Sunday, July 15, 2012

When Church Becomes a Business

Mark 6:14-29. . .   John the Baptist lost his head.  Rather, it was taken from him. . .

Seems Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, was fond of his brother Philip's wife, Herodias.  Or maybe it was Herodias who was fond of her brother-in-law.  Maybe she sensed that first hubby was going nowhere in the power structure of the day, so she jumped ship. 

Herodias and Antipas were legally married.  Maybe not.  According to John the Baptist, it was "not lawful for Antipas to have Herodias.  Howe'er the marriage had been legally sanctioned, or officially blessed or partied into existence, it was contrary to God's law.  It was offensive to Israelites subject to Herod's rule.  For this and a variety of reasons, Herod had lost any moral autority to lead--IF he ever had any in the first place.     

Herod and Herodias went ahead anyway.  John the Baptist spoke against it.  H&H didn't like such criticism.  They did what two-bit nobility nearly always does in the face of John's condemnation.  They had John arrested:  Incarcerate.  Interrogate.  Then abdicate. 

They abdicated responsibility to do the right thing.  Herod feared a revolt by the people who held John in pretty high regard.  If the people revolted, Rome wouldn't like it.  They might install somebody else.  So, they held John in prison--where he probably preached also.  

Odd thing is, Herod kinda liked to listen to John.  Scripture doesn't say why, but I have a theory.  John was probably the only voice in Herod's circle that wasn't a super-duper YES-man.  By being so different from the enablers around Herod, John would have stood out refreshingly. 

Interesting that we will read the same thing when Herod finally gets the chance to have a visit with the arrested Jesus of Nazareth.

But here's the zinger for today.  Why did the critique of Herod's moral corruption come from the wilderness prophet John the Baptist and not from the High Priest in the priestly court of the temple in Jerusalem?

Again, I have a theory.  I think it's because the priestly class had sold out, had made an unholy alliance with Herod the Great, thereby with Rome itself.  By building the temple, Herod had subjugated the priesthood to a bunch of rotating figureheads who would perform all the ritual sacrifices, provide the place for the purification rites and festivals, provide a Holy of Holies so Father God YHWH could be thought to dwell there. 

All they had to do was keep the people in line serving the temple--and keep the tax money coming in so that Herod's household would be supported sumptuously and so that Rome's cut, the "tribute to Caesar", would keep security in place and the benefits of the alliance in place.

Remember who the High Priest was when Jesus was arrested and tried?  Caiaphas.  Caiaphas who was "High Priest that year", according to Scripture.  But he deferred to his father-in-law Annas who had been High Priest and had behind-the-scenes power.  Patronage got Caiaphas the office of High Priest.  With it, the door opens to corruption, moral confusion, loss of moral authority.

Loss of the ability to be prophetic.  Loss of the ability to speak truth to power.  Loss of the ability to lead.  Hard to say "Thus Sayeth the Lord" when you are constantly checking your daily receipts or your stock portfolio.

No wonder John called the bunch from Jerusalem a brood of vipers, a generation of snakes, when they  came out to hear him at the Jordan.  No wonder Jesus found the changing of money and the selling of animals for sacrifice in the temple a distasteful, idolatrous business.  And no wonder the people who benefitted got hot under the collar when Jesus put a one day dip in profits. 
Amos in his day called the High Priest Amaziah to account.  In a time of peace and prosperity under king Jeroboam, Israel had lost its way.  The holy shrines of the faith were being well cared for, but the widows, the orphans and the poor were being crushed under neglect.  The High Priest called Amos a traitor for asking that "justice roll down like waters, righteousness live an ever-flowing stream".

"Get out," yelled the High Priest.  "Go ply your treasonous trade of truth-telling among our blood-brother enemies in Judah.  Israel regards you as a security threat." 

So Amos left.  It was about the economy, stupid.  The Assyrians would end Israel's grand illusion of immunity because the official church had been, for a time, doing so well.

Doing well and lost its way.  When the church becomes a business.  When it becomes a business in the business of protecting itself, it loses its moral authority.  It cannot lead.

Where is Amos in our day?  Where is John?  Who calls our leaders to account?  When we went to war a decade ago under insanely inaccurate estimates of cost and became so distracted from doing the business of the people's work, God's work, of justice and righteousness, of taking care of the widows, the orphans, the poor...  Where were the leaders of our church(es)? 

Sure, a couple wrote letters, attempted to get an audience in the White House.  But just as many either championed war itself...  or else said nothing.  As did most of us.  How many hunger striking pastors, priests and deacons can we name?

 Anybody who went to jail like Daniel and Philip Berrigan back during the Vietnam War?  Anyone?  Anybody out there who even wrote a letter, sent an e-mail?  Anyone?   

So long as we have unhoused, unemployed, unfed and uncared for right outside our doors, and do not put our first and best efforts to work for them, we are undeserving of a roof, doors, walls over a church to be thought of as a house of God. 

And we won't even talk about taking care of the planet and its ability to support life in future generations.  Pure and simple, we worship consumption and cheap energy that enables it. 

Ironically, the cheap energy we worship is the most expensive energy there is because it is not renewable, and it is even in the near term suicidal. 
 Herod's temple began construction in 20-19 BC.  Work continued until AD 62-64.  80 years a'building.  And then... 

In AD 70, the Romans brought it to the ground.  Smashed it to smithereens.  I think God had no small hand in that.  The temple had lost its moral authority.  It had become a business. 

Lord, save us from ourselves.  Send us Amos, send us John.  Send us all of them rolled into one.

Oh, that's right, You did.  Jesus, your Son.

Father, forgive us.  Lead us.  Amen. 

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