Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on July 11, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Jul 11, 2021 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 11, 2021

Holy One, help us to help bring about the psalmist’s words, sharing a world where ‘Mercy and faithfulness have met together, where justice and peace have embraced each other.’ Amen.                                              from Psalm 85:10

Mark’s story today is odd in several ways; it’s told as a flashback (which is unusual), Jesus is completely absent from the story, someone not about to be healed dies, and it resists containment in any one moral lesson box, just as parables do, which is how Mark tells this. Parabolē is Greek, combining bolē ‘throwing’ and para ‘alongside.’ I’m not saying it’s a parable of Jesus, only that Mark is using that form to lay out a scene people will try to understand themselves as part of; he throws (bolé) the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaims and embodies, alongside (para) life in a world utterly without it. We get a juxtaposition which teaches us in several ways; this is right after the twelve are sent out and before their return, it is in the middle of Jesus’ active ministry and before setting his face for Jerusalem, and we can see this story alongside Jesus’ ministry, asking which life we want to choose and trust; the life-giving way of Christ, even knowing the cost will include self-sacrifice—or a life as we see Herod in, caught up in an endless quest for power, posturing, self-promotion, false pride, insecurity, and fear.

Notice Mark sets the choices out before us readers or hearers, and makes no directive commentary. Jesus isn’t in the picture to point the way either. One world is being ‘thrown alongside’ another, and we get to view them in newly highlighted contrast, as with a parable. The juxtaposition may challenge what we thought or not, perhaps reflect on our own earlier actions or choices, and certainly leaves us to choose the way we will go from here. We get a glimpse of this in how Herod sounds like he’s judging himself here and almost admitting culpability. He thinks the explanation for Jesus’ power and presence is, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Could there be a sense of remorse heard as we recall that Herod had feared John as “a righteous and holy man”? Although perplexed by John, Herod liked to listen and talk with him, albeit through the prison bars he had John put into. Perhaps Herod even feels foolish, having made the decision after a drunken offer and carried it out mainly to avoid fear of embarrassment. Any guilt or remorse Herod may have had is never expressed or admitted. He has put the satisfaction making a grand gesture and the approval of his peers above any sense of justice or mercy. 

Although Jesus is absent from the scene, the beheading of John who heralded Jesus’ coming, brings him to mind anyway. His was a life about meeting people where they were, breaking bread with anyone, not selecting prestigious players for the banquet. Jesus’ ministry was to the outcasts and the tax collectors, those deemed unclean, isolated. His message was in healing, showing mercy, and restoring people to community, and teaching us to respond with compassion and love, even to the end. Yes, we hear some words of judgement about a persons actions, but not about who they are. 

It’s not uncommon to consider judgement and guilt things to avoid or eschew, but without them, David Lose says, there is “no concern for justice and so power is the only arbiter among various courses of action and, consequently and inevitably, ‘might makes right.’ [That world governed] by ‘survival of the fittest’ is not only devoid of mercy, but “to pardon, to relent, to feel compassion or sympathy for others is construed as weakness.” It is a world where it makes perfect sense for Herod to behead John and have his head served like a party favor or delicacy for his dancing uncertain daughter and his embittered wife. 

It would be easy to line up Herod and Jesus, or even John, and know who the bad guy is—too easy. I think most people have had at least a small-scale a Herod-moment we recall with remorse or guilt. I certainly have! This isn’t about one whom we judge good or bad, it is about seeing the larger picture and living it; which world do we want to be part of, encourage, participate in? The story today may sound barbaric, as if from a world long past, yet how much death and pain is legally inflicted by the world’s authorities today, including our own? I’m not suggesting whatever leaders of the party-one-doesn’t-like are all Herods or Herodias either. They had a choice too, really. In our world, like theirs, it’s easy to be seduced by alluring goals of power or greatness, winning big or having security in possessions, and soon it’s not so hard to justify pursuit of them, at an ever-increasing cost. Such justifications lead to devaluing or setting aside using justice, mercy, and love as our compass, or as we heard in Amos today, relying on that plumb line, with which to discern our way.

We are imperfect people making our way in a world of both great joy and beauty, and also injustice and pain, and we don’t change it to perfection by waiting for promotions, miracles, or beheading the opposition. Facing the reality ahead is unpredictable (who knew she’d ask for his head!) so as Christ’s disciples, we carry what resurrection is all about; hope and courage, love and mercy. That is what we are called to, and this is what makes a better world, one bold act at a time, one person at a time, until it is more contagious than a pandemic, pouring out everywhere, joyful and uncontainable. 

My thanks to the Rev. David Lose, for his post; Two stories, Two truths. 2018

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.