Saving Face and Saving Grace

Jul 15, 2012, Author: Rev. Ann M. Aaberg

Mark 6:14-29 – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 15, 2012

By a show of hands, how many of you have ever seen someone go by whom you thought you knew and you started to give a big wave, only to discover it wasn’t them and you corrected your wave mid-course into a head scratch?  To the outside observer, you didn’t make a fool of yourself at all – you meant to scratch your head all along.

For the cat lovers among us, at least the cat observers, we know that they’re experts at this.  No matter what position they mistakenly get themselves into, they always recover and land squarely on four feet and then coolly saunter away with an obvious attitude:  “What…I meant to do that.”

How many of you have ever pushed “Send” on an e-mail and then regretted it?  Said something you wished you could have taken back?

Have you ever had to go back on a promise you made to a child?  “Yes” for ice cream, until you saw that a small cone was 6 bucks and your wallet only had four.  “Yes” for the movie until you learned it was rated “R”.  And the stakes get higher as they get older.  “Yes” for any college you want to attend, until it’s apparent you’ll end up $100,000 in debt.  “Of course you can have the wedding of your dreams” – don’t even go there!

It’s really hard to hear, “But, Dad, you said!”  “Mom, you promised!”  Sometimes we make promises we just can’t keep.  Usually, it’s because we get new information, or we see we made a mistake.  Especially, if that promise was made to a child, as hard as it is, if it’s for their own good, we hope to be able to find the intestinal fortitude to suck it up and change our minds.

Sometimes we just get caught up in the emotion of the moment.  We’re having such a good time, the food is fabulous, the wine is flowing, the guests are enjoying themselves, and they are very important guests, and out comes your beautiful daughter, whose dancing tops off the evening for everyone.  It’s just so perfect, you’re moved to make that promise, “Honey, that was great!  Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”  And to make sure everyone in the room realizes, especially those important guests, that you’re not just talking about an ice cream cone or a movie, or even a new outfit, you really make a grand sweep of it, “No, really, whatever you want, even half of my kingdom.”  Whoa, it’s out there now.

King Herod, at least in Mark’s gospel account, didn’t see it coming.  We read that when his daughter came back with her request, he was deeply grieved.  This was now really complicated.  He knows John and his followers pose a political threat to him.  Goodness knows his wife Herodias has a real problem with him given John’s criticism of their marriage from both an illicit and a political perspective.  Yet, we also read that Herod saw John as a holy and righteous man.  Herod protected him.  Although what John had to say was greatly perplexing to him, he liked to listen to him.

It is important to realize that this Herod is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.  From most accounts, he was a weak version of his father before him, not highly regarded by all those constituencies in the banquet room.  Some write that even the title “king” is used sarcastically by the author of the gospel of Mark.  A quasi-local guy put in his position by the real powers in Rome.

Probably not very secure in who he is.  Most likely lacking in that intestinal fortitude we spoke of earlier that enables someone, when faced with a moment like this, to put the brakes on and realize that he has said too much.  Obviously caught up in flights of fanciful power rather than grounded in God.

Tennessee pastor Cheryl Bridges Johns quotes novelist Flannery O’Connor:  “There is a moment in every story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”

But, Friends, we readers do recognize this moment.  At least the moment when we know – that the cavalier words of our lips, or the mistaken wave in the air, the promise we made, even perhaps with the best of intentions, needs to be retracted.  That if we carry it out, someone is going to be hurt.  And we are faced with a choice:  run headlong into the decision anyway to save face or to pause and accept the saving grace of God that is offered to us then and in every moment, in every decision of our lives.

In that one moment facing Herod, his daughter having made her request, dropping it like a bomb in the middle of the banquet hall, the guests frozen and looking on in various stages of forks raised and mouths open, in the stark silence left by the music ceasing, we read in that moment he was deeply grieved, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.”  But he could have.  Herod could have refused her.  Even in this dark, “demon-infested” situation, ridden with adultery and gross excess and lust for power and political clamoring and evil conniving, there flows, as Rev. Johns puts it, a “stream of grace”, “a stream of grace flowing within the deep recesses of [even] this narrative.”  A stream of grace that is always there for us to dip into in our own narratives, from which to gather strength, in which to refresh and regroup and remember the saving grace of God when we are tempted to throw it out to save our own face.  Because, folks, we may not find ourselves in a first-century banquet room like this one today, but we certainly live in a culture ridden with gross excess, and adultery, and lust for power and political clamoring and evil conniving:  where the innocent are exploited and the prophets are imprisoned and leaders swim in the stream of saving face.

Professor Karen Marie Yust of Union Seminary in Richmond, VA writes this:  “The challenge of the 21st century is for the body of Christ to read our own decisions in light of [this] same story and ask ourselves whether the choices we are making are self-protective or part of God’s transformation of the world.”  Perhaps we could try using that lens for reading the news and interpreting the policy decisions of our day.

And are we keeping the promises that we should?  The promise we make at Baptism by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciples, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ?  Are we keeping the promises that we should?  John the Baptizer landed in prison and lost his life because of his commitment to God to pave the way for Christ.

Remember that Mark recounts the death of John the Baptist here because everyone is wondering who Jesus is – this man roaming the countryside, preaching, teaching, healing, casting out demons, and now he’s got his disciples doing it, too.  Some say he’s Elijah.  Some say he’s a prophet like one of the prophets of old.  Herod, in his guilt over the death of John the Baptist, hears about Jesus and says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”  And given some of the understanding surrounding that phenomenon at that time, it would mean that the resurrected John would be back better than ever with increased and enhanced powers.  Herod would have reason to be afraid.

But we know that it was Jesus who was raised and scholars point to this story as a foreshadowing of the passion and death of Jesus.  John’s death at the hands of Herod Antipas and Jesus’ death at the hands of Pontius Pilate hold several similarities.  Both rulers look favorably upon their captives and desire to spare their lives. Both care more about pleasing the crowd than exercising justice.  Both act against their better judgment and condemn to death innocent men.

Given Herod’s fear of John’s return and the violent end to Jesus’ life, friends, the good news for Herod and for us is that Jesus came back and he’s not mad.  Jesus came back not in the spirit of vengeance, but in the spirit of forgiveness.  Jesus came back not to get back at his enemies, but to love them.  Jesus came back not to save face, but to offer us his saving grace.  Jesus came back so that we are free to correct our mistakes without fear, without embarrassment.  As long as we are in him and he is in us, we can rely on his strength and his power to revisit our decisions, to change our course both as individuals and as a society, to live out our baptismal promises to do his work in the world.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, because Jesus came back we get to repent and start over, we get a second chance at every turn.  In each moment of decision we can choose grace instead of saving face.  We don’t have to be weak and insecure like Herod, puffing up to impress, rushing to action that’s popular instead of prudent, afraid to admit that our own lust for recognition and heroic accolades got the better of us.

In each moment we can decide for Christ, we can choose love and we can ask for forgiveness for our errors in judgment and for speaking too soon.  Jesus was not Elijah, not just a prophet, not John the Baptizer raised from the dead.  Jesus was and is the Son of God, our resurrected Redeemer.  May we know him when we see him and not be afraid to wave.  Amen.