Today we have the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. What a lovely story it is. One that we preachers just love to preach on. It makes an especially great children’s message, don’t you think? I think that the shock of this story, the absolute horror, is so overwhelming that it almost invites us not to take it seriously, not to pay attention to it. What’s the moral here? None of us are beheaders. None of us are at any risk, I don’t think, of doing something like this. So okay, the lesson is what? Don’t be mean? Okay. Move on. That’s it.
But I think that actually there is some meat here for us to consider, that’s worth dwelling on. Not the brutal details, but something deeper than that. And one way to approach a story like this and reflect on it is to imaginatively put yourself in the scene, in the story, and to think about, which character would you be if you were one of the players in this story? That’s what I’ve been reflecting on this past week—who would I be in this story—but before I talk about that, I want to talk a little about the backstory here.
The king is named Herod, but this is not the same Herod who tried to get the Wise Wen to tell him where they found the baby they had come to see. And when he failed, he decided to solve it by having all the children under two years old killed. This is not that Herod. That’s Herod the Great. This is his son, Herod Antipas. Herod the Great died not long after the birth of Jesus and his son took over. And his wife is named Herodias.
And in this Gospel we’re reminded that she was married to Herod’s brother, his half brother, Philip, which is unlawful. It’s against Jewish law, and these people are Jews, although they’re ruling Israel on behalf of the Roman empire. Herod himself also was previously married to someone else. So they divorced to marry each other. And the girl who does the dancing, who’s referred to in this Gospel as the daughter, she’s probably Herod’s stepdaughter. She’s probably his brother’s daughter, which only makes it slightly less creepy, that she’s doing this dance which so captivates everyone.
Herod has a complicated relationship with John the Baptist. We hear that he’s perplexed, but he likes to listen to him. He likes his preaching. He likes to hear him. So Herodias has a grudge against John the Baptist and would like to see him killed, all along, because of his preaching against their marriage. But Herod up to this point has been his protector and he prevents that from happening.
And that brings us to today’s Gospel. Herod gives himself a birthday party. It’s attended by the rich and famous of Galilee. You can only imagine. It goes on a bit. The girl does her dance and everyone loves it. And Herod is so captivated that he promises her whatever she would ask for, even half his kingdom. She has to go to her mother to ask, “What should I ask for?” And Herodias says, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” Now she’s got John. He’s caught between going back on his oath and looking weak in front of all his guests or displeasing his wife, and we know which one he chooses. So he sends a soldier. John is promptly beheaded, and the soldier returns with the head on a platter. Lovely.
So who would you be in this story? Who would I be? Well, it’s easier for me to start by ruling out who I would not be. I would not be the daughter. I don’t dance. No one would send me out to be the entertainment as a dancer, unless they were looking for a comedy act. But even more than that, I’m no longer that young and naive person who is so eager to please some adult figure that she goes to her mother and asks, “What should I ask for?”
And I wouldn’t be Herodias. I’m not conniving in that way. And Herodias was a conniver. In fact, it was eventually her conniving on behalf of Herod that was the downfall of both of them, and he was removed from office and exiled to France. I’m not Herodias. I’m not that cruel. I’m not that conniving.
Which leaves John and Herod. Well, I know who I want to be. I want to be John. I want to be that prophetic preacher who everyone loves to listen to. I love his message. If you go back to the beginning of the Gospel where he’s preaching by the Jordan, his message actually sounds a lot like something that might be preached today. It’s a message about righteous living. It’s a message about concern for the poor. He says, if you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. It’s a message about living righteously. He tells the soldiers, don’t use your power to extort money from those who are poor. He tells the tax collectors, don’t ask for more than the actual tax, which was the practice at that time.
I want to be that prophetic preacher and yet be loved by everyone, even Herod, Herodias, whatever. But I suspect that actually I’m a lot more like Herod. I suspect that I’m the one that likes to listen to those words of wisdom, but when it comes to actually living them, that’s a lot harder. That’s an awful a lot harder. I do that. I think a lot of us do that. We hear something, we hear a prophetic message, we hear talk about justice and it sounds good and we want to go along with that. But when it comes to actually following through, it’s a lot harder.
I thought about, who are the prophetic voices in the world today that I should be listening to? And actually I was rather pleased to realize that the church is often one of those prophetic voices. Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, our Bishop Daniel Gutierrez, often their messages are right on about issues like poverty and justice and racial justice. About the terrible problem of gun violence here in the Philadelphia area. Our deacons in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, they are a prophetic voice. We have a presence in Kensington. Our church has been organizing vaccination clinics in places where people are likely to have a harder time having access to them. I hope that our church is a voice for justice.
We had a study here, some members of Trinity were in it, starting before the pandemic and continuing through it, called Sacred Ground, which is a study that relies on videos and reading to look at racial history of our country and racial justice. We have a new initiative in the diocese called Loving Presence, which is about how all of us need to be working for racial justice.
And that’s the point, all of us need to be working. It’s not enough just to listen to the prophets and say, “Great message. Those prophetic voices, I’m so glad they’re part of my church.” We need to be speaking ourselves. We need to follow through on that.
So I want to end with a paraphrase of the prayer that was our opening prayer. It’s a prayer that I say in my own words very often: God, give me the wisdom to know what it is that I should do, and the courage to do, it through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Buckingham, PA.