Proper 10b, June 12, 2015, Newport

July 12, 2015

What’s It to You?
Mark 6:1-13

6:14 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.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 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. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 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. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 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.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 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.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I’m guessing you’re thinking there are a lot of stories I could have chosen to focus on today – instead of this one. And I sort of agree with you, but I choose to follow the lectionary, which is the commonly suggested scripture reading for each Sunday, and this is the suggested Gospel reading for today. I could have utilized one of the other readings for today from the Old Testament or from one of the Epistles, but frankly this was the most interesting of today’s readings. I know it’s sort of unfortunate that on the day that Vacation Bible School begins we’re pondering a story with an R-rated theme, but I decided to go with it. This very well might get some of the young people more interested in reading the Bible.

We’re looking at an ugly story, but in some ways this story sort of functions as a morality play. It’s a story that shines light on the wrong direction. It’s like watching an episode of the Simpson’s. You may not have ever watched an episode of The Simpsons. I’ve seen entire seasons of The Simpsons and Homer Simpson always chooses to go in the most self-serving and short sighted direction, and he always suffers the consequences of his actions. You can learn a lot about what not to do by watching that show. I give equal credit to Winnie the Poo and Homer Simpson for helping us raise conscientious children.

And a sermon title probably doesn’t mean much to you, but I’m sort of affected by my sermon titles. I usually come up with a title before I have a sermon to go with it. Sometimes the title helps me gather my thoughts. Sometimes it torments me. I’m not particularly attached to this week’s sermon title, but I at least want you to know how to say the title in your mind. Or maybe I should say I want you to know how I say it in my mind. I’m not saying it in the way you might hear it spoken during an adversarial conversation. I’m not asking in a rhetorically aggressive way, WHAT’S it to ya? I’m genuinely asking, What’s IT to you?

Because the first sentence of this morning’s passage uses this word, it, in a really curious manner. This first verse begins by saying that King Herod had heard of it, but we don’t know what it refers to. You would think you could read the previous verse in order to know what Herod had heard about, but there isn’t an obvious object to which this it refers, so it seems to represent something larger than an immediate circumstance. It refers to something big that was going on.

There was a lot of speculation about what it was. Some people thought it was Elijah, others thought it was the manifestation of some unnamed prophet from old, some speculated that it was John the Baptist who had returned from the dead, and Herod was certain that that’s what it was, and that was not good news for him. In his mind it all went back to the regrettable turn of events that took place at the big birthday party he had thrown for himself.

That had not been a good night for him. That was the night he found himself in a terribly regrettable situation and he had not navigated his way out of it very well. Herod was not an enviable man. The fact that Mark refers to him as King Herod is more of a sarcastic expression than a title of respect. It is reported that Herod had actually asked the Emperor to give him the title of King, but not only had Augustus Ceasar refused to do that, he sent him off to govern a backwater community. Calling Herod King Herod is sort of like my friend who calls me The Pope whenever he sees me wearing my robe.

Herod was not where he wanted to be, but he was trying to impress his peers, and he did throw a memorable party. But it was memorable in a terrible way. It became a gruesome portrayal of what bad judgement he had and how easily manipulated he was by his self-serving wife.

Poor Herod didn’t get anything that he wanted for his birthday. I guess he was reveling for a moment when he and his guests became quite taken with the dancing of his step-daughter, but in his effort to seize the moment and show-off his power and influence he made this grand offer that cost him dearly. He had to produce something that reduced him to a quivering coward. He found himself in the position of having to order the execution of someone he knew to be innocent, and he believed it had come back to haunt him.

John the Baptist wasn’t a manipulative man. He simply told people what was right and wrong and what to expect if they didn’t do what was right. John the Baptist was a good person, but I don’t think he’s what we would call a people person. He spoke the truth to power, it landed him in prison, and while Herod was the one who had ordered him to be imprisoned, it seems that Herod also found him to be compelling. I don’t think Herod dealt with many honest people, and he liked having him on hand. Herod wasn’t without a conscience. It was a weak one, but he had enough of a conscience to know that having John the Baptist executed was a bad thing to do, and he feared the consequences of what he had done.

The speculation of Herod and his peers that it was fueled by the death of John the Baptist came straight out of Greek mythology. There are numerous stories within Greek literature of a powerful person or god getting killed and their power reemerging in someone else in a more powerful way. So it wasn’t hard for Herod to believe that this it was the direct result of him having to serve John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

But that’s not what was going on, and that’s probably why Mark provided us with so much detail about the death of John the Baptist. The Gospel of Mark is a very concise account of the life of Jesus. Mark provides us with sparse details of most events in Jesus’ life, but he goes in to great detail about the way in which John the Baptist lost his life. It may be that Mark told this story in order to refute the notion that the power of Jesus to do the work he did was the consequence of John the Baptist’s death. Mark shows that John the Baptist recognized Jesus’ power while he was still alive, and the powerful work that Jesus was doing preceded the death of John the Baptist. Mark showed John the Baptist to be a remarkably faithful, disciplined and principled man, but the redeeming work of Jesus was not empowered by the death of John the Baptist, and this story sort of serves to reinforce that point.

The point is that the power of Jesus was in no way connected to what Herod had reluctantly done. It wasn’t about Herod. It was something God was doing and it wasn’t going to be started or stopped by anything any minor player in Roman politics chose to do in the midst of a drunken party.

Herod was confused about what it was. He thought it had something to do with what he had done, but what this story shows is how little he knew about what it really was. Herod had no idea what it was. He had been provided an opportunity to learn about it, but he wasn’t as inclined to seek the truth as he was driven to satisfy his immediate desires and the approval of powerful people.

Unfortunately, Herod isn’t the only one who has ever experienced confusion about what it is. Most of us haven’t been so misguided as to execute the person who could best inform us of what God is doing, but in some ways we can be as oblivious to it as Herod was. Only our confusion has more to with our familiarity with it than our ignorance of it.

So far, I’ve used the word, it, about 30 times in this sermon. I haven’t exactly said what it is, but I’m guessing you’ve made some assumptions about what I’m talking about. In a nutshell, what it is is the way in which God was revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. It is no secret to us, but we are capable of failing to be mindful of it.

At least I know I’m capable of forgetting this beautiful truth and living as if the immediate demands of this world are the most pressing concerns of my life. It’s easy to forget what it is, and to think that the most important thing is to live up to the expectations of people and systems who don’t know what it is. It’s easy to get distracted by the false rewards of this world and to serve the wrong masters.

I know I can get pretty anxious about the wrong things, but one of the nice things about being appointed to a new church is the way in which your routine gets disrupted and you get reminded of what it is all about. I’m not saying I’ve become entirely refocused on what’s most important in life, but as I’ve engaged in the process of uprooting from one location and getting oriented to a new place I’ve found myself being reminded of what it is.

I’m here because I have the good fortune of getting to share the good news about this big thing that Herod didn’t understand. I’m here on a mission. You might even say I’m on a mission from God. I’m here to work with you to spread this good news about it – that God is alive, God cares for us, and we can do God’s work in this world.

I heard on the news last week that there was to be a large convention in Florida of pastors who are wanting pastors to become more politically active. It was organized by what you might call the evangelical wing of Christianity, and their stated goal is to promote Biblical values in to the American political arena. And I found myself thinking about what I consider to be the most essential Biblical value.

I don’t know what that is for the group of pastors that gathered in Florida this weekend, but when I consider what it is that the Bible primarily teaches the first word that comes to my mind is compassion.

One of the things that Herod had undoubtedly heard that Jesus had been doing was healing the sick and casting out demons. Jesus touched people where they were hurting, he empowered his first disciples to do the same work, and I think that charge and opportunity remains the same for us.

One thing I’ve discovered about this church is how important you are to this community. In a number of ways ways you are touching people where they are hurting, and as far as I’m concerned that is it. That’s what Christ did and what he calls us to do.

Maybe you would define it in a different way, and I’m not here to say that there’s only one way to say what it is, but I encourage you to consider what it is for you. We have a high calling, and it’s important to keep that calling in mind. I’m feeling a lot of gratitude right now because I’m having this experience of reorientation and recalibration. I like the effect you are having on me, and by the grace of God I will have a similar impact on you.

Thanks be to God for the way in which it continues to abide in our midst and to bring us in to the fullness of life. Amen.


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