|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
July 15, 2018
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10
Well, it’s been quite the week, hasn’t it? Such monumentally important and exciting events in our life as a church coming out of General Convention – the most significant of which being our ability to finally experience marriage equality right here at Transfiguration. Given all that’s happened this last week, and how huge a moment it is for us, it might have been nice if the readings appointed for today featured Jesus talking about love, or mercy, or joy. But thanks to the randomness of the lectionary, that’s not what we get in this morning’s gospel. Heck, Jesus barely even makes an appearance in the story! Instead, what we get is the sad, strange story of the death of John the Baptizer – a story that seems better fit for A Game of Thrones than the Gospel of Christ. But the more I sat with this story the past few days, the more I realized it has a lot to say to us in this remarkable moment we’re living.
The story has a bit of a soap-opera feel to it, so it may help if I unpack the plot and characters just a bit. First, the Herod is probably not the Herod you’re thinking of: this is Herod Antipas, son of the Herod from the nativity story, but unfortunately this Herod was cut from pretty much the same cloth as his father. Herod Antipas was carrying on an affair with the wife of his brother, a woman named Herodias, and eventually they married, even though neither of them had ever actually divorced their spouses. Oh, and Herodias was also Antipas’ niece, which adds a great “ick” factor to the story. Well, John the Baptizer apparently had a lot to say about this, none of it good, which earned the ire of Herodias, who jumped at the chance to eliminate her enemy in a public and humiliating way.
Like I said it’s a sad, strange story for Mark to insert in the middle of the gospel, but I can’t help but keeping thinking about the way Herod weakly acquiesces to Herodias’ request. The way Mark tells it, it seems like Herod goes along with it against his better judgment, like he actually knows that it’s a mistake. Mark even makes a point to say that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” Yet here he is, consenting to John’s brutal death because – and here’s the important part – because he would rather save face in front of the court of public opinion than admit he made a rash and foolish promise. He knows it’s wrong, but he’d rather go ahead than admit he’d made a mistake.
I wonder…have you ever chosen to save face instead of admitting that you’ve made a mistake? Have you ever gone ahead and done something that you knew would probably have negative consequences, something you began to regret almost before you’d actually done it, simply because you didn’t want to admit you were wrong? Does that sound at all familiar to you? I know it does for me.
It sounds like those moments when I make a mistake in front of my wife or kids and immediately try to explain it away or excuse it, rather than simply apologize and admit I messed up. It sounds like moments at work, when a project doesn’t go like you’d planned or hoped, but rather than admit that you didn’t pull your weight, that you are due some of the blame, instead you put the blame on your boss or coworker. It sounds like when you hear a tasteless joke or story that someone tells, at the expense of someone else, and you choose to laugh at it (just to go along), rather than cause any waves by saying how inappropriate it was. And it certainly reminds me a lot of our current political environment, where no one ever admits they screwed up or got it wrong, and where as long as the wrongdoer is in your particular political party, as long as they’re on your team, there is no such thing as admitting a mistake
So often we are more committed to our pride, to our sense of being right, than we are to the total, eventual outcome being good. So often our instinct for self-preservation and the positive opinion of others prevents us from doing the right thing. We double down on our pride. We double down on our sense of rightness, and fail to do the right thing, because it might cost us something in the moment. Now, admittedly, for most of us, unlike Herod, our selfishness doesn’t come with fatal consequences for innocent people, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still being disobedient to the way of Christ – to living in his way of truth and mercy and love.
The bottom line is that most of us just don’t admit we’re wrong often enough.
Not long ago someone asked for the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. That’s easy: you can be right, or you can be in relationship. A wise friend gave me this advice before I got married, and he called it the secret of a healthy marriage. You can be right, or you can in relationship. Our world has successfully conditioned most of us to be zero-sum soldiers, to think that if we are right, which obviously we are, the other person must therefore be wrong, and it’s our job to show them that they are wrong. That attitude may be at the heart of so many Facebook exchanges, but from my experience as a pastor, I can honestly say that marriages between people who spend all their time in this simmering stew of aggravation and competition aren’t happy and usually don’t last very long.
It’s not only married people who need this piece of wisdom. Quite often the mature thing, the loving thing, the Christian thing, is to set aside our certainty in our “rightness” in order to hold onto relationship with someone else. We don’t have to treat every conversation and every debate as a competition we must win. Just like marriages, friendships don’t last very long if there are always winners and losers, because the truth is that when we’re always trying to save face instead of admitting we’re wrong, someone’s head usually winds up on a platter. There’s a high cost to this need to always be right. So much goodness and mercy would be made manifest in our world if Christians simply remembered that our zealousness to be right isn’t doing a lot to shape the world more nearly into the kingdom of God.
I am so thankful that the Episcopal Church lived out this wisdom this past week. General Convention passed a beautiful compromise resolution that will finally enable Transfiguration, and parishes like us around the wider church, to host the marriages of all our members. We have long been bound by the need of some in our church to be absolutely and exclusively right. Well, come this Advent, marriage will finally just be marriage, for all people, here at Transfiguration. And the reason for this achievement is that the Episcopal Church figured out how to hold different people together, how maintain relationship, rather than simply be held captive by those who believe they are the only faithful Christians in our church.
But here’s the thing. It will be tempting in coming days to fall into Herod’s trap, to let our own certainty of our rightness blind us to the need to be in relationship. It will be tempting to want to save face after years of hurt and frustration by lambasting those who opposed us in this effort. But, my friends, if we line up behind our pride and self-righteousness and lob verbal grenades at others who don’t share our joy in this moment, we won’t be modeling the way of Jesus to anyone, least of all one another. The wider world assumes there are always winners and losers. And we will be utterly indistinguishable from everyone else if that’s the way we act, too. The way of Jesus is bigger, more merciful, and more hopeful than a competition. We don’t have to worry about saving face or always winning. We can stop the cycle that keeps resulting in heads on platters.
So tomorrow, and next week, and in the weeks to come, we can be right, or we can be in relationship. With one another, with our spouses, with our kids. With our coworkers and neighbors. With our friends and with the people we just call friends on Facebook. With our bishop and our diocese. Let’s choose the way of love and the way of relationship – let’s choose the way of Jesus.