed, but I’m listening,” can be sort of a wonderful thing. Good for leaders to know. Good for all of us to know.
And then, given Herod’s curiosity about John, when the request came for John’s head, “Herod was deeply grieved.”
And that’s probably the most important moment in this story. Because at that moment like that, there are options. At a moment like that, there is potential. The message that John the Baptist had spoken had gotten in there. Even Herod knew there was something to it. Something he and others needed to hear. And there was something that he and others needed to do as a result of it.
“Help us O lord to know and understand the things we ought to do and give us the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”
The catch for Herod I think was that he’d made the oath to his daughter in public at a banquet in front of “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” And so, Herod couldn’t quite go with his gut, as they say. He couldn’t quite grasp or be grasped by the grace that would have saved the prophet’s life. The grace that would have made this a different kind of story. And “out of regard for his oath and for the guests,” (meaning due to the pressure of the crowds – read Pontius Pilate later on,) Herod did not refuse the request.
Now luckily our choices are not generally whether to behead a prophet or not, but sometimes our choices are just as hard. And we grieve when we’re faced with them. It’s why we need the prayer we heard this morning.
The prophet could “do no act of power” in that moment. But Herod could have, and there is something for us all to hear in that. The power to do hard but right is always present. And sometimes that power rests with prophets. Sometimes that power rests with Kings. Sometimes power rests with ordinary people. And often it rests among us all. And while it takes grace to accomplish what ought to be done, the good news is that there is enough grace available to do what ought to be done. Grace can as the hymn says, be amazing.
And sometimes this means changing course in front of courtiers, officers, leaders, or whomever it is whose opinions matter to us. I actually grieve for Herod in this story (which given other stories in the gospel one would think to be nearly impossible.) But I do. And I think I grieve for Heord because sometimes I grieve for myself and I grieve for this world. I think we know and understand more often than we give ourselves credit, “those things we ought to do.” But even when we have the power to do what ought to be done, it can be so very hard to receive the grace we need to accomplish it. The good news is that such grace is available to us all.
And so maybe the opening collect is our greatest gift this morning. We don’t have to avoid texts like this one. We don’t have to schedule our vacations around the lectionary! We don’t have to avoid these hard moments in our lives or in this world. And in sort of a beautiful way, I think this collect sort of captures the message that was John the Baptist’s: Power has been given us all. Power to repent. Power to turn. Power to change. Power to heal. Power to stand up. Power to speak up. Power to listen. “Prepare the way – in us and through us, O Lord!”
John knew that the grace we all need had come into this world. John knew he wasn’t that grace. John knew that he himself couldn’t contain it and that he himself would not be able to offer it in full. Grace had come in Christ and it was offered to everyone, even to people even like Herod. Even to people like us.
Mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, O God, that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.