Wine, Power, and Keeping your Head

Strangely, in the middle of the summer, we get John the Baptist. And whenever John shows up, things get weird and uncomfortable. However, when we drop in on him this morning, he is pretty quiet, because he is dead. Beheaded. Which, when you look at who he was, what he said, the truths he told, is not surprising. Anyone who challenges power is going to pay…dearly.

The basic problem, at least as John saw it, was that Herod Antipas had dissolved his politically expedient marriage to the daughter of a nearby powerful ruler and taken up with his half-niece, Herodias. And, while Herod did seem interested in, attracted to some of what John had to say, neither Herod nor Herodias were thrilled with the local loony, a total nobody, telling them off. Thus the nobody ends up in jail, with Herodias gunning for his head.

And on Herod’s birthday, she got her chance. There was going to be a big party—a fancy banquet. All the important people are there—everyone who was anyone in Galilee all dressed up and having a blast. Dinner is served, wine is flowing and the evening entertainment kicks off. Herod and Herodias are having a great time. Then Herodias’ daughter, also called Herodias, but sometimes referred to as Salome, gets up and starts to dance. And old Herod, he makes a very foolish promise–a promise born of power, wine, food, youth and beauty. And Herodias makes him pay up, adding her own gruesome flourish to her mother’s demand that John die—requesting the Baptizer’s head on a platter. Nasty. Shocking.

Just what is this story doing in the Gospel? Why does Mark, whose Gospel is so lean and spare, devote multiple paragraphs to this sordid tale?

I am guessing it is to shed some light on who Jesus is. The stories of John and Jesus overlap repeatedly. Both have unusual conceptions. Both grow up to be truth tellers who disturb the peace. Both threaten the powers that be and pay for it with their lives. The men who execute each of them know, deep down, that they are sending innocent men to their deaths. There are differences of course, like the manner of death. And unlike Jesus, John’s disciples come and get his body after he dies and bury him—they don’t flee. The common thread, though, is that they both spoke truth to power. Which is a dangerous job. Likely to cost everything. There was and is a danger inherent in naming what is wrong with the world whether it is the fact that Herod shouldn’t have married his brother’s wife, that immigrant children separated from their families at the border is wrong, that children living in Flint drinking lead contaminated water is wrong, that a president who incites hatred against others is wrong, or that being born female in much of the world is a life sentence of second class citizenship.

Mark’s positioning of this story right after the sending of the 12 is not accidental. It is a clear warning to those who are sent out from and by God—sent to speak God’s truth—that the world may not always be happy to hear the Good News of God’s kingdom of justice and love, may not in fact view it as Good News. We may not always be happy to hear the good news. And an unhappy person, an unhappy world, inevitably strikes back. Successful ministry almost inevitably happens alongside opposition- sometimes violent opposition. King, Gandhi, Romero and countless others silently testify to this truth. If the disciples, if we, haven’t heard the message by this point in the Gospel story that following Jesus should be costly, possibly even dangerous, we surely should get it from this ugly tale.

And perhaps that is another reason Mark lifts up this story. He may be holding up the mirror for us. The mirror that shows us sitting quite comfortably at Herod’s banquet table—motioning the waiter to come over and pour more wine while we reach for a second helping of lobster and wait for the dancing girl to appear. Maybe the story helps us figure out if we are really following in Jesus’ footsteps or just telling ourselves a nice story, adopting a label, but not a way of life.

Not that Christians should run around picking fights and seeking confrontation to prove our disciple street cred. Though all you need to do is be part of just about any Christian denomination to witness that very thing. We do a lot of fighting over things that are safe—things that don’t really require us to put our life on the line. Like who can get married, or who is fully a child of God. If the mirror John holds up shows us that we have only been involved in confrontations about what other people are doing without any threat of self-sacrifice or self change, I am pretty sure what we see reflected will be the spitting image of Herod; he who was strongly attracted to John’s holy message, but not much interested in being changed by it, in living by it.

On a more mundane level, this nasty story of Herod who was a Jew when it suited him but not when it got in his way, reminds us how quick we sometimes are to distance ourselves from parts of our faith in order to look good in public-look good with friends- fit in and not make a scene. We cut the head right off our faith if we separate an hour or so on Sunday morning from the other 6 ½ days of the week—from the rest of our lives—from the choices we have to make on a daily basis. Sometimes faith based choices are clear. Yes I should stand up for that person who is being discriminated against or bullied. No, I shouldn’t just look the other way when people are profiting off incarcerating immigrants. Often these choices are not. And they are particularly hard to make, if we conveniently forget what we profess to believe at the first sign of trouble-if our vision is fuzzy because we spend much of our time in a banquet hall filled with power and wine and food.

So ultimately perhaps Mark included this story because it is gruesome. Shocking. Because it shakes us up and forces us to blink, to evaluate our faith and its cost. The bottom line, the cold hard truth John’s sad end clearly reveals, is that Christians are called to confront injustice, the wrong we see in the world around us. And that is uncomfortable, embarrassing and costly. It is also the way of the cross. The way we signed up for at Baptism, the way William** is signing up for today. A way in which the Herods, Pilates and Herodiases—the ones who seem to be in the winner’s circle—lose-and the one whose head is on a platter or who is hanging from a cross wins. And, thanks be to God, it is also the way of resurrection. Of new life, abundant life. Life in God’s banquet hall, seated as a guest of honor at the table and participating in a feast prepared for the whole world by the God of Love.

*with appreciation to Barbara Brown Taylor whose thoughts influenced this sermon.
**Baptismal candidate.

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