“Lord of the Dance”- July 15, 2012 Sermon

July 15, 2012

Scripture: Mark 6: 14-29 

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Sermon: Lord of the Dance

By: Rev. Doreen Oughton
This is quite a story, isn’t it? It’s a real departure for the gospel writer Mark, who is usually so stingy with details. He tends to write tersely, succinctly. So if he is adding details to a story, there is probably a good reason for it. The placement of the story seems somewhat disconnected. It comes immediately after last week’s passage about Jesus sending out the twelve to heal, preach and cast out demons. These are the things that Herod “heard of” in the opening line of today’s passage. Immediately after this passage, Mark tells of the apostle’s return from their travels, and of Jesus taking them away for some R&R. Their plans are waylaid, though, when crowds follow, and Jesus goes with it, preach to the masses. This leads to the story of the multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed 5000. Some say that Mark tells this story to warn his readers that living out your call to serve God is dangerous, hence its placement after the disciples embark on their mission. Some say that this story is given to contrast the ugliness and destruction of a banquet given by the worldly powers, with the beauty and communion of a banquet given by divine leaders, a feast of loaves and fishes, hence its placement before the feeding of the 5000.
I find myself captivated by the people in the story – John, Herod, Herodius, and the girl – the dancer. There is a 1st century historian named Josephus who writes about Herodius’ daughter named is Salome, so lets call her that, shall we. I’d like to do a little character study today, imagining some of the complexities of each person in the context of data given. Remember that the bible is not an historical account, but history affirms that all of these people lived at this time, and affirms the facts about Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife. Perhaps things did not happen just the way Mark tells it, but perhaps it will be fruitful to imagine these people based on what we know about human nature, based on what we know about ourselves.
Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who, according to Matthew, sent the wise men to find the newborn “King of the Jews,” some 33 years before. Herod the Great has been dead for many years, and Herod Antipas is ruler of Galilee. He is married to the daughter of an Arabian king of a neighboring country. His half-brother Philip rules over Judea, and is married to Herodias. A few sources I checked said that Herodias is not only the wife of Philip, half-brother to Antipas, but daughter of another half-brother to both. A different source said she is from a high-status family of Maccabee, a neighbor nation to Judah. What happened to Herod and Herodias that they would divorce their respective spouses to marry each other? Was it love at first sight, lust? Did Herod go after her with determination? Had he known her, perhaps loved her even before she married Philip? Was he jealous or otherwise angry at his brother, and determined to take something from him? Or is that giving him too much credit? Was he, perhaps, just impulsive and reckless, not thinking through the likely consequences of his actions?
I love how the passage talks about the relationship between Herod and John during John’s incarceration. It says Herod feared him, protected him, was puzzled by him, and enjoyed listening to him. Feared him. Hmm. Interesting. I can’t help but think of Herod as an insecure man, generally fearful and anxious, looking for certainty but always doubting. Impulsive sounds right to me also. Impulsive and regretful. He was nominally Jewish, but that was more to try to gain sway over his subjects than any real conviction. He was appointed to his position by Roman rulers, and was much more interested in pleasing them. Perhaps he was afraid of John’s power to persuade the people to a purity of religious practice and focus that would weaken their allegiance and cooperation with Rome. Perhaps he was afraid of the God John preached about so powerfully. Perhaps he was afraid of the part of himself that responded to John’s steadfast pronouncements about doing what was right in God’s eyes. Perhaps he persuaded himself that he was doing the right thing by keeping John locked up, safe from being arrested instead by the Romans. He had conversations with John. I imagine he had him brought over from the prison occasionally. How did that start, I wonder? It’s easy to imagine why it continued. John was a puzzle for sure. It wasn’t just his camel coat and his diet of locusts, it was his passion, his focus, his perseverance in his call, no matter what else was going on. How could someone be so unaffected by fear and insecurity? How could someone not try to curry favor, not try to save one’s own neck? I imagine Herod had never encountered anything like it. Even if the message was scary, how could Herod not be impressed?
And what of Herodias? Why had she left Philip for Herod? Judah was a larger area than Galilee, and had a higher status, so it wasn’t likely about social climbing. She fell a notch when she left Philip for Herod. Was it love, was she caught up in the excitement of being wooed so strongly? Had Philip been unkind to her? Had he humiliated her in some way? Had he been uninterested or neglectful of their daughter, Herodias’ only child? Had it just been one way she could assert some power in a society where women had little to none? Whatever had been the catalyst, it was done. She was married to Herod, had left Philip and brought her child to the backwater of Galilee. Maybe she wasn’t thrilled with how it turned out, but what could she do about it now? She would never be able to go back to Philip. The scandal of what she’d done ruined any chance of landing a different husband, so she’d better make this one work. The last thing she needed was this zealot John trash-talking her and her marriage, saying it was unclean, incestuous even. She thought the matter was done when Herod finally had him locked up. But her husband kept having meetings with the nut, and she knew how weak and impulsive he could be. What if John got Herod to divorce her? What a disaster that would be, for her daughter and for herself. Her daughter meant everything to her. Herodias would do whatever it took to protect her future.
And what of Salome? How old was she when she and her mother moved in with Herod? Was he the only father she’d known, or had she also known him as uncle? Did she miss life with Philip in Judea? What did dancing mean to her? Had her mother trained her, thinking it would make her more appealing to men of power and consequence? Had she taken to it like a duck to water? Did she revel in joy when she spun and whirled and moved to the music? Was it the thing that lifted her spirits when she was worried or sad? She must have been very good to be asked to dance for the party guests. I wonder how she felt about that – a girl dancing for a room full of men eating and drinking, maybe drinking a little too much. Had she done this before? Whose idea was it anyway? Probably her mother’s. Her mother was always trying to find ways to get her in with the big wigs. How intimidating it must have been. But she dazzled them. So I imagine she gave herself over to the dance, let the music take her, let her self get caught up in the joy of spinning and whirling and moving to the music, no longer aware of her surroundings, perhaps surprised and giddy when the music stopped and the applause and shouts came at her; giddy to see the look of pride and delight on the face of her step-father, and in the background, of her mother. She did good.
Herod was giddy too. Didn’t he do good, providing such wonderful entertainment? Impulsive, reckless, eager to keep his guests surprised and amazed, he makes the most magnanimous offer to the girl – anything she wants, up to half his kingdom. She has no idea what to do with this, and so she goes to consult with her mother, the one who has always been guiding her, looking out for her best interests. Her mother would know what she should ask for.
What of Herodias here? Had she hoped this very thing would happen? Was it, as the scripture implies, just the opportunity she had waited for to have her nemesis killed? Was this the best way she could think of to provide for her daughter and herself, minimizing the risk that Herod would divorce her? Or was she also impulsive? Had she just had to listen to Herod that very afternoon going on and on about what John had said about their marriage? Was she just fed up to here with Herod throwing the words of that crazy Jew in her face, and this would show them, this would show them both? Impulse or plan, she tells Salome what to ask for – the head of John the Baptist.
What happens to a girl who is asked to do that? What machinations of the mind kick in – the head, he’s going to hand me a head? How will I carry it? Will it be wrapped up? What if it’s not? And so she asks for it to be put on a platter,and when she gets it, she passes it to her mother. What happens to a girl who has been jerked from the joy of a dance, the giddiness of a wonderful performance, to the violence of a gory murder? What happens to her love of dance, to her trust in her mother? What happens to a man whose insecurity, whose weakness, whose impulsiveness leads him to execute a man he feared and admired? What happens to a woman who believes the well-being of herself and her daughter depend on a righteous man’s death?
We know a little bit about what happened to Herod. His fear does not dissipate, his insecurity does not abate, his need to curry favor continues. Perhaps he is less impulsive, for when Jesus is brought to him by the religious leaders on charges of blasphemy, he wants no part of it and sends him up the chain of power to Pontius Pilate. We don’t know what happens to Herodias. There’s no evidence that there was a divorce, so perhaps she was satisfied with how things turned out. We don’t know what happens to Salome.
But in one of my favorite reflections on this passage, the Rev Cindy Worthington-Berry imagines the aftermath for Salome. She is devastated that a man died because of her dancing. How can she ever dance again – it has been tainted, poisoned, by the impulsive recklessness of her step-father and the manipulations of her mother. She keeps a low profile, staying in the shadows of the royal court. When she hears Herod moaning with fear that John has come back from the dead, her heart lifts. If its true that he lives, that he still preaches and heals and casts out evil, then she can no longer be blamed for his death. Perhaps she could feel joy again, perhaps she can lose herself in the music and dance once more.
She sneaks out to find the crowds following the re-born John the Baptist. But as she gets closer she sees that it is not the same man. This is not the face that was handed to her in that sickening moment. And her heart fell. John died, and John did not come back. But she listens to his preaching and she is captivated. She hears him tell his followers to feed the crowd and she is ready to laugh out loud. Feed this crowd! There are thousands of people here. What bounty could they have to provide such rations?! She edges closer and watches them produce a few loaves of bread and a few fish. She moves back, knowing she doesn’t need to be fed. She figures the people up front would finish off these meager supplies, and that would be that. But soon enough baskets full of bread and fish make their way to her and past her, and they keep going. They were so full when they came to her, she let herself have some. She smiled as she passed it to her neighbor to take some. She was so moved, felt such love, such communion with these people. Her heart lifted again, and stayed lifted, and she found herself skipping, on the verge of dancing, back to the palace. As she approached, her steps became heavier. She was struck by the difference between the palace and the hillside; between the words of fear and manipulation and insecurity versus words of truth and light and integrity; between a banquet that leads to death, and a picnic that leads to joyful life.
She had a decision to make. She knew her mother wouldn’t like it. She knew she’d be going against everything she’d been taught about how to survive and succeed in the world. She knew what she would be giving up. And she had no idea of what awaited her on the hillside, what would happen to her, to this preacher Jesus, to all his followers, if she joined them. But she knew in the deepest part of her that she would be able to dance again, that she would dance with God and for God, for hope, for truth, for life, for beauty. And so she danced. Wouldn’t you?