Esther 7:1-6; Mark 6:14-29

I think most of us would probably rather that this story – the beheading of John the Baptist in high Shakespearian fashion – weren’t in our Bibles, or at least not in our worship on a lovely summer morning. So I think I should start by offering a reason why I feel compelled to talk about this particular text. I don’t mean to dwell on its wickedness, but I do think sometimes we need to delve deeply into the darkness of life so we can know that even our darkness can be enlightened.

I’m compelled to visit this story because it’s still present in our world. Just this week, a report was released about the recent scandal at Penn State, where several officials worked to conceal child sex abuse so as to protect the reputation of the football program and their legendary coach. The particulars may be quite different, but I hear crystal-clear echoes of the way Herod worked so hard to cover his own rear end at the expense of someone who had done nothing wrong.

I’m grabbed by this story because it’s about us. It’s about me. Powerful but hapless King Herod, scheming Herodias, and the innocent victim John the Baptist are all us. I think especially of poor murdering Herod, backed into a corner by his own twisted sense of honor. I think of the ethical compromises I make every day: the ways I struggle to own up when I haven’t lived up to my promises; the ways I so frequently fail one set of relationships for the sake of another; the fact that I’ll have a hard time turning away from a Penn State-Iowa game if it’s on this fall.

Ultimately, I feel like I have to engage this story because we live through it – hopefully in far less dramatic form – whenever we try to take Christian faithfulness out into the world. Whenever we try to connect the things we do here in worship with the things that exist out in daily life, we’re likely to fall into some layer of this conflict between image and truth. I seek comfort in this story, because if something like this can be redeemed (which may be a questionable point), it seems like most anything can be.

So let’s get our bearings. Mark wrote his gospel carefully, and this passage is placed very deliberately between last week’s story of Jesus sending the disciples out – to preach, heal, and cast out demons – and the disciples’ return. So this story sits inside another story like meat inside a sandwich, and they end up interpreting each other. But that doesn’t help, does it? This story – the prophet beheaded in cold blood by the powerful ruler he dared to oppose – is the core of the disciples’ mission into the world? Well, yes. Remember, this whole book is about Jesus, and we remember the climax of his story, right? It’s like Maundy Thursday in July.

There’s another parallel story that is kind of revealing here. Take a look at how this story compares with our first reading, where Queen Esther confronts Haman at a banquet for conspiring to put a righteous Jew to death. Mark goes to some uncharacteristic lengths to set those two stories up in light of each other, just to make us think. I think we’re supposed to recognize that we too will come up against this kind of opposition when we try to use Christ’s authority in the world, but just as it did in Esther, the power of truth will win out.

Truth wins out in its own way in the story of Herod’s flailing about and ultimately killing John the Baptist. The story is really a flashback, Herod’s guilty remembering of what he did, prompted by the realization that perhaps Jesus’ disciples are channeling the same power that made John great. When the actual story is told, it comes off like a farce: the wicked despot bumbles his way into an unnecessary killing, tricked by his rash promises to a young girl. We could read it as a morality play about caring more about our image than we do about the truth, but that’s too simple. The more complicated point is that the truth really does win out, even when the powers that be wish it would. For a people who are called upon to value truth more highly than we value the world’s ways, that’s good news.

There are two basic truths built into the good news, the Gospel. One truth is that the world is not yet as God intends it to be. Globally and individually, we have taken a world that God created very good and made an unmistakable mess of it. Changing that world, we know, is terribly hard work. Even changing our own lives is terribly hard work. We know that no matter how small the change, no matter how low we set our sights, anything we do to change away from “the devil we know” is going to run into fierce opposition. Often, we ourselves are that opposition.

But here’s the second truth, the more meaningful truth: the opposition will always give out as long as we seek to change in God’s direction. If we stand with the weak and powerless – as Esther so powerfully did, and as Herod knew he could have done – the power of truth will win out. If we use what power we’ve been given (however meager it may seem) for kindness, gentleness, and mercy, then truth will win out. The Gospel is desperately hard, dangerous work, but it’s ultimately unstoppable. It is its own great power, expressed best and most truthfully through gentleness, peace, and love.

The great spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen lived, at the end of his career, in community with mentally handicapped adults. He had a particular relationship with a man named Adam, who could do essentially nothing by himself, so Nouwen cared for him daily. At one point, his fame earned him an invitation to the White House to advise the President. Nouwen declined, saying: “I don’t want to be a court chaplain. I am here with Adam, my disabled friend. There are others who can go to the White House. Adam needs me.” Of course, declining an invitation to the White House doesn’t carry as severe a set of consequences as does scolding a Roman territorial king, but it demonstrates the same way of setting God’s mission above human politics and image. There are many things about Henri Nouwen’s path that I don’t believe I’m called to, but I pray that I may have his wisdom to know where and how my gifts may best be used.

Like the rest of Jesus’ disciples, we are sent out into the world to share our power with those who are weak and to share our health with those who are suffering. Some of us are sent to do that in great centers of power, and others are sent into particular homes and other byways of life. The good news is that wherever we are sent, someone else goes with us: One whose name means truth and unquenchable life; One who teaches us what true power is when he sees people “like sheep without a shepherd” and chooses to feed them; One who put away all the privileges of divinity so that nothing, not even our humanity, could ever separate us from the love of God.

We know that the road we’re sent to travel will be rocky. I’m challenged by that knowledge because I don’t know that I genuinely want to encounter all the bumps along the way. I don’t know that I actually want for all of you that you should truly take on the suffering of those in the world who still suffer and struggle. I’m challenged because the truth is that my ability to love isn’t yet pure and unbounded.

But I do trust that as we live more deeply into this challenge, we learn still more about love. I believe that as we travel into the shadows, we are accompanied along the way by One whose love has indeed proven to be stronger than the death of any one person – stronger even than the sacrifices of a great number of people who have offered their lives for the sake of love. I believe that offering your life – not for power, conquest, or greatness, but for love and truth – always gives life back again. Sometimes it returns through fire and sword, but it always comes in grace and ultimate peace. I don’t know that, but it’s what I believe. May God show it to be so.