The situation in which Herod finds himself in this story is one that we can all relate to. He has given his word and as a leader feels he needs to keep it, but on the other hand has no desire to take the life of John the Baptist. If he grants the request, he will be taking a life purely to save his reputation and protect his integrity as a leader; if he ignores the request, he will be sparing the life of an innocent man and his spiritual teacher, but his trustworthiness as a leader will come into question. Now it is easy for us to say that he should have told Herodias and her mother to stuff it, but that reaction on our part is a sign that we are not really giving this situation much thought. The truth is that as outside viewers we can easily see that within the context of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Herod should have chosen life over death, but Herod did not have the benefit of knowing the future. He had to decide in the moment, and as king, as the leader of his people, it was important that his people trust him and if he goes back on his word that trust will be broken. So, what we are really seeing is that Herod is afraid, he is afraid of looking like a fool and he is afraid of losing power.
Herod was a fan of John the Baptist, he was learning and growing spiritually because of him, which likely would have led to him being a better leader and is why he did not want to take John’s life. When Herod heard that some people thought Jesus was John resurrected then perhaps Herod thought he may have a chance to learn more and get his spiritual life back on track. In a sense Herod was given a second chance and I suspect that this time he did not want to mess it up.
How often do we find ourselves in a situation where we either make the wrong choice or refuse to even talk about something because we do not want to face it or even admit there is a problem? How often do we hide behind the familiar, claiming that because of tradition we cannot change? Clinging to the past is a natural, human reaction and it is at its core rooted in fear. As social creatures we like to be comfortable and change often involves acknowledging uncomfortable truths, which is why we avoid it. The sad part is that by avoiding change, and I mean deeply rooted difficult change, we slowly destroy the very thing we are trying to protect.
Slavery in this country was destroyed by the violence of it. Once it was known how awful it truly was, people turned on it and began to support abolition. Segregation was undone by the violent reaction of those trying to maintain it, which was the brilliant purpose of the non-violent movement. Multiple Christian denominations, including the Episcopal church, have seen its membership decline significantly because of its refusal or possibly even its inability to adapt to changes in society. In my lifetime, more than ten parishes in this diocese have closed their doors, including my home parish of St. Andrews. My family left St. Andrews about five years before they decided to merge with St. James in Greenfield and sell their building and leaving was an incredibly painful experience for me. I had spent my entire life there and as family is incredibly important to me, I was very conscious of the fact that there was never a time in the history of St. Andrew’s that a member of my family was not attending, so the last thing I did was go there and sit in the sanctuary alone. I said goodbye to the space I had loved so much, and I cried. I cried because of the love I had for that beautiful building, because of the happy memories I had there of playing marching to Jerusalem in Sunday school, helping at the Holiday Bazaar, serving at the altar starting at the age of 12; but I think I also cried because I felt as though I was letting down my great, great grandparents, my great grandparents, and every other generation that had gone there before me. I felt I was letting them down because a small part of me thought I was abandoning the place that they had worked so hard to literally build. I can still smell the hints of incense mixed with the aroma of the Harvest festival, which is still my most favorite English tradition, and I still miss St. Andrew’s, but I no longer feel guilty about leaving because as much as I loved that place and the people there and as much as I wanted it to grow and be a beacon of God’s love in the world, St. Andrew’s was a place that was stuck in time and it did not have the resources to grow on its own and I needed to go where I and my family could grow in different ways.
Father Michael has said, many times, that as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down St. Philip’s needs to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the experience of the past year and lean into whatever God may be calling us to do and be, with the understanding that it may mean letting some things go, it may mean facing some fear, and it will mean accepting some hard truths. Herod got a second chance in the form of Jesus; in fact, he got a thousand chances because that is how God works, but the reason we are given endless chances is because God knows that there is always the possibility that we will change, that we will put God’s mission of reconciliation and the restoration of creation first. God also knows that we will fail a thousand times before we take one step in the right direction. God also knows that the reason we resist those steps is because they can be, and often are, painful. The good news is that, with God’s help, the fear and pain will subside and when it does, we will be in a better place than we were before and we will be one step closer to both reconciling and restoring creation. The question we need to ask ourselves now is, what are we afraid of? Amen.