Proper 10 Year A Pentecost 7 July 11, 2021
Texts: Mark 6:14—29; 2 Samuel 6:1—5, 12b—19; Ephesians 1:4—14.
Preached at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, Willmette, IL
We’ve just heard one of the most terrible stories in the Gospels. The head of John the Baptist was served as a platter at a banquet and we responded with the liturgical acclamation, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” Did anyone find that response somewhat inappropriate? Oh, to be sure, the gospel reading did proclaim Christ in a subtle way. But it is a horrendous story.
John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin and forerunner, had been arrested and imprisoned by King Herod Antipas for publicly condemning the king’s marriage to his dead brother’s wife in a situation where the Old Testament Levirate law did not apply because Herod’s brother did not die childless. Herod was apparently consolidating his position as Jewish ruler of Galilee, under Roman approval, and he didn’t want a popular but troublesome prophet undermining his authority among the people.
In another move to consolidate his base Herod held a great banquet and his step-daughter, called Herodias (the same name as her mother, Herod’s wife, although in a different account she is named Salome) performed a sensuous dance for the guests (“The Dance of the Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss’s opera Salome). Her gyrations and removal of veils so pleased the men present that Herod offered her whatever she wanted, up to half of his kingdom.
After consulting her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod bowed to her wishes, even though he had enjoyed conversations with John, so as not to look weak in front of his guests. But his conscience was apparently disturbed by this cowardly and unjust act because when word reached him of the success Jesus was having among the same people to whom John had appealed, Herod thought Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead.
The evangelist includes this gristly story in his Gospel in order to explain why Herod thought this about Jesus. Perhaps this narrative of the death of John the Baptist can also be seen as a foreshadowing of the fate that awaited Jesus. John’s death weighed deeply on Jesus.
John’s life had been meaningful as a fulfillment of prophecy. His was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” But his death was not at all meaningful in the sense of being salvific, like John’s foretelling the meaning of Jesus’s death as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We always search for meaning in tragic deaths, but John the Baptist’s death is meaningless in human terms. It was Herodias’ revenge for John’s criticism of her marriage to Herod. It’s a warning to all those who would speak truth to power.
Lamentably, history is full of examples of similar fates that have befallen other voices of truth. I could go there today with a recital of such examples. James Russell Lowell wrote, “Though [truth’s portion] be the scaffold/ And upon the throne be wrong,… Standeth God within the shadow,/ Keeping watch above his own.” That’s not good enough news. Good news would be that God himself is in our midst, even being himself on the scaffold.
Our first reading today inspired me to go instead to a word of gospel from the Old Testament: a narrative about another king, another dance, another feast, and a foretaste of the feast to come. King David was also consolidating his power. But he was the Lord’s anointed. He had withstood the fickleness of King Saul’s moods. But now Saul was dead, and David was anointed king of all Israel. David sought to bring the twelve tribes of Israel into a confederation that Saul had not achieved. This included capturing and making Jerusalem the capital of a unified kingdom of Israel.
David intended to consolidate Israel further by bringing the ark of the Lord into the new capital. The ark contained the stones on which the finger of God had inscribed the Ten Commandments. It was Israel’s main cult object, a kind of sacramental sign of Yahweh dwelling in the midst of the people of God.
A tragedy occurred on the way to Jerusalem that is omitted from today’s reading. The drafters of the common lectionary perhaps thought that modern worshipers would not be able to handle the mishap that occurred. The ark was on a new cart consecrated for that purpose. It was coming down the hill from Abinadab’s house and at one point the oxen lurched and a man reached out his hand to steady the ark and was struck dead. The man had not been consecrated to touch holy things. Holiness may be beautiful, but it is not safe.
The incident so unnerved David that he nearly abandoned his plan to bring the ark into the city. Instead, he placed it in the custody of Obededom the Gittite for three months. When David learned that Obededom and his household had been blessed by the presence of the ark, he again went with an entourage to bring the ark to Jerusalem. After offering a sacrifice the procession commenced with David dancing with all his might before the ark to the sound of shouting and trumpet blasts. He danced naked except for a linen ephod, which was like an apron such as the priests wore to cover their genitals but not much else. Some commentators have suggested that this was because Yahweh was what we might call Israel’s alpha male and men could not strut their stuff in the presence of the Lord.
The Lord may have been pleased with David’s naked dance, but David’s wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul, was not. There were words when David got home that night, during which David asserted that he was dancing naked in honor of Yahweh, and the serving girls whom Michal was concerned about seeing her husband naked were honoring the king more than his wife, who didn’t perceive the holiness of his dancing before the presence of the Holy God. The narrative says that no child would be born from the union of David and Michal, Saul’s daughter; the lineage of Saul was cut off from the Davidic dynasty.
Michal was more concerned about who was seeing her husband naked than the fact that he was naked. But many Christians have a view of modesty that couldn’t accommodate David’s naked dance. Pope John Paul II taught in his theology of the body,
“Because God created it, the human body can remain nude and uncovered and preserve intact its splendor and its beauty… Nakedness as such is not to be equated with physical shamelessness… Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person…The human body is not in itself shameful… Shamelessness (just like shame and modesty) is a function of the interior of a person. ”
I would add that shamelessness and shame is also a function of context. There are contexts in which nakedness is shameful, like Salome’s dance, and contexts in which it is shameless, like David’s dance. One dance was to incite men to lust, the other was to glorify God. The early Christians, and Eastern Christians even today, baptized candidates naked because there is no shame in being naked before the Lord. Naked is how the Lord sees us—without the norms of society, the trappings of culture, the clothing of class rank or the emblems of authority. This is why St. Jerome prayed naked in the Judean desert. It’s why St. Francis shed his clothes to “naked follow the naked Christ.”
When the ark was settled into the tent David had erected for it a whole burnt offering was sacrificed to the Lord (that means the Lord got it all in the smoke) and an offering of wellbeing was shared with all the people, both men and women. They took the bread and meat to their own homes to enjoy the feast. The contrasts with Herod’s feast couldn’t have been greater. Herod, a political appointee of a foreign emperor, provided a banquet to select guests, at which was finally served the head of God’s prophet on a platter. A female member of his household did a demeaning lascivious striptease to appeal to the lusts of the reclining males.
David, the anointed king of all Israel, danced naked shamelessly to the honor of God and offered a sacrifice to God that could be shared with all the people without discrimination to celebrate the living presence of the God of Israel among them.
So too we share a feast celebrating the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ with us and among us and within us, to which all the people of God are invited. “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” Or, as the Eastern liturgies put it, “Holy things for the holy people.” And we do this eucharist with rejoicing and celebration and blessing and praising and thanking God with a great prayer of blessing (berakah) and thanksgiving (todah) like the opening verses of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that we hear read today. The food is blessed in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and we process to table to receive our portion what is now the Lord’s feast because we offered the bread and wine and the Lord gives it back to us as the gift of communion. A procession is actually a solemn dance, and often we are singing as we process to the sound of the organ pipes.
In antithesis to that appalling story in the Gospel, the Christian assembly meets the One who was crucified but is indeed risen from dead, the One whose Spirit tears down the dividing walls of hostility and re-orders community and authority, the One who in love “gathers up all things” into unity and wholeness instead of shame and murder. This the gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Christ. Amen.
Pastor Frank C. Senn, STS
Image above the post: Bronze David Dancing Before the Ark by C. Malcolm Powers
See also “Frank Answers About Being Naked Before God” and “Frank Answers About Dancing in Church.”