Year B Proper 10: What Should I Ask For? Herodias and the Diamond in Your Pocket
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
This past week, as I’ve sat with and mulled over our gospel for text for today, I have been haunted by Herodias’ question to her mother—“What should I ask for?” The reply, of course, sets in motion the death of John the Baptist with that gruesome scene of his head being displayed on a platter to the approval and amusement of Herod’s gathered guests.
One little detail that helps us understand this text is to know that the word Mark uses for Herodias is korasion, which indicates that she is a young, pre-adolescent girl, not some lustful sex-pot go-go dancer as she is often portrayed. Herodias goes to her mother and asks her what she should ask for, what she should want. She quite naturally looks to mom for guidance on what is the proper telos, or end, of human life. And the answer is rather horrifying—maintaining power and control at all costs, even if it means you have to lop off a few heads.
When John the Baptist first bursts upon the scene, he is an icon of other-centeredness. Like the Virgin Mary, John is someone who istotally turned away from self towards God in Christ. “I must decrease and He must increase.” John’s understanding of life, of faithfulness, and discipleship is that it is always about looking to Jesus, the one who will come after him as the source of true and lasting peace, happiness, healing, and justice for all. Life’s not about us, John tells us, but about what God is doing in and through us and how responsive we are to the promptings of grace that litter lives like confetti at the wedding feast of the Lamb to which we are all invited.
I was at the movies with my eldest daughter on the 4th of July and we were sitting through the requisite twenty minutes of advertisements before the start of the feature. One ad caught my attention for how audaciously wrong-headed it seemed. It was for Diet Coke and the starlet was walking around telling us with self-assured swagger and insouciance that, “life is short… you do you. If you’re in the mood for a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.”
So happiness, according to the advertisers is all about getting what we want—in “you doing you” without a second thought to anyone else. Needless to say, that’s the polar opposite of what the life and death of John the Baptist embodies. He tells us that we need to repent—to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness from the self-centered pursuit of fizzy drinks or whatever brings us a blip of transitory pleasure to what doesn’t change, to the kind of peace that passes all understanding and that doesn’t come from outside ourselves.
If you asked John the Baptist, “What should I ask for?” I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t tell you to just “do you.” What would he reply? I wonder if it might be something about acquiring the mind of Christ, opening ourselves up to receive the love of God that been poured into our hearts. “Ask,” he might reply, “that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit might tabernacle in you. Or better, ask that you might come to recognize that you are already the tabernacle of the Lord, that you are temple of the Holy Spirit. Be the freedom in Christ that is your birthright and don’t settle for the sham version of fulfillment that the advertisers have on offer.”
The rather frightening thing about the exchange between Herodias and her mother is that it drives home in a powerful way what the impact of what we desire has in shaping and influencing those around us. Desire is what they call mimetic. We learn what to desire from other people and pretty soon their desires become ours. Our neighbor gets a new riding mower and suddenly our lives have never seemed so barren and empty until that new John Deere mower is parked in the garage. A friend is on some new fad diet and the next thing you know we are signing up for a three-month course of raw vegetables and seaweed that promises life, the universe, and everything.
If we learn what to desire from others, and if what we desire shapes what others desire, then suddenly the question, “What should I ask for?” takes on great, and potentially transformative significance. What is purpose of our life? Why are we here? What is most important? Our consumer culture does a fantastic job of setting forth one particular answer to this question. The one with the most toys wins. Follow your bliss. If it feels good do it. The human condition is such that we tend to answer this question about life’s ultimate end, life’s ultimate concern, with fleeting, transitory, human-created strategies, or what Fr. Thomas Keating calls, “programs for happiness.”
Made for union and communion with God, in whom is our peace, our security, our joy, and our bliss, we get hoodwinked into looking outside our selves for ultimate fulfillment. We seek power and control, affection and esteem, safety and security as the means of fulfilling the desire deep in our hearts that God and God alone can fulfill. “Our hearts,” Augustine reminds us, “are restless until they rest in thee.”
This means that the church, through its liturgy, its open, receptive attention to God revealed in Holy Scripture, its social witness, its daily prayers, its love of neighbor and self-emptying attention to the last, the least, the lost, and the left behind actually forms us, shapes us. Church provides a pattern for the ordering of our desires that facilitates our movement into ever deeper union and communion with God, into Christlikeness. Church, slowly but surely, Sunday after Sunday, in often invisible and hidden ways, begins to enact in our lives the answer that pivotal question, “What should I ask for?” Over time, we find that we ask for less and less. We don’t have to rack our brains anxiously for things to ask for from God. We find that our prayer becomes very simple. A child-like opening to what God in Christ through the Holy Spirit has already gifted us. Our lives become a simple yes to God, with the steady ostinato of alleluia—praise for all that is—humming along under everything we do. Like David, we dance before the ark in joyous celebration of God with us, God within us, God among us.
Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians provides a powerful reminder of where to look for that which seek, hunger, and yearn. Anytime you get a bunch of repetitions of a single word in Holy Scripture you have one of two choices—decide with the experts on the History Channel that the Bible is a cut and paste hodge-podge that’s hardly worth reading, or that the repetitions are there for a reason, that they serve the rhetorical purpose of waking us up to a reality about which we are often forgetful.
Did you catch the repetitions in Ephesians? Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world...” The whole point of this opening of Ephesians is to remind us where to look that that which yearn. The treasure buried in the field, the pearl of great price has been gifted to us free of charge since the foundation of the world. We around looking for that which we already have, that which we already are. God has freely bestowed upon us grace beyond our wildest imaginations. It’s not something we deserved, or earned, or accomplished under our own steam—it’s something God, according to His good pleasure, did for us. God’s grace is not a response to our good works—it comes before, it pre-venes anything we can do. The only question is whether we will live from the gift that is given, abide in the love that is constantly showered upon us, or remain in the spiritual backwaters of thinking our lives are defined by lack, trudging on the treadmill of self-improvement and trying to make ourselves acceptable in the eyes of some policeman God of our own creation.
Paul reminds us that we are already surprised insiders in the life of God. We have been adopted by God before we could even move a muscle or perform one good deed. That’s the inheritance of which Paul speaks—the unfathomable riches of God’s grace have already been gifted to us in Christ. We’ve won the cosmic lottery and are called to do the only proper thing you can do with a gift you haven’t earned in any way—give it away and share it freely with others.
So we come back to Herodias’ question, “What should I ask for?” Everyone wants to be happy, we just confused about where to look for it. Perhaps, this week our prayer might be for the grace, the wisdom, to seek for happiness in what God has already done for us in Christ, in the depths of our heart and center of our being. Perhaps our prayer might be that we find the diamond sewn into our pocket, the one we’ve searched for far and wide, and live from that astounding gift.