7th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon by Pastor Fred Kinsey
Nothing can hurt us, in a world of power politics, if we trust in the founding power of God’s gracious gift of the kingdom. That’s the good news for us, despite the R-rated gospel, in which Jesus is neither featured nor mentioned. This birthday party for Herod, should probably come with a warning for parents: Caution, you may not want to expose your children to the following story, which contains violent images, adult situations, and an outrageous misuse of power. I’d like to think we don’t condone that kind of behavior today, and if caught, politicians and other leaders, would face public condemnation, and justice under the law. But one thing for sure, power politics, spiced with entitlement and lascivious behavior, are still regular headlines.
Even as the 1% of Jerusalem, wine and dine, and are entertained – at a whole other level than say, the Taste of Chicago – the foundation of their power, rooted as it is, in the ruler of this world, is upending the community God desires.
Years ago, The Washington Post quoted a lavishly paid lobbyist: “There are only two engines that drive Washington: One is greed, and the other is fear.” ‘That,’ says Princeton Biblical Theologian Clifton Black, ‘is a fine description of Herod’s birthday party.’ His banquet brought together in Jerusalem the triune powers of most every capital: politicians, big business and religious leaders.
Do you ever wonder what Mayor Emanuel and Governor Rauner talk about when they sit down to drink wine together? Both reportedly enjoy a glass of wine over dinner, no misuse of power there. And, it’s perfectly legal for Governor Rauner to have a $140,000 membership in a private winery-club out west, which Mayor Emanuel and family have visited. You can be the judge of what those kind of perks mean. But the two businessmen turned politicians do have a couple other things in common. Both earned their wealth through hedge-funds, the borrowing of other people’s money to turn a fast buck, and one of the most popular techniques right now for the rich to get richer, without any particular social benefit, in fact, it usually involves consolidating companies to make a quick profit, whose restructuring usually includes permanently laying off hundreds, even thousands, of employees. That kind of job is a birthday party that most of us aren’t invited to, though you may know someone who’s an unemployment casualty!
The other value they share is re-forming education, as in, privatization, siphoning tax dollars away from Chicago Public Schools, to line the pockets of a few Charter School owners.
Politically, the Governor and Mayor don’t agree on much else. But the rich and famous don’t need to agree on all things, when sitting down to a glass of wine together, or, in accepting an invitation to a birthday party.
King Herod, or more accurately it was his son, Herod Antipas, was known by history for his weak leadership. Not too long after Jesus died, Rome deposed him for his ineffectiveness. Perhaps, he had a conscience that kept him from the ruthlessness demanded of his position. The gospel of Mark says, he was awed by John the Baptist and regarded him as a righteous and holy man. Instead of doing away with him, as his ill-gotten wife, Herodias first wanted, he tactfully arrested John and lodged him in his jail – probably much worse than cells, than either Emily or I have seen! Herod used to like to listen to him, though he was often perplexed, says Mark. We don’t know if Herod went down to the prison to visit John, or had him brought up to his headquarters. But he protected John. There must have been something in his message that resonated with Herod.
But Herod’s foundational power was built on rotten pillars. And as a leader, you cannot be tepid about the realm and kingdom of God. Herod needed a greater conviction to get out of the foundational box of excluding and exploiting others, and overcome the self-perpetuation of his power.
“An opportunity came,” as Mark’s gospel puts it, at this birthday party for Herod. The opportunity was not for Herod, but for his wife, Herodias. And, an opportunity for the immoral power of the ruler of this world to enter through the corrupt foundation of Jerusalem’s elites. Herodias’ daughter came and danced to the delight of them all. And to show off, Herod pledges before his friends and supporters to make a gift to the young teenager, of up to half his kingdom. But she doesn’t even know what she desires yet – not in that ball-park – what would she know of wine-clubs, and hedge-funds? So she asks her mother, and the devil’s opportunity is ignited. Herodias wants the head of John the baptizer! This is the opportunity, burning within Herodias. The opportunity to execute the truth-teller, the prophet, and renewer of society, has arrived!
Does Herod want this? Probably not. He seems to have a conscience, but he has no backbone to go with it. Being a good person, or a nice guy, unfortunately, doesn’t have anything to do with where your power is founded and how it is used.
This tragic tale of Herod’s birthday party is sandwiched between the sending out and return of the disciples, the mission and hard work of spreading the news of Jesus’ new community, come alive: a community founded, not on power-politics, but on a new starting point of truth and mercy, of grace and dignity, of regard and respect. There is no gun violence in the new community, because teens are not asked to receive the head of anyone on a platter, there. In the realm of God, we learn and advocate for a universal school system, with fully funded and resourced schools in every district, and we insist on jobs for every graduate, so that the alternative economy of gangs has no soil to germinate in. The community of God is not tepid, does not tolerate wealth in the hands of a few, or allow immoral budgets, or make rules that exclude, exploit and underserve the rest of us.
Where does your power come from? Is it founded on the ruler of this world, or in the mercy and grace of God’s love? If we do not know, or have not discerned it in our spiritual journey, then we may be in danger of giving our power over to the crowds, like at Herod’s birthday party, and we may let “dinner and a movie” turn into something ugly and violent.
When the disciples return from their campaign of using their power to start new and life-giving communities, Jesus will invite them to a dinner party that feeds 5,000 from 5 loaves. When Jesus celebrated the Passover dinner with his disciples for the last time, a remembrance of God’s deliverance out of slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land, he sat down to share a glass of wine with them, as a sign and symbol of his own blood, his life, the foundation of this new community. Jesus used his power, which came from the realm of God, for the life of the world.
This kind of spreading of the message of the gospel by us, the followers of Jesus, has risks. The more we define who we are and what we stand for, the more the powers of this world, and the dangers of a structural evil, push back. But we have basic and powerful tools, bread and wine, welcome and community, to hold us together. We do not exclude, but share with all. It is not wealth, as the world measures riches, but it is a wealth hidden in weakness, and a power in self-giving, that lives forever, through us, and in the lives of people who embody the realm and kingdom of God. Let us dine at the table of the LORD, and share the Cup of Salvation, for we have a power to share that’s courageous, which is called faith!