PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH CATHEDRAL, MONTREAL
SUNDAY, JULY 12, 2015
Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
The first time I came home after having been away at school was an odd experience. I remember having conversations with my parents in which I no longer felt like a child talking to a parent or authority figure. I felt for the first time like I was in a relationship of equals with my parents. We were in balance. In short, we were friends. Now, my parents were not authoritarian. Far from it. In fact if I could sum them up in one word it would be something along the lines of ‘affirming’ or ‘enabling’. Loving of course. They were partners on a journey. My journey. And I never doubted that. And yet I never felt totally at ease with our relationship growing up because, let’s face it, there is something that stands in the way of that ease of reciprocal relationship, and that is power.
A parent, no matter how they may choose to exercise it, holds power over their child. As a teenager, as I was beginning to grow in awareness of my own abilities and capacity for influence and decision-making I was struck by the conundrum of my parents. Just by the fact of their being my parents I still felt subject to them. I felt limited in relation to them. I wanted to put that hierarchical relationship back into balance. Anyways, I left home to go to school here and each time I would return home, I would get a chance to re-connect, and re-visit those old questions of how to relate to my parents. The assumed hierarchical relationship was slowly eroding itself – quite pleasantly I might add – and what emerged and what continues to emerge is a wonderful nurturing friendship, one of mutual support and encouragement. The relationship is being brought into balance. It is less limiting.
Finally it seemed I was on the way to embracing the fullness of their humanity and realize the complexities of their lives and experiences without that anxious fear of being subject to authority hanging over my head which so often prevents us digging deeper into the mystery that is another person. Our relationship continues to become one that allows each to be more fully human – as God wants us to be. There is still power in that relationship, but it is a different kind of power dynamic. It is the power of an all-embracing love, it is the power of freedom from the constraints of coercive human power. It is more in line with God’s power. And it is this kind of power that I believe the texts we heard this morning point us towards. For the relationships in these stories are in need of just this kind of re-balancing act.
To start with, the prophet Amos speaks of God setting down a plumb line in the midst of the people. There is debate over whether ‘plumb line’ is the correct translation, however a plumb line is a tool used to determine whether an object (say, a painting) is in balance. So something is out of balance, or off-centre, and needs to be corrected. Something to do with the coercive power structures of Israel, particularly the court of King Jeroboam. His power is threatened by God’s message, a message from God speaking through a ‘herdsman and dresser of Sycamore trees.’ Somehow the coercive power of the state upsets God. Maybe it is corrupt. Maybe it is abusive. In any case it is clearly very different from God’s power. Just look at who God chooses to proclaim God’s truth: the lowly herdsman Amos. God chooses someone devoid of any human sanctioned authority: he is not a prophet, nor a prophet’s son. He is, as I said, a herdsman and dresser of Sycamore trees. For speaking that truth in God’s power, Amos is banished.
And then we move to this rather gruesome gospel text. Here we have John. Herod, like King Jeroboam stands in a position of power. John the Baptist, like Amos, does not hold such power. Yet he too speaks truth to this same kind of power when he calls Herod out regarding his marital conduct. Herod in turn feels threatened. He has John locked up. And despite Herod’s genuine fascination and admiration of John, Herod allows himself to be coerced into having him beheaded. Ruthless pragmatism seems to triumph over compassion. It is disturbing, it is grotesque, ugly and distressing. For this story unmasks the corroding effect hierarchical power can have on human relationships and displays it for us in all its gruesomeness.
This is human power at its worst: it de-humanizes. Governed by fear it takes a human life and reduces it to something other, something lesser, something that is discardable. It denies a relationship established by God. Now Herod is a human being, obviously. His desire to protect, and to listen to John is revealing of his human desire to be in relationship with this holy and righteous man whom he admires and fears. Herod does recognize there shared humanity for he was ‘deeply grieved.’ And yet despite this Herod has John killed. He makes a foolish oath. The constraints put on him by his social obligations to others, and the desire for self-preservation all converge with the result that what emerges is a picture of a weak, fearful, and ruthless king who discards the life of an innocent man for the sake of appearances. Herod denies not only John’s humanity, but his own as well and thereby denies God’s creative act in having created human beings. De-humanizing. Making us less than what God has created.
So where is the good news in this? Well, first of all that we are given the grace to recognize Herod’s foolishness, for we are not destined to be like Herod. There is another kind of power given to us, a power that is far more subtle yet far more powerful than Herod’s. It is the power demonstrated by John and Amos. They are free to speak their message, limitless in its scope and it resonates deeply and loudly with Herod and with Jeroboam. This is God’s power, which is the all-embracing, creative and humanizing love without the limitations and de-humanizing of hierarchical, coercive power. It is the power that comes with recognizing the image of God in the other person that allows us to re-balance our relationships.
If we think back to the anecdote at the beginning of this sermon it was when I saw my parents as equals, as friends that I was more able to embrace their humanity and therefore be empowered to see them in their fullness. That is not to say their authority over me in childhood was unhealthy. It simply became a limitation as I grew out of that niche. And for them it is equally rewarding to see that shift in our relationship.
The paradox of the gospel is that it is not controlling coercive power that will redeem us, but a letting go of precisely that kind of power that will do so. A willingness not to be lesser or greater than others but in balance with others in our relationships while surrendering ourselves to God. As written in the letter to the Ephesians, ‘With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all’ (not just some things) ‘all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ The good news is that we do not need to be in control of all things because God is. God has provided and continues to provide for us. We know what happens when we refuse acknowledge this and strive for more and more power. Think about Herod. The good news is that you and your neighbour share something profound, a sanctity that cannot be taken away. The good news is that when we recognize these two truths (that God is in control and that we are each holy) we are set free to fully participate in God’s powerful love. With God’s help we can restore the balance in our relationships. And that is power.