A sermon at St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
July 12, 2015, 7th Sunday after Pentecost
“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
This is the Gospel of Mark’s preface before we hear the plot synopsis of the Richard Strauss opera Salome.
The Herod in the Gospel lesson is the son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas. Antipas wanted to be king of all Judea, like his father, but he had a brother who also wanted the same thing and another brother who also had a claim. When they gathered in Rome, the emperor didn’t think any of them was as talented or as trustworthy as their father, so he split up Herod’s kingdom and made none of them king. The oldest brother got Jerusalem, and Antipas got the consolation prize of being tetrarch of Galilee. What does tetrarch mean? Well, it is a Roman name for an officer in charge of an area. AND it definitely does not mean king.
So we have the image of a man born to privilege and some power, who definitely wants more of both, but is afraid of losing them both. Sort of a run-of-the-mill kind of guy in our country nowadays, especially in New York City, where I lived until recently. You can see it in the kind of games he plays with his friends and his use of the young woman: a feeling of entitlement that is heightened by fear of losing his privilege.
John, who we know as John the Baptist, spent his life reminding people of the truth: the God of love is the center of all, not anyone else, not any person, no matter how powerful. John called people to repentance, and he pointed out things; things that were uncomfortable, because they were true.
The Herods were all Roman clients and it was to the Roman Empire that they owed their loyalty. Herod Antipas was challenged by John to attend to the God of Israel, the God who heard the poor and brought them out of Egypt, the God who led them beyond the fear of any human being. Herod was challenged by that truth—then he listened to his fear. His fear of the Romans, his fear of losing privilege. He has the power, he has the soldiers, and he has to silence John, the reminder of the truth, so he had him taken into custody.
He goes home, he has some friends, and cronies and affiliates over, and we have the Strauss opera. It’s a tragedy, and often the tragedy is understood as the dilemma of Herod’s choice as to whether to behead John the Baptist. But the real tragedy is his running from the truth to protect his privilege.
The lesson starts, “King Herod heard of it.” Heard of what? The only thing this can be referring to is what we heard in the previous passage last week. In that passage, after Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs, we have these two verses: “So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
That’s what Herod Antipas’ heard—and that was his worst nightmare. In the message and life of Jesus, was the same truth preached by John: “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!” The demons of society are cast out and the poor and the sick are healed. Fear is cast out, and truth comes in. And where does that leave Antipas and his privilege? He’s left with his fear and need to run away from truth. Good news for the poor made no sense to Antipas.
From a point of view of being privileged—and I include myself in this—it is very difficult to even see the privilege, let alone to acknowledge that any change is possible. How can there be a change, for instance, in racism and its effects in this country, that won’t have an impact on the comfort and prosperity of those of us who don’t suffer from racism? When you think about it, that’s an odd question, yet people have been saying that for years—sometimes, they express it as not wanting to disrupt society. And change in a society effects everyone, and it changes things for those who have power and privilege. People are afraid of changes, because they fear a loss of comfort and security. Like Herod Antipas, who ran from his fear by indulging in strange parties and taking his brother’s wife—he sort of covered it up, but his fear was greater, not less. And he could never face up to the Romans.
Make no mistake, Jesus brought good news to the poor, and it is good news for all of us. The freedom that comes from the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick is precious, the most precious thing of all, but it comes at high cost. Sometimes when we face our fears, what happens is indeed what we had feared. This is the hallowed Christian tradition of the witnesses, the confessors, the martyrs. Yet it is the only way for change to come into the world. Last week, Jesus was rejected in his hometown, so he went out and he sent out his disciples to heal and to cast out the demons of this world. And Herod Antipas was afraid.
Hear how our Old Testament lesson ends:
“When King David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.”
Unlike Herod Antipas, here King David, the archetypal king of Israel, was all about the people, the whole people—to each, both men and women a full portion all good things. Just so, Christ feeds us, as we partake of his death and resurrection in the Eucharist.