When I was two, I learned a new word and couldn’t wait for an opportunity to use it. (Now don’t worry this is a family friendly sermon.) One day I had my chance. My parents had taken me to a beach in northern CA where we were stationed at Vandenberg AFB with some friends. After a full day of playing on the beach and in the water, it was time to go home. My mother went to scoop me up and put me in the rather rudimentary 1972 car seat and I realized my chance to try out this word. I did not want to get into my car seat and I now had the vocabulary to articulate my desire for power and control. I put my hands on my hips and looked at my mother and said, “Now, wait a minute dumb-dumb.” Where I had heard that pejorative word, who knows, (older kids probably) but my two year old brain had quickly recognized that I could own more power by trying to take away someone else’s. What my two year old brain had not processed is that my parents were still bigger and waaaaaay smarter. I ended up in the car seat, screaming I’m sure, with my parents wondering why they bother to ever leave the house with me. *Kids-it is never ok to call names or say something mean to anyone-especially your parents! *Parents-you’re welcome.
Figuring out what you have power and control over in your life starts nearly at birth. Learning to control our limbs, head, and neck is about three months of work right there! Then there’s rolling over, crawling, walking, running, toileting, riding a bike and all of the gross motor skills. Alongside control of our physical bodies, we learn that our emotions can control our actions and how that can be good and bad. As we mature, we begin to want more power and control in our lives. The teen years are all about power and control. Figuring out what you can and can’t do without negative consequences is a major part of adolescence, as well as learning where you don’t have power in your life.
We are wired to like power, control, and agency. Unfortunately, we struggle to move past what my two year old brain had put together, that in order to have power, control and agency, we must diminish someone else’s.
On a cursory reading of today’s gospel text, we could say that the theme is power. Herod’s power over John, John’s unlikely power over Herod, Herodias’ (Herod’s wife) power over her daughter, Herod’s daughter’s power over Herod, the power of keeping up appearances, and then we have the power of Jesus and his disciples with the crowds that frightened the puppet king. Power is indeed a key player in this text. We see people entangled in a system solely based on the need for personal power over and against other people. In this ancient soap opera, the most powerful person-the person with the most political clout, the most agency, the most status-wins. And it’s all about winning with Herod. He is in a power struggle with Herodias and John. John had exposed Herod’s wrong doings in marrying his brother’s wife (Days of Our Lives, anyone?) and that threatened Herod’s power. Herodias had obviously traded up in husbands and married for money and power. In first century Palestine, Herodias only had as much power as her husband, so if Herod lost power so did she. Herod must maintain control and agency over John, even though Mark tells us that he kind of liked John. John told the truth to Herod of his abuse of his power; Herod deep down knew it but was too afraid to act. What if he lost all of his friends, his pawn throne of the Roman Empire, the lavish banquets, and all of the royal trappings? What if he became a nobody in Jerusalem?
At the end of the day, power is about ensuring that we are a somebody. We are worthy, important, special, famous, a mover and a shaker. This means that if I am all of those things, then you can’t be. There is not enough power for all of us to share. We can’t all be important! What if you have more influence and control than I do? Then what?
Power is definitely a theme in this story. But not the power that Herod desires, Herodias fears and kills John. It’s not power that is control and agency over and against someone else, but it’s the power of presence. The kind of presence that is hard to grasp, seems elusive and yet is palpable all through this story that seems to be about human power at its worst, human agency at its worst and human fear at its worst. There is another power at work that is barely named and appears to not be part of the equation: Jesus. Counter to the power of humanity that seeks power for its own sake, for its own elevation, for its own sense of control and self worth, Jesus offers the power of his presence. This presence gives away power instead of accumulating it. Jesus and the disciples are busy giving away God’s power of healing, mercy, grace and love, while Herod is busy hoarding his power. Power of presence is power that seeks to elevate others, offers freedom to others and empties itself out to others.
Too often we think of power as personal, individual and scarce. Just like I was sure that I needed to assert power over my parents to be happy and have well being, we look for ways to take power and not share it and the world encourages us to do this. But God proclaims that in God’ creation and kingdom that is a lie that we choose to believe. God emptied power into the most powerless creature on earth, a newborn baby. Through Jesus Christ, God reveals over and over again how real power is given away. When we put other people’s needs first, when we understand and say “no” to the world’s system that wants us to compete with our neighbor for money, resources and status, when we stand in solidarity with people whom are told that their lives don’t matter, when we act to support the black churches that have burned down, when we see past labels and see people as God sees them, beloved, no matter where they live, what they believe, whom they love and who loves them, we reveal the power of the presence of Christ. God’s power is love for all people no matter what and this power conquers all fear, all hatred, and all sin, which is anything that separates us from this power of love in Christ.
This power of love is not a theoretical concept or a sappy philosophical thought but is embodied in Jesus and his actions on the cross where the loss of worldly power became the ultimate of God’s power of love, reconciliation and presence in the systems that lead to suffering in this world. This power of God’s presence is tangible in the waters of baptism, in the bread and the wine and in each one of us. Through the Holy Spirit we live this powerful presence that is Christ’s power of love. In Christ’s power, God declares that we are all somebody; we are all somebody in the body of Christ and beloved children of God marked the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s power is at work in you, in me and in the world. Thanks be to God.