7th Sunday after Pentecost: A Birthday Party turns sour

First Reading: Amos 7:7-15

7This is what [the Lord God] showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. 8And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,
 “See, I am setting a plumb line
  in the midst of my people Israel;
  I will never again pass them by;
9the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
  and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
  and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
  10Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11For thus Amos has said,
 ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
  and Israel must go into exile
  away from his land.’ ”
12And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
  14Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ ”

Psalm: Psalm 85:8-13

8I will listen to what the Lord| God is saying;
  for you speak peace to your faithful people and to those who turn       their hearts to you.
9Truly, your salvation is very near to |those who fear you,
  that your glory may dwell in our land. 
10Steadfast love and faithfulness have met together;
  righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11Faithfulness shall spring up from the earth,
  and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12The Lord will indeed grant prosperity,
  and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness shall go before the Lord
  and shall prepare for God a pathway. 

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

3Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Gospel: Mark 6:14-29

14King Herod heard of [the disciples’ preaching,] for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
  17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  Our text today is going to share in detail, about a birthday party.  Does a birthday party stand out in your mind?  Some of the most fun ones I’ve been too have been when someone turns 50.  There is usually a lot of joking about aging, funny presents, guests, and good food.  The party we read about today had dancing, presents, and drama but I doubt the guests went home feeling they had a good time.  Why does Mark tell us about this particular party? 

Let us pray:  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

We are in the season of Pentecost and looking at gospel stories, asking ourselves what difference Jesus makes in lives.  Last week our text told of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth and being rejected.  He could do few miracles.  Jesus then started to send out his disciples in pairs to preach.   Today’s text continues.  It would seem that through the work of the disciples, Jesus is becoming known and talked about.  People in the area are debating just who Jesus is.  We face the same question today.  Who is this Jesus we gather about and what difference does he make in our lives today?

         Some thought he was a prophet following in the footsteps of Elijah who went to heaven in a whirlwind and who was believed to be going to return before the coming of the Messiah.  People today look for a charismatic figure that will signal end times.  Others suspected Jesus was walking in the tradition of prophets who would appear and call Israel back to faith in Jehovah.  He was a charismatic figure, good guy but not God.  Still others thought Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected.  Let us remind ourselves that two major groups within Judaism were divided on the reality of resurrection.  The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and that is was why they were sad, you see.  The Pharisees believed in the resurrection because prophets in the Old Testament prayed over people and they returned to life.  Jesus was a kind of miracle worker.  Today people look to Jesus for health, wealth, and prosperity – an answerer to their prayers.  King Herod, though, believed Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life.   

What do we mean when we think of Jesus as our Savior?

         As I have pondered why Mark would have told us about Herod’s birthday party, I wonder if he is sharing about the types of people the disciples were encountering and the types of people we encounter as we share our experiences of Jesus.  Then again, we might reflect on which person in today’s text we most identify with.  Are we like Herod, a guilty conscience and afraid God was punishing him?  Or perhaps we are blinded by our grudges like Herodias.  Some of us are innocent pawns in another’s scheme like Herodias’ daughter and we are unaware if what we believe is right or wrong.  Then there are the bystanders that watch the party unfold and find it all very entertaining but are not impacted in their lives.  King Herod, Herodias, her daughter and the bystanders lead our reflection today. 

         King Herod had a guilty conscience.  He knew that John the Baptist had not deserved to die.  King Herod was conflicted.  He had compromised his integrity at his birthday party to keep peace in his marriage and to save face in-front of his guests.  Herod believed John to be a “righteous and holy man” but Herod’s wife, Herodias, hated John for saying the truth that she had married her late husband’s brother.  Herod was caught between what he knew was true and an unhappy wife.  He jailed John to pacify Herodias but protected John while Herodias bided her time, nursing her grudge. 

         Many of us know this dance Herod is doing, trying to keep two voices in our life appeased.  I think we call it burning the candle on both ends.  It may be the party on Saturday with our friends and then the guilt of being too tired to make it to church on Sunday – next week we promise ourselves.  It may be fudging on income tax returns.  It may be trying to keep peace between the Republicans and Democrats in our family and so sliding with our truth as we talk.  Trying not to take sides and not to hurt anyone’s feelings is hard and often leads us to feeling conflicted.

         But Herod was also superstitious.  Superstitions trigger guilty consciences. When we are having a bad day we wonder if we are being punished for some secret sin, known or unknown. Herod is convinced Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected and returned to accuse him.  We rack our memory to remember some sin that deserves a bad day or that has come back to haunt us.  Compromises have a way of resurfacing and often cloud our ability to make decisions. 

         In our world today tolerance is a value most hold.  We do not want to appear judgmental and we want to keep our options open.  Many people listen to stories about Jesus but then become confused by denominations and are unwilling to commit.  Deciding where to read in the Bible is a challenge for many so they don’t but know they should.  Our awareness of the many religions that mix in our society today plus our value on tolerance dilute our convictions of what we believe or at least our willingness to talk about it.  We don’t want conflict.  Herod represents those people who know that people like John were righteous and holy people but who get caught in the crossfire of relationships. His fear of people undermined his faith and ability to follow his convictions.  He was “perplexed,” fearful and conflicted.  His compromises blinded him. 

         Herodias, on the other hand, also knew that John the Baptist was telling the truth about her marriage.  She had married her husband’s brother.  Her problem was not conflict but anger and hate.  She was carrying a grudge.

         As I listened to people tell their faith stories as a chaplain, many had stories of the failures of God to rescue them.  There are so many stories of deep bitterness because of the actions of some Christian who caused a perceived injustice, a grief over the ending of a relationship that they thought God had led them into, or a defeat that God might have saved them from.  Forgiveness is a very difficult spiritual discipline.  Most of us know the divisions within our own family about some action done or thoughtless word spoken or inheritance unfairly divided or promotion given that triggers comparisonitis. We do not have to go far to find grudges.  Compromise, Herod, works on guilt about decisions and feeds superstitions of punishment we deserve but grudges, Herodias, work on our resentments and stereotypes we have about other people.  We are protecting our own self-image and become a judge of others.

         Seeking and accepting forgiveness places judgment in the hands of God and allows him to rectify wrongs and defend us.  Forgiveness requires admitting we have done wrong and for a King, that might be hard.  For a Queen, rising above gossip is hard.  We open our service with the confessional because we have all been guilty of doing wrong, known and unknown, and we have all been guilty of not loving our neighbor as we ought.

         Herodias’ daughter danced for King Herod.  We do not even know her name.  Many think it was an exotic dance that drove Herod to offer her up to half his kingdom.  Queen Esther was offered half of the King’s kingdom when she dressed beautifully and approached him after fasting for three days.  Esther invites the King and Hamaan to a banquet as she seeks the right timing to accomplish her agenda.  Herodias’ daughter, on the other hand runs to her mother to seek advise.  It would appear that she has no idea of what she wants nor does she have a sense of values to resist the gruesome request for the head of John the Baptist.  Perhaps she too carried the grudge against her father-uncle’s accuser and was offended by John’s preaching.  The text does not indicate a grudge.  The text indicates that she was someone who went along with the plans by an authority.

         This character in our story raises the ugly head of personal culpability in our ongoing cultural discussion of justice.  We are polarized and we find Christians on all sides of all issues.  We can look to our pastors and bishops for guidance but where does our personal responsibility lie?  Do you remember the joke that went something like this.  Olaf gets to heaven and St. Peter asks him where his name was on the church roster.  Olaf responds that his wife went to church for them.  St. Peter asks about his sharing of his resources.  Oh, he says that his wife handled that.  And so the questioning went on.  Finally St Peter says, “Your wife may come into heaven.” 

         The point is that I am not responsible for other’s sins, only mine. It is called a sin of omission.  I omit doing the good I should.  The daughter could have objected but did not.  I justify my grudges because of what the other did.  I justify my compromises because I had no choice.  In fact, I am allowing myself to be used as a pawn in someone else’s agenda.  We call it “victim” thinking today.  I am the victim of someone else.  While the Bible talks about community, it also speaks strongly to my uniqueness and my reality in the eyes of God.  Christ died for you and we need to take that seriously and take responsibility for our spirituality.

         Herod, the compromised, Herodias, the person with the grudge, her daughter who does not seem to know her own mind, but then there are the guests at the party.  We watch this little drama unfold.  How does this story touch us?  The fame of Jesus is spreading and his disciples are meeting people with all sorts of smoke screen’s when they hear the gospel preached.  Maybe they have a guilty past they need to confess and find forgiveness for.  Maybe they are holding grudges and disappointments for how God did not meet their expectations.  Maybe they have not yet internalized their own moral code and walk around as victims of others decisions.  All these people were at Herod’s party and live in our lives today.  Today’s text tells us that the fame of Jesus was spreading and people were confronted with deciding who Jesus was.  We come to church today and are confronted with the reality of Jesus.  We can go home thinking the “gift”, the head on a platter was a bit crude and scary.  But we can also look at our hearts and ask if we have grudges we are harboring that are blinding our ability to interact with others.  We can also justify ourselves as the victims of other’s sins and dismiss our responsibility. And we can feel the deep grief of being compromised and needing to seek forgiveness – but tomorrow. 

         The disciples heard what happened and went to King Herod’s palace and claimed John’s body and laid it in a tomb.  Our time on earth is limited.  We do not know how many birthday parties we will go to. But may we hold our lives as a gift from the God who has prepared a heaven for us where there will not be making compromising decisions, holding lingering grudges, and where we will serve a God who makes kind decisions.  Thank you Lord.

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