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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Tag: politics

The Counter-Gospel of "King" Herod

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it [that is, the recent adventures of Jesus’ disciples, whom Jesus had sent out two by two to heal the sick and cast out demons], for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 

But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 

She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. 


 Giovanni Baronzio, "The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of the Baptist"

Giovanni Baronzio, "The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of the Baptist"

Today we hear of the events around the death of John the Baptist, according to Mark’s gospel. It is an uncharacteristic interruption in the gospel. Whereas Mark is typically interested in quickly jumping from one Jesus story to another, this story does not even include Jesus directly. The fact that this story is so unlike the rest of the gospel is our first clue to really pay attention. It is so unlike the rest of the gospel because it is laying out the counter-narrative to the good news of Jesus Christ. Today’s gospel text is a narrative warning depicting the dangers of seeking power in the wrong places.

First, let’s be clear about the title of “King” that is assigned to Herod in this story. The Herod mentioned here is not Herod the Great – the one who sought kill the infant Jesus by slaughtering the babies in the region around Bethlehem and forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt. That Herod is long gone. The Herod whom Mark mentions is Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod the Great; and Herod Antipas was not a King. He was more like a regional governor. The title “King” is most likely a tongue-in-cheek title meant to mock Herod; just as the title “Great” was a mocking title for his evil and destructive father. Far from a tidbit of knowledge useful only to history buffs, pastors, or trivia nerds; this fact is our second clue that Mark is up to something in this passage. Essentially, this is a work of political satire. It is revealing a universal truth by making a mockery of a well-known leader and system. 

This counter-narrative to the good news about a man-child who wanted desperately to be powerful reveals that Herod made a drunken promise to his daughter in front of his cronies; his daughter was manipulated by his wife (actually his brother’s wife, but that’s a whole ‘nother story); and he ended up having to save face in front of his people by agreeing to his daughter’s demand of John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Following John’s gruesome beheading, Herod heard accounts of Jesus of Nazareth and was afraid that Jesus was the ghost of John the Baptist, back to haunt him into insanity. Herod was a man haunted by his mistakes who clung to an abusive relationship with power in order to numb himself from his own pain.

A story with severed heads and leaders looking over their shoulders afraid of the ghosts of their past victims is analogous to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and seems fit for the TV show Game of Thrones. It makes for an entertaining show but the question remains…so what? What possible meaning does such a story have for our own lives today?

The truth, sorry to say, is that our world is infested with people like “King” Herod — people who lord their power over others and perpetuate injustice because the disfigured desire for power fills them with something them that is lacking inside. Having power over another individual or group of people helps them forget about being picked on as a kid or for not feeling loved by their mother or father, just to name a few common motivations. 

And once someone has a taste of power, they rarely pause and think, “You know, this power doesn’t actually fill that void in my soul.” Or, maybe this person deserves respect precisely because they are different from me.

Instead they seek out more power, assuming that the next bended knee, the next heap of praise, or the next nod of agreement will finally stop the pain of not being enough. They are blind to the needs of others in the same way that they are blind to their own needs. Such people can electrify huge crowds of people who feel a similar sense of dissatisfaction with life. A common enemy is labeled, dehumanized, taunted, and targeted. Such people know exactly who their enemies are – their enemies are anyone who doesn’t serve their own interests. Their enemies are anyone who dares to stand up and proclaim that there is another way. Their enemies are anyone who says the problem isn’t with those who are labeled as other, but rather a problem with the leader’s soul. 

Mark dedicates considerable space in his story to depict a weak man who chased the whims of others and perpetuated injustice in an effort to hold onto his sense of power. That depiction makes me think of someone in particular: Me.

In my most unhealthy moments, I feel like the only way to ever be worthy enough, powerful enough, and loved enough, and the only way to fill the void in my soul, is by putting myself over and above those who are different from me. 

I often speak to my therapist about all the things and people I use to fill the void in my life...and you are one of them, truth be told. I seek your affirmation in order to feel loved. I seek your praise in order to give my life meaning.

That’s terribly unhealthy. It puts you in an awful predicament of being responsible for my emotional well-being. It puts my needs above yours. And it puts you in a position that is only meant to be filled by the God of peace and love – a title that does not belong to you. 

I am sorry. I am sorry for my “King” Herod-ness. I am sorry for putting you in a tough spot. And I am sorry that I so easily participate in a world that regularly tosses aside people who do not seem to serve our immediate needs. 

This is not the good news, of course. As I said earlier, Mark tells the story of King Herod in order to highlight just how different John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth really were. And once I am able to see myself in the antagonist of the story and recognize just how dark and misleading that path is, only then my heart is open to the truth of the prophets as revealed by Jesus and John the Baptist.

Who were Jesus and John the Baptist? They were the ones who stood up and spoke about a better way. They were the ones who stood up in the best prophetic tradition and said, “Woe to you, oppressors of the poor and marginalized who seek to fill the void in your soul with violence instead of God’s love. Not only does your way create misery and destruction in others’ lives, but it is destroying your soul also. Repent from those ways and seek the love you desire solely from God’s presence, which has been a part of your soul from the very beginning.”

I came across the following words this week and found a beauty and necessity in them that I have to share with you. Rev. David Lose writes,

“We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own. And when the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending, or you've lost your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or you're pretty sure your friend has betrayed you, or you think you may just have screwed up the one relationship that meant something to you...then the possibility of another ending -- a good ending -- is, indeed, not just good news, but the best news you can imagine.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1621)

Thanks be to God, today and always, for the unmerited gift of true grace, love, and truth. May our eyes be opened to the darkness of our paths and may we be inspired and equipped to seek fulfillment in Christ alone. And may we all be encouraged to be a part of a better story for all people.

Amen.

"Bizarro Beatitudes" - Matthew 5:1-12

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowd, he went up the mountain.  He sat down and when he saw his disciples, he began to speak and he taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."


The last time I referred to Seinfeld’s “Bizzaro World” episode had to do with Christ the King Sunday – not Jesus and his beatitudes – and it was before we had the capacity to watch TV clips in worship, so when it came to mind this time around, I couldn’t resist.

I couldn’t resist, because I can’t help thinking of this upside down, backwards kind of world that Jerry describes, when I hear the upside down, backwards kind of world Jesus describes, in his Sermon on the Mount. For Jerry – or Bizarro Superman, as it were – “yes” means “no,” “black” is “white,” “Hello” means “Goodbye,” and so on. And in the Bizarro Seinfeld world, Bizarro Jerry is kind and considerate, and a good friend. (Even though we like Jerry, it’s funny to remember that he was really none of those things…kind, considerate, and so on.) And Elaine’s new pals – counterparts to the George and Kramer I suspect most of you remember – live and behave in ways opposite from what Elaine would have expected, too.

But, as funny as all of that was, if you remember it, I don’t guess many people were laughing on the hillside with Jesus in this morning’s Gospel, if you can imagine it.

Because I think Jesus was proclaiming and promising nothing less than a new world order, if you will. Much like we hear from the Old Testament prophet Micah, with his talk about “doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God,” Jesus was proclaiming and promising that everything was to be different – that everything was different – that everything is different – in the Kingdom of God. And “different” is “difficult” for most of us, it seems to me.

Now, these “bizarro” blessings we hear about in Jesus’ sermon are pretty familiar to many of us.  They’re popular enough that we’ve heard them before, if not in worship, or through whatever Bible studies we’ve been part of, we’ve probably heard them or seen them out there in the world at some point or another.

And because we’ve heard them so many times before, it can be easy to take their meaning for granted, or to forget how revolutionary they were – how powerful they are – for those who hear the fullness of the truth they mean to convey.

But, I think the most common misunderstanding about these beatitudes – and a trap I fall into myself sometimes – is to assume Jesus was laying out a list of pre-requisites for those who wanted to receive the blessings of God in their lives, as though God’s blessing is conditional upon however much purity, meekness, and hunger or thirst for righteousness a person could muster; as though Jesus is saying, “If you’re meek, then you’ll inherit the earth.”  Or, “If you’re hungry, then you will be filled.”  Or, “If you mourn, then you will be comforted.”

But the grace of God isn’t about pre-requisites. The grace of God is about promises. And Jesus is reminding his disciples – and he means to remind each of us – that the natural result of kingdom living, the natural consequence of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, of meekness, of peacemaking, of persecution for the sake of righteousness, even – the end-result of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God – the end-result of lives lived in the ways of Jesus will be blessing, somehow, no matter how hard that is for us to believe.

And that’s hard to believe, because we live in a world where meek is not a winning characteristic. We live in a world where making peace means packing more heat or building a bigger arsenal. We live in a culture where we don’t even agree about what it means to “do justice” and where loving kindness and walking humbly are not admirable, or safe, a lot of the time.

And I can’t think about any of this these days, without thinking about the state of our nation’s politics right about now. And please bear with me, because there is a message here for every single one of us; it doesn’t matter if you were celebrating last Friday afternoon at our new President’s inauguration or if you were marching on Saturday in opposition to the new administration – there is room and reason for each and every one of us to heed these beatitudes, these instructions for Kingdom-living, as we move forward into whatever the future holds for us, as God’s people trying to figure things out with some measure of faith.

I saw a sign recently – I think it was on the wall in a teacher’s classroom, or on the wall of someone’s Facebook page, maybe – that asked: “Before you speak…Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” I like that, for the classroom, for Bible study, for around the dinner table, and for anything we post on social media, too.

But I wonder if we couldn’t use Jesus’ beatitudes in a similar, more powerful way, yet, to inform our conversations and to guide us and to inspire us and to give us hope as we live into these days TOGETHER. Because, who among us doesn’t need a little guidance and hope and inspiration, right about now?

(And I think we’d be better off taking our cues from Jesus – not Kellyanne Conway or Madonna; Bill O’Reilly or Anderson Cooper; Tomi Lahren or Trevor Noah.)

So, “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?”, yes. But even more…as we support our new President or challenge what he’s up to – and I think we should all be doing our best to do both of these things – support AND challenge – and I don’t believe that “supporting” and “challenging” need to be mutually exclusive endeavors. As we deliberate on our own or debate with our friends and family; as we discern what’s best, what’s next, what’s kind, true, necessary, whatever, let’s imagine ourselves on that hillside with Jesus and let’s ask ourselves, and each other:

Does it do justice? Does it love kindness? Does it walk humbly alongside our God? (And am I…doing justice? …loving kindness? …walking humbly?)

Does what we’re up to – as individuals, as a church, as a nation – comfort those who mourn? Is it meek and merciful? Does it hunger and thirst for righteousness? Does it make for peace? Does it lead, even, to our own persecution and suffering and sacrifice for the sake of what is right?

Because, unless our deliberations and our decisions, unless our policies and our practices lead to the blessing of others, they are not the ways of Jesus. As hard as it may be to hear… as counter-cultural as it is, in this day and age… the way of Jesus has never been a “me first” or a “we first” way of being. And yes, this is an upside down, backwards, “bizarro” way of life to which we are called. It is different. It is difficult. And it is not for the faint of heart.

But it is no more difficult… no more different… no more bizarre and backward than the abundant grace that is offered to the world, through the death, resurrection, and new life of Jesus Christ – where down is up; poverty is wealth; sins are forgiven; and light shines in the darkness; and death leads to life.

And when we can manage it – this kingdom kind of living – this humility, this mercy, this peace and justice, this loving kindness – we are blessed, much to our surprise, in ways that bless and change the world in his name.

Amen

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