July 12, 2015
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
When I was a student in seminary, two professors told the story of a local church pastor who had gotten in trouble. I was naïve enough that I had not yet learned to ask the question that most clergy ask when they hear a pastor has gotten in trouble: “Was it money or sex?”
Well, it turns out it was sex. The pastor had stepped outside his own marriage and into several others. And that was enough to traumatize the congregation. What made it worse was that when the affairs came to light the pastor had told the church, “Well, God doesn’t really care about things like this.”
The congregation was beside itself. So they went to the seminary and asked for help. Two professors agreed to meet with the church. They decided Bible study was the place to start, and the psalms would be a good beginning point. And then each of them, without consulting the other, picked Psalm 14. It begins
Fools say in their hearts,
‘There is no God.’
To break covenants for which vows have been made – marriage vows, ordination vows, installation vows – is bad. To then use the office of the pastor to try and brush it aside and say that the God of the Bible, the God who remembers covenant and is faithful even when we are not, to say that this God, this God, does not care that covenant is broken, brings to mind old-timey church words like abomination and blasphemy.
Fools say in their hearts,
‘There is no God.’
Today’s Gospel story reminded me of this pastor. Herod hears about Jesus and people are trying to find a way to understand who Jesus is and what he is doing. “He is Elijah.” “He is a prophet like those of old.” But Herod’s thoughts go to John, and we get the story of how he came to kill the Baptizer.
See John had called out Herod on his political divorces and remarriages, and so Herod had to lock him up.
Herod feared John, knowing that 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.
God’s holiness has been described as a mystery that is both overwhelming and enticing. And that is Herod’s experience of John. He is afraid of this man who speaks for God, but he cannot help himself but listen to him. One might say that Herod has a certain reverence for God, but not enough to actually do what God wants. Similarly, it is possible to offer so much praise to Jesus that we never get around to actually doing what he told us to do.
Herod believes that God is able to be put in a box, alongside whatever other treasures Herod has accumulated, and listened to when it suits Herod’s whim.
To emphasize the point, the story is told that Herod threw a party with all his courtiers. If you are not aware, when kings in the Bible throw parties and have all their courtiers there, they usually wind up looking foolish, and God’s plans move forward in spite of both their power and their foolishness.
And Herod’s foolishness goes so far as to promise his step-daughter anything she wants for dancing in front of him and his guests. (There is much speculation as to the kind of dancing she did, but I think that is actually beside the point in the story.)
And his solemn oath, probably made while half snockered on the wine at the party, means that he must kill John the Baptizer.
What Herod realizes, far too late, is that God is not stopped when you kill God’s messenger. There was John, and now there is Jesus.
Herod’s foolishness was not simply letting the revelry of the party get the better of him. He believed he was in control of the situation, including being able to keep God’s message as his own personal hobby.
But there is more than one kind of foolishness that says that there is no God. Yes, there is Herod, and those in power, and those who believe that they can control things, and God is merely a sideline, and that is a rampant foolishness, both in those days and in ours.
But there is another foolishness. This other foolishness admits no possibility of grace, of forgiveness, of healing, of love, all beyond our control, beyond our categories, beyond our earning potential.
In Matthew’s gospel, it says:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing,
he sent word by his disciples and said to him,
‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind receive their sight, the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’
Not that John would have accepted a yes or no answer, but Jesus tells them “see for yourself. If healing and forgiveness and good news are the ways of God, then tell him what I am doing.”
I am not here to rebuke, or to call out, or to point fingers. I simply pray that we would have unfoolish hearts. May we listen to God’s call for mercy and for justice, to care for the widows and the orphans and the poor, to love our neighbor as ourselves; and may we know God’s healing love and grace, forgiveness and welcome.
Thanks be to God.