Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Unpolitical Action

Matthew 14:1-12

by Daniel Harrell

Among the many new experiences during my first two months here in the Twin Cities was attending the most recent Edina City Council meeting. As you know, the Council voted us permission to move ahead on the sale of a portion of Colonial property for development into a senior living facility. The meeting was both long and lively. When I arrived most of the seats were already full, except for one right in the middle of the opposition. Fortunately for me, no one there knew my true identity. As the meeting went on (and on), suspense started to build as to the final outcome. The uncertainty made it sort of exciting. After much deliberation, the Council finally voted 3-2 in favor. Afterwards I spoke with some of the opponents and asked whether it wouldn’t make sense going forward to work together to welcome the residents of the housing development into the neighborhood. “No,” snarled one man, “this isn’t over yet.” Again, I was glad he didn’t know who I was. Still, I enjoyed the experience. It was good to watch democracy at work.

Despite 23 years in close proximity to both the Massachusetts State House and Boston City Hall, I never made it to any government meetings there that I remember. It’s not that there weren’t topics of importance; I just never figured my presence would matter. Not that that stopped one of my predecessors. For 33 years, a flamboyant Park Street Church minister named Arcturus Zodiac Conrad arrived at church Sunday mornings in his horse drawn limousine, dressed in white tie and tails underneath his preaching robe. His sermon topics regularly engaged the social and political issues of the early 20th century: the necessity of prohibition, whether bank deposits should be guaranteed, the cost of coal, playing sports on Sunday, municipal corruption and graft, the depraved presidency of FDR, and the modernist-fundamentalist controversy (best typified by the 1925 Scopes trial).

A firebrand of a preacher, Conrad rained down weekly brimstone on Boston’s saints and they loved it. However Conrad didn’t reserve his consecrated ire just for those gathered in the pews. Reportedly, whenever Conrad caught wind of wanton legislation being debated up at the State House, he’d bolt out of the church and charge up Park St. to confront the governor and legislators head on. Justifying his feisty engagement with the political powers, Conrad said, “[the church is] too much afraid of open collision. We spend our time parlaying about consequences. The apostles told the truth and told it straight without such adjustment as emasculates the truth declared. …The atmosphere of true spirituality is not rose-scented. It smells of battle. The men who have shaped the destiny of nations have been men who have breathed the flame that was designed to consume them and who have grown vigorous in such an atmosphere.”

Times have changed. Expectations that government will heel to the demands of a local congregation or minister are generally quite low—and perhaps even unwarranted. To entrust Christian morality to secular implementation is always a dubious enterprise. Whenever Christianity has sought legitimization from civil authority it usually loses its salt. Still, there are times when the people of God are compelled toward more confrontational postures even if the expectation is failure. John the Baptist (the ongoing subject of my summer sermons) held nothing back in railing against the religious establishment of his day for their woeful double standards, against the general populace for their total depravity, and against the political rulers for their wanton behavior.

Matthew 14 details John’s combative posture toward Herod Antipas, the ruling son of King Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was a Jewish tetrarch, one of four joint rulers who served under Caesar’s authority. He was vain and corrupt—no surprise given that his entire family tree rotted with incessant backbiting, backstabbing, conspiracy and bad manners. What particularly incited John’s indignation was Herod’s dumping his first wife (the daughter of the King of Arabia) in order to swipe the wife of his brother Philip. This move was in blatant violation of Torah, socially repugnant and just plain rude. Outraged, John lashed out against Herod and his former sister-in-law-now-wife, Herodias. As Herodias herself was complicit in all of this, John exposed her own sick and insatiable lust for power. Duly offended, Herodias screamed for John’s head.

Mark’s gospel portrays Herod with a trace of scruple: he recognized that John was a holy and righteous man. But Herod was also motivated by political prudence. He feared that beheading such a popular prophet would incite a riot. So rather than decapitate, Herod chose to incarcerate. Herodias was left to “nurse her grudge” against the belligerent Baptist until a more opportune time. Such a time arrived on Herod’s birthday where along with his sycophant friends, Herod partied hard, cranked the tunes and drank like a fish. Once everybody got all liquored up, in rolled the oversized cake. Perhaps anticipating the emergence of a regular run of the mill stripper, all eyes popped out when out popped instead the princess, the daughter of Herodias. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus names her Salome. Modern historians insist that a queen and princess would never have resorted to such behavior—which only goes to show how messed up they really were.

Salome must have danced a pretty erotic number because by the end of it, she had her stepfather swearing impulsively before his high ranking guests that he’d give her anything, “up to half his kingdom” Mark adds (even though Herod had no kingdom to grant). Quickly, before Herod sobered up and changed his mind, Salome raced to her mother and asked her what to ask for. Herodias didn’t blink. She wanted the head of the Baptist. So Salome sashayed back past the banquet table—where getting a morbid idea—she requested John’s head on a platter. Herod sobered up real quick at that. He was greatly distressed—grieved we read—stuck between saving an innocent man and saving face. Yet more unwilling to lose the latter, Herod relented and ordered John’s head served up.

John’s bold and righteous stand against Herod’s evil? It apparently failed. The party went on and John’s headless body went to the cemetery. If he’d kept his mouth shut, or at least been less brash, perhaps he could have made more of an impact. As it was, nothing changed. But isn’t that usually how it goes? Conrad railed against intoxication, sports on Sunday and the modernists in Boston, but prohibition was repealed, sports proliferate on Sundays, and the modernists have moved on to postmodernism. Churches continue to combat poverty and hunger, illiteracy, inequality and injustice, violence and war—but none of these things ever really go away. There are some successes of course, but just as often the recovering addict relapses, the hungry get hungry again, the violence continues.

Several years ago I worked with a young girl whose crack-addict mother occasionally made her daughter sleep on the porch while she partied inside. I tutored the girl as part of a church-sponsored homework assistance program where I also tried to instill some hope as we talked about faith and about Jesus. I tried to convince her that she didn’t have to stay trapped in her current life. The local church, adults like myself, the power of God—we were all willing and able to help. I thought we were making progress, but then one day she just quit coming. A city youth worker suspected she got caught up in crack herself. He said that’s usually how it goes.

So why bother? Why waste time on what seems so doomed to fail? Because that’s what it means to follow God. Back in Isaiah, God commanded his people to “share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor with shelter. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not to turn away from those who need your help. …if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” As God incarnate, Jesus exemplified God’s passion as he fed the hungry and confronted injustice and cared for the sick and preached good news to the poor. He defended the outcast and those stuck on the fringes of society—the least of humanity. Moreover, as fully human in Christ—as fully poor and scandalously human—God staked his own lot with the least of humanity. So much so that however you treat the least among people, Jesus said that was the same as doing it to him.

Interestingly, Jesus’ identification with the poor never made any of the poor prosperous. As far as we can tell, nobody who followed Jesus ever saw their social standing improve. If anything, most people who decided to follow Jesus and were not already poor and outcast became poor and outcast and seemingly doomed to failure themselves—it was somehow what a successful Christian life looked like.

It’s surely what the life of John the Baptist looked like. Which may be why Herod rightly linked John to Jesus. John not only served as the forerunner to Jesus with his life but with his death too. The gospels’ detailed description of John’s death previews Jesus’ own death. Like John, Jesus antagonized the ruling authorities by exposing their evil cloaked behind veils of piety and pride. Like John, Jesus enraged those lustful for power and position. Like John, Jesus was arrested on trumped up charges. Like John, Jesus’ enemies wanted him dead. But due to his popularity, as with John, Jesus’ enemies had to await a more opportune time.

Passover week in Jerusalem provided the opportunity. A raucous clearing of the Temple. A willing traitor for a friend. A riled up citizenry. A conflicted ruler, Pontius Pilate, stuck between saving an innocent man and saving face eventually acquiescing to the latter. Jesus’ bold and righteous stand against sin? It apparently failed. The party went on and Jesus’ pierced body went to the cemetery. If he’d kept his mouth shut, or at least been less radical, perhaps he could have made more of an impact. Perhaps he could have done more good. He could have definitely healed more people, fed more people, won over a few more converts. If only he’d listened to Peter and skirted the cross. If only he’d given in to Satan then all the kingdoms of the world would have been his to control and reform.

But Jesus took the way doomed to fail—the way of ironic success. As St. Paul would write to the Colossians: “Christ disarmed the powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them by the cross.” In a theme recurrent throughout our sermons this summer and throughout the gospels, the victory of God is assured only through defeat; winning only through losing. It boggles our mind that it would work this way, but perhaps the reason is so that we won’t claim credit for the win (God gets the glory) and so that we won’t lose heart. As Christians we may feel like failures and look like losers, but somehow that’s what winners look like in the Kingdom of God.

As part of one summer vacation I engaged in a week of intensely competitive Cribbage—with my then 9-year-old niece. She loved to play card games and was always eager to deal even though she never could beat me—I’m that good. Finally, on the last night of her visit, with her yet to prevail a single time, I decided to stop feeding my own pathetic ego and let the little kid win. I mean c’mon, she’s my niece. She’s 9. I like her. So I fed her hand loads of good cards and points until finally she pegged across the finish line first, raised her arms, widened her eyes and exclaimed, “I won! I’ve never won cribbage before! I beat Uncle Daniel!” And the then she grinned at me, lowered her hand [in the L-shape] to her forehead and happily taunted me in earshot of all: “Loser! Uncle Daniel is a loser!”

Losing never felt so good.

After that girl I tutored never came back, I switched over to another student, a boy from a nearby housing project. I likewise befriended him and tried to not only help him with his homework but also give him some hope as we talked about faith and about Jesus. He’d ask me to pray for his brain. It was a running joke of ours. I’d lay hands on his head and ask God to heal his ignorance. It didn’t help a whole lot though. He still struggled in school. But he did show up every Tuesday for that prayer. He’d often wonder aloud why it was that I showed up every week to spend an hour with him. I told him that I liked him and that Jesus loved him and that somebody needed to help him. He said, “Man, you only do this because you’re a Christian.” I said, “That’s true.” And he liked that. It’s how he knew I’d keep coming.

The bread that we break and the blood we partake is to us a reminder that the broken and bloody way of the cross is the way we must follow if we are to follow Jesus. Most days it feels like failure and makes us look like losers, but inasmuch as God in Christ “disarmed the powers and authorities and made a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them by the cross,” the failure and loss of the cross remains the victory of God. We eat and drink to this certain hope that is ours in Christ. It is a hope that insists that no matter how dark and twisted things get, the resurrection of Jesus will redeem heaven and earth, freeing them from all that has thus far resisted God’s grace. “Therefore we do not lose heart,” Paul wrote, “though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles prepare us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

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