Updated: Jul 13, 2021
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Mark 6:14-29
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t like how this story throws Herodius under the bus and paints a sympathetic picture of Herod. Not because I think Herodius is blameless in this story. Obviously, she has a vengeful streak that she exercises in a really unhealthy way. But because she isn’t actually the one making the important decision in this story. She can’t. She doesn’t have the power. What power she does have she wields where she can, which is behind the scenes. So we might fault her for her deception and manipulation, but deceiving or manipulating those with actual power is the only real power she has.
That’s been the case for centuries in male-dominated societies. While men could exercise power out in the open through military might and the rule of law and religious authority, women exercised power through quiet influence behind the scenes. By cozying up with a man in power. By making sure they were in the right social situations, whispering the right messages to the right people, in hopes they would plant the right ideas in the right minds. Because that’s all they could do. They weren’t allowed to be formal leaders—not in the military, not in politics, not in religious institutions. I mean, women couldn’t even vote in our country until 1920. A woman didn’t become a general in the military until 1970. Women couldn’t be priests in The Episcopal Church until 1974.
But instead of celebrating the ingenuity of women and the ways they found to exercise power, we condemn them. We call them Jezebels, named for a woman in the Bible who scripture tells us convinced her husband—King Ahab—to worship false gods. As if her husband, the most powerful man in Israel, had no agency or say in the situation.
I’m not saying that the ends that Herodius and Jezebel worked for weren’t destructive or cruel. Women are just as prone to sin as men. I’m just asking us to pay attention to how women are framed in these narratives for HOW they accomplished these ends. Deceptive, manipulative, controlling. When actually they were using what few methods they had to affect the world around them.
When actually, in the end, the man in the situation still had all the real power. In the end, it was Herod who had the power to kill or to spare John the Baptist.
This week, our bishop Diana Akiyama sent out a reflection on this gospel. She quoted author Jim Hightower who said, “The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.”
The bishop talked about Herod who actually knew what the right thing, the courageous thing, was. We’re told that Herod believed John the Baptist to be “a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” But he chose instead to conform. Conform to his wife’s wishes. Conform to the norms of his time. “The king was deeply grieved;” the scripture says, “yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.”
Rather than upsetting some guests and his wife, Herod chose to kill an innocent man. It was easier to go with the flow than it was to save a life. Conformity was that much more compelling, that much more comfortable, than courage.
Bishop Akiyama writes, “Conformity is seductive. It slips into our everyday lives quietly and calmly. It’s what makes things go smoothly in often productive and benign ways. Conformity is not a bad thing, on its face. But it can generate acts that lack reflection, compassion, mercy, and justice.”
Conformity thrives on systems in which people are convinced—sometimes unconsciously—that a certain way of being or doing is the only valid way of being or doing, and stepping outside of that system means standing outside the norm, making yourself vulnerable, forfeiting the comfort and privilege and safety of being inside the system. That’s what Herod was afraid of.
Bullies thrive on conformity. They thrive on the fact that when they’re singling someone out for harm, others will stay in line because they’re not the ones being harmed.
Conformity made the Holocaust possible.
Conformity saw thousands of Black people lynched in our country while literal crowds of white people looked on.
Conformity when it comes at the expense of courage costs us our souls.
By now, most of you know that I don’t think salvation is about saying the right words or even believing the correct thing. “Right” and “correct” are ripe ground for that dangerous version of conformity, as Herod shows us today.
For me, salvation is about the world our beliefs create. Does what we believe call us to build the Kingdom of God right here, right now? Even when it’s unpopular? Even when it goes against what everyone else is doing? Even when it demands that we sacrifice our own comfort?
For me, salvation is about living the gospel. With our bodies. With every decision we make. This requires courage.
For me, the practice of faith is about building up the kind of courage we need to live the gospel. We don’t come to church on Sundays just to see our friends and feel good about ourselves, we come to church to replenish our souls in order to go out in the world and live our faith.
The pandemic sent us into lockdown for over a year, and we did our best to replenish our souls on Zoom. During that time, we lived through the worst wildfires our state has ever seen in a blanket of choking smoke. We engaged in a very anxious election. We saw a group of insurrectionists break into our capital and try to overthrow our government.
It’s almost a cliche to say at this point, but it’s been a challenging time. Our bodies are depleted. Our courage is spent. That could spell trouble for us and our gospel lives if we’re not intentional about building it back up.
Which is why we’re resting. Taking our time coming back into the world after this long, painful ordeal. And we need to get intentional about our rest. Carving out time every day to bring our attention to our lives, to the beauty of this world, to God.
This week in the newsletter, I asked you, What practices help you to slow down and bring attention and intention to your daily life? And you responded: praying the daily office, or morning and evening prayer. Reading the Bible every day. Long walks in nature. Gratitude journaling.
I’ll admit that I’ve struggled since the pandemic started to maintain a regular spiritual practice, but it’s time. Today, I invite each of us to take at least five minutes every day for the rest of the summer to pause and bring our attention to God in some way. God in nature. God in scripture. God in the people around us. This might be a prayer practice. It might be a walk around the block. It might be five minutes of mindfulness meditation. It might be journaling.
It might be more than five minutes, but start with an amount of time that is manageable for you. Something you can stick to. I’ll be doing this with you. Committing to replenishing myself through attention and intention.
Jesus went on the mountain to pray, even when crowds of people were waiting for him. He slept in the boat, even as a storm raged around him. He took the time he needed to ground himself in his faith. And when he was called to step into his courage for the sake of all the world, he didn’t retreat to the comfort and safety of conformity, he took up his cross and showed us what it meant to live what he believed.