Good Morning! I just wanted to thank everyone for my warm welcome this week. It is great to be here even if our Gospel reading this morning is a bit intimidating. But I am confident we can tackle it together!
The story of the death of John the Baptist is a famous narrative that has inspired lots of movies, art and even an opera. These famous recreations of the story focus on Herod’s daughter’s dance, Herod’s evil nature or even the actual head on the platter. So it can be difficult to shift through all the glamour and gore to find the good news of this passage. What good can be found in the story of a gruesome murder? But we will try. In our reading Mark takes us to a flashback of the scene at Herod’s birthday banquet.
We don’t get too much background information on our characters but we know that Herod’s wife doesn’t like John because he has criticized her decision to marry her brother-in-law. In fact, she dislikes him so much that she wants to kill him. You might wonder how John lived so long if Herod’s wife wanted to kill him, but the situation is more complex. There is some degree of understanding between Herod and John. Mark tells us that Herod feared John, and knew that he was a righteous and holy man. Therefore Herod protected John. Mark goes on to tell us that Herod heard John speak often and enjoyed it, even though John’s words perplexed him. This information about Herod and John’s connection paints us a fuller picture. The scene is less black and white than it originally seemed. Herod in some ways actually likes John the Baptist and wants to protect him. Why then does Herod kill him?
And this is where I actually start to feel a little bad for Herod. He is caught in a web of complex personal and social relationships. He wants to please his spouse but if he pleases his spouse, he will kill a righteous and holy man. He wants to seem like a generous ruler to Galilean society but still seem powerful to the rest of his kingdom. He is taken aback by his daughter’s grotesque request and yet he wants to keep his word. And of course, he wants to follow his own beliefs and protect a man that he believes is some kind of prophet. Basically he is trying to please many different groups of people and still find a way to keep his own integrity. This is a position many of us can relate to. How many of us have to make decisions every day that affect different groups of people? And how often do we feel like no one is happy with a decision? Or do we feel like everyone is happy with our choice but our own conscience?
We are all faced with decisions every day, some smaller and some larger. We might be faced with decisions like these: How do we deal with our child who is having a tantrum in the grocery store? What is the best way to ask for time off from work for an important family event? Whom should we be friends with? Should we look at our classmate’s answer to a difficult question on a test? And on a larger scale, we might wonder whom should we vote for in a national election? Or if it is more important to reduce national debt or to add more governmental programs? Is it better to let foreign nations figure out their own issues or is it better to intervene? These are the kinds of decisions we face every day and this is why the line “But then an opportunity came” helps me find the grace in this passage. Even though on the surface this “opportunity” likely refers to Herod’s wife’s chance to get revenge on John the Baptist, it also presents an “opportunity” for Herod to choose grace and stand up against a decision he knows is wrong, even at the risk of disappointing a loved one. Because really every decision we make is an opportunity for grace.
We can choose to let grace in or to reject it. And this is what we learn from Herod’s choice. Herod had an opportunity to welcome grace into a situation and instead he rejected it. He chose to satisfy the group of people around him and not his own conscience. This is something else we can all relate to. Have you ever made a decision where you felt like you caved to the social norm and didn’t follow what you knew to be right? I certainly have, in fact I do it all the time.
When reflecting on times when I made decisions to please those around and did not follow my own moral compass, I thought most about times when I gossiped about others. Gossip is such an easy trap to fall into. Looking at my own life, I often use gossip to get closer to certain people. Complaining about those around us is a quick way to make a connection with someone else. And I often do this even though I know it is not the right thing to do.
But this is the gift of this Gospel reading! It calls on us to think about our decisions. If we frame every decision we make as a chance to let grace into our lives, then we might make different decisions. It is easy to make choices to please those around us, but as we learn from Herod’s choice, this is not always the right thing to do. Herod had an opportunity for grace but he decided against it. He decided to kill John the Baptist. So let’s learn from Herod’s mistake. Before we make a decision let’s ask if we are making our decision to protect ourselves or to build up the kingdom of God? Because personally I would rather build up the kingdom even if it means missing out on some really good gossip. Amen.
-- The Rev'd Grace Pratt