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King Herod and the Governor of California - Sermon

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A homily about how King Herod does the wrong thing, what he knows is the wrong thing, just to save face and make good on a bad promise. And how the Governor of California resembles that. 

Please, I suggest you listen to the sermon in the link below. I went way off the text this time, but feel free to browse the text notes that are added for your convenience.  Cary

Sermon delivered at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, of San Francisco, by Cary Bass-Deschenes 

July 12, 2015  - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

"King Herod and the Governor of California" - Lectionary text from Mark 6:14-29


Click here for sermon audio

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer.   Amen.

In our reading from Mark today we find something different and unusual, and it's a rather surprisingly hard ending that does not seem to bring us the typical good news that we have been getting all of this season. 

In the first place, Jesus is explicitly missing from the narrative. Oh, sure, he's certainly mentioned, by virtue of rumor in Herod's ears, but not actually present in this part.  

Secondly, the main bulk of this narrative is not actually the present time in Mark. Here we have this rather paranoid king, and with good reason, ruminating on this person he's been hearing about named Jesus, who some say is a prophet, some say is Elijah, and some others, who Herod agrees with, say he's John the Baptist come back from his beheading, resurrected or reincarnated or whatever the Roman vassal king Herod was inclined to believe.  And why not, because being a typical King, Herod thinks it is entirely about him, and naturally, this Jesus is the returned one of a man who he happened to have unfairly executed.  

And, as we read in the flashback, it was not anything that Herod wanted to actually do. He was having a good time with Herod in his prisons. While the strange man frightened Herod, the King, who seems to be someone interested in the mysterious, also enjoyed listening to John the Baptist. But his wife, who was either the divorced wife of his brother, also named Herod, or widow of him depending on the accounts you read, tired of the accusations leveled by John on her because she remarried Herod, had a different take on the situation and was not happy to have him around. 

And so, in classical biblical style that seems as much borrowed from older legendary influences as it is original to the Gospel, the King makes a promise to his beloved stepdaughter and cannot back out when she asks for the unthinkable, the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  

It's gory, for certain. It's not something you expect of a teenage girl, even one who has been raised in royal households with an immature mind and a tendency to objectify those beneath her. And the king has promised her half of his kingdom besides.  So why does she take the advice of her mother and ask for such a petty ending to the prophet in their jail cells? Authors of the last two centuries have tried to recreate motives for her and rationale with various literary success.  But ultimately the tale pans out to the oath that Herod Antipas made to her. Anything her heart desires. 

And out of regard to his oath and to save face in front of his guests, Herod complies. And in the end he winds up performing a particularly heinous deed, against this man, John the Baptist, who is already under his power, who is already imprisoned in his household, and for no better reason than to please his guests and fulfill an oath he made carelessly to the daughter of his wife. 

Andrea Vaccaro, Tête de Saint-Jean BaptisteHow easy it seems like it would have been for him to do the right thing and refuse her? How easy it should have been for Herod to say, "Don't be ridiculous, Salome, this is not something you actually want. I have offered you half my kingdom, and you want such a terrible thing. I'm afraid the consequences of this request are too severe, you must choose something that is actually in my power to give." How his arrogance gives him the belief he has power over life and death! How humility could have made all the difference in the world, and this could have had such a less tragic ending.

You might have read in your bulletins that I am awaiting call. Well, the good news, my sisters and brothers is that this morning my name will be announced by the call committee of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley as their pastor, to be voted on in two weeks time. One of the things that makes me an especially suitable pastor for this church which does work with marginal populations such as homeless youth and people with prison records is my affinity for those populations. 

While I have been awaiting call, I have engaged in volunteer ministry at San Quentin prison several times a week and I work on the outside with convicted felons, who have come out from long term incarceration in California prisons and it makes me wonder about how we can live in the most liberal of states, and I use that term liberally, and still have such a regressive penal institution? 

How can we have the lowest crime rate in decades and still have a growing prison population?  Why is it that when people go in front of a judge, that they receive time, and time and more time in these places? Why is it that when they receive time, they receive time in places that do nothing to reform them? 

And only a few weeks ago, I was speaking with one of the prisoners,  who had received a good board hearing, someone who had done the work he needed to do, gone through non-violence training, restorative justice programs, someone who had been a model prisoners. This fellow was literally a model prisoner, who, despite his vicious crime of three decades ago, was today someone who more than anyone needed to be out on the street today. And the board agreed with him and had made their recommendation for his release.  

But he was on that day, distressed.  Because despite the board recommendation, it takes one persons to refuse it. The Governor of California decided to deny the recommendation, and this model prisoner has to await the next hearing. 

Why is it, when it's clear that our prisoners are overcrowded, when it's evident that men and women need to be released, when the Federal Government has declared the prison population unconstitutional, that our Governor refuses to alleviate the situation? 

Can it be that the governor is not actually listening to his constituents or common sense, and instead is listening to voices of those people he wants to please? 

It may be that the governor actually wants to do the right thing. One would think that a man who first rose to power in California in the liberal and free-wheeling 1970s would want to appeal to the demographic that is his natural base.  One would think that he would follow the dictates of common sense and follow through with the federal judge's order and do the right thing by the people. 

He has to be perfectly aware that the system as is is not working, nor has it been for years.  But there are other players in play.  There is another wild beast known as the prison industrial complex, who, like the Herodias, wants another outcome altogether. 

But the face of that man he denied, the face of that man who was sentenced to twenty-five to life, who thirty-five years after the murder that he committed in an act of drugs, jealousy and rage, who has been clean and sober for twenty-five years and finished his graduate degree may wind up next spring in hospice, as the prison population in California steadily becomes more elderly because while we've become more lax about drug crimes in recent years we've decided that violent offenders no matter what their individual circumstances are still less likely to be sent to the streets, despite the fact that murderers in particularly are far less likely to recidivism than other offenders. 

Because governors hear more from prison corporations, prison guards unions and the victims rights organizations that thrive on cherry picking cases to get their word across, those that lend their names to things like Suzie's Law. Organizations that operate under the fallacy that in order for victims to find satisfaction, that offenders have to be continuously locked away, that justice lies in punishment, punishment and more punishment. 

That despite the fact that we claim that state prisons are correctional institutions, they continue to act as arbitrary enforcers of punishment, and arbitrarily black and brown far more than white.

And the people they store, be they white, black or brown or any other color or mix of colors of people that we find in our prison system, which almost matters little, because the system has become a stockpile of flesh, are taking up space out of society when they can be a part of making society better. 

But these men and women in prison are people like you and me.  While in our comfort, in our desire to make them separate from us, genteel society likes to call them criminals as if by virtue of engaging in a criminal act magically transforms a person into an object that dehumanizes them.  But these men and women are people. They are the face of Jesus sometimes scarred, and sometimes tattooed, but Jesus nevertheless.  

And this bloated system, of which very few of us any longer can say we are not affected by in some way or another, because such large percentage of our own sisters and brothers occupy a place there, is, despite its evil nature, is full of human beings, who deserve something considerably more humane.

It is in that way that we, like John the Baptist, can lift up our voices and be heard, that the governor has an obligation to serve the human community, and not the forces of those like Herodias that benefit from the current system, or those like Salome who think they know what's best. Because our governor is very much alive and here and now, and can still be aware that his decisions impact real lives and real people, not just prisoners but all of those affected by their removal from society. 

We learn about who these men and women are and we lift up their stories and we write to the governor and we advocate on behalf of them and we make the change we want to see in the world. Because although Jesus seems to be silent in today's reading he is actually quite present in the way this reading makes us feel and the drive that it makes us do. 

It is in that love for us, that grace that he has gifted to us that Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection has made us loving and graceful beings who care about the oppressed, who are capable of feeling love for the guilty sinner who lives among us. We, who are forgiven are capable of forgiving and giving mercy to other people. We, who God has granted pardon are the worthy advocates on behalf of those who the state would ignore.  We live out his promise for us by sharing that promise with others, by writing to our governors and representatives, by writing to the prisoners, by donating our time and energy to prisoner rights group and by visiting those who are confined to the institutions. 

We know by this compassion and love we feel for them, that in being lost and forgiven have been gifted that love and grace from the one who gives it, our God. In that victory over death he as given us victory over the shackles of the grave and released us from our prisons. 

Know, my sisters and brothers that the good news is alive and well. That in Christ's mercy, we are given new life, and in his grace, we share that new life with others. 

And that, my sisters and brothers, is some very good news.  Amen.   

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on July 12, 2015 1:52 PM.

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