Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
King Herod was called Herod the Great because he built great things. I have seen them. I have put my fingers in the spaces between the rocks of the foundations of the Herodian temple, climbed the Herodian fortress of Masada, and wandered among ruins from time in Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Herod was a master builder. Herod’s buildings were magnificent. They were connected by an infrastructure and a supply chain that puts our modern to shame. Jesus’ world was far more complex and cosmopolitan than we think. From the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee to the carpenters of Nazareth and the shepherds on the fields outside of Bethlehem, almost all of our favorite Biblical characters were part of a massive Roman Military Industrial Complex and the Temple Industrial Complex overseen by Herod himself. The Pharisees and Sadducees and the Chief priests of the Temple were not the only ones who benefited from all this. Who do you think the shepherds were raising their sheep for? Archaeologists have found amphora marked as Galilean fish paste throughout the Mediterranean. Those Galilean fishermen were not just guys out with poles out on an afternoon, they were part of a global effort to feed the Roman army. Do you remember the Biblical story of the man on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with a heard of pigs? He wasn’t raising pigs for the Jewish people to eat. Do you remember the name of the demons that possessed him? The demon’s name was Legion – as in Roman Legion. (Mark 5:1-13) While the Wise Een from the East may have come on camels, it is far more likely that they came following established Roman roads and trade routes than through the sandy deserts that most of picture in our minds. The Romans and Pax Romana connected everything from England to India, just about the whole of the known world at the time. Everyone – even and especially the religious authorities – was part of the system in some way. In the same way that people in our own time have been seduced by Putin, people in Jesus’ time were seduced by Herod. Blinded by fancy buildings and a brilliant bottom line, people somehow missed that fact the Herod thought nothing about massacring children and even having his own family members murdered so he could stay in power. No one had the courage to say that the emperor had no clothes and that Herod was actually anything but great. No one, that is, except Jesus.
Jesus saw Herod for what he was – a fox, a bully, a tyrant — and was unafraid of saying what he thought. He knew that Herod saw his ministry as a threat, and was well aware of what would happen if he kept going. Jesus kept going anyway. He stood up anyway. He went to Jerusalem anyway. He kept speaking anyway. His words, “you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord'” foreshadowed his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when people would wave palm branches (the symbol of royalty), proclaim him as a king, and seal his fate. As I watched the news this week, I saw the people of Ukraine doing the same thing – holding on to their faith, standing up against a bully, doing their work, speaking their truth. I saw 60 year old women taking up arms, a 44 year old president taking on the world, 18 year old skateboarders signing up to fight and people doing the most amazing of things to help one another out. As I watched this, Paul’s words to the Philippians echoed in my ears: “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” As descendants of Abraham, the Ukrainians know that God will be with them in their struggles and that the land they are fighting for is their own. As descendants of Abraham, the Ukrainians know that the fight they are fighting is bigger than just themselves and that their citizenship is in a kingdom far greater than any empire that might want to take it all away. Remember, my friends, that you are children of Abraham and citizens of that kingdom as well.
If it hadn’t happened already, photos this week of a bombed out maternity hospital and of bodies in plastic garbage bags took the scales off our eyes. Their trauma is becoming our trauma. Their anger is becoming our anger. Their cause has become our cause… and their God has become our God. Before, however, we pat ourselves on the back for waking up and waving blue and yellow flags, we need to remember that other wars have been going on for which we did nothing and that right here at home a war is being raged against gay, trans and black people and women who want to choose what happens to their bodies. Their stories are being made illegal to tell and whose lives are under risk. Today’s scriptures tell us that sitting idly by is no longer an option. Paul says, “Join in imitating me.” Abraham says, “Join in imitating me.” Jesus says, “Join in imitating me.” Ukrainian people are saying the same.
On Wednesday, the same day as the bombing of the Maternity Hospital in Ukraine, the news contained a different story. It told of the discovery of the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship which sank in the ice off Antarctica over 100 years ago. In 10,000 feet of near freezing water, the ship has been perfectly preserved, with images showing the wheel, the masts, the bow and the stern emblazoned with the name “Endurance” all crystal clear. The story of Shackleton’s epic journey, the survival of his entire crew, and the true endurance embodied in the name of his ship are an inspiration. The fact that the ship has survived, that the name is so clear, is a message about the power of human endurance, the ability of people to survive under the most extreme and impossible of situations, and the things we can accomplish if we use our God-given gifts and work together. Like Jesus, like Paul, we may be called to stand up, speak the truth to power, and bear the costs (including, for example, the real cost of carbon and increased costs of fuel) of doing the right thing, even when it puts our own lives and lifestyles at risk. Remember, however, that when Abraham thought all was lost, God promised him a future better than he could imagine. Though Jesus did go Jerusalem and was indeed killed for proclaiming himself a king, three days later he was raised from the dead, beginning a kingdom that will never end.
On this second Sunday of Lent, the lectionary gives us the words of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell. Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.” Today we are called not just to believe these words, but to have the courage to live them out.