“Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl.” Mark 6:27-28a
If you were hoping for a nice uplifting story from the Bible today, you have come to the wrong place. Today the gospel of Mark does not serve up an inspiring story of someone who leaves behind a shady past to follow Jesus. There’s no feeding of the hungry, curing of the sick, or raising of the dead. There are no poetic prayers, no rousing sermons. Just one long and deadly soap opera.
It’s not enough that Herod has John killed. Herod has John killed even though he knows John is a righteous and holy man. Even though Herod likes to listen to what John has to say.
It’s not enough that the events leading up to John’s death rival an episode of Game of Thrones– a pathetic grudge, a scorned wife, a girl manipulated into a seductive game, a violent and bloodthirsty murder. The results of the horror aren’t even hidden. This meaningless cruelty is on full display. John’s head is literally brought out on a platter, served up for all the powerful people to see.
On most Sundays when we dive into the gospel assigned for the day, we look at what the text tells us about ourselves and what it tells us about God. Ultimately we seek to discover what that gospel passage reveals to us about the promises that we have through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But I have squeezed this story again and again throughout the week and have been unable to find much good news in it. I’ve held it up to the light, discussed it with colleagues, read commentaries, and I’m pretty sure had at least one nightmare about it.[i] But I’ve got nothing. No neat and tidy messages of hope in this one, I’m afraid.
I suspect that the placement of this story in Mark’s gospel is intentional. Last week we heard in the passage just before this one how Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, telling them to carry nothing with them and to rely instead on the generosity of the people they would meet. Remember that Jesus also prepares them for the inevitable rejection they would face along the way. It was a daunting mission, but the disciples hit the road as instructed, and they were able to cure many people who were sick or possessed by demons.
And right after today’s John the Baptist interlude, we hear this verse about the disciples’ return from their travels: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” So our tale of beheading, dripping with blood, falls between the time when Jesus sends out the disciples and the time when the disciples return to him. I think the author of Mark’s gospel is leaning into the point that being a follower of Jesus is not an easy path. The message seems to be: “If you’re looking for fame and fortune – or even just security – following Jesus is not the best choice. And truth be told, it’s just as likely to lead to a jail cell and a violent death.” The whole John the Baptist situation brings to mind what 16thcentury Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila is reported to have said: “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”[ii]
While I hope none of you have felt threatened by the possibility of beheading lately, there is something true about a story that doesn’t resolve itself in any kind of happily-ever-after way. Our lives are often messy and painful, without easy resolutions or happy endings. Like John the Baptist in his jail cell, we sometimes feel trapped and forgotten by God and unsure what will happen next. It’s not a good feeling, but it’s more common than we’re willing to admit.
There’s another way in which the placement of this story in Mark is revealing. To get to some good news, we have to keep reading. Right after the awful story of John’s beheading is Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand. That’s a story of abundance in the midst of depletion. A story of community coming together to make sure that no one goes hungry. A story of God’s bountiful grace – a grace that keeps catching us by surprise because we’re so accustomed to having to scratch and scramble for so much in this life, and we can’t believe such grace could possibly be free.
So the good news may not be found in the story of an awful dinner party that ends with a head on a platter. The good news is found in another dinner party that ends with thousands of full bellies and twelve platters of leftovers. The first party feels all too familiar, but it’s the second one that embodies the promises of God’s kingdom.
As many of you know, I spent the last week at Confirmation Camp out at Cross Roads. I serve as one of several faculty members who work with the camp staff to plan and lead a week of Bible study, crafts, games, music, worship, service projects in the community, and lots of laughter and fun.
At camp we have something called Foil Feast on Thursday evening. It’s like a giant picnic. Each of us gets to choose a jumble of ingredients – meat, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions, seasonings and sauces of various kinds. We put those ingredients into a foil packet and wrap it up tightly. Then the packets are cooked for a long time over hot coals so that when we open them back up, we are overwhelmed by the smell and taste of a delicious meal ready to gobble up. While the food is cooking, all kinds of things are happening. Some kids are sitting on a blanket making bracelets. Others are playing volleyball. A few girls are teaching each other how to do a Dutch braid. Other kids are sitting at picnic tables talking and playing with some kind of magic cards. There are Frisbees and a giant Jenga set and some kickball and different games being invented right there on the spot.
There’s music playing, of course, and when the “Cha Cha Slide” starts, a dance party breaks out. Kids and counselors rush to the middle of a grassy area and dance together as the song instructs: “One hop this time…Right foot let’s stomp…Left foot let’s stomp…Cha cha real smooth…”
I look around and see all of these people dancing and playing and eating together – different ages, different races and cultures and languages, different family situations. I see kids who are struggling with mental illness. I see kids who are able to talk about their gender identity or sexual orientation for the first time. I see kids who are worried about sick parents or siblings, kids who are grieving, kids who are hoping this year at school will be better than last year. I see adults who love these young people deeply – and do whatever we can to make them feel seen and heard and loved.
One of my colleagues looks around at Foil Feast and reminds us, “This looks a lot like the kingdom of God to me.” And indeed it does.
The theme for our week at camp was the same as the one for the Youth Gathering in Houston: “This Changes Everything.” The “this” in that phrase is God’s grace. In the biblical witness and in our lived experience we see again and again that God’s grace does not mean that life will be perfect. But it does mean that we are not alone in our brokenness or our pain. It means we are not responsible for saving ourselves. We have God’s grace as a gift.
Jesus sends us out into the world, and Jesus calls us home. In between we will experience many things: joy, pain, gnawing hunger, full bellies, hearts full of love, hearts broken. We may not lose our heads like John the Baptist, but we will sometimes lose our hope. Throughout all of it we know that a better feast awaits us – a feast that has no end, a feast of which we catch a glimpse when we receive the bread and wine this morning.
Whatever you are going through, may you come to this table knowing that you are held by God’s grace – a grace that truly changes everything. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]I am deeply indebted to this essay by Debie Thomas for giving me some inspiration: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1835
“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11
Frank commutes to work every day on the New York subway.[i] Most days it’s not an easy journey, as those of you who do it regularly know best. Frazzled people crammed into small spaces tend not to be on their best behavior. One morning as Frank went through the turnstile, he realized he was already in a bad mood. He’d had a fight with his girlfriend that morning. He was headed toward a meeting at work that he was dreading. The morning news had been terrible – again. And his lower back was hurting – again.
After three trains had passed his station without stopping, he found himself feeling angry that he would be late to work. When a train finally did stop, he realized it was packed with a group of middle-schoolers on a field trip. They were loud and boisterous, which didn’t help Frank’s mood.
At the next stop a woman boarded the train holding two heavy bags in one hand and her little girl’s hand in the other. She pushed her way toward the pole where Frank was standing and proceeded to berate him because, according to her, he was taking up too much space, and his big hand was blocking too much of the pole. How was her little girl supposed to get a grip on it? Frank resisted the impulse to argue with her. She was literally weighed down, he thought. And she would probably be later to work than he would be because she had to drop off her kid at school or child care. So he said, “You know, you’re right,” and he moved his hand higher. “Sorry about that,” he added.
About that time one of the middle school students bumped into Frank from behind. He hit Frank right where his back hurt. Frank turned around ready to yell at the kid. But he saw the boy’s face, full of genuine concern, and instead Frank said, “Hey, buddy, slow down. This train is crowded.” And then he had a conversation with the kid.
It’s risky to venture out into the world. The world is not always a warm and welcoming place. It’s crowded, and there are days when we seem to bump into everyone around us. Sometimes our patience runs out before the day does.
Jesus knows this reality firsthand. In the Gospel of Mark he’s had a pretty good run of it up until now. As he’s wandered through the world, he’s healed many people, including a paralytic, a leper, a man with a withered hand, people possessed by demons, and the woman with the hemorrhage. He’s done some good preaching too, including a lot of stories about seeds and how they get scattered. He’s calmed a storm and brought a dead girl back to life.
But along the way Jesus has also encountered people who question his motives and challenge his actions. His astounding acts of healing are seldom met with universal acclaim. People are intrigued, sure, but they’re also suspicious. And that’s never more true than when he comes back home for a visit. His hometown preaching seems to go OK at first, but soon he’s met with skepticism. Who does this guy think he is, the crowds ask. They refer to him as “the son of Mary,” which is not a neutral description. It brings up all that old gossip about who the father of Jesus really was. Do we even know? Some people still loved to question his parentage. Eventually the hometown crowd takes offense at him.
Jesus knows that the good word that he brings always gets met with resistance. One way or another, people are going to push back. They might not be ready to hear what Jesus has to say. His words might be too challenging. His inclusive message of God’s love for all people is just too scandalous for some folks to accept. The justice that he seeks is not good news for the people who profit from oppression. Jesus probably wasn’t named “Most Popular” in high school, and I’m guessing they didn’t have a superlative for “Most Likely to be Executed by the State.” He would have won that one hands down.
Notice that this rejection isn’t limited to Jesus. When he sends out his disciples, he prepares them for it: “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus knows that for every time his followers are met with hospitality, there will also be a time they’re met with hostility.
That goes for us too. When we go out and live as followers of Jesus, when we speak and act as people who try to embody that same message of inclusive love, we should not expect to be met with cheers and celebration. When we seek the justice to which Jesus calls us, people will not throw us a parade.
So what do we do? I can tell you what we don’t do. We don’t just stay home and hide out. There’s a reason that our four-part worship service ends with a Sending. We are blessed each and every week to go out into the world and live our faith. We heard a lot of fantastic speakers at the Youth Gathering in Houston. One of the best was Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who works as an advocate for the poor and the incarcerated. Bryan talked to us about the “power of proximity.” He argues that justice work is best done in proximity to the people we are trying to help. When we move closer to people, when we encounter them in a real way, we’re able to hear their stories and better serve their needs. When we stay at arm’s length, when we refuse to get close, it’s much easier to judge and dismiss people.
We have evidence that the disciples experienced that power of proximity. When they are sent out with Jesus’s authority, they find themselves able to cast out demons and cure the sick. But first they had to meet the people who were possessed and in pain. So when they encounter rejection, they do not let it stop them. At Jesus’ direction, they shake the dust off their feet and move on. The power of proximity demands perseverance.
Do you remember Frank on the subway? Do you wonder what helped him have a patient and compassionate response to the mother who yelled at him and the kid who pushed him? He happened to be reading a book about kindness. In writing about how we can be kinder to each other, the author says this:
“Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet. Just picture it: If more people acted from this space of love, there would be more and more terrain covered.”[ii]
Think about that. Think about the three feet around you, which you carry with you wherever you go – from subway to school to soccer field to dinner table to conference room to carpool. What if each of us goes out into the world and draws closer to people from all kinds of places and people in all kinds of need? And what if we try to make the three feet around us a space of compassion and honesty – a space where we seek to live as Jesus has called us to live, a space where we empower others to live fully as who God has made them to be? Just imagine it. All of those spaces intersecting until the world is transformed.
Perhaps the most important part of Jesus’s instruction to his disciples – both then and now – is that we do not go out alone. He sends his disciples out two at a time, a clear signal that we must stand with each other as we live as Christ-followers in a world that often has no use for the Christ we follow. When we travel together, we can cover more ground and survive the setbacks. And we are never, ever without the One who sends us, the One who gives us the power of proximity, the One who, again and again, gives us the grace to sustain us.
Whatever we do with those three feet of space around us, Jesus is always there beside us, behind us, within and around us. May we follow his lead, wherever it takes us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ