Preached at First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo on July 18, 2018.
Text: Mark 6:14-29
My spouse and I began dating almost 15 years ago. We were young! But we were pretty solidly embedded in an evangelical Christian culture that discouraged casual dating and put some pressure on young adults to figure out quickly whether or not we were “headed toward marriage.” So when a couple of my friends expressed concern about Barrett’s puppy-like energy and whether he was mature enough to take our relationship seriously, I started over-thinking things.
During lunch at a café on campus, I started asking him all kinds of anxious questions—where are we headed? What are we doing? What is the relationship about? How do we decide whether this is going to become something serious?
And to his credit, Barrett did not write me off as way too intense and walk away. Instead he reached across the table, held my hand and said, “Sarah, I don’t know about any of that. I like you, and I’m committed to you, not my idea of you, or my idea of a relationship or my idea of marriage. We’ll figure the rest out as we go.”
Impressive, huh? That moment, in the Only U Café might just have been when I decided to marry him. Clearly he was mature enough—he displayed a whole heck of a lot of wisdom for a 23 year old. And he also managed to set the tone for what intimacy looks like in our life together. That line—”I’m committed to you, not my idea of you, or my idea of what a marriage should look like” has been a mantra we return to again and again, with new twists and nuance and depth as we learn new things about ourselves and each other and face new challenges together.
Whether in marriage or in any other area of life, the commitment to reality—to the truth of ourselves, the truth of others and the truth of the world—is the most challenging, but also the most meaningful work we can do. In the mid-20th century the Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan made the case that attending to reality is the foundation of all understanding of God. This is an idea that pushed against some of the assumptions I grew up with—after all, aren’t Christians supposed to turn to the Bible to understand God?
But Barrett’s instincts about relationships and intimacy helped me understand what Lonergan taught. If we build our ideas about God entirely from stories we receive in scripture, we become committed to our idea of God, not the truth of God at work in the world and in our own hearts. To understand God, we must pay attention to reality, not just our ideas.
This doesn’t mean the Bible has no value, but the value of scripture is in the way these stories connect with and help us make sense of our own experiences of reality. The Bible—and any other sacred text or object—has no value if it never connects to the truth of human experience.
So, what does all this philosophy and talk of intimacy have to do with the beheading of John the Baptist?
I’ll admit that when I first read the lectionary passage for this morning, I wanted to roll my eyes and ask Nathan if he picked this week to be out of town on purpose. Really? The beheading of John the Baptist. Political intrigue laced with salacious scandal and family-system drama? Don’t we get enough of that in the news?
But, along with a commitment to facing the reality of myself and the world, I’ve had a long-standing commitment as a preacher not to shy away from the reality of the scripture we’ve inherited. My first preaching assignment as a student preacher was on a week when the lectionary text was Jesus’ angry rampage overturning market tables in the Temple. And I rolled my eyes, thought “of course” and looked for the good news. So here we are. Looking at this difficult and messy story of Herod, Herodias and John the Baptist, hoping for good news.
First, let’s get our bearings in the story, shall we? This whole story is a side-bar in the gospel. Mark opened with the spotlight on the John the Baptist, who very quickly redirects attention toward Jesus, and these few paragraphs are really the only place in all of Mark in which any one else takes center stage. And the person in this spotlight is Herod Antipas. It’s also a flashback—the real time action is Herod hearing news of Jesus’s growing ministry and thinking to himself—“This man is John the Baptist, who I executed, come back to haunt me.” And then we get this flashback about John’s death. Now, buckle up, because it’s about to get complicated.
This is NOT the same King Herod who shows up in the Christmas story—the one who wanted to kill Jesus as an infant. The Herod in our story today is Herod Antipas—son of Herod from the Christmas story. And his wife, Herodius is both his half-niece and his brother’s ex-wife. And if you think this sounds convoluted and scandalous, you are not the only one.
Mark tells us that when Herodius divorced her first husband (who was her half-uncle) and married his brother, Herod Antipas, John the Baptist spoke loudly and publicly against the marriage. He considered it immoral and one more reason to distrust the corrupt leadership of the country.
So, that is the backdrop for today’s story, as well as the main characters—Herod Antipas, his scandalous second wife Heroduis who is holding a grudge against John the Baptist for his public criticism of her marriage, and Herodius’s daughter from her first marriage. Mark never mentions her name, be we know from other gospels and historical records that she is Salome.
And after a particularly stunning dance for Herod and his guests, Herod tells his step-daughter that he will give her anything she chooses in gratitude. After some pressure from her mother, Salome requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Which Herod delivers, because he wants to save face in front of his guests. And John the Baptist—the first person we met in the gospel and the person who paved the way for Jesus’ public ministry is executed. On a whim, due to political vindictiveness, manipulation and for Herod to save face. It’s infuriating.
And it is also strange that Mark gives us so much excruciating detail. Mark doesn’t tell us anything at all about Jesus’ birth, and some early versions of this gospel don’t include the resurrection, but he spends 300 words giving us intimate details of Herod’s marriage scandals. It’s one of the longest reports of a single event in a gospel that is known for it’s quick pace and concise phrasing.
Why, in the process of telling us the good news about Jesus, does the gospel of Mark spend so much time telling us this incredibly depressing tale about the moral failures of King Herod and the tragic death of John the Baptist?
Here’s my best guess—Mark really wants us to know that this is happening in the real world.
See, by the time Mark’s gospel is written down, the early church has been through the ringer. They’ve seen Jerusalem completely sacked by the Roman Empire and the temple destroyed. They’ve been hunted and tortured and killed by authorities within their own nation as well as the Roman Empire. They’ve seen loved ones imprisoned, martyred, starving, displaced.
And what held them together—what gave them hope and energy and courage was this story. Telling and retelling it to one another. Building rituals of worship and meal-sharing and baptism and telling this story of Jesus again and again, allowing it to shape their lives.
Like all powerful stories, it is grounded in the truth of the way the world really is.
I think Mark spends all this time talking about John the Baptist’s death at the hands of a petty tyrant because that early community of the church knew all about the abuse of power. They knew all about meaningless, vindictive death sentences. They knew all about political corruption. They knew all about power wielded sloppily by the affluent 1%.
So, by laying out the reality of John’s death, Mark grounds this larger story of Jesus’ life and ministry in the real world.
All knowledge of God begins with attending to reality.
I invite you this week to do a reality-check.
Maybe you can take 20 minutes to read one of those depressing articles that keeps showing up in your Facebook feed, and then spend 10 minutes in silence, asking yourself where God is in this horrible part of reality. Because I promise, God is there. In every tragedy we feel ourselves flinch away from, God is present, weeping and loving and empowering new possibilities.
Maybe you could spend one day with devices off and pay closer attention to the people in your life. It might be a delightful opportunity to reconnect, or it might be a disheartening insight into a broken or fractured relationship, but either way, I promise you will find God there. And if what you notice troubles you, take heart. We cannot change what we do not see.
Maybe your reality check will be entirely with yourself. I watched a brief video this week featuring the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who—I will admit—is a personal hero of mine. In it she talks about the inner critic so many of us have within us. She names the tendency I know I have to spend inordinate amounts of time focused on the distance between my ideal self and the actual me with all my flaws and limitations. And then she points out that no one has ever become their ideal self. Ideal selves are completely imaginary. They don’t exist. Which means two things—God does not care about my ideal self—the me God loves is the real, flawed me. And secondly, no one in my life knows that ideal me, either, so the people who love me love the real me, too.
Recently, my spouse has added a new phrase to our mantra—“I love you—not my idea of you, and not your idea of you.”
Insist upon digging for the truth, friends. The truth in our world and the truth in yourselves. God only exists in the real world. If we settle with fantasies and distractions and escapes from reality, we will miss out on all the ways God is showering our world with beauty and power and completely unconditional love. Amen? Amen