The other day, Mike and I were watching an
episode of the old TV show Death Valley Days. This one took place in Virginia
City, Montana Territory, in 1864. People in town were often dependent on
getting supplies from Salt Lake City, on the other side of a mountain pass, and
a few days away by horse-drawn wagon.
Several merchants in town, named Dowd, Gallagher,
and Lucas, decided to gain some extra profit on flour by controlling the amount
of flower available, and by raising the price from $25 to $50 a sack. They had
plenty of flour, but they told the folks that there was no flour in town. In addition,
Dowd claimed the snow in the pass was too deep and nothing was getting through.
Newspaper publisher Cullen objected to the
price gouging and profiteering and wrote an article about it. He approached the
merchants and urged them to have mercy and sell the flour because the citizens
of the town were hungry. Gallagher raised the price to $100 and made a few
Next, Cullen went to the sheriff and asked
him to intervene, but the sheriff said there was nothing he could do. Cullen
warned that there would be a riot and people would get hurt, but the sheriff
said his hands were tied. In retaliation for his meddling, Dowd and the others
broke into Cullen’s office and wrecked the printing press.
A stranger came to town and told Cullen that
the pass was open enough to get flatbeds through, so he went to Salt Lake City
to get flour and bring it back. He knew there would be trouble when he
returned, so he brought with him a troop of deputy marshals, who promptly took
care of Dowd, Gallagher, and Lucas.
Do you know the phrase “speaking truth to
power”? Cullen spoke truth to power. He confronted those who were holding the
power by hoarding the flour. He was polite about it, but it was clear he was
not afraid to confront them and call them to account.
… What does this story have to do with the gospel
story about the arrest and execution of John the Baptist? John also spoke truth
to power. He protested Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who was his brother’s
ex-wife. Herod Antipas is ruthless in maintaining power. He has had family
members killed. He married a woman forbidden to him. And he has an alliance of
sorts with Pontius Pilate and Emperor Tiberius.
John the Baptist puts his life on the line
when he confronts Herod with the truth. Herod did not immediately put him to
death, because he was fascinated with John’s charismatic presence.
But Herodias was appalled. How dare he accuse
her?! She wanted him dead. At Herod’s birthday party, she saw her opportunity. Their
daughter, Little Herodias (just to keep them straight), danced beautifully for their
guests. Herod is so proud of her, he offers her anything she wants. Little
Herodias is not sure what would be a good gift, so she consults her mother. Her
mother tells her to ask for John’s head on a platter.
Now, Herod has a problem. He thought he had
the power, but he realizes that Herodias has it. If Herod has John killed, he
gives up the opportunity to hear more from him. If he refuses to kill John, he
loses face in front of all the world leaders gathered for his party. So, Herod
is forced to have John killed.
… I began with the story of flour hoarding because
I want to make it clear that people of any political or social rank can claim,
hold, and use and abuse power. It is not just those in high political positions.
And people of any political or social rank can speak truth to that power and
hold the powerful accountable.
As we survey our world these days, clearly
there are many leaders who have power and use it for good, and there are some
leaders who have power and use it to hurt people. I leave it to you to
determine who fits in each category.
I also want to point out that power use and
abuse exists in families of any size. And it exists in congregations, and in non-profit
organizations, and in for-profit businesses. Power has been abused by white
people, especially white men, but also white women. We have seen it exposed in the media in recent
years, and in government.
The reason it has been exposed is because some
individuals were brave enough to speak the truth to the powerful who were
abusing them. Those who have spoken out have risked their futures on telling
the truth. They have risked their jobs and even their lives in speaking truth
Here are some examples of what I mean. Martin
Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks; Bishop Oscar Romero; Nelson Mandela; the countless
women of the #metoo movement; the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High
School. … I’m sure you can add to my list.
There is much in our culture that is not as
Jesus would have it. There is a growing financial imbalance in the US; there should
be no reason for hunger and poverty; there should be access to decent health care
for all people; there should be welcome and acceptance of all people of all sizes
and abilities and genders; there should be good education for all children.
As individuals and as a congregation we can
choose to stand up to the leaders of this community and the state and say: this
imbalance of power and wealth and health care needs to be changed. All people
should be treated with respect. How will you choose to speak truth to power? How
can this congregation speak truth to power?
Already, Ascension speaks truth to power by
providing food to hungry people, by sharing funds from the discretionary account,
by supporting a nearby school with supplies, by adopting families at Christmas,
and so forth. These are important ways that we as a congregation tell hurting
people that they matter to us, even if it seems no one else cares.
If we ask, Jesus gives us the courage to speak
truth to power. Let us not be afraid to do so, when the need arises. Amen