A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Have you ever done something out of a sense of duty that you later regretted?
Today, I want to talk about two choices that seemed right at the time, but actually defied God. One was made by an unrighteous person and the other by a righteous one. I want to talk about how both of them ended in tragedy.
The stories that we’re reflecting on today are hard to digest, but both teach us that choices made from a sense of duty can keep us from discerning the voice of God.
The first choice is made by the powerful leader of Galilee: Herod Antipas.
In the context of the Gospels, Herod is a no-good, rotten, power monger bent on murdering all of our heroes. After all, in today’s Gospel reading he beheaded John the Baptist. And in Luke, he is complicit in Jesus’ crucifixion.
In today’s text, Herod, who is basically the governor of Galilee, invites the who’s-who of his region over for a decadent dinner. He then invites his daughter to dance for his guests. And in a sudden show of pride, he says to her: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” But then his daughter comes back with a request he didn’t seem to anticipate: “give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
And Herod does what she asks. But given that Herod sort of likes John the Baptist – the passage says that – ultimately, he succumbs to what we might call peer pressure. In other words, he feels that he has a duty to impress his high-powered guests.
But ultimately Herod always had the power to say no. Yes, he had made an oath. Yes, he would embarrass himself in front of all the people who could help him get ahead in life. But in reality, he was beholden only to himself.
John the Baptist was locked up in Herod’s own prison. Herod had full control of the situation.
And yet. And yet… *shake head* How would he ever live this down?
So John the Baptist is gruesomely killed as a party trick.
It is certainly true that Herod is an antagonist. He is intentionally narrated as someone with cruel intentions. But I think we should be careful not to diminish the humanity of Herod, especially in this passage. Because too often, we behave like him. From this perspective, Herod is a cautionary tale for our own lives.
Now, I hope that most of us aren’t murderers. But what I mean to say is that we may be quick to paint this story as a clear-cut case of good and evil so that we don’t have to see the ways innocent things like pleasing our guests can lead to terrible outcomes.
Because, fundamentally, Herod is a man who allows his sense of duty to cloud his judgment about what’s right. And that is a very human thing to do.
Because of Herod’s duty to his friends and family, a man is dead.
Have you ever done something out of a sense of duty that you later regretted?
The second choice is hiding in our readings today. If Herod’s story illustrates the dangerous consequences that result from duty to our colleagues and loved ones, then this next one illustrates the dangers of assuming we owe more to God than God has requested.
You may have noticed that the 2nd Samuel passage is chopped up a bit. It leaves out a very troubling story about a man named Uzzah. And since Uzzah’s story never shows up in our Sunday morning cycle as far as I can tell, I decided to share it this morning…
The fuller 2nd Samuel passage tells us that two men were tasked with driving the Ark of God to a new location under David’s command. Their names were Ahio and Uzzah. In the text printed in our bulletins, we are swiftly brought to the joyous end of the journey. But in the fuller story, something terrible happens.
Ahio and Uzzah are holding the Ark in balance when an ox pulling the cart stumbles over a threshold. Uzzah reaches out to steady the Ark and is immediately struck down and killed. The passage attributes Uzzah’s death to “God’s anger.”
This sounds like horrible theology to our ears, but Uzzah’s death isn’t surprising. The people of Israel knew that they were forbidden to touch the Ark, because it was understood to contain the real presence of God.
So Uzzah likely knew this rule. Nevertheless, he does something very human: he tries to protect God.
It seems like Uzzah is only trying to fulfill his duty to protect and serve his maker. He is only trying to be a righteous follower of God.
And yet…by doing so, he is actually questioning the power and providence of God to sustain and guide the people of Israel. He is knowingly pursuing something that God has told him not to.
To our ears, Uzzah and Herod’s choices are in no way equal in severity. And yet, both forgot to listen to the voice of God.
Now, another man is dead out of a sense of duty.
So, I ask again: Have you ever done something out of a sense of duty that you later regretted?
Duty can help us keep the peace with our loved ones, or signal loyalty to our colleagues. We hide the full truth about something to avoid an argument. We follow through on a plan because we’re exhausted from negotiating. We fail to speak up when someone is being bullied or harmed, because it might cause a scene. We partner with people who are dishonest or cruel. We do cringe-worthy things to impress others.
Of course, these are the obvious bad choices: the ones that come out of a self-protecting nature. Like Herod, we make choices that make us look better, or that keep us from receiving criticism. We do things so that people will like us.
But there’s another kind of choice that is particularly risky for Christians. These are choices like the one Uzzah makes. Ones that come out of a God-protecting nature. When we forget that God has never asked for us for protection.
These choices are often hard to spot because they look like righteousness, but actually arise from our own judgment and not God’s.
God-protecting choices may look like: belittling someone because of an ideology we disagree with, or rushing to correct someone without first understanding our own motives. They could look like making a big life decision without seeking God for discernment, working ourselves to the bone because we don’t trust others to help, or doing good deeds for public recognition. They can even look like acting like our Episcopal tradition makes us more enlightened than others.
I know I have been guilty of many of these things, in big and small ways.
The fact of the matter is that we make choices, daily, out of a sense of duty that God never called us to.
That’s why today’s passages are a wake-up call. Herod and Uzzah’s stories remind us that adhering to social and religious duties without listening for the voice of God can kill, if not literally then certainly spiritually.
In reading these passages, we are being asked to sit with what it is in our lives that comes from our own sheer will and not from God. As we sit, we can ask God for clarity on many things…
- Maybe we’re involved in jobs or ministries that we are no longer called to.
- Maybe we’re afraid to admit that we’re not in control of certain habits or addictions.
- Maybe we’re pushing really hard for certain things in our lives, knowing that they’re not really what we’re meant to be doing.
- Maybe we’re so busy defending what we think is right that we’re alienating ourselves from community.
- Or maybe, we’re so worried about what others think about us that we’re avoiding what God is calling us to.
Thank the Lord that most of our choices do not end in death. But it is still essential that we pay attention to these stories.
We are called today to listen attentively to the voice of the Holy Spirit, the very Word of God: in our Scriptures, in our communities of faith, and through the workings of God in our lives. Discernment can come in quiet prayer, but it can also come in conversations with trusted friends, life experiences, and even negative situations.
God wants more for us than to respond to duty, especially when our actions have no bearing on God’s abundantly loving and reconciling Kingdom. God wants us to live according to a deeper sense of God’s will and a greater sense of joy. This takes courage, but we know that, with God, we never do it alone.