It's good to be back – back among family in California….this land of nature's air-conditioning. Mind you, while I was gone, I received several e-mails complaining about a heat wave in the Bay Area. In my air conditioned motel room I could only smile.
You want heat? Try Salt Lake City in July in our new era of global warming. Like Indianapolis three years ago, it was 105 all week long. Makes one wonder what goes into our convention planners thinking. Why, they've already chosen the site for our 2018 get-together – Austin, Texas. At least we know it won't be dry heat. Leaves one to wonder when they'll get around to Portland, Maine or Oregon…or maybe a January convention in Hawai'i.
But I digress…trying to delay talking about our Gospel today. Hell of a story. What can one say that is any way uplifting about John's head on a platter?
Maybe, I thought, I could ignore the Gospel and preach on one of the other readings. The more I thought of that, however, the more cowardly it seemed. A cop-out, I concluded. Maybe I could regale you with tales about the inner workings of the convention's discussions about the church's budget and structure…you know, how to rearrange the deck chairs But that, I concluded, would surely put you to sleep. Or, grasping for straws, I thought those of us who are of a certain age could reminisce about a sixty-year-old movie…about Charles Laughton, Judith Anderson, and, of course, Rita Hayworth as young Salome…a young Salome who, according to the screenwriters, was about to convert to the "new religion" of John. But, after happy thoughts of youth and maybe a few laughs, we'd all be left asking "So what?"
No, I let such thoughts sit a few days, through the convention. And, as I did, I became more and more convinced that this was a story that had to be confronted and wrestled with directly and without evasion. The Good News – at least at first blush - is not always pleasant, not always easy. But it is good! And, this difficult and unpleasant story contains Good News that – much as we might want to drown it out – needs to be heard.
On one level, it is a sordid tale of a sordid marriage, of jealousy, and murder…the sort of story you'd expect on the pages of the National Enquirer rather than on the pages of the Bible. But Mark insists on its inclusion in the Bible, because he wants his readers to know just how deep was – no, how deep is - the cesspool of evil in the corridors of power. And, in particular, he wants us to know just how weak and vacillating Herod was. And, perhaps, just how weak and vacillating the powers-that-be always are.
Herod, we are told, "feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man" and, "when he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him." He liked to listen to him, because truth always demands attention and, even when challenging, can be enticing…if one recognizes that challenges always carry with them positive opportunities. But he was "greatly perplexed" by John, because, knowing himself, he knew he couldn't measure up to the demands of John's truth…not without a radical transformation that would have cost him his worldly power and his wife's favor. Herod feared John, a righteous and holy man, because it is precisely such people who pose the greatest threat to those whose power rests on unrighteousness. And he killed him, because he was weak and feared his wife's wrath.
They are locked in an eternal embrace – the prophets and the powers-that-be – an embrace that almost always ends badly for the prophet – at least in worldly terms. And it can often end badly for both. It's the nature of things, we're told by the Arab poet . His name may be obscure – and hard to pronounce – but maybe you remember his parable about the scorpion and the turtle:
A turtle was happily swimming along a river when a Scorpion hailed it from the shore.
A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked the turtle to carry him on his back across a river. "Are you mad?" exclaimed the turtle. "You'll sting me while I'm swimming and I'll drown."
My dear turtle," laughed the scorpion, "if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you, and drown as well. Now where is the logic in that?"
The turtle thought this over, and saw the logic of the scorpion's statement. "You're right!" cried the turtle. "Hop on!"
The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river the scorpion gave the turtle a mighty sting.
As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle said: "Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there'd be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?"
It has nothing to do with logic," the drowning scorpion sadly replied. "It's just my character."
It is the nature of the prophet to speak truth to power and it is the nature of the powerful to fear the prophet and, when their truth turns threatening, to kill the prophet. But, unlike the logical, trusting turtle, prophets know this truth about the nature of the powerful.
That's why prophets - from Moses and Samuel and Jeremiah…to Jesus, Gandhi, and King – over and over have raised the cry: "Why me?!"
In their time, Jesus and his prophetic predecessors were right about the growing gap between their societies' ostentatious moral pretensions and pitiful ethical performance. And they were right on the mark in calling attention to the emperor's new clothes…and their priests' old clothes. And, since they were so clearly on the mark, the reaction – in Herod's palace and on Calvary – was often swift and harsh. Being a prophet requires courage.
In my lifetime alone, we've experienced the words and example of many prophets who've paid for their truth and witness with their lives. Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, Stephen Biko, Jonathan Daniels, all come to mind. So, too, do the countless witnesses who lie in unmarked graves in Mississippi, Darfur, Syria, and China. Like Jesus and John, they were killed for their witness to truth, their cry for justice.
But, as we know, the powers-that-be don't always need a knife to silence a "righteous and holy man"…or woman. Remember that wonderful Roberta Flack song "Killing Me Softly with His Words" (actually a love letter to the singer Don Maclean)? Sometimes words are enough to silence a prophet, though blessedly not always for good or even for long. When threatened these days, the powers- that-be, schooled in the emotional levers of advertising and the issue-framing of focus groups, often find it sufficient to use words to silence a prophet. Gandhi put it this way: " First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."
Having ignored and ridiculed today's prophets – often to no effect – the Herods of our day, weak and fearful, as often as not, turn to fighting them with words, seeking to kill them softly, without fingerprints whenever possible; in all viciousness if necessary.
Maybe I should say something about our General Convention – and not just that is was 105 all week in Salt Lake City. Many good things were done in convention and around it. Being a member of the LGBT community, for example, I was overjoyed by the decision of the church on marriage equality, although it was tempered by allowing eight bishops to deny such equality in their dioceses. Being as concerned as we all are about the climate crisis we face, I also celebrated the church's decision to divest from fossil fuels, although it was tempered by the words "in a fiscally responsible manner." There was, too, the un-tempered joy of the Supreme Court decisions made while we were there and the chance to celebrate in City Creek Park. And, there were myriad other small steps forward on any number of issues, not to mention the chance to embrace old friends not seen in three years and new ones found among the good people of Salt Lake City. All of which caused a newer member of the California delegation to gush "It's all so wonderful…kind of like an Episcopalian Disneyland." To which I replied "For some of us it's been more like Guantanamo."
It was indeed torture to sit in enforced silence, through a week of 7:00 am to 10:00 pm deliberations by the members of the convention's Social Justice and International Policy Committee. For they were but a charade, designed to thwart any chance of any resolution on divestment from companies enabling and profiting from Israel's occupation of Palestine ever seeing the light of day. It was painful to listen to their tedious, bloodless conversation about whether Gaza should be mentioned in any resolution dealing with the occupation. They decided it should not, because – I kid you not – "Gaza is not occupied." Particularly painful was the testimony of the blue suits and green eye shades of the Church Pension Fund who opposed disinvestment from injustice because it might affect our bottom line. The committee and bishops agreed, preferring, it seemed, to hoard our treasure where moths consume and rust destroys.
Painful, too, was the condescension of the bishops, one of whom lectured us lectured us on the difference between discretion and valor. He dismissed the testimony of those of us supporting divestment as the vainglorious valor of youthful activists. Rabbi Gottlieb? Me? Youthful? The ostensibly wiser bishops, he said, had to act with discretion.
Discretion, we quickly learned meant putting our personal moral sensibilities on hold and deferring to the wishes of the Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani, who, fearing Israeli retaliation, urged rejection of any pressure, however non-violent, however peaceful, on Israel.
Yet, while we were buying into Bishop Dawani's fears, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Hanna was being arrested by Israeli forces near Hebron for resisting seizure of a church building by those forces and the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, President of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land, was addressing the general synod of the United Church of Christ which passed a robust divestment and boycott resolution.
Discretion, we knew, also meant buying into the fears of the Presiding Bishop and the House of Bishops who are afraid of conflict, afraid of being called anti-Semites, and - under a threat reinforced in person the Friday of convention by a representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs - afraid that our dialogue of the deaf with the Jewish Establishment will be ended.
Yet, those of us with the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, who worked for divestment, had the support of more than forty rabbis and worked at general convention with young Jews from Jewish Voice for Peace who testified that criticism of the recalcitrant Netanyahu government is in no way anti-Semitic. And, with them, our dialogue with Jews who believe in the universal justice-seeking ideals of the prophets continues to flourish.
Discretion, we also learned, meant rejecting out of hand – in the first hours of the committees hearings – the two diocesan resolutions from California and Hawai'i that supported divestment. It meant also – still early in the process – approving and putting on the bishops' consent calendar a last-minute resolution from on high doubling down on "positive investment" and "corporate engagement." And it meant stringing out passing on to the bishops a resolution on
"positive investment" and "corporate engagement," that had been on the bishops' consent calendar for days, would get to the House of Deputies in time to have a floor discussion of the wisdom of those failed policies and perhaps at least a vote on divestment as an alternative. But discretion reared its ugly head one last time. The bishops ensured that it would not reach the deputies until the very last hours of the very last day of convention. And, when an ally of divestment rose to ask for discussion, there was someone at every other microphone to call for an end of discussion. The motion was overwhelmingly approved and the convention quickly gaveled to a close.
A few days later, addressing those of us who tried, a retired bishop offered the following advice: "Get over it. Suck it up. Move on."
Ever been stung by a scorpion? I once was. It took morphine to ease the pain. Ever been ridiculed and fought tooth and nail by the powers-that-be? It's a pain I still feel.
The day before I left Salt Lake City, I leaned on a garbage bin in the exhibit hall of the convention and scribbled the following words for an EPF handout...words I hoped the bishops would read as they considered the Israel/Palestine resolutions:
I leave yet another convention in tears – tears brought on by the continued obstruction of the powers-that-be in the Episcopal Church of any meaningful action to achieve justice for the long- suffering Palestinians who, for a decade, have been petitioning us to enact a divestment policy that might pressure Israel to end its 48-year occupation….
In my sadness, I've re-read Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry's 2012 convention sermon "Crazy Christians." In it, he alluded to Mary Magdalene. And that reminded me of a poem by the late Jane Kenyon - "Woman, Why Are You Weeping?" In a boat on the Ganges, as she watches the bodies of dead babies floating by, she's asked that question: "Woman why are you weeping?" She replies "I've lost my Lord and I don't know how to find him."
As I leave Salt Lake City, I do so with a similar feeling, a similar sense of loss. Oh, my Lord - Jesus - is closer than ever. But I've lost my Church and I don't know how to find it."
Indeed, after only a week, I've given up the search for that church – the church I left in Salt Lake City; the church that – like Herod – operates out of fear and weakness; that seeks quiet conformity; that issues edicts from above rather than listening to voices from below; that, faced with injustice reacts with discretion rather than valor.
No, now I seek a church full of "crazy Christians" – crazy Christians who aren't afraid of the cross or strife; crazy Christians, who, in the words of Michael Curry, "are as crazy as the Lord, crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, [and] walk humbly with God
Having sucked it up and moved on, I seek a church that's not a man-made institution of buildings, flow charts, rules, and walls, but rather a Spirit-filled movement of a God on the go – the Jesus movement we heard about last week from Michael…a people willing to go…to "go make disciples of all nations," a people willing to go out those doors and, with dirty, calloused hands, build the Kingdom of God.
Won't you join me in that search?