HEBREW BIBLE LESSON I Samuel 18:28-19:10
GOSPEL LESSSON: Mark 6:14-29
SERMON: “It’s Not Easy Being Gre. . . uh, Honest”
I was probably about five years old at the time. I don’t remember eating any of the pie. But I do remember when my next-door-neighbor and best friend’s mom confronted the two of us for having eaten some of her blueberry pie. Apparently she had other plans for the pie and was not exactly happy with the two of us. Fearing whatever punishment was about to be forthcoming we both denied having eaten the pie, in spite of the fact that there was evidence of blueberry pie filling on our faces. This much of the story I have to piece together, because I truly don’t remember it happening. But I have never forgotten what Mrs. Maguire said to the two of us as blueberry stickiness told her what Binna and I denied. She said, “If you tell lies, you won’t have any friends.” It was one of those pivotal moments of character formation for this girl.
The trouble is telling the truth can be very costly too. When I first read through this account from Mark about John the Baptist, beheaded for telling Herod the truth about his sins of adultery and incest, the Muppet song “It’s not that easy being green” started running through my head, and I thought, “It’s not that easy telling the truth.
It’s not that easy being green;
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves.
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold-
Or something much more colorful like that.
It’s not easy being green.
It’s not that easy telling the truth.
Having to tell people things they don’t want to hear.
When I think it could be safer being careful, circumspect, judicious
or something much more secure like that.
And yet we value the truth. I know one of the things that annoys me most about the political season, which keeps getting longer and longer, is the prevalence of lies and half-truths told by each candidate about the other. I was scrolling through Facebook the other night and someone had posted a quote from one of the presidential candidates. I knew, from having watched the speech they were quoting, that between the first half of the sentence posted and the second half, there were about three or four additional sentences. Changed the entire meaning of what was actually said.
I’m old enough to remember that when Jimmy Carter was president, he had a reputation for honesty that was unique among politicians. In fact, that he was able to maintain this reputation was a topic of curiosity for reporters. Once, when his mother, Miss Lillian, was being interviewed by a particularly aggressive female reporter on network television, she was asked about Carter’s honesty.
“Is it true,” asked the reporter, “That your son doesn’t lie? Can you tell me he has never told a lie?”
Miss Lillian replied, “Well, I reckon he might have told a little white lie now and then.”
The reporter jumped at the opening. “I thought you said he didn’t lie!” she exclaimed. “Are you telling me that white lies aren’t as bad as black lies? Just what do you mean by a white lie?”
“Well,” drawled Miss Lillian, “do you remember when you came in this morning and I told you how nice you looked and how glad I was to see you...?”
We certainly do struggle with honesty and truth-telling.
There are countless biblical examples of twisting the truth and how it didn’t work out too well. It all started in the Garden of Eden with the crafty serpent telling the woman, that eating the fruit of the forbidden tree would not kill her:
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Abram, the father of the Hebrew people, lied about Sarai, his wife, when they were in Egypt. He told people she was his sister. And he had what he believed to be good reason – he wanted to protect her, and possibly save his own life.
Moses killed an Egyptian out of anger at seeing the man beating a Hebrew slave. Then he fled to Midian rather than face the truth.
Why do we have these texts in Holy Scripture that exhibit the worst side of humanity? For one thing, because Scripture confronts people with the truth. And for another thing, there is horrible evil in this world. There are evil people – There are sick people. There are misguided people. There are unthinking people. There are the sociopaths, the mass murders, the vicious child and spouse abusers. There are evil moments when otherwise good people are drawn in - that scene played over and over on TV several years ago of a dozen police officers beating and kicking a wounded suspect. There are evil systems in which we all participate - people going without food and shelter in a nation of abundance, people not getting medical care because of no other reason than lack of money. There are even evils born of sheer stupidity, like the stupid promise Herod made to Salome to give her whatever she wanted just because her dance was pleasing to him.
We are horrified at the shooting spree in Colorado in the wee hours of Friday morning. It brings to mind other horrors we have experienced – Columbine, Virginia Tech, The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, 9/11. You will no doubt think of other horrors I haven’t mentioned. There are too many. The reality is there is evil in the world. That’s the first thing we acknowledge.
What is Mark trying to tell us in this particular text of horror?
Look at it in context. What did Mark tell us just before this? He wrote about Jesus sending the twelve out to preach that people should repent, and to drive out demons and to heal sick people. Jesus tells the disciples to go out and embody God’s love in the world, and not to expect everyone to welcome their ministry. In fact they need to be prepared for rejection and trouble. There is danger when you tell the truth, especially to those in power. The story of John’s death reminds us that being a follower of Christ does not guarantee success in this life, and very likely will bring some suffering.
According to Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed many. But what this middle Herod shared in common with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption.
He had been married originally to a Nabataean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. Even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery and incest among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabataeans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law)-and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabataeans, in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed – nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one, except John the Baptist, had the moral courage to point out how wrong it was.
Had John just stuck to baptisms and maybe some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees and such, he would have been okay, because the Pharisees didn’t have the kind of power Herod did. But John landed in prison because he had the audacity to question the morality of Herod.
The story of the beheading of John makes it crystal clear that God’s work is risky. When you do it, don’t expect accolades or success. When you speak the truth to the powerful there may be a bitter price to be paid.
Jeremiah knew that when his ministry prompted naysayers to plot against him.
Jonah knew that – that’s why he got on a ship heading the other direction rather than preach to Ninevah.
Each one of us has to respond to the challenge spoken by Joshua: Choose this day whom you will serve. When Joshua issued that challenge it was for the people to choose between Yahweh and other gods. For us the choice may be between God and self-interest or self-preservation.
As many of you know, my presbytery work is serving on the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. One of the things we check for in people who present themselves to be taken under care is their sense of call, for there are people who believe that being in pastoral ministry means having a church full of people who will love you. Reality is that while good ministry will likely result in some people being genuinely fond of a pastor, there will also always be those who are anywhere from indifferent to critical to hostile.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a teacher who was fired from his job six months short of his retirement after 25 years. It was a nasty piece of work on the part of his superiors. They wanted to punish him for challenging them and to make him an example for anyone else thinking about trying the same thing. They called it early retirement and gave him a party he suffered through. “I’ve been to my own funeral,” he said weeks later, recounting the pain of it. “I lost my students, my program, my livelihood, and my pride. But you know what? There really is life after death. I’m doing things I always wanted to do, but never had time. I’m spending time with my wife. I’m finding energy I thought I’d lost forever.
Getting crucified turned out better than I thought.”1
Those who follow Jesus must not give in to the naive notion that being faithful to God will be easy. It isn’t.
John the Baptist told the truth. It got him beheaded.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. It got him crucified.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: No matter what happens, God’s plan cannot be stopped. It may not always be easy being honest, but Resurrection tells us not only does Love win, but Truth wins.
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain - Teaching Sermons on Suffering (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp. 73-74.