Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 12 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto

Last time I preached, two Sundays ago, we looked at the story of two daughters – the woman with the haemorrhage, whom Jesus calls “daughter” as he confirms her healing, and the daughter of Jairus, the little girl never named but raised from death; two women without social power, brought into the light of healing and new life. Mark then interrupts the narrative briefly to describe the sending out of the first apostles, this venture in vulnerability about which Mother Andrea spoke last week – but then he returns, and creates a subtle, powerful frame for that story by telling us about another daughter, a daughter caught up in a very different kind of illness.

We moderns seem to have been determined to read the story of the killing of John the Baptist as a story about sex, as we insist on reading so many stories. Richard Strauss and Oscar Wilde, decadence, temptation, bad sexy ladies versus grim ascetism. But this is not the story Mark is telling. This is a story about power and violence and freedom, a story about entrapment and imprisonment, and the ones who are imprisoned are not the obvious ones.

So, the third daughter. For at the centre of all the corrupt and coercive dealings of Herod’s court is the daughter of Herodias, who is also unnamed by Mark, and whose name is not quite clear in the tradition – sometimes she’s called Herodias as well, and sometimes Salome. Popular culture has presented her dance as erotic, as knowing, as if she were a sexually mature young woman deliberately manipulating the court with her body. But the text as it really stands says something quite different; it’s quite clear from the Greek that she is a pre-adolescent child. In fact, the text uses exactly the same word, korasion, for the girl raised to life as for the girl whose dance brings death, and it’s a word which indicates that both still small children. This is a little girl’s dance, charming no doubt, probably sentimentally amusing to the drunken crowd, a dance with no wicked intention, and the dancer is an unwitting pawn in the great games of adult power, too young to understand what she is asking for.

The contrast is surely deliberate – the small daughter who is given life by Jesus, who is enabled to stand up on her own, to walk into being, and the small daughter who is treated like a toy, like an instrument, who becomes an unwitting tool of evil and death.

But she is not the only one. In some ways, all of the characters in this story are trapped, with the exception of the one, John himself, who is actually physically imprisoned. Herodias is trying to survive in a very dangerous political marriage. The Herodian ruling family was a nest of plots and intrigues, poisonings and executions, and by divorcing one member of the family and marrying another, contrary to Jewish law, she had effectively sparked a war between her new husband and the father of his former wife, as well as making herself an enemy to her own ex-husband, who may also have been her uncle. She is both player and pawn within a male-dominated, militarized, violent power structure, and if Herod had taken John’s advice and divorced Herodias, she certainly would not have lived long. John is not just an irritant to her, he is a real threat, a very pressing danger.

And Herod himself is, or feels himself to be, trapped within a system of shame and honour, a system in which loss of face can mean political and personal disaster. He has made a foolish, impulsive promise to his court, and now he is imprisoned by his own words. He cannot – under the rules of the honour system in which and by which he lives – take back his promise, think again, change his mind. If he violates his oath, his strength is compromised in front of his own courtiers, and he himself would be in political danger. He is a prisoner of his own chosen world, his own chosen values, the public performance of extravagance, a prisoner of the crowd.

And John, in his cell, is stubborn and difficult and maybe self-destructive, and he is dead by the end of the story; but he is free. He is the only one in this story who chooses freely, alone, outside of social performance and political intrigue and the pressure of the crowd.

It is interesting to look at the first reading in the light of this one, because dancing and dynastic intrigues are quite prominent in both, and it may allow us to read the Old Testament story in a different way. David’s dance before the Ark is usually treated as a wholly positive thing, an ecstatic outpouring of devotion. But this is not a small girl’s innocent dance, manipulated by power. It is to a very large extent a deliberate show for the crowd, David and the people working each other up, David making a great show of his piety, ensuring that everyone, absolutely everyone, sees his religious rapture, tossing sweets at the people, he and the crowd caught up together in an emotional spiral which is probably both real and manufactured, a Santa Claus parade of the Lord.

And Michal, at the window – well, her husband, who is dancing for the crowd, constructing this intense charismatic relationship with the crowd, positioning himself for them as God’s king, has just been responsible for the deaths of her father and her brother, and the dance is very much a statement about this, about how he has replaced them as the custodian of the Ark, in God’s special favour. So it may not be David’s lack of appropriate clothing which is really troubling her. But she herself is a prisoner of this marriage and of the power structures of this new royal family, and all she can see her way clear to do is to sneer at her husband.

There is not anyone, in this part of the narrative, who stands outside the structures of power and public display and the performance of emotion and extravagance – although we will soon meet the prophet Nathan, an occasional critic within David’s court. There is no one, in this story, who is really free with the difficult freedom of John, no one willing to step outside the system.

Our own systems are different, of course. Very few of us spend much time negotiating the dynastic politics of murderous royal families. But on the other hand, very few of us are free from the pressures of power and performance. We do allow ourselves to be compelled by crowds, large or small; to behave as the force of the social world demands that we behave. We find ourselves trapped by our own manoeuvering for acceptance or power, backed into corners we didn’t intend, doing things we don’t feel entirely good about because they are things which are expected, demanded, quietly enforced.

Freedom is harder. It requires standing aside from the party, recognizing and resisting the social pressures that surround us, it requires that we ourselves think through what is right, what is good, what we really want. It brings considerable risk, as John’s story makes clear.

But for freedom Christ has set us free. The daughters of Galilee, unlike the daughter of Herodias and the daughter of Saul, were given healing and life, released into choice and freedom and the wholeness of their own selves, as the apostles are released into the dangerous, needy world. This is the real dance, of which the girl’s dance and David’s dance are both more or less parodies, the dance our lives within the movement of God’s love. And on the other side of Herod’s murderous banquet, in another of Mark’s very elegant framings, we will find a different banquet, Jesus feeding the five thousand with ordinary food, bread in the wilderness, and an open and equal welcome for all who come, where no display or performance is necessary.

It is that simple and that difficult. For we are all, finally, the daughters and the sons not of Herodias and Saul any longer, but of God; that is, if we choose to be. If we can step away from the powers of the world into the mystery of God’s grace.