There are some similarities between Herod’s choices and behaviors, and those we’ve seen in recent history on the news, and to a lesser extent, experience in our lives and within ourselves.
How do we respond to the Herod-like figures in our lives?
Or the Herod-like behaviors within ourselves?
But first, let’s begin with Herod.
Biographers describe Herod the Great as a complicated figure.* The Roman Empire appointed him to govern the region of Judea on their behalf, promoting Hellenistic culture, better known to us as Greek culture. He worked well under Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian Augustus, quickly shifting allegiances with every change in leadership. Yet Herod was not from a Roman background himself. He was an aristocratic outsider who advanced the Roman agenda.
In actuality, Herod had been raised a practicing Jew. To improve his social standing, he married into a family long connected to the high priesthood, but he did not have the correct ancestry to claim that role for himself. Acting on behalf of Rome, wearing a false title as their king, he was rejected by the Jewish community. Here again, Herod was an aristocratic outsider.
Herod seemed to earnestly walk the line between these two communities, never quite making his way into either one. He promoted the Greek way of life, which ensured the region's stabilization and Rome’s protection. Walking this line even helped preserve some aspects of Jewish culture, but not enough to earn him any respect.
In some ways, Herod presents as an unscrupulous figure that no one likes, but everyone seems to need. Rome and Herod used one another for their mutual benefit. Herod and powerful people within Judea used each other in the same way. It was a cycle of selfish behaviors, most of which were rooted in chasing after the allusion of power and control.
Biographers report that during his tenure as king of Judea, Herod:
“...brought his kingdom considerable prosperity. He stabilized the economy
and reduced taxes. He encouraged trade and built the splendid port city of
He also led a troubled personal life, murdering his wife and some of his children. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when the wise men took another road home, Herod ordered every male infant near Bethlehem killed. And while there is no historical proof this happened, based on his family life, it’s clear that Herod had the capacity for such evil.
As one biographer put it,
“Like many people with a strong will to power, Herod could not face the idea of losing it.”*
When Herod was made aware that wise men were searching for a child born king of the Jews, the text describes him as being frightened (Matthew 2:3). Out of fear he uses his power and authority to gather all the chief priests and scribes seeking an explanation as to who this king might be. They advise Herod that the prophet Micah foretold of a ruler who would shepherd the people of Israel (Matthew 2:1-12 & Micah 5:2).
Herod then called for the wise men, interviewed them, and charged them with returning to Herod to share the child’s location. Instead, the wise men are warned in a dream to return home another way. Similarly, Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family and escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until Herod’s death.
It would be easy to hear about Herod’s behaviors, particularly in light of Matthew’s story of Herod ordering the massacre of the innocents, and labeling him as evil (Matthew 2:16-18). The antagonist; the villain of this story. As though only truly horrible people have the capacity for such evil.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? If things were so simple and binary as there being good people and bad people. In reality, we are all complicated.
Herod is no exception. Yes, he is a privileged person, who lived a very comfortable life, yet also never quite fit in. Meaning Herod may have never felt seen, known, genuinely loved, or accepted. We’ll never know with any certainty, but I can’t help but wonder if he coped with his fears by emulating others who seemed to have it all; grabbing power and influence. Then he could ensure he was ‘seen’ in this powerful role, even if he was never truly known. I have to believe that behind some of these horrific choices and behaviors is a desperate and deeply broken person, who has learned to survive by forgoing any and all care of others, choosing instead to preserve the self at all costs.
Herod chose to make himself the center, when God, in the form of this child in Bethlehem, will grow up to tell us Love is the Way. Self-sacrificial love of God and neighbor is the Way. Yet Herod’s fear drives his selfishness and leaves a wake of destruction in its path.
I was reminded earlier this week that the anniversary of the Capital Riot will always happen on Epiphany. Which means for the rest of our lives we will celebrate the unfolding revelation of Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One, while also remembering another outsider, who went to unnerving lengths to cling to his own power and position. For many of us, this anniversary touches a raw nerve that we’re still processing two years later.
Behind the events of that day is another Herod-like figure, someone with a strong will to power who could not face the idea of losing it. Someone who chose to make himself the center, instead of the country he was called to serve, and the global community he was called to partake in on our behalf.
We witness Herod-like figures far more often than we would care to admit. Watch the news, read a book, or stream a tv show and we can see these same behavioral patterns, insecurities and fears that corrupt our best selves. At times we also can discover our own Herod-like moments when we see these same patterns and insecurities within ourselves. Whenever we choose to serve our own fear over the well being of the community - whether that be a neighborhood, faith community, school, workplace, or family. And while it’s tempting to want to fix all that is wrong out in the world, maybe our best next step is examining our own behaviors, choices, insecurities, and motivations.
There are many different kinds of fears that can motivate our actions. Fears that we are bad, unwanted, worthless, defective, incapable; fears of being alone, trapped in pain; fears of being controlled or in conflict with others.**
What matters is not that we ‘fix’ our fear, but that we make space for it, get curious about it, and offer ourselves compassion. By engaging in this dance, we are better able to offer ourselves compassion and discover some inner healing. This empowers us to offer compassion to the people in our lives. It is an act of sharing God’s love and healing in a broken world. It is how we begin to walk the Way of Love that the child in Bethlehem calls us into.
What if this Epiphany season when we feel insecure, broken, or afraid like Herod, we choose not to react, but instead to intentionally offer ourselves compassion? How might it reveal God’s Love for us, in us, and through us?
Is it possible that offering ourselves more compassion will give us a greater capacity to offer others compassion? Those we live and work beside? Those who challenge and frighten us? Those we are convinced will quite literally drive us bonkers? How might all of this help us make God’s Love manifest in our world? I challenge us each to embrace compassion this month, and I hope next month you’ll let me know what your experience with intentional compassion has been like.
John’s prophetic message called on God’s people to repent; or in other words, to turn their hearts and minds back towards God’s dream for this world. Those moved by John’s message, would partake in a ritual cleansing and recommit to God by being dipped or immersed in water. Hence his nickname as a baptizer. John was that unique kind of eccentric person, who has a way of making you feel deeply uncomfortable, and yet at the same time, you can’t quite turn away. He captivated people's senses.
Prophets often have this skill. As God’s messengers, they are called to speak to particular communities facing their own individual concerns. Yet the themes are often the same. Typically, they call on people to turn back towards God, and expect the community to collectively address social justice issues facing the wider community. In so doing, they help pave a new way for God’s dream to unfold in the world.
John the Baptist was no exception. When leaders from the religious establishment head to the wilderness to observe this unusual man, he calls them out:
You brood of vipers!*
Do you think you can be changed by simply showing up here?
It’s your life that has to change.
You can’t rely on your religious authority either.
Change your life.
Put your energies towards working for God’s dream.
Because soon another is coming, and we need to be ready.
I love John the Baptist. His eccentric fashion and speech. His ability to make us stop and stare; to make us deeply uncomfortable. Which can often trigger an unhealthy, yet natural, response within us. We often become defensive, snarky, and judgemental; sneering and ridiculing the prophet and God’s so-called ‘message’.
Right? We do this all the time. How often do prophets in our own lives challenge us to turn away from some of our current practices and back towards God’s dream for this world. We often react by feeling judged and become defensive. This is a coping mechanism to mask our deep fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. In general, when prophet calls us out, we tend not to respond by saying,
By golly, you are right.
I see the error of my ways, and I will do things differently from now on.
For that matter, how can I help with these efforts?
Instead, we tend to react by doubling down in the very beliefs and practices God is asking us to change. We seem to harden our hearts, just as Pharaoh did all those years ago.
This is both good and bad news. The bad news is this makes the prophet’s work incredibly challenging. Given the Church is called to be a prophetic voice in the world; to work tirelessly for justice and mercy, we know what this challenge feels like all too well. We know what it feels like when our progress has been stymied yet again by another act of human selfishness, greed, and/or violence. Prophetic work can be wearisome, and at times it can challenge our capacity to hope and persevere in the face of resistance.
Yet the prophet is never alone. God is always right there, inspiring the words, vision, and next steps to keep going. As the Church, we are never alone.God is with us, and we are here to engage in this work together as the body of Christ.
That is the good news, but there is even more assuring news for us to take in. The response to the prophet’s message, particularly if it is defensiveness, judgment, or argument, is valuable information that we can learn from. We can pay attention to what lives underneath those behavioral responses, and we can offer compassion. It means as the Church, we can approach the prophetic work of social justice by preaching the message to turn towards God’s dream, while at the same time coming alongside people and meeting them where they are. Instead of talking at people, we can see their fear and discomfort; we can recognize hardened hearts and offer them compassion. Because their response to the injustice we are addressing is not actually about us, even if it is directed at us, and it is fruitless to take any of it personally.
Which means for all of us who maybe had an uncomfortable moment or two at Thanksgiving about a controversial social justice issue, we don’t need to waste precious energy holding anger towards those loved ones. Instead, see the fears underneath the words and offer compassion. This doesn’t fix everything, but it helps us to do the prophetic work of social justice, while also walking the Way of Love in each of our relationships.
Now returning to our eccentric friend, John the Baptist, for a moment. John modeled for the Church that we too can prepare the way for Christ’s coming by engaging in the prophetic work of inviting people to turn back towards God’s dream and one another. One of the most important ways the Church can use our prophetic voice right now is by addressing the climate crisis.
We are in a season of unprecedented climate change. For the last few hundred years humanity has plundered the earth of every conceivable natural resource, using them for our own individual comfort and gain. As young people, we were taught by both the Church and the wider culture, that we ruled over the abundance of creation, and that we could use those resources however we saw fit. Yet humanity is one speck of God’s creation, and we were always meant to play our small part in the interconnected web of life. As the Church, we are called to the prophetic work of helping the world to wake up to the climate crisis, and to turn back towards God and begin a reconciliatory relationship with creation.
The Church was made for just such a time as this. We understand deeply that the earth is sacred; that creation is God incarnate. Like John the Baptist, the Church has a role to play in helping the wider culture turn away from the unsustainable and dangerous practices that have led to this crisis. We can be agents of change that help shift humanity’s relationship with creation from consumer to caregiver. This is how we can ready the Way; by ensuring that there will be a wilderness for Christ to return to.
Whether we think about it this way or not, the climate crisis intersects with every single social justice issue. We need to see the intersectionality of these challenges and collaborate with others to collectively be that voice crying out in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
The Green Team is helping our church navigate how to be prophetic caregivers of creation, but there is more we can each do all on our own. And I promise it’s not hard, and won't cost you more than a few moments each day. One of the first steps we can take is to follow John the Baptist’s example by spending more of our time in the wilderness.
I don’t mean you need to pack up your house, sell your possessions, and embark on a six month journey hiking the Appalachian Trail. Though that is also great. Nature is all around us. In the slow stretch of time at the pandemic’s onset, people shared at virtual coffee hour how they were taking more time to connect with creation. For many it was birds or flowers; for others it was walks or hands in the soil. The slowness of that season allowed us to reconnect with nature in a way that many of us had not done since childhood.
What if every day we were each to spend five more minutes appreciating God incarnate in the creation that surrounds our home and neighborhood. Maybe this means getting better acquainted with a particular tree in our yard. Maybe it is forging a relationship with a nearby squirrel, bird, rabbit, or insect. Maybe it is sitting outside in silence, simply taking in each sound, scent, and scene. How might deepening our relationship with creation help us to heal and grow?
How might it help us prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent? Amen.
*This is inspired by and adapted from the Message translation of Matthew 3:1-12
Yesterday, our family joined folks from across our diocese for an event they co-sponsored with Christ Trinity, Sheffield; St. Paul’s Stockbridge; Grace, Great Barrington; and Swords to Plowshares Northeast. The Rt. Rev. Jim Curry, a retired Bishop Suffragan in Connecticut is the chief blacksmith for Swords to Plowshares.
This ministry was inspired by the prophet Isaiah, who proclaimed:
“...they shall beat their swords into ploughshares…” (2:4)
Their organization works with local police departments, taking guns that have been bought back from the community and then turning them into garden tools. What we witnessed yesterday was beautiful, and I will tell you why, but first, I want to share why I think addressing gun violence matters so much.
For me, it’s always been personal. My father was an avid hunter. He was also an alcoholic, whose disease took over his life during the course of my early childhood. When I was four years old, my mom came home from her shift at the naval air station, to find my father passed out in a recliner, with a loaded handgun next to him. He was supposed to be watching me.
When I was six years old, we came home from church to find him intoxicated and angry, to the point he became violent. This was not a new behavior, but it was the first, and only time, I actively watched him physically harm her. She sent me to the neighbor to call the police. They refused to call, for fear the police might find their stash of illegal drugs. But as a six year old, I didn’t understand that. All I remember was feeling a deep sense of injustice that adults would sit by and do nothing while an innocent person was being harmed.
That sense of injustice has never left me, and it has shaped who I am, and why I care so deeply about God’s call for us to love one another, no matter how inconvenient or costly.
Like many of you, I remember exactly where I was, and what I was doing when the news broke, telling us what our neighbors in Newtown, Connecticut were going through on December 14, 2012. In my first few years at former St. James, on the anniversary of Sandy Hook, we would hold a vigil, commemorating the lives lost to gun violence, and encouraging folks to work towards gun reform. It was at one of these events that I first spoke to a high school student, who had been coming to church with her mom some Saturday nights: Meaghan Burns.
Meaghan was a young woman who had a spark of joy, love, and curiosity that lived in her eyes; who loved her family and friends beyond measure. A young woman who was a seeker; open to seeing the spiritual and the way God moved in the world. A young woman who took our confirmation class, and was confirmed by Bishop Doug. A young woman, who served our country as a Navy Corpsman, traveling throughout Europe, and most recently serving as a medic at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia.
On May 4, 2019, Meaghan got out of bed to support her friend Shianne Soles, who was going through a difficult break up. Shianne’s ex-boyfriend, Donavon Moora, had brought back some of Shianne’s personal effects, and Meaghan had accompanied her to the security office on base for the exchange. Afterwards, the two women headed to a convenience store, one mile off base for some chips and water. It was there that Moora shot and killed Meaghan and Shianne, before driving a mile down the road and committing suicide. Meaghan was 23 years old, and she left behind a mother, father, sister, and friends who carry this loss with them everyday.
Yesterday, Meaghan’s mom, Carolyn, spoke at the Swords to Plowshares event. She said many important things, but there is one I want to lift up this morning. When sharing Meaghan’s story, she shared the fact that prior to heading to Portsmouth, Meaghan had been training to serve as a field medic in the Middle East. Having one’s child serving in a war zone is a terrifying prospect for any parent. Meaghan underwent grueling training, and ended up injuring both her knees, and was unable to complete the training.
“I never thought I would be happy, thrilled really that my daughter was hurt. I was so relieved. From there, Meaghan was sent to Portsmouth Virginia to work at a naval hospital. I was so happy. Not only was my daughter staying stateside, she would be on the east coast, just hours away…I was so grateful she would be safe.”
“The irony of it all is that if Meaghan had gone with the Marines and been deployed, she probably would still be alive. It is safer to be on the front lines of the battlefield than in the streets of the United States.”
This was one of the first times Carolyn has used her voice as a prophetic call for change. This is no small thing. It is my sincere hope that our community can continue to pray for Carolyn as she finds ways to tell Meaghan’s story and work for change.
Yesterday, Bishop Jim reminded us of some alarming statistics, and I’ve included a few more from the Pew Research Center from 2020:
Given those numbers, I know in this room there are more unspoken stories. Those of you who witnessed or experienced domestic violence and/or suicide, gun related or otherwise. We have a violence problem in this country in every possible form.
Which is why it is so powerful to see guns voluntarily removed from people’s homes and turned into the police. Then watch Swords to Plowshares take weapons for destruction and turn them into garden tools that are donated to community gardens, agricultural high schools, or as donation incentives to cover the costs of this program. The vegetables that are grown in those gardens are then donated to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, or go towards community meals and food banks.
Swords to Plowshares writes on their website:
“The process allows us to find a creative way to make something inspiring and symbolic out of a weapon of death, something that will symbolize the transformation we believe is possible if Americans step back from the heated gun debate and try to listen to each other.”
At yesterday’s event, Bishop Jim broke out his forge, and participants were encouraged to help hammer a section of a gun down into their final shape of a garden tool. It was inspiring to watch folks from across our diocese, Bishop Doug, and especially, Carolyn, take the hammer to bring about change. In that moment, it was possible to get a tiny glimpse of the future Isaiah speaks of in today’s passage, when he proclaims there will someday be a new heaven, and a new earth.
As we head back into the world today, I want to encourage us to do some more labor intensive reflecting:
Today, I’ll offer the second teaching sermon on the Christian Bible, focusing on the Christian Scriptures. These sacred texts are better known in Christian circles as the New Testament, and are sometimes referred to as the Second Covenant. You’ll hear me use the label Christian Scriptures, as I am phasing out my use of the label New Testament, because of its implied superiority. Whether implicitly or explicitly, many of us were taught prejudicial ideas about the nature of God as depicted within the Christian Bible.
It is fairly common to hear churchgoers of every denomination say something along the lines of: “I don’t like the Old Testament. It is all about a God of wrath focused on a bunch of laws. I like the New Testament, which proclaims a God of love and grace.” This prejudicial framework has its origins in the early second century, when the teachings of Marcion encouraged Christians to reject the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.* The early Church ultimately rejected Marcion’s teachings as heresy, as should we.
In our tradition, we use the New Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible, featuring twenty-seven pieces of early Christian writing. Many of us grew up believing these were all of the early Christian writings. In actuality, these are what early church leaders believed to be the best selection of those writings.**
So, let’s back up. Preceding any writing was the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whose teachings and actions were so extraordinary that a movement within Judaism was born. The story of Jesus’ life and teachings, his death and resurrection were shared by word of mouth, and in the subsequent years small bits were written down here and there. Roughly 13-16 years after Jesus’ death, Paul began to write letters to small communities of Jesus’ followers scattered throughout the Roman Empire.** Around the time Peter and Paul were killed and martyred, roughly 35-46 years after Jesus' death, the Gospel of Mark began to be written.**These are all first generation writings, and are often referred to as coming out of the apostolic tradition, because they were composed by those with a connection to Jesus or Paul; those who led some of the earliest churches.** These writings were shared liberally between communities, copying and sharing so the early Church might all grow in faith together.
Roughly 50-70 years after Jesus’ death, the second generation of Christian writings began to be written.** These include Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and letters written by followers of original apostles.** Often letters in this second generation were written in honor of the original apostles and Paul, bearing their name and giving them credit.
This is one of the many reasons we might find Paul’s teachings contradictory. Different authors were composing them in his name with different understandings of the Jesus Movement, the nature of God, and what it means to be the Church. This was true for the vast majority of writings that were being written in the second and third generation, which often featured wildly different theologies. Some were letters, some were different books of acts, and there were several gospels. These include at least two infancy gospels imagining Jesus’ early childhood and youth, as well as the Gospel of Mary, portraying the important role of women in the early Church.
Meanwhile the early Church was evolving from a movement within Judaism to its own distinct religion. It became important to determine which texts would be included in the Christian canon, which refers to the writings widely accepted as scripture.** The Christian Scriptures as we know them today were not fully determined until the early fifth century. The writings chosen were seen as compatible with apostolic tradition, while at the same time maintaining some breadth and diversity of opinion. Which is yet another reason for contradictory teachings.
Some important things for us to remember about the Christian Scriptures:
Alright - are you ready for a whirlwind tour of these twenty-seven writings?
Here we go.
Scholar Mark Allan Powell suggests thinking about the Christian Scriptures in seven categories:**
Whew! We made it through.
I would encourage us each to do some reflecting on our own experience with the Christian Bible.
* Amy Jill-Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler in The Bible With and Without Jesus, pg 8, 14.
** Mark Allan Powell in Introducing the New Testament, pg.41, 60, 61, 63, 64.
*** Jerome H Neyrey commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Version, pg. 1880.
****Jennifer K. Berenson commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Version, pg. 2052.
*****Margaret M. Mitchell commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Version, pg. 2085.
****** Jean-Pierre Ruiz commentary in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Standard Version, pg. 2155.
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