The Unasked Question

Pentecost 8 Year B Proper 10 15 July 2018

                                        A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs 

Mark 6: 14-29 

Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. “

Power, sex, religion: An unholy trinity. If we didn’t know better we’d swear this was the plot of an HBO series and not Holy Scripture. Except we do know better—the Bible is filled with conflict, drama, and violence, and why not? It’s about us. But of course it’s not just about us, it’s about God’s relationship with us. And if that is the case, then our response to even the most lurid and violent passages in the Bible must always be a theological one: Where is God in this? Where indeed?

Herod Antipas was not the favorite son of Herod the Great. He wasn’t even the second favorite. He was passed over three times to be named the heir to the Herodian Kingdom. He was finally declared heir, only to have his father change his will at the last minute so that Junior became merely a tetrarch—ruler of a fourth of the kingdom, while his brothers and sister ruled portions of their own.

Herod’s ambition far exceeded his inheritance—he fought his father’s will all the way to the Emperor in Rome, more than once making the trip to lobby for full kingship and for greater territory. But to no avail. So…he did what any self-respecting petty despot would do; he married his sister-in-law Herodias, whose first husband Philip held a much larger portion to the east. Convenient.

Herod also fancied himself in the mold of his father; a builder of great things. Seeking to boost his reputation with the Jewish community, possibly because he wanted to be seen as their king in the tradition of David, he rebuilt the city of Sepphoris for them after the Romans destroyed it.  He also built a great resort capital on the Sea of Galilee named for his Roman patron, Tiberius, complete with a stadium, a palace, a sanctuary for prayer, and access to nearby warm springs at Emmaus. Lovely, except he built it on top of a graveyard, making it ritually impure for pious Jews, so for the first several years he had to colonize his capital with Gentiles. Oops.

In his desire to ingratiate himself with the Jews and the Romans at the same time, even as he continued to badger the emperor for more territory, we see a pretty clumsy and chaotic tetrarchy, led by a man whose chief focus in life was one thing: himself.

Enter John the Baptizer. Repent! Turn your life around! Turn to God! Rethink your priorities! Oh, and your marriage is unlawful.

And we know how the story unfolds from there. We see Herodias’ anger and John’s imprisonment. Then Herod’s birthday party; the dance, the stupid (drunken?) promise, the murder of a prophet. We watch, transfixed, as Salome bears the bloody platter to her stepfather. It is done. No going back.

There had been a glimmer of hope in the heavily-shadowed Herod:

“When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

We had hoped that John’s message might take root, but apparently, Herod’s interest was merely self-serving—just another example of hedging his bets and adding a prophet to his Rolodex of potentially profitable contacts. Either that or a case of ‘keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ Regardless, when it came down to it John’s message wasn’t as compelling as the approving smiles of Herod’s cronies as they watched him wave his hand in an ‘off with his head’ gesture.

Where, oh where in this debacle of hubris, ambition, and manipulation is God to be found? Where is God in this story in which self-interest and expediency win out over integrity and transformation? In the battle between power and truth, power has won; how is God manifest here?

God is in the dungeon with John. God is beside his friends as they bear his body to the tomb. God’s tender grace is with them in their grief. God is there because we can trust that God hears whenever the blood of the innocent cries out for justice in the face of those who would choose expediency and self-interest over compassion and truth.

You see, the powerful only seem to have won the day in this story. In its beginning and ending we hear a premonition–an echo of hope. Firstly, as Herod hears of Jesus’ deeds of power and wonders if John has come back from the dead. It’s a whisper of what will come; not for John, but for Jesus. And again, at the end of the story, the whisper takes on the hint of a melody as the final line foreshadows Good Friday and the inevitable trumpet shout of Resurrection:

“…they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”

God is there, woven throughout. We can see it all if we look closely; we can hear it if we listen.

God is always in the Question—not just as we engage with Scripture, but as we walk in the world. God is always present when we ask, “Where is God in this?” Because when we ask, we are doing something existentially crucial to our identity as spiritual beings and as Christians: We are thinking theologically. 

According to scholar Karen Yust, it is easy for us to look at Herod’s decisions and see where he went wrong, and find God in the process, as we have just done. We already know the context—the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But it prompts a challenge for those of us who are outside of the story. How do we view our own decisions? Herod’s were bad-faith decisions—we can see that. We sometimes make them too—make choices out of self-interest rather than out of a sense of greater good.

Might it be that our need to be expedient and self-protective in our choices is a way of avoiding thinking deeply and theologically? What would the world look like if we asked, “Where is God in what I am doing or observing? What if we thought theologically as naturally as breathing?

It’s easy to do when in the presence of the beautiful, the good and the true. It is more difficult in the face of suffering and evil. But that is when it is most necessary and potentially transformational— when we find the beautiful, the good and the true in the darkness.

Steven Charleston, retired Bishop of Alaska, wrote about the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand:

“This long ordeal has made me think deeply about the meaning of rescue. To be lost in darkness, to be isolated, to be found: it seems the classic model of being brought back to life. But the one element made even more clear to me is the willingness to take the risk of rescue. Coming out of the cave takes courage, skill and trust. It takes teamwork. The spiritual metaphor we have been watching unfold in Thailand is a lesson to be learned as we pray these young lives to safety.”

Lost and found. Light and dark. Death and life. Emergence. Courage. Prayer. Trust.

These aren’t arcane theological terms. Thinking theologically doesn’t require special training. Simply ask the Question. Where is God in this event? This illness? This tragedy? This person? Ask. The mere act of seeking God is an act of finding, and being found—possibly even being rescued.

 

 

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