The Power of Love
So, if any of you think you come from a dysfunctional family, think again. The reality is that yours most likely has nothing on the Herod Antipas family. In fact one might say that Herod and his kin put the “D” in dysfunctional.
We have just heard the lurid story of the murder of John the Baptist by Herod as a result of a ridiculous offer of reward for a little party dance. John’s beheading is actually one of the more gruesome events in the Bible, with the capricious manner of his beheading evoking images of current day ISIS murders of hostages. Between this beheading and Salome’s little seductive dance, this passage is a favorite theme in Western dance, art and literature. Because of that, it’s a pretty well-known story well beyond the Church and her scripture. But try as it might, the art fails to capture the depravity of Herod’s family and his court in Galilee.
It’s a little convoluted to wrap one’s mind around, but let’s try. Herod Antipas was one of three sons of Herod the Great; he of the slaughter of the innocents fame at Jesus’ nativity.
The three sons inherit portions of their father’s kingdom at his death, with Herod Antipas becoming the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. This Herod lusted after his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who also happened to be his niece, a daughter of a half-brother Aristobulus who pre-deceased him. Aristobulus, by the way, was murdered by his own father. Herod finally seduces Herodias to the point that she divorces Philip and become his wife. This was illegal according to the Levitical law, which states that a man “shall not uncover the nakedness of [his] brother’s wife.” (Leviticus 18:16). This was the law that John the Baptist referenced as he railed against this marriage. For the religious people of the time, this marriage was an outrage against morality and decency.
Herodias’ daughter, who danced for Herod at his birthday banquet, is commonly known as Salome. She is not so named in any of the Gospels, but we have her name on good authority from the great Jewish historian, Josephus in his book Antiquities. So, if you are following this, Salome is the daughter of Herodias and Philip. Herodias is Herod’s niece, so by extension Salome is also his niece through his niece. Josephus also reports that Salome eventually married Herod’s son, another Philip. Talk about keeping things in the family!
Herod Antipas’ kept a very decadent and debauched court. The solo dance that Salome performed, and which pleased Herod so much, would have been an erotic and licentious pantomime. That a princess of royal blood should be so encouraged to dance this way is commentary itself about the moral state of the court, her mother and Herod.
This debauchery is exacerbated when the drunk Herod offers Salome anything she wants as a reward, anything up to half his kingdom. This was the opening that the mean-spirited, spiteful and plotting Herodias – who was humiliated by John the Baptist’s condemnation of her –-was looking for. Not knowing how to respond to Herod’s excessive offer, Salome runs off to Herodias to ask what she should ask for. To gratify Herodias spleen, John is immediately executed.
Many people wonder why Mark’s Gospel includes this lurid story – which is a flashback — about John’s murder. On first reading it seems oddly out of context to the surrounding narrative. But Mark is intentional about reporting on John’s depraved death. When taken with its companion piece about the feeding of the 5,000, which immediately follows this story, Mark is making a powerful statement about power.
Both stories are set in the context of banquets. One is in a royal court rife with decadence and corruption. This story is all about power misused for one’s selfish purposes. It speaks to the wielding of power for the purpose of destruction. This kind of power, as theologian Karoline Lewis states, is “damaging, demoralizing, debilitating, demeaning, desecrating and discriminating.” I would add, dysfunctional. The story of John’s death is power at its worst.
This kind of power is referred to by Walter Bruggemann as the extraction system; an abusive system of wealth and power that looks to sap all the resources and life out of the less powerful, to meet its own lusts and greed.
This is the power of ISIS; power that subjugates people to terror to comply with their twisted theology and callously murders those who hold religious beliefs other than their own. It is the power of racial hatred that induces people to burn down Black houses of worship. It is the power of a government that gives tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest 1% in our nation, but will not legislate a decent minimum wage for the neediest people among us. It is the power of an Israeli government that subjugates Palestinians to deprivation and humiliation. It is the power of a Bishop in our Church who has padlocked the doors of St. James the Great church in Newport Beach, California, locking out a vibrant congregation from their spiritual home, because he wants to sell the property for $15 million to a developer of luxury condominiums. This is the power of the extraction system. This is the power of empire.
Here is Karoline Lewis again: “Friends, I am tired of the kind of power that has no regard, none at all, for the other. The power that seems to act as if disregard for the other is acceptable. The power that dismisses the loyal for the sake of the new. The kind of power that is reckless and relentless and ruthless.”
Mark then compares this power displayed at Herod’s banquet with the banquet at the feeding of the 5,000, which represents another kind of power entirely. This is about the power of good news of Jesus who brings the message of the power of God’s reign; of God’s embracing love. This power is rooted in humility, sacrifice and compassion and has as its end the hope of approach, the hope of relationship with all people. God’s power is outside of itself and is not turned inward. It is not about greed or self-gain, it is about generosity and abundance. It is about the taking of what appears to be so very little and discovering that it is not only more than enough, but that there is more than enough left over. This power is all about love, all the time and in all circumstances.
This is Mark’s intention: to draw in sharp contrast the depraved, self-serving power represented at Herod’s court and John’s brutal death and the life-giving power represented in the feeding of the 5,000 by the compassionate and loving Jesus.
These two forms of power are set before us by Mark to choose from; one is death and one is life. Which one we select becomes a litmus test for what kind of power we will live by as individuals, as congregations, as business owners and employees, as institutions, as a society. Mark compels us to do a self-inventory and ask ourselves about our beliefs and behaviors. What is power for us: money, the bottom line, rules, control, competition, manipulation, fear, lust, greed? That’s not power, Mark says, that’s abuse. That’s nothing more than looking to get one’s way, regardless of the cost. That’s force. That’s intimidation. That’s narcissism. That kind of power only leads to a head on a platter.
Or is our belief in power incarnated in the abundance of the feeding of the multitude, where Jesus takes away our fears of scarcity which only fuels our desire for more, more, more and the philosophy of “I got mine, too bad for you.”
Do we trust in his power of compassion, of equality, of trust in God’s providence, of God’s mercy and grace to each and every one of us?
Mark calls us to make a choice and he clearly indicates which one we are called too. We are to choose power rooted not in ourselves but in God’s love. This power is rooted in mercy and truth. It is overflows with abundant grace and dignity. It exhibits regard and respect for all. It is the power that will change our lives. It is the power that will save the world.
Mark 6: 1 - 13
As many of you know, Anthony and I love to entertain. Having people over for a meal, some libations and conviviality is one of our great pleasures. And we love it all: the planning, the shopping, the cooking, the decorating, the pleasure of introducing new foods and tastes, the camaraderie and conversation and even the cleanup . . . well, he likes the clean up better than I do, but I help. For us, entertaining adds up to gracious hospitality.
We speak a lot about hospitality in Christianity. Hospitality is one of the ancient Christian disciplines, finding its origins in the mandates for hospitality to all people in middle-eastern Semitic cultures.
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel informs us that those people who will enter God’s reign are the ones who welcome every stranger as Christ himself. That alone is a pretty good incentive for us to practice hospitality to all who we encounter. Before the Vestry updated our parish mission statement last year, the previous mission stated that we at Christ Church offered everyone who entered our doors “radical hospitality.”
And I know that this congregation prides itself in offering hospitality through our warm welcome of the stranger, friendliness to all who enter our doors, our outreach programs, ministries and all our social events, from coffee hour to spaghetti dinners, pancake suppers to picnics.
We are a pretty hospitable group… Well, most of the time, anyway!
The issue with our approach to Christian hospitality though is that it is one-sided. As commonly understood, hospitality is something we believe we are called to offer someone else. It is not necessarily something we look to receive.
Jesus gives a completely different understanding of hospitality in the second part of today’s Gospel lesson from Mark.
“[Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’”
According to his instructions to the disciples, Jesus indicates that discipleship demands dependence on hospitality (Mark 6:7-12), and this dependence in the doing of it, but rather in the receiving of it. They are to travel with the barest of essentials and to be dependent on the welcome and hospitality of the places they go to bring the Good News.
So, as Jesus’ 21st century disciples, who here is ready to be dependent on the hospitality of others? Not many. Like compliments, most of us are more comfortable offering someone hospitality rather than receiving it — think about it.
The reason for the discomfort is this: Needing hospitality requires us to be vulnerable and let go of our control over our lives. But that’s precisely why Jesus told the disciples to only take the bear minimum with them, compelling them to be dependent. This initial sending forth foray was to be boot camp for discipleship.
You see, relying on the hospitality of others is to engage in risk taking, because being reliant on the hospitality of another anticipates rejection — and who likes rejection? Jesus forewarned the disciples that they would not always get the red carpet treatment in every town and home they visited. Hoping to encounter true hospitality in the other is to become much too vulnerable for most of us. But to be a disciple of Jesus, it is absolutely necessary.
It’s another paradox of our faith: Being vulnerable and dependent on another’s hospitality is the soil that nurtures God’s love in our lives. When we are received and graciously welcomed by those who we are dependent on, we in turn become able to offer hospitality to those who need us to offer that same hospitality to them. And by recognizing our dependence on one another, we come to understand our ultimate total dependence on God.
On this Independence Day weekend, we should remember that the ethos of this kind of hospitality is deeply woven into our nation’s fabric.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless,
Tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Those words inscribed on the foundation of Lady Liberty, are an invitation to all those who are vulnerable in the world. It is a clarion call to accept and be reliant on the hospitality of this nation; regardless of who you are, what your circumstances are, or where you are from. Emma Lazarus’ eloquent words proclaim that despite the reasons you have been rejected by others, you will receive hospitality in America.
Regardless of your opinions about the SCOTUS rulings on healthcare and same-sex marriage last week, the decisions of the court have major implications for how our imagination works when it comes to hospitality. If we use the lens of the parable of the sheep and goats for one eye, and the lens of Lazarus’ words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty for the other eye, we see that those two Supreme Court decisions offered hospitality to two groups of people who were vulnerable and totally reliant in receiving it from others.
Hospitality is not just having someone over for a nice meal or offering pleasantries. Hospitality is not just tolerating people. And as I have come to learn, there’s no such thing as “radical” hospitality. Adjectives don’t have any impact on the quality of our hospitality. At its heart, hospitality is simply radical unto itself. There is no other kind of hospitality. It’s either radical or it’s nothing. Like pregnancy, you either are or you aren’t hospitable.
So here’s a message to our political leaders, our religious leaders and churches and to business people. Keep this understanding of hospitality in mind when you engage in debate over immigration reform, same-sex marriage, civil rights, selling wedding cakes or photographic services to a couple, or who is and who is not welcome at the altar to receive the sacrament, among other topics. The bottom line is that if you welcome some and exclude others don’t pretend you are hospitable, or in fact a true follower of Jesus, or an American who holds the Statue of Liberty and her symbolic message as iconic. It’s not possible without falling into hypocrisy.
Two Sundays ago, Mother Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston flung open its doors just days after the tragic shooting of nine of their flock. Did you - could you even - imagine what it would be like to walk through those doors on that Sunday? To be totally dependent on the mercy and love of a congregation that had offered that same hospitality to someone just days before and had been betrayed in doing so?
That’s the authentic hospitality of our Christian faith. That’s what it really means to be - as Presiding Bishop-elect, Michael Curry calls it – a member of the Jesus movement. Are we ready to receive that kind of hospitality in our lives? Are we prepared for that kind of showing of mercy in the face of such a heinous act? Are we willing to be received with that kind of welcome, a welcome that is the ultimate expression of Christ’s love?
Jesus calls us to that level of discipleship. Jesus says nothing less will do. Jesus says that if you say yes, than you become an authentic follower of me and you will cast out all sorts of demons and heal all conditions of brokenness in the world.
Are you ready? Happy Dependence Day.