Psalm 24
Mark 6:14-29

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 has 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 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 regards for his oaths and for his guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a solider 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 Word of God for the People of God.

            Thanks be to God.

Flannery O’Connor wrote – and this quote is in the bulletin – “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected.” The narrative here in Mark is all moving one direction.  Disciples are called, they and the growing crowds taught with parables. Jesus calms a storm, casts out a powerful demon, heals a woman on the way to raise a young girl from the dead.  Sure, he isn’t welcomed in his hometown, but as Jesus points out, prophets never are. He commissions the 12 and sends them out, undeterred – there will be resistance, it won’t always go smoothly, but shake the dust off your feet. Keep going. And they do, casting out demons in the verse right before today’s text, anointing with oil many who were sick and curing them. This is working! Mark says. It’s working.

But, there was a problem, and it lands verse 14 as a sledgehammer. King Herod HEARD OF IT, Jesus’ name become known. You don’t want your name known in those quarters, you want to fly under the radar. Once Herod hears, once you are perceived as the slightest threat to the powers that be, bad things happen. Mark brings us into the crowd – maybe all this fuss about Jesus and his disciples is actually John the Baptist raised? Maybe Elijah. Maybe another prophet. Herod, we begin to sense his inner struggle, is convinced John has been raised.

Then comes an interlude, taking more time and using more words than Mark normally does, the relentless narrative of immediately, immediately, immediately shifting gears. Back in 1:14 Mark mention’s John’s arrest; John’s disciples are around and ask a question in 2:18. But that’s it, until this note that John is dead, and Mark shifts to tell us how it happened, a sordid tale of power politics and palace intrigue. Mark refers back to that arrest, tells us why. According to Josephus, Herod was on his way to Rome, when as a guest of his half-brother Philip, he began an affair with his Philip’s wife, Herodias (who happened to be Herod’s niece, quite a mess). He divorces his wife and marries Herodias, but John calls him on it.[1] Herodias wanted to kill John right then, but Herod pauses, Mark seems to intimate he understands something about John’s truth.  Here Herod is set by Pontius Pilate, another Roman leader portrayed sympathetically by their gospel chroniclers. Mark says ‘an opportunity came,’ which is amazing language in itself. An opportunity came at this party. His daughter dances, Herod makes a foolish promise, John is executed and his head literally brought on a platter, as a tragic, grotesque, evil gift to the girl, who brings it to her mother.

“There is a moment,” Flannery O’Conner writes, “in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected.” There are a number of interesting things happening here. One is, and many commentators write about this, that this is a textual interlude that serves to make clear the true cost of discipleship. It’s not just about the folks in the hometown not listening, or having to shake the dust off your feet. If you take this call seriously, Mark says, like John did, speaking real truth to real power, it’s going to cost you. It might even cost you your life. Jill Duffield in The Presbyterian Outlook has been great on this stuff the past few weeks. She asks: “How have we acted to save face rather than act with integrity? I’ll just let you sit quietly with this one for a minute [she writes].  What actions haunt us and what do we need to do about that unease? No expansion on this needed, either.”[2] But even more so, and this is what Duffield points at and O’Conner names: Herod has a moment. Mark intimates that Herod, in his heart, KNOWS the right thing to do but he doesn’t. He’s bound up in the pressure of his position and the accompanying power, of the relationships around, about how things might look. He has a chance to be firm in what is true, to offer that grace even if it cost him personally, and he doesn’t. He caves. He lets the pressure and the anxiety get to him. Next thing you know, John’s head is on a platter.

Mark is lifting us up on a grand scale – when the world seems overwhelmed with the powerful preying on those who do not have that same power.  When those with privilege shake their heads and sit on their hands offering platitudes. These are the moments we think of the long train of martyrs who have followed in John’s footsteps pointing to Jesus. From many of those early disciples, to Reformers who died for a church that was true to who God called it to be, to more recent saints, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Oscar Romero, to countless brothers and sisters who serve, who work, who toil in forgotten, out of the way places, because they care for others, for God and God’s people, even more than they care for themselves.

There are moments like these that are grand, but can feel out of reach for normal folk like us. They feel out of reach for me sometimes. But still grace presents itself, and we decide who we will be. When a colleague or classmate tells a racist joke.  When someone with whom we disagree on any matter of the day, or in the neighborhood, or in our family – will we let frustration dictate how we respond to someone or will we assume their best intent? Will we be kind? As I’ve said many times recently and will surely say more, kindness and compassion are two things so desperately needed in our world right now.  When we are offered a chance to give, sacrificially, will we shut it down because we have our own needs?  Will we speak out, truth, work for the good of others?  Or will we let anxiety and fear rein? We can always find someone to tell us who is at fault, who is to blame. People of faith do get chances to choose who they will be, who they will be for?

While this is not along the lines of the trouble in Haiti, desperate families separated on the border, crippling poverty in our cities, in rural communities in the mountains, or sub-saharan African. There is much hurt in our world. Yet this is a season of quite a bit of change around here.  From the saints who started this church 55 years ago, they, you, we, have been doing our best, week after week, year after year, to move toward grace for themselves, for the community beyond, reaching out, serving, giving, being generous. In 1987 you, with God’s help and the help of saints no longer with us, built a sanctuary, that on Sunday hosted an ordination for one of our own, Sarah Wolf, then we moved out of Sunday night – which was fun – and is now empty of pews as they get refinished and the place gets cleaned up and painted so we can take care of it for the next generation.  And pretty significant staff change in process, in a way this church has often avoided – we’ve had amazing seasons of the same staff in place for much of our history.  With Taylor’s recent news which is the right place, and a great church. As Betty heads off into well-earned retirement though I trust and hope we’ll keep seeing her around some. And we keep plugging. I’ll need your help.  The session has had some wonderful conversations as of late, and this past Sunday when Taylor shared her news with us, of deep, deep gratitude for those who have served as their season of ministry here is finishing up, but also as an opportunity for us to listen to God even more carefully. To listen to each other even more carefully. To glimpse, as we work and pray, who all this is for. For the hurting and suffering and left out in every corner of God’s glorious world. For the spiritual nurture of this community as we all respond to the call to discipleship. As we sing praises to God, who accompanies us on the journey, and who is infinitely more faithful to us than we can ever be to this same God.

This text ends with John’s disciples taking his body and laying it in a tomb, clear echoes of Jesus’ own death later on. But we know how that story ends, don’t we? Resurrection hope. Resurrection hope. “There is a moment,” O’Conner writes, “in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected.” Grace, again, waits for us. And that is good, good news.

All praise be to God.  Amen.

[1] Also from Meg’s paper.

[2] From the Rev. Jill Duffield’s “Looking into the Lectionary – John the Baptist’s death,” received via email from The Presbyterian Outlook on July 9, 2018.