Driving across the grand expanse of Interstate 90 this week on the way to Colorado, Leroy and I stopped to fill up the gas tank and to grab a sandwich from Subway. Stepping out of the car, I heard someone call my name from inside a small red Toyota. When I approached the car and leaned down to peer inside, I found myself looking into the eyes of a friend I have not seen in over 35 years. Li-Ann and I performed in a middle school play together and sat next to one another in high school Spanish class. I was surprised that we managed to recognize each other at all. It was an unexpected, joyful, and very brief reunion.
Li-Ann was my first formal date for a homecoming dance, and I had a flashback to that evening, remembering the dress she wore and the flowers I gave her, and how incredibly awkward I felt trying to dance to both the fast and the slow music. To this day, I am a terrible dancer. But that doesn’t keep me from trying. The joy of festive occasions like weddings, and the expression of joy through movement and song and joining with others on the dance floor is hard to resist.
People danced in both of our readings today. King David and the people of Israel broke into ecstatic movement accompanied by tambourines and cymbals. And King Herod’s daughter danced at her father’s birthday party in front of all of his friends and political associates. That is where the comparison between the two stories ends, however. The beautiful, utter joy contained in Second Samuel, is in stark contrast to the exceedingly grim story contained in the Gospel of Mark.
One of the commentators I read this week said, “The preacher of this text for this Sunday’s sermon receives my congratulations for originality and guts.” Another wrote, “Good night, but I find this a difficult passage to preach on.” Perhaps that is why I have never preached a sermon on the beheading of John the Baptist. I’ve managed to avoid it for ten full cycles of the three-year Revised Common Lectionary. There’s not much light or inspiration, let alone good news, to be found in this story. However, I do find myself choosing those difficult texts more often here at Community UCC since it’s clear you are OK with ambiguity and that it’s ok if a sermon isn’t wrapped up neatly at the end with a pretty bow.
The story from Mark is pretty simple, if dark. Some people were confusing Jesus with the dead John the Baptist, which prompted the writer of Mark to review the story of John’s demise. A remarkable family drama began with Herod marrying Herodius, the wife of his still-living brother. John the Baptist, known for his prophetic, unsettling utterances roundly condemned the union, which resulted in Herod jailing John but not killing him as his wife would have preferred. At Herod’s birthday party, his daughter, also named Herodius, danced so wonderfully that her father pledged to give her whatever she wanted. A consultation with her mother sealed the request for the head of John the Baptist. Almost immediately, John’s head was delivered to the girl on a party platter. Not surprisingly, she quickly passed it to her mother. I’m guessing that no one at the party saw that coming, and I wonder if this happened right before they sang happy birthday and served the cake.
The story says that King Herod was “deeply grieved” by all of this. Despite John’s condemnation of his marriage, Herod did see something good, even holy, in him and didn’t want to see him die. This Herod, by the way, was Herod Antipas; it was his father, Herod the Great, who had killed his own wife and other family members and is attributed with ordering the deaths of infant boys in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. In contrast to his father, this Herod seems to have retained some measure of decency.
But what a family mess! Herod gets triangled by his wife and daughter. Instead of Herodius 2 coming up with her own ultimate gift as a reward for dancing, she asks Herodius 1 what to do and makes her mother’s desire her own. She avoids responsibility for her own decisions and ends up in dangerous cahoots with her mother. That kind of triangling is a pretty common family dynamic, and not a healthy one. What kind of teenager wants a dead guy’s head on a plate, anyway? Most young women in that position would have asked for a new convertible chariot or a trip to a Dead Sea Resort with her friends or something like that.
If this story had a moral, it might be “Be careful what you promise!” I imagine that Herod was not only deeply grieved, crying at his own party, but also kicking himself for making such a stupid pledge.
It’s hard to imagine a much more gruesome death than a beheading. I always assumed that was just something from the past. I associate it with guillotines from the French Revolution or the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland shrieking “Off with his head!” The recent barbaric beheadings of journalists and Coptic Christians and others by ISIS has been a grim reminder that inhuman practices are timeless.
I imagine that hooded executioners gripping knives in Libya and Syria believe they are doing something noble. I strongly disagree with them, of course, and from my perspective it is a black and white matter of right and wrong. Obviously, not everyone would concur. Why do we think so differently? And what causes people to do things that most would consider irreprehensible, if not downright evil?
It’s been said that two forces drive people toward questionable ends, whether in Syria or Washington D.C. or closer to home. Those forces are greed and fear. That’s not a very positive assessment of human nature, but we’re not talking about a very positive story from the gospels today. Herod’s fear of his wife or fear of his associates or fear of whatever was a perfect complement to the greed that kept him pursuing more power as part of a long line of rulers of questionable character.
I doubt Herod was able to see his actions in the way we might see them from our historical or faith perspectives. Maybe he thought breaking an ill-conceived promise to his daughter was worse than killing a man who had created problems for him anyway. People use different standards to determine what is right and what is wrong.
Is someone who defends a flag that has flown for generations doing so because they love the heritage of their region or because of deep-seated racial bias?
Is a county clerk who refuses to give out marriage licenses doing so because of deep personal faith or because of animus toward same-gender-loving persons?
Is someone who knowingly disregards our earth doing so because they look forward to a permanent, heavenly home or because greed and expediency trump the hard work of creation care?
This week I listened to a politician doing verbal and mental gymnastics in an attempt to explain his former and current positions regarding the Confederate flag while trying not to sound political. When asked why he changed his mind and now supported removal of the flag, he talked about the grace shown by family members of the Charleston shooting victims. Essentially, he said that removing the flag was a gift back to them. Honestly, it made me mad to hear that. We don’t do what is right because we feel bad about the consequences of society’s wrongs and then trumpet that as some virtue of our own. That is more like Herod being swayed by the opinions and desires of others rather than just taking responsibility himself to do the right thing in the first place.
Also this week, I watched a video of a county clerk in Kentucky refusing to give a marriage license to two men who have been together for seventeen years. They were told repeatedly to go to another county, but they refused, citing the Supreme Court decision and their right to get a license in the county where they live and pay taxes. The clerk cited the Bible and her own conscience as her justification.
Jimminy Cricket said to that pathological liar, Pinnochio, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” It would be great to imagine that our conscience is infallible. Clearly, a clear conscience leads different people to do different things. I don’t think Herod’s conscience was entirely clear when he issued John’s death order, but neither did he let his conscience, which was grieved, be his guide.
If we imagine ourselves to be entirely unlike those whose decisions we despise, we might be fooling ourselves.
Stories like the one about John’s beheading invite us to engage in self-reflection, not to get stuck considering how bad we might be, but to think about how we might make choices in contrast to figures like Herod. If you could re-write the narrative, how would it be different? Would Herod clap enthusiastically for his daughter but not foolishly give her a blank check? Or would he take responsibility and choose to value the life of a good man over a promise made under the influence of wine and song? We can’t exactly re-write the Gospels, but we are each constantly writing the story of our own life. May we write with sincerity and truth from a conscience that desires to do what is right and good for all. God is also writing, and that story is being written into our lives as we open ourselves to possibilities of grace that are beyond what we might imagine.