Monday, July 16, 2012

Sermon for July 15, 2012 by Kate Ekrem

Sermon for Proper 10B July 15 2012
Mark 6:14-29
The Rev. Kate Ekrem

“When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.”

This is not a two-dimensional  story we have today about Herod and John the Baptist. Herod’s not such a bad guy. He’s really interested in John’s preaching, he’s intrigued by what the prophet is saying about change and reform, he protects him from those who want to get rid of him, including his own wife Herodias, because John’s words to Herod about change and reform are actually quite personal.

The story says, John tells Herod, it is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife, which makes John sound like kind of an annoying moralistic person, but Herod’s family life was seriously out of control,
something perhaps Herod felt he needed some advice on.  Herod and Herodias were both married to other people when their affair began,  so Herod had a very public and scandalous affair with his brother’s wife, and then divorced his own wife to marry her. And if that wasn’t enough, Herodias was also Herod’s own niece.  On top of all that, Herod’s first wife’s father, king of a neighboring kingdom, took his daughter’s jilting as an excuse to declare war on Herod’s kingdom, which war Herod basically lost. All these broken relationships, broken lives, because he put his obsession with Herodias above other things.

Herod is intrigued and challenged by what John says, but apparently not enough to act, and not enough to risk his own status to save John’s life.   As Suzanne Guthrie says Herod is “torn between truth and self-interest”.

But you know, what is truth? Aren’t there lots of version of the truth, depending on your perspective? Often in this era there are many truths, truth is relative, it all depends on your perspective. I know I say things like that.  I’m very wary of people who think they know exactly what the absolute truth is, especially when they are trying to impose it on me.

It’s easy to bend our diverse ideas of what might be right or wrong to fit into our own desires and self-interest. We’re so good at self-justification. I certainly am, I get lots of practice.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been so intrigued by following the Penn State situation and the trial of Jerry Sandusky. Probably you’ve heard of that, the assistant coach at Penn State who used his position for to abuse children. The whole question has been, what did Joe Paterno, the beloved and saintly head coach, know about it.  Paterno died last year, but claimed that he never, ever knew what Sandusky was up to. And this week the report of the investigators came out that Paterno did know, back in 1998, exactly what Sandusky was up to and worked with other Penn State officials to cover it up and protect Sandusky. You can see why, right? They had the most successful, most respected football program in America. It made Paterno a household name, one of the most beloved figures in sports. Even I had heard of him. To blow the whistle on Sandusky, to say, sorry, it turns out there is child abuse going on in our program, would have brought the whole thing tumbling down.  Talk about being torn between truth and self-interest.

It’s easy to think that the choice that those Penn State officials had to make back in 1998, speak up or cover up, is the kind of thing that hardly ever happens, would never happen to you and me in our ordinary lives, but I think the reason this story intrigues so many peole is that it does happen to us, it’s our story, too.   We also face choices about whether to speak up and tell the truth as we see it about an unjust situation or to stay quiet and not rock the boat on a fairly regular basis, in school, at work, in our community.  Almost every decision we make can be a moral decision. Do we act in our own self-interest, or are we willing to makek some sacrifices for our own first principles, to give up something for the benefit of others in our larger community?

What I see in Herod is a reminder of all those times when we are interested in a discussion of an idea about change or reform, when we’re happy to debate it until the cows come home, but in the end we say, you know that’s just not practical. Meaning, that would require me risk something, or lose something, or just plain change.  We say, someday, I’ll do that but right now interferes with the status quo too much. Herod had a lot at stake in the status quo.

On the other hand, look at John and at Jesus. Can you imagine either one of them saying, “that Kingdom of God thing, it’s a really neat idea, but I’m not sure how we can practically implement it, maybe another time.”  Both of them said instead, this is what’s right, this is what’s real, this is what God is calling me to do, so I’m doing it today.  And look what happened to both of them.  There’s no denying they took risks and paid the price.

The danger is in thinking that there aren’t any risks or price to be paid for the choice Herod made.  Living a life focused on self-interest has its own risks and penalties.  It alienates us from one another, from those we care about, and in the end it doesn’t offer the rewards we think it promises. Herod himself lost his kingdom and ended up exiled by the Roman Emperor.

It’s telling that  Herod was so intrigued by what John was saying, so intrigued by the idea of living another kind of life, in which his own ambition and power wasn’t the most important thing. Something about John’s teaching resonates with Herod, shows him something he’s missing in life, something he wants.  Call it integrity, or honesty, or maybe it’s getting to be real, getting to be your real self and not having to pretend to be someone else all the time. Maybe it’s being content with yourself, being one within yourself because you are in a right relationship with God and other people. These are things Jesus and John had at the center of their  lives, and that Herod didn’t. And, I think these are things that people still long for, still want for themselves, that resonate with people outside these walls, even people we might find as easy to condemn as Herod.

The question this story asks us is, how do we share this, the joy of a God-centered, not self-centered, life, with others? You are probably here on a warm Sunday in mid-July because you have that joy in your life, you know the peace of heart and peace of mind that comes from knowing God, from living a life for and with others instead of one focused on self-interest.  Do you share that, like John did? Are others perplexed yet interested when you talk to them about your faith life? Or are you concerned that if you do that your head might end up on a platter?  I think we underestimate how much people want to hear this good news, and I think we don’t share it enough. This story gets told in Mark’s gospel because Jesus has just sent 70 of his disciples to preach the good news, to share his vision of the Kingdom of God. Herod hears about what they are doing, and thinks it is John the Baptist raised from the dead. What do we need to go out into the world and do, what do we need to tell others about,  so that people might think that John the Baptist, or maybe even Jesus, is raised from the dead, to help them believe that resurrection, new life, new hope,  is possible for them, here and now?

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