In Our Time, Right Now, Standing for God’s Truth: A Sermon for July 11, 2021
This story is full of graphic and sensual images. And I would imagine that, thanks to multiple artists, playwrights and composers, none of us in this room has any difficulty conjuring up this scene. A dimly lit space, stone pillars supporting an ornately carved ceiling, powerful people reclining on richly embroidered cushions while women in “exotic” dress move in and out serving platters of spicy food and drink. There are open braziers in the corners and the smell of smoke and incense fill the room.
Then the music changes, a young girl enters the room, and she begins to dance. The dance starts out slowly and then gains momentum and power. The room is transfixed. All eyes are upon her. No one even tries to disguise his or her stares. She has them all in the palm of her hand. And then she turns her gaze upon the king.
We jump now to a cell where John the Baptist has been imprisoned. The guards storm in and before he can begin to defend himself, they pin him to the floor and swing a sword.
The banquet hall falls silent as a platter is carried in and presented to the girl; a platter bearing the head of John the Baptist.
A visual, sensual and graphic story that comes easily to mind, complete with special effects and a soundtrack. Mark, our Gospel writer, is a master of his craft and in this passage he has constructed a true work of art. And yet all of the details, the sights, sounds, smells, that rush to mind when we hear this story can be problematic. They can distract us from the real point of this story; a point that would be easy to miss unless we know a little history.
The Herod of our story is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. It was Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of the innocents when the Magi told him that a King had been born to the People of Israel. This same Herod the Great had two of his sons executed in order to secure his throne as King of Judea, and another of his sons was executed for trying to poison him.
At this point, with three older brothers removed from the line of succession, Herod Antipas, who appears in our gospel reading this morning, becomes heir to the throne. But on his deathbed, in the last days of his illness, Herod the Great revised his will and divided the kingdom between Herod Antipas and two of his remaining, younger, brothers. Embroiled in the inevitable power struggle, the three of them take their case to Rome, and despite an early disposition towards Herod’s argument of sole succession, in the end he is granted only a small portion of what he thought would be his.
In a family like this, in a time where accession to power happens through the blade of a knife, a poisoned cup, the clash of armed men… Herod’s hold on his rule must have felt tenuous and insecure. Everyone in that room with him that night was a potential threat, a would-be assassin, coveting his throne, status, and power.
Into this highly charged setting comes a girl, his wife’s daughter, who beguiles everyone in the room and seduces Herod into an extravagant promise.
“’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’” (Mark 6:22b,23).
She runs to consult her mother and when she returns she says, “Oh father, I am but a child. I would never presume to ask you for half of your kingdom. Please, I would ask for something much less significant. Give me the head of John the Baptizer, that evil gadfly who has been making my mother’s life miserable. Give me his head on a platter!”
Here then, is the real crux of this story. Herod has divorced his own wife and married the wife of his brother, while his brother is yet alive. John has been condemning Herod in public, saying that it is not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife. The wife, Herodias, has been asking Herod to have John killed. But Herod, until now, has refused and has protected John.
The Gospel tells us that John’s words perplex and challenge Herod, but that he thought John a Holy and Righteous man and he liked to listen to his words. Herod must have recognized the truth in what John was saying, even if it made him uncomfortable, and even if it made his wife angry. But now Herod was in real trouble.
When Herod made his promise to his daughter everyone in the crowd sucked in their breath. This was an impetuous, even foolish promise. What if she did ask for half the kingdom? Would Herod make good on his vow? When she came back into the room and told them that all she wanted was the head of John the Baptist the crowd probably laughed. “Silly little girl. She let him off too easily. Well at least he can finally be rid of that tiresome preacher and make his wife happy.” But it is in this moment that the trap is sprung, the set-up is complete, and Herod is in a bind.
The Gospel tells us that “out of regard for his oaths and for his guests,” he could not refuse the girl’s request. If he had refused this easy way out of his predicament his guests would have seen it as a crack in his armor, a sign of weakness. So in this moment Herod is confronted with a choice. And with a little historical perspective under our belts, we begin to see the true nature of that choice.
Continue to protect John? Continue to wrestle with John’s words? Stand up and defend the Truth?
Do the politically expedient thing, grant the girl’s request, protect your own power, status, rank, and prestige?
Note that this is the same Herod who later in the Gospel will send Jesus back to Pilate to be condemned. Today Herod is confronted with the truth in John the Baptist. In a few chapters he will be confronted by the Truth in the person of Jesus. When we recognize that parallel in this story, when the understand the weight of what is happening as the girl makes her request of Herod, everything else in the room, the sights, the sounds, the smells, should melt away, leaving the spotlight on just two people… Herod and… Jesus.
And then, slowly but surely, the radius of the spotlight begins to grow,and we find that that blazing light is shining on us too… we are standing in that spotlight with Jesus and Herod, and all of creation is watching with bated breath to see what we will do.
In our time, right now, John the Baptist is in prison for daring to speak truth to power, and we, we are standing in the spotlight with Jesus with a decision to make…
Stand up and defend the Truth?
Do the politically expedient thing and protect our own power, status, and rank, and prestige?
What is truth? Look again at our Epistle reading for the day,
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:8b-10).
All things! It is God’s good pleasure that all things, all people, and all of creation, live in Him. Do we open our hearts, our minds and our doors to the “other” and embrace them as co inheritors of God’s love and grace? Do we proclaim the good news and insist that everyone receive the benefits of the garden? Will we stand up for that truth; That God ordains that everyone receive the benefits of the garden, or will we choose to protect the power we believe we have, and our vain need to be in control?
In our time, right now, the Truth, God’s Truth, is under assault. And we have the opportunity, an obligation laid on us by virtue of our baptism, to acknowledge the ways that some among us have been denied the benefits of the garden and of their labor in it.
We have the opportunity, an obligation laid on us by virtue of our baptism, to acknowledge the ways that our benefits have been bought through the suffering of others, suffering that is still being inflicted by systems so old, so deeply embedded in our way of being, that we only see them when our brothers and sisters cry out in pain and rage, pointing to the ways that we continue to benefit from their oppression.
In our time, right now, we have an opportunity, and an obligation is laid upon us. What will we do? Will we cast our eyes aside and continue to stand at Herod’s side, taking the politically expedient path, defending the status quo, protecting our own position in the smoke filled, dimly lit room as we recline on the cushions in Herod’s palace?
Our history tells us that having once made the decision to protect our own status, position, power and rank, once we have denied and betrayed the truth, we become locked into a pattern of behavior that is almost impossible to escape.
In this spotlight here with Jesus and Herod, we realize that when we have chosen ourselves over the truth, we have become complicit in the murder of John the Baptist, and we are complicit in the crucifixion of Christ, swinging the hammer, and pounding the nails with our own hands.
In our time, right now, we have an opportunity and an obligation is laid upon us and my brothers and sisters in Christ, we must seize this moment to make a different choice. We must choose to use this light, a light that dispels the shadows that surround us, to repent, to turn back to the truth, and to acknowledge our history and the way that it has shaped us and our society.
We must repent, turn back to Jesus, and cross the circle of light to his side. We must proclaim the truth, and we must insist that everyone receive the benefits of their labor in the garden, because standing here, in the light of the risen Lord, we can do nothing else!
I said a few moments ago that when Herod is asked for the head of John the Baptist everything else in the room should melt away. We suddenly understand that the lavish imagery that we have constructed is a distraction, and maybe a dodge. There is a lot more at stake here than a vengeful, unfaithful wife, a conniving despot, and the girl who has become their tool. Through the artistry of his writing Mark has dragged us into the spotlight as well.
Jesus stands before us asking Herod to choose and he is asking us to choose as well. Will we side with Herod and make the politically expedient and safe decision? Or will we turn to Jesus, risking it all by opening the door to John’s prison cell, setting the truth free so that it might transform the world?
This sermon, offered at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, on Jule 27, 2021, by The Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings for Proper 8 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.