Sometimes the lectionary passages are hard to think about. Today’s story is the beheading of John the Baptiser in the Gospel of Mark (6). It is hardly an uplifting story.
Yesterday, it felt really incongruous to be reading it. It was a lovely, warm summer’s day in upstate New York. It was too hot to take the pugs out so Andy and I went for a walk alone starting in Stewart Park. It was a good opportunity, as dogs are not permitted there. All around us were signs of new life. We saw ducklings and goslings being protected by their various parents. Before we left for the park I had walked around our back garden. I saw the fawn and her mother. I discovered that our bat house had a Robin’s nest on top with three babies sticking their heads out. The two baby groundhogs were around. All around us were signs of new life. Then I read the lectionary and it was about death. It seemed so extreme. All around me, I was seeing signs of new life (birth) and yet I was reading about death. Life and death, two transitions into something new and different.
I admit I was tempted to move on from the reading. Perhaps, I could use a different, more uplifting passage to talk about rather than someone being beheaded. However, I decided to remain with it. I would follow Phyllis Trible’s directive to shake a text until it yields a blessing. I would shake this text and see what it revealed.
I wanted to look at John beyond the words of this passage. So here is John from the brief Biblical mentions he gets. His birth had been miraculous. The story is often told as we move into Christmas. The baby, named John a gift from God. He was Jesus’ cousin. We know very little about his life except that he was sent to the desert (probably to learn and study with the monks). Then he reappeared to announce the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is where the author of Mark starts his story. The gospel starts with just a few short verses about John’s ministry ending with the words, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee.” (1:14) John is not mentioned again in the Gospel of Mark until the beginning of the chapter from which today’s reading is taken. Herod hears the stories about Jesus. He starts wondering if Jesus is John the Baptiser resurrected. Then the author of Mark tells the story, really in parenthesis, of how John lost his life.
The first thing that I noticed as I pondered this story was how young John was. I have three children. They are all older, or perhaps the youngest is the same age, as John would have been. I realise that the life expectancy was lower in those days, but nevertheless, he was just a young man. This passage tells of the end of his life. But as I glanced at the story of John in the various gospels I became aware of how John was born for a purpose. His purpose was to announce the messiah, the Christ. He fulfilled his purpose. In today’s society many people feel aimless. They see no purpose to their lives. What a wonderful thing to know what your destiny is. To feel your purpose for being alive is being, or has been, fulfilled. In that I can find both a real challenge and a blessing.
The second thing I noticed was in Herod’s story. He was tricked by his wife into killing John, which he didn’t want to do. She requested the head of John on a platter. The text tells us, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” (6:24) I think there is a lesson for us here. Sometimes we have to go against the flow, stand up for what we believe is right even if it is hard. Herod didn’t! We can learn from his mistake.
I have read various accounts of this passage which say that Herod had no choice. I don’t believe that. There is always a choice, even though one of the choices may be hard and cause loss of friends and status. I think many in our Lindisfarne community have been really good at standing for what is right, supporting the marginalized. Two weeks ago, I, like many others, changed my Facebook profile photograph rainbow in support of the Supreme Court judgment. I was immediately blocked from an online group where I had previously enjoyed many conversations. It didn’t matter, there is a blessing in doing what one believes is right. I wish Herod could have found that.
So, as I have shaken today’s lectionary passage I have found two blessings. The blessing of living a fulfilled life and the blessing of standing for what one believes is right. I hope you, too, can find a blessing in this text.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, the pugs did get a walk in the cooler night air when we were treated to an amazing dance by the fireflies.