This is my first sermon at First Churches, Northampton. I hope to be a regular writer again now that I have settled at a full-time church position.
Today we begin a holy conversation. That may not be apparent since I am the one with the microphone and doing all the talking. However, preaching should always be a conversation, and what happens on Sunday morning is really a discussion starter for Holy conversation during the week. The other six days my job is to listen – I listen for what you all have to say, I check the pulse of the world around us through everything from the Hampshire Gazette to dozens of blog sites, and I prayerfully attend to the scriptures and the ancient wisdom of our faith, and most importantly, I try to heed the promptings of the Holy Spirit and hope to bring a good weekly discussion starter to all of you. After worship, you will then move the holy conversation forward, entering into dialog with me, bantering with your neighbor and perhaps even a quiet exchange with God on your own. Preaching works best when it is a Holy Conversation, where we each do our part to engage. I give you 15 minutes (some weeks maybe 20!) to get the ball rolling, and you take it from there while I listen and get ready for the next round.
This conversation is also wider than what we do. This is why I follow lectionary in preaching, and its three year cycle of scriptures that gives us the proper readings for Advent, Lent, Easter and so on, and exposes us to most of the Bible. This keeps me from my pet topics and forces me to wrestle for a message. It also means we are entering the Holy Conversation with thousands of other churches who are taking up these passages at the same hour as our little tribe here.
I must confess that the jumping off point for starting our Holy tete-a-tete was not what I would have selected. The beheading of John the Baptist would not be my choice for the first day on the job as chief conversation starter. I’m sure you would all let me off the hook and tell me I can skip the lectionary this week, but I have found that taking the easy road has not lead to good preaching. The road less traveled is often what makes our conversation Holy. So here our banter begins, with Herod and John the Baptist’s head on a platter. (With religion and politics!) Herod was a fairly typical Roman lackey who was more concerned about gaining favor in the Roman court than with his people. His main ambition seemed to be building cities as monuments to himself and even starting a city from scratch, naming it after his Roman master Tiberius to curry favor. The most popular modern portrayal of Herod comes from Jesus Christ Superstar, where Herod is played like a character straight out of la cage a folles, sarcastically taunting Jesus:
You are the Christ, yes the great Jesus Christ. Turn my water into wine, walk across my swimming pool.
Since the Gospel lesson portrays him as one who liked to party hard and enjoyed lavish dances, this may capture some spirit of being Tiberius’s sycophant by the Sea of Galilee. But while he partied, his subjects labored. Jews under Herod were nearly in the same role as under Pharaoh a few centuries before, building monuments to enhance the legacy of the super-rich. Rome was just smarter about it, calling people tax payers and employees instead of slaves. Herod strikes me as an ancient version of Donald Trump, a vain man with a stupid comb over, who unfortunately invades our politics with his self-enhancing rhetoric. Herod was also a living in an ancient reality show, stealing his brother’s wife, who was also his niece and named Heroditus. Fortunately Trump hasn’t had a wife named for himself, a Trumpina or Trumpette, but I bet Trump would be jealous of Herod’s power, because then instead of saying “You’re fired,” he could say “Put his head on a platter.” (This seems to be where reality TV is headed.)
There is more to the conflict between John and Herod than a prophet denouncing yet another licentious Roman tetrarch. I think John was savvier than to risk his neck over something so common. I believe it is the consequences for the people that matter to John. Herod was playing a dangerous game. When Herod fell head over heels for Heroditus, he divorced his first wife, and the price was much higher than mere alimony. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of the king of Nabataea, a strong rival to Herod’s eastern border in modern Jordan, who had his capital in the famous cliffs of Petra. Herod’s first marriage was a political affair encouraged by Emperor Tiberius to settle a land dispute between Herod and Areteus IV of Nabataea. You break the marriage, you break the deal. Several years after John was beheaded, Areteus invaded Herod’s kingdom in a war that was disastrous for the people of Galilee and led to Herod falling out of favor and being sent to exile in Gaul. John, who baptized in the Jordan, which was the boundary between the kingdoms, fully understood the consequences of Herod’s folly.
Herod may have finally received what he deserved but not before hundreds of people were killed in battle because of his whims. This is a Shakespearean level tragedy about the fate of selfish rulers and their hapless subjects. In our times, we hope that democracy will counteract the folly of corrupt and foolish leaders, but increasingly our future is being dictated by the agendas of wealthy self-interests. Bill Moyers may be our John the Baptist, warning us to the dangers of moneyed interests in our politics. His weekly broadcasts shine light on the Herod- like figures in our midst. There is not enough time this morning for me to launch into a rant about the dangers of Citizen’s United decision by the Supreme Court, or on banksters, the Koch Brothers and money in politics. Let it suffice for me to say Herod lives. We are in his Kingdom still.
How do we live, as followers of Jesus, in the Kingdom of Herod? Jesus and John the Baptist struggled with this question as well. In the Gospel of John, the story is told where John sends a messenger to Jesus, asking if he is truly the messiah or should he search for another. From prison, it may have looked to John that Jesus was not being radical enough. Jesus was preaching, teaching, healing and telling parables, but John may have been wondering when Jesus was going to claim the messianic role and set the world right in a big apocalyptic moment. John wanted to see the baptism of fire and the coming of the new age. Perhaps he thought, “I want a messiah, not this stuff.”
Jesus sent his own message, quoting to John the message of Isaiah 61:
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
I hear Jesus telling John that there are many ways that the Kingdom moves forward. Justice does not always roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream. Signs of God’s work are not always in the dramatic world-changing events. There are times when the God breaks into our lives, healing our relationships, giving of courage to take on hard things, or in some cases to endure with dignity the things we cannot change. My urban ministry professor, Bill Weber was fond of saying, “The Kingdom of God comes in inches, and we are called to celebrate every inch.” In my previous work with homeless people in Poughkeepsie, I reminded my staff to celebrate every time someone chose to go to rehab and get sober, everyone who graduated from the program and got an apartment, every person in our parole re-entry program who got their first job after incarceration, whatever goal was achieved, celebrate it as a sign of God’s presence.
Justice and peace need to be done at the micro-level and the macro-level, in our hearts and attitudes, in our relationships, in the kind of community we form in our church life, at City Hall and Congress and in the structures of society where Herod still reigns. We too will experience the blind receiving sight, perhaps when we ourselves are ready to look at things afresh. We shall know the deaf hear, when we little attentively to what is really going on around us. The leper is cured when we offer our healing love to those who are outcaste. The poor hear good news when we are willing to speak truth power as John the Baptist. We are called to the visible hope of the invisible Kingdom of God. So let us celebrate every inch we can claim from Herod! Amen!