July 12, 2015 “ 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B
Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
At least 38 times in scripture an angel or someone representing God says to someone else, Do not be afraid. Frankly, that never seems to work. Or at least it doesn’t work immediately. The various people being spoken to by the angels or representatives of God continue to be frightened. Fear doesn’t evaporate immediately. But a truth in scripture, and in our lives, is that as we admit and describe our various fears, they dissipate, and a sense of calm and clarity emerges. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Psalms and Proverbs tell us. But that kind of fear is not like the fear the angels tell us to let go of. That kind of fear is more like awe and wonder. That kind of fear is more like the sense of calm and clarity that emerges when we admit and describe the various fears we face in our day to day lives.
Let go of your fears and allow the peace of God to rule your hearts. Easy enough to say. But when I’m scared, I’m scared. And you telling me not to be scared doesn’t really help all that much, at least not immediately. It’s actually more helpful for you to say, Tell me about your fears than it is for you to tell me not to be the way I am. Because for me to tell you about my fears, I have to first be aware of the role that fear plays in my life. And as I do that, calm and clarity emerge. So what is the role that fear is playing in your life right now?
I wonder how different our gospel lesson would have been had someone at Herod’s birthday party taken him aside and asked him that question. Herod, what are you so afraid of? What is it about this John the Baptist that is so threatening to you? What is it about your wife and your family and this big crowd that’s got you so frightened that you feel like you’ve got to chop off John’s head? What is the role that fear is playing in your life, Herod? Who are you trying to please? What are you trying to prove? What are you trying to keep from happening?
Had Herod been given the chance to ask and reflect on such questions, maybe he would have walked away from this disastrous episode. This is one of the very few gospel lessons we will ever read on a Sunday that has nothing much to do with Jesus. Maybe part of the point is that when we are ruled by fear, we have nothing much to do with Jesus.
So this story in front of us is an interlude in the Book of Mark. It explains the death of John the Baptist, which serves as a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus, and it takes place in between Jesus sending out the 12 and them coming back to report of their great success. Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who was in charge when Jesus was born, is now in charge of this region. He comes from a long line of not-so-nice folks, paranoid schizophrenics it would seem, and he marries a not-so-nice woman he stole away from one of his remaining brothers that hadn’t been murdered by his not-so-nice father. Apples don’t fall too far from trees so the saying the goes.
Herod Antipas hears about Jesus’ message of love and mercy to everyone, that he has remarkable healing powers, and that crowds are following him around. Now he’s got disciples and they are spreading this message of love and they are healing people and crowds are following them. This scares Herod to death. His job is in jeopardy, if he cannot control this new movement. His means of identity, his livelihood, his whole way of life is threatened. And something he has done in the recent past is haunting him: this birthday party episode where a bunch of mean and crazy people had way too much to drink and things got totally out of hand. His conniving wife takes advantage of his fears and paranoia and the result is John’s head on a platter carried by his daughter. Imagine having done such a thing and how that might haunt you.
Instead of admitting his guilt in prayer, Herod begins to conspire to kill this Jesus. Herod is a not-so-nice paranoid schizophrenic with pathological tendencies. But maybe he’s also just an ordinary guy like you and me. He’s threatened. He gets caught up in the insanity of trying to control and eliminate something more powerful than himself. It doesn’t work. His chest gets tighter and tighter as his world spins out of control. And instead of admitting the unmanageability of his now crazy life, he comes up with another crazy plan of trying to control what might happen next. He’s so scared about what has happened to him that he focuses his whole life on not ever letting that happen again. His guilt and shame, instead of allowing him to reach out for help, cause him to shut out everything good and focus only on his insidious plan to get control over that which is so clearly bigger than himself.
When I did my clinical training at a psychiatric hospital, my supervisor told me that the patients I would meet were just like me only more so. Herod Antipas is just like you and me, only more so. He has all the fears that you and I struggle with and here they are writ large so that maybe you and I can address our own fears.
What role does fear play in your life right now? Is there something you have done or something that someone has done to you that still rules your life? Is there something you regret that haunts you? The typical human error, our default position, is to be so threatened by the past that we engage in some rather insane behavior to try and control the future. That’s when we are the very farthest away from the kingdom of God, when it’s all about our plight and what we feel we need to do to keep that mean old world from hurting us all the more. We’re so scared we dig in and try to defeat that mean old world all by ourselves. Or we’re so scared we try to escape it all for a moment at a time with some little something that gives us a little pleasure and then our whole world gets wrapped up in getting more and more of that little something so we don’t have to face that mean old world.
What role does fear play in your life right now? How is your world spinning out of control? How can Herod’s great big insanity lead you to acknowledge your own little insanity?
As long as our fears go unacknowledged we inevitably get caught up in some kind of insanity, some kind of spiritual sickness, and we keep ourselves away from the great love that God sends into the world through his Son Jesus Christ. As long as I am devoting my life to not being scared and threatened, I am as far away from God’s love as I can get. All it takes to find that life-changing love of God is simply to admit that I am scared, that I’m frightened, that I’m threatened, that I am powerless and helpless. Then my humble and lowly heart is filled with the love of Jesus and I am made a brand new creation.
Let go of your fears and allow the peace of God to rule your hearts.