Sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer, on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 7 July 2019
Reading Mark 6: 7–29
Picture Salisbury Cathedral Refectory, sandwich bar
Chapter 6 of Mark’s gospel talks a lot about food, some of which arrives as a sandwich. There are several literary sandwiches in Mark, passages where one story appears between two halves of another, like a piece of cheese between two slices of bread.
Today, Jesus sends out the disciples on a mission, telling them to travel light, not even to take any food with them – that’s the first slice. Just after our reading ends comes the second slice, when they return but are too busy to eat. In between comes the cheese, so to speak. King Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life, so Mark brings us up to date about the fate of John. He opposed Herod’s marriage to Herodias as unlawful and Herod locked him up. Herodias, however, wanted him dead and, during her husband’s birthday party, she saw her chance.
As Mark serves this sandwich, the passages on either side of the party story bring out its rancid taste: the disciples are trudging the roads of Galilee, with not even a hunk of bread in their pockets; then they are so busy that they have no time to eat; meanwhile, the leisured and treasured of Galilee enjoy fine dining. But how enjoyable is Herod’s party? Could you relax there? Wouldn’t you be anxious about losing the king’s favour, scared that that a rival might get his ear?
These are the elite; but how much real freedom do they have, even Herod? He’s the one in charge, but only so long as the powerful people – the Romans above all – back him, so he uses his own birthday party to keep them sweet, and his daughter as a floorshow to titillate them. And, for all his power, he’s afraid of John the Baptist. He does put him in jail, but isn’t that partly because he’s afraid of Herodias?
Herod’s in charge (but only kind of) and what power he has shrinks when he makes an offer he can’t go back on, for fear of losing face. If anyone’s in charge in this fear-full episode it’s Herodias, who uses that same daughter to manoeuvre her husband into killing John. John the prisoner is in a way the freest of all.
Where do you find yourself in this story? You may identify with the daughter, used by other as a weapon in their struggles. Or you may find yourself in one of the hidden cast in this scene, the servants who fetch and carry, the soldiers who must guard and then execute a righteous and holy man. Or – admit it – you may belong more among the guests. You may be a person with clout, with a style of life many would envy, yet your world is one of plots and jockeying and whispering – and fear; fear of losing face, fear of stepping out of line even when bad things are happening. People think you’re powerful, but does it feel that way?
What, then, is to be done?
There is the radical option – walk out of the palace and join the hastled and hungry disciples of Jesus on the road. Perhaps that is what you have to do – God sometimes needs people to do that – but there are other ways of joining Jesus’ people: God needs people inside Herod’s palace too. Each month we pray for a prisoner of conscience, and in July it is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer in Iran. She is surely an instrument of God’s purposes – God needs her and people like her – but God also needs people in the Iranian regime if her sentence of 38 years plus judicial torture is to be quashed.
So, again, what is to be done?
Listening for an answer is one of our tasks here, for here Jesus throws a rival party. It often has some pageantry about it that Herod might recognise, but in every other way it is a different occasion, the antidote to his party at the palace.
To be an effective antidote, it must be equal to the disease. It must take seriously the worlds in which the guests live. It must be a place to pray for one another honestly, without pretence, not ignoring the mess and the compromise that are part of so many lives. Its atmosphere must be that of love casting out fear, so that you can walk out feeling stronger than when you came in, more able to resist the pressures that can push a person over the line which divides compromise from collusion.
And, as we look beyond the palace windows to the disciples on the road, or look below the ballroom to John the Baptist in his dungeon, we must remember that our host can give us strength (when need be) to be braver still.