By the Rev. Darren Miner
As you know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News, as is the reading from the Old Testament. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of Good News. So let me say a few words about the First Reading and the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
The story from 2 Samuel is the story of a problematic procession, of a liturgy gone wrong. However, due to the editing of the authors of our lectionary, you would be hard-pressed to know that! They have removed two paragraphs that change the entire meaning of this excerpt from King David’s bio. The first deleted paragraph explains how the procession went to Hell in a handbasket when the ark of the covenant began to fall out of the cart. Uzzah, one of two brothers from a priestly family who had been tasked with leading the procession, notices that the ark of God is slipping. Without thinking, he reaches his hand out to push the ark back in place. And he is struck dead for his efforts. The implication is that God was angry at the man for having touched the ark with his bare hands, something that was taboo. I don’t think that Uzzah’s death was fair. And King David didn’t think that it was fair. The Bible tells us that David was angry at God for killing Uzzah, and consequently, ruining his great procession. But David is not just angry, he is also fearful. So the procession of the ark stops for three months to see if God is going to kill anyone else. When David is finally satisfied that it is safe, the procession proceeds.
But there is yet another problem at the conclusion of the procession, a serious marital dispute. We are told that King David dressed in a linen ephod, a sort of loincloth, and danced ecstatically with all his might before God, and before a crowd of many thousands. His wife, Michal, objected. Given what we heard in today’s highly edited account, we can’t quite figure out why Michal objected so strenuously to David’s dance, why she “despised him in her heart.” The answer comes in the second deleted paragraph. There the Bible explains that King David danced in a scanty loincloth, with no underwear, and had exposed himself to the crowd. Not surprisingly, his wife, who was the daughter of a king, was scandalized. King David’s response to her criticism was to vow never again to sleep with his wife and to condemn her to a life of childlessness. When we know the whole story, King David comes across as both vulgar and vengeful. And even God himself is portrayed as somewhat capricious. All in all, it’s a disturbing and uninspiring story.
Now for the Gospel reading, the Good News that contains no Good News! We all know the story of the demise of John the Baptist, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera. The prophet John the Baptist condemns Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he married his brother’s ex-wife. It doesn’t sound like a great sin to us today, but it was strictly forbidden by Jewish Law. Herod seems a bit ambivalent about John at the start. He is annoyed by John’s public condemnation of his marriage, and he arrests John to shut him up. Even so, he seems to respect John’s holiness, for he is unwilling to go so far as to execute him. On the other hand, Herod’s wife Herodias just wants John dead, no ifs, ands, or buts! Then, we get the account of the royal birthday party. And what a strange party it turns out to be! The dancing girl for the event is none other than Herod’s step-daughter. (St. Mark seems to think her name is Herodias, like her mother, but other historical documents give her name as Salome.) What is so strange and scandalous about the birthday entertainment is that a royal princess is performing an erotic dance for Herod’s guests, something that would ordinarily have been the duty of a hired dancer or a talented slave. Instead of being shocked and outraged at her behavior, Herod is pleased, so pleased that he foolishly promises to grant her whatever she asks, up to half his kingdom. One can only assume that Herod was drunk out of his mind. With a little coaching from her mother, Herod’s step-daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist. Having made a solemn vow in the presence of witnesses, Herod feels obliged to comply, and John is beheaded. And so we see that this account from the Good News according to St. Mark is, in fact, bad news from beginning to end!
Fortunately for us here today, there is some Good News in today’s readings from the lectionary, and that Good News comes from the Letter to the Ephesians. This letter is classified by biblical scholars as one of the “disputed letters” of St. Paul. The dispute in question is whether Paul wrote it himself or one of his disciples wrote it in his name. In any case, the theology is undoubtedly that of Paul. The English text before us today is presented as a series of several discrete sentences and is almost intelligible. This is deceptive. In the original Greek, the entire paragraph is one monstrously long run-on sentence and requires quite a bit of unpacking.
The main point of the paragraph is to provide a comprehensive affirmation of God’s grace. In particular, it deals with what theologians call “prevenient grace,” that is to say, the grace that God offers us without our asking for it and without our deserving it. The author of this letter, whether St. Paul or his disciple, reassures us that we are blessed in Christ and that we were chosen for that blessing before the foundation of the world. Here we are getting into the vexed question of predestination. And frankly I don’t want to go there today! It is enough for us to know that our status as disciples of Christ is more a gift from God than it is the result of any decision of our own, free will notwithstanding. As disciples of Christ, we receive grace upon grace. In Christ, we have been redeemed from slavery to sin and death. In Christ, we are made adopted sons and daughters of God. In Christ, we are destined for eternal life in God’ presence. (And not just us! For in the fullness of time, God will gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.) And all that is really expected of us in return for all this grace is that we reciprocate God’s love. Now that’s some pretty unforgettable Good News!
But being only human, we forget it anyway, especially when the burdens of life are weighing us down. Perhaps we have money problems or issues with our health or difficulties with family members. Or perhaps we are stressed out over the future of this parish. In the midst of such worries and anxieties, we can, and do, fail to look at the “big picture.” The Letter to the Ephesians is a salutary reminder of just how big the “big picture” really is. When all is said and done, this parish is not about concerts, and bazaars, and book sales (although these all serve their purpose), nor is it even about increasing membership and balancing the budget (although I would like to see both happen); instead, the point of this parish is to come together to offer thanks to God for all that he has done for us and to seek the strength to live in accordance with God’s will. And you know, we have so much to be thankful for! Each one of his here today has been chosen by God himself from before the foundation of the universe to be his beloved child and to experience eternal life in Christ. Keep that in mind the next time life is getting you down!
As a token of our gratitude, we come to church each Sunday and offer a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Each Sunday, we approach the Holy Table and take Christ our God into our very own hands. And yet, unlike Uzzah, we are not struck down for our temerity. Why not? How is it that we are more worthy than Uzzah to touch the Divine? The answer is quite simple: because we have been made worthy through Christ. So, today, when you come forward for Holy Communion, receive the Body and Blood of Christ in joy and in gratitude that, despite our many faults, we are God’s beloved children and are destined for great things.
© 2015 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.