A sermon on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-22 and Ephesians 1:3-14 by Alison Sampson
Many years ago I visited an enormous African-American church. Two thousand people were packed into the sanctuary, and another thousand filled the basement, where they could watch the service on closed-circuit television. I vividly remember sitting for four hours, squished into a pew, while members of the congregation wailed and whooped and cried and jigged up and down the aisles in ecstatic praise. It was a wonderful experience; but boy, did I feel relieved that I was jammed so firmly into the centre of a very long pew that I couldn’t possibly be expected to join in!
I don’t know about you, but one of the obstacles to me becoming Christian is an acute self- consciousness. As a child, I never really fit in. We moved schools a few times, and I was a bit weird anyway. I never grew comfortable in the role of being the different kid. Even now, I still hate being noticed, and so when I read the story of King David dancing around in his underclothes, I cringe.
Good on him for worshipping the Lord, I think – but does he really have to go quite so far? I have great sympathy for Michelle, his wife, who watched and was filled with disgust. Spouses can be so embarrassing! – and how much more so when one is married to the King, with all eyes on him. I may not feel her disgust, but I certainly feel acutely embarrassed whenever anyone is too expressive about their faith.
I suspect that I am not alone in my feelings. The very fact we meet at this church and worship in this formal style suggests to me that many of us are probably quite uncomfortable with speaking in tongues, or spontaneous dancing, or even loud Hallelujahs!
Now, no one has ever said that we can’t speak in tongues here, or dance around during a song; and I must admit that there are times when some of us sway quite convincingly, if a little off the beat. But we have all absorbed so many cultural norms about what is and is not the correct way to listen, observe, worship or pray that such episodes are rare.
In our society it is normal (by which I mean polite) to sit quietly while someone else is talking, just as you all are doing now while I stand up here and speak. It is rude to interject unless the conversation is between close, and very forgiving, friends. It is rude to make loud noises while other people are being quiet. It is more than a little odd to be the only one dancing in a crowd; in fact, in our society very few people dance in public unless they are intoxicated. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of rules about how much space our bodies take up, how far away from others we sit or stand, how much noise we can make and when. We even have rules about the floor. Fundamentally, we seem to believe that it is dirty which is why few of us ever sit or lie on the floor, let alone eat off it. That is why we sit around church, and our houses, in chairs.
Our shared beliefs are about much more than space. Our society believes in sex, pure and simple. If the topic of voluntary celibacy ever comes up, it is invariably in a joke or a critique of the Catholic priesthood. Those of us who don’t regularly engage in sex, or at the very least claim to long for it, are seen as emotionally damaged people to be treated or scorned. Celibacy is certainly never seen as a valid, legitimate option for someone’s life.
We are prudish about money: we never talk about it. It’s crass to give it as a gift, we are secretive about how much we have or earn – and yet, it also seems to fascinate our attention, rather as legs fascinated the Victorians. I also suspect that most of us believe that those who don’t have enough money are somehow at fault. (I certainly fall into that trap quite regularly.)
We are prudish about our faith. One of the old English rules of etiquette is that one never spoke of politics or religion. We seem to have broken the taboo about political conversations; but time and again I have killed a conversation by introducing religion. I suspect we are the only Christian family at school; and if not, then the others are so reserved about it that, despite my regularly breaking the don’t-talk-about-your-faith rule, I have never been able to find them out.
There are many more rules that I could list, many unspoken and all of which affect how we live. Thus they affect how we worship and how we express our faith. In and of themselves, there is nothing particularly wrong with many of these rules, but, and this is an very important but, they are not Christian. They are English cultural rules which are so ingrained in our society that they are often effectively invisible. Good citizens that we are, we have internalized them so successfully that, even at church, we live most of them out without even being aware that we are doing it.
The thing is, the early Christians were not like us at all. On the one hand, they had quite different cultural norms; and on the other, they challenged many of those norms to respond to the call of Christ on their lives.
For example, many early Christians were celibate, believing that the power of Eros could be effectively channelled into Christian service. They based such observations, perhaps, on the models of John the Baptiser and Jesus.
They weren’t embarrassed to talk about money. Instead, like Jesus, they talked about money all the time. For years early Christians lived from a common purse. Everyone knew how much everyone else earned because it was all put into the pot and shared out according to need.
They weren’t embarrassed to talk about their faith, and none of us would be Christian today were it not for those first missionaries who never stopped talking about Jesus, risking their very lives to do so.
I would say, in fact, that many of the early Christians ‘went too far’ in expressing their faith; that is, they made radical decisions which make us cringe.
Of course, such people are still with us. We certainly know people who have experimented with a common purse; and others who have quietly embraced celibacy. We know many who talk freely about their faith; and still others who have made different radical decisions based on God’s call on their lives. While a part of me cheers them on, another part of me feels uncomfortable with the extravagance of those decisions. Some people just take their faith a bit too seriously.
And yet how are we supposed to live? We heard in tonight’s Psalm that the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. We heard in the letter to the Ephesians that ‘God has gathered up all the spiritual blessings of heaven and given them to us in our union with Christ… and
that [long ago] God was getting ready to immerse us in divine love so that we would emerge ready, willing and able to dedicate our lives totally to God…’. We are told that ‘everything planned for God’s people will be [ours] – a life overflowing with the glory and splendor of God.’
So should we live meager lives bounded by our cultural limitations, which encourage us to stay quiet, polite and demure; which warn us never to rock the boat; which tell us to remain cagey about money; which reward us for participating unthinkingly in the dominant cultural norms? Should we keep our faith private, innocuous? Perhaps Michelle, David’s wife, felt a little like that. I have no doubt she was religiously observant and faithful in her own way, just like most of us.
But it is clear from tonight’s readings that we are not called to invisibility or submission to the norm. Instead, we are called to greater things: to live exuberantly, generously reflecting the good things God has done. God is not asking us to be model citizens of any human system. Instead, we are invited to become model citizens in the reign of God, which transcends and critiques all cultures.
In such a reign, we might find ourselves examining all sorts of assumptions in the light of God’s values. What value do we place on money, and how do we use it? Do we truly rely on God, or do we just pay lip service to the concept? What is hospitality, and how do we exercise it? How does our work reflect our values? How does our work impact on our leisure, our family lives, and our prayer life? What do we invest time and money in, and why? What does it mean to be an ambassador for Christ? And the list of questions goes on.
God wants our lives to overflow with glory and splendour, and they will do so when we are living out our answers to these sorts of questions to the best of our ability. If there are times when we realise that we need to be embarrassing – if we need to talk about money, sing loudly, question the dominant values of our society, shout our faith from the rooftops, jig in the aisles, or even, like King David, go dancing down the streets in our underwear – then that is what we must do.
The good news is that, in doing so, we will be radically transformed into Christ’s own image, radiant and splendid. While it might make people notice us, and even judge us harshly, that is nothing to be embarrassed about at all.