14 King Herod heard of [the disciples’ preaching, teaching, and healing,] for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, the one whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, Herod’s brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against John, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that John was a righteous and holy man, and Herod protected him. When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed; and yet Herod liked to listen to John. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When Herod’s daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And Herod solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 The girl went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” Her mother replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”
25 Immediately Herodias rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. The soldier went and beheaded John in the prison, 28 brought John’s head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When John’s disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Please pray with me this morning, church:
Our stomachs ache. We hunger.
We fill ourselves with that which does not satisfy.
Fill us again this morning.
Make us to be that which we receive,
Your very self—the body of Christ—
Given for the life of the world.
Well that’s one way to throw a party, right?
I can’t recall a time I went to a soirée and the favors the hosts handed out was someone’s head on a platter. It’s a bit too…Game of Thrones for me.
But different from Westeros, where gratuitous violence is rampant, this story does have a function in the Gospel of Mark. More on that in a minute.
Today we’re beginning the 2nd half of our summer with a new worship and sermon series called Bread of Life. Catchy and original…I know. Beginning this Sunday, we’re entering a stretch where the Gospel readings focus a lot on eating and feeding and nourishing, and at the end of July and throughout August we’ll have 5 weeks in a row from the Gospel of John that all have Jesus saying “I am the bread of life.” So, yeah…super-original series title. And, just a fair warning to those of you who have gluten intolerances or suffer from celiac disease…you’re going to be hearing a lot about bread…but there’s nothing to suggest that Jesus wasn’t referring to himself as a rustic loaf made from tapioca flour…I mean, there’s nothing to suggest that he was, either…but, you know, just…use whatever imagery is helpful for you.
In this series, we’re going to be talking about nourishment. What is it that nourishes you? What truly fills you up and sustains you? What’s missing from your diet…spiritually, I mean? What gifts do you have that can then be used to fill up and sustain others? How can we combine and use our individual gifts more effectively for the sake of each other and the world? What does it look like and how much more filling and sustaining is it if we try and create a whole recipe from our individual gifts and ingredients, rather than withholding the ingredients to stand on their own?
This is some of what we’ll be talking about during this second half of the summer.
But today, we have a banquet. And this is not Jesus’ banquet. Obviously, the author of Mark tells us this was Herod’s party, but even if we didn’t have that, if we look at what happened at this party…this doesn’t sound like Jesus, right? This doesn’t fit with what we know and what we believe to be true about the kind of person Jesus is, the kind of party Jesus would host.
I invite you to go ahead and grab your Bible if you brought it, or open the Bible app on your phone, or even pull out one of those handy pew Bibles if you’re here in the Sanctuary with us. Go ahead and open them up to Mark chapter 6. We’re going to be rummaging around in these verses. Our Gospel reading begins in Mark chapter 6 verse 14.
New Testament…2nd half of the Bible…Matthew, Mark…2nd book……got it…? Great.
So this is a story that takes place out of time. In verse 16 we read, “When Herod heard about all the things Jesus and the disciples were doing…right, the teaching and preaching and healing and curing…all that stuff…Herod said, probably frightened, or paranoid, ‘John, the one I beheaded, has been raised.’” And then verses 17 and after are all a flashback of what happened when Herod threw a party and John lost his head. But it’s function here, in this place in the Gospel of Mark, is important. Just before this, you’ll recall, at the beginning of chapter 6, you can see in your Bibles there, was our Gospel reading from last week, when Jesus, the hometown hero, finds out that not everyone in Nazareth is thrilled with what he’s doing, and Jesus finds that it’s those who know you best that might be most reticent to hear what you have to say, especially when what you have to say is at odds with the very comfortable way of living that they’ve carved out for themselves. Hmm…that cuts a little deep, doesn’t it…? And then Jesus sends the disciples out to carry on the mission of healing and teaching and curing, and the disciples start healing and anointing and curing. And today, Herod hears about what Jesus and the disciples are doing and gets frightened. But then after our Gospel reading for today, something we’ll pick up a little bit next week is Mark’s version of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. You can see it there in Mark chapter 6 verses 30-44.
So this story we have this morning is really meant to draw a stark contrast. A contrast between Herod and Jesus, and contrast between the powers of the Empire and the kingdom, or the reign, of God.
Herod throws a party…the powers of the empire throw a party…and death is served up as the main course.
Jesus hosts a get-together…and people are fed…their bellies are filled and they are given assurances and promises that not only does God supply their material needs, but their spiritual hunger is satisfied, as well.
The ways of God are life, and life abundant. The ways of empire and the powers of this world are death…they take away life and take it violently.
What do we truly hunger for?
What does your stomach truly ache for?
Are those hunger pangs of the reign of God? Or are they actually something else?
We get told that we should hunger after all sorts of things…a promotion, a different job, more money, security, a bigger house, more friends… I heard it on the radio on the way in this morning, we here in the U.S. are caught in this unwinnable game, this neverending pursuit of one-upmanship. We’re rarely ever just satisfied. We’re always working feverishly after more. Even if “more” isn’t realistically within our reach. Even if us having “more” means someone else goes without. We’ll pursue more at the expense of others, even at the expense of our own well-being.
But what if the ways of the world are incompatible with the ways of God?
What if hungering after the reign of God puts you at odds with the kinds of hunger the world tells you to desire?
God’s vision—the reign of God—preferences those on the underside, those without, those deemed not as worthy, the vulnerable. “Those who want to save their life will lose it…those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
The good news is that this message persists. Herod cut off John’s head, but John’s voice echoed in the ministry of Jesus. The empire—the powers of this world—lynched Jesus, strung Jesus up on a tree…they could not silence Jesus’ voice.
You can try and kill the prophet…but the prophet’s voice, the good news of God’s liberation for the oppressed and the marginalized, you’ll never be able to silence that message.
How can you lose your life for the sake of the Gospel?
We’re connected to a lot of feeding ministries here at New Hope—feeding in lots of different senses of the word. Coming up next week is our turn to host Family Promise. While still operating under pandemic protocols, churches are asked to provide meals for the families in the program. Every. single. time. the signup goes out, the slots to prepare and bring food are filled within a few days. But more volunteers are always helpful…many hands make light work. Family Promise could certainly use your hands.
We have a handful of faithful volunteers who make time every week to serve at East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry and the Food Pantry over there. But they could certainly use more. They could certainly use your time and energy.
The past couple of years have seen us nurture a relationship with Armstrong Elementary across the way. Helping to feed young people with the nourishing gifts of relationships through Reading Buddies, Mentors, and even ESL classes for their parents. We could use more…we could use your gifts.
Our sister congregation, El Buen Pastor, in El Salvador is spiritually and physically feeding the people in their incredibly impoverished communities every single week. And we’re walking alongside them as partners in ministry as they do. Your interest and input into this relationship is needed…we could use your help.
The thing about hunger is…that it’s not a one-and-done kind of thing. Hunger happens regularly. We need to eat. And we need to continue eating.
These ministries we partner with…one need gets filled, but then there’s more to come. All these wonderful ministries try to address some of the root causes of these needs, but that’s tough and long work. In the meantime, there are still needs to be met.
How can you find a way to get plugged in, either with one of these ministries or in another way? As we begin to emerge from the fog of a pandemic and start re-engaging with opportunities to serve, what ministries are speaking to your heart this morning? What opportunity do you find yourself hungering for?
Serving, loving others, meeting their needs…it doesn’t just fill them up. I’m certain you’ll find that your own hunger is filled, as well.
That nagging in your belly? That may just be a nudge from God, an invitation to try filling your own hunger by filling the needs of others.
The way of discipleship is a hard one.
It asks a lot of you. Just ask John the baptizer.
But it is in losing, in giving up, that you gain your life.
It is in filling up others, that you yourself are filled.