A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
July 11, 2021
John the Baptizer had said a lot of things in his life that were controversial. Mark doesn’t report much of his preaching, but we get more from Luke’s gospel, where John called God’s chosen people a “brood of vipers”.
He called out religious leaders.
He called everyone to repentance and made clear that Jesus was changing the world:
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’” (Luke 3: 16-17)
I’m sure John considered the risks. When you say unpopular things, when you anger authorities and challenge religious and political assumptions, when you ask people to change, you face backlash.
John, like the prophets before and after him, was still compelled to preach the message God had given him to preach.
I think of what Martin Luther King, Jr said the night before he was assassinated in Memphis:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen to me now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter what happens to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
I trust and pray that John had a similar sense of peace that came along with the challenge of his prophetic call.
I also wonder if John ever thought the thing that would get him killed would be his critique of Herodias and the dance of her daughter and not any of his religious pronouncements?
I titled this sermon Game of Herodians, because it reminds me of the Game of Thrones, a popular series of books by George RR Martin and an even more popular series of shows on HBO. Game of Thrones is not for the faint of heart. The violence is the story, in many ways. The bad characters are really, really bad. The good characters are only sort of bad. The problem in Game of Thrones is that it is the game that’s the problem. All these characters are playing a game, with lives on the line, that is corrupt. We love to hate the characters for their flaws, but who could be pure coming out of a corrupt system like that? Even the religious leaders in the Game of Thrones are some of the worst people. And if you’re a person without any power in that world, forget about it. You’ll be fodder for war, or dragons, or climate change.
Same in this story, or Game of Herodians. It’s easy to look at these characters and see their faults. But how could you play the game they are playing and not be faulted? This doesn’t excuse their terrible behavior, which is all bad. But it reminds me that the game won’t end when Herod and Herodias are off their thrones. New people will sub in and the game continues.
Herodias was not just an angry woman, insulted by a prophet, although people like to portray her as just that. She married a man who was the son of Herod the Great and the grandson of the high priest. Political and religious dynasty family. Imagine a child of George Bush married a child of Billy Graham.
And she walked away from that marriage and married her husband’s half brother. Women get in trouble for doing that today. Just think about it happening 2,000 years ago.
Her new husband abandoned his first wife to marry Herodias. And his first wife was the daughter of the King of the Nabateans, a country south and east of Israel. I bet that divorce went over well with the King of Nabatea.
For Herodias, the game is to stay as close to political power as she can, because that’s the only chance she can see for a woman to control her own destiny.
And Herod Antipas, we’re told, is “pleased” by the dancing of his step daughter/niece, which makes me go “eww”. He’s just like all the other men who talk about possibly dating their daughters while they hang out with Jeffrey Epstein and his sex trafficking buddies.
Herod Antipas is playing the game just because he can. He has all the power, all the privilege, and carte blanche to be as disgusting as he chooses to be, with very little in the way of consequences.
John the Baptist appears to be the one person who is willing to publicly call him out. And the consequences follow because John refuses to play the game.
Herodias’ response to her husband’s “pleasure” at her own daughter’s dancing is to use his nasty mind for her political gain, which breaks my heart for her daughter. The daughter is now learning to play this corrupt game. “What should I ask for?”, she asks her mother when her stepdad/uncle offers her half his kingdom.
We should hate the game, even more than we hate the behavior of these characters, playing a game that leads to death, to power at any cost, and to some notion that to keep one’s word and one’s reputation, killing an innocent man is the price you’re willing to pay.
The Herodian dynasty is a soap opera. And I suspect people in Jerusalem loved the scandal in the same way people today care about keeping up with the Kardashians.
Their familial drama served as a distraction to bigger issues and systemic political problems, which is how the game works. Herod Antipas held the Jewish people and traditions in contempt and “built his capital city, Tiberias, on an ancient burial ground, rendering the city ritually unclean to religiously observant Jews.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 3, p. 239)
With that level of disregard, I wonder how valued by their government did the Jewish people feel?
This story reminds us that we get distracted by salacious details of private lives and miss the real scandal of bad public policy. That’s how the game works.
Notice this the next time CNN is fixated on the fake scandal de jour while the real news is ignored.
When we take down confederate flags and statues, but won’t address the harms of slavery and racism, we’re playing a bad game.
When we hire people of color to lead churches, denominations, governments—but then we don’t change the structures of those organizations to address the way racism built them up—we’re playing a bad game and these gifted leaders and candidates are often called “failures” because they didn’t fix our problems, often because we refuse to change. We play the game and they are the casualties.
We can’t say “mission accomplished” when we do symbolic acts but are still playing a bad game. I’ve learned a lot by participating in the Racial Equity book discussions. I invite you to read, and learn, and act, too. I pray this will be a beginning of work for some of us and that we will join in the continuation of struggle that some people have been living with their entire lives long. Let’s not get distracted.
This week in the news, I read that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the award winning journalist who writes for the New York Times and is the author of the 1619 Project, the long-form journalism project which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the United States’ national narrative.”
She had been hired to teach at her alma mater, University of North Carolina, but was denied tenure. They later granted her tenure but she decided to leave and take an offer to teach at Howard University, a Historically Black College. Her statement on the decision is well written and worth a read. Here’s an excerpt from it where she talks about not wanting to play their game:
“Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.
“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in
“But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight. And I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were.”
I appreciate the way she tried to play the game, but even more I appreciate the way she called out the problems with the game. UNC is facing a lot of criticism, and some of it is valid, but in her statement, she also lifted up the things she loved about UNC, and the people and students who had supported her. She recognizes it is important to hate the game, but not the players.
Last week we heard of Jesus’ reception in his hometown. After that, he then sent the disciples out in pairs, with authority over unclean spirits, to heal and cast out demons. This story we heard this morning will be followed by the return of the disciples and the report they give to Jesus about their success.
And Mark very intentionally inserts this Game of Herodians story right into the middle of it.
We’re told, Herod had heard of Jesus, for Jesus’ name had become known.
And the fears Herod had about John the Baptizer were perhaps even greater about this peasant who had been baptized by John and was now healing people and casting out demons—and even worse, was commissioning and equipping others to do it in his name.
Herod thought he’d metaphorically cut off the head of the snake when he literally cut John the Baptist’s body from his head. Now it seems it has grown back and multiplied. How was he going to put down this insurrection when it happened? It was no longer as simple as removing one person from the scene.
While the disciples and the followers of Jesus seem a little confused at times about who he is, Herod seems to see him quite clearly—Jesus is a threat to the stability of the powers that be.
And perhaps one of the reasons Mark dumps the story right here in the middle of the commissioning of the disciples is to remind us both that being disciples is dangerous work and that comparisons of Jesus and John the Baptist are to be highlighted, not dismissed.
Jesus is carrying out the work of John, and embodying his message, and equipping others to spread the message too. And with this interlude of palace intrigue and prophet murder, Mark reminds us that this Message is dangerous to the game the political power brokers want us to play. And when we obey Christ’s command to go out and heal people and proclaim his Good News, the leaders will notice. And they will not be amused.
Do we live as if the Gospel is dangerous?
Do we live as if the Gospel is in agreement with the political leaders and the game they are playing?
Or does the Gospel compel us to call out the depravity of the game?
John’s critique of Herod and Herodias was, ultimately, an invitation for them to also live free lives, to live into who God was calling them to be. But they could not see their way out of their game of death, dishonor, and violence. Our work for the Gospel is to invite everyone—whether friend or Herod—to live better lives, to build a better world for all.
The good news of the Gospel is never an excuse for our bad behavior. The phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” is often used as an excuse when we want to get away with bad behavior just because the rules of the game allow us to. Think about people skirting or benefiting from the tax code, or other situations where they take advantage of the rules, or the lack thereof, for their own benefit.
But in truth, our faith calls us to proclaim inconvenient and unpopular truths about the game, often to people in power. Not just with the aim of bringing down the mighty players, but with the hope of restoration for all.
When Jesus sends out the disciples in pairs, and they heal people and cast out demons, he sends them without the tools of the game. They are told to take only themselves. No food, no money, no extra tunics. They don’t heal people because they have designer sandals or can get reservations at the fancy restaurant in town. It isn’t their access to wealth or power that heals. No wonder Herod saw Jesus as a threat.
I invite you to observe, to notice, as we live our lives, watch and read the news, react to the stories of the day—are we distracted by the game? Can we even notice it when we’ve been trained to play it our whole lives? Are we ready to walk away from the game so we can be sent by Jesus out to heal and to help? What do you need to set down so Jesus can send you on this journey?
This journey of faith we’re called to is personal work that we can’t do alone. It’s why Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs. The gift of a faith community like this is that we can come alongside each other on the difficult journey. It is such a gift to be here, to be able to worship together, both in person and online. Even though my one year anniversary as your pastor is next month, I feel like we are just getting started. I look forward to seeing where this journey will take us. And I’m grateful for the faithfulness of God, which has delivered us through this pandemic and to today. Amen.