In today’s Gospel, we hear the account of Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. There is no doubt that this passage and the account of Herod’s slaughtering of innocents are the two Gospel passages that few, if any pastors, want to focus their homilies on. Both describe horrific violence, and the taking of life. More often than not these accounts lead us to ask. . .why God would permit such atrocities. While this is a fair question and worth pondering, the time spent pondering WHY distracts us from the greater issue of the abuse of power. In both instances, Herod the Great and his son, Herod Antipas resort to violence in order to preserve power. Herod the Great kills hundreds of innocent children in order to protect his power as the King of Judah and Israel, Herod Antipas kills John the baptizer in order to save face among members of his court. Both accounts are extreme renderings of an empire in which power is predicated upon corruption, violence, dominance and unabashed wealth. These Gospel accounts also serve to remind the reader that earthly power can become the chains of sin in our lives that bind us to the very heart of darkness itself.
So this morning, as we explore our Gospel passage, I ask us to move our focus away from the violence and the gore, and onto Herod himself.
History has not been kind to Herod Antipas, he was one of three sons born to King Herod the Great, who upon his father’s death, along with his two brothers inherited a third of his father’s kingdom. Often described as weak and inept, he did not have the knack for governing as his father did, and because of this, never quite found the respect he sought both from his people and from the Emperor. Antipas was named Tetrarch or Viceroy of Galilee and was never named king by the Roman Emperor. When it came to maintaining power, Antipas maintained his position through sheer force as opposed to gaining the trust and good will of his subjects.
Laughed at by the Emperor and despised by his subjects, Antipas wasn’t totally cold. Beneath his seemingly cold exterior was a heart that longed for something greater. At least this is what our passage implies when we are told “Herod feared John, knowing he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed: and yet he liked to listen to him.”
Somehow, even those who live within the thickest walls of evil and corruption are stilled awed and stirred by the Word of God. But that does not necessarily mean they will follow what they hear. As I said earlier, the desire for power and prestige often inescapably binds us to the heart of darkness. Antipas knew his marriage to Harodias, his brothers wife, was against God. However, instead of listening to what John had to say, he chose to imprison him instead. Antipas knew beheading John the baptizer for no reason was the equivalent to murder, but the need to impress and to save face within in his court won out. Perhaps in this passage, what we have been given a glimpse of is the ancient version of peer pressure.
As we explore Herod Antipas it becomes so easy to look around us and to point fingers at others. But, truth be told, the Gospels are rarely intended for finger pointing but for looking at oneself in the mirror. Perhaps none of us have had the opportunity to directly hold another’s life in our hands, or felt empowered to offer or deny justice to another. But in many ways, big and small, we have these chances every day as we choose between serving the expectations of Rome over those the Kingdom. It happens in subtle ways . . .when we choose to be silent on issues of justice in the face of opposition. Or fail to defend the weak in the face of violence or in an effort to maintain the status quo.
Pastor Martin Niemoller addressed this topic best when wrote the following words in protest of the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me
As I look back over my own life, I know there are many times, when i,like Herod Anitpas, chose maintaining the status quo as opposed to clearing the way for the kingdom of God. I know in one instance I justified my lack of fortitude as good pasturing. It happened when I first arrived here. Gene Robinson had just been elected as the Bishop of New Hampshire. Rather than polarize the parish, I remained mute on my approval for the move and my over all acceptance of Gay and Lesbian people. To this day, many would agree what I did was the right thing to do as I steered this congregation through the choppy waters of accepting same-sex relationships. Yet, at the same time my actions still denied a full relationship with the church to one who needed it most, a gay woman who most remember as Kimberly Stiles. At the memorial service we celebrated on what would have been her 29th birthday, I found the courage to say what should have been said three years earlier. In my homily that morning, I openly discussed where I stood on the issues of human sexuality. That morning, I ended my homily with the following words:
” I know from several conversations what Kimberly truly wanted more than anything was a church that she felt was truly hers. One of her biggest complaints with me and the Episcopal Church was that she never truly knew where she stood as a gay person. I challenge the community of St. Luke’s to honor Kimberly’s life and love for us by striving to become an open and accepting congregation, to work towards breaking down the wall that wrongly separates gay and lesbian people from God and to more fully live up to our vision of bringing all people to God’s healing embrace.”
Yes, even clergy can fall into the trap of Herod Antipas, as we too fail to find the courage we need to move the Kingdom forward as we justify our actions as good politics, or in fear of loosing the advantages maintaining the status quo offers us. Like Herod Antipas, we too, clergy and laity alike struggle with the chains of power and prestige that bind us to darkness. And yet, even within our own struggles, God still calls to us and offers us over and over again the opportunity to break free of the chains that bind us to the heart of darkness itself.