11 July, 2021- Seventh Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 10B
Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
(Adapted from Psalm 19:14)
Boy, this is quite a string of Gospel passages, huh? Mark is on a roll. When you’re out to build a new world, seems like you might run into a bit of conflict.
- Four or five weeks back, we heard Jesus challenging family structures as we know them – “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” – he asked, as he pointed his followers toward a new understanding of family, one that is broader, one in which our own well-being is tied up in the well-being of those around us.
- Three Sundays ago we saw the apostles crossing back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, trying to incorporate Jew and Gentile alike into Jesus’ reconciling mission, healing across the entrenched divide, the “prototype of all human hostility,” as one commentator puts it, being battered in their efforts by cosmic forces in the form of an “adverse wind” that kept them from arriving at “the other side.”
- Two Sundays ago we saw Jesus heal two people. En route, he pauses to heal the daughter of Jairus, a member of the Jewish ruling class, to speak with a destitute woman who has suffered from a socially-isolating illness for years. Jesus postpones the needs of the wealthy and powerful to tend to the needs of the destitute and outcast. None of us can be whole until all of us are cared for.
- And last week, our guest preacher, Leslie Sterling, shared the images of Mark’s Jesus sending his disciples into the countryside to share the good news of God’s coming kingdom, and instructing them to “wipe the dust off their feet” in rebuke of those who fail to show them hospitality.
Redefining kinship; crossing the hostile divide between Jew and Gentile, feeding all alike; prioritizing a poor, marginalized, woman over the wealthy and powerful; and then sending his friends forth to share this message, the message of God’s coming kingdom, and wiping the dust off their feet at those who can’t hear it. Provocative imagery. An even more provocative message, turning on its head the prevailing social, economic, power structures of the day.
But today, Mark has outdone himself, offering up as one commentator describes it, a “potpourri of sexual lust, seduction, political ambition, scandal, and murder [that] has provided endless inspiration for artists and writers ancient and modern.” And I’ve only slightly edited that description for our G-rated purposes here today. It is said that, other than the passion of Christ itself, no other scene in the New Testament has captivated the artistic imagination as much as the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Salome, Herodia, and Herod. Artists through the ages have rendered the scene on canvas, in theatres, in the opera, and on the big screen.
Now, we don’t read the Gospels as primarily an attempt to convey a literal historical account in the sense that we understand that today. These documents are, in many ways, structured to convey theological truths, and I think that interpretive stance holds true for this passage. As captivating as Mark’s version is, a different source from that period, a historian named Josephus, records the story this way:
“Herod had John put to death, though he was a good man… Because [the people] were aroused to the highest degree by [John’s] words, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on the people might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided, therefore, that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.”
So why do we have two such different versions of this story? Mark of all the Gospel writers is known for his straightforward, streamlined version of Jesus’ life and teachings. Why did he take this prolonged detour? What does it tell us about Mark’s understanding of Jesus’ message and meaning?
While the historian Josephus describes Herod’s action as a straight-up, politically-expedient choice, Mark writes a satire in which:
- He condemns the corrupt familial relationships through which the elite preserved power and control.
- He highlights their capricious and arbitrary decision-making – if you recall, Herod is forced into executing John because he made a foolish, drunken promise to his stepdaughter in front of a banquet hall full of revelers, and in order to save face, had to follow through.
- Most importantly, Mark accentuates the deadly consequences of John’s challenge to the prevailing power structures.
And in that we have the final layer added to Mark’s understanding of the coming Kingdom of God:
- It is a new kind of kinship;
- It carries reconciliation and healing across impossible divides;
- It represents a subversion of the typical social order: not even the wealthy and powerful can be whole unless all are whole;
- Not everyone will like the bearers of this message, As Leslie helped us see last week;
- And finally today: if you want to dismantle existing structures of wealth, power, and access, be prepared for a forceful reaction. As Dietrich Bonhoffer put it in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a person, He bids them to come and die.”
Mark paints a stark, ultimately violent picture. It’s uncomfortable.
Now, our circumstances are not as life-threatening as those of John the Baptist and Jesus. We’re not living under Empire like Mark’s community or in the midst of an existential evil that threatens the world order like Dietrich Bonhoffer in Nazi Germany. We live in Brookline and Jamaica Plain, in Allston and Brighton and Belmont and Newton. We’re even at a time of burgeoning hope and anticipation as our lives post-pandemic begin to open up again. It is unlikely that we, as followers of Jesus, would be called to sacrifice our lives to help bring about God’s justice and healing.
Our circumstances are different. And yet we are confronted with this text.
I don’t have a pithy conclusion today. No wise refrain that ties up these musings in a tidy bow. But this is today’s lectionary. This is Mark. This Gospel was written to force Mark’s readers into the action themselves. “Do you see who I am?” Jesus asks. “Do you get it now?” (Mark 8:21). “I bring a new thing. Will you join me?” This is the invitation extended to the reader of Mark, the challenge.
And today we, too, are invited into this question. The challenge rings across the centuries to us here today. And even though our circumstances are different, we don’t have to look far to see a reactionary, even violent response to calls for justice in our own time. I think of systems of racial preference in this country. I think of the monstrous inequality in resources and economic opportunity that we have allowed. That continue.
Jesus came, bringing a new thing. A vision for God’s Kingdom on earth. An expansive, reconciling, healing, dangerously challenging vision. John the Baptist followed that vision to its inevitable conclusion for him in his time. Jesus followed that vision to its inevitable conclusion for him. And now, as readers of Mark, as followers after that vision, we sit with the discomfort. What is our response in our time? Amen.