We all love a little palace intrigue, and this week we have two stories of some royal rumblings in the Bible. Kings David and Herod use power in an all-too-familiar way. But John the Baptizer and Jesus challenge us to discover the power of the cross.
7th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – July 12, 2015 – 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19, Mark 6:14-29
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Palace Intrigue” – Pastor Evan Davis
Everywhere in the world, all through history, people come to the palace full of ambition, looking for power – the kind of power that lurks at the corners of the throne room, in whispered conversations and cloak room conspiracies. Palace intrigue – it’s one of the oldest stories there is. The ambitious use their foothold on power to get more power, taking down one rival at a time on the way to the top. The ones sitting on the thrones, wearing the crowns, are afraid of everyone, trusting no one, and they use every ounce of power they have left to hang on even as that power slowly but surely slips through their fingers. Caesar and the Senate, Henry VIII and his wives – they’re all the same vicious story of betrayal that’s as old as time. It’s even in the Bible.
Of course it’s in the Bible, because the Bible is about human beings. We heard two versions today of the same old story. There’s the story of a victorious King David, a 30-year-old who had defeated Saul, his older rival to the throne and also the Philistines whom they’d been fighting for as long as anyone could remember. His final touch is to kick out the Jebusites and conquer that fateful city on Mt. Zion, Jerusalem. David’s taking his victory lap in front of 30,000 men plus maybe as many women and children, bringing the ark of the covenant into the city which would forever be associated with him, known always as the city of David. And as the ark is slowly rolling down the boulevard, David is dancing down the street for all he’s worth. He’s dancing to trumpets, harps, lyres, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals…wearing only a linen ephod, a priestly garment, and apparently nothing else. Michal, his wife, isn’t as impressed as the cheering crowds. As she saw David carrying on in the street, she despised him in her heart from the window above. Just beyond where our reading cuts off, Michal gives David a piece of her mind, scolding him for “uncovering himself […] before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!”
I think she knew too much about David to be very impressed with his boyish charm offensive down below. After all, David was the guy who her father, Saul, had tried and failed to kill multiple times. He was the guy who had stolen her from her previous husband as spoils of war, the man whose army had hunted down and killed her father’s army. Maybe she could see the heart of the man who would, in a few brief chapters, have his best general, Uriah, murdered so that he could steal his wife Bathsheba. She knew David, although surely a man doing great things for God, was not some innocent man of the people dancing along with the street kids, but a cunning warlord and power politician, a man who always got what he wanted.
Fast forward several centuries to the time of Jesus. We have King Herod, a puppet of the Romans, ruling only by their say-so. And like David, he has a problem with the tenth commandment. His eye falls upon his brother’s wife. One would presume she has her own name, but apparently Herod also has an issue with pride (that’s the first commandment) because after he marries his brother’s wife she becomes known as Herodias…literally the female attachment to Herod. The only problem is that the fiery prophet John has the unfortunate tendency to remind them that marrying your sister-in-law is not ok. And Herod has the temerity to actually listen to this prophet and enjoy what he’s saying! Maybe John helps Herod stay connected to God, to the good, in some way. But Herodias quickly learns she also can pull her husband’s strings. She can see an opportunity when it comes. She exploits her husband where he is weakest….with her daughter. She sends in the daughter, also referred to as Herodias in this story, to dance before Herod and his big-shot buddies in the royal court. After, Herod says to Daddy’s little girl, “whatever you want, sweetie, I’ll get it for you.” He formally pledges it, in front of all his friends. The daughter thinks immediately, “what would Mom say?” So she asks. Without any hesitation, “the head of John the baptizer.” If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. What Momma wants, Momma gets. Not because Herod wants to give this, but because Momma has out-maneuvered him. He is so afraid of going back on his word, a fatal blow in palace politics, that he finds the courage to execute the holy man he admires and fears at the same time.
It might seem in these stories there are winners and losers. But the kind of power that arises from fear and anger, from pride and ambition and envy, only produces victims. Uriah, Bathsheba, Michal, and Herod’s brother are victims of kings and queens who believe their position entitles them to satisfying every royal urge. Herodias the daughter is a pawn in her parents’ deadly game of envy and resentment, her innocence stolen. Herodias the wife, transferred as wife from one brother to another, has had her human dignity so utterly revoked that she will kill to protect the crime of the man who stole her, and even use her daughter to do it. David, the shepherd boy turned king of all Israel, a boy who enters manhood by killing Goliath, can praise God with his words and his dance moves but in the end is a slave to his own desires. And Herod, a man powerful enough to behead of prophet of God on a whim, in truth is bound by the expectations of his friends, his wife, his Roman masters, and his desires, and the man who enjoyed listening to John is lost.
Power is neutral in and of itself, but it is so easily corrupted and made to serve our insecurities which always lead to violence and abuse. The truth is that all of us have power. Believe it or not, I’m looking at a bunch of powerful people out there today! It’s when we’re not aware of our power, where it comes from, or what it’s for…that’s when we get into trouble.1 That’s when people get hurt. So we begin by becoming aware of our power. What privileges do we have? Whom can we influence? Whom could we hurt if we’re not aware of how powerful we are? Whom can we help if we believe we have the power to do so?
We confess a God who is all-powerful, and yet we believe at the same time this God is good. What’s the secret? How does God manage to hold power together with good? The secret to God’s power is that it proceeds from total security and total love. God needs nothing from you, God isn’t threatened by you, God doesn’t fear you, and as God gives you faith to trust in him, you will develop that kind of assurance and security. You will learn not to be afraid of the stranger, not to be threatened by the co-worker or newcomer, to trust that even in death you remain God’s beloved child. This kind of abiding trust in God frees you to love as you are loved, to always seek the good of the other, because God is all the good you need for yourself.
John the baptizer is the forerunner of Jesus, especially in this story. Jesus uses his power to heal, to cast out spirits, feed the crowds, raise the dead, teach a even more excellent Way, and then show us what real power is when he goes to the cross. Another king, this time Pilate, uses his death-dealing power only to realize it can’t change anything. Whereas Christ’s death changes everything.
Most of you aren’t headed to the palaces of this world – you’re headed to homes and hospitals, schools and stores, offices, workplaces, farms, and neighborhoods…places where the power of the cross is the power that finds the people on the margins and lifts them up, the power that challenges the racist or sexist joke, the healing power that listens to someone who needs to be heard. It’s the power of a prophet like John that goes to the palaces of our city and county, which is what we’ll be doing with Faith in Action, and asks, what about our neighbors who are suffering? We can do something about this, together. But before the power of the cross can change the world, it changes you and me. May it change you again here today. Amen.
1Karoline Lewis, “Power Potentials,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3653 (accessed July 9, 2015). Her essay is the source of the central insight about power and becoming aware of our own power.