The Confederate battle flag came down from the grounds of the South Carolina State House on Friday morning. It was a symbol with deep power. It was a symbol that intimidated some citizens, disempowering them from setting their sights high or from speaking out.
In removing the flag, the legislature and governor of South Carolina used their power to make a change. They did so because hundreds of thousands of people across the nation used their power to speak out. And they spoke out after a violent young adult used his power to take the lives of nine other people, who were using their power, in that moment, to worship God, to welcome a stranger, to study scripture.
Power is. We don’t talk about it a lot in church; for Episcopalians, it’s the “P word,” almost as taboo as the “E word” of evangelism. Sometimes, we avoid it out of misreading of scripture. We mistakenly believe that the Bible teaches that power is always bad and weakness is good. Jesus wants us to get rid of our power, fast.
Sometimes we don’t talk about power because we don’t think we have enough to make much of a difference in the world. We get overwhelmed by all that needs changing and give up on our power before we begin to assess it.
But perhaps the greater deterrent is the opposite: We have a sense that we have a good bit of power, and as long as we don’t talk about it, we won’t have to use it. Because once we start using it, things could really change for us – God could ask something big of us — and that could be risky.
Paul tells us that God’s power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Jesus tells us that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can do amazing things (Luke 17:6). Do you hear that that as good news or bad news?
Our diocese elected a new bishop last year, and I got a front row seat to the whole process as a member of the Standing Committee. While I believe in our polity and am thankful for our bishops, in general, and our particular bishop, in particular, I have to say that there were moments along the way of this three-year-long, very expensive, very consuming process when I wondered whether we focus so much attention on our episcopal process as a way of avoiding claiming our own power as baptized Christians. The first thing we do with new bishops is put a cape and a big hat on them and hand them a big stick, so they look powerful. In fact, they are not very powerful, and their job is to equip and encourage and instruct us so that we can let God’s power work through us!
When it comes to power, what are we so afraid of? Today’s gospel speaks to that question.
Herod was a regional ruler, governing on behalf of the Roman Empire. When his brother Philip died, he married Philip’s widow, Herodias. John the Baptist opposed this, loudly, citing Jewish law on the issue (Lev. 18:16). But Herod is fascinated by John, seeing that something important is happening in him, and intrigued by his teaching. But not wanted to deal with John’s criticism of his marriage, Herod has him imprisoned. Which brings us to today’s gospel:
Herod is having a birthday party. He’s invited his courtiers and officers and the local leaders – all the “right” people, all the people with what he understands as “power.”
His daughter dances. He is pleased. And without thinking much, he blurts out, “I’ll give you anything you want!” Off goes his daughter to consult with her mom. She returns, and she says, loudly enough that others can hear it, “Give me John’s head on a platter.”
And then the scripture tells us something very important. We read, “Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests,” Herod follows through. He doesn’t want to loose face. He wants to look strong. He wants the approval of those courtiers and officers.
How many decisions are made every day not because they are morally right, nor because they heal and restore the world, but because they are easy? The false peace is maintained. Power over others is not disturbed.
This story, taken as it is, is simply a sad example of what humans so often do with power, and how unjust, oppressive system perpetuate themselves by convincing the people who join them that they don’t have options. But this story becomes gospel when it is paired with the story that follows it. Mark placed this story right here in chapter six on purpose, following it intentionally with the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.
The two stories together give us a clear invitation:
Herod holds a party and invites the most important people in town, who have something he needs: power. Jesus holds a party and invites 5,000 hungry peasants and tenant farmers.
Herod’s party is in a fancy palace in a fancy city. Jesus’s party is in a deserted place, without walls or appointments.
Herod makes a decision out of fear of what others will think, out of selfishness. Jesus makes a decision – let’s feed these people – out of compassion, out of selflessness.
At Herod’s party, what is served on the platter is death. At Jesus’s hillside banquet, what is taken, blessed, broken and shared is the bread of life. Five loaves and two fish: that’s a lot of power.
And that’s the good news.
The Episcopal Church has about 1.8 million members. In one year, in the parishes of our denomination, we collect $1.3 billion dollars in plate and pledge income. Our congregations, when combined, have about $4.5 billion dollars in investments.
In this very congregation we have teachers, engineers, artists, authors, community organizers, videographers, editors, physicists, systems managers, nurses, social workers, librarians, people who bilingual, people with voice in some of the most powerful universities in the world, and parents.
We have people who own homes – more power. People registered to vote – power. People who have come through tragedy and have a lot of wisdom to share – power. People who are white or male or literate or straight, which means they have the power to be allies to people of color, women, those who cannot read, and LGBT persons, all of whom continue to lack full rights and status.
We have children and young adults who have the power to lead those of us who are older in understanding and responding to a changing power.
And we have, through the grace of God, the gift of the Spirit to guide and govern us, and to enable us to do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine.
So what do we do with this power?
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer did quite a lot to use the power of the church on purpose. And Convention encouraged parishes like ours to claim and use our power, too. Here are some highlights:
* Convention designated $2 million for new initiatives on racial justice and reconciliation.
* Convention encourages each congregation and diocese to undertake at least one specific initiative aimed at addressing the destructive consequences of the mass incarceration system.
* Convention determined that same sex couples shall have access to marriage in the church in all dioceses.
* Convention encourages all Episcopal congregations to establish relationship-based, social-justice ministries through which relationships are developed between those who serve and those who are served, resulting in shared and transformational experiences and in a greater commitment to work for justice on all sides of the socio-economic divide.
* Convention encourages dioceses, congregations, and seminaries to update their policies on the use of alcohol and other substances with the potential for misuse in order to make the church safe for everyone, especially those in recovery.
* Convention directed major church bodies to divest from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in clean renewable energy in a fiscally responsible manner.
* Convention strongly urges all persons, along with public, governmental, and religious institutions, to discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle Flag.
* Convention designated $2.8 million for evangelism work.
We live in a world where Herod’s still hold sway, where insecure leaders and uncaring regimes and systems wreak havoc in the lives of so many and impede the work of justice and healing day by day, decision by decision. Christ holds out to us another way. Christ calls us, as members of his body, to acknowledge and use our power for the life of the world.
What kind of banquet are you hosting?