Proper 10 – Sunday, July 15, 2018 – Sermon by Rev. Kevin Gore
This week the texts are incredibly rich, full of imagery, stories, lessons to be learned. As I was reading through some of the commentaries on this week’s propers, I was surprised to see that one commentary was bold to ask where the good news is in the Gospel lesson, going so far as to suggest there may be none, but I would say…just maybe there is.
Let’s take stock of what we heard. We have King Herod. Herod is the kind of character that we crave in a story. He’s the bad guy. We’ve been taught he’s the bad guy…we know he’s the bad guy, it’s pretty obvious from his actions, his words, his moral compass. He gives us the satisfaction of detesting the bad guy and letting us know where we stand in the age old struggle of ‘us’ and ‘them’. We love being the ‘us’ to the ‘them’. Herod though, is also a tragic figure. We can see how desperate he is to hold on to power, to be King. A desperation that drives him mad. A hunger for power so great he murders his relatives and surrounds himself with sycophants. A power based in the wealth he used to attain it, the blood spilled, and the intrigues wrought. He didn’t really want to kill John the Baptist. Sure, the Baptist was saying things against him. Things that had a strong foundation in Truth. But yet, there was something about listening to the Baptist that Herod liked, that drew him in, maybe even comforted him perhaps. But through the manipulations of those he had gathered around him he was forced to behead John the Baptist.
So now the rumors are flying about this man Jesus . These followers he has sent out to preach repentance, to heal the sick, and to whom he has given authority over impure spirits. Our gospel lesson starts, “Herod heard about ‘this’.” The ‘this’ the passage is referring to is Jesus’ sending out of the disciples that we had in last week’s Gospel reading. Herod is terrified that this Jesus he is hearing of is in fact John the Baptist, back from the dead. Though he is paranoid that John the Baptist has come back from the grave to challenge him again, to threaten his power by speaking out against him, he doesn’t even realize what’s really coming down the road. Herod hasn’t a clue about the real power and truth of the events he is hearing about. The power in the simplicity and surrender that Jesus has given the disciples in sending them out. Fairly quickly Herod will find out that someone far more terrifying to him than John the Baptist, returned from the dead, is there to challenge the very concept of authority Herod has built his straw palace on.
Jesus sent out his disciples with nothing but their staves and the clothes on their back. No food, no money, no bag, not even a change of clothes. But go, he said. Go and preach repentance. Go and heal the sick. Rely on the hospitality and generosity of others. This doesn’t sound anything like Herod’s world that revolves around his game of power and intrigue. They are preaching repentance to a country of people ruled by the elite who use manipulation, control, any means of gaining power over another that they can. This new perspective of repentance is a dangerous idea. And not to steal from the next couple of weeks, but the very next thing Jesus is going to do in Mark’s Gospel after our reading today is feed the five thousand. A very different banquet than the ones Herod is having. This is a dangerous thing to do in an empire which rules through fear and control, and is having a hard time keeping the people fed while the emperor feasts in his halls.
People are struggling to survive, struggling to even access the most basic needs to preserve their dignity. People are constantly on alert, looking over their shoulder, worried what the next royal pronouncements will bring, people are cowed by the empire, and it is no doubt tumultuous. It’s not the first time in human history this has happened, and it turns out isn’t by far the last.
In fact while I am thinking about what life was like at that point in time, it reminds me very much of the divisive, fearful, and difficult place we find ourselves today in this country. I want to be clear that what I’m about to say is not commentary of a political nature, but is simply my person experience, and that is I have struggled for the last 541 days, as I find myself feeling like the drawing of battle lines is always a necessity. Feeling that there is no choice but to set up a defensive position to protect those I care about from the ‘them’ that seems to be emboldened. To engage in rhetoric and argument, shunning those who refuse to agree or shouting down those who won’t change their mind. And forgetting that no matter what this world looks like, no matter how dark it seems, that responding with anything but the love that Jesus Christ has called us to falls short.
Bishop Andy Doyle, the 9th Bishop of Texas, who I quoted last week, often publishes his reflections in a blog, and a few years ago he tackled the practice of Christian meanness on social media, from all sides of whatever imaginary aisle you want to create. It made me realize that when we confuse our desperate desire to be right with our need to be righteous, the gospel ceases to be good news. Which reminds me of Herod, a man consumed with being right, with being the top of the human fashioned power structure. Of course, this is a very poignant example of a much larger lesson to be learned about how to wield whatever mantle of authority, or should we maybe say majority higher ground that we may find ourselves at in different points in our lives.
This week we also have Amos, a prophet who knows what power does to those who try to wield it. Amos is reminding us that God’s word is God’s word, regardless of the status or office of the messenger. The positions we have in life, the titles we attain, do not necessarily credential us to speak truth. But they do socialize us to want to silence the outside voices…Lord have mercy on us, we do like our privilege. We are always the most upset at our prophets when they seem to be questioning our own way of life, not when they question the actions of those with whom we disagree. This is what happened to John the Baptist, it’s what will happen to Jesus, it’s what the disciples are risking; they are going out with the full knowledge of what happened to John the Baptist, going and preaching a counter-authority. In reflection on the passage from Amos today, biblical scholar C. Clifton Black says, “When repentance is preached to this world’s princes, do not expect them to relinquish their power, however conflicted some may be.”
The good news is that no matter what position we find ourselves in, one of control or of oppression, of high ground or low ground, of majority or minority, we can choose to respond with the message of Love that Jesus has given us regardless of the response we may get. We can choose to let go of our preconceived notions and nearly instinctual desire to be the alpha, and to instead love. We don’t have to be an ‘us’ to the ‘them’. We can be one body, one spirit. The young adult fiction author Madeleine L’Engle says, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” So as you go out this week, don’t look to be an ‘us’ to fight the ‘them’. Be careful of how you treat those from the positions of power that you have in your life, and how you respond to the oppression of others. That is not to say any person should ever have to bear having their dignity stripped away, it is only to notice how you respond. Look to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, preaching repentance and Love to a broken world full of polarized and hurting children of God.