People We Don’t Want to Find Christ in

A sermon based on Mark 6:14-29
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 12, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Two men, a lobbyist and a congressman were breaking into an opposing politician’s business office at her large supermarket warehouse. They planned to bug the office, but were interrupted by a security guard walking into the warehouse. The lobbyist said “Shhhh! Lets hide in those potato bags.” The guard hearing a noise walked toward the potato bag with the lobbyist inside. The lobbyist thinking quickly in the bag cried out “Meow! Meow!” and the guard stopped and said “Oh, it’s only a cat.” But then the guard poked the potato sack with the congressman in it. The congressman thinking quickly cried out “Potato! Potato!”

That story is meant to take a poke at our political elite. We can all smile a bit because there is a sense among those of us being ruled by politicians’ decisions that they often seem to act in less than smart ways.
It’s a time honored tradition to scoff at the seeming lack of intelligence in politics and today’s text is a first century version of poking fun at a politician, in this case the Roman appointed King of the Jews, Herod Antipas.

Today’s story is meant to not only mock that elite king’s lack of intelligence but upper-class excesses, depravity and incompetency of the day. The banquet in the story is a setting for elite men only. You had to be connected and a made man to be there. The conduct in the story raises all sorts of concerns about the quality of leadership. A ruler has his youthful daughter dance in front of a room full of drinking men and then grants her any wish.

Right away a first century audience of this story would ask a number of head-shaking questions. Like, what sort of father lets his daughter dance at a meal reserved for drunk men? And to make matters worse in the context of the culture it’s understood to have been sexually provocative dance. 1 How could a real religious leader or real ruler or real father be so immoral and disgusting? And how could a competent ruler trap himself in a foolish open-ended offer to a teenager? Could a capable or devout King of the Jews do such things? Actually could anyone, anyone be so ridiculously deprived of morals and common sense as to reward a very unholy dance with a very holy man’s life?

Every moment at the banquet is disgusting and of concern. The retelling of John’s execution clearly makes Rome’s chosen elite King of the Jews out to be a rather icky unholy buffoon who does not follow common sense, let alone Jewish law and common moral decency.The entire Roman elite culture story of depravity is being held to ridicule.

At the time of Jesus and John Roman banquet meals were all the rage for the very privileged male elite. Since it’s for connected men, females were not allowed in except as entertainment. That’s why the dancing daughter has to leave the banquet to ask her mom what to do. And that’s also why Herod has to keep his sworn promise so as not to lose honor, not lose face, in front of the other elites.

And see John the Baptist is a loathed being to the elites. He’s a nobody from the sticks. And he’s a trouble-making nobody at that, an expendable to the culture who’s under criminal arrest. John not only dared to question Herod’s marriage, but he’s been giving non-elite’s access to forgiveness and God without Rome’s appointed temple elite while at the same time re-enacting Joshua’s crossing Jews into the Jordan to conquer the Promised Land as a protest call to oust Rome and give the land back to God.

The elite of Rome, those in the position of privilege, as a rule looked down upon the non-elites and found expendable the worthless country lowlifes like John . . . . and Jesus. But they were not just country lowlifes, they were rabble-rousing lowlifes making them not just expendable, but to be disposed of summarily.

So John and Jesus are both hastily executed. That the ruling elite did this is sadly not surprising. History is full of cutthroat tactics that those with power often use to maintain the status quo. What is surprising is that non-elites feature so prominently in the deaths of John and Jesus. We are told a non-elite female mother and daughter called for John’s head in the lesson today. We are told in Gospel accounts of Jesus’ last day that a crowd of non-elites called for Jesus’ crucifixion. Ordinary non-elites join the elites in oppressing and calling for the killing fellow expendables, making them lowlifes to even other cultural lowlifes.

Arrests, you see, almost instantly carry a stigma. In fact the stigma of arrest by Rome was so great that even Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, denied three times that he knew the now criminal lowlife Jesus. The stigma of arrest sullied John and it sullied Jesus. The taint of criminal status made both easier to dispose of. Non-elites under arrest become the lowliest of loathed lowlifes.

It is of course a great irony that those two lowlifes to a culture are now considered very holy high-lifes to the world. The conduct Rome’s elite called criminal and the two men they called criminals, we now consider exemplary. And it’s not that the non-elite in first century Palestine would not have (at least secretly) admitted John and Jesus were doing good and Godly deeds, it’s that cultural stigmas are hard to stand up against and get out of our way of thinking.

One of Jesus’ main teachings – one of his things– was to stand against cultural stigmas . . . to resist the strong currents of loathing completely. No one is expendable to him and he goes out of the way to point that out, and to behave like it. In that respect Jesus is quite counter-culture.“The people” that the people were to hate and treat as outcasts Jesus constantly loves and brings into the fold. The culture says “Cast out the untouchable ill” – Jesus touches them and brings them into the fold. The culture belittles women– Jesus uplifts them. The culture turns a blind eye to the poor– Jesus turns to the poor. The culture shuns aliens – Jesus befriends them. The culture indoctrinates the hate of enemies– Jesus, for God’s sake, even says love them. And of course, the culture says throw away criminals– and Jesus tends to them and teaches us to too. Jesus even rescued a convicted criminal from a death sentence. See, in Jesus’ teachings everybody gets done to them what Jesus wants done to him.

But that’s NOT what gets done to him by the culture . . . . nor to his mentor John the Baptist. Both men are turned on not just by the deprived privileged elite, but by non-elites too–including Jesus’ own disciples, his own beloved friends.

Cultures mark people as outcasts. Despite Jesus efforts and teachings this still goes on. We have it in our culture. Almost uniformly any non-elite in our culture who is arrested seems to be considered to have a lower of value of life in they are even seen as worthless to some.

Even non-elites just targeted for questioning or under suspicion we lower in value. Some of us may think this is not a bad thing. We may even revel in the belittling of those targeted by our criminal justice system. Indeed while we have a rule of law that claims everyone is innocent until proven guilty, culturally we hardly honor that. It’s like we don’t even want any laws to apply to suspects. Think about how we applaud movie and TV heroes who break laws to obtain evidence and illegally mistreat suspects to solve cases and save the day. Our assumption as audience members is that criminal suspects are cultural undesirables and so do not deserve protection of the law, let alone a presumption of innocence. These fictional shows rely on a cultural sense in us to act– I hate to say it– like the non-elites that called for the arrested John the Baptist and Jesus’ executions. See we want to cast out the cast offs.

It’s chilling to face that reality. It’s even more chilling when we face the reality that it’s not just in fiction that this goes on. From the news over the past year a whole lot of the media has played to, and disseminated information, meant to get us to think of suspects and those arrested as guilty until proven innocent–as even worthy of the death dolled out without trial. Again and again it’s been suggested we cast out the cast offs, reject as “unworthy lesser beings” non-elites who are arrested or even merely suspected of crimes or phoned in as possible criminals. Mere suspicion of crime culturally makes us loath non-elite suspects and diminish their humanity.

Some of us may even think that is a good thing. We may feel entitled to consider non-elites that come in the cross hairs of our justice system as guilty of crimes until proven innocent. We may even think everyone ought to think of them as sub-human, maybe even as worthless, maybe even as expendable.

So we have watched as cultural elites in the press and in politics scramble to justify shooting Michael Brown an unarmed non-elite teen who’d run from the law; to justify choking Eric Garner an unarmed non-elite man protesting his arrest; to justify shooting John Crawford, a non-elite man carrying a BB gun to buy in a store; and to even justify shooting Tamir Rice, a pre-teen child holding a toy gun in park. These were all incidents involving non-elite Americans legally presumed innocent, yet in the cross-hairs of our justice system– while still technically guilty of no crime– across the nation they have been vilified, tainted as if they’d been convicted. Some of us have applauded their demise, and excused it or even considered their deaths indifferently.
In my examples so far the non-elites were Black males, men and a boy. But it is not only Black Americans suspects who are treated as expendable, even killed. The expendable rule of those in the cross hairs of the criminal justice system also applies to other people of color, to the poor and to the mentally ill. It should apply to no one. People of color, poor, and the mentally ill and all of the rest of us deserve equal and just treatment.

I assume most of here today would agree with that. But the expendable rule for non-elites suspected of crimes is being applied. It does exist. We are not immune from this “non-elite suspects are lowlifes and so expendable” rule.

Here in our county, in our town, a poor mentally ill drunken man, Levi Dehmann, was arrested and taken to our county jail. There’s a very disturbing video on line of his intake at the jail taken on April 21st . . . the day he died. The video shows that while unarmed, inebriated and in the custody of five deputies Levi drunkenly approached two deputies and received no violent response. But when Levi appears to approach in a similar non-threatening way a third officer that officer lashes out violently which caused Levi to drunkenly react and the officer to then violently throw Levi onto the jail’s cement floor . . . Levi died of head trauma.

No one has to agree with me, but I cannot help but think that in the last moments of consciousness Levi appears to have been treated like an expendable movie character, not a valuable vulnerable human being taken into custody for the protection of others and himself because he was drunk and mentally ill.

On one hand this is different than John the Baptist and Jesus being killed. While John and Jesus and Levi were all in legal custody, John and Jesus were lawfully executed . . . but Levi’s death is not warranted under our criminal laws.

On the other hand, many think and argue Levi was nonetheless lawfully killed. It is as if we think of Levi as a “character” in custody, a one dimensional bad guy whose drunken moves deserved a deadly response. Only this is Mount Vernon, not a movie, and Levi was not a bad guy, he was a human being, a poor alcoholic and mentally ill neighbor of all of ours.

And you know what? While it may be easy for us to say to ourselves this is also different than John the Baptist and Jesus being killed because they are elite figures to Christians, and Levi is not, Jesus would disagree. Jesus told us in Matthew 25 (31-46) that the Son of Man, Christ is in the prisoner and he told us that how we treat the prisoner is how we treat Christ. For the Son of Man the imprisoned are as elite as he and he expects us to treat them accordingly.

If Jesus is right, whether we want to or not, we’d do well to ask ourselves some very important sobering questions like: Are we as a people causing the Levi Dehmanns and Michael Browns and Eric Garners and John Crawfords and Tamir Rices to be treated in the manner we want Christ to be treated? Or even treated like we’d like our family or neighbors or our selves to be treated? Or are we like the crowd gathered before Pilate who asked for the imprisoned’s deaths? Or are we like Herod’s non-elite daughter and wife who desire it? Or are we like Herod’s banquets guests and Peter and other Jesus followers who just watch and do nothing?

If we really considered the imprisoned non-elites as Christ – or even as our neighbor or brother or sister, or better yet, our self– would we want done to them, to us, to Christ, what we are doing these days to many of those suspected, arrested, tried or convicted? If the answer is “No” – and I pray that it is– we need to begin to at least critically think about our attitude toward people who are criminal suspects, defendants and convicts. We don’t have to like them. We don’t have to root against law enforcement, and we do not have to let the criminals go. But – and again no one has to agree with me – I am suggesting that as Christians we must ask if our conduct as a culture is loving toward those in the criminal justice system. That is, do we desire and act toward their well being as if they are Christ? Or neighbors? Or us?

This is fundamental Jesus teaching stuff. It’s hard stuff. And we may not like it at all because it means culturally stigmatized non-elites in the criminal justice system have to matter to us. Even though we’ve been raised and are told in the news and on social networks and in movies and TV shows to consider them worthless. At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, how we treat those in the custody of our criminal justice system is how we treat Christ. And according to Jesus we as a nation will be judged by that treatment and our efforts to excuse it and our non-efforts to stop it.

I pray that as Christians, as a nation, we learn to do to our neighbors in custody or under suspicion– whether convicted or not– what we’d do to Christ . . . what we’d want done to our neighbors like Levi . . . or our families . . .or our self. 2

Amen.

ENDNOTES:
1 Smith, Dennis, The Greco-Roman Banquet: Defining a Common Meal Tradition, Philadelphia: Trinity Press Int’l, (1990), p 35-37.
2. This sermon was inspired in part by this excellent article and a conversation with its author: Shuler, Jack, “The Story of Levi Dehmann: Police Violence in Small-Town America,” Truthout, Sunday, 14 June 2015. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31328-the-story-of-levi-dehmann-police-violence-in-small-town-america