Sisters and brothers in Christ: grace to you and peace from God who creates us from the clay of the earth, from Jesus who redeems and showers us with mercy and love, and from the Holy Spirit who both comforts and challenges us...and always sends us outward in service to our neighbor. AMEN.
[whining] “Ah man, we just got started. And now this?” Ever gotten going on a project or a job or just a new day and hit a massive speed bump, a real glitch, and stumbled and fallen?
Here we are in Mark’s gospel: Chapter 6. Last week in the 13 verses that preceded these today, Jesus inaugurates ministry together. Remember that? He told the disciples as he sent them out in pairs (no one goes alone): “Take only the basics. Count on people to welcome you and prepare to receive their hospitality and partnership. But also, expect resistance. Shake off the dust from your sandals if you’re not well received. And keep going. Go! Be my disciples for the sake of this world, heal the sick, preach the good news, comfort the despairing!”
And then we have the is interruption, to put it mildly. What is going on? “Ah man, we just got started. And now this?” Immediately after Jesus has empowered the disciples, this horrific episode takes place in Herod’s palace. Herod and is wife want John the Baptist dead, but Herod has this fear about John. But once he’s sunken into a chair belly-stuffed, intoxicated (I imagine), his daughter comes in and dances, old Herod’s fears about John quickly fade into seduction and he offers her “whatever she wants”. It’s just grimy stuff, at the top echelons of power in Jesus day. It’s excess and gratuitous and evil.
Scholars in recent years have named this episode “Herod’s Banquet of Death”. And it’s contrasted clearly—which is all part of Mark’s narrative arc—against what is immediately after this: In the very next verses comes, what some have called “Jesus’ Banquet of Life”...i.e., the feeding of the 5000.
“Herod’s Banquet of Death” vs. “Jesus’ Banquet of Life”
At Herod’s banquet of death, we’re not out in a deserted field, like the feeding of the 5000, we’re in a palace, a lavish banquet hall. This is where the rich and powerful dine with the king. A true power lunch, that’s not for the multitude, but a select few. And there is more than enough for this few. It’s a feast of excess — excess food, excess drink, excess entertainment, excess space, excess violence. The select few gorge and imbibe and get entertained as the multitudes starve outside the palace gates, and in the hills and countrysides...
At Herod’s banquet, women are made to dance and entertain the men. Women are objects of amusement and pleasure, only to be thrown out with the trash, like greasy paper plates when the pizza party’s over. Herod’s daughter, it says, pleased him greatly with her dancing...so much so, that in a drunken and reckless state of ecstasy and excess, Herod promises her whatever she wants. At which point, her evil mother whispers in her ear, “The head of John the Baptist.”
And immediately John is executed and his head is brought in on a platter, like a final course, like a grand finale. I imagine everyone cheering when the cover of the platter is lifted and John’s head is revealed for the guests to see. Can’t you just smell the excess -- the sweat, the meat, the death? This is empire.
The moral compass has been completely lost to a power-drunk king, and an elite crowd cheers at this retaliatory violence and terror… meanwhile so many others are made to suffer, simply because they are overlooked or not really a concern. The multitudes of poor and hungry are not Herod’s concern in the least.
The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundblad asks: “Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? [pause] The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death – even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.”
In the very next verse Mark tells us of Jesus’ Banquet of Life. This happens, not in palace grandeur, but in the open air — in an open field. Not lavish but simple.
In Jesus’ Banquet of Life, everyone is fed; there is enough. Everyone has enough. (Do you? Does your neighbor have enough? What is enough? Is there bread we can share, like the little boy who shared his loaves and fishes? These are questions we’re invited to pray about in these days, even and especially here at Bethlehem...where our very name means “House of Bread”.) In Jesus Banquet of Life, everyone is treated with respect and dignity, men and women, young and old, gay and straight, black and white, immigrant and native, the list goes on...In Jesus Banquet of Life peace and forgiveness, love and justice rule the day, and there is no place for terror and violence. In Jesus’ Banquet of Love, we trust ultimately in God, not in money or weapons or power or fame. In Jesus’ Banquet of Love, trust in God always trumps fear.
So what’ll it be for us sisters and brothers in Christ? Herod’s Banquet of Death or Jesus’ Banquet of Life? That’s a very Markan question to pose. Jesus is very clear-cut in Mark. It’s always this way vs. that. No fuzzy gray areas: “Well, it’s complicated.” No! For Jesus in Mark, it’s either good or evil. It’s God or the devil. It’s Jesus’ way or the empire’s way. It’s bread or weapons. It’s life or death. What’ll it be for us, Bethlehem?
Here at Bethlehem, I’m afraid to say, and I’m wondering if you might agree with me: Here in my two weeks already, I’m really sensing, in some ways, death pressing in around us. Not this extreme, Herodian, debaucherous, banquet of death, but just the attitudes and the fears and the despairs that “death” can bring.
With all the things that are going on here lately. With a normal amount of conflict, but conflict nonetheless, in your history here... and now another new pastor. With steady declines in membership and youth and participation in general: there’s been some mourning over this, I’ve heard. Others have actually left. It’s too much for them and they’ve moved on.
Who doesn’t long for the past if it’s a memory of a better day? Do you ever feel, with me, like death has been pressing in on Bethlehem Lutheran in Fairfax?
And of course the rips and tears and broken glass and scratches of hateful words. There it certainly feels like death, like John the prophet has been taken down and Herod is winning…
But sisters and brothers in Christ (not in Herod), sisters and brothers in the Gospel of life (not the shadows of death), sisters and brothers of good (not evil) — God has not abandoned us!
Death does not have the final say here or anywhere...because of Christ. Jesus is here [table] in our pain and confusion and terror and decline. The Holy Spirit moves in our midst and fills us with new breath, and with new bread (not the excessive meat and drink of Herod, but the the bread of life and wine of forgiveness, a feast of love and not terror). God picks us up as we pick up the pieces, even as we may trip and fall, right out of the gate. “Ah man, we just got started. Now this?”
Friends, we have a God who is good, with a peace that endures, a Christ who abides, a Holy Spirit that comforts us when we’re down and challenges us when we’re complacent or paralyzed by fear.
This is our God. And our God will grant us, each of us, wisdom and courage for the days ahead, for the new directions we take, for the peace and forgiveness we will practice with each other, and for the love that we are called to share. That love, peace, forgiveness, courage and wisdom is yours now, through Christ who strengthens us, today and always.
Welcome to Jesus’ Banquet of Life! AMEN.