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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Epiphany, January 6, 2019, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 2:1-12and Isaiah 60:1-6
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I love that, having heard the Christmas story for over half a century and having preached on it for over 30 years, I’m still discovering new things in it.  Two months ago, I was planning on recycling an old idea I had about the story of the magi for today’s sermon.  It’s a solid understanding of the story.  It has three points, as you might have guessed from the title.  But I’ve got to admit, the third point was a little scripturally weak.

Until this week.

The way Matthew tells the story, by the time he has the magi show up, Jesus might have been walking.  The actual birth of Jesus takes place back in chapter 1.  Mary and Joseph are engaged.  Mary gets pregnant.  Thanks to a dream, Joseph doesn’t cut of the engagement, but marries the pregnant Mary. She gives birth.  And Joseph names the child Jesus.  It’s all wrapped up by the twenty-fifth verse of chapter 1.

The magi show up sometime later.  How much later we don’t know, but based on the story of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem, it may be as many as two years later.  The reason for the delay is the magi’s journey.  But their journey brings me to my second point.

My first point follows an implied action by the magi.  In order to have “observed his star at its rising,” the magi had to be observing.  And that’s my first point:  be on the lookout.  Be observant for signs of God at work in the world.  If we’re not watching, we’ll miss the signs.  Seek the star.  I don’t mean to literally take up star gazing (though that may be a worthwhile spiritual practice, so I’m also not saying don’t take up astronomy).  I’m saying be on the lookout for signs.

The second thing the magi do is they respond to the sign they saw.  They saw a star that made them think that a new king of the Jews was born or was about to be born.  Nifty. They could have celebrated the birth in their home country.  They could have advised political leaders there “in the East” that they might want to know that a political shift in Israel was coming.  But they didn’t do these things.  They set off on a journey.  They followed the star.  Even though Israel was an occupied country and King Herod the Great was more a puppet of Rome than anything else, they saw a sign that led them to believe that a new king was born.  And they decided to follow up on that sign.

How they went about following up – let’s just say that they did not seem to have any sense of realpolitik.  There was no way Herod the Great was vacating the throne unless he died, or Rome demanded it. The magi might have thought that a new king was born, but realpolitik would say this king wasn’t going to sit on any throne unless Rome made it happen.  Realpolitik would advise:  don’t bother going to pay this supposed “new king” homage.

My second point is this:  once you see the signs of what God is up to, respond.  Don’t let a concern for conventional wisdom or realpolitik slow you down.  When God is at work, a faithful response is called for.  Do it.

Seeking the star is step one.  Following the star is step two.

I like to image that, once the magi had returned home, the story continues.  Call if fan fiction, if you like.  I imagine the magi returning to their homes and telling others about the wonders at work in the world.  I imagine them being stars in their own communities – not in the sense of being famous, but in the sense of being a sign in the heavens, or on the street, or around the dining room table, for others to see that God is at work in the world.

And that is my third point:  Be a star.  Let God use you to let others know what God is up to.

The thing is, I don’t think I need my fan fiction to make this third point.  As I studied and prayed with today’s gospel lesson this week, I had an insight.  Two insights, really.

The first is not all that profound.  I had an insight as to why, for years, I preferred Luke’s birth narrative over Matthew’s.  I’d rather be a shepherd than a magus.  It’s pretty cool that the shepherds get an angelic announcement and go celebrate.  On the other hand, the magi get the star and they’re wise enough to interpret its meaning.  So that’s not the reason I’ve preferred Luke.  It’s something else.

It’s been something about the shepherds.  Consider their social status.  They have no power, no prestige, not education.  And I tend to cheer for the underdog.  The magi, on the other hand, have power, prestige, and education.  Yet, for all their power, prestige, and education, the magi come off just as naïve as the shepherds.  They see the star.  They interpret it to mean that a new “king of the Jews” is born.  They go to Jerusalem – which I suppose makes sense.  A new king would be born in the capital, right?

Except they don’t go there to find the child.  They go there for directions.  They go there to ask where they should go to find the child. What do they think Herod is going to do with this information?  How naïve can they be?

I excuse the shepherds’ naiveté.  Heck, I embrace the shepherds’ naiveté.  An angel comes and tells them – tells me – “Behold!  I bring you glad tidings of greet joy. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign to you:  You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger.” “Dudes!  Let’s check this out!” seems to be a wholly appropriate reaction.

The magi – they just haven’t seemed all that wise to me.

That is, until I had the second insight – the important insight.  Maybe they weren’t as naïve as they first appear to be.  Maybe they knew exactly what they were doing.  Maybe these eastern intellectuals are purposefully poking the bear.

Biblical scholar John J. Pilch suggests that “these strangers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism.”[1]  The way Matthew knits the story, these strangers, these wise men have come a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans.  Not to pay homage to the current king.  They go to the current king for directions, and that makes the current king afraid.  They are poking not just Herod in the eye, but all of Rome and all Roman puppets.  “The vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times.”[2]

I suppose Matthew’s original audience would have seen these wise men, these strangers, these Magi as “‘very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers’”[3]of some nation in area of what today we know as Iran or Iraq.  Back then, would Matthew’s original audience have thought of that land and thought immediately of Babylon, the land of the exile?  Perhaps. Richard Swanson muses that if they had been historical figures, perhaps they would have been influenced by Jews that remained in Babylon after the Exile, tutored in sensing the goodness of God, “trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world.”[4]  Perhaps that’s how some of Matthew’s original audience thought of them.

The story is very good at evoking images in our minds.  I assume it did for Matthew’s original audience, too.  Potentates coming to the seat and symbol of power in Jerusalem and, with a simple question, terrifying the tyrant of their day.  When they finally come to Jesus, they find “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms” – as Shelley D.B. Copeland describes it.[5]  And they lay before the toddler and his mother their gifts, gifts fit for a king, gifts that purposefully evoke our reading from Isaiah 60.

And the story ends with them leaving for home, but “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”  Illegal activity, right there at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel.  Herod had ordered them to come back to Jerusalem once they found the child.  But they don’t.  They take a different way home.

Civil disobedience, poking the powers that be right in the eye, is at the core of this story.  Here’s my third point, reworked a little bit:  When we follow the star, when we daringly follow the star, even if that means facing down the principalities and powers of the day, we become a star for others.

I cannot hear this story without thinking of all the political leaders of our day who are paranoid about losing power and who are willing to do almost anything to hang on to it.  I cannot hear this story without thinking of the well-intentioned people who are being manipulated by individuals, and corporations, and governments via social media and countless other ways to view the world distortedly.  And now I cannot hear this story without also seeing those who have become wise to the machinations of others and who stand firm in their resistance.[6]  These, too, are stars declaring the wondrous works of God.  These, too, are stars you or I might be called to follow.  And in following, perhaps we, too, might become stars for others.

We think of the story of the magi as being a story of three kings.  It’s not. It’s the story of two kings.  One is called “the Great” and one is called “Emmanuel.”  One rules with violence and paranoia and one rules with love and grace.

Who will be our king?

Amen.

_______________

[1]Cited by Kathryn Matthew, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_6_2019 (accessed 31 December 2018).

[2]Ibid.

[3]Matthews, quoting Pilch from The Cultural World of Jesus Year A.

[4]Matthews, quoting Swanson from Provoking the Gospel of Matthew.

[5]Matthews, quoting Copeland, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1.

[6]David Lose, “Ephiphany C 2018 – The Other Christmas Story,” http://www.davidlose.net/2019/01/epiphany-c-2018-the-other-christmas-story/ (posted and accessed 4 January 2019).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 11, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and Matthew 5:38-47
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Whatever happened to the overture?

I suspect there are enough theatre nerds in this congregation (I count myself among them – obviously) that I can’t be the only one who’s wondered this. The musical theatre overture has, for the most part, disappeared. And it’s been fading away for a long time. According to a National Public Radio story from eight years ago, one reason the overture has pretty much disappeared is money. Tighter budgets have led to smaller orchestras, which means simpler orchestrations, which means no overture.[1] An article in The New York Times from ten years ago says the demise of the overture goes back now 40 years. Here are a few paragraphs from the article.

“Who could forget the great overture to ‘A Chorus Line’? First there’s that infectious hop-step vamp from the song ‘One.’ Then come some of the show’s most familiar melodies: ‘I Hope I Get It,’ ‘Nothing,’ ‘What I Did for Love.’ Finally the orchestra swings back for a rousing half-chorus of ‘One’ that would make even gouty musical-theater-phobes want to leap to their feet with excitement.

“Oh, wait – ‘A Chorus Line’ doesn’t have an overture.…

“Back in 1975, a month before the original production’s debut, Marvin Hamlisch did write a ‘Chorus Line’ overture like the one described. But the director, Michael Bennett, and the show’s other creators decided not to include it, fearing it would destroy the illusion that the audience was watching an actual audition as the lights went up.…

“Thanks in part to ‘A Chorus Line,’ the Broadway orchestra and the Broadway overture would rarely emerge from that obscurity again.”[2]

No, I haven’t lost my mind, and, yes, I do remember that this is a sermon. I just want to remind you of what an overture is – or was. The overture, typically several minutes long, was “made up of melodies heard later in the show and [was] played by an orchestra before the curtain [went] up.”[3] It introduced musical themes to the audience, acting “like a bridge between real life and the world they’re about to enter.”[4]

And that’s exactly what Matthew is doing in the first two chapters of his gospel, the chapters where Matthew talks about Jesus’ birth and childhood. This is an idea that is new to me, introduced by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their book The First Christmas. Luke does it, too, with his birth and childhood narrative, also the first two chapters of his gospel. Both authors introduce the themes that will play out in the rest of their gospels.

The big theme we hear in Matthew’s overture is that Jesus is the new Moses. It’s here in our first lesson. Just as Moses was born under an evil ruler, the Pharaoh, Jesus is born under the evil King Herod. Just as Moses needed to escape the slaughter of Jewish newborns, Jesus needs to escape the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem.[5]

Crossan and Borg go on to suggest that the number five is important. There are in this overture, five dreams move the story along and five prophetic fulfillments are cited. This calls to mind the Torah, they say, because it is made up of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also called “the books of Moses.” And like the five books of Moses, the main body of Matthew’s gospel is easily divided into five sections:

  • the Law discourse (the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus reinterprets the law Moses received – on a mountain);
  • the missionary discourse;
  • the parable discourse;
  • the community discourse; and
  • the eschatological discourse.[6]

Borg and Crossan point to other ways this overture introduces the theme that Jesus is the new Moses, but I don’t want to get lost in the weeds (or bulrushes) digging into these. Instead, I want to you hear this general idea:

The Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke – their overtures – are important not because any of it happened historically (and aside from Mary being pregnant and giving birth, is likely that little else in the story happened historically). No, the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are important because they tell us where the story is going.

And where does Matthew tell us where the story is going? Just in the reading we heard today, we hear both that non-Jews will seek Jesus and that wise ones will seek him. We hear that Jesus will be the new Davidic king (a subtheme in the overture lifted up elsewhere). We hear that the principalities and powers will find Jesus threatening and will seek to kill him. We hear that God has an escape plan for Jesus, that death won’t have the final word.

Do you see one reason why it’s important to keep Herod in Christmas? The overture doesn’t work without him.

Of course it’s not the only reason to keep Herod in Christmas. Any first or second century Jew would know what a despot Herod the Great was. Yes, he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, an important sign of Jewish identity. But he was a puppet king, dependent on the Roman empire for his status. “Cruel and ruthless, he used slave labor for his huge building projects. He had a reputation for assassinating anyone he considered a threat – including his wife and two of his own sons.”[7]

You can see why it was not a far-fetched storyline to have Herod kill all the infant and toddler boys in Bethlehem in Matthew’s overture. There are some important questions that are raised by having Herod in this story. We know how Herod managed power and dealt with threats. How will we? We know how Herod used violence to get his way. Will we?

“Herod – and Pharaoh before him – model one way: violence is simply one tool, used in varying degrees, to gain or maintain power.

“The baby whom Herod seeks to kill will model another way. His tool will be service, not violence. And his goal will not be gaining and maintaining power, but using his power to heal and empower others. He will reveal a vision of God that is reflected more in the vulnerability of children than in the violence of men, more in the caring of mothers than in the cruelty of kings.”[8]

Brian McLaren points out, “All this can sound quite abstract and theoretical unless we go one step deeper. The next war – whoever wages it – will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grand children. Most of the [uniformed] casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old – in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”[9]

By keeping Herod in Christmas, we are forced to grapple with what we believe about God. “Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?”[10]

Our second lesson answers these question – but in a whole new way. From the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus holds up the ethic of love as the real fulfillment of the law. And this love needs to be deep, deep enough to turn your enemies into friends. When faced with oppression, the typical responses are fight or flight. “An eye for an eye” is a call to meet violence with violence. The other response is to let the violence crush you.

Jesus offers a third way: meet violence with non-violent activism. Because someone would only strike you with their right hand, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, they’ve backhanded you. Doing that means they are treating you as an inferior. By offering your left cheek, you are saying, “If you want to hit me, you’ll have to hit me as your equal.” If someone sues you for your only possession, the clothes off your back, give them your underwear, too. If they reduce you to being naked, they have lost face. The only person who would force you to go a mile would be a Roman soldier. They were known for forcing locals to carry their packs and were restricted to only forcing that for one mile. By insisting that you go two miles, you’ll get the occupying soldier in trouble.

There is a third way, Jesus says, to fight for the dignity of the oppressed without becoming an oppressor.

“To be alive in the adventure of Jesus,” McLaren says, “is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with the vulnerable … in defiance of the [oppressors] who see [the vulnerable] as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation with the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes – and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.

“Jesus has truly come, but each year during the Advent season, we acknowledge that the dream for which he gave his all has not yet fully come true. As long as elites plot violence, as long a children pay the price, and as long as mothers weep, we cannot be satisfied.

“… In this Advent season, we dare to believe that God feels their pain and come near to bring comfort. If we believe that is true, then of course we must join God and come near, too. That is why we must keep Herod and the ugliness [of the story] of his mass murder in the beautiful Christmas story.”[11]

Now, as we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything in the sermon or scripture readings that caught your interest; or
… a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness; or
… the idea that Matthew’s birth narrative is an “overture” to his gospel; or
… to hold in your mind both the image of Herod, ruthless and power-hungry, and the image of Jesus, a vulnerable baby—then observe what happens in your heart and offer a prayer of response.

[1] Jeff Lunden, “Broadway’s Best Musical Revival: The Overture?” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91480130 (posted 15 June 2008; accessed 8 December 2016).

[2] Jesse Green, “Whatever Happened to the Overture?” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/01/theater/01gree.html (posted 1 October 2006; accessed 8 December 2016).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lunden, op. cit.

[5] Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 41-42.

[6] Ibid, 42-46.

[7] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 16, page 71. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[8] Ibid, 71-72.

[9] Ibid, 72-73.

[10] Ibid, 73.

[11] Ibid, 73-74.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 10, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 2:13-18 and “Home” by Warsan Shire
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

What was it that first drew your attention to the Syrian refugee crisis? For some of you, I suspect it was news reports about ISIS and the need for people to flee. For others, perhaps it was the numbers. Syria had a population of about 22 million.[1] Suddenly, over 4 million of them left as refugees. 18% of the population. That would be like everybody in the choir except the basses suddenly leaving our worship service. In addition, 7.6 million are, what the United Nations High Commission on Refugees calls, “internally displaced persons.” That’s over half the Syrian population fleeing within the country or leaving the country all together. Over half.[2]

For others, it was probably the September publication of this photograph[3] or one like it.

syrian-boy-drowns-650-afp_650x400_51441283742            These news reports and images moved us to feel compassion.

Then the November mass murders in Paris occurred. Syrian refugees were quickly blamed, then ISIS infiltrators posing as Syrian refugees. Even though it turns out that the Paris attackers were almost certainly European Union nationals,[4] much of our nation responded with fear. Then Christmas happened, and American news media got lost in the presidential elections.

I heard there was more news about the refugees to be paying attention to, so I did some searching this week. I actually had to go to a British news site to learn about yet more drownings of refugees trying to reach Greece.

“More than 30 migrants including three children have drowned after their boat capsized in rough water off the Turkish coast.

“They had been trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, Turkish authorities said.

“The first of the bodies began to wash up on the beach at around 5am along the coast of Ayvalik, a Turkish town directly opposite Lesbos.

“Twelve other people were rescued at the site as the Turkish coastguard searched for survivors who had tried to make the crossing.”[5]

From a distance, we get to be obsessive about presidential politics. From a distance, we get to lose track of what is happening halfway around the globe as we celebrate Christmas. That doesn’t mean that what’s happening halfway around the globe stops happening.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love celebrating Christmas. Given my profession, it’s plenty stressful, but I love it. I love the anticipation, the drama of Advent pulling us into a time between times, the hope proclaimed yet unfulfilled. I love the songs of yearning, traditional and contemporary like “What Child Is This?” and “Mary, Did You Know?” I love the story – I suppose that should be plural, since Matthew’s and Luke’s stories are so different – I love the stories. And, I love the Christian claim mysterious as it is, that says, somehow in this birth, somehow in this child, God is with us.

Author Jim Wallis writes, “It’s not just that God came, but how God came.” He points to Luke’s story: “It wasn’t accidental that the savior of the world was born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were literally homeless at the time of his birth.” And he points to Matthew’s story: “And soon Jesus and his family were made refugees and had to flee their country because the most powerful political ruler around the Christ child felt very threatened by his coming.

“At least King Herod got the fact that his political power would indeed be undermined by the coming of Jesus and the new kingdom [Jesus] would bring.…

“Herod was the king assigned by Rome to rule over the Jews. And when he heard about the birth of Jesus he was ‘frightened’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘worried’ or ‘troubled’ or ‘terrified’ as different gospel translations report.

“Why? Because the closest political ruler to Jesus at the time of his birth believed Jesus could become a threat to his power. Herod asked all the people who might know, ‘Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?’ The king then called the now famous wise men, who were traveling from the East to see the child, in for a meeting with him at the palace where he tried to manipulate them to come back and tell him where they had found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage.’

“Most of the stories about the three wise men focus on the gifts they presented to the Christ child when they ultimately found him of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Our re-telling the story often doesn’t focus so much on the political threat Jesus posed to political power when he was born. And we talk even less about what happened when the wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod after they found Jesus. In another dream, [the one we heard today,] Joseph was told to quickly leave the country with his new family, into Egypt where they would stay until King Herod died. ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ So Jesus became a refugee fleeing political power.…

religious-03-flight-to-egypt

“Flight to Egypt-3” by Tamara Harutyunyan

“To protect himself, Herod killed all the baby boys, hoping to kill Jesus, in what our tradition calls the ‘Massacre of the Innocents,’ which is too often how political power reacts when it is threatened. Innocents are often threatened by political power as are many today in the most recent rhetoric of our own political candidates in their attacks on immigrants, refugees, people of other religions, all the ‘others’ who are not like ‘us’ and even the children who are said to threaten us.”[6]

Yesterday, we screened the documentary abUSed. The film documents a 2008 raid on Agriprocessors, at the time, the nation’s largest kosher meat packing plant, by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It shows how ICE and the office of the Attorney General treated undocumented workers like animals, violated their rights, ripped apart families, and devastated a rural community.

Postville, Iowa, was a town of about 2000. When ICE raided the plant, they arrested 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 2 Israelis, and 4 Ukrainians. Eighteen were juveniles.[7] That’s 389 arrests, 20% of the population. And they were arrested not just for being in the country and working without proper documentation, but for felonies like document fraud charges.

bilde

Mass deportations from the Postville raid.

300 were convicted in four days, mostly by coercing plea bargains. “Neither the owner, Aaron Rubashkin, nor his sons Sholom and Heshy Rubashkin, who were in charge of the management of Agriprocessors, were convicted of immigration and labor law violations.”[8]

If we really want to stop undocumented people from coming to the United States, the simplest thing to do is prosecute the people who hire them. If American businesses won’t hire undocumented workers, they won’t come here looking for work. And that really is the reason these people came to Postville. They wanted to work. They wanted to earn money so they could feed their families. That’s why they came to the United States.

I find it interesting that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, brought down all sorts of barriers to free trade – except if the only thing you have to trade is your labor. That you cannot move across the borders freely.

Of course, that was then, 2008. This is now. And this past week, the Obama administration has begun “a nationwide operation to deport a new wave of illegal immigrants.”[9]

imrs.phpThe Washington Post reports, “The raids were the first in a broad operation by the Obama administration that is targeting hundreds of families for deportation who have crossed the southern U.S. border illegally since the start of last year. The operation … is the first large-scale effort to deport families fleeing violence in Central America, authorities said.”[10]

That’s right: the families we are arresting and deporting are here not just to earn a living. They are here to escape violence. And we are sending them back to that violence.

“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run from the border
when you see the whole city running as well.”[11]

Throughout Advent and Christmas and even into this first Sunday after Epiphany, our theme has been “Journey.” Members and friends of the church were invited to reflect on their families’ journeys in art, the art you see hanging around the sanctuary. Through Advent, we focused on the journeys of important characters in the first chapters of Luke’s gospel.

Last week and this, we’ve turned to Matthew’s gospel and the journey of the Magi by starlight and the journey of the Holy Family into exile. And that is where we leave them, in exile fleeing violence, just like so many others around the world today, as this series concludes.

For those of us who are lucky enough not to be living in exile, we are reminded that the Holy Family may well be living among us or seeking refuge among us because the principalities and powers are still seeking to snuff out the life of the one whose birth reminds us that God is with us in profound ways.

[1] “Population, total,” The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL (accessed 9 January 2016).

[2] “Syrian Arab Republic,” UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e486a76.html (accessed 9 January 2016).

[3] See, for instance, http://www.ndtv.com/world-news/my-children-slipped-through-my-hands-father-of-drowned-syrian-boy-1214048.

[4] Ishaan Tharoor, “Were Syrian refugees involved in the Paris attacks? What we know and don’t know,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/were-syrian-refugees-involved-in-the-paris-attacks-what-we-know-and-dont-know/ (posted 17 November 2015; accessed 9 January 2016).

[5] Eirini Lemos, “Dozens of migrants including three children drown trying to reach Greek island of Lesbos,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/turkey/12082819/Dozens-of-migrants-including-three-children-drown-trying-to-reach-Greek-island-of-Lesbos.html (posted 5 January 2016; accessed 9 January 2016).

[6] Jim Wallis, “Why Jesus Was, and Is, a Political Threat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/why-jesus-was-and-political-threat (posted 23 December 2015; accessed 1 January 2016).

[7] “Postville Raid,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postville_Raid (accessed 9 January 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lisa Rein, “U.S. authorities begin raids, taking 121 illegal immigrants into custody over the weekend,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2016/01/04/u-s-authorities-begin-raids-taking-121-illegal-immigrants-into-custody-over-the-weekend/ (posted 4 January 2016, accessed 9 January 2015).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Warsan Shire, from her poem “Home,” published, probably among other places, here http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/ (accessed 5 January 2015).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 12, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 6:14-29 and 2 Samuel 6:12b-19
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Dance like nobody’s watching. I’ve heard the advice. Multiple times. And when I take the advice I feel like this:

Or I don’t take the advice because I feel like this:

The advice is meant to be reassuring. Dance like nobody’s watching – go ahead! But implied in the advice is the warning: they are watching. Unless they’re busy looking at the phones.

But this sermon isn’t about my two left feet. It’s not even about dancing, really, even though dances play a key role in both of our readings.

The words “David danced before the Lord” evoke the young king’s enthusiastic response to the holy charge to bring the ark of Yahweh home to Jerusalem. Every step along the way, King David dances his heart out. And every six steps, he offers a sacrifice. His enthusiasm must have been contagious – except, apparently for Michal, former-King Saul’s daughter and one of David’s wives. When she looked out of the window and saw the king leaping and dancing before God, the text says, “she despised him in her heart.” The text doesn’t tell us why Michal despised David, but it’s clear: our dancer, David, is the hero of this story and Michel – not so much. [1]

The gospel brings us to an encounter with another dancer, another king, and a fiery prophet who made life very uncomfortable for those who didn’t follow the law, even if they were kings. And that is the focus of today’s sermon.

In addition to baptizing people down at the River Jordan, John had made public declarations about the political powers. He had denounced King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. Apparently John’s denunciations angered Herodias more than they angered Herod. Herod had John imprisoned, but imprisoning him did not satisfy Herodias. So, when her daughter danced for the king on his birthday and he promised her whatever she wanted as a reward, Herodias coached her to ask for John’s head. That would get rid of this troublesome prophet.

Herod, it seems, did not want to have John put to death. But then he backed himself into a corner. So enthralled by his daughter’s dance, he promised her anything. And he made the promise in front of the political and social elite. Saving face became more important for Herod than anything else, so he had John put to death.

Apparently, Herod was troubled by this decision. “Even though John [had] said of Jesus, ‘He must increase and I must decrease,’ the effect of this powerful desert figure remained with the people. Many thought the young rabbi Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist. Even Herod, in guilty terror, thought so. He must have felt [this] dance had cost him too much.”[2]

There’s an object lesson here. When our egos are more important than our morals, we make bad decisions. When we busy ourselves with saving face, people can lose their heads – maybe not literally, but figuratively. I know how easy it is to get caught up by ego. I’ve got some ego stuff going on. After all, I picked a profession where I get to stand in front of people every week and they listen to me. If I get too concerned with protecting my ego, I’m going to start making choices that aren’t for the good of the church.  I suspect that each of us can think of how concern with how we appear, concerns about ego and saving face, can lead us astray.

This is, I think, a major cause of the police violence that is suddenly being exposed thanks to cellphone cameras is face. Or as Carman on Southpark would put it, people don’t “Respect my authoritah!”  And some officers are having a hard time with that. They feel like they’re losing face, and so they lash out violently.

Now, that’s where I thought I’d be going with today’s sermon back in June when I was doing my initial worship planning for July. I thought I’d be preaching to this idea that when we focus on saving face we typically end up making bad choices. But then I started reading commentaries and additional ideas that I think are important to share surfaced.

The first comes from an essay by Michaela Bruzzese. She brings us an aspect of this story that I had glossed over. She points to the role that women play in this narrative and how their actions are similar to that of other biblical scapegoats. Bruzzese points out that “though the women in this story play the most critical roles in the narrative, they are not important enough to be named. Herodias’ name is simply a derivative of her husband’s, and her daughter is not named at all. Second, in one of the most erotic episodes in the entire New Testament, female sexuality is present as a dangerous undercurrent. Though John had reprimanded Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, it is Herodias who was enraged ‘and wanted to kill him’ (Mark 6:19). Her daughter’s sexuality also has dangerous consequences: Herod is … driven out of his mind by her erotic dance and makes outlandish promises to her. The women, portrayed as taking advantage of Herod’s weak state, ‘force’ him to kill the Baptist. In this way, Herodias and her daughter play roles similar to that of Eve; they are the ‘temptresses’ who lead men astray. Like Pilate [at Jesus’ execution], Herod emerges as a reluctant executioner and the women become the scapegoats for John’s murder.”[1]

I had totally missed the misogyny in the telling of this story prior to reading Bruzzese’s essay. I had missed the powerful archetypes present in the story “that, intentionally or not, have had critical implications for the Christian community’s perception and treatment of women throughout history.”[2]

It’s important that we read scripture with a critical eye. When we fail to do so and simply accept our past interpretations as the final word a scripture might have to say to us, we may be allowing harmful stereotypes to be perpetuated. Sometimes it’s the covert messages, the implied messages that are the most dangerous. Unearthing them and naming them can help take away their power. That’s important work to do, even if it mean admitting that past interpretations were wrong or incomplete. It’s worth losing a little face for the sake of justice.

Another author I read who shook things up a bit for me is David Lose. He invited me to read Mark’s story a little more closely, and in doing so, several things stand out: This is one of the longest sustained narrative scenes in Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus does not appear in it at all, it seems to interrupt the flow of the rest of the story, and it’s told in flashback, the only time that Mark employs such a device. Because of these features, the scene is not only as suspenseful and ultimately grisly as anything on television, but it is unlike anything else in Mark’s account and seems almost out of place, …”[3]

In fact, over the years, scholars and students have questioned why Mark reports this story at all. “Later evangelists must have asked the same question, as Matthew shortens it markedly and Luke omits it altogether. The majority opinion is that it serves two key purposes in Mark: it foreshadows Jesus’ own grisly death and it serves as an interlude between Jesus’ sending of the disciples and their return some unknown number of days or weeks later.”[4]

Maybe. But for me, the story does something else. It draws a contrast between the two kinds of kingdoms available to Jesus disciples, both then and now. “Consider: Mark, tells this story as a flashback, out of its narrative sequence, which means he could have put this scene anywhere. But he puts it here, not simply between the sending and receiving of the disciples but, more specifically, just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God and when he then joins them in making that kingdom three-dimensional, tangible, and in these ways seriously imaginable.

“Herod’s Kingdom – the kingdom of the world … – is dominated by the will to power, the will to gain influence over others. This is the world where competition, fear, and envy are the coins of the realm, the world of not just late night dramas and reality television but also the evening news, where we have paraded before us the triumphs and tragedies of the day as if they are simply givens, as if there is no other way of being in the world and relating to each other.

“Which is why Mark places the story here.  Just previous to this scene Jesus sends his disciples out in utter vulnerability, dependent on the hospitality and grace of others, to bring healing and mercy with no expectation of reward or return.  And just after this scene comes a different kind of feast altogether.  Notice, in fact, that the return of the disciples only occasions about half a verse or so just after this scene. (Mark, after all, had already told us what they were up to in the scene just before this one.) Rather, what follows is instead a banquet of mercy, so markedly in contrast to the birthday bash Herod throws himself that its almost stunning. Rather than the rich and shameless, it’s the poor and outcast that flock to Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Rather than political intrigue and power plays dominating the day, it’s blessing and surprising abundance that characterize this meal.

“And that’s the choice that Mark puts before us: which kingdom do we want to live in?”[5] Or, if you insist that we have to live in the kingdoms of this world, Mark puts this choice before us: to which kingdom will we give ultimate allegiance?

“Sounds easy when I put it that way. Jesus’ kingdom, we’ve been trained to answer.  Ah, but not so fast. This is the world where vulnerability and sharing and mercy and justice and grace lead to abundant life, to be sure, but also where those very same qualities can get you killed, or least make you feel like you are vulnerable to being taken [advantage] of. And truth be told you might be. But the other truth to be told is that you can give yourself wholly and completely to the world of power and still never, ever quite feel secure. Why? Because once you’ve accepted that power – whether defined as wealth or possessions or influence or whatever – is the most important thing in life, than you are always vulnerable to those with more power. You are, mostly simply, at the center of a never-ending contest where there are no ultimate winners, only those who prevail for a time and until they are unseated by someone else.”[6]

Competition can be fun. My nephew loves soccer and part of what he loves about it is the competition. And from all accounts I’ve heard, there was some pretty entertaining competition in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final. (By the way, why is it that the Women’s World Cup is called “the Women’s World Cup” and the Men’s World Cup is simply called “The World Cup”?) Competition can be fun to watch, even to engage in, “but it’s not the way I want to live my life and certainly not the way I want to conduct my relationships. Which is where Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, comes in. Because in [God’s] kingdom there are no winners or losers, just the children of God, all beloved, all welcome, all deserving of love and respect based not on their merit or accomplishments but simply because God values each and every one of us.

“Look, the kingdom Jesus proclaims can seem odd, I know, or idealistic, particularly in light of recent current events. But it’s those same stories of violence and prejudice that make me crave the kingdom of God all the more.”[7]

How about you?

[1] Michaela Bruzzese, “Between the Lines,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/between-lines (accessed 6 July 2015).

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Lose, “Pentecost 7 B: A Tale of Two Kingdoms,” …In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/07/pentecost-7-b-a-tale-of-two-kingdoms/ (posted 6 July 2015; accessed 7 July 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[1] Verna J. Dozier, “Two Kings and Two Dancers,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/two-kings-and-two-dancers (accessed 6 July 2015).

[2] Ibid.

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