Getting Unstuck: A Sermon Based on Mark 6:14-29 Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia July 15, 2018
I think this may be the first time I’ve ever preached on a gospel story that had absolutely no good news in it. At least none that I could find. It sounds more like some notes for a future play that Shakespeare was jotting down, minus the poetry. I mean we’ve got the conniving, egotisical, guilt-driven king who assumes he’s being haunted by the ghost of someone he had murdered because he didn’t have the backbone to stand up to his illegal, off-her-rocker, enraged wife. Nor could he say no to his step-daughter to whom he is creepily attracted and who, as Nadia Bolz-Weber suggests, was probably doing something other than the chicken dance at the birthday party Herod threw for himself. Shades of Hamlet, or MacBeth, but not very Jesus-sy. In fact, this is the only story in Mark’s gospel where Jesus does not show up. He’s only mentioned because King Herod assumes that Jesus is actually John the Baptizer come back from the dead.
So why does Mark include it? And why does he ultimately give it more ink than just about any other story he uses to tell the story of Jesus? Keep in mind that Mark decided that the birth story of Jesus did not merit a paragraph in his gospel. But the whole lurid tale of the beheading of John gets in. What’s up with that?
It could be that Mark is wanting to give his listeners a very explicit picture of the kind of resistance and evil they will be up against as they try to live out their discipleship to Jesus. After all, in the previous chapter Jesus’s disciples had just completed their first solo mission with flying colors. They were pumped, flying high, probably feeling like there was nothing for God they couldn’t do. And so this horrifying insert comes like a bucket of ice water tossed in their faces while they were contentedly dozing on a nice, quiet beach. It’s as if Mark is saying, Wake up! This work you’re doing in Jesus’ name, this teaching, preaching, healing, feeding work – believe it or not – is not going to be well received by everybody. The poor, the hurting, the hopeless are going to love it and you! But the powerful ones, the governors and kings and generals and CEOs whose policies and choices are keeping people poor and hurting and hopeless, sooner or later they’re going to get annoyed and even feel threatened. Because your work is exposing the lie of their game, the injustice of their system. And sooner or later they will be coming after you. What’s good news for the poor is not always good news for the powers.
Which is finally what happened to Jesus’ cousin John. Most gospel accounts of John’s ministry reveal that he had a remarkable capacity for getting away with telling hard truth to powerful people. In Luke’s version, for instance, John pulls no punches with all the religious big-whigs and tax collectors and rich folks and soldiers who have been drawn to the light of his gospel and have gone out into the wilderness seeking baptism and a fresh start. You’re a bunch of snakes, he calls them. And you’re hoarding your clothes – if you have more than one coat, the second one belongs to someone without. And stop extorting folks of their hard-earned money or bullying them on the side of the road. And yet he doesn’t get shut down – until he finally gets a little too specific and personal with the sordid family life of King Herod. Herod, you may recall, got the hots for his brother’s wife Herodias and committed adultery and eventually married her. When John called him out on his behavior that was too much for Herodias who made her new weasel husband sleep on the couch until he agreed to throw John and all of his inconvenient truths into jail.
But this is where the story really gets interesting and where Herod, even Herod, is revealed to be something other than a purely evil, amoral mass of quivering ego who sees young women as sexual objects and who can’t tolerate being disliked or contradicted (any resemblance to world leaders past or present is purely coincidental). Because apparently Herod can’t get enough of John. It’s implied here that even while John is locked up, Herod goes to the jail just to hear him teach because even Herod has a conscience, even Herod can hear the liberating truth of John’s message. Maybe Herod is absolutely desperate to believe that there’s more to life than all the schmoozing and nasty deal-making and power-playing that defines his world. Maybe he’s exhausted from being stuck in what one theologian calls “a story of his own writing” (Bolz-Weber). Maybe he’s worn out from the lies and violence and fear that have ironically been keeping him more trapped and locked up than the totally free prisoner whose message is offering him a way out, a way into a new and more life-giving life.
What’s tragic is that Herod doesn’t take the risk of repentance. He rejects the gospel key that John is handing him through the bars. He refuses to acknowledge that he and Herodias and her dancing daughter and all the drunken power-brokers at his birthday party are more than role-players on Caesar’s chess board. He closes his eyes to the liberating truth that in fact they are all Children of God, created in God’s image, with the capacity and the calling to love and not dominate their neighbors. If he could have listened to John and acted on what he was hearing, Herod might have escaped the trap he had set for himself. He might have gotten unstuck from the dead-end story he was writing. But in the end, walking away from his old life proved too costly. And so the garish party ends in tragedy, for Herod far more than John.
I realize that most of us will not instinctively being able to relate to Herod. Not on his scale of stuckness. But possibly on a smaller scale, we might be able to see in him something of our own times of feeling trapped in our lives. And feeling powerless to break free, powerless to change the story we find ourselves living. I remember a conversation with a man many years ago who made a really good living selling pharmaceuticals. And he hated it. But he didn’t think he could get out because he had two kids in college and mortgages on several houses and he was responsible for a whole division of employees …. He did get to travel a lot and go on vacations that most people can only dream about. But he was one of the saddest people I’ve ever known. Sad and stuck.
Or it could be that we’re stuck in an addiction. Or by the way our brains are wired and our body chemistry that locks us into long seasons of depression. Or these days it might well be that we’re constantly caught in responding to world events that seem impossible to keep up with. We go from one tragedy or reason for outrage to another; and we might even feel stuck in an endless effort to write letters or Facebook posts trying to influence somebody’s opinion or action. Or at least we need to vent. Or we find ourselves expending all our energy on trying to get the right people in office so that things will change. And while that is never a bad thing to do, and in fact is part of our Reformed heritage of working within political systems, I worry sometimes that we place too much faith in our systems, which are inevitably compromised by fallen and broken human beings – even in the best of times, even when the powers seem less despicable than Herod. Dorothy Day often said that all of our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system – by which, she meant the economic and political and religious structures of this world that we have designed that tend to benefit the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
But she would also remind us that by grace and the Holy Spirit we are part of another system that can bring life to all and sets us free when we allow ourselves to get caught up in its energy. She would remind us that the gospels are full of stuck people – religious leaders stuck in their allegiance to the law more than their love of the Law-giver; sick and paralyzed and possessed people stuck in the brokenness of their bodies and minds; poor people stuck in hunger and oppression. And yet every time Jesus got into their story, and every time the people who were trapped could see how trapped they were and asked for help, they were set free. It brings to mind a great line spoken by a character in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He said in India there’s a saying that in the end all will be well. And if all is not well, it is not yet the end.
Dorothy Day also had a saying. She would say, “Work for change and a new world like everything depends on you, but pray like everything depends on God.” In other words, healing can come to our world, but it won’t happen just through elections or passing more humane legislation. It will happen when we put ourselves out there in love, directly into the lives of all the other stuck people we meet. It will happen when we, like John, risk speaking the truth in love, even if it makes us unpopular or on somebody’s hit list. It will happen, that is, healing and hope and the end of the cycles of violence that we’re stuck in, a whole new world will happen when we humble ourselves and rejoice that God is writing a much better story for our lives than anything we could come up with on our own.
Jesus did not appear in Herod’s story, though the king almost heard his voice through John. But he does show up again in the story that immediately follows, the feeding of the 5,000. It’s a story that reveals how far the greatest empire on earth at the time was from meeting the needs of its subjects. But it’s also a story about how a handful of Jesus followers put themselves and a few meager resources out there and created a feast that did the opposite of Herod’s birthday banquet: this time everyone was fed. This time everyone lived! So the good news is that Herod’s story is not the end of the story. We don’t need to get stuck there. We need to keep calling on the One who is the true source of life to keep writing and re-writing the story of our lives until all is well. Amen.