Today in the narrative lectionary we begin a look at the book of Ephesians. And for today what I want to say about this passage is simply that it is in many ways the elevator version of Christianity. It talks about our being chosen first by God, our adoption, redemption, forgiveness, grace, mystery; the pleasure and plan of God for all to be gathered in, inheritance, the seal of the Holy Spirit. But to be honest, as I looked over the passages for today, I felt much more called to focus on this very disturbing passage from Mark. So, we will be discussing that today. And what I want to look at in particular is this idea that Herod had, this belief that Herod had no choice but to behead John the Baptist.
We know this story. He imprisoned John the Baptist, and according to this story in Mark, it was because John had told him that he had acted unlawfully when he had married his son’s wife. But at the same time as he had imprisoned him, it was also clear that he valued John the Baptist. Herod was getting something from that relationship, it was freeing for him, it was teaching him, it was touching him. He respected John.
Then we come to the second part of the story. His daughter, Herodius, dances for Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased that he says to her “ask me for anything and I will give it to you.” Herodius asked her mother and her mother asked for John the Baptist’s head. Now here is the interesting part. The story says, “although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So he ordered a guard to bring John’s head. The guard went to the prison, cut off John’s head, brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the young woman, and she gave it to her mother.”
Herod believed that he had no choice. He had no choice but to take a man’s life, an innocent life; a life, furthermore, that he greatly valued. Now we can go into the specifics of why he felt this way. We can talk about shame culture and the huge consequences he would have faced if he had done anything differently. We can talk about what it means to have choice in this situation. But regardless of whether you feel he did the right thing or the wrong thing for his place in that time and in that situation, the fact still remains that he had a choice to make and he made it, despite the things he told himself about lack of choice.
As I read this story, a Joan of Arcadia scene came to mind in which God asks Joan to play a chess. She joins the chess club at school and ends up beating the school chess champion though she really does not understand how to play the game. Other disasters happen in which she is a part and finally she ends up in a chess game against God. She still doesn’t really know how to play chess, but she sits down to begin. She says,
“I don’t really know how to play chess.”
God responds, “Well, that’s fairly obvious.”
“You know, God, for once I’m very glad to see you… Because my life is completely unravelling. I’m up to my eyeballs in the drama of the high school mating ritual and now, thanks to you, I’ve been mistaken as the high school chess champion. How did this happen to me?”
“How did I beat that kid at chess?”
“He was using logic. You weren’t. it’s impossible to guard against chaos. It’s rare but it happens. Black’s move.”
“I don’t want to.” But even as she says this, she picks up her pawn and moves it. “I don’t know how to play this game,” she says again.
“And yet you play the game.”
“Because I’m forced to!”
“Forced to! Your friends make a suggestion which you follow up on and then you are surprised at the outcome! It’s a causal universe.” He says as he moves his piece. “Your move.”
“Wait a minute. I’m being punished because I made a tiny little effort to fit in?”
“It’s not about punishment. It’s that actions have consequences. And to be in denial of that is to be disengaged from the laws of the universe which renders you powerless, and vulnerable to an inordinate amount of pain. Other than that, it’s no big deal. Move. ” Joan picks up a piece then puts it back down and reaches for another.
“Noooo,” God said. “It’s a rule called touch move. Once you’ve touched a piece you have to move that piece.”
“I’m not allowed to change my mind? What kind of universe is that?”
“Oh, you can change your mind, but you still have to play that piece. So you should think before you move.”
“Wait a minute. This is a metaphor, right?” She stares at the board for a few more minutes, mumbling under her breath and finally moves her piece. “I took the bait so now I’m in the game. How do I get out?”
“There are many ways to get out. Surrender is one. Losing is another. Winning. Cheating, which I don’t recommend. But you have to do something. You have to have a strategy. You see, the number one rule of chess is this: whatever you do, don’t play the other person’s game. Play your own. Your move.”
Herod was playing the other person’s game. Herod allowed the rules of a shame society to tell him that he had no choice but to have John the Baptist beheaded. He played the other person’s game, and one man lost his life, and Herod lost his grounding.
I’m reminded of the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”. The movie’s main character, Andi, starts as a person with goals and integrity. She wants to be a journalist, and she has written about injustices such as poor work conditions. She is in a committed relationship and values her time with her friends. She enjoys her life, and has a cause or meaning, a purpose in her future. Her values do not include shallow things like appearance, being thin, high fashion, owning expensive purses, clothing, things. She puts work in its proper place as one aspect of who she is. She is down-to-earth, centered, and knows where she is heading and what she wants. When she first applies for the job as Assistant to the Director of Runway Magazine, she is appalled by the value system that surrounds her – the emphasis on accessories that make no real difference to one’s well-being, the insistence on being thin, on looking “right,” on dressing “right.” But when she takes the job, she finds her values and her identity being slowly challenged, slowly and subtly being undermined and eroded. She finds herself giving up more and more of her time with her friends and significant other in order to work. She finds herself being pulled into the drama and the appeal of a fast-paced career with models and glamour and eventually into valuing the entire system of clothing and accessories and being thin and owning purses that cost thousands of dollars – all things she didn’t used to care about. The choices she is faced with – to choose depth, meaning and relationships, or to choose appearance, glamour, fame and achievement are subtle choices, but she finds herself choosing for the latter again and again, and she finds herself saying to those who would challenge those choices, “well, I didn’t have a choice!” She chooses to do what her boss asks her to do, even when it means that she ends up deeply hurting a colleague who was becoming a friend. And the entire time she is slipping she repeats that phrase, “I didn’t have a choice.”
What made her descent, her decline into a life that the movie, and I imagine many of us, would consider sinful so easy for her was that she didn’t realize she was playing by the rules of the other person. Like Joan in the Joan of Arcadia episode, she kept saying to everyone, but especially herself, “I didn’t have a choice.” But that lie that she told herself, that she didn’t have a choice meant that she lost her friends, she lost her significant other, she lost her sense of self and her values. As her boyfriend breaks up with her, she receives a phone call from her boss, and she says, “I’m sorry. I have to answer this,” STILL not realizing she is making a choice. As her boyfriend walks away he says to her, “You know, in case you were wondering? The person whose calls you always take – that’s the relationship you’re in.” Even after all of those losses she still didn’t realize the choices that she was making or that she had a choice to make, until her boss, Miranda, in the film pointed it out to her by comparing Andi’s choices with her own. Andi could see that Miranda’s choices were hurtful, were harmful, were devastating. But until Miranda pointed out that Andi had made the same choices, Andi couldn’t see. She could not see the choice she was making, or even THAT she was making a choice.
In the movie, “You’ve Got Mail” the main character’s book store has lost all kinds of business when a huge Barnes and Noble type store moves in across the street. She tries everything to get her store to succeed, but it cannot compete against a Costco-like enterprise. Finally she meets with her employees and says, “I’ve decided to close the store.” Her dearest and longest employee responds, “closing the store is the brave thing to do!” Meg Ryan’s character says, “What bull!” To which Bertie responds, “It is! You are envisioning a new future. One you never expected and stepping into it boldly.”
She did not have a choice about responding or not to the competition from across the street. But she did have a choice about how she would respond. And she made a choice that was her own game, her own step forward. As sad as it made her, it also was a choice of hope.
As Dumbledore said in the Harry Potter series, “It is our choices that show who we are. Not our abilities.”
I think about the stories I heard from a prisoner of watching seeing other prisoners saving food from their lunches and then calling the skunks, “here, kitty, kitty!” they’d say and leave food for the skunks and other wildlife in the area. They are in a situation over which they have very limited control, and certainly very few choices. But this is a choice they can make: eat their food, or save it to share with the creatures around the prison.
Finally, I want to share with you one more movie story. In the movie, Keeping the Faith, there is a wonderful conversation between a young priest and an older priest. The young priest doubts his call into the priesthood after falling in love with a woman who is his friend. Nothing happened between the two, but he found that the very fact of falling in love made him doubt a call that included celibacy. He said to his older priest mentor, “If she had kissed me back, I would have given it all up. She didn’t, but I keep thinking about what you said in the seminary that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself doing anything else you should do that.”
The older priest responded, “Well that’s my recruitment speech which is good when you are starting out because it makes you feel like a marine! But the truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one that you could be. If you’re a priest or if you marry a woman, it is the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it is a choice that you make again and again and again. I’ve been a priest over 40 years, and I fall in love at least once every decade.”
The thing is, in every situation there are choices to be made. EVERY situation. We choose how we see things, we choose how we act. Sometimes we are making decisions between two terrible things. Sometimes we are deciding between two wonderful things. Sometimes it feels we don’t have a choice, but we still choose how we understand a situation, where we put our focus, whether we find gratitude or pain. We choose whether we grow and learn, or whether we become bitter. And we choose whether we see God, whether we see the grace that is offered in every moment. We choose whether or not to take the grace that is offered in each moment. No matter how terrible a moment is, we still can choose to see the gift in having each breath we have to breathe. In every single moment grace is offered. But it is a choice we make whether we see it or not. As Rick Warren said it, “I used to think that life was hills and valleys – you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don’t believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for. You can focus on your purposes, or you can focus on your problems: If you focus on your problems, you’re going into self-centeredness, which is my problem, my issues, my pain.’ But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others.”
Grace is offered to everyone in every moment. But that doesn’t mean it is always easy to accept. It also doesn’t mean that grace is always happy or even painless. Sometimes the very breath we breathe is painful. That grace, ruach, spirit, wind, breath that we are offered in each and every moment does not always come wrapped in a pretty package. And sometimes that very breath itself is painful. We know that sometimes wind becomes so strong it destroys things. We know that sometimes the Spirit’s words to us are hard to take. I think about at the end of Harry Potter, when the evil Voldemort was given a choice. He could choose remorse, have his soul healed and live, or he could continue along his path of destruction that would lead to his ultimate destruction too. He chose the latter because the pain of remorse was too much. He chose to turn away from the Grace that was offered. But that did not change the fact that it was being offered in that very moment.
In the story of Herod, we see that Herod’s inability to see his choices, to think beyond what he felt he had to do ended badly for John, and ultimately for Herod, too, who became obsessed with worrying that John’s ghost was haunting him. He thought Jesus himself was John. “But when Herod heard these rumors, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised to life.””. But his inability to see did not mean that he did not have choice. He could have pointed out to the girl that this request she made was really what her mother wanted and not what she, herself wanted. He could have reasoned with her, talked to her. After all, she was HIS daughter too. But instead he felt bound by a blind, spur of the moment commitment he made. And that feeling of being bound left him feeling impotent and blind to his choices. He played her game, did not choose the grace of other options that were before him, and everyone suffered.
We have those same choices. And my prayer is for us to see God’s grace, to choose God’s grace and to play the game the way God calls us to play it, for ourselves and for the world. Amen.