The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Dr. Brad Walker, Guest Preacher

2 Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

I’d like to thank you for this opportunity. My name is Brad Walker and I am a Presbyterian minister in town. At one time, I was the Pastor at First Presbyterian Church about two blocks away, but I am currently serving in ministry as a Hospice chaplain at Midland Care. I’ve had a long relationship with Grace Cathedral. I met your now retired Dean, Steve Lipscomb, when we moved here 10 years ago. Steve actually participated in my installation service at FPC. Over the years, we became friends, and like you, my wife (Lee) and I were grieved when Robyn passed away last fall.

I look out at you in the congregation today and realize that we have many friends here. Since leaving First Presbyterian, Lee and I have enjoyed worshiping here on many occasions.

It has been a long time since I preached here. I cannot even remember what year it was, but Steve and I, along with the minister at First United Methodist Church, arranged for a pulpit exchange rotation with Grace, FUMC, and FPC when I was at FPC.

I am no longer there, but now serving in ministry as a Hospice Chaplain at Midland Care where I work closely with two other chaplains. One of whom is your deacon here at Grace Cathedral: Anne Flynn. Now when I say “closely,” I mean well, closely. I usually just spin my desk chair around, tap Anne on the shoulder, and say, “So, what do you know about that meeting next week?”

Again, I thank you for the opportunity to deliver today’s sermon. Although, I might should have paid a little more attention to some timing concerns.

After all, this morning I am scheduled to preach in this worship service while the World Cup Soccer Finals are occurring. And then there’s the Men’s Championship at Wimbledon.

If those were not enough to wonder about my timing, I definitely should have better timed the Lectionary passages. Mark’s Gospel lesson today is one to avoid. It tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. So let’s get this right. On the morning of the World Cup Soccer Finals and the Men’s Tennis Championship at Wimbledon, I’m stepping into this pulpit as a guest preacher to talk about the execution of John the Baptist.

So, here I stand, a guest preacher, not as a congregational pastor, but as a Hospice chaplain, who meets with people every day who are facing death, whether their own or someone they love. And if that is not questionable enough, all my pulpit robes are black. In this glistening Episcopal sea of beautiful white clergy vestments, I don’t know whether I feel more like Darth Vader at a Jedi knight convention or the grim reaper.

Of the four scripture readings this week three are positive, joyful, euphoric. The Ark of the Covenant has been recovered and is being brought into Jerusalem. As the procession enters the city, King David gets so caught up in the joy of the moment that he completely abandons himself and dances before the Ark of the Covenant as it is brought into Jerusalem. This is hardly appropriate for a head of state, but he doesn’t care, if he loses his head, he’s caught up in a rapturous and delightful moment with God. Let’s try not to spoil it.

Perhaps the writer of today’s Psalm was there to witness this, but instead of seeing David, he focuses on the Ark of the Covenant; the place where God dwells. The Psalmist is so focused on the Lord, that he effectively loses his head, proclaiming in one refrain after another that the Lord is King, the Lord, the King of Glory.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – The Apostle Paul, or whoever wrote this Letter to the Ephesians, is so ecstatic about our being adopted by God into this family and all the blessings that are prepared for us in our inheritance set for us from the setting of the foundations of the world, that he doesn’t even come up for air until he finishes telling us all about it. What we won’t notice in the English translation is that this is the longest sentence in the Greek NT. Vss 3-14 are one sentence!! For Paul, the news included in these verses is just too good not to share, and without stopping, too.

Then there’s Mark 6:14-29. Where the other passages are glorious testimonies to the power, presence, and goodness of God, this one is violent and brutal.

Mark utilizes some interesting literary arrangements both within the story and around it.

Word is spreading about Jesus; his miracles and his teachings are beginning to attract a following. All the news outlets and political attaches / pundits and talking heads are beginning to wonder just who this guy is. Several important people chime in with their own speculations, when Herod Antipas determines that Jesus is none other than John the Baptist now returned from the dead. Mark shifts his literary tactic and incorporates flashback to tell the story of how Herod arrives at this conclusion that Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected.

Within the whole Gospel of Mark, this story is couched between Jesus sending out seventy disciples in pairs on a mission to proclaim the kingdom. The disciples will return from this mission telling of miraculous results. These stories will be overshadowed by the one that follows this flashback about John the Baptist, when we encounter the miraculous feeding of the 5000; a story fit for Tabloid-like proclamation – Man feeds 5000 with two fish and five loaves of bread. Couched between these we find this story of misinterpretation regarding the news spreading about Jesus and a brutal and violent flashback revealing what can happen when someone stands in the role of prophet and speaks truth to power.

It’s the birthday of Herod Antipas, who is a puppet king of Rome. His father, Herod the Great, was responsible for the slaughter of the innocents: all the boys under 3 in and near Bethlehem of Judea.

John the Baptist has confronted Herod Antipas about marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. John basically tells Herod, “You can’t do that. It’s just not right.”

Herod has had John arrested, yet he seems to like this prophet being around. John is not afraid of Herod, which might be one of the intriguing characteristics of John in the eyes of the King. At his birthday party, Herodias’ daughter dances for Herod, who is very pleased with her dancing and makes a promise to her.

“What would you like, my dear? Anything you want, I will give it to you,” he says, probably turning to the guests that he wants to impress at his dinner and laughing.

“I don’t know, let me think about it for a second,” and she runs out to ask for her mother’s advice.

Now, I’m not a fan of Game of Thrones, but there is one character on the show who is a queen. A very ruthless and selfish queen. She might be created in the image of Herodias. Herodias doesn’t blink and doesn’t miss an opportunity. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” We can only imagine how Herod Antipas’ face fell, when the request was placed before him.

Herod is a politician who is tied into the politics of state, with all its real and pompous power, its regretful promises, and the devastating consequences of face-saving arrogance. He has made a promise that must be fulfilled no matter what the cost. Or does it?

The great storyteller, Flannery O’Connor, says that every story has a hinge point. This request of Herodias’ daughter presents this story’s hinge point.

At the hinge point of this story, grace is an option. Because the way of grace is not taken, Mark’s story turns into a tragedy, full of more cruelty, brutality, violence, and bloodshed. Herod has chosen to save face, preserve his position, maintain his power, and even keep the peace in his own home. We don’t know if the cost to Herod Antipas has been one that he would consider exorbitant or not. The only price paid for reputation, position, and power was the sacrifice of Grace, Truth, Hospitality, and another person’s life.

It’s not just stories, though. Grace is an option at all sorts of hinge points in our daily life. As individuals, as families, in our marriages, at work, with our neighbors in our neighborhoods, while driving somewhere, at school, when it comes to how we manage and invest our money. How we use our time. And as we participate in writing the stories of our state and our nation, grace stands as an option at the hinge point of how we vote.

Karen Yust writes that the challenge of the twenty-first century is for the body of Christ to read our own decisions in the light of that same story and ask ourselves whether the choices we are making are self-protective, or part of God’s transformation of the world.

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that every decision we make either leads us further down the road to becoming a child of hell or a child of heaven.

Scheduled beside these three other passages where a king is dancing in euphoric joy, a poet finds inspiration and hope that God, the real king is with us, and an energetic evangelist who won’t stop to take a breath; And sandwiched between thirty-five very successful mission trips and a headline grabbing miracle in any century, Mark chooses to pull back the curtain revealing to us that these brutal and violent stories lie close to our everyday lives.

Mark’s story of John’s execution reminds us that even though we can lose our heads while caught up in our joyful and euphoric praises of God, we can just as likely lose our head when we stick our neck out to speak truth to power, when we confront cruelty and power in all their manifestations.

We might wonder if this dangerous discipleship is a road worth traveling. We don’t know. We won’t know. But we do know that the One who calls us to such a dangerous journey, is the One who comes to us from above, full of Grace and Truth.

This truth cannot be denied and we need not fear any power in creation. This grace holds the key to unlock one door after another, allowing them all to turn on their hinge points so that as each one opens it reveals a little bit more of the kingdom of Heaven where hospitality is practiced toward everyone, where people are laughing and singing and losing their heads while dancing the time away, and where everyone, absolutely everyone, knows that the Lord is King.