Nothing to be embarrassed about

Listen here.

Tonight we reflect on a story from the second scroll of Samuel, when King David dances ecstatically in the street in a holy apron. He is heading up a procession of priests and  soldiers and musicians, bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city. It’s like Mardi Gras; but when his wife sees him, she is filled with scorn … 

Many years ago I visited an enormous African-American church. Two thousand people packed into the sanctuary, and another thousand filled the basement, where they watched the service on closed-circuit television. For four hours I sat squished into a pew, while the choir sang and the preacher preached and members of the congregation 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 firmly into the centre of a very long pew: I couldn’t possibly be expected to join in!

As an introverted white middle class Protestant, raised by the daughter of no drinking no dancing no sex-standing-up Baptists, I’m not great at ecstatic praise; and when I think of King David dancing around mostly naked, I cringe. Good on him for worshipping God, I think — but does he really have to go so far? I have great sympathy for his wife, Michelle, who saw her husband and was filled with contempt. 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 scorn, but I feel pretty uncomfortable whenever anyone is too expressive in their faith.

I suspect that I am not alone in my feelings. Those of us who gather here tend not to sing spontaneously, or dance freely around the communion table, or raise our hands in praise, or speak in tongues, or emit loud Hallelujahs! every time we approve of something in the service. Now, nobody has ever said that we can’t speak in tongues here, or dance around during a song; and 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 how to worship that such episodes are rare.

Of course, these norms aren’t Christian. Instead, they are about being middle class Anglos. In our context it is normal (by which I mean polite) to sit quietly while someone else is talking, just as the adults are doing now while I speak. It is rude to interrupt unless the conversation is between friends, or to make loud noises while other people are being quiet. Because of these norms, here at Sanctuary we often tread an uneasy line between allowing children to move and speak during the service, and wishing they would learn to be quiet.

As for dancing, it is odd, even suspicious-looking, to be the only one dancing in a crowd; and few people dance in public unless they are roaring drunk. We also have unspoken rules about how much space our bodies take up, how far away from others we sit or stand, when to make eye contact, and so on.

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’s usually as a joke, or as a criticism of the Catholic priesthood. Those of us who don’t regularly engage in sex, or at the very least claim to want it, are often portrayed as emotionally damaged people needing psychological treatment, and worthy of scorn. Celibacy is almost never seen as a valid, legitimate option for somebody’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. Deep down, most of us also believe that when people don’t have enough money, it is their own fault.

We are also secretive about our faith. One of the old English rules of etiquette is never to talk about 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. This norm is so ingrained that many Anglo Christians, particularly those on the left wing, regularly misquote St Francis, and say “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary,” and then use that as an excuse to never use words at all.

There are many more rules that I could list, many unspoken and all of which affect how we live, how we worship, and how we do faith. These rules aren’t necessarily bad in and of themselves, but, as I said before, they are not Christian. They are English cultural rules which are so ingrained in our society and in our churches that they are often effectively invisible. Good citizens that we are, we have internalized them so successfully that we live most of them out without being aware of them at all.

Early Christians were not like us. On the one hand, they had very different cultural norms; 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 — in fact, it was the preferred way — because they believed 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 Christ.

Unlike us, they weren’t embarrassed to talk about money. Instead, like Jesus, they talked about money all the time. They lived from a common purse, and everyone knew how much everyone else earned because it was all put into one pool and shared out according to need.

Nor were they embarrassed to talk about their faith, and none of us would be Christian today were it not for those missionaries who travelled the world and talked endlessly about Jesus, risking their lives to do so. Their services went for hours, and were known for their ecstatic singing and dancing. In fact, I would say that many of the early Christians ‘went too far’ in expressing their faith; that is, they lived counterculturally in their own society, and in ways which make us cringe even now.

Of course, such people are still around. Christian friends here in Warrnambool have experimented with a common purse; and some quietly embrace the power of celibacy. Some talk freely about their faith; and still others have made radical lifestyle 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 take their faith just 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; and that those who want to see God must live with integrity, not chasing after shadows, not living a lie.

So should we be limited by our cultural expectations, those shadowy norms which we notice with embarrassment only when somebody breaks them? Should we always stay quiet and polite, and remain secretive about money and faith? Should we unthinkingly assume that marriage is the only path to holiness? Should we keep our faith private, even a little bland? Perhaps David’s wife Michelle felt a bit like that. I have no doubt she was religiously observant and faithful in her own way, just like most of us.

The thing is, we are not called to conform and be nice, nor are we called to uphold middle class Anglo social values. God is not asking us to be good model citizens of any human system. Instead, we are invited to become confident model citizens in the reign of God, a kingdom and a culture which critiques all other kingdoms and all other cultures.

As citizens of God’s kingdom, we might find ourselves examining … everything! Money, sex, power, religion, the nuclear family, work, dancing, and more will all come under the microscope, as we seek to live into the kingdom of justice, mercy and love. And if there are times when the Spirit prompts us 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 street, then that is what we must do.

It might feel embarrassing, because embarrassment is a form of social control. When we live with integrity, and move beyond our norms and into God’s culture, we will always get pushback, both from within and from without: of course we will blush. But we will also be radically transformed into Christ’s own image, which we are told is radiant and splendid, part of his new creation. And that, my friends, is nothing to be embarrassed about at all! Ω

Playful paraphrase of text available here.

A reflection on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-22 and Psalm 85, Sanctuary, 15 July 2018 (BP10; Year B Proper 10) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image credit: Unknown artist. Found here.

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