Mark 6: 14-29 Albuquerque, New Mexico
A Most Disturbing Dance:
A Sermon Preached by Pastor Susan Allison-Hatch
I find myself recoiling at this gospel we just heard. I find myself wondering, “What is this story doing here—here in this gospel and here in this place? Why is this the gospel assigned for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost? Of all the many stories of Jesus we could tell—why this story, a story not of Jesus nor really of John the Baptist either but rather the story of a party given for himself by a small-time leader of an insignificant province on the distant outskirts of the Roman empire, the story of his vindictive wife, and driving the action in the story, a young girl (that small-time leader’s very own step-daughter). Jesus doesn’t even appear in the gospel we hear today—except by reference in the very first sentence. What gives? What is this story doing here? And what has it to say to us?
King Herod throws himself a party—a birthday party, a fancy banquet—a banquet worthy of a king. All the worthies were invited: court officials and civic leaders, big wigs and wannabes, folks with ties to power, folks who profit off the backs of others. Reclining on couches carefully placed around the room, the guests gorge themselves on food fit for a king. They eat, they drink, they talk, they laugh. Eagerly they await the evening’s entertainment.
A young girl enters the room. I wonder, “Was there a gasp that reverberated through the room when the men reclining on those couches realized that the young girl about to start her dance was kin to the king?
The music starts, the young girl begins to dance. What a beguiling dance it was. I can imagine that when the music stopped, when the young girl stood before the king, the room fell silent. “What can I give you?” the king asks the girl.
The scene shifts to a chamber not far from the banquet hall. The young girl’s mother, the king’s new wife, stands waiting. “What shall I ask for?” the young girl asks her mother. The answer comes quickly. No hesitation there. That mother knows just what she wants. “The head of John the Baptist.”
That young girl, that prepubescent child rushes back into the banquet hall with her answer to the king:
“the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
What troubles me most about this story is not the prophet’s head on a platter—gruesome as that image is –nor those court officials and civic leaders standing silently by. What troubles me most in this story is that young girl dancing. For she was just a girl. That’s how Mark refers to her. Young girl. The very words he used to talk about Jairus’s daughter. The child Jesus raised from death.
I hear the words, “Herodias’s own daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those reclining at table together,” and I recoil.
That fox Herod. He knew what he was doing and so did his wife Herodius.
Do you hear the undertones of abuse and exploitation? A young girl—a child—manipulated into carrying out the machinations of her parents.
Can this be gospel truth? Where is the good news in all of this?
I think we have to look beyond this short story to find good news, to find the gospel truth.
I think we have to listen for the echoes and inversions in this story—echoes of other parents and their children, echoes of other feasts, inversions of other kingdoms.
I hear this story of a young girl and I remember other stories with children at the center: a young demon-plagued boy whose father pleads first with the disciples and later with Jesus to cure his son; a Syro-Phonecian woman—an outsider—begging Jesus to heal her daughter. Parents seeking for their children what you and I would seek for the children in our lives.
I hear this story of Herod’s birthday banquet and I hear echoes of another banquet.
A banquet hosted by a very different host. A different kind of feast. In a different place. A deserted place or so Jesus and his disciples thought. A very different place and a very different crowd. People hurrying to get there even before Jesus and his disciples arrive; people from nearby cities and towns, and I suspect, people on the road as well—people who had no place to call home. Mothers and fathers seeking healing for their children; others themselves hoping to be healed—the blind, the deaf, the demon-possessed. Some walking on their own power; others carried on pallets. There were children at that feast. Lots of them. Some with family; some alone. Thousands of people crowding around Jesus. All welcome at that banquet. All fed. All eating their fill. And all then filled with hope.
Some days I think I’m living in Herod’s world—a world where the powerful and privileged put their need for more, their fear, their greed before the needs of their own children.
Some days I worry that I might be a bystander at that banquet. Horrified by what I see, yet immobilized by my own despair.
And then I remember that Herod’s birthday banquet is not the end of the story. I remember the many children drawn into the center of Jesus’ s world. I remember the healings, the feasts, the promise Jesus offers that the kingdom of God has drawn near. I remember the Cross. And I remember the empty tomb.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus says to Peter and his brother Andrew, “Come along with me.” “Follow me”; “Come and see”—invitations Jesus proffers time and again throughout the gospels.
You and I invited to open our eyes and see the reign of God at work in our very broken world.
You and I invited to join in the work. Some days that’s hard to do. Some days that’s hard even to imagine. And yet….
I’m reminded of the words of the spiritual:
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vein;
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
Some days you just have to trust in the power of that Holy Spirit.