Sunday, July 12, 2009

Possessed of God?

Sheepscott Community Church July 12, 2009

2 Samuel 6: 1-5; 12b-19

Ephesians 1: 3-14

Mark 6: 14-29

Possessed of God?

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The last line in this morning’s reading from Ephesians goes like this: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession––to the praise of his glory.” How do you feel about that phrase “God’s possession”? Does it rankle or does it give comfort?

If you are not God’s possession, whose or what’s possession are you? As Americans, who traditionally value self-reliance and independence of thought and action, I expect most would draw themselves up as tall as they could and reply something like, “I am my own man,” or “I am my own woman, my own self, not the possession of any one or any thing. I’ve worked hard to get here.” Fair enough. But now, let me illustrate from today’s readings how we may be possessed by an ideology or spirit without our knowing it, without our thinking of it in that way.

I saw a remarkable contrast between the figures in today’s readings. In the reading from the Hebrew bible we once again meet King David, and the New Testament reading is a slice of the life of Herod Antipas, most famous for his ordering the beheading of John the Baptist.

Before I talk about the contrast between these two and how that contrast relates to being possessed, I want to briefly share with you something I learned about the family of Herod as I was preparing for today. I had not known there were so many Herods; nor had I even imagined the carryings-on that went on in that extended family, murder, mayhem and incest, for openers. Just as a thumbnail sketch, however, to enable you to better appreciate today’s gospel, Herod the Great, the paterfamilias, was responsible for the slaughter of the innocent male children under two years of age in Bethlehem, following the deception by the Wise Men. That Herod married five times. The first marriage was to Cleopatra of Jerusalem produced Philip the Tetrarch, who later married Salome. Marriages to Doris and Mariamne the Hasmonean produced three sons, all of whom their father murdered. The last son, Aristobulus left a daughter, the infamous Herodias. Herod the Great then married another Mariamne who gave birth to Herod Philip, who later married his half-sister Herodias, who became the mother of Salome. The fifth wife, Malthake had two sons, one of whom was Herod Antipas, today’s gospel’s antihero, who seduced that same Herodias from his half-brother Philip and married her. How’s that for a family tree? As if the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have a corner on the market of family dysfunction. How would you like to have Thanksgiving at their house?!

I hope now you have a better idea of who Herod Antipas of today’s gospel is. That in place, let’s return to the contrasts among the figures in today’s readings. Consider King David, accompanying the ark of the covenant from Balaah of Judah up toward Jerusalem. “David, wearing an ephod”––an embroidered linen apron worn in ancient Hebrew rites––”David danced before the Lord with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets.” A few weeks ago I alluded to this dance of David’s before the Lord, comparing it to Farmer Hoggitt’s dance in the movie, Babe. Babe the pig, whom the farmer loved, was ailing. Farmer Hoggitt’s dance was the same type of ecstatic dance, appearing odd or extreme perhaps to an onlooker, but to the dancer, wrapt in the expression of love and caring for the one for whom he or she is dancing, there is no self-consciousness at all because the dance is for the beloved.

In the movie Billy Elliott, now a Tony-winning Broadway show, the eleven-year-old Billy tries to describe to the admissions panel at the London School of Ballet for which he is auditioning for admittance, what dance is to him, what it feels like. “It sort of feels good. [I’m] sort of stiff, but once I get going, I sort of forget everything and sort of disappear. Sort of disappear. I can feel a change in my whole body. I’m just there. Fire. Bird. Like electricity. Yeah, electricity.”

King David tries to describe the same feeling to Michal, his wife, daughter of Saul, who despised him in her heart when she saw him leaping and dancing before the Lord. In verses further on, she says to him, in a voice no doubt dripping with sarcasm, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants, as any vulgar fellow would do!” 

He replied to her, “...I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes, but by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” It was for God he danced, and he didn’t give a fig for what Michal thought about him and how she judged him.

The unselfconsciousness with which King David danced before the Lord was entirely different from the way Herodias’s daughter Salome danced before Herod and his important guests. If David danced with purity of intention to worship God, Salome, under her mother’s tutelage and direction, danced wth an agenda, with anything but purity of intention. In a moment of wine-soaked braggadocio following the dance, which pleased him and his guests mightily, Herod promised anything to Salome up to half his kingdom. Mother Herodias seized the moment and instructed her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Unlike King David, who didn’t think about or care what anyone thought of him as he poured out his love for God in the dance, Herod was completely conscious of his guests’ opinions about him and feared their judgment on him if he didn’t fulfill his promise to Salome. He feared their opinion more than he feared God and God’s messenger, John the Baptist.

It didn’t have to go that way. Herod liked John and was compelled by the truth of his message, even though John was indicting him for seducing and marrying his brother’s wife. Herod knew the Baptist to be a holy and just man and his appeal was, well, not quite irresistible. Herod’s fear of his guests’ judgment was greater than his love or respect for John’s teaching, and so he acquiesced to his lesser nature and had the prophet beheaded to fulfill his promise to his stepdaughter, in order not to be shamed before his guests.

In his sympathy for the Baptist and his fear of his guests’ opinions, Herod is an interesting mixture as a human being. In his London Diary, Boswell notes that even as he sat in church enjoying the worship of God, he was at the same time entertaining thoughts of picking up a prostitute on the streets of London that same night. Human beings are haunted by both sin and goodness, that fact harkening back to my opening question about whom or what you would rather be possessed by: God, or, fill in the blank. Herod could fear John and love him, could hate his message and yet not be able to free himself from its fascination. Herod was simply a human being, and we have to ask ourselves if we are finally so different from him. 

As I pointed out when I was discussing Herod’s family tree and the dysfuctionality of that family, things don’t change much because people don’t change much. As Qoheleth says in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The contexts for, and consequently the expressions of human nature are different through the centuries, but human nature itself doesn’t change. Consider David’s exuberance in the dance, his wife’s bitterness and disgust at the sight of that dance, as she couldn’t understand what was motivating him. Consider Herod’s fear of what others thought about him, and his cowardice in using his powerful position against John the Baptist. Consider Salome, the seductive ingenue, who carries out her mother’s wishes. These are all true types through history, which is why we can still relate to the stories they tell.

Let’s consider John the Baptist and Jesus, at a bit more length, in relation to the idea of being possessed by God and whether that might be a desirable thing for us in our time. If we are not possessed by God, by whom or what are we possessed? The struggles apparent in Herod’s own family partly answer that question––his fear of his guests’ opinion of him, his wife Herodias’s vindictiveness toward John the Baptist and the high cost that could exact, and the seductive dance of Salome as the mediator between those two. As I pointed out, human beings are a mixture of sin and goodness, and as a life goes on, we make choices one by one, day by day. Each of those choices moves us in a given direction. If we find ourselves way down a road we don’t want to be on, we can halt our trajectory and can make a choice for life, if we have been making a choice against life up to that point. That halt in the trajectory can be called repentance.

That’s the opportunity Herod had with John the Baptist. I imagine him visiting the Baptist’s cell and listening to him, compelled as he was by what John  said to him. But finally his fear of men was greater than his love for truth and he made his choice and silenced that source of truth for the moment. Herod could have repented. He was invited to repent, but he refused the invitation. There was too much at stake, as far as he was concerned––in other words, his reputation, with his pride at the root.

And really, who can blame him? Here’s this guy who comes in from years of living in the desert, dressed in a camel’s hide, having lived on locusts and honey for God knows how long––he must have been fairly emaciated looking––this is the guy who is declaiming against Herod’s flouting of the laws of decency, not to mention the law of God, which in Leviticus specifically legislated against a man marrying his brother’s wife.  John cut a memorable figure on the landscape. His type was certainly not unknown––the prophet of God, abstemious, appearing mad with the truth, the spirit of God that possessed him.

How different was Jesus? In two of the gospels in the last month, Jesus has been named as out of his mind by his family, and then last week, as offensive to his neighbors in his presumption to the role of teacher. Who does he think he is? Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same because human nature does not change. And humans in their natures have to decide whom or what they will serve, by whom or what they will be possessed. Will it be this or will it be that? There is no middle ground in the matters of God. Recall the saying in the Book of Revelation 3: 16, attributed to the one John called “one like a son of man,” i.e., Jesus the Christ, whom he saw in vision: “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” In earlier translations, “I will vomit [or spew] you out of my mouth.” Strong language.

Insofar as you are imaginatively able, I’d ask you to try to strip away the myth and creed and lore that have accumulated over the centuries around and about Jesus. Try to imagine what it was like to be a person of Jesus’s time hearing him, seeing him, watching those healings that he was doing in Galilee. And some of those who were watching would have been followers of John the Baptist and would have heard what he said about Jesus, identifying him, as the story goes, as the one who was to come after him, the strap of whose sandal he was not worthy to loose. He, Jesus, was the reason that John had come. What might you think about this? Would you be like Herod hearing John’s words and being convinced and compelled by them, and yet finally unable to overcome your own baser nature because you are a person of your time? Would you be like Michal watching  with a judgment of annoyance and disgust as David danced before the Lord? Or would you be one of the common folk who flocked to John for a baptism of repentance? Who raised up arms in praise of God at the sight of the cure of the man born blind? 

We are called to choose by whom or what we will be possessed. That’s a heavy-duty word, isn’t it? Possessed. It carries a lot of freight. We do want to be masters, mistresses of our own fate, and that is the desirable stance for the most part. We have to make our lives. But the foundations of those lives are built of, are constituted of that which we are possessed by. That is what informs our lives. We do the housebuilding, the lifebuilding from the ground level up, but what is beneath the ground keeps the house firm and steady––or not; that determines whether we will be able to weather the trials of this life––or whether we will succumb to external pressures that leave us at the mercy of every wind and wave of public opinion or fad, and will collapse the house into its foundation.

We have opportunities to choose God’s way or not in our everday life again and again, and we know each time what that way is. But at some unexpected moment in time, we have our last opportunity to decide, to choose one way over another. We may have gone so far down the road of our choices that we do not wish to choose something new––God’s way. And God honors that choice because we have free will. Mind you, it is not God, but we ourselves who make that free choice for or against a life with God, a life as possessed of God. Amen.

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