"Remember the Cost"

Date Sunday July 15, 2018
Service Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Text Text: Mark 6:14-29
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Encouraging God’s Power and Presence"

    Today’s flashback in the Gospel of Mark is not exactly “G” rated. It begins with King Herod’s opinion that Jesus, who is becoming well known, is John the Baptist raised from the dead and somehow reunited with his head … or, at least, a head!

     Then, Mark tells the story of John’s demise, which started with him doing what he did – summing people to face the truth of their sin. This time it’s the powerful, Herod and his wife Herodias, who he confronted. It seems that this tetrarch of Galilee, a pawn of the Romans, had “set aside” his legitimate wife in order of marry his half-brother’s wife, which was not only immoral, but illegal, and John said so. Herodias was so angry that she wanted John killed – but the most her husband Herod would do was imprison him.

     It’s odd – Herod saw John as a righteous man and he liked to listen to him. But, he also wanted to please his wife, and to look tough. So, John languished in prison, but was protected from Herodias’ death wish for him. That is, until, Herod’s desire to look good and be powerful over-rode his admiration of and fear of John the Baptist.

     Take an extravagant birthday party and combine it with free-flowing wine, self-serving people, a lovely, dancing girl and her vengeful mother and it equals Herod making a promise in a moment of excitement that he regrets, but will not take back when it’s apparent that he has been duped.

     One commentator calls Herod a besotted man – besotted with power, besotted with wine, besotted with food and besotted with youth and beauty on display. His reputation – and frankly, being admired by his guests, is more important than John’s life even though Herod believes he’s a prophet of note.

     So, he keeps his promise to his dancing step-daughter, “whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom.” (It sounds to me like an exaggeration he spoke, but didn’t mean, which is something that sometimes happens when powerful people speak without thinking….) The revengeful Herodias is more than happy to dictate her daughter’s request, and so John’s head is literally served up on a platter.

     It’s a disconcerting story, to say the least, so why are we reading it at all, and particularly now? In recent weeks we’ve heard accounts Jesus’ amazing deeds – calming the storm, giving new life to a dead girl, healing those who are sick – so that lives are transformed. Of course, we also heard how Jesus encountered rejection in his home town, where their attitude limited what he could do among them, but we quickly moved on to the disciples being sent out to preach, to teach and to heal, taking nothing with them but sandals, a staff and their faith. Then, in the context of all that, there’s the flashback to John the Baptist’s death. WHY??

      It’s to remind us that proclaiming that God’s kingdom is near, while transforming, is also costly.  A Presbyterian minister from North Carolina writes that the location of the story in the Gospel is the key. Let me quote her, “It (the story of John the Baptist’s death) comes just as Jesus puts his disciples on the same collision course that the is on. If this story is about anyone, it is about us. In an all-points bulletin to disciples, then, and now, just in case we’re getting full of ourselves and thinking that following Jesus is going to bring us glory and advantage and ever-increasing success, Mark says: ‘Think again, following Jesus might get you in hot water up to here.’”

     She goes on to quote Quaker writer Elton Trueblood who said, “Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of the problems.” (1)

     What??? How can that be??? That’s not what some of the preachers of TV fame have to say. It’s certainly not what we want to hear; often our view of the church’s purpose, or the role of faith, is as an avenue for personal growth, comfort, nurture, care and support in difficult times. And, it is all those things, but it’s so much more.

     To be forgiven, loved, called and sent disciples, which is God’s will for us, involves relying on our faith to meet needs, challenge injustice, counter fear, shame and hate with compassion and forgiveness. It is to set our focus beyond ourselves, with the congregation being the place we are prepared and encouraged to do so, since to respond to God’s call requires sacrifice.

     Today our Ohio Mission Team heads for the Caldwell, Ohio area for a week of serving; they will build a wheel chair ramp and fix a porch foundation, as well as taking on other tasks. It occurs to me that the mission trip is a microcosm of what I just described; the participants sacrifice to serve, some of them taking vacation time to participate. They sleep on a church floor, use tent showers (not me, I’ll go to the truck stop) and work in the heat on sometimes difficult tasks. But each day the come back together to share a meal and their experiences, to have a devotion and play games, so that they can be prepared and encourage to go out again. That’s how the church is meant to function, I think.

     Pastor Moffett Churn, who I quoted earlier, was a copastor with her husband of a new church. They sowed the seeds of faith over a period of 17 years, and one of the constant obstacles, she said, was the yardstick that other people used to measure their success. Those “other people” included church growth specialists who had expectations that were difficult to meet, and which ignored the ways the congregation soared in terms of discipleship.

     This is her account of one particular conversation with someone in the loan program with whom the congregation was working, whose representative asked, “Why do you think the church is not growing faster?”

     “Looking up at the cross one of our members hewed out of ceiling beams from another member’s home, then looking down at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer book on my desk, I took a deep breath and said, ‘I suppose there isn’t a huge market for the message, ‘Jesus bids you come and die.’ I don’t see people lining up around the block for that.’ I wasn’t being glib.” (2)

     And, yet, the promise of scripture, and the witness of many, is that in dying to self, and being raised to new life in Christ, the blessings of life are revealed.

     Still, this unpleasant story of John the Baptist is a reminder that spokespersons for God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences; there is real danger – or, at least, struggle, in naming what is wrong in the world and trying to change it. As the Rev. Dr. Catherine Taylor notes: “The story of John’s beheading is shocking, and it’s meant to be – to shock us out of complacency in a faith that comes at little or no cost. Relatively few Christians, thanks be to God, are called to be martyrs. But all of us who would follow Christ are called to confront, as well as we can, the wrong we see around us, and confrontation is never comfortable.” (3)

     We prefer peace to confrontation, it’s true, but remember what Martin Luther King once said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.” And, for that, as well as all that transforms the world into what God intended, there is a cost. AMEN


(1)   “Living by the Word” by Moffett Churn, The Christian Century, June 20, 2018, pg. 21

(2)   Same as #1

(3)   “Re-Membering Faith” by the Rev. Dr. Catherine Taylor, Mark 6:14-29, July 13, 2003, www.day1.org