I am preaching at Mt. Hope United Methodist Church in Mahopac, NY, and Holmes United Methodist Church in Holmes, NY, this morning. These are the thoughts that I hope to present for this Sunday, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost. (And yes, I know, it is a long one but I had a lot to say this morning.)
When I began planning this sermon I was intrigued by the combination of dancing in today’s readings from the Old Testament (1) and the New Testament (2) reading. In part it reminded me of the reading from Ecclesiastes that begins “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” (3)
Verse 4 of the passage from Ecclesiastes tells us “that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn; and a time to dance.” (4) The New Testament reading with its description of the death of John the Baptist brings us mourning while the return of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament reading clearly is a time for dancing.
But in the middle of the Old Testament reading for today is a verse that just doesn’t seem to fit.
“As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.” (5)
Later, in verse 20, Michal curses David for his behavior in the streets.
Why was Michal so angry with David? The story of Michal and David was both a love story and a tragedy. She had fallen in love with the handsome young warrior before he had fought Goliath and this love grew with his heroism. But as her love for David grew, she also became estranged with her father, King Saul. She had risked her life in order to save David and this only caused the separation between her and her father to deepen.
Perhaps in retribution for this act, Saul gave her to another man, Palti, in marriage. While married to Palti Saul and her brother Jonathan died in battle and her other brother, Ishbosheth, was murdered by assassins. When David returned from battle, he demanded that Michal be returned to him. While we may be confused about how someone married to someone else can be given to a third party in marriage, it was apparently proper and good to do so in Old Testament times.
Even if the reasons for her marriage to Palti were not hers, it appears that Michal had come to love him, as it is recorded that she wept uncontrollably when she was returned to David. And her despair must have grown even more with the reunion with David; for David was no longer the young, courageous warrior that had served her father’s household. Now David was king and she would have to share or compete with six other wives for his affections and attention. For those keeping track, Michal is married to two men and David has six wives. This definitely fits into the Old Testament definition of marriage being between one man and one woman.
It is not likely that David’s actions in today’s reading were the sole cause of Michal’s hatred. Her hatred had grown over the years. Her sarcastic words in verse 20 of this chapter came from a lifetime of pain and hurt. She was separated from her father and her brother and now they were both dead. Instead of looking to God for support, she became bitter. It is recorded that Michal died childless. In the context of the Old Testament, this was the final blow. Her life, once full of promise, ended in tragedy and bitterness.
Anger and bitterness are also the hallmarks of today’s New Testament reading. Herodias, the wife of Herod, had divorced her first husband in order to marry Herod. Similarly, Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias. The complication in all of this was that Herodias’ first husband, Philip, was Herod’s half-brother. John the Baptist had declared this marriage was not a lawful marriage since one man was prohibited from marrying his brother’s wife. (6)
Now we can only imagine how Herodias must have felt, to have the nature of marriage criticized in public by some “wild man” from Galilee. It is noted that Herod feared John because he was a righteous man. So Herod probably understood that there was some truth to what he was saying. But Herodias only grew angry at what John was saying and began looking for a way to get rid of this irritant in her life.
That opportunity came when their daughter danced before Herod. Because of the quality of her dancing, he agreed to give her anything she wanted. Normally, this would have been property or money but Herodias took this opportunity to have John the Baptist beheaded. The anger of one led to the death of another.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be anger which yields actions that result in death. Thomas Beckett was royal chancellor to King Henry II. In 1162, following the death of the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry appointed him to be the new archbishop. Henry must have thought that, with their friendship, he could more easily control the church and get the church to more easily support the crown’s policy. But Beckett did not go along with this plan. The man who was a layperson one day, an ordained priest the next, and the most powerful clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the third day took his job very seriously.
Beckett would not allow the king and crown to engulf the church. Henry’s plan to gain authority that properly belonged to the church failed because Beckett would not allow such an uncontrolled usurpation of power.
Those who knew Beckett before his appointment found it amazing that he, Beckett, would come even close to being a man of God. But he grew into the job and the position. He understood what he had been called by God to do and refused to do what Henry wished that he would do. In exasperation, Henry made a passing remark that he wished someone would dispose of this headache. Four young knights, William de Tracy, Reginald fitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Bret, all who hoped to rise in favor with Henry, rode off to Canterbury and assassinated Beckett on the high altar of the cathedral. The four knights were disgraced and Henry found himself seeking repentance for his thoughts and actions/ (7)
But I do not need to read from the Bible or the history of society for you to know that anger has a way of leading to desolation and destruction. Which one of us did not shake their heads in amazement when we heard and read of that doctor in Manhattan who attempted to commit suicide by blowing up his 125-old year Manhattan townhouse so that he wouldn’t have to sell it and give the proceeds to his ex-wife in a divorce judgment. What was most interesting for me was that divorce lawyers in New York admitted that anger was the key point in obtaining a reasonable settlement in most cases.
And which of us does not shake our head in amazement when we read of a “drive-by killing” where an innocent person, young or old, is killed because they were in the path of a bullet intended for someone else.
Even more disturbing in this day and age is that anger and violence are becoming more and more commonplace. The report in the news last Friday (8) tells us that violent crime is on the rise. Violence has become an almost daily occurrence in our lives and it seems as if we can do little to prevent it.
We are a society whose first response, it seems, to any injustice is “an eye for an eye”. We seek Biblical support for revenge by using what actually called for punishment. The passage from Exodus is not a call for retaliation but rather what punishment is to be given. It is why Jesus started the passage in Matthew 5 with “we were once told.” It was a pointed remark by Jesus to those before him that what they had been taught was a corruption of the original meaning.
And then Jesus goes one step further. Not only does he correct the understanding about the law, he gives a new meaning of what our actions are to be.
As you know, we once were told, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I tell you: Do not react violently against the one who is evil.” (9)
Jesus does more than simply deny the spiritual validity of an eye for an eye; he removes the right to engage in violent self-defense when an “evildoer” violates your humanity. Because someone wrongs you, you do not have the right to wrong your assailant. You may have the power to get even, but God does not give you the right to do so. Nor do you have the right to imitate the evil that led to the assault upon you. Again, you may have the power, but Jesus reminds of what Amos said in calling us away from the imitation of evil: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live . . . Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” (10) The core precept here is not about passivity or flight. It is about fighting back with different weapons. It is about resisting evil without showing enmity. (11) Jesus points out that what we had learned was not what God had intended and what is really meant by love.
Two weeks ago, I posted “Study War No More” on my blog. (This sermon was also posted there this morning.) Of all the thoughts that I have posted in the past year or so, this one generated the greatest number of comments. Among the comments was the following:
I agree totally with you. But sometimes, when I defend this position I’m asked by people how do I propose we respond to attacks on us, genocide, holocaust, and other atrocities. Do we maintain peace with these countries which are killing us and others? I’d be interested in your reply, for my own personal understanding. Thanks. (12)
We are faced with a dilemma when it comes to fighting anger, violence, and hatred. One’s concept of “rights” easily conflicts with one’s concept or feeling of moral duty. If I am wronged, it is my “right” to do wrong against him who has wronged me. If I am wronged, it is my moral duty to behave not as instinctive reaction would dictate, but only as reason and good sense show — for two wrongs do not make a right, and fire added to fire will surely burn the house down. (13)
We are tempted to say that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good. But it is what comes after good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines what actions we will take. Do we practice what we preach? Or do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And in advocating freedom, do we refuse to face the real threat to the security that our freedom affords us? If in advocating love, do we hate the haters more than they hate us? If we are to preach love, freedom, and peace, we must first love, be free, and be peaceful — or better yet, not preach at all but love, peace, and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (14)
It is true that God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and good alike and sends rain that falls on the just and unjust alike. It is also true that God created a universe that still has many mysteries that lie beyond our comprehension and that makes room for every kind of life to flourish, permeated by grace. Because God’s grace has no limits, we who are followers of Jesus must love our enemies, for that enemy is the recipient of God’s grace — of God’s rain — just as we are. And that, as the old proverb goes, is the rub.
We are quite willing to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Savior so should we not also proclaim the spirit, the mind, the heart and the soul of Jesus as the content of how to live in today’s society? It is probably the hardest thing for us to do because what Jesus preached two thousand years ago is so hard for us to accept today. Our societal values often prevent us from following the healer, the prophet, the teacher and the resurrecter of human lives that Jesus was. It is time that we make the visible practice that Jesus taught, thought, and lived the practice of Christianity today. Instead of “loving our neighbors and hating our enemies”, shouldn’t we be doing what Jesus commanded us to do, “love our enemies as well.” (15)
In Matthew 5: 40 we read,
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your shirt as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (16)
What Jesus teaches us is that what we call conventional love is not enough. Such mundane, conventional loving is inadequate. And the love that we are to show our enemies is not really about our enemies; it is about God and about you as you begin to become that prism for the light and love of Jesus.
It is about becoming a child of God. The potential of the life within you is more than you can know. When Jesus says to love your enemies you will become that child of god. Becoming a child of God only happens through the enlargement of our hearts by God’s grace. This is what Paul wrote to the Ephesians; we have an inheritance that can only be ours because we are the children of God. The practical consequence of this is that while we will continue to view the enemy as an enemy — remaining clear-sighted in that respect — we will also come to view that enemy as one of God’s children and thereby deserving of our respect.
In 1965, there was a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It was this march, marked by violence, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By that time, many people had died in the struggle for civil rights and Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the marchers that day on the value of truth:
I can’t promise you that it (truth) won’t get you beaten. I can’t promise you that it won’t get your home bombed. I can’t promise you won’t get scarred a bit — but we must stand up for what is right. If you haven’t discovered something that is worth dying for, you haven’t found anything worth living for.”
I am not saying that we should plan on dying for the cause of non-violence or because we are children of God. Death is a dark, fearful foe. But because of Christ, we can cope; we need not shiver in chilled terror. God has promised that He will be there for us.
What we are asked to do is challenging, to say the least. In the face of those who would rather see us dead, loving our enemies allows us, through God’s grace, to break the cycle and to see and feel differently – to see and feel as God sees and feels. Loving our enemies stretches our imaginations so that the incredible and wonderful diversity of the human family becomes for us a thing of beauty and joy. Jesus teaches that in our process of becoming children of God, loving our enemies enables us to become as generous as God is generous: that is, generous without limits. (17)
And so we must start today. This is the time where we must start breaking the cycle that leads to anger, hatred, and violence. This is the time when we must say that anger, hatred, and violence are not the answers. We know that it will take time for this to happen but if we do not start today, it will not get done.
As we sing our closing hymn today, let us remember the story of John Newton, the author of those words. John Newton was a slave ship captain and owner; he was reputedly one of the meanest men ever. Perhaps his anger and disposition came from the work that brought him his wealth and power. But one day, in the middle of a run from Africa to America with his cargo of slaves, he ran into God. Now, he did not, as the popular tale goes, turn his ship around and take the people in the hold of his ship back to Africa. But he did begin to soften his attitude and he did begin to treat the people he carried better than other captains.
Ultimately, he got to the point where he could no longer continue this horrible business and he retired to England where he began writing hymns. When we sing of that wretch that was saved by the Grace of God, we are singing the autobiography of John Newton. And we are singing of the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives; it may not be immediately as it was for Paul on the road to Damascus. But it will change lives and it is time that we begin bringing the Holy Spirit into the world to change lives and minds.
Some who have read or heard what I have said and written here will tell me that it is a nice idea and it would work in a perfect world but we do not live in a perfect world. We still live in a world where people use evil for their own purposes. The continuing civil war in Iraq and the escalating war in Israel are proof of that.
But one cannot compromise principles. We are constantly bombarded everyday with aspects of materialism on television, in shopping malls. We are constantly placed in situations that call for us to compromise but, knowing that God is there, we can resolutely declare that we will not serve such gods and we will not worship at their altars, no matter what the cost.
On Easter Sunday, 1965, a group of civil rights marchers attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. They knew that they would be met by a contingent of Alabama state troopers and local law enforcement officials, all dedicated to the premise that the marchers would not complete the march. And when the marchers came to the Edmund Pettis Bridge, they met that contingent.
Now, the marchers could have turned back but their efforts to seek justice and equality in a land that said that all men were entitled to justice equality would have ended. And to move forward was to invite confrontation; so they stopped and knelt in prayer. It was the law enforcement officials who came forward and initiated the brutality that ensued on that Easter Sunday.
Similarly, in 1930 Gandhi led a group of protestors to the Indian Ocean to pick up salt. The manufacturing, possession and trading of salt by native Indians were illegal activities, even when the salt was found by the ocean in naturally occurring deposits. The Salt Marchers were committed to non-violence and, just as some thirty-five years later in Selma, Alabama, the law enforcement officials began beating the marchers. It was said that nothing much was accomplished that day in 1930 but the world began to see that there were ways to achieve goals without implementing violence. (18)
When Allan Boesak was in jail in 1985, imprisoned for battling apartheid in South Africa, he thought back to the time he saw black teenagers dancing around a police car just after one of his church members had been arrested. They were singing “It is broken, the power of Satan is broken! We have disappointed Satan, his power is broken. Alleluia!” The police were confused and at the sound of this freedom song released their prisoner. (19)
And lest we forget, Jesus began his ministry and the concept of non-violence during the time when the Roman Empire was at its peak. The Romans had achieved their domination of the world through a very simple response to opposition, brutality. Those that opposed the Roman government with violence were treated with the cruelest form of brutality, crucifixion. We know that there were Jewish authorities that wanted no part of the Roman oppression and made deals with them in order to co-exist and maintain their own power. The tragedy of the show trial on Maundy Thursday and the execution by crucifixion on Good Friday tells us the outcome of such appeasement.
But we also need to remember that Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane when the authorities came to arrest Jesus. One of the disciples (said by John the Gospel writer to be Peter) took his sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest. But Jesus rebuked the disciples, saying “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword” and healed the wounded servant. (20)
If Jesus is going to reject violence, what are we to do? The one struggle that I had writing this sermon was that I don’t have all the answers. In part, this is because the questions that I seek answers for are my own questions and you have your own questions. But I know that the source for the answers is the same for all of us.
When John Wesley first came to America, the ship he was on was rocked by a terrible storm, a storm much like the one that caused John Newton to change the direction of his life. But Wesley was not ready to change his life; in fact, he questioned even more his calling to do the work of God as he watched a band of Moravians pray. There were people who found solace in God but John Wesley was not one of them. It was not until the failure of his American mission work and his return to England that Wesley was able to feel the touch of God on his heart. And when John Wesley trusted God that night in the chapel on Aldersgate street, his life and the work of the Methodist Church changed.
Perhaps you have been hearing God’s call to you; today is that time to answer the call. Perhaps you have answered God’s call and you are seeking ways to do what He has asked you to do. Today is that time to ask for the Holy Spirit to warm your heart and show you the path to walk.
(1) 2 Samuel 6: 1 – 5, 12 – 19
(2) Mark 6: 14 – 29
(3) Ecclesiastes 3: 1
(4) Ecclesiastes 3: 4
(5) 2 Samuel 6: 16
(6) Leviticus 20: 21
(7) See http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/becket.htm; also Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell.
(8) NBC News, 14 July 2006
(9) Matthew 5: 38 – 39
(10) Amos 5: 14 – 15
(11) Adapted from “Higher Ground: The Nonviolence Imperative” by James M. Lawson, Jr. in Getting on Message – challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel (Rev. Peter Laarman, editor)
(12) see the comments for “Study War No More” – 5:17 PM, July 02, 2006
(13) Adapted from Letters of a C. O. in Prison by Timothy W. L. Zimmer, page 25
(14) Zimmerman, page 37
(15) Matthew 5: 43 – 44
(16) Matthew 5: 40
(17) Continued from Lawson
(18) Adapted from http://www.dadalos.org/int/Vorbilder/vorbilder/gandhi/salzmarsch.htm
(19) Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs by James C. Howell
(20) Luke 22:50; see also Matthew 26: 51, Mark 14: 47 and John 18: 10 (though John does not mention the healing).