Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from July 15, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Church
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Sermon for July 15, 2012
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ps. 24; Eph. 1:2-14; Mark 6:14-29
The execution of John the Baptist. What a bizarre, gruesome story. The weak, superstitious Herod, his scandalous desertion of his wife to take up with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. The exotic dance of the daughter of Herod’s wife, whom the Jewish historian Josephus tells us was Salome, which derives from the same root as the Hebrew word shalom, of all things. The story has captured the imaginations of many over the years. Numerous painters have painted it, among them Bellini, Titian, Caravaggio. Oscar Wilde wrote a a famous play called Salome, which Richard Strauss composed into an opera by the same name, including the famous dance of the seven veils.
The story is a potpourri of political ambition, scandal, lust, seduction, and grotesque violence. In Strauss’s opera Salome kisses the mouth of the severed head of John. From my law school days I vaguely remember that there was a rule against submitting gruesome evidence in a trial, because the jury could get so caught by its physical and emotional reaction that they couldn’t think clearly. Even without Strauss’s necrophyllic touch the story is so grotesque we too can respond with a kind of voyeuristic fascination, in our confidence that we are so far from that kind of evil that we don’t have to worry that the story might touch us where it hurts.
It’s an easy text to moralize. What an easy target Herod is, taking someone who has inconveniently and quite correctly accused him of adultery and cutting off his head on the whim of a child. And the preacher says “don’t do that. Wrong thing to do.” Got it?
But we need to move on to the point. Because this story isn’t a moral lesson to instruct us in things not to do. The story is placed here, told as a flashback in Mark’s gospel, to tell us about Jesus, and the power of God. Nestled as it is between the story of the commissioning of the disciples and right before the feeding of the five thousand, we have a story of a seemingly pointless death foretelling another seemingly pointless death. Both contain the confrontation between political power and the gospel. Like Pilate, Herod struggles with his decision as he holds the life of a holy man in his hands, and like Pilate he gives in, choosing to be a crowd pleaser. And earthly power structures, as well as conformity and convention, appear to win. But even as this horrible death is happening, Jesus, the one whom John baptized, is calling disciples. And the world will never be the same.
And our readings call us to another apparent political victory of a very different sort, and to another dance of a very different sort. The story from 2 Samuel tells us how the Israelites have recovered that most sacred of objects, the ark of the covenant, the ark of God, the ark that was so powerful that the Philistines, though victorious in war, have given it back to them. And the Israelites, led by David, danced before the Lord joyfully and with all their might, “with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” And after the dance, David presents offerings of well-being before the Lord, blesses the people in the name of the Lord, and feeds the whole multitude of Israel. So we have the good dance, the holy dance, the dance of life, to contrast with the bad dance, the seductive dance, the dance of lust, power, greed, and desecration. Right?
Well, not quite so fast. There’s a whisper in this text from 2 Samuel, a single line, that gives us pause. “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” Michal was David’s second wife. Michal’s older sister was David’s first wife. The daughters of Saul, given to David in marriage to cement David’s succession to Saul’s kingship (and, as it turned out, secretly to undermine him. Saul — who at this point was jealous of David — gave Michal to David in marriage “so that she might be a snare to him” and lead him into the hands of their enemies, the Philistines (1 Sam. 18:21)). But for all of that, Scripture tells us that Michal loved David. And Michal disobeys her father and saves David’s life. But today’s text is later in the life of this couple, David and Michal. Saul is now dead, and David is king. Michal’s brother Jonathan is dead. A later passage tells us that Michal eventually dies childless, which would have likely been a matter of personal sorrow, and certainly been of very serious political consequence for the wife of the king.
We get the barest glimpse of this woman’s personal story, this wife of a great king. Why was she isolated? Why wasn’t she down there dancing with everyone else? Was the isolation of her own choosing, or someone else’s? She later accuses David of stripping down and dancing before the eyes of the handmaids, in his own seductive dance . Was she jealous? Is this simply the “presenting issue” masking her own sorrow? or had she known David long enough and intimately enough by then to have become disillusioned by this great man, Israel’s greatest king, to know his ambiguities, his ambition, and to see some personal glorification as he dances before the Lord, the power of the ark now combined with the power of kingship? Yes and no and maybe. Who knows? Yes we have a dance of glory to the Lord, and blessing and feeding the multitude. And threading through it, there is sorrow and disillusionment, personal unhappiness, ambiguous motives, political and religious power, the meta-narrative of the history of Israel and the deeply personal and private lies of people, all of this, woven inextricably into its own dance.
Which brings me to another dance. I hope some of you noticed that I’ve been gone for 12 days. I’ve been in Indianapolis, one of 8 people elected to serve as a deputy of the Diocese of Maine to General Convention. General Convention gathers Episcopalians from 17 countries around the world in a ten-day marathon legislative session. It is the one of the largest and oldest bi-cameral legislatures in the world. In a system that can baffle the rest of the ecclesiastical world, lay and clergy have equal voice, as we deliberate the doctrine and discipline of the life of the church, as well as social issues ranging from immigration to fracking to Israel and Palestine. Resolutions get heard before committees where anyone can testify. The committee then revises, perfects, and makes a recommendation. And then the resolution must pass both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies in exactly the same language. The days were long — beginning at 7:30 and often ending not before 10 p.m. Adequate sleep and food became scarce commodities.
My colleague Ben Shambaugh notes that this year, “Convention began in a dark mood.” Not unexpectedly. We are faced with the common denominational challenges of declining membership, churches that are closing, tight and shrinking budgets, some deep divides around homosexuality, as well as questions about our place in the Anglican Communion, baptism and the open communion table, and what confirmation is all about. Testimony at the hearings and on the floor was passionate and often painful. Before Convention the blogosphere had been crackling with calls for the revisioning of the church structure, flattening hierarchies. Have denominations outlived their usefulness? Are we spending too much to prop up a dated bureaucracy? Are we holding onto things for ourselves, or for God’s work in the world?
But several days in, there was a palpable shift. Perhaps it was all the conversation. Or perhaps because we came to understand ourselves as a gathering of people who, even with all our differences want to be identified as followers of God in the way of Jesus. At an impromptu gathering of several hundred one evening, people went up to the mic and completed the sentence “I dream of a church where …” At the Sunday Eucharist there were over 3,500 people, and worship over the 11 days was in multiple language, some of the finest preaching I’ve ever heard in my life. On the floor of the House of Deputies there was a powerful and articulate youth presence as well as impassioned conservatives, voices from Europe, the Caribbean, Africa. Many of us described experiencing something shifting and moving within us. There was hallway conversation about a fresh vision and birthing a new church. There was a call for a special commission to look at everything over the next triennium. Everything. After rigorous debate it passed the House of Deputies unanimously. And then, after more rigorous debate, we passed a budget that had been completely revamped along the 5 marks of mission. Adopted at the last General Convention in 2009, they are becoming the way in which the Episcopal Church understands what it is about: To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; To teach, baptize and nurture new believers; To respond to human need by loving service; To seek to transform unjust structures of society; and To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth. And throughout it all we listened to each other with compassion and respect, we were goofy, we were serious, we prayed together, we sang together, we struggled and questioned and hoped and dreamed together.
Today’s texts have helped us to see that what we were engaged in at General Convention was the beginning of a dance before the Lord. Literally. Just before our last session on the last day of convention, two Conga lines formed that wove up and down the aisles while music played over the loudspeakers. This was a dance like David’s dance, a celebration of community in all its diversity, a dance of joy and the hunger for the spirit, a dance where we sometimes moved in rhythm and sometimes stepped on each other’s toes, a dance where we bring all our human ambiguities and struggles and questions, engaging the deeply personal and private, the political and the corporate, all within the arc of God’s grace and the moving forward of God’s kingdom.
I don’t know what will come out of it all. I don’t know what will stay and what will go. But more than I ever have before, I understand myself to be part of a vibrant, diverse, faithful church with amazing and gifted people. That we are becoming a church that is ready to adapt itself so that we may be equipped to do the work that God has for us. We remember that it is not our dance, but God’s. In the words of one of the preachers, our task is to be saturated in prayer, to be grounded in community, and to point our feet in the direction of God’s mission in the world. May it be so. Amen.