The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 6th Chapter
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “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 the king 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. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
I have to warn ya... I’m fixin’ ta cheat! You see, last week’s Gospel lesson, was a lesson in two parts. The first part talked about being stuck at home, the second part about hitting the road. The first part, a lack of faith, the second part about radical trust. The first part, powerless, the second part was full of incredible acts of power.
Well, that same up and down, back and forth story telling style that Mark used in last week’s Gospel... comparing unfaith and trust, lows and highs... continues this week. EXCEPT... LAST week the people who created the lectionary put in BOTH the lows AND the highs in the lesson, while THIS week all they leave us with is this horrible low. I guess they thought this story was long enough and so we’re all just supposed to wait for NEXT week to get the high that answers this horrible, terrible low. But I’m going on vacation and I’m not preaching next week and frankly, I don’t want to leave town preaching a bummer! So, I’m cheating! I’m pulling in next week’s story that is the “HIGH” that Mark uses to balance out this week’s horrible, terrible, lectionary “LOW”!!!
Actually, I don’t think it’s cheating too badly, because Mark, I think, put today’s John the Baptist flashback here so that we would read these stories together... back to back. First we read the story of Herod’s birthday feast... a feast inside the palace, a feast for the rich and powerful elites of Galilee, a feast very intentionally limited to people on “the inside”... a feast that surely began with an abundance of the very finest food and drink the world could provide and ended with empty bottles and crumbs. This feast kept people in their places. The traditional power structure inside and outside of the palace remained clear. And this feast ends, of course, in a horrible death manipulated from a back room by Herod’s wife, (who was really Herod’s brother’s wife) a murder achieved by manipulating a king, by manipulating a child... a life taken out of fear in order to save face, keep things quiet and maintain appearances... all to keep the illusion of power and control from falling apart.
The other feast, you’ll hear about next week, has come to be known as the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It’s everything that Herod’s feast was not. It was outside... on the road. Like I said last week, God seems to do the most Divine things on the road! This feast started off, not with the rich and powerful but with people who, to Jesus, seemed lost, like sheep without a shepherd. This feast started out, in what the disciples were convinced was insurmountable scarcity, with just five loaves and two, almost forgotten, fish but ended, not with people still hungry and a couple empty bottles laying in the grass, but in a miraculous ABUNDANCE! EVERYONE’S bellies were FULL... PLUS... there were TWELVE BASKETS overflowing with leftovers! For this feast ALL were welcome, and there, ALL MEANT ALL. There was no bouncer at the door checking invitations. No one checking memberships or pedigrees. It’s not that Jesus opened the doors for the people to come in... for Jesus’s feast there just weren’t ever any doors! And Jesus’s feast ended, not in death... not in a life taken. Jesus’s feast ended in LIFE GIVEN... and not just an, eek out a pitiful existence sort of life, but in an extravagantly, liberally, generously, lavishly, overflowingly ABUNDANT LIFE for all, All, ALL of creation!
So, I cheated. Sue me! But I’m going on vacation, and I just couldn’t bring myself to preach only death today, when I knew good and well that less than a page turn away, ABUNDANT LIFE was waiting to bust out! You see, ABUNDANT LIFE is how all God’s stories end. ALL OF THEM. ALWAYS!
One last story and I’ll be done. Three years ago, we moved our family to Maine from Colorado. I was finished in the Church. I came here to start new... to run a restaurant. You see, I was a trouble maker. Nothing illegal, unethical or immoral mind you, but still, they weren’t wrong. I made trouble and I wasn’t quiet. I advocated for people and policies in my church, in my denomination and in our world that were not, “safe” and I did that... shall we say, without the subtlety, tact and reserve some would have wished me to have. I wrote for the newspaper. I confronted bullies. I was asked to look elsewhere for a call. My head wasn’t literally on a platter, but there were times when I thought that might actually feel better than how I felt.
I tell you THAT story, not to make you feel bad for me, but so that I can tell you from VERY personal and VERY painful experience that there was for me and my family, LIFE after the worst two years of our lives! I want MY story, and today’s stories, and the Good Friday and Easter story to remind you... to remind me... because God knows I need constant reminding... that in God, somehow, in a way we will never be able to figure out or explain, with stuff as seemingly inadequate as five stale loaves of bread and two almost forgotten, sun baked fish... SOMEHOW God turns FEAR into COURAGE, HATE into LOVE and DEATH into LIFE! Now, that doesn’t mean the painful part doesn’t hurt... that part hurts like HELL and it all too often feels like God has forgotten you and that the pain, darkness and hopelessness will never end.
BUT, somehow, in some miraculous, unexpected inconceivable way, God uses some insignificant, almost stale, nearly spoiled something and turns fear into courage, hate into love and death into life. THAT’S not just my story, or just the story of those 5000, or the story of the Resurrection... that’s your story too. THAT, my dear, passionate, frightened, amazingly courageous friends... is your story too! Your story too, even though it is horrible, painful, terrifying and seemingly impossible to overcome WILL BE, WILL BE, WILL DIVINELY be extravagantly, liberally, generously, lavishly, overflowingly transformed into LIFE... into ABUNDANT LIFE! Amen.