Pentecost 7 (Proper 10B)
Sermon by The Reverend Jo-Ann R. Murphy, D.Min.
“DO THE NEXT RIGHT THING”
“When the disciples began to spread the word of Jesus, the authorities took notice. Herod, terrorized by his guilty conscience, believed Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead. He was sure that Jesus had come to plague him for executing the prophet to save face with his friends and to appease the vengeance of his bitter wife. Herod knew that John was a ‘righteous and holy man.’ He wanted to protect the Baptist, but when his image as a powerful king was called into question, he abandoned his concerns for the Baptist’s welfare to protect his reputation.”
That’s the Living the Good News version of the beginning of today’s Gospel. The passage goes on to recount the story of Herod’s ordering the beheading of John, a tale well worthy of
A soap opera. It is a story within a story, but it is so stock full of sexual lust, seduction, political ambition, scandal, and murder that it has provided endless inspiration for artists and writers, ancient and modern. One of the main actors in this tragedy is Herod, the weak son of Herod the Great, who offers the perfect example of the caution we pray today’s collect
“… GRANT THAT [YOUR PEOPLE] MAY KNOW AND UNDERSTAND WHAT THINGS THEY OUGHT TO DO, AND ALSO MAY HAVE GRACE AND POWER FAITHFULLY TO ACCOMPLISH THEM.”
We are called/challenged to perceive and to know – to seek the truth but also to do the truth. In other words, being faithful is not only knowing and perceiving but doing and the doing takes grace and power. Being / knowing / perceiving / understanding / having insight is one side of the coin. Doing / acting / behaving / moving / fulfilling is the other.
So where do we look for meaning in this violent account of the end of John the Baptist? M Is there a message to be found in the near-unquenchable wrath of Herodias, Herod’s wife, who evidently would have killed John with her own hands, so great was her anger at him for denouncing the sin she and Herod had committed in marrying.
It is a most uncharacteristic Gospel lesson, and no matter how hard we look or how seriously we listen we cannot find a single note of authentic joy or hope anywhere in this text. It is a wretched tale of anger and revenge, resentment, and death. But there is a lot of that going on in our world today so perhaps we should keep wondering what God has to say to us this morning.
Faced with the dark side of human life, in this case Herod’s adultery with his brother’s wife and his imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist, we might easily miss the grace that is hidden in plain sight in this passage. The evil is up front and bold, then as now, as evident in our newspapers and television broadcasts as it is in the Bible. The text forces us to face a world that is in opposition to the innocent, a world where injustice and brutal power prevail.
For a moment pay attention to Herod again. With all his position and political power he stands in sharp contrast to the powerlessness of John yet it is John who is the hero of the tale. John has spoken the truth and his condemnation of Herod’s adultery has angered the vain ruler and his wife. Herod thinks he has silenced John by jailing him but word of the effectiveness of Jesus’ ministry reaches Herod in his palace and he despairs over John’s truth-telling. At his birthday party he is beguiled by the erotic dance of his stepdaughter, Salome, and he promises her anything she desires. An innocent pawn in the drama, Salome asks her mother what to ask for. The mother knows what will do the trick. She tells the teenager to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Then comes the moment when God gives Herod his one chance to do what is right. Herod is forced to choose between the innocent and the politically expedient. His moment of choice is a palatable moment of grace, waiting to be accepted or rejected. We know how Herod chooses. True to character, rather than show weakness in front of his guests, rather than refuse to be complicit in the murder of an innocent person, Herod agrees to Salome’s request.
The Gospel ends with John’s disciples claiming his body and laying it in a tomb. We know from other texts that John’s disciples turn to following Jesus, whom John called “the mighty one who will come after me.” And when next we meet Herod at the trial of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, he is still ineffective and indecisive. Although mark uses the title king for Herod, Caesar Augustus never named him king and in fact, Herod Antipas ends his pathetic career dismissed and exiled.
When it is our turn to speak truth to power, how will we choose? As disciples of Jesus, we, too, are offered moments of grace wherein we can witness to our faith or choose the more popular option. How do we respond when we know and perceive what we ought to do? In our homes, in our workplaces, here in our parish, in the places of influence we occupy, the challenge to us is both personal and corporate, for the members of the Body of Christ to read our own decisions considering this story and ask ourselves whether the choices we make are self-protective and comfortable or part of God’s transformation of the world. Let us pray that we will recognize those opportunities to risk more of ourselves when it is our turn to do what we know we ought to do; and pray that God will favor us with the grace and power to faithfully accomplish his will, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.