Based on 2Samuel 6:12-19 (20-23), Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
In the verses after our First Testament reading today, Saul’s daughter and King David’s wife, Michal, rebukes David for dancing wildly in front of the people while wearing very little clothing. In response, the King James translation has David saying he would “yet be more vile than this”, while our translation states he would become more contemptible. The word, “contemptible”, does not often come up in conversation these days. The word has different meanings according to Webster’s Dictionary, the definition that we will be focusing on today is “not following or in accordance with honor and decency”. Defined in this way then, we find that the word “contemptible” points us to someone or something that is not socially or politically correct or acceptable. Given the way that social norms change over time, that which was not acceptable in society one hundred years ago is often no big deal today. Suffice it to say, however, that as long as humans have been living in community there have been those who have lived lives that were outside the norm.
The founder of the Methodist reform movement in the Church of England, John Wesley, would not have been one of those folks who you would typically point to as contemptible. Methodist historian, Richard Heitzenrater, in his book entitled, “Wesley and the People Called Methodists” says this about the early Methodist movement, “…The first rise of Methodism at Oxford, had presented the world with a group of conscientious students bent upon developing a disciplined approach to the Christian life, a meditative piety that tried to implant inward and outward holiness, a theology that exhibited the eclectic tendencies of the holy living tradition, and an organization that was based on a connected system of small groups that shared rules and resolutions by which to implement their scriptural theology in everyday life. It was solidly within the religious society tradition of the Church of England….” John and Charles were not trying to overthrow the Church, rather they were pointing out how the institution had migrated away from some of the ways of Christian living that the Bible described in the Book of Acts. The Church of England would ultimately find them contemptible and forbid them from preaching and leading worship in their churches.
Becoming contemptible is a theme in our readings today. From King David dancing exuberantly in front of the Ark of the Covenant while wearing very little clothing, to Paul’s exhortation to the believers in Ephesus on how living in contempt of worldly ways would grace them, to the contemptible act of King Herod against John the Baptizer. It is clear that when we choose to follow God the world will often consider us contemptible. Let us go to God now in thanksgiving that God has given us a better way to live with God and each other…
King Herod has jailed John the Baptizer because he said publicly and often that Herod had broken the law by marrying his brother’s wife. Herod liked to listen to the holy man John, but he would not tolerate him telling him he was in the wrong. Herod’s wife, Herodias, disliked John so much that she wanted him dead, but couldn’t do that act without permission from the King. Herod’s daughter danced for him for his birthday, and she danced so well that the King promised to grant her any wish. The mother told the daughter to ask for John’s head; and so the deed was done. Thinking that things were now put to rest with John dead, Herod was greatly disturbed when news of Jesus’ healings and teachings came to him. He believed that John had been raised from the dead and feared Jesus.
The Apostle Paul is opening his letter to the believers in Ephesus with some teachings about living as children of God through Jesus the Christ. Paul notes that in Jesus we have been redeemed and forgiven of our sins against God. By living in and through the Christ we have knowledge of the plan that God will execute in the fullness of time to gather all things in heaven and in earth in Jesus. When we live in Jesus, becoming contemptible to worldly things and pursuits, then we gain the inheritance of our salvation through God the Holy Spirit.
King David has decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Ten Commandments, to Jerusalem. He is so elated that he dances wildly before it shouting praises to God and making sacrifices. When his wife saw him behaving in such a vulgar and unseemly manner, she “despised him in her heart”. In other words, she held him in contempt. Starting in verse 20, Michal confronts David over his behavior, and he tells he was rejoicing before the LORD, not just dancing wildly to show off. David told her that the LORD had chosen him over her father and all of Israel and he would become even more contemptible in the eyes of the world in order to thank God for all that God had given and promised him.
I mentioned in the opening that John Wesley was a pretty straight laced priest in the Church of England. In 1738 he had his “Aldersgate” experience where his heart was strangely warmed and he knew himself to be completely forgiven of his sins. He was certain that he was a beloved child of God and this knowledge propelled him forward in his ministry. A year later, he received a request from his friend, George Whitefield to come to Bristol and preach outdoors to thousands. Now Whitefield was a compelling speaker – much preferred to John Wesley, but Whitefield was not the organizer that John was and he knew these souls in Bristol needed to be enrolled in Societies and Bands. John Wesley, noted in his journal the way he was feeling about preaching outside the church. He wrote that, “…nearly all his life he had been ‘so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church….’” However, later that same day he saw Whitefield preach to “about thirty thousand people”. John was amazed by the desire of the people of Bristol for the gospel and the very next afternoon he “submitted to be more vile” by preaching outdoors.
The power of the Holy Spirit persuaded John Wesley that there were souls to be saved outside the church. As Jesus noted in the New Testament, he had not come to save the righteous but the sinner; those who were well were in no need of a doctor. John was able to reach many thousands and to then enlist them in Societies and Bands where they could continue to grow in their faith. John became contemptible in the eyes and minds of the leaders and fellow priests in the Church of England by taking the gospel of Jesus to where the people who needed to hear it most were living and working. Bristol was an industrial city in the new industrial age, the people were being mistreated as they worked in coal mines and other dangerous jobs. The people needed to hear the good news of Jesus so that they had something to give them hope in a place and time where hope was seemingly far away.
John Wesley discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that God was not just locked up tight in church buildings and with those who had the ability and desire to attend worship services. He found that there was a hunger in the larger population who didn’t feel comfortable in a church building, or who had to work on Sundays and could not attend. John praised God and brought many people to Jesus by doing something that was way outside the box for a Church of England priest. Thank God that he did, or we would not be sitting here today!
What would it look like for us to become contemptible or vile for God? How could we begin to get out of our comfort zones and reach out to the wider world that doesn’t come to church? The world is not beating down the doors of any church in America today – and they haven’t been for many decades. The belief that just having a church building will attract people inside is a recipe for a slow death for a congregation – there are plenty of data to show that to be false. I am becoming more convinced that the churches that will survive over the next bit of time are the people that are willing to become contemptible in the eyes of some “church folk”, and reach out into the community as true “community centers”. Places that offer (for example): respite, broadband internet access, literacy training, job interview and resume skills, before and after school help for kids and parents, financial, parental and marriage counseling, washers and dryers free of charge, maybe a shower or two. Churches that become integral meeting places for all kinds of folks from all walks of life will discover that they share the gospel – share the love of God, without even trying. Are you willing to become even more contemptible for God in order to build the kingdom here on earth? May God’s grace guide you in your discernment! Amen.