... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Day of Pentecost 7 Year B,
Message July 15th, 2012

Herod Fails Murphy’s Law

Text: Mark 6:14-29

We have all heard Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” And perhaps we have each experienced one of its corollaries in our own lives! You know, “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something!” Maybe the authors of the revised common lectionary had this in mind when they put the readings together for this Sunday. Often the readings have similar themes, occasionally – very occasionally there doesn’t seem to be any common thread to the readings, and then there are days like today where the readings seem to have a contradictory nature.

In three of the readings we can find elements of joy praise and delightful abandonment in God’s abundance. However in the Gospel reading we have this violent graphic account of greed pride and lust for power gone amuck. Perhaps the authors of the lectionary wanted the contrast of themes to impress upon us the reality of what happens in the world history whenever faith and joy are confronted by evil in whatever form. Then too, the authors might have wanted to highlight the understanding the truth that the joy of God’s good news is actually a threat to what humanity takes for granted concerning its notion of prosperity, wealth and, power.

Set against the joyous celebratory dancing of David as he leads his company into Jerusalem bearing the Ark of the Covenant and the Psalmist’s song of praise at the presence of the Lord or Paul’s doxology concerning God’s love, the beheading of John in its stark cruelty brings us a rather somber note. Just as last week’s reading from Mark was a somber message to our perceived position of privilege, so too, today’s Marcan account gives us pause to contemplate our ways, our dreams, our hopes and, perhaps, our lives.

To help us in a deeper understanding of the reading we need to know something of the context of the passage and Mark’s particular reason for placing it where he does. First of all it is a sandwich story placed between Jesus’ sending the disciples out on a mission of preaching teaching and healing, and their return. Thus it gives us a sense of a time-line between their being sent out and their exuberant return. Secondly and perhaps more importantly it provides a parallel between Jesus and John. Where Luke and Matthew draw a parallel picture of John and Jesus in their ministries and callings, Mark draws it in their oppositions and deaths. Each is shown to be righteous but faced by worldly and temporal opposition as found in Herod and Pilate both of whom are portrayed as vacillating political figures and both of whom are curious as to the accused man brought before them. Again both Herod and Pilate are seen as the pawns of those around them, seeing the innocence of their captives but yet bending to the will of others for favours of political advancement. Both John and Jesus are put to death and their bodies given to their disciples. The third function draws a parallel between John and the disciples, and this is where the Murphy Law rings its note of warning. The fate of John, the speaker of truth, the messenger of God and forerunner of Jesus prepares the reader of the Bible for the coming trials of the disciples and perhaps the persecutions of all who would be brave enough to follow Jesus’ teachings.

The sandwich technique which Mark makes use of so often becomes the warning in the midst of the positive account of the disciples’ mission which forms part of the Gospel reading for next Sunday. It is Mark’s way of saying, “If you think you were or are experiencing success you have obviously overlooked the competitors.” The disciples who will report on their successes of healing preaching and casting out demons have not fully understood the power of those demons. The demons as we hear in the gruesome account of John death are clever, pervasive, seductive and, crouched to spring when least expected.

Herod is seen as one who is fascinated by John – fearful of him but fascinated just the same. Herod regards John as a holy man, an idealist, a conscience so to speak, but not as a political adversary. Thus, Herod, in a way, tries to protect John, especially from the rage of his wife Herodias. Why she has such a dislike or hate for John cannot be said for certain. Whatever the reason, she plots to have John killed and finds that avenue in the allure of her own daughter’s entertaining ways. In the midst of a party and where Herod finds himself boasting and unprepared he becomes trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Instead of retreating from his boast and his promise to his daughter, Herod succumbs to the pressures of life experiences Murphy’s Law and is faced with the consequences of his choice. And in that choice John’s life is forfeit.

Herod is not only the instructive subject of the Murphy’s Law for the disciples; he is also the illustrative example of those vices which bombard every human living in society. Whether we like it or not we are political creatures by the very nature of living in society. And every political creature is faced with political choices. Unfortunately there is no such thing as clean politics. Every dream has its pros and cons, those who will benefit from it and those who will not. Some of the choices may not be very divisive or have long term consequences – such as the choice of carpet colour. But others can be devastating – such as the decision to decrease health care budgets. Wherever there are decisions to be made, choices option and consequences have to be weighed and sometimes the quandary can be immobilizing.

In the congregational setting there may be two factions trying to push each for their own agenda. There might be two or three strong personalities, each trying to vie for prominence in one or more aspects of church life. Sometimes it might even be the church leader over-against the members of the congregation. And whenever things seem to be finally settling and going well, something comes along to interrupt the bliss!

On a personal scale there are often Herod-like dilemmas into which we find ourselves. How does the harried mother of a toddler best deal with a toddler throwing a full-fledged temper-tantrum in the aisle of the department store – and true to Murphy’s Law – at the most inopportune time. What about the student faced with an important exam and offered a copy of the questions beforehand! The teenager trying to fit into his or her social setting is faced with pressures of identity, family tension while balancing school home and changing roles of privileges and responsibilities.

The struggles are ever present – good thing happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. Amid triumphs and joys there come failures and sorrows. We need be ever vigilant seeing all aspects of every choice of every decision and trying to see the truth in all things. Yes, it’s true that if anything can go wrong it will, but with God’s Grace and the help of the Spirit may we be strengthened to be able to handle whatever might come.

Amen