Let’s be honest: Today’s passage from Mark is brutal and ugly. There are no good people in this story except John, and the disciples who come to bury his body.
Like many gospel stories, this is a story of power, the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Mark opens today’s passage with Herod recognizing the increasing popularity of Jesus, and he’s beginning to feel threatened by that popularity. It’s a feeling he’s felt before, and he begins to remember back when John the Baptist was his prisoner.
Now, we all know John. The wilderness, honey and locusts, crazy John who can’t help but to speak the truth.
It’s interesting to note that Mark begins his gospel, Chapter 1, with John the Baptist announcing the coming of Jesus and pre-figuring his ministry. Today, in Chapter 6, Herod suspects Jesus to be the resurrected John, who Herod had put to death.
Perhaps that’s why Mark placed this peculiar story in this particular part of his gospel. Last week we heard the passage right before this one. Jesus is not recognized as a great healer, teacher or prophet in his hometown. We also heard how Jesus sent out his disciples to begin their ministry of spreading the Good News of God’s Word. Mark tells us that, “…they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” (Mk 6:13)
Now, it’s easy to see the disciples as a select band of people, totally filled and consumed with the power of God, perhaps walking down the road, two-by-two, all involved with this grand adventure of ministry! Jesus tells them, hey; if you become discouraged, just shake the dust from your feet. No big deal!
Many of us still have this joyous, almost ecstatic, view of being called by God; of being happy ministers of the Word, which we all are by our vows of Baptism. Often, on television or on the internet, we see and hear preachers tell us that all we need to do is accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and our lives will no longer be difficult. People will love us! We will be happy – all the time! We might even win the lottery, have our rent all paid up, and get a new car! Hallelujah!
When I was growing up, there was a “minister” who preached this prosperity gospel. He was The Reverend Al, “That’s spelled AL”, and his message was, “Why wait for your pie in the sky, by and by, when you die? You can have your cake on Earth and eat it, too!” I’m sure you’ve heard folks like this; God wants you to be happy and prosperous! God wants you to have that new car! God wants you to hit the numbers, be a success! And if you’re not getting all these things, if you’re not happy all the time, then it’s your fault. Send me more money! Pray harder! Send more money! Buy one of my special prayer cloths! Oh, yes, and send more money!
It’s funny, but in my years of Seminary and Deacon Formation, I don’t remember Jesus teaching any of this to the disciples. I’m sure it probably just slipped his mind.
My friends, today’s gospel gives us a wake-up call. A hard blow of reality. Deciding to follow Jesus is hard and dangerous! Following Jesus makes you an outsider, a threat to those whom the world considers powerful. Mark luridly shows us how the very whims and carelessly ill-considered words of those corrupted by power can lead to horrific results. The beheading of John the Baptist and, later, the ugly death of Jesus on the cross are both results of corrupt and weak political leadership.
I’ll leave it to you to come up with examples from today.
Yes, this is a dark story and a sober reminder of the costs of discipleship, and the evils of corruption and greed. And yet, there’s something else happening here. It’s almost happening behind the scene. Very subtle, but very, very powerful!
In the middle of this dark horror, two sentences stand out for me. “…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.” Herod was in awe of John. He liked to listen to him, but John’s conversation left Herod “greatly perplexed.”
Something about John, something about John’s beliefs, something about John’s life of faith was so powerful that he was able to reach and stir up the conscience, to affect the consciousness of the great Herod Antipas. Herod, who provides extravagant banquets for the powerful military chiefs and the wealthy civic leaders of Galilee. Crazy John, the guy who wears animal skins and eats bugs is now, somehow, able to reach the psyche and the spirit of the great Herod! What is it about John that would so impress Herod? John is just another prisoner of this corrupt regime! What power does John have?
John, even though a helpless prisoner in the eyes of the world, is still able to claim power! Power that is able to shake and affect even this most powerful ruler. John has the power of truth, and John has the power of faith in God. Because of this faith, John also has the power of hope! John’s hope is not that he will be freed from prison, or that Herod will see the error of his ways and start helping the poor. No. John’s hope, John’s faith, is in his own acceptance of the ultimate truth of God’s glory, God’s love and forgiveness. No matter what cruel treatment or threat John receives while a prisoner, his hope and his faith in God’s truth will sustain him.
These very qualities of John, his faith, hope and truth, are what Herod found so incredible, so fascinating, and so disturbing. In spite of all his riches and worldly power, Herod did not have these gifts of John. Indeed, it’s possible Herod used his wealth and worldly power as substitutes for faith, hope and truth. Maybe the realization that John’s peace, which came from his faith and hope, was something Herod knew he could never possess through his wealth and power.
My friends, today we are all witnesses to the abuse of wealth and power at the expense of the poor and the marginalized. We experience fear used as a weapon of political power, separating families, not only at the border but around our own dinner tables. Friends and family are separating themselves from each other for fear of confrontation and, in some cases, violence. The power of our police is being used by people, predominately white, to disrupt and harass other people, predominately people of color, for using public swimming pools, enjoying a family picnic in a public park, or selling lemonade on a street corner.
This fear, this atmosphere of abuse, must be resisted! Do not stop challenging, do not give in to the fear of this world, the fear of “the other”. Yes, many times we fell like John, a prisoner, captive of an evil regime. But fear does not drive out fear, nor does hate drive out hate. By discovering and using other tools, other strengths, other power, as John did, we can affect those close to us and those in power. We have access to the truth, access to faith, access to hope. If we claim these powers, and use them to live our lives, there’s no telling what can happen. Maybe the Kingdom of God.
John was only one person, yet he was able to arouse the conscience of a king. Imagine if just this roomful of people would live in faith like John, what we could accomplish?
Imagine, just imagine if each of us would encourage another by our faith and hope, how our world would change.
John 14, a passage from a different John, encourages us, “Let not your hearts be troubled”. Live a life of faith. Live a life of hope. Live a life filled with the truth of God’s love.
In the words of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., “Keep the faith, baby!”