Sunday, July 12, 2009

Divided Loyalties

Here's this morning's homily, which required a hefty amount of historical exposition. Gary said that he couldn't make any sense of the readings until he read the homily, which means, I hope, that it works.

None of our other preachers relished the task of tackling the beheading of John the Baptist, but hey, I always love a challenge. The Gospel turned out to be the easy part, actually; figuring out Michal, poor woman, took more digging.

Luckily, the Gospel also has all kinds of current political applicability (not the beheading part, I hope, but other bits!). Gary thinks I should have mentioned Nevada's Very Own Disgraced Republican Senator, but I decided to trust my audience to figure out the subtext.

The bewildering readings are 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Mark 6:14-29.


This morning’s lessons plunge us into very complicated ancient history. In the reading from 2 Samuel, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant in triumph to Jerusalem. It’s a joyful procession, with dancing and trumpets. There’s a sour note, though: “As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”

In case your memory’s a bit hazy on the subject -– mine was -– Saul is the previous king. He and David began as fast friends but ended as bitter enemies. Saul’s daughter Michal fell in love with David, and Saul gave her to David as a bride, supposedly as a reward for David’s success in battle, but actually as part of a complicated scheme to have him killed. In due course, Michal found herself at the center of this conflict. Saul tried to kill David directly. Forced to choose between her father and her husband, Michal helped David escape. David vanished for years, and married other women. Michal married again, too, but then David demanded her as his wife: not out of love, but as a symbol of his political victory. The Bible tells us that her second husband followed her, weeping, until he was ordered to return home.

This very quick summary actually over-simplifies the story. If the tale hasn’t yet been made into a miniseries, I’m sure HBO is working on it. I hope the bit of background I’ve given, though, explains why Michal despised David. He was the agent of her family’s downfall. He destroyed her marriage to someone she loved, and who loved her. When she rejoined him, she discovered that she held no special place in his heart, that he had only married her out of political considerations, and that she was only one of many wives.

I’d be angry, too. The worst of it is that she once really had loved him, which must have made the betrayals all the harder to bear. In the passage after the one we heard this morning, Michal mocks David, and is mocked by him in return. The text tells us that she had no children. We don’t know if this is because she was barren or because David neglected her in favor of his other wives. We do know that she must have led a lonely life.

Michal had very little choice or power in any of this. Her great act of heroism was her private, individual decision to save David’s life, but by the time of today’s passage, any gratitude he felt for her appears to have vanished. To the men around her, in a culture that sees women primarily as property, she is an object, a pawn. She is a stark reminder that God’s purposes always play out through, and among, messy human politics, and that even at the height of joyful celebration, there will always be someone who feels left out and embittered.

Who are the Michals in our midst? People horrified by election results that have overjoyed us? People destroyed by the economic and military strategies we support? People displaced when inner-city tenements are replaced with townhomes and good schools? What is our duty to these left-out neighbors? How can we make our victory a victory for them, too?

Meanwhile, today’s Gospel features another HBO-worthy story, and also requires a history lesson. Today’s King Herod is the son of the Herod who tried to have the infant Jesus killed. This Herod has married his brother’s widow, Herodias, who has a daughter also named Herodias but better known by the name Salome, which is what the Jewish historian Josephus called her.

John the Baptist, that inconvenient prophet, tells Herod that it isn’t right for him to marry his brother’s wife. Herodias the elder doesn’t like this, and wants Herod to kill John. Herod, somewhat kinder and gentler than his father, refuses. He’s afraid of John. He knows that John is “a righteous and holy man.” Furthermore, he likes listening to John, although he has a hard time following what the guy’s saying. Prophets can be like that. Just look at how much time we spend, all these years later, trying to figure out Jesus’ parables.

Herod, however, has one great weakness: an overfondness for dancing girls. He’s hardly the first or last man of power with this particular fault, but in this case, it spells disaster. At Herod’s birthday, his stepdaughter dances for him, and for his powerful guests. He is so delighted by her performance that he solemnly swears, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it . . . even half my kingdom.” Unfortunately for John, the young woman hasn’t been yearning for a pony, shiny jewelry, or world peace. Either she genuinely doesn’t want anything for herself or she’s a crafty child of the court; in any case, she asks her mother what to ask for, and Herod finds himself, to his distress, bound by oath to deliver the head of John on a platter.

Herod, like Michal, finds himself pulled by divided loyalties. On the one hand, he’s “deeply grieved” at the idea of John’s death. But he’s also made a promise in front of his guests, including the leaders of Galilee, and he can’t go back on his word in front of them. He’s backed himself into a corner, and it’s entirely his own fault. His step-daughter would have been as powerless as Michal, if he hadn’t granted her power with his solemn, but inappropriate, oath. This is a cautionary tale about the danger of writing blank checks.

And so, when another prophet shows up, casting out demons and performing miraculous cures, Herod is stricken with guilt, and assumes that his sins have come to haunt him. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Notice that, whatever his other faults, he takes responsibility for his actions. He doesn’t blame his wife or his step-daughter. He knows that John’s death was his doing.

Aside from the fact that it’s a great opera plot, what are we to make of this story? I take away three lessons. The first is that, as in the story of David and Michal, salvation history cannot be untangled from human passions and politics. God’s history is also ours, and it’s often both messy and melodramatic. Whenever we find ourselves shocked by some church scandal, despairing over schisms, or embroiled in unpleasant parish politics –- not, of course, that such a thing would ever happen at St. Stephen’s –- we need to remember David and Michal, John and Herod and Herodias. If they’re all part of God’s story, we are too, even at our least saintly.

The second lesson John’s beheading teaches us is the futility of trying to silence prophets. Throughout recorded history, prophets have been stoned, beheaded, crucified, burned, hung, shot, and otherwise assassinated. Whenever one prophet goes away, another –- usually louder than the first -– rises up. God’s Word is both powerful and stubborn. Killing the Johns and the Martin Luther King Jr’s of the world only makes their message more meaningful.

And the third, and perhaps most important, lesson is the danger of divided loyalties. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. He was talking about God and money, but the principle applies in many other situations. Michal couldn’t serve both her father and her husband, not while they hated each other. Herod couldn’t keep both a clean conscience and an unwise oath. We must be very careful what promises we make, and to whom.

Today’s Epistle reminds us that we are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. We received this seal at Baptism, when we, or our sponsors, swore solemn oaths to God. We promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice and peace. But we’ve also made other promises: to our families, our employers, in some cases to our country.

If our families, employers and country ever demand of us acts that conflict with our promises to God, what will we do? If we find ourselves in a position of divided loyalties, which promise will we keep? What would we do if feeding our family required us to steal another family’s food? What would we do if keeping our job required us to defraud others of their retirements? What would we do if our country asked us to kill or torture other people, people in whom we’ve also promised to seek and serve Christ?

In our messy, muddled world, such grim tensions may be inevitable. But we can try to make sure that none of our promises automatically conflict with one another, and we can refrain from making unwise oaths, from signing those risky blank checks. We can pray, as we pray every Sunday, to be delivered from temptation, by dancing girls or anything else. And we can remember always the One to whom we belong, and order our priorities accordingly.



  1. Thought-provoking, as always. Thanks for sharing these.

  2. Anonymous7:07 AM

    Dear Professor Palwick,
    Thank you so much for this sermon. I heard only a limp and pallid sermon on these readings that Sunday, so it was a delight to find a sermon that dug more deeply for meaning. I've been reading Samuel in the Daily Office Lectionary so Michal's sad life is recent in my memory. I hadn't realized to put together the implications the way you do in your sermon, thank you for that.

    My sister in Rochester just introduced me to your blog and I am grateful for and moved by your postings.

    A. (shy) Reader


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