Sermon for Sunday, July 12, 2015 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. Please see the PDF version for attributions.
It is hard to hear the good news in today’s gospel. Right in the middle of Jesus calling his disciples, which we heard last week, and the feeding of the 5000, follows, we have this bizarre, gruesome story of the execution of John the Baptist. We have the weak, superstitious Herod, and his scandalous desertion of his wife to take up with his brother Brother Philip’s wife Herodias (his brother Philip was still alive, by the way). There is the erotic dance of his wife’s daughter, whom the Jewish historian Josephus tells was Salome, which derives from the same root as the Hebrew word shalom, of all things. Numerous painters have captured this story — Bellini, Titian, Caravaggio. Oscar Wilde wrote a famous play called Salome, which Richard Strauss composed into an opera by the same name, including the famous dance of the seven veils. Power, greed, lust, grotesque violence. It has it all.
But its high drama is not the reason for its telling in Mark’s gospel. The story is told in flashback, as Jesus hears of his cousin John the Baptist’s death early on in his own ministry. Herod, the story tells us, has heard about Jesus and thinks John the Baptist, whom he has beheaded, has been “raised up.” The story foreshadows Jesus’ own death at the hands of Pilate a couple of years later. The text tells us this about what Herod thought of John the Baptist: “when he heard John the Baptist he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” And then later, after the girl is put up by her mother to demand the head of John the Baptist, the text tells us Herod is “Deeply grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for his guests, he did not want to refuse her.” And so he complies.
Our Old Testament reading contains another dance of a rather different sort, and another perplexed political figure.
David is bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The Israelites have recovered that most sacred of objects, the ark of the covenant. The ark that was so powerful that the Philistines, though victorious in war, give it back to Israel; it had given them too many problems. And so the Israelites, led by David, dance joyfully, and with all their might, before the Lord, as they bring the ark to the City of David, Jerusalem.
A three-month gap
But wait . . .
What’s with the missing verses? There is a break in the story, though it’s easy to miss. The lectionary reading skips over verses 6 through 12a. Here’s what happens. As we are told in verses 1 though 5, David has gathered “the chosen men of Israel” to go with him to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem. Two men, Uzzah and Ahio, are in front and behind the care on which the ark rests, being driven with a pair of oxen. But the road, one supposes, is bumpy, as these oxen lumber along, and the ark is shaken, looking like it was going to topple over. So Uzzah reaches out a hand to steady the ark. And he dies. Right there, next to the ark. He dies, the text tells us, because God’s anger was kindled against him.
The joyful procession – with dancing and songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals – comes to a screeching halt. Uzzah is dead. And the text tells us that David was angry at the Lord. The text goes on to say that David was afraid of the Lord and asks “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” So David is unwilling to take the ark into his care into Jerusalem, and instead he takes the ark to a nearby home, where it is left for three months.
Three months. What do we suppose David is thinking about during these three months? The text tells us he was angry. He was fearful. He doubted himself. What has happened? Here he was, plucked out of obscurity, a shepherd, now a king. God’s anointed. He had prayed for guidance. He had gathered the chosen men of Israel. Did he get something wrong? Is the ark not safe in his keeping? are the people around him not safe? Maybe he got a glimpse of how really dangerous this is, being God’s anointed. As Annie Dillard has observed, if we really knew what church was all about, if we really had any idea of the power of God, we wouldn’t wear nice hats, we’d where crash helmets.
What do we make of this, Uzzah doing something anyone might do, kindling God’s anger, and dying? We might search for explanations. Maybe there was something in Uzzah’s heart that only God new about. Maybe they were supposed to know that the ark should have been carried on two poles between four men, that that was proper reverence for this sacred object, rather than being bounced around on a cart carried by a couple of oxen. Do you remember that scene at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”? The ark is opened up, the spirits unleashed, and Indiana Jones shouts to Marian “don’t look at it!” Those who do, those who have no idea of the power of the presence, get their faces burned off.
The great mystery of God’s presence
The mystery of God will not be contained, managed, brokered, bargained with, or set into nice safe, predictable boundaries. This may not be especially comforting. But maybe, when we rest in it, we find it liberating. We’re not in charge of this relationship. It’s a great mystery, God’s being fully present with us. At some point all explanations and definitions fail. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace.”
And when something bad happens, this is not evidence that we have somehow displeased God. I don’t know how many times I have said this. Someone gets terribly sick, and says, “I must have done something to make God mad at me.” No, you didn’t! Stuff happens. We live our life of faith as a process of punishments and rewards and we get all tangled up, not to mention judgmental and self-righteous. I’m convinced that’s not how it works.
So we have a choice. In the midst of all that mystery and unknowing, we choose how we will respond.
I think about this text, I’m reminded of an experience when I was a seminarian, in the process to become ordained. I don’t even remember the context, except I was with my parents and I said something about using my priestly authority; it was casual, even flip. I have to tell you I felt the heavens shake. “Don’t you ever, ever do that again. That power is not yours!” It was almost enough to cause me to run for my life. Nothing I have done since, mistakes, clumsiness, slights, impatience, grouchiness, even unkindness, has come down on me like that moment. I needed to learn something. It was a gift, though it didn’t feel like it at the time.
Maybe the powerful man David needed to learn something about the all-powerful God. Maybe we all do, maybe we all get a little too comfortable with our God box. David eventually gets a sign. The Lord blessed the household where the ark was. And my guess is that David says “ok then,” and decides that he is all in. Perhaps at that point he realized there is no grand scorekeeping, and no guarantees, but the promise of God’s blessing and grace, however that plays out. Say Alleluia! and Praise be to God! David goes to the ark and continues his journey, which is where our reading picks up. The dance resumes. And there are all the signs of reverence appropriate in his day, and I suspect this time they were done with full mindfulness. The wearing of an ephod. The sacrifice of an ox and a fatling. David dancing with all his might. There are burnt offerings, and a feast of thanksgiving among all the peoples. A feast where they open their hands to receive blessing.
Both David and Herod had a moment when circumstances were upended on them. A point in time when they realized, at least for a moment, that things were not as they thought they were, when they actually are not in control, these powerful men before whom others bowed down. That moment of perplexity, of having our assumptions broken open, we might see as our holy invitation. “‘Grace cannot prevail,’ writes Robert Farrar Capon, ‘until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.'” But in Herod’s case the drive shaft of corrupt power, with its false honors and glories, controlled. And Jesus, knowing this, knowing fully what he and his followers were up against, go on healing and proclaiming the Good News. And God has the last word.
And so we dance. We dance when we feel like it, and when we don’t. We dance in celebration of the presence of God. We dance the dance of joy and the hunger of the spirit. We bring all our human hopes and ambiguities and good intentions. Sometimes we move in rhythm and sometimes we step on each other’s toes. We bring the individual, the private, the political and corporate. We get down on our knees and open our hands to receive in thanksgiving. All of this comes within the arc of God’s grace and the moving forward of God’s kingdom.
The Lord of the Dance calls into the mystery that God dwells with us. It is risky business. It is not about earning anything. There are no guarantees except the big one: the absolute promise of abiding love and grace. Amen.