Year B, Proper 10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
July 11, 2021
We continue on in Mark’s gospel, as we will most Sundays between now and Advent. Last week, Jesus sent his disciples out to do the ministry of casting out demons and healing the sick and inviting everyone to repent believe in the Good News! Mark’s gospel is filled with dramatic, almost apocalyptic stores of demons and exorcisms, but today’s scene from chapter 6 is more of a tale of gruesome, political drama.
It begins with Herod, the Roman ruler of the region of Galilee, who had just heard about the disciples’ healing of the sick and casting out of demons. He had a flashback of sorts of the time when he had ordered the execution of John the Baptist.
Herod’s half-brother Philip had died, and he proceeded to marry Philip’s widow Herodias. According to Levitical law, marrying your brother’s widow was illegal, and Herodias had developed a grudge against John the Baptist for simply telling Herod the truth about the matter. The marriage of high-ranking Roman officials often had an international political component, and this one was no different. John’s prophecy against this marriage was less than politically desirable for both Herod and Herodias, and surely John was aware of the potential consequences.
Upon the occasion of his birthday, Herod organizes a banquet for the local political leaders and others in the upper echelons of society. He bestows an honor on his daughter by making a public oath promising to grant her any request. The problem is that she asks for something he really doesn’t want to give. Herod likes John the Baptist, despite throwing him in prison for getting in this middle of his marriage and political life, but he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. He can either do what is shameful and break a public promise he’s made, or do what is shameful and do something he knows is morally wrong.
She asks for her mother’s opinion on what she should ask her father for, and Herodias responds, “The head of John the baptizer.” Herod delivers on his promise, and Mark gives us the painful description of what happened in gruesome detail. He orders one of his soldiers to bring him John’s head. The soldier goes to the jail where he is imprisoned and beheads him, bringing his head on a platter, and presenting it to the girl who then gives it to her mother. This was no ordinary political execution – it is nasty.
In the end Herod, didn’t have the moral courage to choose do the right thing. He chose to honor his oath to his daughter so that he wouldn’t look bad in front of the others. It is difficult to come away from this story without feeling that these people are monsters.
They killed John the Baptist for telling the truth. Yes, Jesus says that the truth will make you free, but as we heard in today’s gospel reading, telling the truth might get you arrested and even killed. This is a paradox that is difficult to accept. Of course, there are times that call for prudence and caution, but there are times that call for uncompromising and unwavering truth telling, consequences be as they may.
It’s somewhat like the paradox we see in the gospel itself. Jesus Christ died to set us free from our sins, but in order to join with him in his resurrection, we have to die to our old selves. To experience the joy of Easter, we must first suffer through the devastation and heartache of Good Friday.
Last week, I talked about how disciples of Jesus are called to die to our old selves. After Mass, one of our dear parishioners asked me if I’d consider expounding on this concept of dying to one’s old self. Like most preachers, the common feedback I get is, “Nice sermon, Father” or something of the sort, and on the rare occasion I receive a “request” like this, I’m more than happy to oblige.
St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “we are baptized into Christ’s death…For if we are united with him in a death like this, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” The baptismal life is a daily cycle of dying to the old self and rising to a new life filled with the hope of resurrection. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes the process of dying to self like this: dying to self means being “crucified with Christ,” and now I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. Paul’s old life, in which he chose to follow the ways of the world as opposed to the ways of God, is dead, and the new Paul is the dwelling place of Christ who lives in and through him. This is not to say that when we die to self we become automatons, nor do we feel ourselves to be dead. Rather, dying to self means that the things of the old life are put to death, most especially choosing to sin as our nature bids us to do. Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” Dying to self means choosing to form habits that lead us to naturally choose the good of others before our own good. To choose that which pleases God rather than gratifying ourselves.
Put another way, the cycle of dying and rising is the pattern of sin, repentance, confession, absolution, and forgiveness. This cycle is daily because despite putting to death our old selves at our baptisms, our old selves don’t stay dead, at least on this side of the grave. Our propensity to sin does not go away at baptism, but through baptism, we are “reborn by the Holy Spirit.” By the help of the Holy Spirit, and through the grace we receive in the Sacraments of the Church, we are given the grace we need to face an evil tyrant and stand up for the truth, no matter the consequences. In the Sacraments, especially in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we are given the grace we need to resist temptation and choose to put others before ourselves. When we fail in matters great or small, when we stumble in our footsteps, when we put our own sinful desires before those of the Lord, the cycle begins once again. We confess our sins to God, arise from the baptismal water absolved and forgiven and transformed, and we go on about our business of loving God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves.
Whether it’s this week or next, you and I will find ourselves faced with a paradox like John the Baptist was: do we tell the truth, despite the potential consequences, or do we remain silent? While I hope that speaking the truth doesn’t result in your head being served as the last course at a local politicians’ house, I hope and pray that you face the situation with a firm conviction that you’ve died to your old self and that Christ is dwelling in you. Be courageous in your truth telling, for you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus! Know that in receiving the grace given in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, you have become participants of the divine nature and transformed (just a little) into the image of Jesus himself.
And so, I invite you to come to this table, not because you must but because you may. Not because you have reached your goal of holiness but because you are on the way there and need food for the journey. Not because you love the Lord a lot, but because you love him a little and would like to love him more. Come.
 John 8:32.
 Romans 6:3-5.
 Galatians 2:20.
 Galatians 5:24
 Much of this paragraph comes from https://www.gotquestions.org/dying-to-self.html, accessed 7/10/2021.
 BCP 306.
 Romans 6:11.
 2 Peter 1:4.
 This invitation to communion is Scottish in origin, and I learned it over a decade ago from The Rev’d Canon Andy Griffiths, currently Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the Diocese of Chelmsford.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!