Be Careful What You Wish For

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2018

By Rebecca Gordon

The Ark of the Covenant: A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations.

I confess that I am very nervous about this sermon. We are truly living in terrible times, times of real, life- and soul-threatening emergency for millions of people around the world. Times when we have become inured to each story of a hundred or two hundred desperate refugees drowning in the Mediterranean; times when our own government literally pulls children from their parents’ arms at our southern border; times when the president of this country makes common cause with authoritarian rulers around the world and with white supremacists at home; times when U.S. planes are even now refueling Saudi Arabian bombers attacking the only open port in Yemen, driving the cost of food far beyond the means of ordinary people. Times when as a result, Yemeni mothers sit beside their starving children, helpless before their stick-like limbs and sunken eyes. The United Nations has repeatedly called Yemen’s famine the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. We rightly cheer when 12 young men are rescued from almost certain death in a Thailand cave, but for many of us know nothing of the hundreds of thousands of children who may well starve as a result of a war most people in this country don’t even know we’re fighting.

How, in such terrible times, can I take this Sunday to preach about what it means to be a woman before God? How, when humanity is in crisis, can I dare to focus on the concerns of only one part of humanity? Maybe it’s because as women know that, even along the path to liberation, there will always be a crisis, an emergency, a greater priority, that must postpone the day of claiming our full humanity until a later time, when other, more important, issues have first been resolved. And it’s because those crises are genuine and pressing that women so often choose to relinquish our particular claims as women in favor of the greater good. In this, we are a bit like the mother who, rather than see King Solomon cut her baby in half, offered it to another woman.

So, as I say, I am nervous in such times about preaching a sermon like this. But here we go.

Be careful what you wish for. Often the Bible (or the way it is interpreted) takes it as given that women are merely (to use the title of an enormously popular novel and TV show) “handmaids” to men’s more central relationship with God. So I’m always eager for scripture readings that pay attention to the thoughts and actions of women, stories where I can see something of myself reflected. But my heart sank when I saw the propers — the readings appointed in the lectionary — for today. In both the Hebrew scripture (Old Testament) lesson and the gospel, there are stories of women, all right — bad women.

First we heard about David dancing ecstatically before the Ark of God clad only in his linen ephod (a cross between a mini-skirt and a loin cloth, which leaves no part of his anatomy to the imagination), as his wife Michal looked on from a window. The Ark, also called the “Ark of the Covenant” or the “Ark of the Testament,” was a gold-embossed wooden box that the Hebrews and others in Canaan believed contained the tablets of the law that Moses carried down from Mt Sinai. Some said it also held Aaron’s rod and a golden jar of manna. In a sense, it was a physical manifestation of the holy, an incarnation of a sort—an idea we’ll look at again when we take up today’s gospel.

The Ark was so powerful that touching it could kill you—as one of its bearers, a man named Uzzah, learned the hard way. Before bringing it into his city, David had it kept for three months in a nearby village, to see how people living near it would fare. When they seemed to have good luck, he ordered it carried to the city, which brings us to today’s story.

We’re told that, “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.” Huh? Why? Our passage ends with the distribution of festival foods — meat and cakes — to all the celebrating people. But it leaves us with a mystery. Why are we told that, while David was caught up in religious joy, his wife Michal “despised him in her heart?”

The lectionary leaves out the next part of the story (and skips it next week, as well), but some of you may remember what comes next. After all the people have gone home, Michal goes into the street to meet David. She’s still furious. ““How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today,” she says, “going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” David replies that because the Lord has chosen him to be Israel’s king (“above your father [Saul] and all his house”) he will “make merry before the Lord” in any way he chooses. Furthermore, he’s more interested in the respect of servant women than he is in Michal’s.

This passage is usually interpreted to present two conflicting ways of responding to the presence of the Holy. The man David turns his full being towards God and is thereby filled with holy joy (and who am I to say that the experience of the Holy does not have for sexual beings a sexual dimension?). By sharing ordinary people’s spirituality, he is also brought close to them and gains their legitimate respect. The woman Michal, by contrast, in her haughty pride turns away from God and toward the desire for earthly honor, earthly respectability. Her punishment, we learn, is the worst that could befall a woman of her time (and indeed of most times): “she had no child to the day of her death.”

This interpretation reflects a kind of dualism that runs through much of modern Christianity: the opposition of spirit and flesh, of heaven and earth, of man and woman. It’s ironic that even in the very physicality of his worship, David represents for many modern Protestants a turn towards spirit, while Michal, with her petty concerns about status and appropriate behavior, is mired in the things of the flesh.

But we still haven’t solved the mystery of why Michal despised David in the first place. For that, you have to know the back story. From her youth, she had been in love with David (who was fond of her but fonder still of her brother Jonathan). Michal’s father Saul was afraid of David’s rising power and popularity and used her and her love to set a trap for David, promising her hand in return for a hundred Philistine foreskins. He expected David to be killed in the process of procuring them, but David prevailed and he and Michal were married.

Saul continued to resent David, and, still a young bride, Michal saved David’s life when Saul again tried to have him killed. Once safe, David retreated to the wilds to build his army and bide his time for conquest. For fifteen years, radio silence. He didn’t write; he didn’t call. Michal was married off to another man, once again treated as a human marker in a game played by men. Eventually. David grew strong enough to defeat Saul, and demanded Michal back as a war prize. Off she was sent, her grieving husband Paltiel following behind her. We are never told whether she’d come to love this second husband.

Once reclaimed by David, she became part of his harem, but not it seems, his lover. She bore no children. Certainly, she was not invited to be part of the great entourage celebrating the arrival of the Ark. Cut off from human love, denied access to the Holy, maybe it’s not surprising that on that day she despised the man who wouldn’t touch her, but rubbed his own freedom in her face while dancing with other women and with the Divine.

Now we come to our gospel story. As is common in Mark, the story of the death of John the Baptist is inserted in the middle of another continuous narrative, like the filling in a sandwich. Last week we heard Mark’s version of the Great Commission, in which Jesus sends his disciples out, two by two, to heal the sick and proclaim the good news. Next week, the disciples return and tell Jesus what they’ve done and taught. But in the middle, today, we have this story about Herod, Herodias, Herodias’s daughter, and John the Baptist. And once again, it’s the women who are bad guys in the story, who fail to recognize a physical symbol of the Divine, this time in the person of John.

This story is often interpreted—and reasonably, I think—as the author’s foreshadowing of the kind of death Jesus was to die for opposing the political and religious powers of his day. Just as John the Baptist, we’re told, accuses Herod of violating God’s law, Jesus’s entire ministry is a rebuke to Jewish leaders who have accepted power under the Roman empire as a substitute for the just and joyous divine “basilea” — the kingdom of God.

We hear that Herod, an minor Jewish ruler, has violated the purity codes set out in Leviticus by marrying his brother’s wife Herodias. By now we should know that marriage in those times was not the spiritual union of “one man and one woman” endorsed by some Evangelicals as the “biblical” model of matrimony. As in the time of David and Michal, marriage in Jesus’s day was an institution in which women often served as tokens of loyalty exchanged between families, or prizes in power struggles. Herodias and her young, unnamed, daughter were hardly in positions of power in Herod’s household.

Tradition (following the first century Jewish chronicler Josephus) associates Herodias’s daughter (and Herod’s stepdaughter) with the dancer Salome, and assumes that the dance that pleased the king was a sexy striptease. But in the gospel itself, the Greek word for this person is actually “koritsi” —the same word used in the previous chapter to refer to the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official, to whom Jesus said, “Talitham cumi” — “Get up, little girl.” Herodias’s daughter is a young girl, not a sexual temptress. No wonder she runs to ask her mother what to request when Herod offers her half his kingdom or anything else her heart desires.

But what about Herodias? Can we say anything at all in her favor? She’s a grown woman, not a little girl. Yes, a grown woman who, if her husband listens to John the Baptist, will soon be thrown out on the street, along with her daughter, to die. So she is willing to try to sacrifice John to save her own life. Not a very courageous choice, certainly. And not one arising from any spiritual understanding of who John was, or the person for whom John was making straight a way in the (metaphorical) wilderness. I do have to ask, however, why did Herod, who was, after all, “deeply grieved” at the thought, have John executed? “Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests”?

Come on. Maybe he was a blustering narcissist (like other rulers I could name) who couldn’t stand being embarrassed in front of his guests. Maybe, much as he enjoyed listening to John, he didn’t appreciate the trouble John and his followers, not to mention that Jesus guy, were stirring up, both for him and for his Roman overlords. Whatever the reasons, it’s hardly fair to hang it all on Herodias, who we can imagine being pretty surprised that her long-shot attempt to save herself had actually worked.

Half a millennium separates the writing down of these two stories, and yet they both speak to us of women who, because of the patriarchal institutions of their day are cut off from the sacramental, the means of grace that in their physical presence reveal the presence of God. Not for Michal, the ecstatic joy of dancing before the Ark of God. Not for Herodias the new kingdom presaged by John and preached by Jesus.

And yet, can it really be that those of us who are not men, but who were, as Genesis tells us created in God’s own image, have no place in the dance? If we were indeed created in God’s image, then surely there is something in our own gender—in all our genders—that reflects the Divine. Surely the God who created such a vast universe, where it seems that every week we are discovering new worlds circling other suns, surely such a God cannot be contained by the difference between and X and a Y chromosome in one species on one planet.

Which brings me to my last thoughts. In a few minutes we’re going to recite the Nicene creed. Today is not the day to go into the history of that ancient statement of faith (time enough for that in some other sermon!). But you may have noticed a couple of different versions of the creed in your bulletins over the last few weeks. In one, the Holy Spirit is spoken of as “he”: “With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.” That formulation gives us a God in three male persons. Another translation, the one in today’s bulletin, says, “Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” A simple change, but one that opens to those of us who are not men the possibility of seeing in ourselves the image of God. It’s likely you can’t imagine what that means to me, if your gender has never been a stumbling block between you and God.

It gives me great joy to learn that at General Convention this year, our representatives agreed to begin a process of examining the texts in our Book of Common Prayer, permitting “liturgical revision will utilize inclusive and expansive language and imagery for humanity and divinity.” In out liturgy—literally, “the people’s work—we come together as God’s people to dance before the Divine as David did. Only this time, maybe more of us will be invited to the dance.

We are certainly all invited, in a few minutes, to the table where once again we encounter the mystery of a God who comes to us in material form. In the sacrament of Eucharist, we meet God together. Bread and wine have no gender. Amen.

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