Wake from the Nightmare

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Mark 6:14-29.

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday of General Convention, some 1500 people, led by about 60 bishops of The Episcopal Church, gathered outside the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City at 7:15 in the morning, before the desert heat could really grip the city. We heard some scripture, prayed some prayers, sang a song; then we marched through the streets of the city to a nearby park where we heard more witness, prayed more prayers, and sang again; then we marched back to the convention center for words and prayer and song to conclude. The whole thing was a public witness sponsored by Bishops United Against Gun Violence, and it was called in response to the shootings at Emanuel AME, and in response to all the shootings that have torn our country and ended lives for so many years.

Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry spoke at the final stop of the march, and I was deeply moved by his words. He said that too many of us live in a nightmare. For too many of us racism and poverty and violence make an “unholy trinity” that makes our lives a nightmare. And even those of us whose lives are not directly affected by that unholy trinity live in a society that is deeply affected, and that makes our lives part of the nightmare, too. But, Bishop Curry said, we worship a Holy Trinity, and we follow Jesus who can wake us up from the nightmare, and we are part of the Jesus Movement that can lead us all out of the nightmare. And that is the answer to the violence, to which we bear witness.

That was a key moment in my experience of General Convention. And it’s provided me an interpretive key for our gospel this morning. In the language of Bishop Curry, this story of the death of John the Baptizer is a picture of the nightmare – personal nightmare, relationship nightmare, social nightmare – from which we long to wake up.

As Mark depicts it, the court of Herod Antipas, and the world it represents, is a place that is run by fear, greed, ambition, confusion, extortion, influence-peddling, currying favor, and revenge.

Herod is depicted as a weak yet power-hungry ruler. He has imprisoned John the Baptizer because John has been publicly criticizing Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his dead brother’s widow, a relationship that was considered incestuous by the standards of the time. Herod cannot allow such public criticism – it undermines the perception of his power – so he needs to shut John up. But he is afraid to kill John, because the people regard John as a prophet, and Herod can’t afford to have the people thinking he has killed a prophet, because that will undermine the perception of his power. Herod’s actions are controlled by his fear of appearing weak – which of course makes him weak. Even in imprisonment John makes Herod perplexed: Herod hates what John has to say, but he feels compelled to listen to him anyway. Herod vacillates, trapped in his own kind of nightmare confusion.

And then he gives a birthday party. This was not a pleasant little birthday gathering like you or I might have. This was a state occasion, this was a command performance, in which Herod’s courtiers, the officials and government officers, the minor politicians and wannabe movers and shakers, all had to be there. Herod threw this party not because he was happy, but because he needed to demonstrate in a public way how grand he was, how magnanimous he was, how important he was. And people came to Herod’s party not because they liked him, but because they had to show publicly how they supported his power, while behind the scenes they were probably all planning and plotting to chip away at that power however they could. I imagine that party and I picture in my mind’s eye a roomful of people smiling as hard as they can while their eyes are screaming “Get me out of here!” and it all looks pretty nightmarish to me.

Then Herod’s daughter does a dance for the party. Although this is often represented as being a very provocative dance, historically speaking this daughter was probably just a young child, and she was probably just doing a little dance that her governess taught her, or a folk dance for children. And Herod, again wanting to show everyone what a good and generous and powerful man he was, made an extravagant promise to reward the girl as only a superior father could. Imagine his horror when his wife used that as the occasion to get her revenge against John. Imagine how trapped he felt when he was too weak to make John’s death an outright execution, but also too weak to avoid being manipulated in front of his guests. For fear of appearing to lose power, he actually lost all his power. Imagine his horror. Imagine the guests’ horror when they saw the head of John the Baptizer brought into their banquet hall and set there with the food that they were eating. Imagine the little girl’s horror when she was given this bloody trophy on a platter and realized how her own mother had set her up. Nightmare upon nightmare upon nightmare.

And then, to cap it all off, this whole scene is a flashback. It’s not even happening in real-time. Herod is remembering what he did to John months before. And he is remembering because he has heard of the miracles, the healings and the exorcisms, the restorations of well-being and the renewals of life, that Jesus and his disciples have been doing. Herod has heard about Jesus, and he thinks that these miraculous powers are at work because John the Baptizer has come back to life. John has come back, Herod thinks, and is coming back to get him. John was the victim of revenge, Herod thinks, so John has come back to get his revenge. Herod is so sunk in the nightmare, so trapped in fear and greed and posturing and manipulation, that the goodness of God is right there in front of him, right there obvious in Jesus, and all Herod can see is a haunting vengeful ghost from the grave. It’s a nightmare.

And it is out of this nightmare that Jesus is offering the invitation to wake. Where Herod’s is a nightmare world of fear and greed and revenge and trying to look powerful when you are actually weak, Jesus calls us to wake up to a world where you can go out weak and discover God’s power; where you can go with no bread, no bag, no money in your belt, as we heard in the Gospel last week, where you can enter a strange place and say “Peace be to this place” and discover God’s peace that is always already there, where you can open up healing and well-being in God wherever you go. Jesus calls us to wake up to a world where you can go out with five loaves and two fish, as we will hear in the Gospel in a couple of weeks, and by God’s grace take what is clearly not enough, and sustain and satisfy the needs of thousands.

Jesus calls us to wake up to a world where, in Bishop Curry’s words, we can end the nightmare of racism and poverty and violence, where we can end the nightmare of trying to hang on to our own power and prestige and privilege, trying to hang on so hard it just ends up hurting us – and instead wake up to becoming the beloved community, the people of right-relationships for mutual well-being for everyone that is the dream of God for us.

Our Gospel this morning shows us a glimpse of a nightmare world, a world that we are all too ready to accept as just the way things are. Jesus calls us to wake up from the nightmare to God’s world of freedom and peace and love.

For the love of God, let’s wake up. Amen.