Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 15, 2012

2012.07.15 “A Different World” – Mark 6: 14 – 29

 

Central United Methodist Church

A Different World

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 6: 14 – 29

July 15, 2012

 

King Herod heard of all this, for by this time the name of Jesus was on everyone’s lips. He said, “This has to be John the Baptizer come back from the dead — that’s why he’s able to work miracles!”

Others said, “No, it’s Elijah.”

Others said, “He’s a prophet, just like one of the old-time prophets.”

But Herod wouldn’t budge: “It’s John, sure enough. I cut off his head, and now he’s back, alive.”

Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt — and yet he couldn’t stay away.  Something in John kept pulling him back.

But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter entered the banquet hall and danced for the guests. She dazzled Herod and the guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.” Carried away, he kept on, “I swear, I’ll split my kingdom with you if you say so!”

She went back to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?”

“Ask for the head of John the Baptizer.”

Excited, she ran back to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”

That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.” – Mark 6: 14 – 29, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

 

          The middle of next month, my son Chris, his wife Lynne, and their son Logan, are pulling up roots and moving from Kansas City to Washington, D. C.

Personally, I’m looking forward to it, because that means I’ll have reason to visit Washington more often. Washington is a town full of history, and as someone who enjoys history, I enjoy visiting there.

There are two levels of history: one is what we might call history with a capital H – the “name and date” stuff: who was President, what wars were fought, etc. It is this kind of history we are usually exposed to in school, which leaves most of us with the conviction that history is boring.  This kind of history, it’s true, often is.

The second kind of history – what we might call history with a small h – is far more interesting. It is the private, personal stuff, which transpires in boardrooms, smoke-filled rooms (not so much anymore), and even bedrooms, behind closed doors. Unless it erupts into open scandal, this aspect of history is often not known until years afterwards, through the work of historians, biographers, and the personal memoirs of those involved.

This kind of history is fascinating, often surprising, sometimes shocking. It might include such things as that Thomas Jefferson had children with his black slave, Sally Hemmings; or the anguish that Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln experienced after the death of their sons; the promiscuity of John Kennedy; the paranoia of Richard Nixon; the philandering of Bill Clinton. The list is almost endless, and is only the stuff we know about.  Most recently, in his book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran has begun to reveal the politics and personalities behind the decisions regarding the war in Afghanistan. At this point, the verdict is still out.

Where the line between the two kinds of history begins to blur is when personal history influences national history. For example, when Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” do we hear that differently when we learn that Jefferson himself owned slaves? What personal factors influenced Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in their escalation of the War in Viet Nam? To what extent did the paranoia and misdeeds of Richard Nixon, not only break the law but almost bring about a Constitutional crisis? Whatever happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, how effect did it have on our national history? Did George W. Bush go to war against Saddam Hussein because of the threats Hussein had made against his Dad, President George H. W. Bush?

Obviously, these are questions that deserve answers, and that’s why the careful writing of history is so important. What factors (including and especially money) color decisions that affect the nation and therefore every one of our lives?  Are they in line with the Constitution and our national values? If nothing else, how do you answer a bereaved father and mother’s question: “Why did my son die in a foreign war?”

It is the intermingling of these two kinds of history that is on display in today’s Gospel, bringing about the death of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist.  It is a tragic story, that also raises significant questions.  Do you remember the story?

In previous weeks, we have heard how Jesus’ fame spread throughout his home region of Galilee. One place the news of his fame reached is inside Tiberias, the fortress belonging to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. When Herod hears it, a cold chill runs up his spine, because he’s convinced it’s John the Baptist resurrected; John whom he had executed, in a nasty and regretful episode.

What had happened was this: Herod’s wife Herodias – who had previously been his step-brother’s wife, hated John the Baptist, because John had questioned the morality of their marriage. Herod, on the other hand, liked John and liked to listen to him, considering him a holy man, even though it made him miserable with guilt.  Herod, evidently was like a lot of people: he had just enough religion to make him miserable, but not happy or holy.

But finally, it comes down to who’s going to make you the most unhappy: a nagging wife in your own house or a chained prophet in your dungeon, for Herod, the answer to that was clear. Herod relented and had John arrested. No wonder Herod Antipas is sometimes pictured as effeminate.

But then there was that party, when everybody who was anybody was there; as Eugene Peterson puts it, “all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee were there.” Everybody was a little bit drunk, and Herodias’ daughter (not named in the text but elsewhere given the name of Salome) did that dance – all I can say it is must have been some dance, and I don’t think we’re talking the tango – and being a little drunk, Herod spoke rashly: “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want, up to half my kingdom.”

Being a bigger question than she could answer on the spot, Salome called her chief advisor: her mother, Herodias. What Herodias asks for makes you wonder if the whole thing wasn’t planned from the outset:  “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.”

She did, and Herod blanched. I like how Eugene Peterson renders it: “That sobered the king up fast.”  But he’d made his offer in front of everybody, and now he couldn’t relent, no matter how many sleepless nights it might cost him. And so, due to the dance of a girl at a party, John’s head was brought on a platter, one gruesome but silent trophy.

Having heard this story, let me honest: we may not be appalled; in fact we might even be intrigued, which may be why this story has inspired far more art, drama, music, opera, and film than say, the preaching mission of the disciples, the story which precedes it.  Frankly, this story isn’t all that different from many of the stories we read about or watch on TV.  I don’t watch all these shows, but let me draw upon David Lose, Professor of Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, who evidently watches these shows so I don’t have to.  Says Professor Lose:

In what way is Herod like a first-century Richard Nixon, so blinded by ambition that he’s willing to sacrifice principles for political gain? Or does he seem more like a Don Draper of Mad Men, so mired in a life of deception that he can hardly tell the difference between a pitch and a profession of good faith? Can John possibly be like Martin Luther King, Jr, willing to speak truth to power whatever the costs? Does Herodias remind you of Game of Throne’s Cersei Lannister, who in a dramatic scene late in the first season justified the brutal course       of action she would soon take on the basis of her love for her children? Might Herodias also want to protect herself and her children? What    lengths would we go to, to protect our children? (“Tell the Truth    Twice,” David Lose, 7/08/2012, WorkingPreacher.org)

After this story, Mark returns to what happened after the disciples returned from their mission trip, which, if you take out the John the Baptist story, follows seamlessly. So why would Mark tell here this parenthetical, tragic story about John the Baptist?

While we can’t be sure of Mark’s motives, it seems for sure it’s not a morality tale, as we may be tempted to hear it. “So remember, folks, whatever you do, don’t get drunk and make outrageous promises in front of dinner guests, and if you do, never, ever, behead a prophet.”

But I wonder if the real reason Mark doesn’t tell this story is this: because he wants to remind all Jesus’ disciples, rejoicing over the success of their mission or in how easy it is, “This is good, but – hey – look over there! You think what you just did is great, but – remember – this is the way the world really is.” Those who stand up to City Hall take a beating. Those who advocate an alternative to the status quo can usually expect those who benefit from the status quo to come down on them hard. Proclaim God’s kingdom of mercy and grace, and there will be a price to pay. Fate does sometimes seem capricious, and the truth doesn’t always win.  “Remember what happened to John.”

Isn’t this, after all, why we watch program like The Sopranos, West Wing, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, or The Newsroom?  While we may not like what we see, at least it seems real, the way the world works. It’s like gapers driving by a car crash, who find it fascinating and revolting at the same time.

Is that it? Yes, it is. That is the way of the world, but it is not the whole story. Because what we Christians profess is this: Jesus comes, precisely to show us that there is something more, something beyond the heartache and intrigue and tragedy of Herod or Don Draper or Tony Soprano or Richard Nixon or ourselves. Jesus came so that there might be a better ending to our stories and the world’s story, a better ending than we can construct or even imagine on our own.

So that when the Temple is destroyed, or your hero is executed, or your marriage is ending, or you lose your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or your friend betrays you, or you have trashed the one relationship that means something to you, then the possibility of another ending – a good ending – is not just good news, but the best news we can imagine.

Do you know that this is the one scene in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus makes no appearance? Maybe that’s not by accident. Because apart from God, apart from the kingdom Jesus brings, this is what we can expect: good intentions gone bad, truth rewarded with imprisonment, the triumph of the powerful over the powerless, and death conquering life. As honest as Mark is about the story of the world, he wants even more to tell the story of God’s love for the world, a better story than we deserve or can imagine.

One of my favorite places in Washington is the Old Soldier’s Home, a place where the two kinds of history come together. It was where Abraham and Mary Lincoln came, in the summer of 1862, seeking solace after the death of their 11 year-old son, Willie. Then, in the years before Lincoln’s assassination, they came there repeatedly seeking a respite from the summer heat, the swampy air and the incessant bustle of the White House during wartime. Once, on the way there, Lincoln had his hat shot off by a would-be assassin, but forbade anybody to tell his wife Mary because he knew it would upset her.

When you visit, the Home is now set up with interactive media in every room, and if you catch it at the right time, when there are not too many people there, both history can come alive, including, at least one incident where the “better angels of our nature” prevailed.

In one room, for example, a single rocking chair sits next to a small table. The guide sets the scene, based upon an 1862 eyewitness report. Lincoln sits here, exhausted we are told – overwhelmed by debates about slavery, the war’s casualties and incessant demands – at the end of a day that offered little hope.  An injured Union officer arrives, beseeching the president to help him recover his wife’s body – who had died in a steamer collision – from a region closed off by the army. We hear Lincoln’s frustrated, angry voice: “Am I to have no rest? Is there no harbor or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this? Why do you not go to the War Office?”  It is a bit shocking. The sounds of impatience and frustration are unexpected, even if not unjustified; after all, it is the way the world is. But then we learn that the next morning, President Lincoln sought out the man in his hotel, apologized to him, set the bureaucratic wheels in motion, and asked him never to tell his children about the president’s shameful behavior. (Where Lincoln Sought Refuge in His Dark Hours By Edward Rothstein, The New York Times, February 14, 2008)

Suddenly, it seems possible to imagine a different world.
         [I would like to acknowledge the helpfulness of David Lose’s insights for preaching this difficult text, in his article, “Tell the Truth Twice,” David Lose, 7/08/2012, WorkingPreacher.org]

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