7 Pentecost: Power and empathy

08 -- Empathy and Emotional Intelligence: What You Need -- Some of the Icons for Anthony Iannarino's New Book
"08 -- Empathy and Emotional Intelligence:What You Need" by Roy Blumenthal, on Flickr

Amos 7:7–15
This is what he showed me: the LORD was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the LORD said,
"See, I am setting a plumb line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword."

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,
'Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.'"

And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, 15and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'

Mark 6:14–29
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

In this weekend's New York Times you will find an op-ed entitled "Empathy is Actually a Choice," in which the authors pull together a variety of research that has been done in recent years on the subject of empathy, the act of entering into someone else’s cares, emotions, and vulnerabilities.

What emerged from all the research is the curious notion that empathy is a choice (and not a matter of genetics), and interestingly enough, there seems to be an inverse relationship between power and empathy, meaning that the more power we have, even temporary power, the less likely we are to show empathy.

Our gospel reading today certainly seems to prove the point. (And it also reads like a bit of a soap opera.)

Herod, the king, is throwing himself a birthday party. He has invited all the powerful dignitaries and members of his court to a fantastic feast, full of rich food and wine, laughter and dancing. It is an expensive and lavish bash. It’s exactly what you would expect of a powerful king who wants to celebrate himself in grand fashion, while also feeding the good favor of his most powerful advisors and constituents.

Now Herod is married to Herodius, his brother Philip’s wife. It is a bit of a scandal. Herod has used his unquestioned power to marry a woman who the law says is off-limits to him. John the Baptist was quick to call foul on this romance, which made Herodius angry - and why wouldn’t it? Here she was, having upgraded her lifestyle from that of the wife of the king’s brother to that of a queen. She wanted John killed for speaking the truth, but it wasn’t in her power to do that, so she settles for letting Herod throw him in prison. Herod, mind you, generally likes the guy, and is fascinated, if not also perplexed, by his teachings.

Anyway, back to the party. The music is playing, everybody has had a little too much to drink, and his daughter dances. Herod, being powerful, drunk, and stupid, makes her a promise: I swear to give you anything your heart desires, even half my kingdom if you want it!
And before he knows what is happening, the girl has consulted with her mother, and comes back to Herod asking not for half his kingdom, but for John’s head.

Herod, the most powerful man in the room, the most powerful man in the kingdom, somehow can’t muster up the power or courage to tell her “no.” We read that he didn’t want to break his oath and, more importantly, he didn’t want to disappoint the guests. So Herod, the man with all the power, plays the powerless fool. He raises up his hand to signal the guards, and sits back as John is killed.

Yes, despite (or perhaps because of) Herod’s great power, he chooses to protect his image rather than protecting John’s life. It is the clash of power and empathy. The greater the power, the easier it is to hold the powerless at arms’ length. The greater the influence, the easier it is not to care.

Certainly, as people of faith, we might each aim to to be prophetic like John the Baptist instead of power-drunk like Herod. Except if we’re being honest, we know that we are all far more like Herod than we’d probably like to be.

Because each of us has been given some measure of power and privilege in life, and with it, we take on the risk of using our power - big or small - for our own gain, rather than for the sake of the powerless.

In this country, there is power in being white. There is power in being male. There is power in being heterosexual. There is power in being young or thin. There is power in being wealthy. There is power in being educated and being employed. And it’s not that any one of us necessarily chose any of this, or that any of these privileged statuses are inherently bad, but if we get too comfortable with our powers and privileges, then we run the real risk of distancing ourselves from the very people God has called us to serve.

Now, the truth, of course, is that it does not take any particular power to proclaim the Gospel, and really, God is often in the business of stripping away people’s comfort and power precisely so that it doesn’t get in the way of that proclamation.

Amos, a herdsman from the southern kingdom of Judah, was called by God out of his comfortable and familiar lifestyle, and sent to prophecy at Bethel, at the heart of Israel, at the center of the kingdom’s worship. It was because Amos was there as a homeless outsider that he was better able to empathize and speak on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

Or what of John the Baptist? Surely he, the son of a priest, could have lived a comfortable life of service in the temple. And yet God called him to proclaim such a radical word of repentance and forgiveness that he took to the wilderness, foraging and wandering - and baptizing and proclaiming God’s kingdom.

Last week, we heard about Jesus, sending the disciples out to the villages to preach good news. He sent them with no cash, no trail mix, no backpacks, no rain gear. He sent them out vulnerable, that that they might be more inclined to reach out to the vulnerable with the hope of Christ's kingdom.

Later, Jesus will tell the disciples that following him requires laying down their lives and picking up the cross. Jesus tells a rich young ruler that he needs to sell everything and give it to the poor. He will tell those who want to be his disciples that they need to be willing to give up home and family and life itself for the sake of the gospel.

And why? Because power gets in the way of empathy. Security gets in the way of the urgency of the gospel message. Wealth gets in the way of mercy and justice. And Jesus tells us that if we can’t muster up the courage to use our power for the sake of the powerless, then we would do better to rid ourselves of our power altogether, rather than exploit our privilege for our own gain.

Jesus knows a little something about setting aside power, doesn’t he? Paul's letter to the Philippians tells us that Jesus, being equal with God, chose not to exploit that divine power. He instead chose to empty himself of power, become human, and die a scandalous death. He chose vulnerability that he might empathize with the human condition, and preach a word of grace and hope into the center of this creation's brokenness and fear.

In the same way, during his last hours of life, Christ took off his outer garments, laid aside his identity as Lord and Rabbi and friend, and took on the powerless identity of a slave, washing his disciples’ feet in an act of love and service.

Christ chose to set aside his power in order that he might choose us in grace. As we are saved by that grace, then we, too, are called to choose empathy over power. Jesus' challenge to us is that we use whatever power we have on behalf of the powerless, even if it weakens us in the eyes of the world; and that if we cannot do that, then we need to choose to give up our power all together.

Jesus calls us to choose love for neighbor. To choose justice and mercy. To choose the courage to break bad promises and change bad laws. This is what Herod couldn't find the strength to do. But just as the disciples were sent out powerless and yet returned to Jesus rejoicing over all God empowered them to do, so also do we have the confidence that God will humble the powerful for the sake of the gospel, and that God will lift up the powerless to do great things in his name.

This week, 30,000 high school students from across the country and the wider world will congregate in Detroit for the 2015 ELCA National Youth Gathering. As individuals, you might think that these youth have very little power. Three-quarters of them aren’t old enough to vote. Half of them aren’t old enough to drive. Many have jobs, but few are self-supporting.

And here is what’s going to happen.

These 30,000 students are going to stay in hotels and take over the convention center and eat meals and buy souvenirs. This seemingly powerless hoard will have the power to offer an incredible boost to Detroit’s struggling economy.

These 30,000 students are going to do projects around the city. They will clean up parks and create public art, volunteer at schools and community centers and charities and social service agencies. This seemingly powerless hoard will have the power to create immense positive change in a city that has neither the money nor the manpower to do all these projects on its own.

These 30,000 students will take whatever faith they have - strong or feeble, sure or doubting - and worship together. Sing together. Listen to speakers who have done incredible things in the name of Christ. This seemingly powerless hoard will have the power of the Holy Spirit buzzing through them like a divine electric charge, inspiring faith and motivating lives of service.

These 30,000 youth have made a choice. They have chosen to put aside their everyday identities in order to come together, vulnerable and excited, that they might know God more deeply, serve their neighbors more intently, and sow the seeds of justice in the city of Detroit.

Pray for them this week. Pray for our youth as they travel. Pray that God might continue to challenge them and us to choose empathy over power, to give up our self-centeredness, to walk the way of the cross.

May God use our weakness as a vehicle for grace. May God use our powers and privileges as a vehicle for mercy. May God give us empathetic hearts and holy hands. May we seek nothing else but lives of love and service. And may we be deeply satisfied by the richness of our calling.