After hearing that horrible story, I wonder if you paused even for a moment before responding, “Praise to you, Oh Christ.” It’s a hard passage to give praise for. It’s a horrendous story, full of debauchery, murder, corruption, lying, even stupidity.
What's on full display here in Mark's gospel is nothing less than the overfed gluttony of Empire, an empire that makes its own rules, an empire that is accountable to no one. And an empire where people are pawns, easily dispensed with. Its excesses are outrageous and unlimited, like billionaires racing each other to see who can blast themselves into outer space first.
Empire knows no limits. It has no restraints. It is out of touch with real people and their real needs, cares nothing about them. In fact, the only thing that matters in Empire is for those in power to stay in power, simply for the sake of having power.
And I’d like to suggest that suddenly that bizarre, grotesque, unimaginable banquet seems kind of familiar. It's recognizable.
Aren't we living in a world that looks just like that? So you remember, according to the text, that Herod had stolen his brother's wife, and that bothered John the Baptist, and he kept railing about it. So he had John arrested, but then Herod is strangely perplexed. He doesn't appreciate John's criticisms, but he's afraid to really do anything about it, because he knows he's a holy man. And he's got this huge following.
And then strangely enough, he liked to listen to him. I think there's a whole sermon just in that bizarre thing. So Harod throws himself a birthday party. It's a large, raucous affair. He invites the elites, the Titans, the plutocrats, the one-half of the one-percenters, and there they all are, fat and sassy at the banquet. And then Herod's step-daughter somehow slithers into the room and does a dance. And everyone's mesmerized and amazed. And Herod loves this dance. He is so taken by it, he tells her, “What do you want? Ask me for anything, and I will give it to you, even half of my kingdom.”
That must have been some dance. Well, she doesn't know what to ask for. So she asks her mother, who is no fan of John the Baptist. And so her mother says, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
And that's what she does.
Then we read in the text that Herod is greatly perplexed and grieved over this request. But then, like every other compromised politician who knows right from wrong, he does the wrong thing, justifying it with a weak excuse.
After an absurd promise, Herod was free to make up his own mind, or to change his mind and do the right thing. But that's what happens. When Empire shapes your values, and the way you live, and the way you treat other people. That was the reality in the world then. It's the reality in our world today.
Everything does seem somehow broken, not quite right, out of sorts. Our democracy is apparently more fragile than many of us realized. We are so deeply divided as a nation that we can't even agree on basic truths or verifiable facts, even about things like our nation's own history. We're witnessing this bizarre mixture of white nationalism, misguided patriotism, and an ugly, ugly, unrecognizable form of Christianity. And it's a dangerous and explosive cocktail.
There is so much uncertainty in the world. So what do we do with that?
Well, Mark is a good good writer. But he's also a brilliant editor. And he brilliantly inserts this account of the beheading of John the Baptist right after Jesus commissions the 12 and sends them out.
And think about that for a moment. Jesus sent them out, full of anticipation, embarking on a new career. No more fishing nets for them, they were going to serve the Lord, and they'd been commissioned to go and do it.
Many things begin in anticipation, and with high hopes, but sooner or later reality has a way of making its way into the equation. So those disciples went out with high hopes, filled with expectation and anticipation, only to slink home to bury one of their own.
Someone else who was called to be a follower of Jesus, John the Baptist, was faithful, and his head landed on a platter as a result of it, as a kind of cheap stunt carried out by deplorable people.
Apparently, being a follower of Jesus in a world under the heavy influence of Empire, is not easy. And Mark wants us to know that.
I had a friend who was a seminary president. And I want her to tell this story about a friend of hers who was also a pastor:
A friend signed up to go on a cruise and offered to be the volunteer chaplain for the week. The duties were supposed to be minimal. On the second day of the cruise, the Captain came over the public address system and announced that one of the passengers had gone overboard in an apparent suicide attempt. The Captain said, “I'm going to turn the boat around. And I'm going to suspend all onboard activities. I'm closing down the buffet and the casino and turn the boat around. And we're going to retrace our route. I'd like you, the passengers, to go up and stand along the rails and search for any sign of the missing passenger.”
And so that's what happened. And for about an hour, the boat retraced its original course. After about an hour and finding nothing, the Captain came back on the PA system and he said, “I'm going to turn the boat around and now we will resume back on our original course. But I'd still like you to stand out there along the rails and just search for anything. Any sign.”
When nothing was found, the passengers were relieved of their duties. The reaction from those pleasure cruise passengers was swift and loud. They were furious with the Captain for his decision to turn that boat around. They were furious with him to make them go up on the deck and to suspend the buffet and unplug the casino. How dare he? So they were furious.
And the Chaplain for that week spent her time consoling the grieving family and comforting the Captain who was quite shaken and undone by this whole thing.
My friend used that story in her remarks at a seminary graduation. She stood in front of those graduates with their newly minted Masters of Divinity degrees, ready to go out into the world, full of hope and anticipation, to serve the Lord. She told them that story, and then she said that is the kind of world into which you are going to proclaim the Gospel.
After the commissioning and the sending out the 12 comes this cautionary tale -- this reality check -- for any who thought being faithful in this world is easy, given the twisted landscape in which we reside. Because It didn't take long for those newly commissioned disciples to bump hard up against reality.
But if Mark was a clever editor here, I have to believe Mark was also a clever editor in terms of what came right after this story, because following this sobering account of Herod's macabre Banquet of Death, Mark's gospel moves quickly and smoothly into another Banquet Story of Hope, of sorts. This one on the side of a hill. You know that story. Some say as many as 5,000 people were there.
Harod’s banquet was for an elite few. The banquet following, on a hillside, was for everyone who was hungry. Herod's feast was about death. But then like a balm in a messed up world, on the side of a hill, comes food for the hungry, and rest for the weary. Out of a little comes not just enough, but an abundance.
And dare we even say in a world like ours, Hope. There was hope for those hungry people on the side of the hill that day. There is hope for those disciples who had to return home discouraged and burying their friend.
And I'd like you to know today that there's hope for us as well. I recently heard about a large Methodist Church, one of those, you know, big praise-barn kind of churches, a megachurch or whatever they call them.
And this church sent out a survey to their entire membership during the height of the pandemic. And they asked them to rank in order of their top three, the feelings and emotions that they were experiencing during the pandemic. 4,700 people responded to this survey. The survey gave them 17 different choices of emotions to choose from, to rank their top three.
And these were the results.
People in their 20s listed them in this order: anxious, uncertain, overwhelmed.
People in their 30s said: anxious, overwhelmed, uncertain.
People in their 40s said: anxious, uncertain, overwhelmed.
People in their 50s said: anxious, uncertain, frustrated.
People in their 60s said: anxious, uncertain, hopeful.
People in their 70s said: hopeful, loved, anxious.
And people 80 years of age up, said: hopeful, loved, lonely.
And isn't that interesting? That only people 70 years of age on up, listed hopeful as their number-one feeling or emotion. And furthermore, that only those people who were 80 years of age and higher, didn't list anxiousness at all in any of their top three.
You'd think it would be just the other way around, given their age, their vulnerability to the virus. But they didn't list anxiousness at all.
And it makes me wonder what those older saints knew that the younger ones didn't, or hadn't yet discovered or realized. What storms had they weathered over the years? What battles had they fought and lived to tell about them? Which of life's hard realities were they forced to endure? And yet, through that, discover hope? Discover a sense of God's faithfulness through it all? And out of that, a sense of hope.
Because something allowed those people to cling to hope in a time of national anxiety and fear and uncertainty. They cling to hope, because maybe like a lot of saints before them, they had learned to trust, and something gave them the courage to sing a song full of the faith that the dark past had taught them.
Anticipation, reality, hope. If there's a better description, of being faithful, and the life of faith, I don't think I know what it is.
May God always grant us reasons to hope as well as the wisdom and courage needed for the living of our days
Reverend Dr. David VanDyke
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Jon Kabat-Zinn
What did the great spiritual teachers and mystics mean by the term “Dying before you die”? Dying before you die was referring to the death of one’s attachment to a narrow view of life centered on one’s own ego, that self-preoccupied, self-constructed story-lens of at best dubious accuracy through which we see everything within the inflated context of our own self-cherishing habit that features us, although we would be reluctant to admit it, as the undisputed center of the universe. Dying before you die meant waking up to a larger reality beyond the small view through one’s own ego and self-preoccupation, a reality that is not knowable through one’s limited ideas and opinions and highly conditioned preferences and aversions, especially those that remain unexamined. It meant becoming conscious, not in the sense of intellectually knowledgeable, but more in the sense of directly feeling and keeping in mind the fleeting nature of life and of all our relationships and its ultimately impersonal nature. Within such coordinate system, one could then choose purposefully, to whatever degree one could manage it, to live outside the routinized automaticity that frequently seduces us through small-minded ambitions and fears and thereby numbs us to the beauty and the mystery of life and prevents us from looking most creatively into the deep nature of things, including ourselves, behind all the surface appearances and the stories we tell ourselves.
What did you think?