July 11, 2018
If you ever needed proof that we don’t pick the texts for the week, here it is. After being out for the last 2 weeks- one to take some high school youth to Houston for the National Youth Gathering and the other for family vacation, I arrive back to preach on this lovely passage. So HEADS up, it’s also not really the easiest passage for which to find the “good news”. Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance in the story. And it doesn’t even end on a positive note. But I don’t want to get a-HEAD of myself.
Today’s Gospel is sandwiched right between two important movements in the work of the disciples. The one before is of the disciples being sent out on their mission to proclaim the gospel, and the one that follows is about them coming back. So right there in the middle is this story of King Herod hosting this wonderful, fancy party for which to impress his people. I imagine he’s seated at the HEAD of this large table, around it of which sat political magistrates, military commanders, and prominent men. And in the middle of the party, Herod’s step-daughter performs a dance. And apparently not just any dance. We’re talking a dance so pleasing to Herod that he offers her anything she wishes as a reward- up to half his kingdom!
Surprised at this generous offer, she HEADS back to her mom to ask for guidance. And to seek revenge for John the Baptist advising her husband not to marry her—apparently even then it wasn’t exactly celebrated to marry your sister-in-law (In fact, it was illegal) —she advises her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Unwilling to LOSE FACE in front of his kingdom, Herod agrees to the macabre request and orders John to be executed.
So if you ever hear folks dismayed about how violent our culture has become, well maybe things aren’t so different after all. I mean, this is some real Game of Thrones stuff isn’t it. Brutal!
So what to make of this story? Where is the message here? Where is the good news?
Luther instructed us to “squeeze a passage until there’s good news” so let’s keep at this and unpack it some more.
Its placement between the two passages- the sending and the return- scholars believe is intentional and artistically strategic. Perhaps Mark is making the case that yes, the disciples are called out into the world to proclaim the good news, but that it can cost you your life. It’s an abrupt position.
One scholar noted, “It’s a sobering reminder to Christians, who might be under political or religious oppression or material allurement, to remain unwavering in God’s mission and commitment. Like the prophets of old, John the Baptist was willing to risk his life or his message and not succumb to public pressure.”
Jesus calls us to boldly proclaim the gospel, even when it’s risky business. We are to speak truth to power even when it’s scary. How many of us have been in a situation where the right answer was one that put us in jeopardy. Maybe your lives weren’t at risk, but what about your job?
A lot has been made in recent years of whistle-blowers. Employees who, upon witnessing unethical or illegal behavior, alert management or sometimes the authorities, to end the behavior. Oftentimes, these employees lost their jobs as a result of their speaking truth to power. Thankfully, awareness of these cases have brought protections for those willing to come forward.
The “me too” movement is a similar example. Women who often had to endure all forms of harassment in the workplace, often at the hands of powerful men, in order to retain their jobs or experience the professional advancement they felt entitled to.
Admittedly every case in these areas are unique, but it highlights the risks of speaking truth to power. The Christian life Jesus calls us to requires nothing less.
Maybe at times, as Christ followers, we lose sight of our purpose. In our daily lives we might forget that the message of Jesus is to live differently. Christians aren’t supposed to look and act like everyone else because let’s face it, following Christ is actually a radical way of life: loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, caring for the needs of our neighbor over ourselves, radical sharing.
It’s not really what you see a lot in culture is it?
I would even argue that mainstream culture works AGAINST many of these values, which doesn’t make it any easier. Sometimes it seems like cultural pressures play in to our worst instincts.
Think about how easy it is to get pulled into that vortex of professional advancement, material consumption, self-promotion, and individuality. Before we know it, we’ve lost sight of those aspects of Christianity that are supposed to set us apart.
So when we have incidences where we are called to stand up for our faith at the expense of our cultural advancement. Well, we sometimes cave.
Look, none of us are exempt from this. Even churches get caught up in it. Where do you think the “prosperity gospel” came from? Those pastors on TV or any pastor really who preaches that God wants you to be rich! That material wealth is somehow a sign or an indicator that you’re “blessed”. None of which is really in the Bible.
No what’s in the Bible is that sometimes when you preach the gospel
or live the gospel
or witness to the gospel
you can get your head cut off, figuratively and literally.
But to share in the ministry and destiny of Jesus, discipleship will cost nothing less than everything.
At the National Youth Gathering last week in Houston, 31,000 youth—that’s right, 31 THOUSAND from all over the country gathered for a week of service, prayer, music, fun, and worship. Each night there were several speakers. Amazing speakers. And as I was preparing for this sermon, and as its theme sort of took shape, one stuck out.
Her name was Savanna Sullivan, Program Director for Young Adult Ministries in the ELCA. She gave a contemporary witness during the worship service on the final day. She shared her experience of preparing to leave for Rwanda as a Young Adult in Global Mission, but before her departure, her doctor diagnosed her with an auto-immune disease which he informed her had compromised her immune system. As a result, he recommended she not leave the United States.
She had prayed about this trip, she had prepared for it, looked forward to it, and felt deeply called by God for it. And now, she was forced with an agonizing decision to abandon it. After a conversation with her father, who like any parent was understandably weary of the thought of his baby girl going to another country with an compromised immune system, asked her through tears, “Savanna, are you willing to die for this?”
Most of us are never faced with such an agonizing decision.
Most of us will never have to make this kind of choice about our faith, one where our actual lives are on the line.
But after much thought and deep prayer, Savanna determined to think about it differently.
She returned to her dad, and with a shaky voice but one that didn’t portray her faith and resolve,
simply stated, “No dad. I’m not ready to die for this…”
“I’m ready to live for this.”
I’m ready to LIVE for this.
Because as Christians we are called to live our lives in a way that boldly proclaims the gospel. Lives not dictated or controlled by fear. Lives in service to the gospel. Even when risk is knocking at the door.
Jesus says in Matthew “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”
They will find it. A life that is truly life.
Yes, the risks are great and yes they are scary.
But God offers us all the courage we need, all the hope we need. Because when we live lives in this way, we are partnering in the ushering in of the kingdom of God.
And that, my friends, is good news.
So the questions I want us all to consider this morning and beyond are these:
Are we willing to speak up or set the record straight under whatever conditions we find ourselves in?
When we see injustice, suffering, or abuse, are we willing to call wrong-doing what it is?
These are tough questions for sure. Heady ones even….
But they are questions whose answers- even in the face of death– open for us the keys to eternal life.
And that’s good news.