The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10), 15 July 2018

July 15, 2018 | by Nichole Torbitzky

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2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 [Psalm24] Ephesians 1:3-14 Mark 6:14-29

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
David has been busy in the verses between last Sunday and this Sunday waging war on the Philistines.  With the Philistines now out of the way, he is ready to bring the arc of God to the city of David. The verses for today show the joy and pomp of such an undertaking.  Installing the arc is an undertaking done with great joy, but also with fear and trembling. The arc of God serves as the “seat of God” and as the symbol of the presence of God.  In keeping with God’s prohibition on images/idols, David installs the presence of God in his capital not with a statue, but with the arc. A joyful, raucous, holy procession brings the arc up from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem (with a three-month hiatus in the house of Obed-edom).  When the contingent finally reaches Jerusalem, the real ceremony begins. Six steps into the city of David, they stop and offer an animal sacrifice of a bull and a fatling bull. The difference between the two rests on how they were fed and to what purpose. A fatling bull would have been intentionally fed and cared for to fatten it up.  A bull is simply a bull that had not gotten such special care. These sacrifices probably serve to sanctify the city and make it holy for God’s entrance. After the sacrifices, David continues to joyfully and energetically dance the arc to its home in a tent put up specifically for the arc. This tent will serve as the place of worship until David and Bathsheba’s son Solomon builds the Temple.

In all of this pomp and joy and music and spectacle, David, the King of Israel is nearly naked.  The text tells us that he is wearing only a linen ephod. The best scholarship out there believes that an ephod is a garment, about the size of a napkin that covers only the private parts on the front of a man.  Michal, David’s wife, daughter of Saul, is not at all pleased to have her husband nearly naked in front of everyone. Imagine Prince William, once he gains the throne, dancing through the streets of London on his way to Westminster Abbey, wearing nothing but a napkin.  I bet Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, would be none too pleased. Perhaps we can give Michal a gentler treatment than she often gets. Most wives would respond similarly, even if she could or probably should have a different attitude to the coming of the arc. David installs the arc in the tent, makes multiple sacrifices, blesses the people, and everyone gets a good meal.  Now Jerusalem is not just the political capital; it is also the religious capital. The arc brings blessings with its presence, so now Jerusalem and by extension, David will also be blessed by its presence. That is worth dancing for.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead tells us that (among other things), “The actual entity is the enjoyment of a certain quantum of physical time” (Griffin and Sherburne 283).  All too often, people forget that a fundamental part of our nature is to enjoy. It is no coincidence that the word enjoy has the word joy embedded in it. Indeed, much ink has been spent exploring and adding caveats to what Whitehead exactly meant by enjoyment, and it is not always joyful or fun in the conventional sense.  That point is well taken, and yet, there is a time for joy.

This Sunday dear preacher, it may be helpful to take a moment to dwell on the joy of God dwelling with us. David, with wild abandon, nearly naked, overcome with the joy, dances God into Jerusalem.  God’s presence in the city will bring abounding blessing. We know that in every moment, God is present with us, offering grace after grace, moment after moment, opportunity after opportunity. God never deserts us.  God continues to offer us grace. This deserves our joyful response.

Ephesians 1:3-14
This Sunday’s text begins with the letter to the Ephesians.  This deutero-Pauline letter was probably written after Paul’s death toward the end of the first century CE and bears a great deal in common with Colossians.  It may have been a general letter designed to help the growing number of churches with some of the basic Christian teachings of the time. Our text for today is the opening blessing of the letter.  In the Greek text, verse 3-14 are one long sentence. Regardless of how your translation breaks it down, the unity of the church dominates as the primary concern. Family language of adoption and inheritance serves as the metaphor to describe the unity the author envisions.

These verses themselves could serve as a whole sermon series; they are dense with teachings about the nature of God, of Christ, of salvation, and of the church.  One of the most striking ideas in this passage is the author’s talk about God’s will. God does things in the fullness of time (when the time is right) and destines our inheritance in Christ according to his will.  At first glance, this seems to be a pretty cut and dry description of God’s will as predestination. This is a reasonable reading of the text, but not the only interpretation. Typically, process theologians reject traditional ideas about predestination because each occasion of existence has the freedom to become what it will within the limits of its environment (not just the freedom to choose the bad or only the illusion of freedom).  Creaturely freedom does not preclude the impact and working of God’s will. Indeed, God has a will, a strong one, but a patient one. God’s will is gentle and persistent. By that very persistence, God invites creatures to choose God’s will and fulfill God’s vision. God is not coercive, so ‘in the fullness of time,’ or ‘when the time was right,’ God fulfilled the divine vision for Creation in Jesus Christ. To say that this was destined is to tell the truth.  God willed it, and when the time was right, when all things were working together and choosing the good, it was accomplished. God is infinitely patient with us. Since God is everlasting and most powerful, God has no need of predestination. God’s aims will be accomplished, and all things will be gathered into the divine when the time is just right.

Mark 6:14-29
The text for today comes in the interlude of Mark’s first miracle cycle.  Jesus has been busy in the Galilee preaching, healing, exorcising demons, and has sent the disciples out on their own for the first time.  It may be interesting to note that this story is not actually about Jesus. The narrator of Mark gives details of the action at Herod’s palace.  Jesus’ disciples appear after John’s execution to collect his remains, but Jesus does not accompany them. Even though the story is not directly about Jesus, it certainly bears upon his ministry and reveals some of the harder truths about following Jesus.  Readers will remember that John baptizes Jesus at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Mark 1:14 briefly describes John’s arrest just as Jesus came to the Galilee to begin his ministry. John has been an important part of Jesus’ ministry. John’s death foreshadows Jesus’ death and serves as a gruesome example of what it means to challenge the rich and powerful.  

Mark sets this text squarely in conversation with the book of Esther.  In both stories, the King is a fool who makes rash promises and then has to follow through on them in order to save face.  It also recalls the story of Ahab and Jezebel (cf. 1 Kings 21:1-16), where Jezebel manipulates foolish King Ahab into some terrible dealings.  These foolish kings are juxtaposed with the wisdom and reserve of Jesus, who like Esther will go on to save God’s people. (It is a shame that the lectionary does not pair today’s Gospel reading with a reading from Esther.  You may benefit from varying from the 2 Samuel reading to tell the Esther story.) Because of the connections made between the stories of Esther and Jezebel which often have lascivious undertones that may or may not be germane to the actual texts, this story also often has lascivious moments unfairly read into it.  To be clear, the word used to describe the daughter who dances is “little girl.” The daughter is also Herod’s own daughter making it less likely he would allow anything unseemly from his own daughter. Perhaps, most importantly, the text never mentions anything lascivious, only that she danced in a way that pleased her father.  Lewd elements have been read into the Markan text over the centuries to paint a picture of Herod and his court as depraved. Yet, there are plenty of soap opera worthy events in this text without reading in dubious elements that slut-shame a child.

Some of the best preaching advice I have ever been given is to read the story and then decide who I am in the text.  The caution is that if I ever thought I best identified with Jesus, I am most likely not reading the story right. In this story, whom should the average parishioner identify with?  Since it is probably not Jesus, should it be Herod or even his wife, Herodias? Maybe not, since most of us do not have that kind of power, but it should serve as a seriously cautionary tale for those who do.  Perhaps some would best identify with John the Baptist. There are people in our congregations who have spent a lifetime dedicated to following Jesus, proclaiming the gospel and dealing with adverse consequences from those actions.  But, probably not many of us. It is politically expedient for many who claim to be Christian to claim that they are persecuted. This claim hardly holds water in a country where every one of our Presidents has publically declared his Christian beliefs, where our currency bears a motto that pledges our allegiance to God, and most public institutions like our schools and government offices close in conjunction with significant Christian holy days (as opposed to major Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu holy days).  If most of us should avoid identifying with Jesus, John the Baptist and Herod/Herodias, we have only a few more characters, the daughter and the disciples, from which to choose.

This passage could be effectively preached from the disciples’ point of view.  They had been out in pairs among the towns in the Galilee preaching, casting out demons, and healing the sick.  When they heard about John’s death, they collected his body and put him in a tomb. This must have been a shocking and sobering task.  While they did not follow John themselves, they knew John to be a follower of Jesus. The precariousness of their own situation must have become viscerally real.  Yet, none of them left Jesus after this gruesome and depressing task. As disciples ourselves, we are called to persevere. Marjorie Suchocki has carefully laid out the truth that sometimes the best possible for a given situation can be bad.  This is not to say that the best possible was the death of John, but that as faithful people sometimes our choices to follow Jesus may not always be ease or glory. It may not always be the good feeling one gets from helping, healing, and spreading the good news.  The choice to follow Jesus may include the uncomfortable (or even dangerous) need to speak the truth to the powerful on behalf of the powerless.

This passage could also be effectively preached from the point of view of Herod’s daughter.  She deserves almost as much sympathy as John the Baptist. The word used to describe his daughter in Greek is korasion, “little girl” (v. 22).   Mark uses this same word back in 5:41-42 to describe Jairus’ daughter who was 12 years old.  In today’s story, one of the weakest characters, the daughter, is exploited by the powerful to harm the other of the weakest.  Foolish and vindictive parents use a child as a tool to eliminate a source of social embarrassment that could have wider political ramifications.  This angle on the story can serve to illustrate the power of systemic evil. Herod’s daughter, like a good daughter, sought to please her parents. Caught in a cycle of evil far more powerful than she, the poor child could hardly have made a different choice.  Structures of evil limit the choices of the weak and vulnerable so that the powerful can benefit by pitting the weak against one another in order to keep their hands clean. As in the daughter’s case, some of the vulnerable might not even recognize themselves as such and play right into the systems of violence and oppression that keep the unscrupulous in power.  

Although the story ends with John’s death, his death is not the end of the story.  Neither is Jesus’. God answers the systems of violence and oppression with the divine and eternal “No!”  God responds to our violence with forgiveness and renewal. God answers the exploitation of the weak by the powerful with the same resurrection that insists that power resides ultimately in love.

Nichole Torbitzky received a doctorate from Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, CA and her Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Her current research investigates Whiteheadian notions of subjective form and the internal relations subjective form has on the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Torbitzky is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University and teaches courses on World Religions, Islam, Indian Religions, History of Christianity, and Women and Religion.