Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (year B proper 10) 

Sam 6.1-5,12b-19; Ps 24; Eph 1.1-14; Mk 6.14-29

July 11, 2021

Rev. Ralph Moore 

When we read certain parts of the Bible we can get agitated. The discord and conflict in the situations described, the agony in human lives, the intensity of the historical period. This morning. David acclaimed king by all the tribes, the result of a lot of violent conflict. Now they are making their way to the holy hill that is known as Jerusalem. The Ark of God, that ancient container of the tablets of the law made by Moses—that represents the presence of God—is being moved to a new location to a tent that David sets up. Upon its arrival a great ritual celebration erupts, complete with sacrifices and wild noisy music and dancing, led by an exuberant David. Michal, daughter of former king Saul, is displeased by David’s exuberance. That’s the reading. But….. 

This lesson by itself is sanitized. The hill city is ruled by Jebusites, a Cannanite tribe that refuses to allow David and his people to settle there. Rather than fight, David establishes a new location in what is called the City of David; (to this day it is being fully examined by archeologists). Over time the Jews finally inhabit Jerusalem through negotiation and inter-marriage. Omitted from our lesson is that strange incident while the Ark is being carried. As it’s about to tilt one of the leaders touches it and is struck dead. (By God?) And, Michal, identified here only as Saul’s daughter, is David’s wife. Her disgust over David’s wild dancing reveals a family feud. When David gets home she yells,“What a glorious day for the king, when he exposed his person in the sight of his servants’ slave-girls like an empty headed fool!” To which David replies, “this was done in God’s presence…he choose me instead of your father and family and I will dance forever for the Lord and cause you and whoever else more disgust!” Then, “Michal, Saul’s daughter, had no child to her dying day.” The back story is that David earlier longed for Michal and Saul demanded a high cost for her dowry—100 Philistine foreskins; David brought him 200. As Saul began to lose his mind, he tried to have David killed, and he took Michal back and gave her to another man, and David then got her back. The environments of these narratives are conflict, violence, and death. 

Mark’s gospel doesn’t let up. We don’t have to go into all the details of violence in the Roman occupation of Jesus’ day. Here we have a local puppet ruler called “King Herod.” He’s not a king at all but the son of the late Herod who was king when Jesus was born. He is overseer of the northern region of Galilee. Though he has tolerated the teachings of John the baptizer, he finally can’t stand the prophet’s criticism of his having divorced his first wife and then married Herodias, wife of his late brother. She hates John. So, at Herod’s birthday feast Herodias’ daughter (Salome) dances and he asks what reward she wishes, and goaded by her mother she asks for John’s head. Disciples take John’s body. The location of that and his head are still unknown. Richard Strauss’ opera “Salome” presents the gory tale quite adequately. More conflict, violence, and death.

Well, aren’t we glad that we live in a world where those kinds of things don’t happen anymore? And, of course, we really do. Not exactly the same, but maybe much worse. The genius of the biblical stories—for Jews, Christians, and Muslims—is that they are preserved not as idealized portraits of saints, but as reports of real people whose decisions and actions result in suffering and defeat and sometimes blessing. There is some insight, perhaps some humility. Perhaps, some trace of the Creator. Through all of these centuries of narratives and poems is a thread, a reality, of human heart, as our ancestors discover their destructiveness, and their humility, and truth, identified as grace.  Somewhere in all of these stories are prophets. Samuel himself is one—early on he tried to talk the people out of having a king. Watch out for Nathan, who announces the decisive judgment of David himself. The Ephesians lesson ends in a phrase that translates: “there is a pledge in our inheritance as people of God that we will be rescued.” Jesus upholds the centrality not of the canonical histories as though they are pure, but of the law and the prophets (including the poetry of the Psalms): Micah’s   “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly;” today’s Psalm: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord and who can stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not pledged themselves to falsehood, nor sworn by what is a fraud.” 

The pandemic and unique crises of hostility and disunity that we’re living right now lands us in the same uncomfortable place as these stories. If we’re smart, we will discern and learn from the new revelations of who we have become and are yet to become, as a country and as neighbors of human beings in the total world. High levels of poverty, homelessness, displaced people, refugees, hate crimes—what is the”normal” being mentioned as desirable to recover? Individually, each of us knows unfinished business of our lives. As people of the Beloved Community formed by Jesus, maybe we can commit ourselves to new normals–new support for adequate public health systems; a new sense of our place among sisters and brothers of every other nation; new behaviors in relation to our neighbors of other races and classes. And, most of all, new acceptance of the gift of hope, freedom from despair, faith in the goodness of soul that’s in us. 

Last week frequent references were made to the speech Frederick Douglas delivered to the Republican Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester on July 5, 1852, entitled “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” He makes all of the truthful points with unerring accuracy, and then, after such a rehearsal of unvarnished reality, he closes with words of hope and optimism and recites a poem by William Lloyd Garrison:

“God speed the day when human blood shall cease to flow/In every clime be understood 

The claims of human brotherhood,/And each return for evil, good,/Not blow for blow;That day will come all feuds to end,/And change into a faithful friend/Each foe.

The members of an investment firm recently completed a self-study and came up with a list of values and qualities that they’d like to apply to their work: “Agility, Consistency, Collaboration, Compassion, Justice, and Compassion.” That’s impressive…..

Maya Angelou says, “When we look to the past we do so with forgiveness, when look to the future we do so with deep prayer, we look into the present we do so with deep gratitude—the beautiful actions follow…..”

So may it be with us….

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