Sunday, July 12, 2015

People with Power

Mark 6:14-29
July 12, 2015

            During my internship in a church in Virginia, I worked with the youth in a variety of ways; youth group, mission work, etc. But two of young people came to me for pastoral care. They were both 18, and they were both struggling with different issues. They would come and meet with me periodically in my church office, and I would listen and do my best to guide them. One of the reasons they chose to talk with me was because they trusted me. I took that trust seriously, but I had a “great awakening” during one of these pastoral care sessions. These two teenagers, both of age, trusted me so completely that they would listen to whatever I had to say. I realized that I could ask them to do anything, short of something illegal, and they would do it. I could have convinced them to do any number of things. I had their trust, and because of that I had power. I could respect that trust or I could abuse my power over them. Let me be very clear, I chose the first option. But it was a profound moment in my becoming – really becoming – a minister when I understood that I had that power.
            A topic that was being widely discussed while I was a student was that of clergy misconduct; clergy becoming involved with their parishioners in inappropriate ways. As far as I know, this was not a subject that was taught or talked about in previous generations. But it needed to be because it was an issue in every denomination, protestant and Catholic. A term that was used over and over again was “fiduciary trust.” Fiduciary is most often associated with money or matters financial. But it is also defined as something that is “held or founded in trust or confidence.” [1] When it comes to our parishioners, ministers have a fiduciary responsibility.
            I understood the definition of the term, but it wasn’t until I was working with those two teenagers that I really grasped its full meaning and import. I got it. Whether I like it or not, feel it or not or believe it or not, as a minister I have been given a certain authority. Just stepping into the pulpit means that a certain level of authority is invested in me. I may not believe that that authority is justified, but it’s there. And with that that authority comes power.
            This authority and power combo is true in more occupations than just the ministry. Teacher and student, politician and intern, boss and employee, the list goes on. In our passage from Mark’s gospel – a hard and challenging passage – we read about a king with authority and power. This is not a good example of a king who understood the responsibility that authority and power carried. I think it is an understatement to say that Herod was a weak king. Anyone who has read Matthew’s gospel already associates Herod with brutality and cruelty after the massacre of Hebrew children in the wake of Jesus’ birth. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, to read that he had John the Baptizer beheaded to save face. Saving face is the first link in the chain of events that led to John’s death. Saving face and power gone horribly wrong.
            Jesus does not appear anywhere in this story, and as far as I know, it is the only flashback that we read in the gospels. In the preceding story, Jesus has given the twelve disciples authority to exorcise unclean spirits. He has sent them out, two-by-two, to villages to preach and heal. They do so and they report back to Jesus what they have accomplished. King Herod hears about this, “for Jesus’ name had become known.” People were guessing as to who this great teacher might be. Is it the prophet Elijah? Or is it John the baptizer back from the dead? Herod believed that it was John. We know immediately that Herod had him beheaded, but in the following flashback we discover why.
            Herod had taken Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife as his own. John refused to bite his tongue and hold back his disapproval of this marriage from Herod. I’ve always assumed from this that Philip was dead, but then why would John preach against the marriage? It was an expected custom if one brother should die, another brother would marry the widow. This was a way to protect the family name, the heirs of the family, and the woman who had little power in that situation. But if John is ticked off about this, then Philip must not be so dead after all. Herod had John arrested for his outspoken criticism about Herod’s marriage. But Herod also feared John. He kept him in prison, but would go and talk to him, listen to him. Herodias was a different matter. The text says she bore a grudge against John and wanted him dead. However she couldn’t have him killed because of Herod’s fear of him.
            Herodias got her chance to have her revenge on John when Herod threw a birthday party for himself. The word translated as “opportunity” can also be translated more literally as “a happy day.” When Herodias saw her opportunity to have John killed, it was her happy day. Her daughter – named Herodias in this version of the story, Salome in others – came into the banquet and danced for the king and his guests. She must have been a heck of a dancer, because Herod in a fit of lecherous benevolence swore to her to give her anything she wished. She ran to mom to request motherly advice, and Herodias replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” The girl told Herod her desire and added that his head should be given to her on a silver platter. Herod was the king. He had power. He had authority. He could have said, “No.” But Herod was a weak king, an abusive and brutal king, who used his power to keep his subjects in line through terror. He had also made this great promise, this solemn oath in front of all the important leaders in Galilee. If he changed his mind or went back on his vow, Herod would look like the weak and insecure king we know him to be. He had to save face. Herod saved his face, and John lost his head.
            People with power; in some people’s hands, power can be a dangerous and abusive weapon. There’s a reason for the saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power creates dictators, tyrants, bullies and fools. We could make a list of people with power who abuse that power that would stretch the length of this room and beyond. Yet when power is used wisely and responsibly, good can be created as well. There are examples of people using power that way as well. It seems to me that a wise leader, a wise person, understands the seductive danger of power and acts accordingly.
            People with power can be a good or bad thing, but what about the power of God? You see that’s where our understanding of power gets upended. Power, even when it is used wisely, justly and mercifully, is power that comes from top down. But in Jesus, in the incarnation of the Word into flesh and into our lives, power comes from the bottom up. We attribute top down power to God all the time. There are plenty of examples in both the Old and New testaments of God using God’s power in exactly this way. Yet, if we take the incarnation seriously, we have to take the shift in God’s power seriously as well. God could have zapped the world back into shape, right? Wasn’t that the point of the story of Noah? God promised never to flood the world again, but couldn’t God just force every person to live the way we are commanded to live, to love the way we are commanded to love?
            God didn’t do that. Instead God became one of us. In Jesus power took on a new meaning. Power was not about forcing or coercing people to do God’s will. Power, real power, meant becoming powerless. Jesus did not come to command a great army, and whip the butts of everyone who opposed him. Jesus came as the suffering servant. Jesus walked directly to his death, and on the way he demonstrated what it meant to live in the power of God. The power of God, as I see it, is grounded in love. That is the greatest power. I may be scoffed at for saying that, but that is my unshakeable belief. Love is the greatest power. That’s why it is so hard to do, to live. But it is in love that we find God’s power. It is in living love, active, embodied love, that we find our power. People with power can lead to abuse and oppression or it can lead to care and generosity. But God’s power? God’s power leads to grace, to compassion, to life and to love. God’s power is, and as far as I am concerned, always will be the power of Love. That is our good news. That is what we are called to share and to do. That is our power, people. Love.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

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