The Dance of Power

First United Presbyterian Church
“Dancing With Power”
Rev. Amy Morgan
July 15, 2018

2 Samuel 6:1-5; 12b-19
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.
 2 David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.
 3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart
 4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark.
 5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
 David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing;
 13 and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.
 14 David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.
 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
 16 As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.
 17 They brought in the ark of the LORD, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD.
 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts,
 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

Mark 6:14-29
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him."
 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old."
 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
 17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her.
 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not,
 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.
 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it."
 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom."
 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer."
 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.
 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison,
 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

I had hoped to preach this week about the dangers of dancing. We have these great texts – David being held in contempt by Michal for dancing half-naked with wild abandon; Herodias’ dance resulting in the gruesome death of John the Baptist. There’s so many connections and parallels and directions to go here. I’m sure the Bible study group covered all of it and can’t wait to hear which strain of their conversation I pick up.

I was looking forward to some illuminating illustrations from some of my favorite movies like Footloose and Dirty Dancing. Kevin Bacon defending the teenagers’ right to dance comes right from this story in 2 Samuel.

But another theme emerged for me in these texts as I thought and prayed out them this week. A theme that doesn’t have anything to do with dancing, unfortunately. A theme that is not as much fun but infinitely more urgent. This theme is inescapable as we read these texts closely, and the implications for our lives and faith are enormous.

This theme shows up just before the beginning of each of our readings today.

In David’s story, the new king of Israel has been struggling to solidify his legitimacy as God’s chosen ruler. Saul did not give up the monarchy willingly or graciously, and seeds of discord continue to surface from parties loyal to the old king. The nations of Israel and Judah, which had been separate for many years, had united under David’s rule, but the union is still tenuous, and neighboring nations, including those pesky Philistines, are looking to take advantage of any weaknesses in this transitional moment for Israel.

So David is looking for a way to firmly establish his power.

In the Israelite imagination, there is nothing more powerful than God. God, who with a mighty hand brought the Israelites up out of Egypt and crushed the power of Pharaoh. God, who has the power to give the Israelites victory over their enemies. God, whose power and presence reside no place more tangibly than in the ark of the covenant.

And then David goes, “hey, wait a minute! Where’d that ark of the covenant thing go? I haven’t seen it around in a while.”

Turns out, after the ark was returned from the Philistines, it wound up in storage in the hill country about 10 miles southwest of Jerusalem. David gets the genius idea to bring the ark to Jerusalem, the new capital city he’s established for his reign.

During the move, they run into what most people might consider to be a problem. Uzzah, one of the ark’s handlers, reaches out and grabs the ark, actually touches it with his skin, because the thing is tipping over and he wants to keep it from falling. But because he touched the ark of the covenant, God strikes him dead on the spot.

Now, I say most people would consider this to be a problem, because for David, this just serves to illustrate to all of Israel how powerful the ark, and the God it represents, actually is. All the same, David decides to put the ark on ice for another few months. He stashes it with a Gittite named Obed-edom, and this guy is blessed beyond measure while the ark is in his house. Again, the power of God, and of the ark, is demonstrated.

So then David feels like his plan to bring the ark into Jerusalem is an even better idea. They bring up the ark with great fanfare and celebration, wild dancing, food for everyone. The ark is lifegiving. Their God is powerful.

And God does bless David with power. God reminds David, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you.” Then God promises David, “I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

Fast-forward through hundreds of years of power lost and gained, overthrown and abused by the rulers of Israel. In first-century Galilee, there sits a king who is no king. He oversees only a quarter of a region, a backwater province. He’d asked the Emperor to let him bear the title of king, as his father had. The Emperor said, “no.” Mark’s use of the title king in this text serves to mock the powerless wanna-be ruler, the lion with no teeth.

But the theme of power begins before Herod Antipas walks onto the stage. Jesus, a descendent of that powerful King David, has been traveling around the region, healing and performing miracles. And now, his disciples have been sent out, and they are able to share in this power, healing people and casting out demons.

And then Herod and his society friends get wind of this powerful force and attempt to determine its source.

And it’s funny, really, that they all start talking about resurrection. A resurrected Elijah, or another prophet of old come back to life. Or, a more contemporary and disturbing possibility for Herod, a resurrected John the Baptist, somehow re-united with his head.
In the imaginations of these more or less secular, Hellenist Jews, power is tied to resurrection. They have no idea how right they are.

In the flashback that follows this speculative conversation, Herod, the non-king, is powerless before the righteous condemnation of John. John has no earthly power, he doesn’t even have proper clothes, and he eats bugs. By what authority does he judge Herod for snatching his brother’s wife? And yet, Herod doesn’t kill him. Just puts him in prison. Quiets his public voice. But John holds a strange power over Herod, and he likes to listen to him.

But Herod is also powerless before the sensuous entertainment of his new wife’s daughter. He promises her anything, everything, even half of his quarter of a kingdom. It’s almost laughable how pathetic an offer it is. A man with no power trying to give his power away for a song and dance.

And when she demands, at her mother’s insistence, the head of John the Baptist on a plate, Herod is powerless before the social and political pressures of his birthday party guests. He murders an innocent man, a man he rather likes having around, a man who has desperately tried to show him the way back to God and offer him the grace and peace of God. He murders this man in an instant because he can’t stand up to his own friends to admit he thinks this is wrong.

And so, Herod is powerless, haunted. He’s looking over his shoulder. And when he encounters the power of Jesus, his guilt convicts him and he immediately assumes this power must be the power of resurrection, the power John the Baptist held over him, in life and in death.

That is the kind of power that haunts Carolyn Bryant. At 84 years old, she lives in an undisclosed location. And she refuses to visit the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi.

When Carolyn Bryant was 21 years old, she and her husband, Roy, owned a store in Money, MS. One Sunday morning, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi walked into the store. The boy was black, and not entirely familiar with the strict segregation laws of the South.

Bryant would later testify that the boy sexually harassed and intimidated her. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and her brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped the boy, tortured and mutilated him, killed him, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. Both men were acquitted by an all-white jury after 67 minutes of deliberation. Both men later publicly and proudly admitted to the killing.

The boy’s name was Emmett Till, and his death sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
Carolyn Bryant recanted her testimony in 2007, admitting that most of her story was untrue. Her sister-in-law believed Carolyn made up the story to persuade her husband to take over the tending of the storefront.

Emmett Till’s murder became a powerful force in the Civil Rights Movement, inspiring Rosa Parks to keep her seat on a bus five months after his death. Carolyn and Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam, had all the power their skin color could afford them in 1955. But they were powerless before their own desires. They were powerless before the pressure of their white peers, grasping to hold on to their privilege.

And in the end, the power of the Civil Rights Movement overwhelmed them. The Milams were run out of town, moving from state to state to escape their disgrace. The Bryants divorced, and Roy’s headstone is graffitied with the words “Killed Emmett Till” and “Race Murder.”

No, Carolyn Bryant cannot visit the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. Because the power of resurrection is in that place.

Scholars are quick to point out how the death of John the Baptist, the gruesome killing of an innocent man, foreshadows the death of Jesus. What they often fail to mention, however, is the power of that death to redeem the powerless. The death of Jesus -  spurred on by powerless masses seeking a scapegoat, enabled by the powerless Herod, carried out by a powerless politician washing his hands of his blood – redeems them all.

We hate to hear this. This is the good news that sounds an awful lot like bad news. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. Isn’t that what religion is for? Making sure that when someone does something bad, they pay for it?

Some days I wish it were so. I wish the story of Herod was about how his life becomes a living hell because of what he did to John the Baptist.

But then I remember that a gospel that only redeems the good is a powerless gospel. Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

Sinners like Herod. Sinners like Carolyn and Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Sinners like you and me.

The gospel is that moment when the most horrendous, gruesome crime, the most horrid, unthinkable tragedy, is transformed by the power of resurrection. The gospel is when life comes out of death, in every possible sense – literal, figurative, imaginative. The gospel is that death that convicts us all, and that resurrection that transforms us all.

We don’t need to reach back into history to find powerless people wreaking havoc, injuring or murdering the innocent, abusing their privileges. We have our own villains, our Scott Pruitts and Harvey Weinstiens, the government of Myanmar and Bashar al-Assad. Our deeply troubled and broken world is bursting with powerless Herods who bully and silence, who shoot up schools and make heads roll in corporate boardrooms.

But the head of John the Baptist is held out in front of us all. His call to repentance, to turn back to the way of God, has been silenced by each of us from time to time. We have all found ourselves to be powerless before our own desires, powerless before the pressures of achievement, accumulation, and appearance, powerless before our own privilege. Instead of dancing ecstatically before the power of God, we have succumbed to the alluring dance of power.

That is why the gospel transforms all of us. Because it redeems all of us. It offers grace and forgiveness to all of us. Not just to the good ones, and not just to us when we are good, but to all of us, all of the time.

And that is true power. A power greater than David, greater than Herod, greater than Rome. A power greater than sin. A power greater than death.

And that power never stops dancing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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