There are times when our lectionary asks us to skip through books of the Bible, resulting in significant gaps between the texts we hear from Sunday to Sunday. But for the last three weeks, we have not skipped a verse between our gospel readings. They have followed in perfect sequence, in their entirety. Two weeks ago, this congregation heard about Jesus’ experiences near the Sea of Galilee, where he healed a hemorrhaging woman and raised a twelve-year-old girl. Last week, Jesus came home, but his hometown crowd was so offended by what they heard, that Jesus could do no real good there—so he turned his attention to neighboring villages, commissioning his disciples to join in his ministry, sending them out two-by-two. That’s where we pick up today.
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.
The Prison and the Palace
On first reading, it may sound more like an episode of Game of Thrones than a passage of scripture: there is an imprisoned holy man, a fearful king, a forbidden marriage, an enchanting dance at a birthday banquet, a careless promise, a quick conspiracy—all culminating in a horrific act of violence. The final gruesome images are the holy man’s head on a platter, and the burial of his body by loyal friends.
We may want to turn the page, but Mark, who is the most concise of the gospel writers, goes to great lengths to tell us this particular story. The same author who spares us any account or Jesus’ birth or resurrection, who uses only five verses to narrate both Jesus’ baptism and the forty days of temptation in the wilderness, lavishes 16 verses on the death of John.
It is the only story Mark tells, from which Jesus is absent.
It is the only account that is shared in the form of a flashback.
It must have seemed crucial to Mark, and so we strive to pay attention on this warm summer morning.
Mark is not the only one riveted by this story. Through the centuries, this violent tale has inspired countless artists: a play by Oscar Wilde, an opera by Richard Strauss, films by Ken Russell and Billy Wilder, paintings by Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Gustave Moreau and many, many others.
The Prado in Madrid exhibits a dramatic example, more than
thirty feet wide. Created in the 1600s, the painter, Strobel, chose
to incorporate the figures of many contemporary European political and military leaders, as though they were guests at Herod’s party.
So preoccupied are the guests in Strobel’s depiction, that they do not even notice John’s head on the platter.
Art historians believe that Strobel was trying to enlist those leaders in the cause of defending his home country of Silesia during the Thirty Years War. His technique is a vivid, if uncomfortable, reminder that whenever we come to the scriptures, always we are asking God to help us find our own reflections therein.
Strobel’s sleight of hand invites us to consider the many times we have been onlookers at a party, at a meeting, in the public square—when things began to get out of hand—whether because of what was being said, or being done, or being contemplated—but we weren’t in charge, and we didn’t want to damage relationships, or risk seeming strident, and so we held our tongue or walked away—or just continued to enjoy the party, never noticing the travesty in the first place.
Strobel populated his painting with the leaders of his day because he believed that they had a chance to change the course of history,
if only they would pay attention and take a stand.
Conversely, we’ve learned this week what can happen when individuals do choose to get involved in the cause of others. On July 10 the Washington Post reported that, in the end, more than 10,000 individuals were involved in the rescue of the Thai soccer team, whose peril riveted the world. The paper reported that “the effort…involved more than 100 rescuers inside the cave, 1,000 members of the Thai army and almost 10,000 others who facilitated all kinds of assistance, from rides up to the cave site, to meals for divers, volunteers and journalists. International experts set up rescue communications,
while Thai villagers set up coffee stalls and massage stations.”
One wonders what prepares a person to risk his life for the sake of strangers. One wonders what gave John the courage to confront Herod, when it would have been so much easier to look the other way.
I suspect that each heroic choice grows from a lifetime’s pattern of smaller choices.
The gospels report that John’s entire life was devoted to the service of God. His understanding of God’s call shaped what he ate and what he wore, where he lived and how he spoke. Thousands of small daily decisions prepared John to live with integrity in the most threatening of circumstances.
What we do here, week by week, also is intended to prepare us to serve with courage in the world.
The form of our worship is intended to shape our lives:
the practice of confession teaches us to speak honestly and to practice forgiveness. For what we will not face in ourselves, we are apt to use as a weapon against others.
Lending our voices to hymns and affirmations that speak from a broader experience than any single person possesses, reminds us that we belong to something larger than ourselves. We cannot love God and live apart from our neighbors. We will not do this work alone.
Encountering God and each other as we wrestle together with scripture changes what we see, what we hear, how we live.
It is moving to witness how God’s grace finds expression in your lives. One of the privileges of being a pastor is getting to hear those stories. I want to offer one particular example this morning.
I mentioned our new friend Jeffrey in the children’s message. Jeffrey is a prolific correspondent, sending elaborate cards and lengthy, carefully scripted letters from the prison that has held him since 1984.
I am painfully slow to respond, and still piecing his story together, but Jeffrey remains grateful for the ways grace and beauty have entered his life, even behind bars. He carefully recounts the kindness of each person who has encouraged him along the way. He faithfully remembers volunteers in the prison ministry, a writer who shared his gardening books, the teacher who took him to see the work of Monet and Vermeer in 1967, before he was incarcerated, when he was 16. But Jeffery’s highest praise is reserved for a former member of this church, Judge James Dickson Phillips.
I do not know if Jeffery ever appeared in his court, but Dick admired Jeffery’s art and spoke words of encouragement to him fifteen years ago, and those words have been daily bread for Jeffery ever since. If you look closely you will see that one of the paintings we have is dedicated to Dick Phillips. In addition to many other laudatory words, Jeffery has written in the lower left corner: “Spirited Jurist standing for humanity in profound gerrymandering cases.”
Jeffery says that he is still learning as he reads scriptures that “speak about the world and the heart of mankind,” as he puts it.
He acknowledges his mistakes and what he calls his period of “bewilderedness,” and he gives thanks for the ways that we can be “delivered from old ways of living and thinking.” Mostly Jeffery seems eager for relationship. And so I am preparing to move deeper into the waters of friendship, knowing that like every human relationship,
it will be messy.
There was a lovely article in The Christian Century a few weeks ago, in which a chaplain by the name of Bailey Pickens described what it is like for us to see each other in all our humanity. Pickens’ context is a hospital rather than a prison, but she has seen a lot of life. She writes: “[The same] patients [who] were racist, sexist, demanding, and cruel toward their nurses….were afraid, exhausted, in pain, helpless.”
“The account of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis states without further elaboration that human beings were made in the image of God. I do not know of any way to understand this except as meaning that human beings, as such, are peculiarly and uniquely precious, and that reverencing God, obligates us to each other. This bare fact is inconvenient, as facts often are, because their preciousness does not make people any more sympathetic….
Confronted with fellow human beings who act badly,
we instinctively take one of two paths of least resistance:
we find a way to minimize or excuse the bad action due to some circumstance or another… or we close ourselves to those people to punish them for their violations with ostracism or violence….
Given the choice, sympathy at first is attractive because it seems kinder, larger of heart, more enlightened than rejection, which finds relief in cruelty—in denying that someone is human in the same way we are. And, in some ways, it is kinder. But it is also simplistic and, in the end, condescending….”
Pickens concludes: “The compassion I have had to discover requires effort and a willingness to hold on to tension, but it is not complicated to practice. It is as simple as completing the sentence:
She is young, and she causes harm in her thoughtlessness.
He desires acceptance, and he acts cruelly to get it.
She is vulnerable, and she is punishing others to feel stronger.
He is hurting, and he hurts others. Always and.
Always stay long enough for the and.”
I imagine that Pickens would agree that our own stories, the stories of our heroes, the records of our institutions—all of them ring with the rhythm of “and,” but that does not need to cause us shame, for God replies to us in the very same rhythm.
God sees all our brokenness and frailty, and God loves us.
God knows our limitations and God has work for us to do.
We must be prepared to suffer, and all will be well.
It is the most liberating word, this “and.”
It frees us to live with such courage.
Beloved of God: we don’t have to work to protect our turf. We don’t need to live in fear of judgment. We can be who we are. We can risk relationship. We can play our part in the transformation of the world.
For the Spirit of God often works more transparently in the prison than in the palace. And the kingdom of God is more powerful than all the pretenders to the throne.
 Shibani Mahtani and Panaporn Wutwanich, The Washington Post, July 10, 2018, ‘A miracle, a science, or what’: How the world came together to save 12 boys trapped in a Thai cave”
 Christian Century, Bailey Pickens, “A Hospital Chaplain’s Double Vision,” June 26, 2018