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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Dancing for a King
2 Samuel 6:1Ė5, 12bĖ19
This morning, weíre invited into two great public spectacles: Davidís procession of the Ark into Jerusalem, and Herod Antipasí birthday banquet in Galilee. Itís an epic, Charlton Heston kind of a morning. We join with the whole multitude of Israel with King David; and with the exclusive inner court with King Herod. We hear songs and lyres; harps and tambourines; castanets and cymbals. We breathe in the dust of the street; and the incense of the palace. And in these paired celebrations, we watch two people famously dancing: David, mightily, for the Lord and young Herodias, pleasingly, for her stepfather.
My first reaction to these ancient dramas was to keep the comfortable distance of a spectator. After all, itís easy to be extra in these crowd scenes, isnít it? Besides, if I enter more deeply and personally into these stories about dancing for a king, thereís something very unsettling in both: undertones of anger, coercion, revenge, and fear. And, finally, the frightening, graphic murder of a prophet.
This morning, as we enter these stories together, I ask you to take a leap with me and imaginatively place yourself fully in themóopen yourself to their sight and sound and smell. Embody each of the main characters to see from their perspectives, feel their truth. And in making these shifts in point of view, perhaps youíll experience what I discovered. That the real, unsettling dance in these stories is about power: political and spiritual; sexual and symbolic.
In fact, we enter the story of Herod through a public conversation about Jesusís power. People are asking: How is Jesus able to cast out demons, anoint, and heal? Is he Elijah? Or like a prophet of old? Or perhaps heís John the Baptizer raised up from the dead? Thatís what Herod believes, and if we enter his reality, we can feel his fear rising. Like the rest of Galilee, Herod is confused about Jesus. But more important, this holy man looks to him like the ghost of a threat to his power.
That threat had made Herodís birthday banquet a nightmare. His status was already queasy: dependent on Rome for authority; attacked by enemies from all sides; and undermined by his rash choice of a second wife, Herodias. This is an incestuous relationship, against Jewish law. Because Herodias is his niece, as well as the ex-wife of his half-brother Philip. (If these complicated relationships make your head spin, just believe me: this is a bad marriage!) Marrying Herodias after a prolonged divorce has put Herodís first wife and her family on the warpath against him. Not to mention John the Baptizer.
Johnís violent and vocal objection to this marriage has made Herodias furious. Put yourself in her place as she waits in the wings of this party to prop up her husband. Sheís vulnerable; sheís troubled about her future; yet she canít overcome her husband Herodís protection of the prophet. John is in jail, but still influential. So Herodias uses the power she hasópower over her daughteróto coerce the girl to dance for the king and his entourage.
Itís a puppet dance: calculated by the mother and objectifying to the daughter. Acting rashly, Herod promises his stepdaughter whatever reward she wishes for her dance, up to half his kingdom. And through this stratagem of sexual politics, power now flows to the young Herodias. Power the manipulated girl did not ask for; power she does not know how to handle; power she gives back to her mother.
Imagine Herodís shock when he hears in return for his offer his wifeís demand for John the Baptizerís head. Itís surely not the first time heís heard this demand, but now itís in a set-up when he canít refuse. Heís afraid of losing face; afraid of having his guests question his authority. So, in a show of power that comes from weakness, Herod orders Johnís death, perversely killing a man in whose company he had found strange comfort.
As a prophet, John is in the dangerous business of speaking truth to power. This honesty might have been refreshing for Herod: Mark says he liked to listen to this righteous, holy man. For in Galilee, John the Baptizer still had a higher standing than Herod, both spiritual and political. By Jewish tradition, every king of Israel was to be subject to the word of the prophet.
But, finally, Herod yields to the methods of Rome rather than righteousness. Threatened by Johnís popularity with the people, concerned with his hold on Galilee, he cuts off the prophetís head. This is Herodís bloody move to consolidate power as a king and as a husband . . . at least until Jesus raises another challenge.
This motive to consolidate power is also behind Davidís triumphal procession into Jerusalemóhis new military, political, and spiritual center for the people of Israel. To strengthen his authority as king, David enters with the most potent symbol of Godís presence, which heís recaptured from the Philistines: the Ark of the Covenant.
Watching this spectacle from a window high above is a woman weíd expect to be rejoicing: Davidís wife Michal. But put yourself in her place. Sheís the daughter of the former King Saul, given to David as a reward for a military triumph, then to another man when David falls out of favor, now reluctantly reclaimed as his wife. Sheís been a pawn, a symbol, in Davidís rise to poweróand thereís no reward for her today. She feels humiliated by her husbandís undignified parade before the people.
For in her eyes, King David should be in rich robes, not the simple linen of the priests and Levites. As a military victor, he should be in the processional place of honor, not dancing wildly out front. The public signs of his power are all wrong, a breach of protocol that degrades Michalís already weak position. David does not look like a king today.
But as shrewd as David can beóruthless in war and greedy in loveótoday he dances, without any calculation. Heís struggled with Saul, endured rejection, fought bloody battles. But respectfully waited for a legitimate anointing by the prophet Samuel. And throughout, written poetic, loving praise songs for his God.
This is his day, to be filled with Spirit in the presence of his higher power: to leap and spin and rejoice. To join with the thousands not in a public performance of power, but in a moment of authentic, heartfelt worship of his King.
What is Davidís truth when his angry wife, Michal, confronts him? He tells her: ďI was dancing to honor the Lord, who chose me instead of your father and his family to make me the leader of his people Israel. And I will go on dancing to honor the Lord, and will disgrace myself even more.Ē Here his political power becomes spiritual humility. David uses his day of glory for Godís gloryónot to feast with his inner circle, but to collect and feed Godís people.
For if you now place yourself by the side of the road to Jerusalem, in the heat, and noise of the trumpets, and the thrill of the Arkís return, you receive a blessing from King David in the name of the Lord Almighty and a loaf of bread, and a piece of roasted meat, and some raisins. And together we return home from this celebration a stronger people, the people of the Lord.
So, as we come back from these ancient times to our present lives, these stories of kings prompt us to ask: Who are our leaders dancing for?
Like Herod, what do they fear? Whose approval must they satisfy? Who is manipulating their decisions outside our view? And which prophets do they silence with their power?
Like David, what is the inner source of their strength? And like Michal, are we able to go past surface displays of authority to discern a true leader?
Which shows of power are born of weakness? Which acts of humility or compassion, risk or honesty, are born of the Spirit? And who, in the inner court or by the side of the road, is being fed?
In his fearless walk to Jerusalem, Jesus, like John, raised these unsettling questions about power in Godís kingdom. And as Godís people, we are still called to ask them. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak, Interfaith Minister
St. Patrickís Episcopal Church, Incline Village, Nevada
July 15, 2012