A Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Text: St. Mark 6:14-29
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who claims those whom the world has rejected. Amen.
A mediocre tv show or movie might be worth watching once. We all know what a “beach read” is – a bargain book that you take with you on vacation. It might be worth reading once while listening to the waves and trying to keep an eye on the dog or the kids.
But a really good movie or book is worth re-visiting, and a great work is worth returning to time and time again. Each time through, some new detail emerges, a new theme grabs your attention. The second, third, tenth time through, you’re still catching subtle foreshadowing, shades of irony, jokes that are set up three episodes before the payoff, plot lines discretely seeded in the first pages that culminate in the final chapters. Notes that start subtly but soon dominate the score, meaningful echoes that play out at different levels.
I spent this past week re-reading a book by Michael Chabon, one of my favorite authors. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times (five?) and with each revisit, new details stick out to me, ways that he sets up themes in the first pages that dominate the rest of the novel. The ways he plays around with genre. The minor turns of phrase in this work that, with a wink and a nod, pop up in what he called his “fictional autobiography” a decade later.
Works of art like this are meant to be revisited and taken in as a whole, read from the beginning with the end in mind.
This is not a groundbreaking theological claim, but Scripture is written with this same type of foreshadowing, these thematic echoes. Even biblical scholars decades into their career stumble across new connections that they may have missed reading through the text hundreds or thousands of times before.
It’s easy to miss these connections in Mark. After all, Mark is the bare-bones, fast-paced Gospel. If Saint Mark had a catchphrase, it would be “Immediately,” his way of pushing the narrative along. An event unfolds and immediately the story is moving on. Jesus enters a town, and immediately a person comes to him. Christ works a wonder, and immediately the story is moving us on to the next big thing. Today’s Gospel reading could be acted out in less than five minutes, but Mark manages to sneak in two immediately-s in the fifteen verses. His writing teacher may have called him repetitive, and Mark doesn’t give us much time to dwell on the subtle details.
Despite this fast-paced immediacy, though, Saint Mark is constantly weaving his stories together, setting up plot lines that pay off chapters later. Once again, the lectionary is short-changing us. Mark follows up today’s story with the feeding of the multitude, and next week we will read the text immediately surrounding that miracle, before and after, but not the miracle itself. It’s a pity, too, because Mark has this nice thematic foreshadowing: today, Herod holds a meal for the powerful, and it ends in gruesome death. Immediately after that, Jesus holds a meal for the lowly, and it ends in a display of God’s life-sustaining mercy.
To be sure, we will soon pick this theme up again: not next week but the week after, we begin reading a lengthy section from Saint John’s Gospel as Jesus feeds the multitude and then offers a long discourse on his identity as the bread of heaven. We’ll spend over a month pondering this profound and divine mystery. John, unlike Mark, provides overly-ample space to dwell on the details, and so I encourage you to keep today’s reading in mind. But we’ll come back to that.
Instead, let’s look back. Remember where we left off last week? Jesus was rejected in his hometown and immediately sent out the twelve to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins, to do some of the same work that John the Baptist has been doing since chapter one. Now imagine if, immediately after reading the Gospel, an old-timey TV announcer had said: “Next time, on the Gospel according to Saint Mark: A beloved character meets a gruesome end. Tune in next Sunday! Same Jesus time, same Jesus chancel!” Suddenly the stakes are super-high, right?
Mark wants us to know that the stakes are so high, the peril is so immediate, that death has come near. He wants us to grasp that rejection comes at a high cost, that the disciples have just been sent out into a dangerous world. In chapter one, John comes proclaiming repentance; he baptizes Jesus, and then John is arrested. Immediately after his arrest, Jesus comes preaching repentance.
And then, the Baptist is removed from the narrative for several chapters. We don’t hear about John again until today. Saint Mark is using John the Baptist as a sort of exclamation point: when people go out proclaiming repentance and forgiveness, they face danger. They face arrest. They face death.
We saw Christ’s own family reject him and try to restrain him. We’ve seen his entire home town reject him. But now things are beginning to pick up. The stakes are rising. Jesus warned the disciples that there are people who will reject this message. And now we see more fully the cost of rejection: death.
More than emphasizing past events, though, today’s Gospel points forward, a foreshadowing of things to come. In just two chapters, Jesus will tell his disciples that he must be rejected and crucified. His preaching takes a deathly turn; the closer he draws to Jerusalem, the more Jesus talks about his own imminent death. And we, of course, know what happens when he finally arrives in Jerusalem: the sham trial, the torture, the Cross, the tomb.
How much the Baptist and the Christ have in common! How alike their deaths are! Herod and Pilate, those stooges of the Roman Empire, both have a sort of bizarre fascination with their victims. Consider what Saint Mark writes: “When he heard [John preach], [Herod] was great perplexed…and yet he liked to listen to him.” Later, Pilate will question Jesus and be “amazed.” Both ruthless and bloodthirsty tyrants commit murder without a second thought – and yet, Mark tells us, they both shed blood on behalf of others. Both John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ confront the powers and principalities of this world by proclaiming repentance, forgiveness of sins, and the coming Kingdom of God. And both John and Jesus are rejected by this world and put to death by those same powers.
This may be a noteworthy bit of literary analysis, an interesting point for academic discussion, but what is Saint Mark trying to tell the Church? Simply that John and Jesus were similar? That Mark, though concise, was a good writer?
No, the meaning is only evident if we read from the beginning with the end in mind. It’s not just that John and Jesus had similar lives. Rather, John prefigures Christ.
John’s preaching points forward to Christ and the coming Kingdom. John’s very ministry hints at something more, something greater than. And what is that? What is this end that we are bringing back to the story with us?
Like John, Jesus is put to death. And upon hearing of Christ, Herod even fears that John has been raised. But we know better than Herod: that Jesus is the one who will rise victorious, shattering the bonds of death. We know what Herod does not: that the Herods and Pilates of the world don’t have the final say. The demons and the devil don’t have the final say. Sin, death, and the grave do not have the final say.
The world may reject us, but God claims us. The powers of this world may bind us, but Christ sets us free. The world may kill us, but Christ gives us life everlasting.
Jesus has conquered this grave-filled world and shattered the bonds of death. And like those twelve rag-tag disciples last week, he’s sending us out to proclaim his eternal victory. Christ is sending us out in the middle of chaos, poverty, and violence, into the midst of graves – but sending us out in the confidence that this story ends in new and everlasting life.
So come to the feast – not the deathly feast of Herod but the life-giving feast of Christ. Draw near to the Lord of Life. Come, experience the immediacy of God’s grace. Come find all that you need for the mission on which we are sent. Come find life. Come receive our Lord. Come be received by our Lord. Come be all that Christ made you to be. Come become the life-giving Body of Christ for the world.
This sermon is greatly informed by exegetical essays written by the Rev. Colin Cushman, published at Modern μετανοια, and by the Rev. Dr. Mark G. Vitalis Hoffman, published at Working Preacher. For a similar thematic approach, consult the Rev. Erik Parker’s sermon for this Sunday over at The Millenial Pastor.