Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 12th July 2009 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 10B/Ordinary 15B/Pentecost 6 Textweek

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The Old Testament and the Gospel both provide quite dramatic scenes today. In between them like a central pivot, Paul affirms humanity as ‘divinely adopted children’, our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people. And just as an aside, this is a great starting point for Paul. In a recent conversation it came up how Paul is often perceived as being ‘up himself’, partly because Paul is so often heard as being against homosexuals and against women: that’s not Paul, that’s the church; that’s not where Paul comes from. It is the church emphasising and taking out of context the words of one of its true mystics, and if you reread the opening passage of Ephesians that we heard today, putting aside what the church has told you, what you find is Paul is speaking about ‘we’ in the most inclusive way possible. Paul is acknowledging that all, each and every one, are inheritors of the Kingdom of God; that’s his starting point; that’s what Paul is calling us to; that’s what Paul is seeking to shed light on as we listen both to the ancient stories of the Old Testament and to the Word proclaimed in the gospel.

So one of the questions we might ask is how do we receive Paul’s affirmation that we are inheritors of the Kingdom of God, divinely adopted children? Do we receive that affirmation like David? David as king, brought the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of God’s presence, a symbol of the place of divine presence, into the city of David, to make it central to the lives of all and to make the centre of the kingdom a place of worship. And he brought it in with dancing, with songs and lyres and harps and castanets and cymbals. David is rejoicing, and dancing almost naked; the linen ephod, the only thing that he wore, is like a small symbolic apron. He dances, he rejoices, he sacrifices, he makes an offering and he blessed the people in the name of the Lord. And as he conducts a priestly ministry, his wife Michal, daughter of Saul, looked out of the window and saw the king leaping and dancing before the Lord and she despised him in her heart. So we see two quite different places in which to stand.

Hear again what Paul says: ‘He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the beloved’. How do we receive this affirmation, this call into the fullness of humanity? Can we feel the truth and the energy in the rejoicing of David? Yes we can. The chances are each of us has felt that, even if only for a moment, because it is that feeling, that truth and energy from rejoicing in the divine that draws us together into the church. Can we understand the feelings of Michal as she looks on, a spectator despising what she sees? Can we? These two Old Testament figures stand somewhere in our theological landscape. They’re not people from history; they stand at places within ourselves.

In the Gospel the narrative centres on another king, Herod. It’s a different era and it’s a different expression of kingship. In Herod’s time the priestly ministry that was integral to David’s kingship is no longer on the hands of the king, but rather an authority held by the priests and the prophet. It’s really important to see that between King David and King Herod there has been a shift. In David’s time the king also conducted the priestly ministry of offering, of sacrifice, of blessing. By the time we get to Herod, we have a separation; the king and his kingship, the prophet and priest, no longer together as one. And if we look more closely at the Gospel narrative, maybe we can see a more contemporary reflection of life and faith. Does Herod reflect more clearly than David the life of us all?

In verse 16, Herod displays certainty and conviction of faith; here he starts to sound like a Sunday School Anglican: ’John whom I beheaded has been raised’. Herod is the post-Easter Christian – he believes against all rational logic - he believes John has been raised from the dead. Herod has faith; he believes, along with many others, that John has been raised from the dead. In that time, the works that Jesus was doing stood out so much as being the powerful works of a powerful prophet, that it was thought that John had come back from the dead and this was the display of John being resurrected. And for Herod it’s a faith that felt true and also intensely personal; after all he’s the one who had John beheaded. To take off someone’s head and then believe that they’ve been raised from the dead means that he had met John even more personally and intimately than the most radical evangelical has met Jesus.

The recap of the events from verse 17 shows the genesis of Herod’s faith; it is a faith occasioned by tragedy, born out of life events, born out of death and marriage, life events that unfolded into faith. And in the present age. in the present day, this is where many still find themselves turning towards faith, in those dramatic events of life. In the events that mark Herod’s life, Herod is brought to Jesus, or John was brought to Herod, or they’re one and the same thing.

In verse 19 we see that Herod’s faith was questioned by his wife. His faith was not shared even by the one he loved, the one closest to him; more than not shared, she bore a grudge. Just remember Michal, the wife of David: she looked on and she despised him in her heart. Verse 20 tells us that Herod perceived righteousness and holiness; he was someone who was spiritually sensitive. Inwardly, was he like David, a priestly king?

Verse 21-23 narrate the banquet, the distractions of a party. We’ve all been there and done that – the delightful chaos into which we can relax, and take our eye off the ball. This is the place of sensation, and where our sensate response to life overrules and overrides our inner spiritual orientation. It is the place of dancing, but it contrasts starkly with the dancing of David as he brought the divine presence into the city. Maybe we see the import of David’s nakedness: he danced as his true self. He danced totally in the fullness of himself.

In verse 23, Herod makes a promise, a promise of generosity, a show of generosity before family and friends. We can see him as someone who has more than he needs and he offers to share generously: ‘whatever you ask me I will give you, even half of my kingdom’. Is this giving; is it sharing or is it self-glorification? The activity of giving is only made true by its orientation. Compare the generosity of Herod in those few verses with ‘the riches of his grace that he lavished on us’. That’s the generosity that Paul is speaking of; you can see they’re quite different, and yet outwardly they’re both acts of giving.

In verse 24, the daughter, the recipient of promise, seeks advice from the one who knows not of spiritual things. It’s an important process for further contemplation. She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ It’s a looking, a seeking that is restricted by family and by clan, rather than being open to the whole. She doesn’t seek advice from those who are gathered. She isn’t looking forward beyond self, but rather she is looking only to self and to the reference of her past. And of all the places she could have sought guidance she turned backward to the guide of her birth for advice, rather than turning forward.

In verse 26 we find Herod between a rock and a hard place. Verse 26 is where we often find ourselves: our commitment to one way of life precludes our embracing of another way of life. Herod seemingly does the right thing - he keeps his promise in front of everyone. What is left unsaid in the narrative is what’s written on Herod’s heart: ‘the king was deeply grieved.’

It is an amazing narrative. And in verse 29, John is laid in a tomb, the place of resurrection. The story comes round to continue again. John and Jesus, like Mary and Martha, like Peter and Paul are not two, but rather they are aspects of the one: our commitment to one way of life precludes our embracing of another.

Sunday by Sunday as we open the scriptures, we read our story. The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris