An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Isn’t that a bit extreme?

A sermon on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-22 & Mark 6:14-29 by Nathan Nettleton

How many of you have had the experience of having someone find out that you are a Christian, and seeing them roll their eyes and say, “Oh, You’re kidding”? You know that feeling, right?

Well, I want to talk this morning about a strange variation on that experience, and that is the fact that it is not only outsiders, non-religious people, who do that to people of faith — often it is insiders too. It happens within the church community. One person raises their eyebrows and sneers ever so gently over the perception that another person is perhaps overdoing it a bit, just taking it all a bit too far.

Now I know this, and I feel qualified to comment on this because I have been on both sides of this numerous times. I can remember quite clearly when I was sixteen hearing my mother saying that she thought I was taking Christianity all a bit too far and overdoing it somewhat. Now looking back I think that this was probably a good thing because if your not taking things too far and overdoing them when you’re sixteen then you’re probably not a very healthy sixteen year old and you need to get your act together. That’s what being sixteen is all about.

But I’ve also been on the other end far more times that I care to confess. I’ve put down people whose faith was expressed differently than mine. I’ve rolled my eyes, sneered a bit, ridiculed them and acted like I was terribly superior for not succumbing to such ludicrous fanaticism.

Well lately, often to my acute discomfort, God has been beginning to deal with me about this, and as usual God shows considerable humour in doing it. God takes a bit of a look at me, sees what sort of things I most often sneer at in others, and then sets me up so that I have a spiritual experience that is almost indistinguishable from what I had been ridiculing in others. I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Go on, you silly galah, sneer at it now!” Fortunately, I’m not alone in this. A couple of other people in this church have recently reported God doing similar things to them.

In both our scripture readings today we saw examples of this phenomena. In the story from Samuel we hear of one of David’s greatest moments of religious celebration. After defeating the Philistine army, he had recaptured the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred religious object of the Jewish faith, which had been carried off by the Philistines a generation earlier. And now in a great celebration he and his people are bringing the Ark back to Jerusalem where it belonged.

Now this celebration procession made Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem pale into insignificance. They’ve got the full brass band with trumpets and drums and cymbals, they’ve got dancing, they’ve got singing, they’ve got the full-on let-your-hair-down don’t-worry-what-anybody-thinks celebration. And King David is at the front of the procession, with the shirt off, dancing with all his might. And as they are entering the city, Michal, David’s wife, was looking out the window and saw David’s uninhibited exuberance and it says, “she was disgusted with him.”

And when he comes in, still buzzing with joy and enthusiasm, she pours a real bucket of cold water on him accusing him of disgracing himself in front of the servants!

Now there is some suggestion in her words that perhaps David wasn’t wearing anything under his kilt and that he was leaping about rather exuberantly, and Michal may have been somewhat resentful at the servant girls getting an eyeful of what only she usually got to see, but basically she dumps on him for going over the top in his religious enthusiasm.

In the gospel reading we heard of a far more nasty reaction to the uncompromising religious zeal of John the Baptiser. Herod’s wife after first demanding John’s imprisonment, now conspires to ensure his execution by decapitation. Once again this is not outsiders to the faith. Herod and his wife Herodias were Jews – loyal to their Roman overlords but not Romans themselves. I’m not suggesting they were devout religious Jews, far from it, but they were Jews nevertheless, and expected by the people to defend Jewish faith.

But in the stories of their conflict with John the baptiser we see them up against one whose passion for God and for God’s righteousness led him to denounce their behaviour, and as so often happens, rather than reassess their behaviour, the powerful ones have their opponent silenced.

Now these two stories differ markedly in the reasons for the opposition, but in both cases it is religious enthusiasm that is being rejected, and I’m suggesting that the same thing goes on among us and that we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and see just what it is we are reacting to and whether it’s us with the problem and not those we ridicule.

The John and Herod type encounter is perhaps not as common among us, certainly decapitation is not commonplace, but you don’t have to look very hard before you start seeing instances where the motivation is similar. Sir Ronald Wilson is a deeply committed Christian whose passion for God’s justice expressed itself clearly in the Stolen Generation Report that he authored, and John Howard, who also professes Christian faith, did a very good Herod impersonation in attacking the prophet rather than heeding the prophetic word.

The David and Michal scenario is perhaps much closer to home for us though, and so bears more fruit for self-examination. In this case there is no big vested interests being undermined. So what is it about David’s unrestrained joy and celebration that so offends Michal? It appears to be basically about decorum, about maintaining the right social airs and graces. Michal accuses him of disgracing himself, of exposing himself as a fool in front of even the servant girls. And put it to you that in various more subtle forms most of us get sucked into this kind of reaction quite easily.

You see most of us have a fairly clear set of guidelines in our heads about appropriate behaviour and way of life. We probably couldn’t spell it out straight off without a fair bit of thought, because it’s more a set of background assumptions that we’ve imbibed over time. They include all sorts of things that you never think about until someone violates them – like it’s OK to wear your pyjamas to breakfast at home but not in a Cafe; don’t swear in front of nuns; don’t call your grandparents by their first names. We just kind of know these things, we can’t actually remember learning them. Clare was telling us about this the other night when she said she couldn’t work out how to explain to 5-year old Ben that there are some things that you just don’t say to people, like when the hairdresser says “I’m so busy,” you don’t say “So, you’re earning lots of money!” How do you explain a convention like that? You can’t remember how you learned it. You just know it.

Well, our acquired assumptions contain all sorts of things about how we live, what sorts of jobs and homes are desirable, how we use our money, how we spend our time, what sort of clothes we wear, what sort of friends we spend time with, what sort of person we might marry, how we behave in front of our bosses, all sorts of things. And built in along side all those assumptions are some other assumptions about how religious faith fits in with the rest of our lives and how it is to be expressed.

And for most of us, the assumption that we have acquired growing up in this culture is that Christian faith is a good thing in moderation but you don’t let it take over your life too much. A few churchly activities are OK so long as they fit in along side all the other patterns and protocols of your life and don’t upset the apple cart. A little bit of religion is a good thing – it helps maintain order and the status quo, it keeps everyone nice and polite and considerate so long as no-one gets fanatical about it. But if people start taking to seriously and letting their Christian faith dictate the terms for every area of their life, we all get rather uncomfortable and the eye rolling and the sneers begin. Here in this church just as much as anywhere.

You think I’m overstating the case; that we take our faith much more seriously than that? Well let me try you with a couple of hypotheticals and see what you think the reaction would be.

Pinsin decides that to enable her to more fully devote herself to following Christ she will sell her house, give the proceeds to the poor, and live with three others with a communal purse. How do you think people here would react? A few raised eyebrows? A few nervous chuckles? A few discussions about how she’d tipped over the edge and lost her grip? Yeah?

Dayo decides that in order to remain free of additional concerns and responsibilities that might restrict the ways he can express his discipleship, he will choose to never marry and remain celibate. You can see how people would react. You’re doing it now. Few of you could comprehend that someone could take their Christian faith so seriously that they might give up marriage in order to further pursue their spiritual development. You think that would be a bit bizarre, a bit extreme.

And yet why is that? Both of those things are things that the New Testament make clear are highly desirable commendable choices. Selling your property and living off communal income was almost compulsory for a short time in the early church. Celibacy is recommended as a lifestyle choice by both Jesus and Paul. But we don’t think that Christianity should be taken that far, do we? We get uncomfortable if Christian faith is lived as something that disrupts the normal patterns of traditional middle-class life.

We have been sucked in to a redefinition of values where Christianity becomes something that exists alongside traditional family values and legitimates them. And traditional family values of marriage, family, good job, home ownership, career path, respectable dress code, solid citizenship – these things come to be seen as basic features of Christian lifestyle and when you add church attendance and perhaps a bible study you have the ideal well rounded Christian. But it is a lie. Jesus calls us to a radical discipleship that takes priority over all those things and calls us to seriously consider those things in light of his call. Your relationships, your career, your home, your spending patterns – how are they expressions of your commitment to Christ? Well, until they are, you are withholding those areas of your life from Christ and you need to repent.

I can’t live this life. I am a failure when my life is evaluated against the standard of the call of Christ. Most of my decisions are not made in prayer with faithfulness to the Christ who died for me as the overriding priority. Most of my decisions are made in terms of what I’m going to enjoy. In my head I know that I would enjoy the alternative even more, but getting it beyond my head is tough. I know that I was created for intimate relationship with God and that anything less leaves me incomplete and unfulfilled. I know that my experience of relationship with God, and God’s experience of relationship with me is as frustrating and unsatisfying as any other half-hearted relationship – and I’m sure all of you at some time have had the experience of trying to make a relationship work where one or the other of you was half-hearted about it. I know that intimacy with God will enable me to overcome my fears and open me up to the sort of uninhibited exuberant celebration that we see in David in our story.

But I am held back by my addictions to money, comforts, success and power, and I’m held back by my addiction to the approval of other people and my allergy to the rolled eyes and the sniggers behind my back. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Those shackles hold me, and most of us in mediocre relationship with God and lukewarm commitment to Christ.

And the only way any of us are going to break free of those shackles is together. The only way is if we support one another, if we covenant together that we are going to violate all the social conventions of our upbringing and culture in order to find patterns of life that break us free from those shackles and lead us together into the full light of God’s love and God’s joy. It is only if we pray together and wrestle with temptation together and hold one another to account and love and support one another that we are going to have the guts to break free and throw ourselves into the loving arms of God.

Christ put everything on the line for us. Home, marriage, family, career, social acceptance, freedom, even life itself. I don’t want to settle for offering anything less in return, but I’ve got a long journey ahead of me till I approach that goal. I’m going to need strength for the journey, and all of you who would make that journey too will need strength for the journey, and that’s why we gather together at this table. We gather here to be fed and strengthened by our God, and to meet our travelling companions for encouragement and support. We don’t come to this table as the perfected who’ve made the grade, but as the broken and inadequate who know their need of God and who want to undertake the journey into wholeness and fullness of life. If you want to take that journey with us, you’re invited to meet with Jesus Christ at this, his table.


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