A sermon for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost

“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 Herod 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.[1]

That’s the climax of our reading from Mark’s Gospel for today, the end of a long and detailed account of the execution of John the Baptist.

The word Gospelmeans good news—Mark gives us those words in his very first verse—but it surely is hard to find the good news in this story.

There’s no good to be found in the scheming of Herodias, who wants to get rid of John because his persistent criticism of her marriage to Herod is a political liability.

There’s not much good to be found in Herod himself, though he seems to have some regard for John.

But he doesn’t want to lose face in front of the rich and powerful of Galilee who have gathered to celebrate his birthday, and so without hesitation he sends an executioner with orders to return with John’s head on a serving platter, and his command is promptly accomplished.

That doesn’t seem like good news, not at all.

This account of John’s beheading is another one of Mark’s sandwich stories, where he sticks one story in between the beginning and end of another, positioning them to be interpreted in relationship with each other.

John is the middle story, the meat. That’s the part we heard this morning.

What comes before and after as Mark tells it—the bread for this sandwich, in other words—is the account of Jesus sending the 12 out on mission, and their subsequent return.

They were given specific instructions to do the same work Jesus himself had been doing: to proclaim his message, to stand up against evil, and to be instruments of God’s healing into the world.

Their mission is our mission, too—that’s still the basic mission of the church.

Their story is our story, too.

So it’s a little unsettling—don’t you think?—to find this story connected to a gruesome account of the execution of a prophet. Is that what we can expect to happen to us to, if we’re faithful in our witness?

Where exactly isthe good news in this story?

John’s criticism of Herod’s marriage was a political liability for this leader who was nominally Jewish.

Every so often someone will tell me that the Gospel isn’t political. Jesus wasn’t political. And that’s true if what you mean is that he didn’t intend to organize an army to rise up in violent rebellion against the Roman Empire.

John, too. He might have told Herod his marriage was unlawful, but he never proposed overthrowing Herod’s government.

But both John and Jesus never wavered in speaking up for what was right, even when that contradicted the actions and behavior of people in authority.

They spoke truth to power, and in the end they were bothexecuted precisely because they were perceived as a threat by those people.

The request for John’s head might have come from Herodias, and Herod might have wished she hadn’t asked, but make no mistake, he wasn’t a nice guy.

And by the way, this isn’t the same Herod who killed all the baby boys when the wise men told him about the birth of a child who would be king of the Jews.[2]That was this Herod’s father, and apparently the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Herod and his wife Herodiaswere both married to other people when they met in Rome, where they fell into a passionate love affair and then married each other.

One of the things Herodias seemed to appreciate about her new husband was his power and prestige. She was one of those spouses who is constantly conniving to get their partner ahead in life, and ironically, in the end it was one of her plots that brought him to his downfall.

But that’s getting way ahead of this story. So let’s go back to that question about good news: Where is the good news in this story?

What’s encouraging about a Gospel that connects our mission as Christ’s church with a story that reminds us pretty vividly that the consequence for speaking God’s truth to the world aren’t always pleasant?

In faith I have to say it’s knowing that God is with us, and trusting that coming together to be the Body of Christ in the world is both the greatest honorand the greatest consolationwe’ll ever know.

And the church is Christ’s body in the world. We together are the body of Christ in the world.

The greatest glory and the greatest consolation we’ll ever know.

Certainly the reports I’ve been reading from our delegates who were at General Convention in Austin, Texas, last week support that idea.

General Convention is the governing body of the Episcopal Church. It meets every three years with representatives from the whole church, and we’re going to talk in more detail about how it works and about what was accomplished this time around later this morning in our Faith Enrichment time.

But I will say now that in addition to doing a lot of internal church business, this group representing the entire Episcopal Church engaged in other kinds of action as well. Speaking out, like Jesus and John, for what was right, in formal resolutions and also in visible public action.

So every morning just before the beginning of the first legislative session of the day, two members of the group called Bishops United Against Gun Violence led a short prayer service. Last Tuesday our own bishop, Daniel Gutierrez, was one of the leaders of that prayer service.

He prayed a prayer for the victims of gun violence and those who mourn them, but also asking God “to strengthen our hearts and our arms to bring and end to this scourge. This,” he says, “we pray in the name of the one who overcame the power of death, your son, Jesus Christ.”

Last Sunday morning, bishops and delegates moved outside of the convention center to stand in public witness against gun violence.

And later that same day, more than a thousand Episcopalians went out to the Hutto Residential Center in nearby Taylor, Texas, a former medium-security prison where 500 women are being held while they wait for the resolution of their immigration status. Some of the women there are among those whose children were taken from them recently. And it’s actually hard to get much information about exactly who’s there, but like the residential center in Pennsylvania just outside of Reading, many of them are probably asylum seekers. And just as a side note, it’s not illegal to request asylum in the United States, to come to the border and ask for asylum, to be allowed to stay because it’s not safe where they came from.

So the service at the center was titled a Prayer of Vision, Witness and Justice. Bishop Gutierrez was there again, and Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop, was the preacher.

Just to quote part of Curry’s sermon, he said, “We come in love. That is the core of our faith. That is the heart of it. And we come, because we are Christian and the way of love calls for us to be humanitarian. It calls for us to care for those who have no one to care for them. … We come because we believe that this nation conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. … Not just American people, no, but all people, wherever they come from”

He goes on, but I would say there was joy there in the blazing heat of that day. There was joy in Austin, as representatives of so many churches, both large and small like ours, came together to represent the larger church.

They came to do eight days’ worth of church business and to attend to the greater business of being church, as well: To proclaim Christ’s message, to stand against evil, and to act as instruments of God’s healing.

They came to be the Body of Christ in the world, because they know that is the greatest glory and the greatest consolation we can ever know in this life.

And that is good news, indeed.

Amen.

[1]Mark 6:25b-28 NRSV

[2]Matthew 1