On Purpose

July 12, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

The 7th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 10 
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

 

If you were here last Sunday, you heard me make the case that Mark’s Gospel is the Action/Adventure movie of the New Testament. But, if we look at today’s passage, it seems more like a horror film. If I were watching this in the theater, this would be the time I’d go get a refill on my popcorn.

When we have a gospel reading like this it’s tempting to turn to the Old Testament or Epistle lesson for a good word, and avoid this gruesome tale altogether. And, as tempting as that was for me, I kept being pulled back to this text. So, let’s stick with Mark’s gospel and see if we can figure out what’s going on here.

15tnb_4The reading today comes immediately after last week’s lesson… the one where the disciples have been empowered by Jesus and given authority to go and do God’s work. They have gone out two by two, with only a staff in hand and sandals on their feet. They were told to take no food, no money, no extra clothes – just GO, just as they were. They were proclaiming that all should repent. They were casting out demons. They were anointing the sick with oil and curing them. Pretty powerful stuff!

Then, all of the sudden, we’re presented with this odd and terribly graphic story about Herod and the beheading of John the Baptist.

stjohn_Now, remember, John was a pretty dynamic guy, himself. He had his own followers and, from the very beginning, was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John knew that this was his purpose – to boldly call-out to all who would listen; call for them to repent; to turn toward God. He was even willing to challenge the power-structure of the day – Herod himself.

You see, Herod was the ruler of Galilee. He had divorced one wife and then married his brother’s wife. This was no bueno in the eyes of the Jewish people. John called him on it. It says:

For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias [that’s the wife] had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.

It goes on to say, “When (Herod) heard (John), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”  So this didn’t seem to be a situation where John was just cast into prison and forgotten, but instead, Herod continued to listen to John.

And I’m sure that what he heard WAS perplexing. There probably weren’t many people who would speak their mind to Herod. Certainly not tell him he was doing something wrong. But, like the disciples out doing their work in the towns, John wasn’t doing this on his own, but under God’s authority. Consequently, it was precisely John’s willingness to speak the truth, even in the midst of risk to his own well-being that revealed to Herod the righteous and holy nature of John.

But, Herodias, Herod’s wife, enters the picture. If Herod is being told that he shouldn’t have married her, then she’s being judged, too. She doesn’t take it so well and is angered by it. And while she didn’t hide her disdain, she knew that she had no power to override Herod’s authority. To add to her worries, perhaps she feared that if Herod kept listening to John, at some point John’s message might sink in? As long as he was alive, the risk was there. So, she bided her time – looking for that opportunity to take John down.

Vengeance became her purpose in life. We see this all too clearly with the rest of the story.

Herod has invited courtiers and officers over for a feast to celebrate his birthday. His daughter dances for the crowd and it pleases her father so much that he says he will give her whatever she asks for. He swore an oath that he would even give her half his kingdom if she asked for it. This is a big deal. Daughters have no right of inheritance. Here is her chance to set herself up for life!

strobel-bautista - crop

strobel-bautista – crop

Now, we aren’t told how old she is, but clearly she’s not independent enough to figure out the best thing to do. So she goes to her mother to find out what she should ask for. And, instead of thinking of the daughter and what would be best for her, Herodias can only think of her vengeance against John the Baptist. Her hatred is so deep that she is willing to have him put to death and make it a public spectacle.

 

While it said earlier that Herod protected John because he feared this righteous man, now, it says: The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Herod is more afraid of saving face in front of his guests, than in doing what he knows in his heart is right.

In that act, Herod reveals his own purpose – to protect himself; his power, his ego; and the status quo above all else. We see similar behavior from Herod when Jesus is brought before him leading up to the crucifixion. So, in some ways, today’s story of John’s execution provides a foreshadowing of that eventuality. But, even more, through today’s story and the actions of each of its characters, we see more clearly just how important it is to know our purpose.

In the case of Herod and Herodias, their purposes were rooted in worldly things like power and prestige; divisiveness and vengeance.

By contrast, John’s purpose was rooted in God-centered things: to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He stayed true to his purpose even when it meant speaking out against the power structures that would ultimately imprison and kill him.

Photo by Jody

Photo by Jody

As I thought about this, it brought to mind a conversation I had last summer when I was in Iona, Scotland with the J2A Pilgrimage. The Adult program was entitled “End of Wars,” inspired by the 100 year anniversary of World War I. Although our group wasn’t participating in the adult program, I learned that the focus was on what might be done to bring wars to an end.

During the conversation at dinner one evening, a woman at my table was talking about Helen, one of the speakers. Helen is probably in her late sixties or early seventies. The woman at my table was marveling at the fact that Helen had been arrested many, many times for protests against nuclear weapons. She said that in one instance, Helen and a few others were in small boat at sea and their presence was meant to prevent a nuclear submarine from surfacing.

Recreation of MLK, Jr cell in Birmingham, AL

Recreation of MLK, Jr cell in Birmingham, AL

During the dinner conversation, this same woman was expressing personal regret that she had not protested something in such a way that she would be arrested. Surprised by her sense of inadequacy, I said that getting arrested wasn’t on my list of things to do. For me, that wasn’t a benchmark of success.

Then she turned to me and asked “What would you be willing to be arrested for?”

 

I hadn’t considered the question before, and although a couple of things came to mind, something deeper emerged. As I continued to reflect on it the next morning, her question pointed me back to importance of PURPOSE.

Do I know what my purpose is at this time, and is the work that I’m doing reflecting that purpose?

And, so, today, I put that same question to you.

Do you know what your purpose is? What is God’s purpose for you right now?

Looking beyond ourselves, on whose behalf or for what cause is God calling you to put your energy?

Jesus asks us to love others like he loves us. So, what does that look like for you?

  • Do you, like John the Baptist, speak truth against the power structures in our society that continue to operate in polarizing and divisive ways?
  • Are you a voice of compassion and reconciliation when you see injustices and hateful behavior? Do you do this even if it’s unpopular in your social circle?
  • Are you willing, like the disciples, to GO OUT, without food or money; without an extra set of clothes; going just as you are, empowered by Jesus, to proclaim the message of God’s love to all people – to those who are different than you; to total strangers?

These are things we are called to do as Christians.

It isn’t always easy to do them, but we have the strength and empowerment of Jesus Christ with us. And when we don’t do it perfectly, we have the assurance that God still loves us.

Remember, righteousness isn’t about being perfect. It’s about doing the best we can with what we have, and seeking God’s will and presence in the midst of our lives.

When we do this, we live into who God would have us be.

Let’s BE that – on purpose.

Photo by Jody

Photo by Jody

Gospel Text:

King Herod heard of the demons cast out and the many who were anointed and cured, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 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. 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. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Mk 6:14-29)

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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