John the Baptist, Penn State, the Harder Right, and the Easier Wrong

For the past eight months, like many of you, I’ve been keeping an eye on the story coming out of Penn State. There were the accusations, the arrest, more witnesses and survivors coming forward, a trial, and finally, the verdicts. By the time the jury said “guilty”, few of us were surprised.

But more than the man who committed these heinous crimes, I’ve been interested in the whole system that was involved, all of Penn State. The coaches, the university staff, the alumni board, the rioting students, some of the fans. Most of us, thankfully, would never hurt a child. Not the way that Jerry Sandusky did, anyway. But even if they never did the things that he did, so many seemingly good people seem to have done just that. Either by their actions, or by their lack of actions, they hurt kids.

This week a report on what happened at Penn State came out. It’s well researched, unbiased, and thorough. It’s also pretty damning. It turns out that time and again those in positions of power looked the other way when they could have stepped up. I don’t know who exactly knew what when, but clearly what was happening was not a secret. And time and again the most powerful people on campus didn’t call the police. They didn’t notify child welfare. They didn’t do anything that would cause a scandal. And, most importantly, they didn’t ever seem to think about the children.

The Bible text we read today isn’t set in the shadow of a winning football team. It doesn’t involve a beloved head coach with a spotless reputation. There aren’t any children in the story. And yet, even two millennia apart, the two stories speak to one another.

We’ve read stories about John the Baptist many times here. We remember that he was the guy down by the river who ate locusts and wore camel hair. We might remember that we called on those around him to repent and make straight the way of the Lord. More than anyone else, John pointed to Jesus and told people to get ready.

Herod had heard John preach. Herod was the king, and yet he liked listening to John. And John had told him some hard things, some things he didn’t want to hear. Some things concerning his wife. But Herod still protected him, and believed he was a good man.

His wife, Herodias, didn’t feel the same way. She had a grudge against John, but she couldn’t do anything about it because Herod liked him so much. Until one night. When Herod had a birthday party. And his daughter danced for him and for his guests. Herod was so pleased that he told her “whatever you want, I’ll give it to you…anything.”

The girl asked her mother what to ask for, and Herodias saw her chance: ask him for the head of John the baptizer.

When Herod was asked, he didn’t want to do it. He was conflicted and grieved, and yet he knew if he didn’t do what he said he would, he would lose face in front of all the important people gathered there. So he gave the order. And had John killed. And brought his head on a platter.

It’s a gritty story. Not one we really like to talk about. I had thought about preaching on the Old Testament text this week just because it’s just plain less gruesome. But then that Penn State report came out. And I felt like I was reading the same story twice.

Scripture tells us that Herod may very well have been a good man. He listened to John, protected him, was open to what he had to stay. What he ended up doing caused him personal pain. He wasn’t without conscience. He knew it wasn’t right.

I believe that most of the people who looked the other way at Penn State were probably good men too. They probably loved their families. Protected their own children. Tried to be honest. If you asked them if they were good people who did the right thing, my guess is they would say yes.

And most days they probably did. Just like you and I and the vast majority of people in the world. But on the days in question, they rejected the hard right, and chose the easier wrong.

What if Herod had said “no”? What if he said, I am not killing John? He would have lost face. He would have lost the respect of his family and his officers and everyone at that banquet. He would have paid a price. But John would have lived.

What if the ones in those meetings at Penn State had chosen the harder right? What if the grad assistant who saw something so horrendous had stepped in right then and there? What if the coach had called police the minute he heard? What if the administration and trustees had said, “We will have no part in a cover up, no matter what price we pay?”

What if they had done the right thing even if it meant their football program’s name might be tarnished and it would never be the same?

My guess is a lot of children would have been saved a lot of torment.

The sad irony is that because no one stood up for those children, that football program’s name is tarnished perhaps beyond repair. Similarly, when we think about Herod, we think of a man who may have been good, but who time and again didn’t choose the right thing. First with John, and then with Jesus. History rarely remembers the person who chooses the easier wrong well.

But these stories, this sermon, is about more than a small handful of people. It’s not just about a king two thousand years ago and a handful of modern day coaches and university administrators. It’s about me, and you, and all of us.

Probably all of us have had moments where we’ve wished we could bring ourselves to choose a harder right over an easier wrong. Maybe we’ve wanted a little more courage to step in and say something when we’ve seen someone being mistreated but we also haven’t wanted to become the target ourselves. Or maybe we’ve wanted to stand up and stop it when our company makes a choice that we also know is ethically wrong, but we also know will raise profits. Or maybe we’ve been in a parking lot and seen one member of a couple hit or threaten the other, but we haven’t wanted to get involved because we wanted to “mind our own business”.

We know what the right thing to do is. We know it as surely as Herod did and as much as I hope every one of those people at Penn State did. But we’ve also known that doing the right thing could cost us something. Our jobs. Our status. Maybe even more.

At least initially.

But the good news is this. No matter what worldly things we lose, what we gain is worth even more. Our self-respect. Our dignity. Our ability to look in the mirror and know that we are following the Christ who told us to love our neighbor as ourself.

It won’t always be easy, and we won’t always get it right. But we can keep trying, along with all the others whom Christ called his brothers and sisters. And the first step is admitting that sometimes we have, and we will, get it wrong.

There’s a big mural in State College, Pennsylvania. It’s in the center of town and many well-known people associated with Penn State are painted on it. Joe Paterno is painted there. And after he died earlier this year, the artist went and painted a halo over his head. He became Saint Joe.

Yesterday, in the wake of the report that came out this week, the artist went back. And he painted over the halo. Joe Paterno was no longer Saint Joe. He was just Joe. I felt sort of bad for Joe Paterno. Maybe for the first time since this whole thing broke. It felt like an unnecessary dig after the fact.

But the more I thought about it, I realized the artist, a friend of the Paterno’s it turns out, was right. He was not a saint. He was not a saint anymore than you or I or the people we know are saints. He was just a child of God who like a lot of children of God made some big mistakes in an otherwise good life. Mistakes that cannot be glossed over with a halo, but that must be acknowledged. For the children’s sake. And for his sake.

I hope that at the end of my life, those who knew me will say that more often than not I chose the harder right over the easier wrong. But even if they do, I know no one will be rushing to paint a halo over my head. And that’s a good thing. Because we need that reminder that all of us remain staggeringly, shockingly imperfect, even on our best days.

We all, like Herod, have our banquet guests to please. We all have our own equivalent of a crowning jewel football programs to protect. And we all have a life to live that will continue to confront us with hard rights and easier wrongs. We might never earn that halo here on earth, but perhaps we can learn from the example of the one whom John died proclaiming, the one who taught us that in the the harder right can be the thing that brings the world a little more grace, and that that grace may save us all.

May Christ be with us in the places we need him the most, and may God’s grace give us courage when we face our hardest choices, whatever they may be, and whenever they may come. Amen.

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