A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading recounts the beheading of John the Baptist at Herod’s feast.
Herod regretted killing John. It was a guilt that haunted him, so much so that he convinced himself that Jesus, John’s cousin, was instead his reincarnation, or his repossession, returned to convict Herod of his crime.
It’s a nice question, how people respond to the gospel, to Christ.
There are those moments, rare but profound, when even Peter falls to his knees and begs, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) Jesus came to the Galilean countryside proclaiming repentance before the coming kingdom; confession is an appropriate response.
Yet others, desperate in their need, came to him for healing. They had already wrung out before God all that they could imagine could have caused their current suffering, and they had come up short. Now, they looked only for mercy. And Jesus looked upon them with compassion, and he healed them.
Some came searching for wisdom, whether in crowds on the hillside, leaning in to his beatitudes, or sceptically, ironically, looking to poke holes in his gospel in case it might otherwise change their hearts. Jesus heard them all, reiterating to anyone who would listen his gospel of repentance, of mercy, embodying God’s steadfast and forbearing love.
Herod did not come to Jesus.
When he killed John, Jesus’ cousin, Herod did not act alone. Herodias, his former sister-in-law and wife is often cast as the true perpetrator here, putting out a contract on John that Herod had no choice but to fulfill. We do not know the age of her daughter, whether she might bear some blame for failing to recoil in horror at her mother’s suggestion. Then, there were the soldiers who carried out the act in cold blood – do they bear no guilt for executing an innocent man simply because they were so ordered?
But what of the guests at the feast? I am curious about those people. Herod, we are told, was torn about severing John’s head, since he regarded the man as righteous and holy, yet he had made promises in front of his guests and wished not to lose face.
Were they such a bloodthirsty crowd that they would rather see the letter of Herod’s drunken, excited oath carried out before them than offer some substitute, some way out, for Herod and for John? Was there not one who would stand up, speak up, against this atrocity? Not one who would step in?
Herod was fully responsible for his own decisions and actions; but he was not the only person responsible for the death of John, the cousin of Christ.
We have all known situations where we should have spoken up but didn’t: when a racist or sexist joke was told, or bullying was observed, or worse. We – the world – bore witness to the murder of a man on the streets of Minneapolis last summer, and we saw how afraid anyone must be in the moment to help, how powerless to avert tragedy. And since then, how many of us have shied away from addressing the situation by demanding reforms, still afraid of the ramifications, still relying on the conviction of one person to carry the blame of us all? It is a fearful thing, to confront the king.
It is a fearful thing to confront our own guilt. Herod and Herodias hardened their hearts; by the time Jesus finally appeared before Herod, he was over it. Who knows about the dancer and the soldier, what moral injuries they carried and how they were scarred?
But the guests at the feast: we can relate to the ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary moment, confronted unexpectedly with the violence of greed, lust, and rage that rule too many of our decisions. From our seats at the table, they have a choice to make: whether to let Herod have his way and live with the horror of John’s beheading, or whether to speak up, speak out, and hope to hell that someone else at the table has their back.
We all have moments we regret, personal words and actions we wish we could take back, flows with which we wish we had not gone; systems of oppression which we have accepted or from which we have benefited; philosophies of greed from which we have failed to protect the poor. Where we have failed and share the guilt of Herod and his guests, we have a path to forgiveness.
Every time we come together we make our confession, and God hears us. If there are particularly poignant sins that plague us, there is in our prayer book a form for personal and private confession with a priest. None of us is alone in our sin, and none need wander alone seeking forgiveness. God has provided for our absolution.
There will be new opportunities to do the right thing, to refrain from doing wrong for the sake of the crowd, to make reparations for the harm that has already happened. God grant us the grace to accept those opportunities. Herod had one when Jesus was sent to him late in his life, and he squandered it; but fed and led by Christ, we need neither harden our hearts against guilt nor wallow in it. Fed and led by Christ, we are free.
Unlike Herod, we need not be haunted or hardened by our guilt. We can, like Peter, fall to our knees and confess our guilt before Christ, our Saviour. We can, as those in need of healing, present ourselves for mercy. We can, like those who heard the call beside the Sea of Galilee and followed without question, repent, and turn our hearts to follow the way of Christ, wherever it may lead us. We can come to Jesus.
Here at Christ’s table we can rest and refresh our bodies and souls and spirits for the love of God. Our confessions are heard, our forgiveness is announced, our frailties are understood, and, we are reminded, Herod is not our host, nor does he rule over us, but only Christ.