By The Rev. Sherry Deets
7 Pentecost Proper 10 – July 15, 2012
So, our gospel text this morning has been referred to as a “text of terror.” It is a difficult passage to hear or read – the beheading of John the Baptist. But Mark tells this story, and there must be a reason why – so what is hidden in plain sight? What is the stream of grace that flows within the deep recesses of this narrative?
This execution of John forces us to gaze into a world of corruption, lust and power. Herod’s court is in a far country and time long ago whose horizon seems so distant from ours. But is it? Is it really so distant from our time, this world of corruption, lust and power. Mark wants us to take seriously that this is, indeed, the way of the world. Those who stand up to City Hall often take a beating, and those who advocate an alternative to the status quo can usually expect those who benefit from the status quo to come down on them hard. We watch programs like Mad Men, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, West Wing, The Sopranos, and the like because we see ourselves in them. We might not always like what we see, but at least it seems real. And Mark is, if nothing else, a realist. He is writing, after all, in the wake of the devastation caused by the Romans exercising their brutal power by destroying the Jerusalem Temple. So part of why he tells this story is because this is the world as he knows it, the world he lives in and, by extension, the world we live in as well.
David Heller wrote a delightful little book, entitled Dear God: Children’s Letters to God. There is this one from a youngster who sees all the misery in the world and wonders: “Dear God, I have doubts about you sometimes. Sometimes I really believe. Like when I was four and I hurt my arm and you healed it up fast. But my question is, if you could do this why don’t you stop all the bad in the world? Like war. Like diseases. Like famine. Like drugs. And there are problems in other people’s neighborhoods too. I’ll try to believe more. Ian (age 10)”
Is there any of young Ian in you? If we are honest, the answer is, probably.
What can we says when evil wins? Perhaps the answer is in the way Mark’s gospel story is presented. As you Bible scholars know, Mark’s first reference to John’s arrest is right in the beginning of the book – chapter 1. We hear nothing more about it until we encounter it in our lesson for the day, and it is presented in retrospect. We get the sordid details only because Herod is worried about what he is hearing concerning Jesus. Something powerful is happening, and everyone is talking about it. No one quite understands it – some are saying Jesus is Elijah reincarnate. That would mean the Messiah was about to arrive, because Jewish legend said Elijah would come back to announce the coming conqueror. Others were saying it was John the Baptist come back to life, and Herod is convinced of it – his tormentor has returned. Then we hear today’s sad story of John’s return from what.
Mark well may have inserted this story for precisely young Ian…and maybe you and me as well, when we see so much wrong with this world and start wondering about God. Are you there, God? Do you care, God?
If you want the answer to those questions, ask and answer a couple of other questions. First, whom is Mark’s gospel all about? It’s about Jesus, of course. As Mark goes through Jesus’ story, does he indicate any difficulties, any stumbling blocks, any apparent victories for the other side, any moments when it appears that evil wins? Certainly. The conflicts with the establishment, the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion, the miserable death. Is that the end of the story? Absolutely not! It ends with the resurrection, and some dumbfounded disciples. Does evil finally win? Absolutely not. Now let’s ask those questions again. Are you there, God? Do you care, God?
Now, return to our lesson – right out of the pages of an ancient world’s National Enquirer, a sordid story of the excesses of the rich and famous. But it is surrounded by the ministry of Jesus. Mark’s message in telling it right here and right now is that nothing in this world, not even the palaces of the powerful, are beyond the reach and impact of the gospel.
Yes, there are times with young Ian that we wonder about God. It is true there is horrible evil out there. There are evil people – the sociopaths, the mass murderers, the child and spouse abusers. There are evil moments when otherwise good people are drawn in. There are evil systems in which we all participate – people going without food and shelter in a nation of abundance, people not getting medical care because of no other reason than lack of money. There are even evils born of sheer stupidity, like the stupid promise Herod made to Salome. Do you remember the novelist William Burroughs? Burroughs died at age 83. During a drunken party in Mexico one night in 1951, he undertook to play William Tell – he used a pistol to shoot a glass off his wife’s head. He missed…and put a bullet in her brain instead. How stupid. How evil. Yes, it often seems that the evil wins.
But the message of our faith says that evil does not have the last word. So, Ian, and all who ever wonder about God. Herod does not win. Herodias does not win. Hitler does not win. Evil does not win! With joy we can shout out that God’s world does not end with either the whimper of a starving child or the blast of a nuclear bomb; it ends with the Lamb upon the throne and the victorious song of a massive choir singing perhaps words we have come to love: “The kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, And he shall reign forever and ever.”
Which brings us, I think, to the very heart of the gospel promise. We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own.
And when the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending, or you’ve lost your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or you’re pretty sure your friend has betrayed you, or you think you may just have screwed up the one relationship that meant something to you…then the possibility of another ending — a good ending — is, indeed, not just good news, but the best news you can imagine.
For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten Son… . this is the truth of God’s loving response to us and our predicament and God’s tenacious, inexhaustible effort to redeem us by writing us — and writing us into — a better story than we deserve or can imagine. Amen.
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