Pentecost 7 Amos 7:7-15 Mark 6:14-29
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This morning we have heard the story of John the Baptist’s head being offered on a plate to Herod, the puppet ruler for Rome whose mandate included Galilee. I like John the Baptist. Although later editors of the New Testament try to gloss over it, it’s probable he was Jesus’ mentor. John knew fear, felt fear, probably compromised on incidentals, and yet did it anyway. In the final analysis John was killed because he pissed off the local potentate and his sycophants.
I think most ideas that challenge the unjust foundations of Church and State will face similar opposition, and those who articulate them run the risk of being served as a side dish at the banquet of power. Yet we need to call the political and spiritual Herods to account. By their actions or inactions the good news of God in Jesus is not being realized. By their actions - though it’s largely their inactions - injustice continues, poverty continues, exclusion continues… and they, and we, fail to place loving thy neighbour as our standard and goal.
Let’s be clear about that love of neighbour phrase that Jesus borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures. As you probably remember he attached to it the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of that parable is that the one who is the neighbour is not the man in the ditch but the Samaritan. It is the racial, cultural and spiritual enemy – the one who threatens your faith, your understanding of the world, and the egotism that puts you at the centre of the world – who is your neighbour. To love him or her is to give up your centrality, your all-encompassing closed worldview, in order to make room for the threatening outsider and his/her ideas and whanau. To love thy neighbour is to feel the fear and be changed.
At General Synod/te Hinota Whanui in the last nine days as well as some moving speeches, not least from our Pacifica hosts, I have seen plenty of obfuscation and inaction which would not have been unknown to anyone familiar with the politics of a Herod’s Court. Polynesia was magnificent in their hospitality, aroha and grace. Yet those in control of the Court were not Polynesia. Those in control, with the veneer of a bumbling niceness, allowed self-interest, prevarication, and defensiveness to dominant. In such a Court context the enemy was the inconvenient question, the agitator, the media, and the tweeter and facebooker. It is hard to find one’s way through the intricacies of this Court to expose the inexplicit Herodian theology and practice without prematurely losing one’s head.
Let me give an example. There is widespread concern about the policies of the Key Government who in response to the recession [but probably planned anyway] have protected the income and benefits of the rich while cutting into the support and resources available to the poor. However this concern did not permeate through the intricacies of Herod’s Court in order to translate into specific actions of protest. Indeed even the three social justice motions [none of which dealt with this fundamental wealth disparity] were not discussed. We ‘ran out of time’. Eight days of long lunch breaks, half hour morning and afternoon teas, socializing etc had more priority. Even at the 11th hour when in a formal question [which meant no debate] I gave the archbishops the wording to criticize the NZ government, I was treated as a nuisance, a disrupter of smooth business.
There were two motions discussed in relation to the ongoing Church policies of excluding gays and lesbians from ordained ministry and the sacrament of marriage. What Herod’s Court is grappling with here are deep-seated institutional fears of change, of difference, of living in a pluralistic world, of disunity within the Court, more concerned with conservatives [and their money] – conservatives who can of course be married and ordained in the church – than with the exclusion of the largely invisible gays and lesbians. As an institution this Court is benignly [and sometimes explicitly] homophobic, despite the grace and aroha of many individuals and congregations within it some of whom are evangelical.
I offered, purposefully, a ten minute journey [courtesy of Professor Hamori [i] of Union Theological Seminary] into biblical material related to marriage and how it has changed in tandem with culture – particularly highlighting the days when married had to be within the family, when polygamy was normative, when the prohibition against mixed religious/racial marriage was allowed then prohibited and then allowed, the Jesus prohibition against divorce, and the stupidity of basing any sound theology on the de facto relationship between Adam and Eve. I think for many Synod members they’d never heard a biblical argument along these lines.
The General Synod debate was quite moving. Most speakers from Polynesia and from Tikanga Maori spoke supportively of the idea. Only the more conservative Pakeha dioceses spoke against my use of the Bible. How dare I use the Court’s handbook to argue for change! I was being ‘disingenuous’. They of course, like many at Court, hadn’t done their homework and come prepared. Their sloppiness showed. The motion asked for discussion to take place right across our Church, in parishes, commissions, and synods, on this issue and report back to both the next General Synod at Paihia in 2014.
The second motion was about the freedom of a diocesan bishop to ordain whomever he or she chooses, albeit acting within the bounds of the Canons. Where the argument should take place is around what constitutes chastity [a requirement of priests]. The Canon says it’s a right ordering of sexual relationships, thus begging the question of what we consider a right relationship. However, the debate didn’t get into that. People still wanted to express their feelings and experiences and the Court’s presidium wanted to close it down, put it safely in the ‘we-will-consider-this-later-basket’ and go to morning tea. It was tabled. Meaning there was no vote on it.
So, what was that excursion into a subject deeply affecting the LGBTQ community all about? Well, the debate signaled to the conservatives that they have lost their majority hold on the Anglican Church, if they ever had it. But the Herods and their courtiers, wanting to be kind and pastoral and practical, don’t want anyone or their money and congregations to leave. So, defer, talk unity, talk Commission, and while all the time knowing that end of the heterosexual stranglehold on admission to the priesthood and on the sacrament of marriage is coming.
In the story of John Baptist’s beheading there is the role of Salome the dancer and Herodias her mother [who wanted to end the Baptist’s criticism of her]. Both women were caught in the powerful web of the Court and its subservience to its Lord, Herod. My understanding of how the dynamics of such courts work is that Herodias asked of Herod what she believed, and others in the web believed, he really wanted. When power relationships are strictly hierarchical, not mutual, the subservient wife becomes adept at only asking for what she knows the all-powerful Lord will want to give.
This too I would suggest is how we should read the story of the death of King David’s rebellious son Absalom who was murdered by David’s number one muscle, Joab [2 Samuel 18]. Joab of course gets the blame, and David weeps long and loud. This is Court bullshit. The subservient one is very careful to perceive his master pleasure and do it. The religious scribes who later wrote up this account deliberately added to the PR spin on David ‘the humble shepherd boy with sling and sandals’ and exonerated the same of filicide.
I suspect the scribal community, always wanting to appease political masters, did the same centuries later with the beheading of the Baptist story, wanting to blame the so called ‘wicked woman’. Sound familiar?
In State and Church it is not uncommon to see the principles of Herod’s Court at work. At General Synod women rarely spoke and rarely chaired any of the proceedings. They were often absent from the negotiating groups dominated by the technocrat mind trying to change wording of motions and bills to encompass the span of differences and transform something pointed into an inoffensive compromise.
Interestingly at one stage the Court I’ve been a part of was told an old story. The Russian Orthodox Church was meeting when the Czarist regime fell and the Bolshevik Revolution happened. The news was conveyed to the gathering. They chose to continue with their business for the next four days, deliberating on liturgy and liturgical vestments. I had heard this story told before in the context of a salutary reminder of our need to engage with the world rather than hide in the rarefied environment of our ecclesiastical world. However this time, our Court told it in a manner that was not disparaging of the Russian Church but joked that they had outlasted the Bolsheviks. I felt like vomiting at that point.
The Courts of now and of long ago have an institutional aversion to prophets and their ideas. Prophets disrupt business. They question the pre-set agenda. They question who has the power and why. They don’t do fear. They say it how they see it. They tell anyone who will listen how the lord emperor is dressed, without getting the emperor’s permission to say it. And the lord emperors are not amused, indeed privately are very angry. But it is often their loyal followers [like Herodias or Joab] who act on that anger, seeking to serve up the critic on a dish to their master.
Modern day prophets and prophecy, and those of us who try to walk albeit stumblingly that path, call the Court – whether of Church or State - to adhere to a standard, a plumbline as Amos might say, accountable to the ministry and mission standards of Jesus and his mentor John the Baptist. Prophets say it loud, say it long, and they are not liked.
On Friday I symbolically tried to shake the Court’s dust off my soul as I landed in Auckland, drove to St Matt's, kissed the pavement, and gave thanks for this wonderful cosmopolitan pluralistic city that at its heart doesn't do fear.