Sermon for Pentecost 6 from Linda Griggs who is the Director for Christian Formation at St Martin’s, Providence.
“Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”
It’s like a train wreck, isn’t it? You just can’t look away. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a cultural rubbernecking phenomenon: composers, writers, choreographers, and visual artists have all interpreted it with varying degrees of lurid detail. Pastry chefs have even gotten in on the act: A fellow parishioner recently told me that she attended a presentation of the Strauss opera about this story, called Salome. When she arrived at the after party she was curious as to the contents of a cake box and couldn’t resist a peek. You are correct in imagining what was in the box. Another friend told me that this story is the first Bible story that actually frightened her. And I’m sure she’s not alone. This is the stuff of nightmares. And yet.
Nightmares have their place. A Jungian analyst once told me that, scary and heart-pounding as they are, nightmares can be invitations to transformation—in other words the collective unconscious is trying to wake you up to something new that you might be ignoring. So, rather than being frightened of a nightmare, you might want to see what it is trying to tell you.
So since we began by comparing today’s Gospel to a nightmare, let’s take it one step further and accept that it may also be an invitation—or even a challenge.
First, we need to remember that in Jungian dream work everyone in the dream represents an aspect of our own Self. It’s as though we are looking in mirror with more than one panel. That means that if your dream has someone in it that is saintly and perfect, that’s you. And that other person in the dream who is a real jerk? That’s you too. We all have our shadow.
So who are the characters in our nightmare/story? John the Baptist is a charismatic preacher who has been making waves all over Galilee, calling for repentance and amendment of life for everyone. He speaks truth, calling out wrong where he sees it, even into the highest and shiniest seats of Roman power and influence. John is arguably the focal point of story, yet he has been making way for another—one whose life, death and resurrection call people to a new Way of compassion, healing and reconciliation. Of all of our characters, John is the one we’d like to identify with, isn’t he? Courageous, eloquent, cousin to the Messiah…it’s easy to want to see him when we look in the mirror. Or is it? Are we ready to take the risks that John did? Maybe, before we jump into John’s sandals, we need to see who else looks back at us from the mirror.
Herod Antipas: the youngest son of Herod the Great; he had to struggle with his brothers to gain and maintain his position as ruler over Galilee and Perea. Further, his personal life is major tabloid fodder. He travelled to Rome to visit his half-brother Philip, and he met Philip’s wife, Herodias (who was also Herod’s niece). They fell in love. Herod divorced his wife, which did not go over well, and he and Herodias got married. So we can see that he was insecure politically and sketchy in his personal relationships, —and yet intrigued by the preaching of John. John struck a chord with Herod as he railed against him for an adulterous and incestuous marriage. Herod knew that John “was a righteous and holy man…When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” Can you just imagine Herod’s heart—wounded by political struggles, guilty about his infidelity and divorce, yet touched by God through John? Can you just imagine his heart being gently wedged open? Can you imagine him just beginning to nurture a flickering ember of repentance? Can you just imagine his personal failures just crushing that ember like a bug?
And we have Herodias. Unfaithful to her first husband. Probably insecure. And definitely angry. Imagine her fury with this popular upstart John the Baptizer who dares to speak such—truth. Truth that she will not admit to herself. Imagine her muttering to herself that John Must. Be. Stopped. Imagine her biding her time.
And the daughter. Scholars acknowledge that a transcription error in the text has named her for her mother, but tradition has named her Salome, so for simplicity’s sake that’s what we’ll call her too. Tradition has also portrayed her in a number of ways—as scheming, calculating, and even unstable. But look closely at today’s story. Salome is none of those things. She is a daughter. She is a step-daughter. She is a young woman in first-century Palestine. She is a dancer.
And when she enters the story, it begins to move. Up to this point I have imagined Herod sitting on his throne. John sitting in jail. Herodias sitting in the women’s quarters. But Salome dances. And does it so well that Herod’s guests are exceedingly pleased, and Herod decides to show off to his powerful and influential colleagues—to offer Salome some largesse to make himself look good—to give his pride a little birthday boost. So Salome completes her dance and, bidden to do so, breathlessly approaches her stepfather, who offers her anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. In response she zips to her mother, asking what shall I request. Herodias seizes the opportunity and tells her to request the head of John the Baptizer. Salome zips back to Herod: “‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.’” Back and forth; Salome is synonymous with movement.
But strangely, while we see what she DOES, we don’t know how she FEELS. We are left to wonder about this young woman: Is she powerless? Arguably yes. She is a daughter. She is a young woman in first century Palestine. She doesn’t have a lot of power, even as daughter of a king. Her function is to Obey. She does what Mom says. She is powerless. Or is she? She dances. She moves between King and Queen. As long as she moves, the action of the story moves. As long as she moves, John the Baptist’s death creeps inexorably closer. Without Salome’s movement, Herodias’ revenge is incomplete. Without Salome’s movement, Herod still has a chance at repentance and transformation through a continued opportunity to listen to John.
Salome moves, and the tragedy unfolds. It can’t happen without her. Powerless? Yes, and no. She is also catalyst. She is agent. She is, unwittingly perhaps, in collusion as events unfold.
I wonder if we see parts of ourselves in this nightmare/tragedy. In the queen, furious at someone who bids her confront the truth of something she has done wrong? Do we see ourselves in the king, guilty and insecure, vulnerable to God’s grace and yet more vulnerable to his pride and political expediency? Or in the daughter, whose actions are both unwitting and yet crucially catalytic, acting as an agent for tragedy—even evil?
This is chilling. But if we are going to even think of looking in the mirror and seeing John the Baptizer the truth-teller, prophet and virtuous victim in this story we are going to have to admit that there are parts of us that are less than savory.
If we want to find the invitation to transformation in this nightmare—to find the Good News in this Gospel, we need to look in the mirror a little closer. Any of these characters can call to us—open a window on our faults and, yes, sins. Herod haunts me because of the missed opportunity—the heart almost broken open, and then hardened by pride. But the one that has most drawn me for the past few weeks is Salome herself.
As I have said, Salome is the catalyst. Without her, nothing happens. Yet she is in many ways just an extension of her parents and their own baggage. She is an ironic combination of power and powerlessness.
A couple of days after I found out that I would be preaching on this passage the horrific shootings in Charleston took place, with all of the events that have unfolded since then. This passage and these events became linked in the same way that you can remember where you were when something important happened. I couldn’t help but ponder the pain in the headlines somehow mapped upon the pain in this Gospel lesson. I felt invited by the Spirit to wonder if Salome has something to show us—like a nightmare bidding us to wake up to something we are uncomfortable seeing.
Does Salome somehow symbolize a dynamic in our society with regard to our painful and conflicted relationship with race? Are we, like Salome, an extension of the baggage of previous generations, seemingly powerless to respond to calls for difficult conversation, conversion and action for justice? Or are we actually powerful catalysts for perpetuation of the status quo?
If you haven’t seen the documentary, Traces of the Trade, I highly recommend it, but the first time I saw it, I was heartbroken by what I learned. It tells the hard truths of the wealthy DeWolf family’s close ties to the Triangle slave trade. They and their descendants were also prominent and influential in the Episcopal Church, including the founding and building of our own church. The Right Rev. James DeWolf Perry was 7th Bishop of Rhode Island and 18th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The rich history of our denomination is interwoven with pain and a need for reconciliation. We need to consider the fact that our inability to see difficult truths may actually be an agent in perpetuating institutional racism today.
So as you can see, Salome haunts me. I wonder what we can do. I wonder where the Good News is in all of this. Have we, like Herod, missed our opportunity for grace? Are our hearts irretrievably hardened?
And then I remember. This story didn’t end with Salome’s final movements as she reached to take the platter from the soldier’s hands and turned to give it to her mother. There was one more action.
“When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” Where have we heard words like this before?
Friends, HERE is the Good News of this nightmare. This entire story points to resurrection and healing. Out of the nightmare of the tomb emerges the quiet echo of words of Jesus’ resurrection—a foreshadowing of Easter joy. It is a joy that prevails in spite of human frailty.
And today we see similar signs of resurrection hope in the face of tragedy. We see it in the wonderful photo of Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina and took down the Confederate battle flag. And the white woman, a descendent of Jefferson Davis, whose impassioned speech in the S.C. House terminated all last-minute efforts at delay and resulted in the permanent removal of the flag this past Friday afternoon. Now there are two women who are catalysts. We see it in St. Louis, Missouri– Christ Church Cathedral’s response to a spate of black church burnings with the interfaith Rebuild the Churches Fund. There is an agent of resurrection. We see it in our own diocese with the effort to establish a museum on the slave trade and center for reconciliation at the Cathedral of St. John. There is our own diocese, in collusion with Hope. And we see it in the wider church; the same church whose 17th Presiding Bishop was a descendent of slave traders, electing an African American as its 27th Presiding Bishop. Resurrection indeed.
But resurrection is not synonymous with rest. The nightmare is an invitation, but once we understand its call—its challenge, we need to pay attention. We cannot let our newfound understanding rob this story of its power to disturb us.
“When [Herod] heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”Amen.