The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2015
Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible. At least, that’s what one of my favorite commentators has to say about today’s gospel. The drama and the intrigue, the sex and the violence, the family relationships gone…complicated, the will to power at any cost, and the need to secure that power once it’s achieved, to avoid vulnerability, to save face…that’s the stuff of everything from Game of Thrones, to House of Cards, to Boss, to Orange is the New Black, to most movies you’ll find on screens big or small.
And today’s gospel fits right in. King Herod hears from his people about this Jesus, this disrupter who talks about prophets and honor, who sends his followers out without provision (and they go) to heal people and cast out demons (and they do). Herod’s people come to him, worried that this is Elijah, or an old prophet returned, or…John the Baptist…who they were pretty sure was dead.
This anxiety prompts the only flashback scene in the gospel of Mark. Herod has had John arrested because John keeps making noise about Herod taking his brother’s wife. He’s so angry at moments that Herod wants to have John killed, but he’s also afraid of this John the Baptist, and he’s perplexed by him, and strangely protective of him, and interested – in spite of himself – in what John has to say.
So in the midst of all this confusion and drama, Herod hosts a big birthday party for himself. His daughter performs at the party, and as a show of grandiosity in front of his courtiers and subjects, Herod makes a point of offering his daughter anything she asks for. What she asks for is John the Baptist’s head on a plate.
Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.
All the elements are right here – a king’s draw to a woman married to another man, that other man being the king’s brother…the show of power in arresting someone for laying bare the truth…the demonstration of prestige before the king’s followers, and the brutality of doing murder to avoid embarrassment.
That plotline could find its way into any show on HBO or Netflix, any movie being released in theaters this weekend. And sadly, we can find elements of it all over our newsfeeds: disputes between nations and people, relationships complicated and confused, murder for the sake of saving face, perpetrators of terror against nations…and communities…and against people we love, with those most vulnerable suffering the greatest cost.
It is no light thing to recognize that this narrative finds play in the world as it is, in the world of our imagination, in the world of who we have been. It’s heavy, and daunting. And honestly, I want it to be different.
Several times, as a preacher, I have noted that our passages from scripture are chosen for us. It’s a way for me to distance myself from texts that I find unhelpful, readings that I would not address if I did not have to, instead dangling them out at arm’s length just as far away from myself as I’m able to do. If I did choose the readings that I preach, you would hear a lot of the first chapter of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…and from God’s fullness have we all received, and grace upon grace…” We would frequently pray the words of Psalm 46: “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved. God will help her at the break of day.” And Philippians 8: “Whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things…and the God of peace will be with you.” And, truth be told, if I were choosing the passages I preach, you probably wouldn’t hear many stories like today’s gospel.
As it happens, we do have some discretion in these summer months, when we only have one reading before the gospel lesson. As preacher, I could have chosen Amos, an Old Testament prophet with a plumb line, preaching on justice and a land laid waste by the sword. Honestly, I held that up against today’s reading from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” I held the two up against each other, and I chose the one that spoke of blessing. I chose the one that spoke of God’s good pleasure to gather up all things in heaven and on earth, to gather them to God’s own self.
And maybe it was the news of one country on the brink, and another, and another, or the terror inspired by threats of violence, and violence done and done again. What I needed to hear today, and perhaps you did too, was of the “pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of God’s glory.”
We already had one prophet murdered. I left the other with his plumb line to be remembered another day, and chose a word of hope over a word of judgment.
And I’m guessing that our nightly news has nothing on the city of Ephesus, that they had troubles at the time of this letter just like every place and every time. Those Ephesians had plotlines of their own to contend with. The sex and the violence, the drama and the intrigue, the will to power and the desire for protection, the family complications, the need to save face. All that was as true at the time of the writing of this letter as it was at the time of Herod and John the Baptist, as true as it all is now.
So I wonder if this passage of hope, instead of serving as a break from that world-as-it-is reality, rather becomes a proclamation of defiance. Yes, this is true. And here’s what is more true.
There’s a moment in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring when this great fiery monster chases members of the Fellowship across a very narrow, very high bridge. Their leader turns to face that creature, plants his staff before him, and says: “You shall not pass!”
Those words from Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” together with the words from today’s psalm: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” I wonder if those might serve as our staff, something for us to plant before ourselves as we face together into that truth of the world as it is and not as it should be, choosing to defy instead of being defeated, choosing hope over cynicism without pretense or escape. This might be our own way of saying, “Yes, this is true. And here is something that is more true,” our way of speaking into the chasm, and proclaiming: “You shall not pass!”
Maybe this is our staff and grounding against all that would encroach, our way of speaking into the void, defying the narrative and plotline that would consume or destroy: “This is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people…” “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”