Being Good Canadians
Hespeler, 1 July, 2018 © Scott McAndless
Romans 13:1-7, Mark 10:2-12, Psalm 20:1-9
Before I begin today, I want to say a few things about this sermon that I have written. This is my very first sermon preached after not preaching for ten whole weeks and that is actually something that is quite extraordinary for me because that has not happened to me for over a quarter of a century.
But there is something else that is rather unique about this sermon. I didn’t want to have it hanging over my head the whole time while I was away so I actually wrote it before I left and put it away and intentionally forgot about it for ten weeks.
Now think, for a moment, about what that means. I wrote today’s sermon without knowing who would be the Premier of Ontario on July 1st. I did not know who would win the election, although I was pretty sure that, whoever it was, over half of the Province of Ontario would be upset with the results.
Even more stunningly, I wrote this sermon and chose to use as a text our reading from Romans 13, long before the Attorney General of the United States would use the very same passage to justify separating parents from their children for the so-called crime (actually a misdemeanor) of incorrectly crossing a border.
So a lot happened since I wrote it but I have decided not to change the substance of the sermon at all. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it is still relevant over ten weeks after it was written.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” In fact, some Christian supporters of Donald Trump in the United States have been making particular use of that passage a lot in that country recently as they try to convince their less supportive Christian brethren that they need to support their president no matter what doubts they may have. Of course, if those Christians had been as quick to apply the same passage to previous Democratic presidential leaders, I would be a little more impressed by their fidelity to the Bible.
But should the passage be applied like that? I mean, yes, it is a good thing to respect the authorities in your country; clearly, if we all failed to do that, it would lead to chaos and it wouldn’t be good for anyone. But can we make that an unbreakable rule? Must leaders be respected no matter what they do? If they act unlawfully, for example? Or unjustly? Paul may well have counseled the people in his churches to respect the authority of the state – it sure was a good way to avoid getting into trouble with such powers – but I don’t think that even he could have seen this as an absolute requirement. Surely there had to be some things that crossed the line – that meant that you could not support the policies of a leader.
Jesus ran into one of those thorny political questions one day – though we might not realize just how thorny it was. You see, one of the really hot political questions in Galilee in the time of Jesus had to do with divorce. King Herod Antipas was the king of Galilee (technically his title was tetrarch but king was what he wanted to be). King Herod was an ambitious man. He wanted more and more power and wealth for himself. (I know, shocking, who ever heard of a politician who wanted that?) So Herod employed many strategies to get what he wanted – things like building projects and economic initiatives. But he also used a strategy often employed in the ancient world: strategic marriage.
Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great so he was in the second generation of a ruling dynasty that had been around for a while, but it was a dynasty that many people looked on with suspicion. The Herods, you see, were not Jews – not really. They were foreigners that the Romans had placed over the Jews. And I don’t think that the Herods ever quite got over that. So Herod came up with a plan to marry someone who had a strong link to a previous line of kings – a very Jewish dynasty.
Her name was Herodias and, with her genuine Jewish royal blood she would have solved all of Herod’s problems – or so he thought at least. But there was one problem: she was already married and, in fact, she was married to Herod Antipas’ brother.
The solution was simple. Herodias just had to divorce the brother and marry Herod – something that she was quite willing to do because she recognized the benefits of allying herself to an ambitious man. So that is what happened.
But some people – can you imagine it – were upset with King Herod. They recognized this marriage as a cold, cynical political move made to benefit no one but Herod. Even worse, it caused a war! Herod also had to divorce someone to marry Herodias and his former father-in-law, an Arab King, was so mad that he invaded the kingdom and the war went very badly for Herod. So it turned out to be a disaster really.
Nevertheless, few could muster the courage to voice criticism aloud and no wonder. One man did it – a man named John the Baptist. John spoke up publicly and said the king shouldn’t have done it. Perhaps John thought he could get away with it because he lived way out in the wilderness but that didn’t save him. He was arrested and thrown in prison. Shortly afterward John lost his head, and, no, that is not a metaphor. His head was served up on a platter, we are told in a previous passage in the Gospel of Mark, at the instigation of Herodias herself.
Now that kind of measure has a way of sending a message. I’m pretty sure that anyone who set themselves up as a spiritual leader would have understood that commenting on the king’s marriage was a perilous thing to do.
Well, in the passage we read this morning from the Gospel of Mark, I believe that Jesus is asked to do exactly that. Now, I realize that the names of Herod and Herodias do not come up at all in our reading this morning. The Pharisees come up with a seemingly generic question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Are they not asking about the lawfulness of divorce in general?
Well, think of it this way: if a reporter came up to a religious leader today and asked the question, “Do you think that it is lawful for a man to have sex with a pornstar and then have his lawyer pay her off for $130,000?” would that be a generic question? It might have the form of one and could be applied to anyone who paid off a pornstar, but wouldn’t everyone in the crowd – and it doesn’t even matter whether the story was true or not – wouldn’t everyone know exactly who you were talking about with such a question? Of course they would.
Well, in that environment at that time, the divorce question was the same thing. Everyone knew exactly who the Pharisees were talking about and everyone knew just how explosive the question was. Did you notice that Jesus couldn’t even answer the question entirely in public? He had to give part of the answer privately to the disciples – that is a good indication that he knew exactly how dangerous the question was.
And I think that this makes an important point. I don’t particularly think that the church today should be involved in what I would call political activism. I certainly do not think that it is our role, for example, to become involved in party politics or to endorse particular candidates. But we have something to say – and the Christian gospel has something to say – about life in this world and what can make it better for everyone overall. We are required to speak up about these things.
An example might be the issue of divorce that comes up in this passage. I realize that it is a difficult issue because it is a very personal issue, but, wherever exactly you stand on the issue, I think that we all agree it is an important one. I believe that anyone who enters into a marriage should enter into it with the intention that it be a lifelong commitment. That is the strength of marriage and I believe it is mutually beneficial to the partners in that marriage. But I have also seen enough marriages fall apart to know that there are exceptions to that. There are relationships where the people are just too prone to tearing each other down to be salvaged. There are cases of abuse and worse where a divorce may be sad, but it is still the best way forward. I do believe many such exceptions are covered under God’s amazing grace.
But some religious folks I know would not allow such exceptions for the average person who finds themselves in a destructive marriage. They would force some people to remain in that relationship no matter what. But, we have learned, they do make exceptions in some cases. They make exceptions in the cases of the Herods, the elites, the Presidents on their third marriage who have affairs with an assortment of porn stars. They make the exceptions for the powerful people, at least the ones that they think will enact the policies that they want.
That’s what I see the Pharisees doing in this passage. They understand the divine intention regarding marriage, that it should be forever, but they are happy to give King Herod a mulligan. “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her,” they say. In other words, they say that Herod is technically correct – he hasn’t done anything technically illegal. It is weak support for a monarch that they know is corrupt, but that is what some religious folk do all too often when they are really only interested in seeking their own interest as I am sure these Pharisees are doing.
But Jesus is not going to let that slide. He goes on to affirm what God’s original intention in marriage was – a statement that is memorably summed up in the words, “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Again, I do not think that that means that there cannot be any exceptions to that intention, but I think that, clearly in the context, Jesus is not allowing for an exception being offered to an ambitious king who just wants to advance his own career by marrying his brother’s wife.
The principle is, in other words, that powerful people – people like Herod – don’t get special treatment because they are powerful. They are to be held to the same standards and the same exceptions as the rest of us. And I honestly think that that is a principle that can guide us very helpfully as we seek to work out that thorny question of how we can navigate that question of living, as Christians, while we are also citizens of a country.
Do we owe respect to those placed in positions of authority within our society, yes we do, for no other reason than that we respect the mechanism by which they were put into that position – in our case, the democratic process that I do believe is a gift of God. But does respect mean that we do not hold them to account, does it mean that we do not require of them the same morality and basic decency that we require of ourselves and others? No, it does not.
And so, as Christians I do not think we should be afraid to stand up and speak according to our convictions – even when that boldness comes at great cost as it did for John the Baptist and it eventually did for Jesus. This, for me, is essential to what it means to be Christian citizens of such a great country as the one in which we find ourselves.
I love my country. But true love of country is not blind, must be critical when criticism is called for. True love of country comes with respect for institutions and leaders, but again, that respect must sometimes be bold to speak the truth to the powerful.
O Canada, because our patriot love is true, we can and must stand on guard for thee.