Father Joshua Daniel
Year B Proper 10
Gospel Text: Mark 6:14-29
(No audio–audio was corrupted, sadly)
I’ve never been to Disneyland. The fanciest my family got for vacations was a day trip to Branson, which obviously at twelve years old, I thought was the coolest place on earth. The lines at Silver Dollar City are serious, but not as serious, so I read on the internet, as the ones at Disney. There are dozens of youtube videos for how to avoid the long lines. Trips and commentaries for the best times of the day to visit particular rides, programmes that give guests fast access to three select rides a day, etc., etc. Several years ago I came across an unusual news story. The hard hitting investigative news-team at the Today Show sent a crew down to Disney after hearing that a few very wealthy families were reportedly not having to wait in any lines for any rides, no matter how busy the park got. The headline grabbed my attention, “Undercover at Disney: ‘Deplorable’ Scheme to Skip Lines.” Apparently all the fuss had been aroused by a few individuals who had gained access to special passes due to their disabilities. They then marketed their passes on internet as “Disabled Tour Guides,” promising that for $50 an hour, the entire family could accompany the person with the pass to the front of every line.
After an undercover sting, a reporter confronted one of the so called “Tour Guides.” The ensuing conversation went something like this: “Have you no shame, sir?” the reporter asked full of conviction. But the man just shrugged his shoulders. “I just don’t see the problem?” “You’re abusing a policy intended to help a very vulnerable group of people.” The man replied, “Well you see it’s really a question of ethics.” The reporter jumped back, thinking somehow the man had fallen into trap. “Yes exactly” the reporter said, “You’re acting unethically!” “No, no, no. You misunderstand,” said the man, “The questions you ask concern morality, and I just don’t care about that.”
The man is right to think that there are some things in life that we get to choose to participate in or not. For instance, I can decide to play in a softball league or not. I can choose to become a member of a gym or not. I decide for some bizarre combination of historical and religious factors to wear black all summer in the sunua-like heat as a mark of my profession. The man is right to think that there are number of things we get to choose for ourselves. But he is wrong to think that morality is one of them.
We just are moral. We can decide to be truthful and honest or not, but there is no third option. By being a person one enters into the stream of morality.
The Gospel today reminds us that as difficult as it is, because we are people who live in community with one another, there is another aspect of being a person that we cannot escape from. And that is the political realm.
Mark is a hard Gospel. Mark does not start with stories of Jesus in the manger. We don’t start with a Baby Jesus, but rather a Jesus who from the very beginning is calling his disciples to him and casting out demons. In the very beginning he attacks those institutions that oppress and defile the creatures of God. This, as we saw last week, surely includes religious systems that blind us to the presence of God. We learned last week that the presence of God can appear in the most unlikely of places.
This week, Mark makes it very clear that part of the system of oppression that Jesus encountered also comes from the state. Later in Mark, in chapter 8, Jesus warns us against “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (8:15). Herod was raised as a Jew but ever trying to curry favor with the Roman Empire, he ruled often in tyrannical ways. One interesting aspect of this that we can’t pursue is that it was Herod who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem but it was with Roman money and support. Thus for many religious Jews the Temple represented something potentially of profound religious corruption by the state. This is part of what makes Jesus’ critique of the Temple so powerful. Empire and religion were just as intertwined in the 1st century as it is for us today.
We see the compromised character of Herod in John the Baptist’s critique. John’s objection to Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife would also have been understood by those who heard him to be a challenge to the very authority of Herod’s rule. Here John challenges the legitimacy of how Herod obtained his power. At the same time John also challenges Herod’s claim to be a pious Jew: Herod’s marriage demonstrates that Herod, as Ched Myers writes, conforms “to the requirements of Torah only when it [is] politically convenient or expedient.” (Myers, 1988, 215). At the core of John’s challenge is whether the political head of state is lawfully sovereign and whether his use of religion is merely a mask for a deeply corrupted account of religious belief.
I want to end by making two brief points. First is that some scholars believe that Mark has two parts to it. The first and the second part mirror each other. The first part ends with today’s story about the death of John. In this way it mirrors the death of Jesus. There was a political trial of sorts (a trial that violates even the state’s own understanding of justice, just as it does with Jesus), an execution, and a burial by disciples. Just as Jesus precedes his death with a banquet, so too does Herod precede John’s death with a banquet.
This gives us an important clue in understanding how God’s kingdom is to be different from earthly kingdoms. The leaven of Herod is a rule by force. He flaunts his power by recklessly abandoning what he knows is right to save face for his drunken oath. Truth and justice and mercy have no place here. Herod’s leaven (Herod’s salt) is that might equals right and absolute might means death for the one proclaiming God’s messenger.
Notice how different this is compared to the marching orders Jesus gave his disciples last week.
The disciples go out not in force but in open hospitality to the reception of strangers. They proclaim their message but if it isn’t received they do not retaliate. They do not shame or condemn, they merely move on, attempting to find some other place where their message might take root.
The first point is to contrast the leaven of Herod and the bread of God. The second point is to address how difficult it is to talk about politics in church. Our forms of communication have often meant that “conversations” about politics are less about understanding and finding common ground than they are about a ruthless assertion of ideological purity. It has meant division, sowing seeds of suspicion, and the drawing of battle lines.
In my first sermon I argued that the Book of Wisdom claims that “In God there is no death.” It might be best to think of Herod’s banquet as an anti-communion, an anti-eucharist. Herod’s table represents manipulation and self-serving requests. There is little interest in mutual understanding and self-sacrifice. It’s impossible to imagine Herod disrobing (taking off his garments of power) and washing the feet of his friends. The state that Herod rules is marked, then, by death, not life.
Mark is hard gospel. Hard because Mark recognizes that there is no church–there is no body of Christ–that does not live in and intersect with and call to account the political power of the empire that it lives in. There is no opting out of this responsibility. John could have said, “Herod, you do your thing; I’ll do mine,” but he didn’t. There is no choice to not be “ethical” as our friend at Disney wanted to claim.
The good news is that in God there is not a spirit of division, not a spirit of death, but a boundless belief, a boundless faith, that redemption–new life, the mystical healing of old wounds–is always possible. The good news is that Jesus approached his ministry not as a matter of force and defensiveness but rather in openness and charity. We affirm this in our baptismal covenant. Our fundamental posture is that we strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
The world is here in our midst. We have to address it. Even in its uncertainty. Even in our own uncertainties. There’s no opting out. But this is a politics of love. The Bread of God is a peace that passes all understanding. May we take and eat this bread. Amen.