In this morning’s Hebrew and Christian scripture, we are shown that the least likely of people are chosen to do God’s work on Earth.
We have a king, formerly a pretty boy shepherd, down in the streets with the people, dancing, leading a procession, praising and glorifying God; there is a disturbing, passionate prophet who calls it like he sees it through God, doesn’t care who he offends as he calls for people to repent, live into a new life; and there is a puppet of the powers-that-be, untrusting, fearful – a leader by accident of parentage and one who miscalculated but whose actions were necessary.
Let’s see how this odd Trinity fits, and especially how it fits in God’s plan.
King David brings the Ark of Covenant from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem after he captures the city from the Jerubites. That action lays the foundation for Jerusalem becoming the center of Hebrew life and faith for the people of Israel. This is a joyful occasion, for the Ark was a portable chest that tradition says held the two tablets of the law. It was a symbol of the Covenant. It was originally housed in a tent and led the people through the desert. Now, it was finding a permanent home with David first, and later, the Temple that he would build to house it. I don’t know about you, but yes, this would be an occasion to celebrate, and David does. This infuriates his wife. Maybe he’s embarrassing her: kings don’t dance in the streets, or throw off their kingly jewel-encrusted robes, or wear priestly garments; they wear clothes that cost a fortune, they’re carried in litters or ride in chariots or on horseback, the people bowing and groveling as they pass – the way Herod Antipas would have dressed and travelled through Jerusalem centuries later. Do you see him dancing through the streets or rejoicing with his people – not the palace cronies or courtiers, but people like you and me? Antipas is the son of Herod the Great. Being the son of someone with less-than-sterling morals and labeled ‘the Great’ can’t be easy, and Herod Antipas hasn’t endeared himself to the people or his family. He’s married his brother’s wife, which is prohibited in Leviticus and isn’t lost on his detractors. John the Baptizer has called him out on this. And he’s got a high-maintenance wife seeking revenge for all the nasty truths being told.
First century Palestine and Judea were full of prophets, and many of them failed in conveying their messages. John was one who did not. You might label him eccentric for his dress and way of life, which begs the question, if John walked into this church right now, today, would we pay attention to his words, or to his appearance? Okay, this is Berkeley where anything still goes, but honestly, would we accept him? After all, he doesn’t look or act like we do. Would we dismiss him as yet another homeless guy wandering in for a meal, a place to rest? Or would we welcome him? Listen to what he has to say even if it stretched our comfort zones?
John’s behavior, like David’s, was not the norm for his society. Herod? He looked the part, acted it on occasion. Each of these men were called by God to set something in motion for us: David, to build a kingdom and keep a Covenant, continue living in faith; John to proclaim the kingdom here and now and make people ready, anticipate, a new way of thinking and living through who and what was to come; Herod to set that work into play with politics, fear, mistrust and pathos and ordering the execution of a prophet who accomplished an action of transition from penitence in the old world to communion in the new world.
Where have seen this before? John’s violent death by the authorities, a death that is calculated and planned, is a precursor to the death of Jesus, the Christ, who led us further from penitence to communion, to grace, and is just as important to the development of our faith, society. From among John’s disciples came those to Jesus as the ministry given to him by God picks up momentum and became a force to be reckoned with, a threat to the status quo. David’s admirable and despicable actions as king paved the way for Solomon and generations of leaders to a messiah whose words and deeds are still honored today. They inspired prophets like Gandhi, Bonheoffer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero and Congressman John Lewis.
He was a confidante and friend of Dr. King.
In 2009, when I attended Sojourners’ Mobilization to End Poverty conference in Washington, D.C., Mr. Lewis preached to us at the opening liturgy. He shared his story of how, as a young man, he disobeyed his parents and went on the freedom bus rides in the South to stand in solidarity with Dr. King and to make a statement about equality. His parents asked him, “Son, why do you want to get in the way? Why do you want to make trouble?” He ignored their pleas and worked with Dr. King. Mr. Lewis told us that we were to be undeterred in our separate yet equal paths to social justice and right action. We were to find a way to get in the way.
I have two raisons d’être: Joan of Arc’s quote, “I am not afraid, for God is with me. I was born for this.” And “Find a way to get in the way,” I use them in prayer and action. I believe, and I share this with you, that David and John got in the way, got to people, opened minds. They were born for their work and right action. Herod, too – he was a lesson in how not to govern and what happens when you don’t listen to God or see God in others.
I am finding parallels to the life of the prophets then and the life and work of prophets now. To prophesy or use a prophetic voice to tell people to open their eyes to what is wrong isn’t an automatic death sentence in the United States, but we who speak out against corporate greed, discrimination of all kinds, the growth of the wealthy and the increasing poverty of the middle class, we who speak and stand up for the marginalized and undocumented, we who dance to a joyful song rather than march solemnly to a one-beat cadence are considered un-American, called that really dirty nine-letter word, socialist, and suspect; we are quoted convenient scripture by those who claim to be and know better, told we are wrong, knocked down a peg, put in our places and shown the error of our ways.
Good, I say.
Let them keep doing that.
Let them keep attacking women, cutting back social programs for the benefit of all and not just the privileged few, let them keep calling I and my colleagues Socialists and knee-jerk liberals, and other things I can’t say here, let them write newspaper columns and blogs tearing down the Episcopal Church for its bold inclusiveness and predicting its demise in the wake of our seeking change, change and more change, because like John the Baptizer, it will give us all the more reason to stand up, proclaim the Gospel and live it out, and turn this darkness surrounding us inside out and towards the Light. We will dance, we will prophesy, we will get in the way, clear a path leading to the Kingdom of Heaven where the love of Christ in God is boundless and given freely. And where everyone, absolutely everyone! Is welcome at the table.