In Contrast

A sermon preached at Grace Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas.

The Lectionary readings for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

Last week we heard Jesus say that a prophet has no honor in his hometown and then immediately sent the disciples out in pairs telling them if they aren’t accepted where they go to shake off the dust and continue on. Jesus wanted them to understand that the message of good news must be spread. It is too good, too important, to keep for ourselves. In fact, Mark begins his telling of the Jesus story with the words “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ!”

And immediately after Jesus sends the disciples to spread this good news of hope, healing and the power of love, Mark paints us a graphic picture of corrupted power in a dramatic flashback of King Herod and the death of John the Baptizer.

Herod began to hear tales of this Jesus fellow, and like others, wanted an acceptable explanation of why Jesus was able to perform the miracles he did. He couldn’t be just an ordinary man, he had to be someone raised form the dead. I always find it curious that these people found it easier to believe that someone had come back from the dead than it was to believe that God could do good through an “undead” human being. The only explanation Herod was willing to entertain was that the man he had killed was back haunting him. I wonder if it was because Herod’s power in life was so fragile that he could only imagine ultimate power in a life outside of this one?

This Herod is the son of Herod the Great who sought to kill Jesus when he was born by killing all babies under the age of 2. This Herod, like his father, ruled over Galilee as a client king of The Roman Empire, whose security depended on keeping the Emperor happy.

John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, was the original messenger of the good news to come, considered by many to be the bridge between the last of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ message of love and hope. John didn’t fret over whether or not he made folks happy or even if they accepted his message. John knew his role as a messenger meant he was only responsible for proclaiming the good news message given him. He was not responsible for whether or not folks liked the message or accepted it.

Herod participated in the world’s definition of power and yet he was drawn to what John the Baptizer had to say. Herod knew deep down that there was a different way to live, a way based on true justice and mercy and grace not fear, a way that brought peace instead the stress and anxiety of ‘keeping up with the Januses”, The Way of true life and not a life in the constant shadow of death.

John’s religious teaching wouldn’t have been new to Herod, having been raised in a Jewish household. But Herod loved his wealth and power more and lived in the anguish of guilt because of his political maneuverings. Herod’s wife had no such guilt and wanted John silenced for good. Herod’s fear of everyone and everything frustrated her efforts until one day she was able to manipulate the situation and get her way.

When we see this scene depicted in art, Herod’s daughter is most often portrayed as a grown woman. But based on extra-biblical historical records she probably would have been a young girl, a child caught up in the destructive web of political power and personal vengeance of her parents that required she, too, learn to manipulate those around her for her own survival.

So what on earth are we to do with this horrific flashback? Why would Mark include it in his telling of the good news of Jesus Christ?

One of the questions I ask myself as I read scripture is “what can we learn about who God is in this?” A question made even more challenging by the fact that God isn’t mentioned nor is Jesus a part of these verses.

Herod hears of the good works of Jesus and has a flashback to John’s murder and then we move on in the story. Herod doesn’t go after Jesus, he doesn’t seek him out or attempt to learn more about him. This backstory just sits there begging us to ask out loud: What is the point of this?

So, what can we learn about God from this story? The only character with any goodness is murdered. It’s like a bad movie with a cliffhanger ending and no resolution and we just sit staring with our mouths open, needing more before we can exit the theatre.

So before you just walk out, let me assure you there is a point. And the point is made by what isn’t there. This story illuminates God’s goodness by having us look at the stark contrast of human actions governed by greed rather than grace, the actions of a corrupted king up against the actions of Jesus as the King of Kings, of the true power of love laid side by side with the power of manipulation and vengeance.

Herod’s entire life revolved around political power and worldly goods – an impossible pursuit of satisfaction, loving things and using people.

Herod and his wife both use their daughter to get what they want: he wants to impress the people who are just as greedy and power hungry as he is and his wife wants revenge against the one person who spoke God’s truth into their lives. In their world, people are just a means to the end, the goal of which is more power and more money and more, more, more.

The contrast creates a clear picture of God’s Kingdom on earth that Jesus is teaching the disciples – and us – to proclaim with our very lives. A Kingdom grounded in love that operates with mercy and grace with no one outranking anyone else but all equally loved and cared for by God. A kingdom into which invitations are issued but no one is coerced and loving acts of kindness are carried out with no expectation of payment or reciprocation. A kingdom in which all of our resources are used to enable everyone to thrive.

We learn more of who God is and who we are in relationship with God by witnessing the horrific results of putting human egos at the center of our own kingdoms rather than learning to live in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven with Jesus at the center.

The stories Mark gives us about Jesus’ teaching and ministry are just the beginning of the good news. And we are the continuation of that story; we are still living in God’s story. We are the instruments through which God reveals the Kingdom on earth so that others see a different way to live, the life we are all created to live. Herod saw it and wanted it but gave in to his desire for power instead. But that doesn’t undo the life-giving message of God’s love for everyone.

This good news message is life, life grounded in God’s love, life lived seeking the greater good for everyone in which compassion and grace guide who we are and what we do. Jesus came to show us this Way of Love. The Way in which we are made whole and holy as God’s beloved children.

To quote St. Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus that we also read today: “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.”

And we can’t keep this message quiet. Together, every moment of every day, we are called to live it, for God’s glory not our own. Amen.

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