If Only - Cooke`s - Portsmouth United Church!

Cooke’s-Portsmouth United Church
July 12, 2015
Mark 6:14-29
When I read the gospel text for this morning I felt a barrage of emotions. The first was to decide
not to preach on this text.
People do not come to church on a regular basis to hear horrific stories. It is sufficient for most
of us to be appalled when such things are reported on the evening news. We do allow for tragedy
to be mentioned on Good Friday as we recall the verse by verse retelling of the betrayal,
rejection, beating and killing of Jesus. But at least Good Friday is redeemed in the good news of
the glory of Easter.
He is risen! It helps us to whitewash and quite possibly forget altogether the tragedy of Good
Friday. But the gospel text for this morning about the killing of John offers no obvious
redemption; no good news; no whitewashing. Why would I preach on such a loathsome text?
And yet the more I tried to find a substitute among the other texts from the lectionary I was
inwardly compelled to not seek the easy road. I was feeling urged to wrestle with a text that on
the surface was horrific and loathsome and try to find some light, inspiration and hope. And then
I thought of the poem Funeral Blues by W H Auden.
The poem, Funeral Blues by W H Auden, was made famous in the movie Four Weddings and a
Funeral in 1994. The movie chronicles the lives of friends who are trying to understand attraction
and commitment
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
As I poured over the verses initially it was as if my soul was echoing a resounding yes to the
depth of grief experienced by the one who has been bereft. This poem, I think, chronicles the raw
emotion in the immediate wake of loss that speaks of an end. I wondered what good can come
from reliving the horrific tale of the death of John at the hands of a weak and lecherous
individual. And then I began to think that when we recall the life of John the Baptist it is not
generally his gruesome and undeserved death that comes to the fore. It is his life that we
He is the strange hermit who lived in the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair who dined on
locusts and honey.
He is the herald of the Christ who people sought out in the wilderness for baptism in the Jordan.
He is the one who was quick to profess that he was not the promised one; rather he was the one
who would announce his coming and who was not worthy to tie the straps of his sandals.
Immediately I began to think that as graphic as the images inspired by this text are for the reader
and the hearer, when we recall his life it is his life in its fullness that we remember; not simply
his untimely undeserved death. Like martyrs that came after him it is the depth of their faith; the
courage of their convictions that we ponder and the power of their life even in death that we
Last Sunday I had the opportunity to speak with a visitor among us who was a friend of Sheila
Lindsay, who we recently lost to death. Sheila had been in the wedding party at his wedding. He
had brought a black and white wedding photo to show me, and pointed out and named each one
in the photo. He became choked up as he shared that he was the last man standing. He had lost
his wife in October and the sudden death of Sheila meant that he alone was left. As he struggled
he said, “That is life.”
My first thought was it sounds more like death to me, but I did not say it. And I was so very
humbled again to be privileged to be standing on holy ground with one of God’s saints. Despite
being the only one remaining from his wedding party it was life that he held up as sacred; not
death. And death is a part of life; an aspect of life that we are quick to shun, evade and dismiss in
favour of more happy things. And yet death is a part of the walk of faith or what is Calvary for?
Several years ago I presided at the funeral of a member of the wider community who had taken
his own life. There were twelve eulogists who spoke at that service so deep were the roots of the
man in the medical, military and educational community. I received a note from his elderly
father in the weeks following the service, thanking me for giving him a copy of the reflection. He
appreciated most the way my remarks and ended and he re-wrote them in his missive to me” It
matters not that he died, why he died or how he died. What matters is that he lived!”
I do not want to be accused of glossing over a very demanding text and whitewashing it. The
beheading of John continues to be a troublesome text to ponder let alone preach not only because
of the circumstances of his demise, but for the wealth of human vulnerability that is also obvious
within the corpus.
The manipulation of a wife of her husband. The weakness of a king. The outspokenness of the
hero that precipitates his punishment and demise. The foolishness of a leader when he is
motivated by lust and pride rather than wisdom and integrity. The power of revenge to become
all- consuming so that it usurps life, dignity, tolerance, acceptance, grace and forgiveness. The
sin of allowing saving face to trump saving grace. Herod held the life of John in his hands,
having imprisoned him for his judgement of the relationship that he had with his sister-in-law.
His wife, capitalized on this fact and when she used Herod’s lack of judgement to her advantage,
Herod preferred saving face over wisdom and dignity. Not only is this a horrific tale chronicling
the punishment being greater than the infraction, it is also a testament to the power and wiliness
of the force that is counter to goodness.
The forbidden fruit was dangled in the very face of Herod before his entire court and his bitter
wife taunted him to take a bite.
We are told that after the request of Salome was put to him that Herod grieved. At some level of
his being he held respect for John; respect born out of fear because he knew John to be righteous
and holy and he was protective. …but he was weak. And in a moment of vanity and extreme
weakness, motivated by lust, he offered what no ruler should offer up to half of his kingdom in
payment for a seductive dance.
Imagine what was being offered; wealth, property, power. The girl is overwhelmed and turns to
her mother for advice. But Herodias is governed by hatred and in her desire for revenge and
retaliation upon the words of judgment uttered by John she demands the sword.
If only the daughter had been more of an opportunist, willing to defy her mother. If only Herod
had been invested with the true power of leadership and was willing to tell his wife that he would
not punish words with the sword. If only his concern for saving face in front of his court could
have been transformed into doing the right thing. How much respect can a courtier and officer
have for a king who murders with impunity? What garners more respect? Being true to a word
made in haste without forethought, wisdom or integrity; motivated by lust? Or, the king
demonstrating true leadership; recognizing the foolishness of his ill thought suggestion and
saying no to the horrific request.
We will never know the answers to these rhetorical questions because Herod, despite his grief
and respect for John, vested more faith in being perceived as a man of his word by his subjects;
even if in executing his promise will taint him forever.
If only; two of the biggest little words in the English language. How many times do we utter
them in the wake of tragedy? If only I had left ten minutes earlier or later the accident may not
have occurred. If only I had taken a moment to think before I spoke. If only I had made wiser
choices in the once upon a time, my life could have been so much different. The words if only
can easily be uttered in lament and who knows if King Herod lamented his weakness in not
standing up to his wife and her manipulative ways and venomous guile. Death-regardless of the
depravity, means and timing should not have the last word.
Despite the eloquence of the poet W H Auden I cannot rest easy with the notion that nothing
good comes in death. I would be the first to argue that John did not deserve his fate, but despite
his peculiarities and idiosyncrasies when we think of John the Baptizer we do not think first and
foremost of his horrific death but rather we think about his life.
He was the one who came to open the eyes, ears and hearts of Judaism to the coming one. He
was the one who proclaimed repentance and turning from ways to a new way. He was the one
who lived in humility and knew who he was and who he was not. He was not the One, but he
was an advocate for the One. And when Jesus began his ministry the ministry of the Baptist did
not immediately cease and desist.
He continued to call all to accountability and for his ceaseless proclamation and outspokenness
he was imprisoned and suffered a martyr’s fate. His integrity makes the weakness, selfishness,
vengefulness and hatred of his enemies seem even more mean spirited and this text is a reminder
to us all-generations after the fact- of the perils of power; the consequences of poor judgement
and the malevolence of revenge. It matters not that he died, how he died or when he died. What
matters is that he lived! Thanks be to God. Amen.
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