by Rev. Laura Thornton
I have been living with, praying about and mulling over these texts for the last several weeks wondering like I imagine you are this morning….how in the world do you preach about the beheading of John!?!?
I thought maybe I can just go with the new testament reading or the old testament reading…but it’s hard to just leave this story out after hearing it read in church. It’s a horror movie, ready made, dripping in anger, resentment, guilt, power and blood.
I tend to focus on Jesus because he is always there in our gospel reading, modeling for us ways to welcome the stranger, love our neighbor, stand up to the powers that oppress. But today, Jesus is not physically in the story. Herod is hearing about the crowds Jesus draws and he is worried. The last time someone was getting that kind of attention, it was John the Baptist, the baptizer, whom Herod had arrested and later killed.
Now there are rumors that Jesus is a prophet, Elijah even. But Herod wonders if he is John coming back to haunt him. Mark’s gospel this morning is a foreshadowing of what will happen all too soon to Jesus. But in the telling of it, Jesus is absent. He is not here at the party Herod is throwing himself, not here to point us to the stranger, the neighbor, the one we show compassion to or stand up for.
And clearly, our empathy and sorrow and compassion lies with John. An innocent man, cousin to Jesus, who has done nothing but baptize the crowds of people who came to the Jordan River. He has taken no credit or praise or power. He has only pointed toward Jesus, “the one coming after me, the one greater than I am”. But because John was brave enough to tell Herod the truth, he was put in prison. From Mark’s gospel we understand that Herod’s wife wanted John killed, but the king enjoyed listening to him, was perplexed by him.
John has spoken up about Herod’s marriage to Herodias. He was not the only one who was saying this marriage goes against Jewish law, but he was the one in Herod’s ear. And Herodias hated John for it.
There was a large contingency who believed this marriage would offend God. So we can understand there is a lot at stake for the king. Herod does not want to look weak to his people, he does not want to be on the wrong side of God, because then he loses the people’s loyalty and trust. John was a leader among that group and he tried to convince Herod of his wrongdoing. Herod not only ‘liked to listen to John’, but he feared John, because he was a righteous and holy man. But Herod wanted Herodias for himself. So he throws John in prison and marries her.
She had been Herod’s brother’s wife. And Herod was married to royalty from another country, which provided some stability in the region. And while it was not only acceptable, but common practice to marry your brother’s wife if he had died, Herod’s brother was still very much alive.
But Herod wanted Herodias for himself.
She is often cast as the villain. Sending her own daughter to dance for the king, during his party. Theologians disagree, some saying Herodias was just a woman in a time when woman had no power. She could not have persuaded Herod to kill John even if she did indeed hate him. Herod had John killed for political reasons and blamed it on his wife. Other theologians coming from the historical context say she was power hungry and manipulated her daughter and husband. Herodias came from a royal family, married into that same family and then leveled up among brothers when she had the chance.
Regardless of whether or not you are Team Herodias, we have a compelling story of resentment, power and murder. And here we are in this crazy horror show of a dinner party.
King Herod throws himself a party. I think it’s safe to assume there were lots of important people there, his court, his officers and all the leaders of Galilee. And there was lots of food and drinking and entertainment. And at some point, Herodias send her daughter in to dance for the king. He was pleased and said, ‘Ask me for anything you want and I will give it to you—Ask me, even for half my kingdom’
The girl runs to ask her mother, ‘what should I ask for?’ And there doesn’t seem to be any hesitation from Herodias- The head of John the baptizer.
Now Herod is in a pickle. Does he refuse and continue to protect John? Or does he stand by his vow to give her anything she asks for? And is he secretly glad to have a way of getting rid of John the baptizer that leaves him looking less guilty?
He decides to save face, stand by his vow, hold onto his power a little longer and sends a guard to kill John. In that moment, Herod does not do the right thing. More than anything else he is worried about how it will look in front of all his guests if he goes back on this grand promise he has just made. He is so worried that they will see him as a weak and untrustworthy king that he has an innocent man killed.
They bring the head of John on a platter and give it to the girl. The rest is most certainly horrifying and gory and sad. When John’s disciples hear the news, they come and take his body and bury it.
So where do we find meaning this morning? Clearly and easily with John, the innocent, the truth teller, the brave one who stood up to power. And I do believe we should aspire to John’s character. We should point the way towards Jesus in all that we do.
And, I kept getting stuck in the horror movie. I kept having questions over these past weeks about Herod, Herodias, her daughter, the dinner guests. So I’m wondering today about how we find meaning in the midst of that? How do we look at our own resentment, anger, power, privilege? How do we dig deeper into the willingness to sacrifice others in order to maintain some pretense of honor, dignity, prestige, power?
Each week in worship we confess our sins…
God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.
The evil that enslaves us, that we are caught in, that we are caught in and can’t escape. The evil we have done which is sometimes hard to see and even harder to admit. The evil done on our behalf. Those things done on our behalf that cause harm in the world, in our communities? Where do we get caught up in our resentment and anger? How do we manipulate other people to get what we want?
We do this all the time in workplaces, in our families in our churches, in big and small ways. Years ago I worked with an administrator who had a very tense relationship with another person in the office. When there was a problem, she would start a conversation with me and then suggest that I ask our co worker about it to get the answer she needed. She was using me to avoid doing the hard work on her own attitude, her own relationship with this co-worker. And while she was not asking for someone’s head on a platter, she was not paying attention to why she was resentful and so easily angered.
What about things our political leaders doing on our behalf? I think immediately of laws being passed that restrict voter rights, laws that allow the continued discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people.
What about large companies who profit from child labor, who evade taxes, who dump more and more chemicals into the environment; yet what they produce or how quickly they ship it is very convenient. We can also look at those corporations and see which ones we may be invested in through our retirement plans and financial portfolios. You may be making money as a stockholder, but are you willing to sacrifice the people who are being harmed, the planet that is being harmed by that company?
When do we say yes to things we don’t want to do or ignore things we don’t want to know so that we can keep up the appearance that we are okay and in control. When do we say nothing to object to things that we know are wrong in order to continue the pretense of our own power and prestige.
When injustice is happening and we are silent, our silence puts us firmly on the side of the oppressor. In order to do the work of Jesus we have to speak up, stand up and speak our concern. Then we step over to the side of the oppressed, the vulnerable, the needy, the ones whose voices are not being heard.
I think about so many who are in dark moments in life, living with addiction, anxiety, depression. These are ways we are caught in places that feel like there is no escape. Now, I want to be very clear that I am placing no blame or shame on someone who is suffering from any addiction, or mental illness. When you are in it, it is a horror movie all it’s own.
What I’m asking us to to do is to look around and recognize it and then speak about it. You might be able to see it in yourself and ask for help. You might recognize it in someone you love. Rather than brush it off with excuse of “oh he just has too much to drink now and then” or, “they’re always in a bad mood”. Maybe you have a hard conversation. Because the neglect of our brothers and sisters who are drowning in this is part of the evil done on own behalf. It is part of the culture that pushes us to say “Hi, I’m fine, how are you?” and ignore anything else that might be going on.
Our culture perpetuates silence around mental illness, addiction, systemic racism and injustice, and even silence around just the recognition of our own feelings. In order to stop the evil we are doing and the evil done on our behalf, we have to put some new skills in the tool box. Some skills that help us take time to feel the feelings. Skills to recognize when we are hurt and take care of that, take care of our anger or sadness in ways that are not harmful to ourselves or to others. We need skills to recognize when we are hurting others and to stop. We need skills to recognize when there are bigger powers at play and find ways to push against them, to speak truth in the face of evil.
It is not enough to be like John the baptizer. We must pay attention to when we are being like Herod and Herodias. When we are allowing our anger, our desire, our privilege to determine how we get what we want without any consideration for how it is hurting other people. Recognizing that part of ourselves, confessing that part of ourselves will move us towards the final line our prayer:
Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.