Speaker: The Rev'd Jim Quigley
If you are new to the bible I wouldn’t recommend Second Samuel as a starting point. In today’s reading, while David does his best impression of a strip-teasing whirling Dervish twerking in the name of God in front of the Arc of the Covenant, Michal, daughter of Saul, looks out a window from a distance and watches him in disgust, “despising him in her heart.” The story reads like an episode from the House of Cards or a Hollywood movie script. I’d cast Judy Dench as Michal. The scripture doesn’t provide a definitive or complete explanation as to the reason for her disdain for David, but Michal’s contempt for the prophetic ecstasy displayed by Israel’s newest King is expounded upon a few verses later in the narrative. When David comes home – channel Dench here – she scolds him for having exposed himself to his maids: “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself.”
While by the end of his story the king David of Holy Scripture will have indeed penned the very honest and penitential fifty-first Psalm, his delusional response to Michal in the Samuel narrative is a warning sign for the lust and greed that would later taint his legacy: “It was before the Lord, who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the Lord, that I have danced before the Lord. [Mark my words], I will make myself yet more contemptable than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.” He sure would. Abase himself, that is. In the midst of it all he remained Israel’s king. One thing seems true here, to be sure; the strange stories contained in that which we call Holy writ aren’t bashful about real life. They are in fact, R rated portrayals of humanity then and now. Lately, in both the Daily Office readings and the Sunday lections, the resonance between the stories of scripture and the reality of our world have been pretty uncanny. One wonders if Michal’s words to David resemble those heard by a certain politician returning home to his wife from the campaign trail after the Access Hollywood tape aired on national television… plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose?
In the reading from the Gospel According to Mark more dirty dancing ensues. Centuries after king David’s display this time it’s not a king but a girl, the daughter of Herodias, who is dancing. In this story Salome, an innocent one caught in a tragic triangle of desire, twerks away. For this script maybe, we’ll cast Woody Allen as king Herod. Salome’s “dance” pleases Herod and his guests. It’s a sickening story that only gets worse as it goes on. Herod’s wife watches from a distance reveling in delight knowing that her scheme is all but yet a fait accompli – thanks to Salome’s dance and Herod’s incestuous desire she will get what she wants: the head of John the Baptist on a platter; the death of an innocent and righteous man of God, the one willing to call a spade for what it is, regardless of the cost.
Most readings of this story in Mark’s Gospel consider it to be a call to radical discipleship for those that follow Jesus. The fate of John the Baptist in the clutches of Herod and his guests mirror that of Jesus before Pontius Pilate and the crowds that call for his crucifixion. Mark puts the gruesome tale between one story about Jesus sending out the disciples and another about their joyful return as a means of communicating the fact that despite apparent successes along the way, ultimately the call of Christ is that of John’s… a call to death. Jesus bids us to come and die, as Bonhoeffer wrote. As one preacher puts it, “You can put your ear to the ground and listen for as long as you like to this story in Mark’s gospel but doing so won’t lead to so much as a single note of good news.” Combining the reading from Mark with the reading from Second Samuel this morning there’s just one thing for a preacher to say: double whammy. What does one say about these texts or what do they say to us?
Whenever I’m confronted with challenging readings on Sunday mornings I’m often drawn to consider them in the light of the communal prayer that the compilers of the lectionary paired with them. What I’m referring to of course is the prayer that marks the beginning of our collective worship each week, the Collect of the Day. In today’s collective hope we prayed that we might know and understand the things that we ought to do, and to have the grace and power to accomplish them. There’s plenty of good news in that prayer, in yearning to know and understand what we ought to do but also to be given the grace and power to accomplish whatever that might be for us as individuals or as a community.
There was a time in my own journey when my faith seemed so alive that I was willing to risk everything for Jesus. I was about halfway through seminary and walking across the campus Close one day, I thought to myself, “I could die for Christ.” I think the thought, which seems a little frightening now, was one result of being immersed so deeply and so daily in a community of extremely dedicated believers and seekers – students and faculty alike. The feeling didn’t stick, thankfully. And yet, while my faith is deeper now than at any point in my life I don’t feel that Jesus is beckoning me – or you for that matter – to come and die but rather to come and live. Embedded in the invitation to life, ironically, is in fact the invitation to die to those things that keep us from the love of God or from loving one another. To stop our dirty dancing, however subtle or harmless it may seem.
Earlier I asked what there is to say about these texts or what they might say to us on this eighth Sunday after Pentecost. In some ways the answer is pretty simple. We could pray together that all those who are abusing the power they have been granted, and all those who are wrapped up in sickening cycles of mimetic rivalry – which undoubtedly includes the kings and queens of the world but also each and every one of us in our own way as husbands or wives, exes or parents or siblings – might hear or see in these texts parts of ourselves and be called from death to life.
We might also pray that all those children who suffer and act out because of their being lost and unloved find salvation in and with those called to care for them.
We can also pray for the Baptists, not necessarily the denomination, mind you, but for all those called or compelled to speak truth to power and all those who risk their lives or suffer for the sake of their Gospel; whether Christian or Jew, Muslim or Hindu… agnostic or atheist; male or female, transgendered or straight, citizen or alien.
We might also pray for our own calling to live, to love and to new life.
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of the people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do; and give us grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen