“The Risk of Engagement”
2 Sam. 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Mark 6:14-29
During the grilling of Peter Strzok this past week in the judicial hearing in congress, I was reminded of the 1994 movie, Clear and Present Danger, starring Harrison Ford. There was a scene in which Ford’s character, Jack Ryan, a CIA agent assigned by the president to go up against a bunch of Colombian drug lords, confronted the president. It turns out that the president had set up a covert military operation behind Ryan’s back. Ryan ended up in the oval office confronting the president over his part in the scandal. The president denied the accusation at first, but Ryan said he would take it to the Senate Oversight Committee. At first the president panicked; then he grinned and said, “You’re not going to do that, Jack. You’ve got yourself a chip in the big game now. You’re going to save it for a time when your own life is on the line. Then you’re going to pull it out and I’m going to cash it in for you.” Jack replied, “I am?” The president goes on: “The country can’t afford another deception that goes all the way to the top. You’ll take the blame, and you’ll be punished, but it won’t amount to much. A slap on the wrist. You know, Jack, the old Potomac two-step.” Ryan replied, “I’m sorry, Mr. President. I don’t dance.”
We need more Jack Ryans in the world; and we need more Peter Strzoks. Mr. Strzok’s opening remarks at the hearing were his “I don’t dance” statement. He said, I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity. I have the utmost respect for Congress’s oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart. As someone who loves this country and cherishes its ideals, it is profoundly painful to watch and even worse to play a part in.
The refusal to dance “the old Potomac two-step” makes for an interesting contrast with all the dancing in this morning’s scriptures. David danced in front of the Ark of the Covenant as an act of joyful exuberance. He was excited that, through the Ark, God would now be present in Jerusalem, and that blessing would follow for the Kingdom of Israel. But David’s dance wasn’t without controversy. Michal, the daughter of the late King Saul, told David she despised him for dancing in front of his servant’s maids. David replied, “I will make myself yet more contemptible than this; but by the maids of whom you have spoken I shall be held in honor.” David was going to change the policies of King Saul. So to Saul’s cronies, David’s dance would be contemptible. But his literal dance would be seen as honorable to the servant class. It was a dance to bring justice to them. So David danced, but not to Michal’s tune.
In the Gospel, Herod’s daughter danced in front of her father and his guests. Hers was an act of scheming seduction, and the result was that Herod, caring too much about his reputation in front of his cronies, called for the beheading of John the Baptist, even against his own convictions. Herod had enough of a moral compass to suspect that there would be consequences to his duplicity; so when heard about Jesus’ ministry, he imagined that, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised”. How many of our leaders are like Herod, knowing that the prophets are right, but are unwilling to face up to their truth because it is not convenient truth in the moment?
Maybe the reason Herod knew that his duplicity would have consequences because he’d heard the Psalmist ask, “Who may join the joyful procession into the holy city?” The Psalm answers its own question: “Those who are pure in heart and hand”. The Psalm refers to those who conduct themselves in ways that respect neighbor, enhance community, and do not distort social relations for private benefit. David and John the Baptist would join the dance to enter the holy city. But Herod wouldn’t; and he seemed to know it.
Of course, John wasn’t the only prophet who lost his life challenging the rule of law of the powers that be. In fact, the death of prophets is more the rule than the exception. Mark wrote his Gospel at the time of the fall of the temple in Jerusalem- a time of persecution for the followers of Jesus. Mark wants to show them that their ministry as followers of Jesus is in the tradition of the prophets. The prophetic voice of John the Baptist is the key to understanding the consequences often suffered by people who fight for justice by denouncing the arbitrariness, and abuses of power against the most vulnerable and innocent population in society. Throughout history, including today, the powerful have tried to silence critical and necessary voices of the people. Prophetic voices are always at the forefront of the struggle for justice and the dignity of each human being in the Kingdom of God. The prophetic voice proclaims God’s message of love despite threats to their existence.
Jesus’ message invites us to practically and consciously get involved in the needs around us, because Jesus wants to transform communities. We aren’t to keep his message a secret, but to bring it to light and respond with action to events that happen around us. That’s why the Episcopal Church is a Sanctuary church, and why it practices sacred resistance. It’s the prophetic mission we commit to in our baptismal covenant when we say that with the help of God we will fight for justice and peace among all peoples, and we will respect the dignity of every human being. We constantly see human beings despised and deprived of their rights and freedoms. Christians and every human being must raise their voices with the central gospel message of indiscriminate love that welcomes every person with tenderness and mercy.
I want to share a Facebook post from a friend of mine who recently did this in the midst of his daily life, because it shows how opportunities to bear prophetic witness arise in unexpected moments. He wrote: A bartender at a local Irish themed golf course pub where I enjoy eating became loud and animated as he bragged to a group of golfers how he handled a transgender person at a bar he used to work in. The third round of his slander caused me to get up and go to the bar and tell him that his words were offensive. He told me to go back and sit down and eat. I said I would take care of myself. The manager came out to patch up any bad feelings, only you can’t patch up offensive. He said the bartender would come to apologize. His apology: “Awe shucks it was just a bunch of guys talking at the end of the day.” Indeed, I said and, it was offensive and you’re an employee and you should be held accountable. Those are the prophetic moments where we can make little differences that add up. We might be ignored, patronized, bullied or worse. But a seed gets planted; and we know what happens to Gospel seeds.
But we also have to look at what it doesn’t look like to speak prophetic truth. In the midst of the government’s practice of separating families at the border, many of us have remembered that, like many Central American families today, Jesus’ family fled to Egypt shortly after he was born to escape a massacre ordered by a tyrannical king. The family lived in Egypt until the death of that king. For many Christians, the fact that the founder of their faith was a refugee means that they are called to welcome and serve migrants and refugees today.
But according to Paula White, spiritual adviser to President Trump, that’s not the right way to interpret this Biblical story. Asked to reflect on the Bible verses that came to mind during her visit to a foster care facility, White claimed that although Jesus was a refugee, he didn’t cross borders illegally. “Yes, he lived in Egypt for 3 ½ years. But it was not illegal. If he had broken the law, then he would have been sinful and he would not have been our Messiah.” To ignore that Jesus broke laws throughout his entire ministry is the exact opposite of a prophetic voice.
So let’s reflect this week on how we can represent Jesus and be a prophetic voice in the everyday circumstances of our lives even when we don’t feel worthy of that responsibility. The Gospel witness is often manifested in small details, from the smile to make someone happy, in the welcome with tenderness and mercy to those who are under our care, in the tender and compassionate embrace to all who need it, as well as energetically raising our voices of protest against unjust and unworthy treatment of any human being. Jesus is with us as we follow his example of a life dedicated to elevate the dignity of every human being, to show us the way of truth in him, and to continue his divine work through our lives with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.