Kings behaving badly: A Sermon for Proper 10, Year B

 

Are y’all already as tired of the presidential campaign as I am?

. It’s not just that our own governor has announced he’s a candidate for President; it seems like every day we hear about another Republican who has thrown his or her hat into the ring. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has already visited Madison and the media are paying close attention to the horse race between him and Secretary Clinton. Apart from the entertainment value of Donald Trump’s outrageous statements, I expect that by next November we will be weary of it all, even while we have to gear up for the next cycle to begin in January of 2017.

At the same time, while there’s a whole lot of money from a whole lot of people, we at least have the pretense of electoral democracy. After all, it’s our votes that the candidates are spending all of that money on. And we also have the power of the vote, the rule of law, and constitution, all of which limit, at least to some degree, the greed, egotism, dynastic ambition, and power hunger of politicians. Still, there’s a profound disconnect between the world we live in, the world we imagine, and the world inhabited by the political elites. Our hopes and dreams for a better future for ourselves and our planet too often seem to fall victim to the whims, hubris, and desire for power and money of politicians.

Our scripture readings today remind us that all else aside, the politically powerful have often sought their own pleasure and power. We are given glimpses into two monarchs—David and Herod Antipas. We’ve been following the story of David the last several weeks. We heard of his anointing, his battle with Goliath, and his ascent to the throne after Saul’s suicide Today, we have another episode from his life. He is consolidating power and part of that consolidation is gaining control over the religious life of the people. It’s as if David, and we, suddenly remember the Ark of the Covenant, constructed when the Israelites were in the wilderness of Sinai, it represents God’s presence among God’s people and in some sense is a manifestation of the divine presence. The ark had an interesting history—Samuel’s sons took it into battle against the Philistines, who gained control of it when they defeated the Israelites. But while it was with the Philistines, it caused all sorts of problems so that eventually it came back into the Israelites’ possession, kept by Abinidab.

David hears that Abinadab’s household has been blessed by its presence and he decides to bring it to Jerusalem. On the way, as we heard, one Abinadab’s sons tries to prevent it from falling off the cart and is killed because he touches it. David becomes angry and fearful and decides not to take it to Jerusalem, but to let someone else take care of it. Some months later, having heard that again the ark has blessed those who were caring for it, David decides it is ok to bring it to Jerusalem.

And bringing it, he makes quite a show of it. There’s dancing and singing; David leads the dancing—and while the text isn’t precisely clear, it’s apparent that in addition to the unseemly sight of a king dancing before God and the people, he wasn’t wearing all of the appropriate dress. It’s also worth noting that David’s actions are inappropriate in another way—he is acting like a priest when he blesses the people.

His wife Michal chastises him for his behavior and now we are introduced to another sensitive subject. Michal is Saul’s daughter, and marrying Michal was another way that David insinuated himself into the monarchy. We don’t know a lot about their relationship, except that earlier the text tells twice that Michal loved him. By now, David has taken other wives and concubines, and his behavior seems to push her over the edge. Watching him, she now despises him and David tells her that she will never have a child. That’s one way of David making sure that there will be no challenges to his reign from Saul’s descendants.

We will hear more of David’s hubris and weaknesses in the coming weeks, but for now, it’s enough to note that the biblical text, even though it reflects a perspective that looks back on David’s reign as a golden age, does not shrink from presenting him as a complex human, like the rest of us, someone who does good and great things, and at the same time is capable of evil.

Mark doesn’t have to offer a nuanced portrait of Herod Antipas. The story he tells is remarkable for its sordid detail and remarkable too because of its uniqueness in the gospel. It’s one of the longest stories in the entire gospel, the only one in which Jesus himself does not appear. And it is told in the form of a flashback. Herod is remembering what he did to John the Baptizer after he receives word of Jesus’ mighty acts. Herod comes off as a weak tyrant, subject to his own physical desires and to the whims of the woman he married. In fact, it seems he rather liked John the Baptizer, liked listening to him and when he was forced by his own rash vow and the need to save face in front of an audience of courtiers, regretted John’s execution.

The story foreshadows Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Herod and Pilate have similar reactions; both are manipulated by other forces and people. The very last verse is almost identical to Mark’s description of Jesus’ burial. Mark is making a connection between Jesus and John, a connection he has made before. In Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry only after John’s arrest. Now, we are told of John’s execution at a significant point in the gospel. We have seen Jesus working miracles, proclaiming the good news. Last Sunday, in the section preceding today’s reading, Jesus sent the disciples to extend his ministry. The next verses will tell of their return and what they accomplished. John’s martyrdom, Jesus’ crucifixion, looms over that mission.

But that’s not the whole story. Herod’s banquet is juxtaposed with another banquet. After the twelve return, Jesus will miraculously feed a crowd of more than five thousand people. There are two banquets here; one is an orgy of self-gratification; the other an image of plenty. On their mission, the twelve were dependent on the hospitality of others; they were vulnerable. Jesus looks on a crowd, sees their need, and responds in love and mercy. Herod’s banquet was a birthday party; but it was also an opportunity to bestow favor on courtiers and establish his power and precedence.

There are lessons here for us. We may be drawn to the world, the kingdom Jesus proclaims. We may seek the bread and mercy he offers us. But following him also means being vulnerable, like the disciples were on their mission. Herod’s banquet and world offer an enticing alternative. It’s not just the power and wealth on display; it’s the sense of security, too. But there’s another undercurrent there. The power on offer in Herod’s kingdom, in the kingdom of the world, is only as secure and certain as its next display. Consolidating and maintaining that power often requires the naked exercise of violence, and almost always, as we know to well, it also means being beholden to other powers.

We will hear a great deal in the coming weeks about Mark’s understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. At the end of the story looms the crucifixion—the example of Jesus’ love and self-giving. The kingdom Jesus proclaims is a kingdom in which love binds us together, where we are welcome with all of our weakness and vulnerability, where our wounds and deformities are healed. That kingdom proclaimed by Jesus is one in which we may flourish, and which by our loving actions and words, we can offer to others.

 

 

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