Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, August 5, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 1 — Whistleblowers”

Texts:  2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:13a and Psalm 51:1-12  •   Ephesians 4:1-16  •   John 6:24-35

I want to start with a difficult question this morning.  Are you ready?

Who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?

I don’t know.  Maybe it’s not that difficult of a question, but I want to be sure you heard the question I was trying to ask.  I didn’t ask, “who tells you when you’re wrong?” or “who’s always telling you that you’re wrong?”  I asked, “who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?”

What I’m asking is, who do you trust enough that you allow them to offer you correction?  Who gets to tell you the things about yourself that you’d rather not hear?  That you’d rather not know.

Who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?

I think most of us keep that list pretty short, and for good reason.  It’s a hard world we live in, and it takes hard work to establish the kind of self-confidence that allows each of us to go about the business of being ourselves.  If we allowed just anyone’s assessments of our work, of our families, of our parenting, of our relationships to count… well, many of us would have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, right?

We have names for the layers of self-protection we establish to shield ourselves from other people’s assessments.  We tell children they need to toughen up, develop a thicker skin.  As adults we organize ourselves into hierarchies, so that we know which people’s opinions count and whose opinions can be disregarded. This is all part of the process of establishing the divide between the “personal” and the “public.”

If you were here last week, then you heard part one of the story from 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba.  David, who while a younger man the scriptures took great pains to describe as unfailingly faithful — even toward those who were not faithful to him, has lost his integrity as he has gained power.  Being a king has replaced being a shepherd, and the longer David plays this power-drenched public role, the further away he is pulled from the overlooked, ruddy-faced boy who tended to his father’s flocks.  His role disconnects him from his soul.

At the end of last week’s sermon I invited you to pay attention to the places in your life where you feel yourself pulled to perform your “public” identity.  Knowing that it’s hard to observe yourself in the present moment, I asked you to try to remember to slow yourself down, to check in with yourself, and to ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”  I asked you to notice what thoughts or feelings arose for you in response to that question of being yourself, and to consider writing those thoughts and feelings down.

Those inner responses to the question of what would happen if we were truly ourselves in any given situation are a kind of tally of the price of our integrity.  These inner responses speak to us simultaneously of the price we are willing to pay for our public personas and the price at which we will sell out our inner selves.

We see examples of this played out in public every day.  For the last nine months, the country has been served weekly updates in the child abuse scandal at Penn State University.  Like the story of David and Bathsheba, the story from Penn State features men of power, wealth and influence taking what they desired and doing whatever it took to cover up their misdeeds.  Like Uriah, the victims are men sent to the front lines of a terrible and violent battle. Like Bathsheba, the victims’ stories have been treated as the backdrop to the stories of the crimes of more famous, powerful men.

As we, the public, watch the drama unfold, it is the question of integrity that has troubled us the most.  We wonder, “how could a person do such a thing,” or “how could they have known this was happening and done nothing?”  It’s horrifying to us that any person with a conscience could have stood by and allowed a predator access to children.

I wonder about the messengers who procured Bathsheba for David.  Do you remember that detail from last week’s story?  David sees Bathsheba bathing from the rooftop of his palace and he makes inquires after her.  One of his courtiers responds, “is not this Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”  Then David sends messengers to bring Bathsheba to him, knowing she is a married woman, and knowing she cannot refuse her king.

But what were the messengers thinking?  I suppose they were divided between their roles as attendants to the king and their souls as people with their own consciences, their own convictions.  What answers might they have heard arising from their own hearts if they had bothered to ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”

David’s messengers remind me of the grad assistant in the Penn State scandal — the relatively unknown man, the one who wasn’t making hundreds of thousands of dollars, but was simply working with and around men of great power and influence — who saw a child being harmed, but rather than reporting it to the police, kept the matter internal; instinctively, perhaps even unconsciously, protecting the interests of the powerful over the weak.

What would happen if the messengers, if the grad assistants, if middle and upper management, acted on the mandate of their souls instead of the dictates of their roles?  What would have happened if they were truly themselves in these situations?  What price would they pay?

 

The world watched something of the like take place about ten years ago, when Time magazine named three women its Persons of the YearSherron Watkins was the Enron vice president who sounded the alarm on that company’s improper accounting methods.  Coleen Rowley was the FBI staff attorney who brought to light the agency’s failure to investigate credible information on one of the September 11th co-conspirators.  Cynthia Cooper called out corporate giant WorldComm on cooking the books to conceal $3.8 billion in losses.  Each were whistleblowers on the unethical and negligent behavior of their corporate and governmental superiors.  They were women who spoke truth to power at great risk to themselves and their careers.

In an era defined by abuses of power and cover ups, these women’s actions earned them the title, “Persons of the Year.”  In a world of spin, we are all hungry for someone to tell it like it is.  The question, however, remains: who gets to tell you when you’re wrong?

When the prophet Nathan comes to confront David, he is a trusted advisor.  It was Nathan who’d brought a word from the LORD to David, when David planned to build a “house” for the ark of the covenant.  It was Nathan who shared God’s vision for an everlasting house with David.  Nathan was able to speak truth to power because in his role as prophet and advisor, he never forgot that his soul rested in the LORD, the God of Israel.

Still, when Nathan comes to confront David about his rapacious, dishonorable and ignoble conduct with Bathsheba, and his violence against Uriah, he tells a parable.  He tells the story of a wealthy man and a poor man.  The wealthy man had many flocks, but the poor man had only one little lamb which he loved like it was his own daughter.  Nathan reaches into the king’s heart and touches his covered up soul, the soul of a shepherd who still, somewhere, remembered what it meant to care for a thing and to love it though it was powerless and completely dependent.  He touched the soul of the king as it had existed before it had been scarred by the objectifications of war and plunder, where people’s lives are treated as spoils for the conquerors.

David hears the story of the wealthy man’s greed and violence and pronounces his judgement, “as the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Just as an aside, I want to comment on a translation thing here that I found interesting and amusing.  It’s an odd judgement that David passes.  First he says that the man deserves to die, then he says that the actual punishment will be a fourfold repayment.  Giving the death sentence for the theft of a lamb seems like overkill, but reducing the sentence from death to a 300% return on the loss seems arbitrary?  What gives?

Apparently, what the NRSV has translated as “the man who has done this deserves to die,” is literally rendered something like “this man is the son of death.”  Some Hebrew scholars suggest that “son of death” is a pejorative, as when we call someone a “son of a gun” or worse.  In which case, David essentially swears against the man, passes judgement on his character, and suggests that a penalty be paid.

That’s when Nathan hits him between the eyes.  “You are the man!”  And from there he pronounces God’s judgement on David and names the penalty that will be paid.  Because David has cut down Uriah and stolen from his household, God proclaims that the sword will never depart from David’s house and that his own wives shall be taken from him.  What David has done in private will be done to him in public.

Finally David is able to recognize how far he has strayed.  He is no longer the shepherd, but the sheep in need of rescue from his own self.  Whatever excuses, whatever rationalizations or justifications he’d made for his behavior, David can finally see with clear eyes the distance between his soul and his role.  The divide between his private behavior and his public persona.  In recognition of what he has done, David confesses, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Consider for a moment how desperately the world needs Nathans.  How grateful we are for Sherron Watkins, Coleen Rowley, and Cynthia Cooper for uncovering the dysfunction in our systems of commerce and governance.  How we wish someone had stepped in and spoken up at Penn State before some many childhoods were lost.  The world needs more Nathans, because the world is full of Davids and Bathshebas and Uriahs… and messengers.  The world is full of people with power, and victims of power, and — perhaps, most relevant for many of us — messengers, middle management, people just doing their jobs and keeping their heads down.  Looking the other way.  Completing the task, not questioning it.

A story like David and Bathsheba’s, Uriah and Nathan’s, has so many entry points for each of us.  Rarely are any of us just one character in this story.  We are victims of power left unchecked.  We are cogs in the machine.  We are authorities not to be questioned, by our children perhaps, or our students, or our patients, or our employees.  Hopefully, we are truth-tellers as well.

In the epistle to the Ephesians, the author recognizes that we each fulfill different roles in community, we are given different gifts for different ministries.  This diversity of gifts and variety of functions are meant, however, to serve a unity of purpose.  The author exhorts us to “speak the truth in love” and to grow up into Christ, the one in whom soul and role were ever united.  This passage from Ephesians concludes, “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

It is a letter that speaks to us of the unity, of the integrity of the body — of our own bodies and our own lives, and of the body we inhabit with one another, which is the body of Christ.  In our worship each week we try to embody this with practices of confession and absolution that precede the meal we share together at this table, where we feast upon the bread of God that “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” which is not simply bread, but is in fact Christ Jesus, the undivided life of God, broken and distributed for the sake of the world.

Sisters and brothers, I don’t know who gets to tell you when you’re wrong.  If you share my luck, you are surrounded by friends and family who have learned how to call lovingly to you, to remind you of who you were when you were still young, still unscathed by the battles of life, who can shepherd you back to the sound of the genuine — that voice that resides inside yourself that is your soul, the place of God-created truth that lies at the center of your being.  If you cannot hear it from anyone else then, I pray, listen to that voice which is God calling you back to yourself and learn once again to confess all that separates you from yourself.

Whatever you have imagined would happen if you were truly yourself, the price of not being the self you were created to be is so much higher — for you and for those around you.  Your integrity and our health is inseparable, because we are inseparable.  We are one body, being built up in love.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 29, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 4 — Divided Lives”

 

Texts:  2 Samuel 11:1-15 and Psalm 14  •   Ephesians 3:14-21  •   John 6:1-21

To the one able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.  Amen.

Today we come to one of the most infamous and troubling stories in scripture, and certainly in the stories of King David and his dynasty.  It is a story of rapacious desire, cowardly murder, and unrepentant shame — and it will take us two weeks to fully tell.  This week we will hear what happened, just the facts.  Next week we will hear how God, through the prophet Nathan, confronts the evil David has done.

But before we delve into the story, I want you to open your bulletins and find the second reading, the one from Ephesians that Wendy read to us a few minutes ago.  I’m going to re-read verses 16-19, and I want you to hold this passage in mind when we return to the story of David and Bathsheba.

Paul writes to the Ephesians,

I pray that, according to the riches of [God’s] glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [the] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is for us as well, that we would be strengthened in our inner beings as we are rooted and grounded in love, and that we would comprehend how fully we are loved by God in Christ Jesus.  Without the knowledge and conviction of that love, we might never find the strength to look at our inner being, and would surely never find the strength to confront what dwells there.  By that love, however, God is able to accomplish far more in us than we could ever ask or imagine.  Now back to the story…

It begins ominously.  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained at Jerusalem.”  Since meeting David as a boy, he has been known to us as one who was unafraid of battle, always confident in his engagements with enemies much larger and stronger than himself.  The power of his courage and his victories drew a literal army of supporters to David, and through that army he won the love of the people.

David was exactly the king that the people of Israel had demanded from the prophet Samuel.  He took them from being a loose group of confederated tribes to being a nation like those that surrounded them and who had terrorized and defeated them in battle.  In fear the people had asked for an earthly king to strengthen and protect them.  They got what they’d asked for, but they forgot what the prophet Samuel foretold about the price paid for the protection of kings.  Do you remember what he told them?

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves…

It’s a long list, but you don’t have to memorize the items to remember the actions.  Samuel said, “he will take, he will take, he will take… and you shall be his slaves.”  The God of Israel, who liberated the people from the slavery of one monarch in Egypt, foretold that the love of power, the misplaced faith in war to create peace, would return to people to slavery from which God is always laboring to liberate us.

So, when did the problems start?  Almost immediately after David was named king over the united tribes of both Judah and Israel.  You remember two weeks ago, when we heard the story of David dancing before the people as the ark of the covenant was moved to the new capital city, the one they began calling the “City of David,” Jerusalem.  There was a warning sign then, as people began to treat the presence of God too casually, presuming God could be moved about like a piece on a chess board.

There was another warning last week, as David proposed to build a house for the LORD to match the one he had first built for himself.  If you were here last week you’ll still hear Pastor David Weasley, our guest from The Night Ministry, reminding us that David “had it wrong about houses” — as so often we do as well.  It is not David who makes a house for God, but God who makes a house for David.

An important shift takes place in the relationship between God and Israel at the end of that story that I want to recall to our minds.  After setting David in his place on this matter of houses, God declares,

“I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.  When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.  But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure before me; your throne shall be established forever.”  (2 Sam. 7:14-16)

Scholars of Hebrew scripture point to this as a pivotal moment not only in the relationship between God and David, but between God and the people.  Until this point, God’s covenants have been conditional — if you will do such, then I will be your God and you will be my people.  It is the language of contracts and law.  Now God declares a new relationship in unconditional language — when you falter and fail, nevertheless I will not take my love away.  It is the language of family and love.

But, as anyone who has helped raise a child knows, love still sets limits and sometimes we allow natural consequences help us teach our children what will and will not harm them.  This is what is meant when God says, “when he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use with blows inflicted by human beings.”  God seems to be saying here, “I will not abandon you, but when you act unjustly there will be human consequences.  I won’t have to punish you.  The ‘blows inflicted by human beings’ will take care of that for me.  Nevertheless, I will always love you.”

Now this new covenant is put to the test.  True to the prophet Samuel’s prediction, the king who once led the people in battle now takes the people’s sons and sets them as his foot soldiers and charioteers, staying behind in Jerusalem while he sends them to fight and die in his place.  Because he is not with the people, fighting alongside them, but rather remains at home enjoying the privileges of being the king, he enjoys the luxury of a stroll along the rooftop of his castle during which he sees a beautiful woman, Bathsheba.  David asks who she is, and he’s told that she is married to one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite.  Nevertheless, David does what kings do, he takes, and takes, and takes.  He takes Bathsheba.

If you survey the art that has been created over the centuries to depict this scene from scripture, you notice something very troubling.  Bathsheba always seems to be presented in a seductive pose.  You, as the viewer of the painting, are put in King David’s position — seeing her perhaps as he wanted to see her, as inviting his attention.  But the scriptures give us no indication that she had any awareness of the king.  We’re told that she was following Levitical law, purifying herself after her period.

By contrast, David is breaking the law, on numerous levels.  Viewed through the lens of the law at that time, he is not only taking another man’s wife, but he is touching her during a time when she was ritually unclean.  David shows utter contempt for the law, setting his own desires above the customs and rituals observed by the people since the time of Moses.

Perhaps most troubling to us, as modern listeners, but most importantly to Bathsheba herself, is her almost absolute silence in this story.  The only words given to her come as she sends her report to the king after he has taken her — I think we must assume against her will.  She sends word to the palace, “I am pregnant.”

Can you imagine what must have gone through Bathsheba’s mind when she discovered she was pregnant?  Would she have feared the king, that he might try and dispose of the evidence of his misconduct?  That she might be disappeared?  Would she have feared her husband, who would return from the war to find his wife pregnant, and her unable to say how it had happened for fear of her life, or his life?  What options did she have, when everyone around her held more power than she by virtue of their gender or station.  What must she have felt when the only power she could appeal to was the one who had harmed and imperiled her in the first place?

The rest of the story is one long, failed attempt at a cover up.  The king has Uriah the Hittite brought back from the war and tries to get him to sleep with his wife so that the child growing within her might be believed to be Uriah’s son instead of David’s.  But Uriah shows a solidarity with the people that David has lost.  Uriah will not accept the comforts of home and hearth while his comrades remain on the front lines of battle.  Even after David gets him drunk, Uriah refuses to return home and sleep with his wife.  So David sends him back to war, and realizing that he will someday have a new enemy to deal with once Uriah realizes what has happened, he arranges to have his loyal subject killed on the fields of battle.

As we will hear next week, this marks the beginning of the end for David’s reign.  The natural consequences of his behavior set in motion of chain of events that divide David’s own household and lead to the separation of the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah, and eventually the entire people are taken into exile.  The nation crumbles, and it begins when David the king loses the personal integrity that once made him great.

That is, perhaps, where this story becomes most instructive for us.  None of us here are kings, so this story — so full of pathos and drama — strikes us as juicy and lurid, but perhaps also irrelevant.  At least we might like to imagine that to be the case.  In all likelihood, we share more in common with Bathsheba, a victim of sexual violence as too many people still are in this day and age; or with Uriah, carrying out our duties as best we know how, not able to see how power is moving around us, conspiring to crush us as it covers up its own complicity in our deaths.

But because this story is told with David as its central character, and because by faith we take the promises made to David as promises made to us as well, the scripture here invites us to at least try and imagine ourselves in David’s place and to wonder alongside him how our ego stories mask the inner divisions that separate us from our integrity and undermine the people we were anointed to be in our baptisms.

In his book “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life,” Parker J. Palmer — a name familiar to many of you from his books on education, leadership and vocation — discusses the tragic consequences for each of us and for the world when we divorce our soul from our role, as David has in this tragic story.  He writes,

“As we cross the rising terrain between infancy and adolescence — still close enough to our origins to be in touch with inner truth but aware of the mounting pressure to play someone else ‘out there‘ — the true self starts to feel threatened.  We deal with the threat by developing a child’s version of the divided life, commuting daily between the public world of role and the hidden world of soul…

As the outer world becomes more demanding — and today it presses in on children at an obscenely early age — we stop going to our rooms, shutting the door, walking into the wardrobe [a reference to the imaginary moral world created by C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia], and entering the world of the soul.  And the closer we get to adulthood, the more we stifle the imagination that journey requires.  Why? Because imagining other possibilities for our lives would remind us of the painful gap between who we most truly are and the role we play in the so-called real world.

As we become more obsessed with succeeding, or at least surviving, in that world, we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles.  The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult — at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large.  Is is a cost that can be itemized in ways known to many of us:

  • We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
  • We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.
  • The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness.
  • The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.
  • We project our inner darkness on others, making ‘enemies’ of them and making the world a more dangerous place.
  • Our inauthenticity and projections make real relationships impossible, leading to loneliness.
  • Our contributions to the world — especially through the work we do — are tainted by duplicity and deprived of the life giving energies of true self.

“A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life” by Parker J. Palmer (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 2004) pp. 15-16.

He may not have had King David in mind, but do you see how Parker Palmer’s description of the divided life applies to King David’s story?  Somewhere along that journey from childhood to adulthood David, the boy we met out in the fields tending to his sheep, lost sight of who he was.  He forgot what is was to be a care-giver, divorcing his shepherd’s soul from his kingly role.  The results of his divided life bore tragic consequences for himself and for the life of the community.

You may not see your story in David’s, but have you ever detected the symptoms of the divided life Parker Palmer lists?  The sense of inauthenticity or invisibility in certain spheres of life, whether that be at your workplace or in your marriage.  The search for an ever-elusive “something” missing from your life.  The harsh division of the world into right and wrong, good and bad, us and them.  The dimming of your own joyful light.  The persistent weight of so much internal darkness.  Loneliness that clings to you, even when surrounded by crowds of people, even while resting with those who know you best.

The divided life begins with little cracks in our integrity, and grows into crevasses between our “public lives” and our “private lives.”  What the story of King David reminds us this morning is that this imagined division is really an illusion.  There is no such thing as the person you “have” to be at the office, and the person you are with your family and friends.  You are the person who acts as you do across each of these situations.  A lack of integrity in any area of life leads, sooner or later, to a lack of integrity throughout your life for the simple reason that each of us is given only one life.  Compartmentalization, a functional myth that serves the interests of our employers, is a euphemism for self-denial.

All of which brings us back to Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, which I believe is God’s desire for each of us this morning and throughout all the days of our lives.  Paul prays that we would each be “strengthened in our inner being,”  which I hear today as the call to live an undivided life, where inner and outer are reflected in each other, where the personal and the public display strong congruence.  Paul prays for us to have integrity.

But Paul’s prayer doesn’t stop there, because in his day as in ours, the pressures placed on our inner beings are tremendous, even more than we can begin to imagine resisting.  So Paul assures us that we are not expected to dredge up from somewhere within our depths the power to live the undivided life.  Rather, we are promised that there is a power already at work within us that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine; and that this is the power from whom every family — David’s family and our families — take their names; and that this power is rooting and grounding us in a power that is almost incomprehensible in its breadth and length and height and depth.

The name of this power is the “love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” which means that it is true for you whether you know it or not, whether you can feel it or not, whether you believe it or not. We are called to live undivided lives, lives healed by the love that is our birthright, unconditional love of the God who has made each of us members of one family and who feeds us at one table.

Over the coming week, I’d like to invite you to pay attention to the places in your life where you feel yourself pulled to perform your “public” identity.  As you’re able, try to slow yourself down enough to check in with yourself and ask, “what would happen if I was truly myself in this situation?”  Notice what thoughts or feelings arise for you in response to that question, maybe even right them down.  Those imaginings of the cost or consequence of being yourself are important pieces of information about what stands between this present moment and your one, precious, undivided life.  Try not to let this become an exercise in self-judgement, just a moment of reflective examination.  Above all, remember that you are held by a love that always present to you, that is already at work in you — healing you, restoring you, and setting you free.

In the name of love,

Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, July 15, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 2, Scene 2 — Learning to Dance”

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

This past week Kerry and I took our first Latin Dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square.  We had a blast.  The guy teaching the class is named Saladeen Alamin, and he is awesome to watch.  I don’t know for certain, but I think he looks to be in his 50s, and he’s in incredible shape.  As we were shuffling our feet back and forth learning the basic steps to the mambo and the cha cha cha, Saladeen was leaping up and down, back and forth, adding flourishes to every step pattern as he called out, “BA! — BA! — BA! — BA! — left foot up on one and down on two, now move!”

You can’t learn to dance if you’re worried about your dignity, in fact, it’s hard to learn pretty much anything if you’re overly concerned about what other people think of you.  Learning requires an openness of heart and mind and an acknowledgement that we are not already perfect — that we still have things to learn.  Stated like that, it seems kind of obvious.  None of us would say that we’re perfect, or that we know everything, but our actions… well, they tell a different story.

After a month of telling you that we’re in a sermon series this summer following the semi-continuous set of texts from the books of Samuel and Kings in which the Hebrew scripture reading is disconnected from the gospel text, today we get two stories about dancing — one from 2 Samuel and one in the gospel of Mark.

In the gospel story, set during the reign of King Herod and the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, the king gives a feast in honor of his birthday at which his daughter dances so masterfully that Herod promises to give her whatever she desires — which ends up being John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

In the older story, from 2 Samuel, King David is bringing the ark of the covenant up from its previous home to the new capital, the city of David: Jerusalem.  Along the way he and the honor guard he’s brought to accompany the ark to its new resting place dance frenziedly before the caravan in a show of ecstatic devotion.  As he enters Jerusalem, David dances in front of the ark and before all his people, dressed only in his undergarments, not afraid to expose himself to God and to the world.  His dancing angers his wife, Michal, the daughter of old King Saul and drives a wedge between them.

How did you discover what you’re good at?  Whether you’re a teacher or a lawyer, a student or a grandparent, how did you first discover the kinds of gifts God has given you?  Maybe it was a natural talent you’ve enjoyed since childhood.  Maybe it was a passion you discovered in school.  Maybe it was the quiet pride you nurtured as you raised your children and found that you liked them, and that you were good at being a parent.  However it happened, can you remember the joy and delight that came with the discovery that God gave you a gift, a talent, a knack, a calling?

Over time, as your gifts became known to you and to others, you likely found yourself being asked to use them.  If you’re lucky, someone offered to give you a job doing the thing you love most.  I say “if you’re lucky” because so many people don’t get that opportunity.  Many labor away day after day for years, wishing for a way to join their vocational role with their God-created soul.  But even those who find work that connects them to their native talents can come to feel alienated from the sense of joy that once came with discovering their gifts.

When your gifts become your bread and butter, it’s hard to hold on to the joy that comes with exercising them.  I remember deciding in my early twenties that I didn’t want to follow my parents into a career in music because I never wanted to have to rely on the thing I loved to make a living.  I wanted to be able to keep on loving it in a much simpler way.  Instead I became a pastor, which still comes with many of the same risks.  Once you are “on the job,”  it’s hard to allow yourself to make mistakes, to risk looking like a fool, to learn.  In fact, your professional success, sadly, may depend on you conveying the appearance that you don’t make mistakes.

But there’s no growth without learning, and there’s no learning without risk.  Whatever gifts God has given us, none of us has perfected them yet.  If we want to grow as people, as professionals, as a community, we have to be willing to try things out, expose ourselves, and make some mistakes.

That willingness to be exposed is really what differentiates the two kings in our two tales of dancing today.  In the gospel of Mark, King Herod has been keeping John the Baptist locked up in prison for calling into question his decision to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias.  The scripture here describes a situation I think most of us understand on some level.  It says,

“[Herodias] had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him.  But she could not 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.”

Even though Herod was the king and John was a radical repentance-preaching prophet crying out in the wilderness, “make straight a way for the LORD,” Herod liked to listen to him.

When I picture the scene in my mind, I think about the way that a child throwing a tantrum actually wants an adult to step in and restore order.  Herod has been spoiled by his power, and he needs to hear a Godly critique of his life.  He is perplexed to discover that someone as powerless as John can hold his attention, and so he protects him.  But John continues to expose Herod and Herodias’ relationship as unlawful, and so — in a scene so dramatic it has spawned an opera — the girl we’ve come to know as Salome dances before her father Herod and secures the right to ask for John’s death.

King David, too, has made a mistake — though it’s been expunged from this morning’s reading.  You might have noticed that we skipped over some verses in the reading from 2 Samuel.  They tell the story of Uzzah, who was named in v. 3 as one of the sons of Abinadab who accompanied the ark as it journeyed toward Jerusalem.  In the missing verses, Uzzah reaches out to touch the ark of the covenant, perhaps to keep it from falling, and is struck dead.  It’s a story that deserves a sermon of its own, so I wont’ go into it too much, but for the purpose of this morning’s worship, it served to remind David that the power he enjoyed as king was secondary to the power of God, which placed every good gift in him and brought him to this place in his life.

Unlike Herod, David recognizes his mistake and is able to make the course correction.  He seems to grasp the danger of his own pride… though this first glimpse of his personality flaws foreshadows the troubles waiting for him just around the corner.  As the ark of the covenant enters Jerusalem, bringing the visible sign of the invisible God before the nation, David strips off all his royal finery and dances before the LORD with all his might.  Without saying a word, David communicates to the people that there is one LORD before whom we are all naked.

When I was a child, learning to play the violin, I had to give a recital at the end of each year.  Recitals made me a little bit nervous.  Standing before all the other kids and their parents, and my parents and my teacher, I felt exposed.  I felt naked.  Somewhere along the line I learned that trick for dealing with my nerves where you imagine everyone else in the room in their underwear.  I never made the connection before now, but I think the reason that trick works is because it levels the playing field, at least in our minds.  We’re all exposed.

Decades later, having mastered my anxiety in most situations, I find that the price I’ve paid for some mastery of one set of skills is that I’ve lost the sensation of truly learning something for the first time.  That’s part of the reason behind the Latin Dance classes with Kerry.  I’m taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School as well, and I have to tell you that at the end of the first lesson, when all I’d accomplished was blistering my right thumb and bruising the fingers of my left hand, when the music I made could have been pleasing to no one but the LORD, I almost broke down and cried.  Not out of embarrassment or frustration, but out of joy.  It felt so good to be so exposed, so open, to be learning, to be growing.

Dear friends, I hope you’ve got spaces and places in your life where you get to be wide open like that.  I hope there are people and communities in which you still feel free to try new things, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow.  I hope you are able to be vulnerable with your family members and honest about your failures and limitations with your co-workers.  Closer to home, I hope we are being and becoming the kind of church that creates opportunities for you to discover and use your God given gifts and talents in a spirit of joyful discovery instead of dutiful obligation.

As hard as it may be to remember, in our overly professionalized lives, in our cultures of competition, we are not called to be perfect.  Paul says to the Ephesians,

Blessed be the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.  God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of God’s will, to the praise of God’s glorious grace freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of God’s grace, lavished on us.

We are blameless not because of our performance, but by the grace of God’s love.  It is that love that allows us to live our lives like baby Isla did this morning, dressed in not much more than a linen ephod, squirming her first little dance before the LORD as she was washed in these baptismal waters and adopted into the forgiving family of God.

Perhaps as we come forward, as we pass this baptismal font on our way to the communion rail, we will follow in her footsteps and we will dance as well.

Amen.

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