Embrace the abundance of life

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 10—Year B, July 15, 2012

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

So, you know how fairy tales have that happily-ever-after ending. And, then there are the real fairy tales. The fairy tales as written down by the Brothers Grimm. And those fairy tales are pretty dark and pretty gruesome. Well, today, we’ve got the Brothers Grimm version of the gospel.

And the fact that we are celebrating Harper’s baptism today—oh, gosh, that’s the icing on the cake.

I don’t even know where to go with this story. It is gruesome. It is deadly. And it is oh, so human, like the fairy tales so often are.

Let’s remember where we are in the story. Jesus has just sent the disciples out in two’s to cast out demons, anoint the sick, and cure them. They have had great success, and word of their success has reached King Herod. Now, this is a different King Herod than the one around at the time of Jesus’ birth—this is that King Herod’s son who had charge over the region of Galilee. So, people are trying to figure out who this Jesus is? Who is this man who can cast out demons and cure the sick and can even empower his disciples to do the same? Some thought John the baptizer had been raised from the dead. Others thought Elijah. And when news of it came to King Herod’s ears, oh, he just knew that John had been raised, the same John whose death he had ordered.

Then King Herod spirals into a really bad flashback where he relives what led to John’s death.

You see, King Herod himself had John arrested and thrown in prison. Why? Well, John had confronted the king, told him that it wasn’t lawful for him to have married Herodias, who happened to be wife of King Herod’s brother Philip. And according to Leviticus 18:16, 20-21, John was right. It was pretty forbidden by their law. So, this did not endear John to Herod, and it especially did not endear him to Herodias who has a big time grudge against John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t because Herod feared John. Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man, and King Herod protected him. The text tells us, “When the king heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet, he liked to listen to him.” Isn’t that an interesting description? Perplexed but he still just had to listen to him.

But one fateful day, King Herod gave a banquet to celebrate his own birthday. Everybody who was anybody was there—courtiers, officers, all the leaders of Galilee. And his daughter, also named Herodias, came in and danced, and her dance was beautiful, and it greatly pleased the King and his guests. In a fit of joy and gratitude, King Herod said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And then he upped the ante, “I solemnly swear, whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

If you were Herodias, what would you ask for? A job, debts paid off, some savings? A cellphone, an ipad, a Nintendo DS, a bike?

Well, she didn’t know what to ask for, so she ran out to her mother and asked her, “What should I ask for?” And without batting an eye, her mother replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

Immediately, the daughter rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” That “on the platter” part was her own twist on the request.

The king was deeply grieved; yet an oath is an oath, and out of regard for that oath and for the guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. The king sent a soldier with orders to bring John’s head. The soldier did as he was asked and brought the head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.

When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

So many dimensions to this story! Resentment and grudges can take us to incredibly destructive places, a la Herodias the mother. Ceding our desires and wishes over to another, a la Herodias the daughter. The desire to save face and the ability to violate your own sense of integrity to save that face, a la King Herod. The prophet’s courage to call a leader to account and to speak truth to power, a la John the Baptist.

Can you see yourself in these characters? Can you walk in Herodias the mother’s shoes a bit? Can you identify resentments and grudges that you carry deep in your soul, and can you see how they will eventually bring you to a disastrous result? Can you walk in Herodias the daughter’s shoes and identify those places where you don’t claim your own deepest desires, but instead give them over to somebody else to determine for you? Can you see how that, too, comes to a disastrous result? Can you see those places in yourself where you have sacrificed your integrity on the altar of being liked or keeping others happy? Can you see how conflict avoidance run amok can, again, bring about a disastrous result? These are our dark shadows. The worst of our projections played out in the lives of the people around us.

But can you also see your bright shadow? Those good and noble qualities that we project onto others that we shy away from claiming for ourselves. The courage of John the Baptist to speak the truth to the powers-that-be. Can you identify times when you, too, have borne that courage, or do you think that only the prophets of old have that kind of guts. Can you identify what it has cost you to speak such truth? You and I, we have that ability to see and speak, no less than they. And can you see the disastrous results that come when we refuse to speak that truth. Such was the failure of most of the Christian Church in Germany in World War II—we know how that turned out.

And then there is the evangelist himself, Mark, who forces his listeners, both then and now, to hear this gruesome and tragic tale. Why? Why does Mark tell this story, and why do we need to hear it?

If the gospel is trying to say one thing to us today, maybe it is this—being a disciple is going to cost you, a lot. You might get crosswise with people who will hold the power to kill you, quite literally kill you, but even if they don’t kill you physically, they can do you damage in a thousand different ways.

Oh, Harper, I wish I could promise you that life from this moment forward will be happily-ever-after. You are so beautiful and innocent, of course that is what we wish for you. But we know that that is not how life goes in this world. This life holds its share of tragedy and brutality and injustice and death.

But here’s the deal. It also holds its share of life and vitality and love and beauty and resurrection. King Herod has this flashback because he senses that, though he could kill John the Baptist, he couldn’t kill his witness, his life, his vitality. That spirit could not be quenched, and John has come back to life, and the king knows that he has to reckon with the consequences of his actions. Who knows, maybe King Herod himself experienced transformation in the process of reliving this horrible memory.

Harper, today we baptize you into the whole story—the bad, the tragic, the unjust, the ugly, and the true, the alive, the beautiful, the courageous, the compassionate, the merciful. Today, you are baptized into the flow of Love that will never let you go, a flow that will always bring you to resurrection’s door, most especially at those times in your life that feel the darkest.

Today, the Spirit fills you with the prophet’s courage, and we promise to help you grow into the full stature of Christ—that Living Icon of God whom death and sin and injustice could not keep down. Today, we promise to help shape you, so that when you are faced with the choices of Herodias the daughter, you will know how to claim your heart’s desire to love God, your neighbor, and yourself. We promise to help shape you, so that you will know how to forgive instead of allowing your resentments and grudges to eat you alive and destroy those in your path. We promise to help shape you, so that you will know how to honor your inner God-given sense of integrity, instead of violating what you know to be good and true and holy.

We promise that you will dance, but it won’t be the dance to gain the king’s favor; it will be the dance of joy that comes from living in the presence of God—the dance that David danced before the Lord. Pure delight and gratitude.

So, Harper, sorry about the gruesome story, but just like with the fairy tales of old, the real fairy tales of old, these stories help us embrace the fullness of life—the dark and the light, the sorrow and the joy, death and the abundance of life. And here’s a promise you can stake your life on, wherever your story takes you, however your story unfolds, know that this Body of Christ will hold you all the way to the end. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
July 15, 2012