Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost July 12, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
My grandfather almost made it to his hundred first birthday, and it was several years after that when I learned a couple of the painful details of his childhood. In life and in death, my father’s father was a beloved and revered family patriarch, generous, kind, thoughtful, and funny, and more accepting than the early twentieth century raised him to be, and moreso than many people might have guessed from his traditional exterior. I’d like to think I take after him; at least I dress like him sometimes. But this good man came out of a bad time.
The phrase “a bad time” was the only thing my grandfather ever said about his early childhood, when his elderly father’s death forced him and his mother to seek food and shelter in exchange for working on a farm. It was a form of indentured servitude. As my aunt tells it, “In 1911 the two of them were at a farmhouse where she did housework and Dad helped with milking the cows morning and night. He was seven. The farmer was mean spirited and didn’t mind taking a whack at him.” The abuse only ended when they moved in with another family, two years later. The “bad time” was only a short time in an otherwise enviable life, and yet learning of that experience inevitably colors everything that came before and after, from his own father’s choice to start a family at a very advanced age to the compassion and easygoing acceptance that might not have grown so readily in a privileged upbringing.
A well-placed flashback is a powerful interpretive device. Mark uses exactly one in his gospel, and we just heard it. This gory little story connects back to stories Mark’s readers would have known, like Jephthah promising to sacrifice the first person who walked out of his house and seeing his daughter emerge, or Queen Esther taking advantage of the king’s offer to give her anything she asked and using that promise to avert the extermination of all the Jews in the kingdom. Herod even mentions Elijah, “another prophet who collided with another weak king manipulated by another murderous wife.”* And of course it foreshadows Jesus’s own passion and death.
Mark isn’t just showing us that Jesus’s enemies are playing for keeps. This is more than the obligatory scene in Star Trek where an extra in a red shirt gets vaporized or a Bond movie where the villain demonstrates an exotic weapon. The gore of a beheaded prophet isn’t the worst thing about this story, even though it captures our attention. No, this is Mark showing us a world that has rejected God, completely, intentionally, and definitively. It is, therefore, a world without grace, love, or mercy; a world from which Jesus is conspicuously absent; a world driven by greed and fear, with dashes of lust, pretension, and insecurity to liven things up, and a fundamental disregard for human life. And Mark shows us that all this awfulness is completely unnecessary.
This flashback also connects to sharply contrasting stories that Mark places immediately before and after. Just before this story was the story of Jesus sending the twelve disciples on their first missionary journey, which we heard last week. They went out among the villages proclaiming Jesus’s message and accomplishing wonderful things. Just after this story is the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. Mark is hammering home the difference between life lived according to God’s ways and life lived apart from God’s ways, or rather, life lived and death casually administered to maintain a weak man’s ego.
Mark is also showing, in this contrast, the weight of responsibility God places on each of us by giving us the ability to make choices for ourselves. King Herod, Jesus, and Jesus’s disciples were all Jewish, all of them knew God’s law and were obligated to follow it. Herod may have done so superficially, but Jesus and his disciples did so truly, zealously, with all their hearts, and that creates the real difference.
Superficially we see a contrast between a king holding the power of life and death at a lavish royal banquet and a handful of chronically under-prepared peasants wandering in a poor, rural backwater. Superficially we see power contrasted with powerlessness. But it’s really just a resource gap, and the outcome of different choices. Look just a little closer and you see the king is foolish, writing a blank check to an easily-manipulated child, and too weak to stand up to a little girl even when she asks him to kill a good man, even a man the king enjoyed listening to. Then look at the wonderful things Jesus and his disciples accomplished with very limited resources: healing many, feeding many more, and proclaiming the good news of God’s love, hope, and salvation to all. They did these things by exercising their own initiative and agency, under the circumstances God led them to, in the course of lives they chose to dedicate to God. So, clearly, there’s more than one way to get ahead in this world.
The human thirst for power is well-known, as are its pitfalls. Lesser known, but no less important, is our tendency to refuse to exercise the power we do have, or deny that we have it. Sometimes we may try to abdicate or delegate our power inappropriately as Herod did — and then, as he learned, we’re surprised when the person or entity who received our power acts foolishly or destructively, and then we realize it’s a lot harder to take our power back than it was to cast it away. Our reluctance is understandable, though, since making decisions entails taking risks and accepting responsibility. But really, since choosing not to choose is still a choice, what choice do we have? We might as well do what’s right. On the farm where my grandfather and his mother were indentured, the farmer they served would have appeared to hold all the power. He owned the land, the cattle, the buildings, and he practically owned my grandfather and his mother. My great-grandmother must certainly have felt powerless when she heard her son’s cries of pain and saw the marks of abuse on his body. Yet, she still summoned her own power to take her son, break her contract and run far from that petty dictatorship and the sad little man who ran it.
You and I may not feel like we are especially powerful people, but compared to an unmarried, indentured woman in 1911, we might as well be senators. We have options and resources she never would have dreamt of. We have them because God gave them to us, for all good things, and all power, come from God. God gives us these things because God loves us, and trusts us, and made us in God’s image. And God sent Jesus to show us, in his person and his ministry, in his death and resurrection, how to use the gifts of God for the people of God, how to join with God, and expand God’s love in the world, by being like God in our generosity, grace, wisdom, and love. “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”