In October of my sophomore year at Toledo Christian High School, the class of 2004 experienced a monumental event. A new member joined our ranks.
For the terribly diverse group of 50 fifteen-year-olds from rural and suburban Ohio that we were, new blood was enough to keep us humming for well into the spring semester. This particular teen was especially up for the job: from the exotic state of South Carolina, Dan Strickland sported a fittingly attractive Southern drawl, matched by his barely-regulation haircut, what I think would now be considered the Bieber ‘do, and his strange-but-wonderful accessories, including hemp necklaces and bracelets, an illicit earring, and Rainbow-brand sandals.
We approached him as if he was from another world, asking him questions about what South Carolina was like, equally awed and confused by his use of “y’all” and “Ma’am.” He was so un-like us, though now we shared classrooms and meals and sports practices with him. We were curious about what life was like in the South, and how it had made him who he was—the way that he responded to our teachers with “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” instead of our “yeah” or “nah” and how he seemed to be able to work himself out of detentions and discipline with his ferociously persistent but ever-polite way of speech. Still today, ten years later, his fiancée continues to be frustrated by his uncanny ability to consistently talk himself onto earlier plane flights—a method that never seems to work for her, straight-talking woman that she is.
Dan was someone we Toledoians were enamored of because his way of being, who his environment growing up had formed him to be, was so foreign to us. We couldn’t quite figure him out, he wasn’t like us—but that was a good thing, we thought.
Of course, you should remember that I myself ran to North Carolina as soon as I graduated high school and was only tempted out of the state by a much sought-after job offer here. I am not an unbiased source when it comes to a love and awe of Southern living.
My point is that Dan’s difference drew us to him, his was a lifestyle that we did not completely understand, but it seemed somehow more glamorous for its incomprehensibility. We liked his gracious Southern manners, easy-going drawl, and sometimes-foreign way of reasoning. We wanted to understand him and learn how to claim those manners, easy-going attitude, and novel perspective for ourselves.
That’s a little like what I imagine Herod felt in the Gospel passage today. Mark describes it this way, “Herod respected John. He regarded him as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.” John’s ascetic lifestyle was totally foreign to Herod, but this stinky man in camel hair with locust-breath struck Herod as intriguing. Earlier in the passage, you’ll remember, Mark recounts that John the Baptist had pronounced judgment on Herod on account of his ill-gotten wife. This woman had been his brother Philip’s wife, but Herod divorced his own spouse in order to take on his brother’s. Despite John’s damning, Herod had a soft spot for him—these two men from very different socio-economic situations, with very different worldviews, found companionship under an umbrella of truth. John was in jail because of the truth he had told about Herod and his new wife, Herodias, but Herod’s affection kept him from allowing mortal evil to befall John. Later in the passage, of course, Herod is caught between his word to his wife’s daughter, and his desire to protect John, but what I want to look at more closely this morning is why he had any desire to protect John in the first place.
This man who had denounced the ruler’s lifestyle choices was being protected in prison because despite the damning, Herod “enjoyed listening” to John. He was admittedly confused and unsure of whatever it was John was trying to communicate, and what those convictions might mean for Herod’s own lifestyle, but there was a ring of something irresistible in John’s being. That ring, we know, is truth. John brought with him the truth of salvation to the world, heralding Jesus’ imminent arrival. John’s lifestyle was strange, even to the people of that time and place. He looked and acted in a way so foreign to Herod and his ilk, behavior unfamiliar even to Jews of the era, that everyone could tell, just by John walking down the street, that he was coming from a different place all together.
It’s no accident that in recent years, television reality series showcasing various veins of American life have developed an obsession with those whose lives are defined and formed by their religious convictions. Shows like “19 Kids and Counting,” “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” “Sister Wives,” “Amish: Out of Order,” give us normal people a window into the lives of groups who have allowed their religion to change who they are. It’s hard to imagine an Episcopalian reality show, though some might argue that “Downton Abbey” is pretty close.
But I wonder, it is to be a point of pride that our practice of religion does not change us into people who are considered ab-normal by society?
John the Baptist “lived in such a way that his life would not make sense if God did not exist.” John had allowed himself to be completely transformed by his interaction and relationship with Jesus, and though his life didn’t make sense to Herod, and he said things that sounded ridiculous, John was beloved of Herod and beloved of God. Herod saw the Truth in the way John lived his life and how John was empowered to carry out the convictions he developed on account of his transformation—Herod wasn’t turned off by how different John seemed because of his faith, Herod was drawn to him because of John’s confidence in the salvation Jesus offers. Though the pagan Herod was not well versed in what it meant to be religious and to live a life faithful to God, because he was human, and because humans are wired to seek truth and to desire faith, Herod recognized truth and faith when he saw it. Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke, tell us that Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man—these attributes were obvious just from seeing or talking with John, and those were the things that drew Herod to him.
Though it was John’s bold words of truth that landed him in jail, it wasn’t the bold words specifically that drew Herod and other unbelievers to himself; it was John’s entire lifestyle—his way of treating people, his manners, his perspective. John was so completely transformed, his self was so hidden in who Jesus is, that when people looked at John, they thought they were seeing Jesus—the beginning of today’s Gospel passage says exactly that! People, trying to figure out who Jesus was, thought he was John, and sometimes, when people met John, thought he was the Messiah. His mother Elizabeth and his father, Zechariah, must have been no small part of his formation in faithfulness. They helped to create a home and a community in which John’s faith was supported and encouraged to thrive. John’s complete, single-minded commitment to the God made incarnate in Jesus Christ made him live his life in a way that was easily distinguishable from the culture around him.
John’s life was worthy of a reality tv show on Herod’s network. Let us pray that our lives, too, may be confounding to those around us because of Christ’s work done for his Church.
 Cardinal Suhard, via Stanley Hauerwas