Monday, December 05, 2016

Sermon: Disobeying Herod

Call to Worship

The season begins with a star.
A symbol of hope and love.
A sign that portends new possibilities.
The in-breaking of light in a time of darkness.

The season begins with a star.
            A North Star for our moral compass.
            A light shining in the valley helping somebody to find their way home.

The season begins with a star.
            It called out to the wise men of the ancient story.
            It called out to seers, mystics, and prophets.
            It called out to poets, artists, and activists.
It calls out still, leading us towards hope, towards peace, towards love.

The season begins with a star.
            Come to behold.
            Come to envision.
            Come to nourish yourself for the journey.
            Come, let us worship together.
Then go into the world and tell them what the star means.

Chalice Lighting
"Tell them the star means wisdom
Tell them the star means kindness
Tell them the star means understanding
Tell them the star means tolerance
Tell them the star means sacrifice
Tell them the star leads to a vision of a fairer world."
(Last line of Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting are from Celebrating Christmas: An Anthology, Carl Seaburg, editor.)

Ancient Reading        Matthew 2:1-12

Modern Reading       Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

It is worth noting in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke the story of the birth of Jesus is located, is situated, within a particular political context. In Luke what causes Mary and Joseph to set out and travel towards Bethlehem is that the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, has called for a registration. In Matthew, the political context is this awkward and fraught moment in foreign relations. Foreign dignitaries have arrived in Judea, gone to King Herod, and told him, we’re here to meet a newborn child, a child who is the rightful King of this land and this people, for we’ve read the signs in the heavens and those signs announce that your reign, Herod, is illegitimate. We want to meet the King. It’s not you. (I’m embellishing a little bit here.)

And Herod responds, deviously, “You know, I’d like to meet him, too.”

Historically, Herod was a Jewish King who ruled Judea for more than thirty years. During his reign, Judea was a part of the Roman Empire which meant Herod ruled at the pleasure of the Roman Senate. If he didn’t make Rome happy, then he could be removed. As King he ruled with what we might call a conflict of interest. He was beholden not to his own people, but to a foreign power.

Historians’ opinions of Herod as King are polarized though few deny that he was a tyrant and a brutal despot. His critics describe him as a madman, an evil genius, and as someone who would do whatever it takes, no matter how immoral, to pursue his own limitless ambition. Herod was intolerant of dissent. He deployed secret police to spy on the population. He banned protests. He used his power to brutally persecute his opponents.

Herod’s personal life was embroiled in scandal, largely centered around him having his own family members killed when they got in his way. Herod plotted to murder his first wife and then later executed her. After his mother in law accused him of being mentally unstable and unfit to rule he had her executed as well. Herod also had tax problems. His use of tax revenues to furnish lavish gifts upset his Jewish subjects.

Historians who take a more positive view of his reign emphasize that he built a lot of impressive buildings. Indeed, this is true. Construction in Judea was uniquely prolific during Herod’s reign. He sponsored an enormous addition to the second Jewish temple; he constructed a massive port on the Mediterranean coastline that was a true wonder of engineering; and he built several key military installations including the fortress at Masada. On the other hand these projects were completed at the expense of impoverishing those he ruled through excessive taxation.

In Matthew, wise men come from the East, following the star. They’re identified as magi. We might imagine them as Zoroastrian priests, learned scholars, astrologers. Though the text in Matthew is silent, later tradition would embellish these descriptions, with different branches of Christianity telling the story in different ways. There were three wise men, or twelve. They’re given different names in different sects of Christianity. They are said to have all came from Persia, or from Persia, India, and Babylonia, or from Europe, Asia, and Africa, or even from China. They are imagined as sorcerers, wizards, kings, saints.

But, in the Gospel story, they come from the East. They visit Herod. With profound insecurity and devious cruelty, Herod enlists the wise men in reporting the identity of the child. The wise men journey to Bethlehem, visit the child, pay him homage, and present him with gifts. And then, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. So they disobey. They disobey Herod and take a different route home.

The text tells this part with one short sentence, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” But, you can easily imagine all kinds of questions:

What were the risks to disobeying Herod?
Did the wise men put their own freedom on the line?
Did they risk their own lives?
Would there be the diplomatic repercussions?
When the wise men returned home, would their homelands be at greater risk of incurring the wrath of the Roman Empire and its armies?
What exactly was the content of that dream, of that vision, that came to the wise men?
Did the dream come to all of them or only to one of them?
And, most importantly, how did they find the courage, conscience, conviction, and commitment to say, “No. We are not going to do this. We will disobey”?

People who study life under authoritarian regimes write about what is necessary for people to resist and to disobey. From her studies of authoritarianism, Sarah Kendzior offers the following advice for those facing life under authoritarianism.

Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others. Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children. Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today.

Write your biography, write down your memories… Write a list of things you would never do. Write a list of things you would never believe.

Never lose sight of who you are and what you value. If you find yourself doing something that feels questionable or wrong a few months or years from now, find that essay you wrote on who you are and read it. Ask if that version of yourself would have done the same thing. And if the answer is no? Don’t do it.

Perhaps it is as simple as this and as difficult as this. Perhaps what gave the wise men, the magi, the strength and courage to take that other road, to disobey and not return to Herod, and not reveal the identity of the child born in Bethlehem was simply that they each possessed a strong moral compass. They knew who they were and what they valued, what they could never do and what they could never believe. They knew this deeply.

Another scholar of authoritarianism, Yale history professor Tom Snyder, offers this advice about obedience,

Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked… Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

For Professor Snyder disobedience is a conscious choice that we need to remember we always have.

As I think about the wise men another source of strength and resilience comes to mind that may have been helpful in causing them to resist, to disobey Herod. Remember, traditions tell us that the wise men came from Persia, India, and Babylon, or from Europe, Asia, and Africa. The wise men are often depicted as coming from different cultures, as having different skin tones, different religions. And, maybe you’d think with their different ethnicities and different languages that one of them would cave, one of them would falter, one of them would say, “If I take the road back that Herod told me to take, I could get on his good side. I could earn all his favor for myself.” But, that’s not what happens. The three of them walk together, take the other road together. Today we’d use the term solidarity. We’d say they practiced solidarity with one another. I think of Rev. William Barber. I’m pretty sure if William Barber met the three magi he’d tell them that they are the beginning of a fusion movement!

For a fusion movement to work we can’t sell one another out. We can’t be in it only for ourselves, our own well-being, our own rights, our own survival. We have to realize that our fates, our freedoms, our lives are tied together. That none of us can be free until and unless all of us are free.

Yesterday, I went to Raleigh for the Justice and Unity rally. I saw a few of you there. We had more than 1,000 people gathered in a park proclaiming our resistance to the KKK march that was happening over in one of the distant corners of our state, proclaiming our resistance to white supremacy, bigotry, and hate in all its forms. The speakers at this rally were mostly people of color, mostly young people. They included immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ. It was inspiring. These gatherings are important. I’m convinced we are being called to show up, that we are all being called to show up in numbers one hundred times as large. One thousand times as large. But, being there yesterday and hearing those speakers reminded me of all the people to whom I am accountable, the people for whom I would disobey Herod. The people with whom I would disobey Herod.

The magi disobeyed by refusing to return to Herod. They took another road instead. But, there is a way of disobedience that is beyond what even the magi did. That form of disobedience is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was a major part of the Confessing Church resistance movement in Germany during the Third Reich. Listen to these words by Bonhoeffer,

[T]here are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state: the first place, as has been said, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. "Do good to all people." In both these courses of action, the church serves the free state in its free way, and at times when laws are changed the church may in no way withdraw itself from these two tasks. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.

According to Bonhoeffer, disobedience can take the form of jamming a spoke in the wheel itself, of throwing a wrench in the machine, of pouring sand in the gears until they jam and falter.

Remember those words of Tom Snyder. “Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked.” Obedience, consent, going along are like oil lubricating the gears. Disobedience and dissent grind the gears down.

Like the wise men of the ancient story, like the wise ones through all history, let us pledge to disobey. Inspired by the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, let us pledge that,

[We] will not hold the bridle
while [Death] clinches the girth.
And [Death] may mount by himself: 
[We] will not give him a leg up.

So may it be. Amen.