Sunday, July 15, 2018

Speaking truth to power

Mark 6:14-29


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 sacks available.


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 to power.


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