Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday July 12, 2009
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Text. Mark 6:14-29 and 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Theme: Godly Play, Herod and David – rediscovering our dance with God
This week I had the deep pleasure of exploring the sacred stories of our tradition in a new way. A group of nine adults from this parish including me spent three full days engaged in learning the profound discipline of telling sacred stories to children using an approach called Godly Play. It was moving beyond words to become like a child again and to hear these stories as if for the first time: told in such surprising ways, in such elegant and evocative simplicity that so much more than my mind was engaged. We did in fact find ourselves playing: drawing and writing and telling stories and laughing at what God could do in us through a story that seemed so old, so ancient but somehow so alive to us here and now.
For three days we had the privilege of experiencing the Bible in a whole new way that was not just “child’s play.” It was rediscovering our childhood before God. It was the stretching opportunity to realize that when one is open to not just hearing a story but entering it and allowing it to invite you into a conversation with God new meaning, new understanding, newness can happen. We found ourselves wondering about the stories that shape the Christian life in such fresh ways that our own spiritual lives began to open-up.
In fact, when I began to ponder our gospel lesson for today in light of what I had been experiencing I found myself laughing at this gruesome text of a child asking for the prophet John the Baptist’s head on behalf of her mother. The first thing that came to mind was that this is not a text for children, yikes! Why do we read this in church? If ever there was a text bent on destroying the spiritual potential of children or manipulating them to adult purposes this is it. I began to wonder about what this story might be saying to me in the midst of exploring the theology of childhood?
To be sure this story is meant to make it clear that Jesus’ popularity is growing and that his works of power are beginning to cause a ruckus in the political world that surrounds him. Just as John predicted Jesus would increase as he would decrease. But in the text there are some extremely interesting details. Herod, while the cause of John’s death, is presented as a complex character. I have always loved the playfulness of the phrase, “When he (Herod) heard him (John), he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” It is as if the gospel writer is trying to tell us something about how we are to encounter the challenging ways of the scriptures. We don’t have to know all the answers, we can be perplexed and troubled by the ways of God or the person of Jesus but at the same time there is a deep attraction, a joy in grappling with the spiritual meaning hidden in these stories.
Though Herod knows that John disapproves of his ethical and moral life, he continues to listen to John puzzling about the messages of this holy man and going so far as to protect him from harm despite his family’s discomfort. It is as if Herod is engaged spiritually by John and is in the midst of a game that we all are invited into hide and seek with God. It is a game best learned in the presence of children who have an intuitive ability to experience the presence of God. To enter the Kingdom of God we need to become like a child. Children can intuit divinity they know that the world is charged with the grandeur of God and will show you if you will take the time to be with them. It is no secret that children are more open to spirituality than adults, who rely more on their abilities with words than the nonverbal communication they had before they acquired language.
This brings to mind a story from a wonderful book by Gertrude Mueller Nelson called To Dance with God. In it she describes an experience with her daughter.
Some years ago, I spent an afternoon caught up in a piece of sewing I was doing. The waste basket near my sewing machine was filled with scraps of fabric cut away from my project. This basket of discards was a fascination to my daughter Annika, who, at the time, was not yet four years old. She rooted through the scraps searching out the long bright strips, collected them to herself, and went off. When I took a moment to check on her, I tracked her wereabouts to the back garden where I found her sitting in the grass with a long pole. She was a affixing the scraps to the top of the pole with great sticky wads of tape. “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said. “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.” With that she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to dance” (To Dance with God p. 3).
Nelson writes, “This little primitive allowed me to witness a holy moment and I learned all over again how strong and real the sense of wonder that children have – how innate and easy their way with the sacred. Here, religion was child’s play. And of course I had to wonder what happens in our development that as adults we became a serious folk, uneasy in our relationship with God, out of touch with the mysteries we knew in childhood, restless, empty, searching to regain a sense of awe and a way to “dance with God.”
Perhaps this is what is so delightful about the story of David dancing before the ark of God in our Older Testament reading. David is rejoicing in the presence of God. He is uninhibited in his celebration, dancing with all his might before the Lord with the people of God. David is not a perfect human being as we well know but what he does seem to have is an ongoing childhood before God. He knows how to delight in God, to enter into a playful relationship with God that never ends. He is caught up in the wonder, joy and love of relating to God and will not be stopped or inhibited by the adult conventions bent on destroying this Godly play. He is alive to God in his body and does not need language to show his love of God.
Perhaps that is what is so sad about the dancing that is going on in the story of Herod. His daughter dances to impress the adults. The child is being used to entertain the adults and because of this Herod feels the need to reward her. This dancing is not the spontaneous pleasurable dancing of a child that has its own intrinsic rewards and leads to new and creative activities. It is not the joyous and worshipful dancing of David. Rather this dance is calculated to impress and because it requires reward it leads to a kind of death that closes down the creative process and eventually leads to physical and spiritual death. Herod is deeply grieved and his daughter is manipulated and robbed of her childhood as she sees that her creative potential will be used to take life instead of to create it.
It may seem strange but this passage of scripture that is so “adult” and so “inappropriate for children” has the potential to remind us of what children need to grow spiritually and ultimately what we need to grow along with them, for they can be our guides and our guiding of them can lead us back to discovering our own childhood before God.
I wonder what do children really need to grow in relationship with God? I wish that on a Sunday morning like this one the sermon could end right here and we could turn to our neighbors and talk about this wondering question. I wonder what you need to grow spiritually? I wonder where your childhood is before God? Perhaps if I had more guts or was less “adult” about all this preaching business I could really issue this invitation? Or perhaps I’m just childlike enough to do so?
(pause) I can see some Episcopalians out there getting nervous.
I think our children need permission to be children. They need time and space to play with God and not that kind of techno-garbage play we are served so readily today that requires so little of them. Children need play for its own sake. It doesn’t have to be productive. Play is its own reward.
I think our children need adults who are willing to draw out of them what is already inside of them. The limitations that they already sense around them are important. Life has limits, freedom has limits, time moves on, and we all have questions about why we are here?
Perhaps most importantly children need stories it is the language they are most comfortable with: stories of pilgrimage, parables that tease their hearts awake, stories of God’s creative power. Story is how we discover the world, that is how we shape our lives and make meaning, they are how we become aware of a deeper reality that surrounds us.
I believe that children need to be allowed to grapple with the mysteries of our tradition. They need the opportunity to sense in their bones the deep mystery of Christ at the Great Vigil of Easter, to find comfort and belonging around that awesome and holy table that is open to everyone. They need us to reflect back to them the mysteries of our faith that we find in the wisdom that God reveals to them so easily.
Like us they need to find themselves in a community that gathers around the light. That centers itself around the goodness and grace of God and the creative power of the Spirit to transform all it draws into that circle of light.
But that is only my list and I do wonder what your list might look like? What do you believe children need to play with God? And is it all that different than what you need to become playful with God yourself? David danced before the ark of God with reckless abandon. He danced with all his might in the presence of the Holy. It doesn’t have to be a dance of joy. A good friend of mine got up from her bed and danced with God the night before the cancer finally took her body. I wonder what it would take to get you dancing with God? I wonder what you need to play with God, for that is its own reward.