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 8th Sunday after Pentecost                      ___Mark 6:14-29        _       __              July 15, 2018

Let me begin with a story…of contrasts…It is a story that involves two brothers in Georgia during the 1950's. One decided that in opposition to the dominant culture of the day, he was going to support and participate in the formation of a multi-ethnic community, a community grounded in equal justice for all. The other worked as an attorney for a prominent law firm. Both were Christians and attended church regularly. As the multi-ethnic community formed and social pressure forced them into court proceedings, the one brother asked his attorney brother to help them with the legal work. The brother refused, saying that he could lose his job. The pressure increased to help with a reminder that he was a Christian. The lawyer responded, "I will follow Jesus to his cross, but it is his cross. I have no need to be crucified." To this his brother replied, "Then you are an admirer of Jesus, but not his disciple."

I was reminded of this story when I read today’s Gospel and came to verse 20 where we are told: “for Herod feared John, knowing that 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.”

Today’s reading from Mark is an odd story and to be honest I have struggled to make sense of it. It is odd for a number of reasons starting with the observation that of all the gospels, Mark is the shortest and one of the reoccurring words you might find when you read this gospel is the word, “immediately”. In other words, Mark is noted for keeping the story moving, cutting to the chase and even skipping some of the normal highlights of Jesus life. And yet, here in the middle of his gospel, he takes time to share this story of John’s beheading. And the question I ponder is, why? Why does Mark skip the story of Jesus birth, but includes this horrific story?What’s the point?

And then there are the characters in this story. While we don’t hear much from John, he is a central figure as the prophet of God who spoke of repentance, faithfulness, justice and had the audacity to speak truth to power, which led to his beheading. Then there is Herod, a cowardly and vain king. There is his wife, Herodias, who prior to becoming Herod’s wife, was Herod’s brother Phillip’s wife, a woman who had a vengeful grudge against John. And then was the clueless 12-year-old, Salome who is called up to dance at Herod’s birthday party and who manages to please the drunken revelers. And of course there is the crowd at the party, Galilee’s movers and shakers, the pretty people, the rich and powerful, the social and political elite. Truthfully, it sounds like an episode from Game of Thrones: it has everything, revenge, lust, drunken behavior, puffed up pride, and hubris inspired promises

Have you noticed who is not mentioned at all in this reading? Jesus. Nowhere is Jesus mentioned. And to be honest, it is difficult to find anything that resembles grace, there is nothing that points to the Good News. There isn’t even a word of judgement, wait, let me modify that statement…the only judgement is the self-imposed judgement that keep Herod up at night, haunting him. And maybe that ought to tell us something? Maybe Herod is the bearer of today’s message?

I say this because if anyone is the central character, it would probably be Herod. Remember how back in verse 20 where we are told that Herod feared John, he knew John to be a righteous and holy man, and while John greatly perplexed him, nonetheless, he like to listen to him. Herod believed just enough to keep himself awake at night but not enough to be receptive to change, to be transformed. He feared doing the wrong thing, but lacks the moral fortitude to do the right thing? I don’t know about you, but there are times when this strikes too close to home.

Remember the story of the two brothers in Georgia? One brother stuck his neck out trying to do the right thing in the name of equal justice for all in the name of Jesus. The other brother was content to admire and simply listen to the stories of Jesus without allowing those stories to transform or even challenge him. And this cause me to wonder…of the two brothers, which do I reflect? Am I a disciple or an admirer? Like Herod or the attorney brother, do I like listening to Jesus, but not quite willing to stick my neck out and commit to taking up the cross? To be honest, I hope and pray most of my life reflects the life of a disciple, a life of moving beyond more than listening, but also acting, following and taking up the cross. I hope I am providing more than lip service. But I also know, when I am honest with myself, that I have a little Herod in me, that there are times when I behave more like the attorney brother…and this concerns me, it has the power to keep me up at night, perplexed. When I am honest with myself, I know that far too often I remain silent when I ought to be speaking truth to power. I, like the majority, I shrink back and sit down when I ought to have the moral and ethical backbone to stand up for what is wrong and corrupt and harmful for others. But I don’t. Like many, sometimes I too want to simply get by, not drawing too much attention to myself. I struggle with wanting to avoid the hassle of disturbing others, causing moral discomfort to others with all this talk of taking up the cross, loving and serving your neighbor.

Despite the old adage that the role of the prophetic preacher is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—some days, well, some days, I’d rather not. Some days I wish I could do the TV preacher shtick and share a message of the power of positive thinking and some of that feel good prosperity gospel Pablum. And that concerns me.

It concerns me because Jesus never goes there and because our Christian faith is more than simply listening or knowing about Jesus. It is more than admiring Jesus. Herod had done all that, but the Word sown in his life did not bear fruit. The cares of this world choked it out, and he sold out. Christianity is not knowing about Jesus; it is about knowing God as revealed in Jesus. It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus. It involves our whole lives—not just our heads.

And Herod missed that, as did the attorney brother. Following Jesus is more than simply listening to his stories and admiring Jesus. Both missed out on an abundant life that gives the courage and grace to serve others, to give generously, to forgive and be forgiven, and to stand up when others are sitting down, even at the risk of losing your head. Both chose poorly and they lost.

Opera singer Luciano Pavarotti often told a story about taking voice lessons while also attending teacher’s college. At graduation, he said to his father, “What shall I do, be a singer or a teacher?” His father said, “Luciano, if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.” Herod tried to sit on more than two chairs. He tried to please his wife; he tried to please his Roman bosses; he tried to please his friends; he tried to appease his enemies; he tried to quiet his conscience without either obeying or offending God. And in the end, he fell and fell hard.

Herod’s story has ended—but, here’s the deal, ours is still going on. Every day the world presents us with a hundred ways, both big and small, that we can serve ourselves instead of serving others. We are constantly confronted with a metaphorical choice between chairs, and we must decide in which chair we are going to sit. Amid perplexity and confusion, the noise and distraction of many voices telling us what we can and should do, we are invited to listen for the “righteous and holy” voice of God. When we hear that voice calling us to repentance, forgiveness, joy, love and a life of service, that is when the rest of our story begins. And this my friends is truly Good News! Thanks be to God! Amen

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