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Pentecost 8 Proper 10 B RCL     July 15, 2018

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Our first reading is full of joy at the gifts of God. David has defeated the Philistines, something that King Saul was never able to do. God’s people are now united under one king. David is going to move the ark to Jerusalem, which he has just conquered. Jerusalem will now be the civil and religious capital of the new kingdom. David and an army of thirty thousand men are going to get the ark of God, which had led the people out of slavery in Egypt, had resided at the temple in Shiloh, and then had been placed at the home of Abinadab, a short distance from Jerusalem.

Scholars tell us that we have no way of knowing what the ark had looked like or exactly what was inside the ark. But for God’s people, it symbolized the presence and power of God. Clearly, it was large and heavy enough to require a cart. David and all the people dance with joy at this celebration of the presence of God.

David wears the ephod, a priestly garment. He makes a sacrifice to the Lord. The people place the ark inside the tent which David has made. All of this is a solemn liturgical action. David then blesses the people and distributes the food of the offering to all the people. All of this reminds us of the Eucharist and the feeding of the huge crowds by our Lord.

The rule of David, the shepherd-king, will be rooted and grounded in God, and this is something to be celebrated by all the people.

Our first reading reminds us that there is great joy in our faith in God, and our epistle builds upon that thought. The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written by a disciple of Paul, and it was a kind of newsletter addressed to the many Gentile congregations in Asia Minor.

This inspiring letter tells us that, before time began, God chose us to be God’s children. God has poured out grace upon us and has given us the gift of forgiveness and newness of life in Christ. We have been made part of the living body of Christ on the earth, and we are working with our Lord, in the power of the Spirit, to build his kingdom. These are gifts we have received from our loving and generous God, and we could spend the rest of our lives dancing with joy in gratitude for God’s many gifts to us.

Our first two readings are filled with joy, but our gospel for today seems full of darkness. Jesus and his disciples have been going around the countryside healing people and teaching about the love of God.  Jesus has just sent the disciples out to teach and preach and heal people. King Herod Antipas thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected.

It is a grisly story, and we actually have a flashback here.  Herod married his brother Philip’s wife, which was against the law. He was able to do such an awful thing because he was the ruler and no one would dare to try to stop him or even confront him.

Herod Antipas, like his father before him and descendants after him, had no respect for the law and used his power to do whatever he felt was necessary to preserve his position. Very few people would have the courage to challenge such a ruthless leader. But John the Baptist told him that what he had done was wrong. Herod had John thrown in prison, but there was something about John that drew Herod to him. Herod would talk with John from time to time. He respected John. Deep down, he knew John the Baptist was right.

We all know the story. Contrary to what Hollywood has told us, there is no Salome in this story. There is a Salome in some accounts of the resurrection, but that’s a different person.

Herodias comes in and dances. Herod is probably quite drunk, so his judgment is impaired, but he promises her anything she wants. She consults her mother, who hates John the Baptist for telling the truth, and the next scene in this horrific tragedy is the gruesome appearance of John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Herod does not feel good about this but he gave his word, and, probably more importantly, what would all these guests think if he goes back on his ill-advised promise? John’s disciples come and give him a decent burial.

If we look at the actual text, there is a pause of several lines. We come back to the present after that flashback to the death of John the Baptist.  We remember that Jesus has sent his disciples out to share God’s love forgiveness, and healing. The disciples return from their mission trip and tell Jesus about all the healings they have done and all the wonderful gifts God has given people. Then they are surrounded by a huge crowd of people hungry to hear Jesus’ message. Night is coming, and you know this story, too. More than five thousand people are fed, and there are plenty of leftovers.

Then and now, it is a dangerous thing to speak truth to power. John the Baptist and Jesus paid the ultimate price. Many others, following in their footsteps, have also paid that price. But make no mistake: God’s love, as shown forth on the Cross, is the most powerful force in the world. Love is stronger than hate. Love is stronger than fear. God’s kingdom is growing, and God is calling us to help to build it. Now, as always, the followers of Jesus have, as our baptismal covenant says, “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works,” just as David and the people of God had great joy in God’s presence so many years ago, just as Paul and his followers had deep joy in God’s grace as the followers of Jesus were building new communities of faith.

I close with a prayer which was given to me by my sister in Christ, Sara. It is by William Sloane Coffin. “May God give us grace never to sell ourselves short, grace to risk something big for something good, and grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.  Amen.”