A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 12, 2015 (Proper 10, Year B)
Kids don’t seem to play the classic Parker Brothers game Monopoly much these days. I mean, I remember some epic family battles growing up; games that would last for days. Which may be part of the reason it’s not as popular anymore. In a world of instant results, it takes time to build up your monopolies, buy all the railroads, and slowly suck your friends and family dry. Or maybe the recent mortgage crisis has made the whole concept a bit too real for adults. But whatever the reason, it’s no longer common to walk into a neighbor’s house and see an in-progress Monopoly game on the dining room table waiting to be completed later that evening.
One of the best things about those highly competitive Monopoly games was drawing the coveted Get Out of Jail Free card. You didn’t need it then, but eventually and inevitably it would come in handy. And there was nothing quite like the sweet freedom of tossing that card down on the table right after being told to go directly to jail without passing go and without collecting $200.
Now, I’m sure John the Baptist would have loved a Get Out of Jail Free card to present to King Herod as he rotted away in the royal dungeon. He ended up there not for going out into the wilderness, standing in the River Jordan, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That might have annoyed the powers that be but he was generally seen as little more than a nuisance. As long as he kept his crazy out in the boonies he could be ignored as just another fringe religious figure — the original Jesus freak.
John ran into trouble, though, when he took his act to the palace. The Baptist pointed out to Herod — in his inimitable loud, bold, unrepentant manner — that in marrying his sister-in-law Herodias, in defiance of the Law of Moses, the king and queen were living in a state of sin.
You see, John had this little character flaw of needing to speak truth to power. It comes with being formed in the image of an archetypical Old Testament prophet in the tradition of Amos, who we also hear about this morning. There are some strong parallels between Amos, who in his day had chastised King Jeroboam for being a corrupt and faithless king, and John. And we see again and again that standing up to princes and principalities is not for the faint of heart. Bringing God’s word to powerful people who are unwilling or unable to change their ways can get you exiled or reviled or killed.
Unfortunately John the Baptist never did draw that Get Out of Jail free card. And in this gruesome tale of his beheading, the whole notion of freedom and imprisonment becomes twisted as the virtues and vices of human nature play out.
Let’s take a quick look at the players and the scenario involved here. There are three main actors in this drama — Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, answerable to the Emperor Tiberius; his wife Herodias, who had previously been married to and divorced from Herod’s brother, and John the Baptist, whose arrest at the end of the first chapter of Mark was the last we heard of him. There’s also Herod’s young daughter, called Salome, but she’s a mere pawn in the action.
Now, Herod, who we hear admired John as a holy and righteous man, threw him into prison for criticizing his marriage and defaming his reputation rather than killing him. It was the perfect compromise for a weak, insecure man: John was silenced publicly, his wife was placated, and whatever conscience Herod himself had was satisfied. Brilliant! Except for one problem — Herodias held a grudge. A major, nasty, blood curdling grudge.
So she bided her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to exact her revenge. And eventually it came at a fancy state dinner; actually Herod’s own birthday party. Salome famously danced to the pleasure of the king and his guests in what has become known as the Dance of the Seven Veils in both Richard Strauss’ operatic version of the story and Oscar Wilde’s play. Herod publicly and foolishly and perhaps lecherously promised Salome whatever she wanted in return and, after consulting her mother, she demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.
In the precise moment that her daughter came to her, Herodias seized that Get Out of Jail Free card and played it with venomous glee, triumphantly tossing it onto the banquet table. And Herod was backed into a corner; if he refused to keep his promise, he would lose credibility, and worse, failing to keep an oath was akin to taking God’s name in vain. Evidently that was less distasteful to the king than killing an innocent man.
Now you may be thinking, “What do you mean Get Out of Jail Free card? Herodias wasn’t the one in jail!” But here’s the thing. This venomous woman finally saw her chance to be freed from the only real threat to her power and status — God’s judgment in the person of God’s prophet, this man called John the Baptist.
So, ironically it was John, jailed and beheaded, who was truly free. Free by virtue of his faith in Jesus Christ. And it was Herodias, enjoying all the royal benefits of queenship who was truly imprisoned. Imprisoned by her sinfulness. Imprisoned by her guilt. Imprisoned by her rage. Imprisoned by her thirst for selfish ambition. And again, we see that the deep truths of life don’t always reside on the surface; that they are not always visible to the naked eye. That the reality of God’s realm does not always reflect the limited human interpretation of events.
And what we ultimately learn from this story is that violence never trumps faith; that evil cannot conquer love — something the power of the cross teaches us in no uncertain terms. Beheading, crucifixion. Nothing can separate us from the love of God — not even death.
And we see that Jesus is that Get Out of Jail Free card. Not because grace is cheap or easy but because it is freely offered to those who repent and pursue true amendment of life. It is offered to you and to me and, yes, even to Herodias. But we have to say “yes” to it. We have to admit our wrongdoing and open our hearts to the gift of a loving God.
This is a tough story to think about. It’s a tough story to preach on. No one’s turning it into a Church School pageant. But confronting the realities of evil in the world and offering an alternative is part of our calling as a community of faith. There is another way. And it runs straight from the pain of the cross and sword directly to the triumph of resurrection glory.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015