7th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 10) | St. Paul’s Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 11 July 2021| Mark 6:14-29 | Ephesians 1:3-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of resurrection and life. Amen. Please be seated.

Good morning, friends. There is a lot going on in today’s readings. So even though I love the Old Testament and I love making lots of connections across scripture, today we’re going to stick with our Gospel.

Because the story of John the Baptist’s death is a complicated story. It’s a story about violence, a story about power, a story about how holy life persists in the face of violent power.

A lot of medieval and renaissance art depicts the violence in the story very creatively. There are some medieval paintings where the blood is just amazing, and I’ll let y’all google those rather than describing them.

I also really love the paintings where they’ve cut off John’s head and it rolls away with the halo still on it. It’s the kind of halo that’s a big circle behind his head, so it kind of looks like a giant gold bowling ball rolling off toward the edge of the painting. This one’s visually hilarious to me but it also says something beautiful about how John’s holy life still continues even after he’s murdered.  

There’s also the kind of painting where you get the platter with John’s head being brought into the party scene. The head is usually super pale or sickly green amid all of bright luxurious colors of the celebration. The contrast calls attention to the deadly side of these rich and powerful people’s revelry. There’s been something wrong, something ghastly, something violent, underneath all their wealth and influence all along, and the murder of John the Baptist reveals it.

This story reveals the violence that can happen when power like that comes up against a holy life. John the Baptist, this very annoying prophet of repentance, says something that the people in power don’t want to hear. Then these powerful people use their clout to inflict violence—to arrest John, bind him, imprison him, and eventually to take his life. In some ways the story is very simple, but in other ways it gets complicated. Like the question of who kills John.

A soldier who isn’t named actually does the beheading. But that guy was taking orders from Herod. And Herod was keeping his promise by doing what the dancer told him to do. And the dancer was being a dutiful daughter and doing what her mother Herodias told her to do. The text doesn’t give Herodias someone else to blame, but I also don’t know if she’s the real source of the violence here. It could be that her grudge is the main reason John dies, but even in that case, she has a whole network of people to enable her revenge.

There’s also a theory that maybe king Herod actually engineers the whole scene—he’s already decided it’s time to get rid of John, and so he sets up this public spectacle where it looks like he has no choice. He gets to get rid of John and blame some resentful, scheming women for the violence. Maybe! But whether or not we read it that way, it seems to me that almost everyone in the story has a part in the murder.

Herod at least understands his role afterward when he says he suspects that “John, whom I beheaded has been raised.” Herod knows that even though he wasn’t the one doing the chopping and even though he wasn’t the one who asked for a Severed Head Appetizer Tray at the party, he still killed John. While some of the details are blurry, we know—and Herod knows—that he used his power end a holy life. And yet, even though on one level it’s clear what happened, we still have this convoluted story. The question of who is to blame is complicated, and I think it’s complicated on purpose.

The complexity of this ancient story—the way everyone is to blame and no one is to blame for the violence—reminds me of a lot of problems we’re still dealing with now. Right before my work here started, Brian and I got to travel around and catch up with some friends across Indiana, and we had lunch with a friend of ours in another city who’s a social worker. And we learned a lot from them about how complicated it is for folks who are struggling to get help. Everybody working in a program can say that they mean well. And most of them can really mean it—there are so many people like our friend doing hard and holy and good work. And yet so often the people that the system is meant to help experience it as something frustrating and even violent, and not something that helps them flourish, not something that gives life.

And there are real complexities to how poverty works in our country. But there are also some situations that are meant to be complicated. There are systems where the blame gets passed around, and powerful people can all say they didn’t hurt anyone, and yet vulnerable people keep getting hurt over and over again.

The story of John the Baptist’s death holds a mirror up to that kind of situation. And in some ways, so does Jesus’ death later on, where Jesus faces Roman authorities who claim they’re reluctant to use violence, and yet they crucify him anyway. In some ways, the story of John’s death is a preview of Jesus’ own execution—you can see the echoes in the ways that violent power circles in to end the lives of inconvenient holy people and try to restore its own equilibrium.  

When I read this story of John the Baptist’s death, I hear a call repentance. I hear an invitation to reflect on the ways that we sometimes cause harm when we claim that we mean well and that only others are to blame. I hear a call to stop using “it’s complicated” as an excuse, to dig into why the systems that do violence are so complicated, who benefits from the complication, and who keeps on getting hurt. I think this work of repentance and truthtelling is part of our call as we honor what John the Baptist stood for as a prophet of repentance and as we consider how he died.  

AND I think there’s even more than that to the story. I also hear some very good news creeping in at the edges of this complicated and violent drama. There’s resurrection life here in this scene of a martyrdom. This story of John isn’t just a preview of Jesus’ death, but also a preview of Jesus’ resurrection. The story ends with John’s disciples laying his body in a tomb, just as Jesus’ disciples will do. And the story starts with Herod thinking that John has been raised from the dead.

And I want to say that Herod is only sort of wrong about that point—John does not physically come back to life here, but resurrection life is still happening. John is part of a whole movement of holy life that Herod couldn’t kill.

When Herod thinks that John has been raised from the dead, what he’s heard about is the mission of the twelve apostles. They’re out there telling the truth and casting out evil and helping sick people. Even though Herod killed one holy person, holy life persists. John’s haloed head is still glowing even from the prison floor. John’s disciples pick up his body and do the holy work of burial and lament. And Jesus’ disciples go out into the world full of life, full of the Spirit, just as annoying in their truthtelling as John and even more powerful in healing.

In this gospel story there is a complicated system in place that protects powerful people, that hurts vulnerable people, that hides its own workings. But there is also a complicated movement of the kingdom of God, a countercurrent of resurrection that creeps in at the edges, a lifegiving Spirit that finds a way where there is no way. There’s a movement that makes Herod say, “I thought I killed that guy. Who are these people?”

And we are called to be these people, friends. St. Paul tells the church that we’re marked with this same Spirit, we’re part of this movement toward redemption, toward resurrection. When we tell the truth, when we repent and turn to a better way, when we take care of our neighbors, we are part of resurrection life. When we lament together, when we rejoice together, when we look for the Spirit’s movement among us, we are part of resurrection life.

I already see that kind of life going on here. And I want you to teach me more about resurrection here in this place. I want you to teach me about where you find life here even amid death, even amid all the complications of our work in the church and the world.

As we follow this calling together, may God our Maker ground us in love, may God the Word inspire us in faith, and may God the Holy Spirit enliven us with with hope. Amen.

This is one painting from a stunning series on the life of John the Baptist by Giovanni di Paulo from the 1450s. These paintings live in the The Art Institute of Chicago and you can learn more about them on their website. You can see the halo on John’s severed head in this one.

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