2 Sam 6:1-5,12b-19; Ps 24; Eph 1: 3-14; MARK 6: 14-29
In the name of God who created us…now & always. AMEN
…”for Herod feared John, knowing 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.” Then the whole sorry story unfolds. Here are the homilies usually preached on this scripture, ones I’m not going to preach — remember that’s caller praeteritio — The Hebrew Scripture, a fine story, shows David leaping, dancing and making burnt offerings, but then taking, blessing and giving out food to the people, as was their custom. Was that foreshadowing Jesus and his actions, without the unseemly (too bad) leaping and dancing. Or a pious homily on the Ephesians, and that we have received, and we have, all spiritual blessings.
More likely though would be an extended homily on the barbaric customs of THEM, beheading to make a context for crucifying. Weren’t they awful, those long ago Romans? The barbarism of then or now would preach. This year I could report on General Convention. While there is reason to rejoice at the approval of Same Sex Blessings in Dioceses where Bishops permit and the simplicity of that vote, it was high time, after a generation of doing it. A budget also was approved expeditiously after agony before Convention. Less good news to me was the non-vote on the Anglican Covenant. The terms for staying in the Anglican Communion are complex and difficult, but this formulation seems to me unacceptable. Rather than turning it down, we voted not to vote—lest we seem unfriendly to the Anglican Communion. A fine person, Gay Jennings, was elected President of the House of Deputies, and our own Byron Rushing as Vice President, and that’s fine, and Yale Grad Student Lisa Anderson, friend of Marisa’s, was elected to Executive Council along with Frederica Thomsett, but there will be a more cogent report from Kathryn Piccard I hope but not here or now.
Two other responses to this Gospel, I’ll also eschew. (More here of what I’m not going to say, “Two more,” now you say, “I’ll scream; get to it.” I’m not going to talk about two other topics, one from classic Chinese legends, when a bellcaster, couldn’t get the metal to pour right, said “If only the gods would make the bell ring true, the raging Emperor wouldn’t destroy me,” so his dear daughter flung herself into the molten metal to be a worthy sacrifice to the gods, and the bell was true, and the craftsman desolate, nor its paired story of Jephtha. "Whatever/whoever emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be God’s, and I shall sacrifice that as a burnt offering."(Judges 11:31) The victorious Jephthah is met on his return by his daughter, his only child. Jephthah tears his clothes and cries, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low!" but is bound by his vow: "I have given my word to God, and I cannot go back on it.”—sad topic of two sad fathers trapped by their sticking to their public vows.
Second I won’t preach about the parallels of the savagery of John’s death previewing the death of Jesus. Think of the links: Herod, the betrayal, the choice between the crowd’s choice and Jesus and Herodias or John. Not that either. Why don’t you scream? I did name two more non-topics, but you didn’t scream; it’d be publicly embarrassing.
There’s a theme. Herod admired John. He found him interesting and yet he feared his honesty. Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John preached against that and discomforted her. He was much entertained by her daughter Herodias, and promised her whatever she wanted. He promised her in front of all his guests. The girl, whatever pie in-the-sky she dreamed of, asked her mom, who said, “The head of John the Baptist on a plate.” Herod “was deeply grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” Would not the reasonable thing to have done been to say, “Absolutely not, that’s horrible. How about a cask of gold?” Aside from all the other possibilities of Herod’s wickedness, this failure on Herod’s part is not on a Superman or heroic scale. Herod acts in an ordinary way.
I’ve heard, been told, that one of the strongest motivating factors for adults, particularly adult males, is to avoid embarrassment in front of peers. You didn’t scream, even as I extended the diversions. You didn’t and wouldn’t—we’re Episcopalians; we’re in church; there might be strangers here who wouldn’t understand, who wouldn’t hear our screams as a humorous honesty. It would be an embarrassment.
It seemed to me that this human characteristic—avoiding embarrassment—is at the core of one way to approach this narrative. To choose wrong over right on this deadly scale, or on any other scale, is as good an example of sin as is demonstrated in the Gospels. When Jesus was crucified there a far more complex trail of culpable people than Herod or Pilate, but here the responsibility is clear.
What could Herod have done different? How could he have not gotten to this savage action? The big bold “anything you want” offer is always a risk. (I learned that raising kids. I almost invariably, (though I probably blew it on occasion,) would offer as a treat at the grocery store, or wherever, “You can have anything you want, within reason.” I knew from dealing with even the smallest child, that any blanket offer would be leapt on, and I’d be stuck. Whenever we left a museum or store, I’d say the “within reason,” not only as a check on the kids who were being offered the treat, but also on me, to make sure I thought about whatever the request was. I didn’t want to get painted into a corner, let alone one in public. I learned to give a time limit to my offers, and sometimes to name a maximum dollar amount to define what “reason” in that case was. I believe such self-cautions are self-protections from getting too far out on risky limbs. Repeating that pattern taught some self-discipline to my kids and to me.
The risk to each of us is getting so far out on a limb that we feel we can’t crawl back. Why couldn’t Herod? Here are three possible reasons. He was in public and he didn’t want to lose face. There’s a kind of inner security that could have told assured him, he was such a good and trust-worthy person, that going back on his promise, to do the right thing wouldn’t have caused him to lose face, but would have shown what a good person he was, but he wasn’t and couldn’t.
Second, he’d made oaths, again in public. By saying he’d sworn oaths, and so he couldn’t go back on his word to whoever he’d sworn by, switched the blame to that “whoever.” If he’d sworn to the Holy One to give the girl whatever she asked for, and then didn’t, the Holy One would be angry with him. He’d have violated his relationship with the Holy One. Here he was in effect shifting the responsibility, or actually blame, for the fulfilling of the oath onto the Holy One, so it wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t responsible for the savagery against John the Baptist; the Holy one expected it. Nonsense. Again, not only was he speaking for the Holy One, but also he was dishonoring the Holy One, to whom he’d pledged his oath, by not recognizing that if the oath receiver was worthy, the request should be turned down in the name of the Holy One, not fulfilled. (Remember old fashioned curfews or named times when college students were expected back in their dorms on weekend and other nights? Kids would race home, sometimes getting in accidents to meet those deadlines. Whenever something awful did happen, blame would go on the time policy, not the drunk driving, leaving too late, or bad judgment. Colleges finally refused to have that blame thrown at them, and stopped the policies.) It wasn’t the gods’ fault the bellmaker’s daughter sacrificed herself, nor Jephtha’s hearers, nor was John’s death the fault of to whom Herod had sworn. The oaths were arrogant and unworthy.
Third, and at the core of Herod’s behavior, was sin. Herod’s pride overcame judgment, and he acted wrongly in the name of those to whom he appeared as leader and to those to whom he’d sworn oaths. His arrogance overrode his self-knowledge, judgment, and true sense of his place in the world, the situation, and a balance of right and wrong. Whether Herod was evil, flawed, or insecure, isn’t the point. For us, we can see where and how we yield to sin, when we do something we don’t want to do, and/or know is wrong.
It’s an odd Gospel because Jesus really isn’t in it, other than perhaps this way: sin is present as is the need to beat it back. Jesus demonstrated a life led without sin, and offered it for us as example and enough to expiate our sins. His life, lived without sin, was enough to be salvation for all. Herod’s story here reminds us we need and long for a Savior. Herod shows us of how easy it is to fall into irreversible sin. Jesus lived without sin and through his love saves us now and always, welcoming us to him in Paradise: Good News. AMEN.
© Katharine C. Black 15 July 2012, St. John’s Boston