Published on 16 Jul 2012
The Seventh Sunday of Pentecost – July 15, 2012
Dean Peter Elliott
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio MP3 of the sermon
Tell it Slant
Using the word slant—meaning neither vertical nor horizontal— in her poem Tell All the Truth, Emily Dickinson wrote:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.
The truth must dazzle gradually—the truth’s superb surprise: these words came to mind in relation to today’s reading from Mark’s gospel (MARK 6:14-29). It’s one of those Sundays when the gospel reader says “The Gospel of Christ” you want to respond with “Really?” Like the old line about what Pontius Pilate, discovering he was in the Nicene Creed, said “What am I doing in here?” What’s this gospel doing in the midst of a lovely Sunday morning liturgy? This gospel story should be preceded with a warning, like those TV programs that begin with, “The following material may be disturbing.”
It’s a full on horror story complete with a severed head on a plate. But, if you look at it closely you find that it presents the gospel but sideways, slant—it’s about two important subjects—the death of Jesus and the sacrament whereby we remember him—and since those two subjects express the heart of the gospel, and since preaching is about sharing the gospel, God’s good news—let’s be brave enough to look at it closely and see how it tells the truth, but tells it slant.
The first thing you notice about Mark’s story of the death of John Baptist is that it’s told backwards, in a flashback. It was Soren Kirkegaard who said that life must be lived forward but understood backwards—and Mark’s account of John’s execution works exactly that way. The story begins with Herod hearing about the healing miracles of Jesus Christ—and the speculation about who he might be; Herod wonders if Jesus is John returned from the grave. He’s a haunted man, Herod—and we soon find out why. Herod is an interesting character in the Bible: he’s not a king really but a governor who styled himself a King . He had an affair with his brother’s wife and ran off with her and her daughter, returning to Galilee. And it’s because of this marital arrangement that John confronts him; Herod, although fascinated with John wants to get him off the scene and so imprisons him. Then at his birthday party, when the wine has flowed his little step daughter danced for the guests and Herod, much pleased by her says “Ask me for whatever you wish- even half of my kingdom-and I will give it.” The little girl goes, of course, to her mother seeking advice about what to ask for—her mother, deeply uncomfortable with John’s judgmental words about her marriage advises her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. That the little girl does, adding in the words “on a plate”. Herod now is in a pickle. Because he had promised that he would give her anything he issues the order, John is beheaded, and his head brought to the little girl just as she asked for, on a plate.
Sordid stuff for a summer Sunday isn’t it? It’s a great piece of storytelling: Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss have taken this material and spun it into a play and an opera. But how does it express the gospel of Christ? How is this story good news for us today?
First, you have to see it from a literary point of view, as foreshadowing the death of Jesus. It’s a parallel story with the common elements being the motivations of Herod and Pilate . Herod, like Pilate, carries out not his own will but the will of others—for Pontius Pilate it’s the will of the crowd that Jesus be crucified; for Herod, it’s his step-daughter’s request, prompted by his wife and witnessed by the guests. Caught in an escalating call for violence, neither Herod nor Pilate had the courage to halt it, and so gave way to the bloodthirsty calls for human sacrifice. Just as Pilate does not dare confront the crowd that demands crucifixion, Herod does not dare confront his guests who demand the head of John. For Herod’s wife, it was revenge; for Pilate’s crowd it was a sport: and from the stories of these two executions we may well find our minds travelling through the horrors of human history: the extermination of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in the holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and the tragedies of assassinations and murders the world over.
Violence breeds violence and we live in a violent world. In this light the death of Jesus is not unique—sadly it’s one more heartbreaking execution with which this world is far too familiar: what’s different about the death and resurrection of Jesus is that in him there is the total absence of complicity in any of the events. Jesus neither succumbed to the perspective of his persecutors in any way, nor did he take a position of revenge—he was the innocent victim—and in his glorious resurrection he returned without a word of vengeance—for once ending the cycle of violence and inviting his followers to imitate him in this irenic path.
The point, in Mark’s gospel, of telling the story of John’s execution with all its sordid details is to prepare the readers for Jesus execution—and for the good news that follows it: it’s news so fresh and so good that Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell it directly, ending, as it does with the women at the empty tomb afraid to speak. But Jesus followers did speak, they spoke of a love that transcended violence, that invited them into a changed way of life and this story comes to us as good news even today.
Yet to tell the story stretches us in every way, just as it did Jesus first followers, for we too live in a world of violence. But we’ve been given, by Jesus himself, a way to remember the gift of his life and the gift of new life through him—and it’s in the sacrament of Holy Communion. For here we not only tell the story, we act it out again. It’s a meal, but it’s not Herod’s birthday banquet. In fact, it’s the opposite. The meal of Herod is about corruption and violence. The meals of Jesus reconcile both Jews and gentiles. The meal of Herod is for the upper-crust elite. The meal of Jesus is for the crowds. The highlight of the Herod “liturgy” is the ceremonious delivery of the head of the Baptist. The highlight of Jesus’ meal is the giving of food for everyone. Mark wants us to see the contrast between the Black Mass of Herod and the Great Thanksgiving of Jesus. 
And that brings us to today, to this Eucharistic feast, this sharing of food that is foreshadowed even in today’s first reading when David, after dancing ecstatically with the ark, blesses the people and gives food to all the people so that they can eat and celebrate too. It brings us to this outward and visible sign of God’s grace and love where we celebrate the hope we have in Christ, the one who will gather all things together in heaven and in earth, who invites us to live the new life as people who do not return evil for evil.
As we hear the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that it’s not the end of the story Mark tells. John’s beheading reminds us that this is the way of the world, but it is not the whole story. Because Jesus comes to show us that there is something more, something beyond the heartache and intrigue and tragedy of Herod, and Pilate, and ourselves. Which brings us to the very heart of the gospel. We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own. And when the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending, or you’ve lost your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or you’re pretty sure your friend has betrayed you, or you think you may just have screwed up the one relationship that meant something to you…then the possibility of another ending — a good ending — is, indeed, not just good news, but the best news you can imagine. 
That’s the gospel, told, today, slant. It doesn’t avoid the pain of life; it faces it head on and opens a door. For the God of Jesus eternally opens the door of life to us when we think it has been shut eternally: and for that we give thanks with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. May we find peace in your service, and in the world to come, see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 More about “King” Herod can be found here http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php?title=Proper_15B
 An analysis of this passage based on the theologies of Rene Girard and James Alison is found here: I have drawn from this excellent material http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/proper10b.htm
 See http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2012/07/lectionary-blogging-mark-6-14-29.html
 I freely adapted this section from Dr. David Lose’s commentary found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=603
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