Chaplain Mel Baars
July 15, 2012
“Going On Anyway”
Unlawful arrest. Adultery and incest by marriage. Flagrant misuse of government resources. A sexualized birthday party. A promise kept resulting in a murder. The head of a man served on a platter. This description sounds more like something we might find on HBO, rated “for adult viewing only” rather than a story plucked right out of our Bible. For as much as we worry about gratuitous violence or sex permeating the entertainment industry, this morning we don’t have to look very far to remember that gruesome stories which end in the loss of innocent life have been, and still are, a reality in our world.
The death of John the Baptist is not exactly a heartwarming or uplifting story. When I flipped through the potential texts for this Sunday, my first reaction was to avoid it altogether. I am in pretty good company. The gospel of Luke omits the story completely, barely giving John’s death a mention. Matthew’s gospel shrinks it down to just twelve verses, glossing over some of the more grotesque details. Can any of us really blame them? John’s death does not appear to be a good news story by any stretch of the means. There isn’t any apparent hope. The story ends with a beheading, and barely a gesture toward something more, something holy. Skipping right over it could be considered a form of self-preservation.
None of us would ever chose to deal with such a tale, at least not if we didn’t have to. We have enough difficulty in our lives to have to add any more into the mix. A few years ago when I was visiting my parents, I remember watching a very sad movie about a community ravaged by HIV and AIDS. The movie started off on a painful note and only seemed to grow worse. At one point, my mother decided she had enough. Leaving her place on the couch, she said to me, “I’m sorry. I just can’t take it anymore. Real life is sad enough.” With that, she left me in the living room.
And yet, there are times when I feel drawn to watching or reading stories such as this one—stories that are tragic, painful, and devastating but nonetheless, all too real. Because, I know that suffering happens all around me. I hear it in the quavering voice of young soldier recounting the ways she was abused by her step-father. I see it in the distant eyes of a patient who has traveled for days to get medical care at the Egyptian Hospital. We read about horrible suffering in our intelligence reports and watch it on the news, about girls schools being targeted by the Taliban or a young son of a village elder being blinded by extremists as punishment for the village for cooperating with coalition forces.
Though we may wish to avoid it, or even attempt to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it, sooner or later, suffering of some kind will knock on our own door. Because this is true, dealing with a text such as this one may actually help prepare us for the shadows which lurk precariously close. Please, don’t get me wrong. I am not predicting that any of us will face something as drastic as a beheading. Nonetheless, we are a part of a war characterized by carnage, trauma, and death. The truth is, some of us who wear this uniform will not escape it unscathed.
Despite my better judgment, I chose to preach on our gospel reading for today. Unlike the other gospels, I think Mark gives the attention he does to John’s death precisely because of its horror, because Mark knows just how harsh the world can be, particularly to those who are weak and marginalized. Even in a book called “good news,” this reality rears its ugly head. If John, a prophet of God, the baptizer of Jesus, couldn’t avoid this darkness, what makes any of us think that we are immune? This is the reality that we are also faced with, a world that is often dark, filled with fallen people who, despite even good intentions, make choices which disappoint and cause pain.
It is no wonder, in the verses which precede this story, Jesus prepares his disciples to go into the world, sending them out two by two. John’s death is further evidence that they need each other desperately-- that we need each other, too. The world is not always receptive to God’s message of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and justice and peace for all people. Speaking truth to power often results in backlash. We see this not only in John’s violent death at the hands of Herod, but also on the cross. Jesus came to restore the world and give new life, and yet because this freedom for all threatened the power and control of some, he was killed. We can never forget that at the very heart of the good news is God’s passion and death. As followers of Jesus, we hold this duality in both of our hands.
As I was reading and preparing for my sermon, I noticed that quite a few commentators mentioned that Jesus is mostly absent from this sordid tale of John’s death. At the beginning of the story, we hear that Jesus’ name had become known throughout the region, but that is the only time he is mentioned. He isn’t even a part of the party who comes to bury John. In fact, this is the only scene in Mark’s gospel where Jesus doesn’t make a personal appearance at all. In a way though, Jesus’ absence seems somehow appropriate. It is almost as if Mark is mirroring the very depth of despair that we may feel on the days when it seems that even God has abandoned us. For just this moment, for these sixteen verses, Mark forces us to get honest about how bad things can be, about how darkness can skew our vision so much that we lose sight of God and God’s steadfast promises. When the powerless suffer from a variety of tyrannies, when leaders sacrifice those entrusted to them for personal gain, when innocent die avoidable deaths, we wonder just where God has gone. What about God’s promises? When will they come true?
I am reminded of this palpable dissonance just listening to our scripture for this morning. On one hand, we have Psalm 24 which begins with these beautiful words, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” And yet, as much as we profess this to be the truth, as much as we try and believe it, we encounter situations which fly in the face of this good news. There are times when life events threaten the very promises that God has made to us.
But as jarring as Psalm 24 and Mark 6:14-29 may be to our ears, we can’t have one without the other. We can’t lose sight of either. I imagine this is why the lectionary committee, who decided what scripture should be put together, paired these two texts. Without Psalm 24, we may forget the hope which is ours to hold on to, even when it gets dark. Without Mark 6:14-29, we may neglect to face the harsh realities that we are sure to encounter, realities which may test our faith, realities which may cause us to suffer, realities which may land us, even, at the foot of the cross. But, each text, both the hopeful and the terrible, informs the other. Each text is a gift which allows us to negotiate our own peaks and valleys, no matter where our journey takes us.
The report of John’s death concludes with this single verse: “When his disciples heard about what happened, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” There is no call to arms, not galvanizing effort to get back at Herod for what he has done, the pain he has caused, no plan of vengeance. Just these simple acts-- they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. What else could they do? What else... What else can any of us do, when a marriage falls apart, when we hear those dreaded words, “I’m sorry, but it’s cancer,” when a son loses his way through drug or alcohol abuse, when we are betrayed, when life comes undone at the seams faster than we can hold on to the unraveling threads... What else can we do, but in the midst of our grief, find a way to go on, to do what has to be done. We go on, which sometimes feels impossible as it would have for the disciples when they retrieved what was left of John’s body. In the stark darkness of our lives, these simple acts are what faithfulness looks like. Picking up the pieces, having courage to continue living in the wake of unspeakable loss, keeping our hearts open to the possibility that something good may grow from the ashes, these are incredibly faithful acts.
I have heard it said that one of the greatest demonstrations of faith in all the Bible is found at the very end of the book of Job. Despite all of his losses and suffering and grief, despite the fact that he knows in the blink of an eye, he may face the darkness once again, he willingly agrees once more to become a husband and father. It sounds simple. People do this every day. But, considering all that Job went through, it would be much safer for him to close his heart permanently.
To say “Yes” to life and love, to go on, knowing just how fragile life is, just how much it may end up hurting but going on anyway, this is faithfulness. This is trust. May we so respond. Amen