This sermon was offered at Sunne Lutheran Church, in Wilton, ND on July 11, 2021.
Mark 6:14-29 • July 15, 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
Sunne Lutheran Church, I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters of the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, around 55,000+ brothers and sisters;
I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – 9,000 congregations, nearly 3 million brothers and sisters;
and, I bring you greetings on behalf of your siblings in the Lutheran World Federation, of which our denomination of the ELCA is the only representative of from the United States. LWF connects 148 Lutheran denominations, over 77 million children of God, in 99 different countries who, together, are sharing in God’s ministry and mission around the world.
I open nearly every sermon I offer as I serve as your Bishop with those greetings. They are important for us to hear and help us re-center ourselves on just how big the church is that we are connected to – beyond the walls of our local congregations.
And those greetings bring a bit of joy and good news for us today, because…well…the gospel reading we just received.
Whenever this gospel reading comes along in our worship – which is every 3 years in case you didn’t know – I hesitate a little to conclude the reading by saying “The Gospel of our Lord.”
After all – the gospel is the good news of our Lord. The good news of God’s love for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
How in any way are these 15 verses of the gospel of Mark good news?
John the Baptist – Jesus’ close relative and first proclaimer of the good news of the Messiah coming into the world – is in prison. Although many seem to think he’s already dead.
Herod’s wife used to be his brother’s wife. And she seems like someone who holds onto grudges by seeking revenge. Revenge at any cost.
Herod’s daughter is dancing at her father’s party. Dancing in ways that are pleasing to her father and his guests. One can only imagine what kind of incestuous dancing this may have been.
Herod gets caught in a trap to murder John the Baptist by his wife and daughter, even though he is intrigued by John’s teaching and proclamation. Remember, Herod even protects John.
Jesus is never mentioned. In fact, this is the only story in the gospel of Mark in which Jesus doesn’t even make an appearance.
How is this gospel? How is this good news?
I don’t know, maybe the question we could be asking ourselves is this…why is this shocking story so important to Mark’s telling of who Jesus is?
One possible answer to that question that I’ve found helpful in recent years comes from the writing of a theology professor at the University of Mary in Bismarck – right in the backyard of Sunne Lutheran. A few years ago, Dr. Leroy Huizenga wrote a book called “Loosing the Lion.” It focuses entirely on the gospel of Mark. His opening words of the book speak truth to our gospel this morning which originates in the first century and the time in which we find ourselves living out our faith in some twenty centuries later.
“Our age is numb.” Huizenga writes, “It’s numb to beauty, to goodness, to truth, because it’s numb to grace, and ultimately numb to God.”
Huizenga uses these opening words to remind us of the shocking ways in which the gospel of Mark tells us the beautiful story of the good news of Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.
In other words, today’s gospel reading may not seem like good news on the surface. But if we dig just a little deeper – something that you and I are not always good at doing in our faith journey – we will discover something much more. Something that will bring forth gospel and restore new life in each one of us and the neighbors that God places in our path along the way.
Long before God planted a seed in me around the possibility of a vocation that would one day involve serving in the Lutheran church, I was a professional musician. Standing in front of people to present something on my heart usually took place in a smoky jazz club or on auditorium stage, not in a church pulpit.
My life during this time, didn’t involve people’s heads being served on a platter, but it also didn’t reflect a soft-spoken, silhouetted Jesus wistfully walking down the street, which is how so many of us imagine Jesus looks.
My life, then and now, is a whole lot messier than that.
Another part of my story that you may or may not know…I didn’t grow up Lutheran. I grew up Roman Catholic.
My family was active in church as a child, but I really struggled to connect. Yea, I believed, after all, my mom and grandma told me I should. But I didn’t understand why or how belief made any difference to the life I was trying to live. And I definitely didn’t understand how crazy stories like today’s gospel had anything to do with my story.
I had a lot of questions and rarely did I feel like I found answers to those questions about church or faith in ways that gave me closure or peace.
Often my questions were answered by people saying things like “because” or “that’s just the way it is” or “it’s not our job to ask those questions or know their answers. That’s for religious people like the priests to know.”
Eventually I began to dig deeper into my questions, to no longer be afraid of the questions I was asking, and to engage in deep conversations with trusted friends and family and spiritual mentors inside and outside of the Roman Catholic tradition of my youth.
Conversations about God and Jesus; faith and politics; justice and scripture; church hierarchy and history.
After a few years of exploring and worshiping within many different Christian denominations and other faith traditions, I ended up feeling most connected whenever I was in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation.
Now, remember, the thought of being a pastor, or the even more remote thought of being a Bishop one day, still sounds absolutely crazy to me.
But in the ELCA, I felt welcome.
I was encouraged to ask challenging questions.
To dig deeply into things about the church that I disagreed with or simply didn’t understand.
I wasn’t judged for who I was as a musician or more so, for who I was as a human being.
As I dug deeper into the story of Jesus, I began to understand and see how Jesus’ story, is part of my story. I began to realize that my life and the life of everyone who has or ever will claim to be a follower of Jesus, we’re not all that different from one another.
You see, sisters and brothers in Christ, you and I live in a broken world that continues to mirror the story of John’s beheading.
We have all been part of a similar story at one time or another.
Persons in power deflecting fault.
Times when we have sought revenge at all costs on those who have been bold enough to speak truth to us.
Making vane promises that we know will cause harm to others if we ever have to in fact bring those promises into reality.
Lording power over another part of God’s creation because we think they are somehow less important to God than we are.
Pastor David Lose, Senior Pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis wrote a reflection on today’s gospel reading a few years ago. Pastor Lose wrote this,
“Herod’s beheading of John seems rather brutal, something we look for on Game of Thrones but are surprised to see in a Gospel (conveniently forgetting, of course, the brutality of the cross!). Yet are Herod’s actions really all that far from the callous manipulations of power we see today? This is our world and our story, and perhaps we forget that only because we have become so numbingly accustomed to seeing it play out daily in the headlines.” [www.inthemeantime.com]
It is my hope and prayer that we haven’t become numb – as Professor Huizenga and Pastor Lose suggest.
But if we have – or if and when we do, I’m thankful for the shocking good news that you and I are invited to receive from the gospel of Saint Mark today.
Even though many years have passed, I continue to be grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ in an ELCA congregation on the prairie. Sisters and brothers who showed me for seemingly the very first time in my life, that I in fact am part of God’s story in and through Jesus – regardless of how incredibly messy that story appears to be from time to time.
And today, in these early months of serving as your Bishop, I continue to be grateful for their witness to me, and for the many ways I’m discovering every day, how we as people of faith in the western North Dakota Synod, part of this crazy little church called the ELCA, how our stories are all connected together in the ever unfolding story of the good news of the savior of the world, Jesus the Christ.
I’m not going to say that I always agree with everything the ELCA says or does, and I think the ELCA knows that – maybe more so than before I was called to be a synod Bishop.
But this church, the ELCA, continues to love me and accept me just the same.
I haven’t found that truth in any other faith community I’ve explored – Christian or some other faith tradition.
Just like Herod and all of the other crazy characters we find in scripture, you and I are invited each and every day to listen to the challenging voice of God in our day and age. To really listen. And in doing so, to turn away from the lures and temptations that attempt to seduce us away from loyalty to God.
And just like John the Baptist…through us – through you and through me – God speaks words of peace, love, forgiveness, and mercy. These words of truth challenge the world’s appetite toward violence, hatred, deceit, judgment, and ultimately death. [sundaysandseasons.com]
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m grateful for your commitment to Gods’s work through Sunne Lutheran Church. May God continue to bless you and keep you as God’s mission to bless and serve the world is fulfilled through you as we await God’s final redemption for all creation.
After all, that’s all John the Baptist was trying to do. And that most certainly is good news. Amen.