There’s a story written by a brilliant, moral fiber of our American South. An author of significant renown who, upon hearing about the death of a neighbor, said, “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.” This witty man of significant depth of character, two fathoms deep to be precise, who also said, “good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” This Mark Twain wrote of a young, homeless boy named Huckleberry Finn and a runaway slave named Jim. Huck played several tricks on Jim, but it was his last ruse in which he told an elaborate lie to Jim that caused a significant fracture to their friendship. And in the aftermath of this lie and attempt to make amends, Huck faced a crisis of conscience.
I must admit that this Gospel reading has caused great difficulties for me this week. While we know this story well, the one where John the Baptist is executed, there is more to it than meets the eye. After reading this Gospel passage over the course of this week, what struck me first was a very simple question: Where is Jesus? In all of our Gospel passages, Jesus is the prominent figure, the one who offers parables in order to teach the lessons to groups of people, the one who travels the waters, the one calling his disciples, the one feeding the thousands, the one flipping the tables. You get my point.
But this Gospel passage is different. This is the only Gospel passage in what we call “Ordinary Time” — these months between Pentecost and Advent — that does not feature Jesus as the central “character” of the story. As a matter of fact, our lectionary reading cycle moves through a three-year period, and today is the ONLY day in a three-year lectionary cycle that Jesus is not in fact front and center. Why this passage of the Gospel of Mark? Why is it told in the form of a flashback? Why is THIS story so incredibly important that we need to give the beheading of John the Baptizer the main stage story?
Let’s get a little context of the relationship between Jesus and John. John was miraculously conceived by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, and remember that Elizabeth was past child-bearing age. When Mary visited her precious cousin, the baby leapt in Elizabeth’s womb with the recognition that Mary was the God-bearer, the Theotokos, to the savior of the world. Matthew recorded Jesus as saying there was none higher than John, and it was he who baptized Jesus in the Jordan river. John lived an ascetic life consuming locusts and honey for nourishment and wearing a camel-hair shirt. He intimately knew the Old Testament writings, and had no fear of speaking the words of Truth to all who would listen. He proclaimed the One, the Messiah, who would save the world and of whose sandals he would not be fit to tie.
And it was this strong-tongued man who repeatedly denounced the incestuous relationship of Herod Antipas, the King of our Gospel reading today. I won’t go into the gnarled and mangled family tree of this monarchy. Suffice it to say that it was Herod the Great, the father of our Herod this morning, who ordered all the male children slaughtered in the hopes that baby Jesus would be amongst the butchered. Herod Antipas had married his niece, and it was John the Baptizer who repeatedly denounced this marriage as horrifically sinful. John’s prophetic voice infuriated Herod’s niece-wife, but there was something about John that Herod appreciated, something about his passion that the King felt affinity for, and he wanted to keep close.
But, Herod put himself in a position of vulnerability. Drunk at his birthday party and turned on by an erotic dance from his step-daughter Salome, he unknowingly sealed the fate of John. There is a moment that Mark writes, “The king was deeply grieved.” However, this drunken and powerful fool made a promise to a slutty girl who was manipulated by her revenge-seeking, psychopathic mother. Mark continues in writing, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” He sacrificed the precursor to Jesus, the man who listened to God, the baby who leapt in his mother’s womb.
Returning to Huck for a moment, when the authorities come looking for the runaway slave, an inner battle rages within the heart and mind of Huck. Tormented by the memories of Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly who attempted to train the unruly ruffian to be a cultured young man of Southern gentility. Should Huck turn Jim in as the runaway slave he most certainly is, or should he lie and cover up the fact that he knows Jim’s whereabouts and thus offering Jim an opportunity for freedom? But Huck moves through this moral war zone weighing one choice against the other. But what plagues him is the slowing awareness that Jim is actually a living, breathing human being. A man of faith and love and laughter. I’ll offer you the chance to discover what Huck chooses on your own.
What happens to us when we ignore our conscience? What happens when we engage with what we shouldn’t or deny engaging with what we should? Regret. Shame. Fear. Secrecy. Lies. Heartbreak. Illness. Anger. Some would say if we ignore the nudge of God, the thump will quite likely get our attention.
We do not live in a vacuum. As much as we would like to deny the notion that what we do, what we choose does not affect anyone else, that no one will see and no one will know and no one will find out, the shadows of darkness will always be brought into light. Some day. Some how. All will be known. All the regret and shame and fear and secrecy and lies and heartbreak and anger…it will come forward. And there are instances of significant aftermath, of horrors so profound when the conscience is rejected that this aftermath reverberates throughout the generations. I believe that even the air and earth and water holds the grief of the rejected conscience.
Some of you may have been following the news lately, the atrocious story of the children found in mass graves along the border in Canada. Close to 1,000 nameless remains have been found so far at religious residential schools, familiarly understood to be boarding schools. Hundreds more schools are being investigated as close to 200,000 Indigenous children went into the residential school system, but a fraction of that number came out.
Bp. Steve Charleston is a retired American Episcopal bishop who served the Diocese of Alaska and now lives in Duncan, OK. He wrote on June 30: “Canada now is our conscience, as more children’s graves are revealed, and many more perhaps yet to come, the ghosts of those unlived lives, those innocent and gentle lives, standing silent sentinel over us all, waiting to see what we do: witnesses to our past, prophets to our future. What will we learn? It is more than repentance that we need, more than mere apologies, more even than the shock and awe of our own cruel history. Canada now is our conscience, where we all stand on unmarked graves, no one exempt from their silence, no nation better than another, but all complicit in what has been done, and all challenged to define what comes next. If communities of faith have a calling, surely it is to exile racism from every human heart, if not for the sake of our own children, then for the memory of those whose childhood was lost to an arrogance that spared none before it.”
So, the question now hovers in the heavy air around us: What will we do now? What will we do when we walk a knife’s edge with our own conscience? What will we do when the conscience is rejected and broken? When we stand witness to that annihilation, will we keep walking, keep talking, keep acting as if nothing is amiss, hoping it falls into the mass grave quietly? Praying that the regret and shame and fear and secrecy and lies and anger go down silently with it?
What will we do?