Most of the time, being in the middle is an uncomfortable and precarious position. Being in the middle of an argument between friends; In the middle of a love triangle; amidst people divided over a heated political issue. It can feel dangerous and threatening. You can easily end up losing, with people on both ends hating you or disenfranchising you, or you can think you’re winning, only to take on the qualities of the ones who had bullied you into being in the middle, which is its own kind of losing.
If you are like me, you may remember disliking the childhood game “Monkey in the Middle.” It always seemed unfair – two against one, which often brought out the worst in people, since the only way to get out of the middle was to identify and then prey on the one person you perceived as the weaker of the two — the one most likely to drop the ball, or throw wildly or without force, giving you a chance to leap up and catch the ball, assuming the power position on the ends, taunting and ganging up on someone you wanted to keep in the weaker position. I’m not sure why that was supposed to be fun.
In psychology, triangulation is defined as a manipulative tactic where one person communicates with a third party instead of directly with the person they want to speak to – thus creating a triangle. . It’s also a way to split people manipulating the relationship between two parties by controlling the communication between them. Often, when I notice triangles in relationships, I try to find out whether they are healthy, with open and honest communication, or whether there’s a power center controlling the dynamics in the triangle.
We don’t have to look very far in our gospel story this morning to find a number of triangles with unhealthy relationships. John the Baptist, Herod and Herodias; the crowd of the political peers, Herod, and his daughter’s dancing; Herod, his daughter, and Herodias; and within Herod himself, torn between the call to good and his lust for evil or the power to control. It’s a complicated story, and one with a disastrous end for both John and Herod.
Let’s look closely at the primary triangle of John the Baptist, Herod the King, and Herodias, the Queen and former wife of Herod’s brother Philip. King Herod was enthralled and engaged with John the Baptist, captivated by his presence and message (although he clearly called him to divorce the wife he stole from his brother). Of course, there was an interesting power play between those two: Herod had the political power to execute John, and John had the holy power of God to convert and turn Herod toward good. And then there’s Herodias who, in some ways, had the most to lose if John and Herod had continued their conversations. She saw Herod leaning in toward John, hearing him muse seeing the attraction building in his heart toward this other Kingdom John spoke of – and if Herod went the way of John, she’d no longer be queen. He would divorce her; she’d lose her royal status. So, she waited, eyeing her prey like a coiled-up snake, ready to strike when the right situation presented itself. And of course, it did. She looked for a weak moment which Herod presented to her, as if on a silver platter. His daughter danced gloriously, and, drunk on the exuberant praise of the peers he so desired to impress, he promised her anything. Seizing her prey, Herodias went to her husband’s weakest place, exploiting his pride and demanding John’s head.
It’s difficult to see Herod as a victim, but when I look at the family dynamics, I see the multitude of triangles created by Herodias, and how, rather than addressing the situation and her fear directly with Herod, she controlled their daughter, making it two against one, using the weakness of his desire to please his political peers against him, and John suffered, and the Kingdom of God felt arrested for the moment.
Herod’s inner struggle, torn between doing the right thing and the doing the politically expeditious thing — saving face before those he wanted to impress — is a hard place to be. Herod found himself choosing between good and evil, and he just wasn’t ready or able to make the right choice. I imagine there are many times when each one of us feels the same way, sensing the grace that would be ours if we took the harder and higher road, if we reached out to reconcile with someone rather than brush the argument under the rug, if we responded to the invitation to be generous when we don’t have to be or when people may ridicule us for doing so, if we called someone out on the racist joke everyone else laughed at. It’s not a comfortable place to be in. Being in the middle, knowing what’s right to do, and yet feeling the pull toward making a different, lesser choice is a hard place to be, yet it is a place I think many of us live in. It can be tempting to indulge in the deliciousness of gossip, seeking pleasure that may not be ours to have in a particular situation, or convincing ourselves that what we do doesn’t really matter. But these are lesser choices — probably without the dire consequences of Herod’s decision, but still significant to the Kingdom of God.
Being in the middle is really hard because it often means we haven’t committed to one way or the other. Part of Herod’s problem was that he had a powerful and conniving wife, but the real problem was he wasn’t allowing his heart to be turned, to fully embrace John’s message, to be converted or transformed by the truth and Word of God. He was in this wobbly place where he could see it, but couldn’t reach for it. Maybe he was afraid. Maybe he thought the costs would be too high. Maybe he wasn’t ready to give up control of his life. Maybe he couldn’t see the freedom which would come from embracing the holy surprise of what God would do through and for him. As we all know, it takes time and effort to cultivate the ability to say “yes” to God and to God’s way. So, we can get out of the middle and take that higher road.
As I was thinking this week about triangles and middle spots being difficult and uncomfortable if the power center of the triangle is skewed, I was also thinking about the divisiveness at play in our political, social, and economic worlds, and how many triangles are created every day, with people in the middle between two opposing points of view or someone’s struggle between choosing what is right or wrong that affects the lives of so many other people. I was wondering how this all fits together in our Episcopal Church, whose deep heritage is rooted in the phrase Via Media: the middle way. How can we, claim and proclaim the middle way as the right way, when sometimes being in the middle way means escape from the transformation of our hearts, like in Herod’s situation? Sometimes, others criticize us saying that, since our reach is broad and wide, we don’t ever take a stance on anything. But this is obviously not true. This is not the essence of what we’re really about.
Because I know that Episcopalians find truth and strength in knowing when and how to take the high road, making the hard choices and seeking God’s truth expressing God’s love to all people, and working toward healing and reconciliation. This was the emphasis at our recent General Convention — addressing the problem of gun violence in our country; standing with and praying alongside the people in the border detention centers; addressing God’s call for racial reconciliation; witnessing to the #Metoo movement and calling the church to own the damage done in her name. These are hard, politicized issues that our church is grappling with and responding to – and yet, we also find truth and strength in claiming and living into the broadness of God’s love, which means we meet people wherever they are, and have the ability to hold two opposite points of view in communion. In some cases, we use such odd phrases as “both/and” meaning we don’t need to choose one or the other, but can see the truth in each position. One of the most helpful things I learned in seminary was in our pastoral theology course. Our instructor taught us to practice replacing the word “but” with “and”. For instance, instead of saying, “I hear what you’re saying, and I know you believe you’re right, BUT …” We say, “I hear what you’re saying, and I know you believe you’re right, AND, … I have a differing point of view”. It’s amazing how that word shift changes the dynamic of a conversation, equalizing the power, so people can listen to each other, without the defensiveness charging in.
So, the middle way, the via media, with the right word choice, with an openness to holding all ideas in communion, works I believe, until God can transform hearts, and everyone can get on the same page. When Queen Elizabeth drew her country together, uniting the Protestants and Catholics in the Church of England, she said she didn’t care what they believed, but they were all going to kneel down and pray to the same God. She had the right idea. She must have known if the middle way, the via media, is the Jesus way, it’s not going to be about power, it’s not going to be about seizing the moment of someone’s weakness to gain control, it’s not going to be about dysfunctional communication, it’s going to be focused on the one triangle that does work, the one triangle that only promotes love, that only brings in the Kingdom, the triangle that is the trinity, the triangle that is the way of love.
Presiding Bishop Curry, in the opening Eucharist of the General Convention, invited the whole church, that is each one of us, to take up the Way of Love, in which he outlines practices for a Jesus-Centered Life: TURN (pause, listen & choose to follow Jesus), which Herod came close to doing by couldn’t quite do, LEARN (reflect on Scripture each day), PRAY (dwell intentionally with God each day), WORSHIP (gather in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God), BLESS (share faith and unselfishly give and serve), GO (cross boundaries, listen deeply, live like Jesus), and REST (receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration). Presiding Bishop Curry starts us in the direction of the Way of Love by inviting us to turn, to allow our hearts to be changed, to respond with a holy and vigorous “yes” to the call of God, to open ourselves to make the right decisions regardless of the costs, and to find the middle way, the Jesus way, to be one where we build others up in strength, not prey upon their weakness, where we can hold each other in communion and find the truth of God’s love.