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The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell

The Rev. Dr. James C. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

Myers Park United Methodist Church, Charlotte, NC


The Primrose Path of Dalliance

Judges 13:24;14:5-6;15:14-15;16:4-5,16-17

May 19, 1996

Samson...swashbuckling, reckless, muscular, capable of prodigious feats. Sort of a biblical Rob Roy, Rambo, Attila, Achilles all rolled into one. Strangely distant, shrouded in myth and legend, yet strangely modern, familiar.

The first thing we can say about Samson is that he is gifted. And we too are gifted, by God. We have abilities, passions, brains, insight, stuff, resources, muscle, a smile. God somehow put all that in us, making us who we are. Now, our culture tells us we are a bundle of desires, advertisers come after us, appealing to this desire, that desire. Our culture also suggests we are gripers, complainers; when we don't get what we desire, then we complain. It's gotta be somebody's fault: The President, my boss, my spouse, whatever. But in the Bible we are gifted, and we have responsibilities. I talk to people who are approaching death. When they look back on their lives, what they wish, what they would have found meaningful, would be to have used their gifts, their resources, their time in ways that make a difference. I want my life to matter. I am not just a bundle of desires and complaints. I am gifted, and I have responsibilities.

Samson is gifted, but he stumbles, he squanders his gifts. His failure is this: he tiptoed down what Hamlet called the primrose path of dalliance. He dallies with booze and with sex. He dallies with Delilah. Her name in Hebrew means "flirtatious." And what a flirt she is! Under the guise of pleasure and love she is out to take advantage of him. Reminds me of a guy I knew in college. John had many pretty girlfriends -- while for me it was a struggle just to get a date. I went to him for some advice: "John you are the envy of the campus. You have such a way with women. What's your secret?" He surprised me; "I'll tell you. It's no big deal. I lie to them." "What?" "Oh, yes, I lie to them. I tell them whatever they want to hear."

That's how it is along this primrose path of dalliance. In our heart we are looking for love, for affection. We sense this gapping hole in our souls, a gnawing emptiness inside. And we just get suckered by flirts like Delilah, who dress up like a dream but are just our worst nightmare.

Samson, like so many of us, gets bamboozled by booze and sex. Delilah liquors him up and finally saps his strength. Sometimes people ask me, "Can Methodists drink?" It's kind of like asking, "Can Methodists dance?" The answer is, "Well, some can and some can't." I mean, of course we can drink. Jesus and his disciples drank wine every day of their lives. Drinking just isn't forbidden in the Bible.

But in our culture, we're fools if we don't discern how alcohol lies to us. Just watch a few beer ads. There's this whole ethos that surrounds alcohol -- something about fun, having friends, letting our inhibitions down, being in the crowd. Recently I was at a party, and my host, trying I guess to be a real pal, pulled me aside, "Hey James, you want a beer?" I said, "No thanks." But he persisted, "Come on, have a beer." You know, you never go somewhere, and somebody offers you a Sprite. "Hey James, have a Sprite." You say "No thanks." They don't say, "Come on have a Sprite." It just takes on all this meaning, having a drink, being cool. It flirts with us, it lies to us, promising the moon, delivering nothing but damaged goods. Just like those other flirters -- money, sex, power. Money talks all day long, lying through its teeth, the great high god of our culture, money. If you just get some more of it, you'll be secure, or your self­-esteem will soar, or you'll somehow be able to stave off any trouble that might trespass on your world. Just what we want to hear! And a lie. Sex. Sex. Sex. On television, in the street, in our minds -- the primrose path of dalliance is everywhere and leads nowhere. Flirts everywhere. And, like Samson, we let ourselves get lied to.

I love that line from that country song by Rhett Akins. "That's my girl, but that ain't my truck." God must look down at us, and say, "That's my girl, that's my boy, but that ain't my truck." Or as William Temple put it, the world is like a store into which some mischievous person has sneaked at night and switched the price tags around; the tragedy of life is that we spend our selves on what has no value. We flitter our time away, we squander our gifts, we let our very selves just get frittered away.

Gifted by God, precious to God, we risk winding up like William Jennings Bryan, after the notorious Scopes trial. H. L. Mencken described him like this: "Once he had one leg in the White House and the nation trembled under his roars. Now he is a tinpot pope in the Coca­-Cola belt...It is a tragedy, indeed to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon."

The ironic thing is that Samson is on to her. He knows exactly what she is doing. Three times he misleads her, her trap is foiled. But finally he caves in, tells her about his hair, the secret. What happened? He just gets worn down; she nags, she pesters, he gets tired to death. He burns out. Alice Walker describes a woman, formerly a whirling dervish of doing good, who sat down in a rocker and stared out her back window every day. "She gave up trying to improve the world and, instead, declined to notice it." And then there's the husband in an Anne Tyler novel, who says this about why his marriage failed: "My wife just used up my good points." We are like Sisyphus, sentenced forever to push a heavy stone up a mountain, only to have it roll down every time we get even close to the summit.

The amazing thing is that, in the end, Samson recovers his strength. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner, survivor of the Holocaust, once said that when God created us we were given a secret -- and that secret was not how to begin but how to begin again. God knows we are eager to begin again, our personal roads littered with false starts and wounds not yet healed. God knows our society, crucified by violence, prejudice, and apathy, is desperate to learn precisely this secret. But on our own we can never pick up the pieces and make our lives whole. The secret is God's, and if we begin again it is the most precious gift of God.

Samson, we may note, recovered his strength, and then pressed with his awesome might against the pillars in the Canaanite stronghold, which creaked, cracked, crumbled, and killed his captors. In fact, in the moment of his death, Samson killed more than he had during his lifetime. And so it was with Jesus Christ. Shackled on the cross by his captors he dealt the devastating blow to his foes -- to our foes. He put an end to death, to guilt, to our hollow, pointless existence, to the bogus gods that lie to us. In His death Christ set us free to begin again, to recover our strength, to live out this adventure of life in bold confidence. Christ struck the coup de grace against all fear, against all our sorrow, against all the world's insanity. Because of this moment, we can fully understand what C. S. Lewis meant in his 1948 radio address, "The Weight of Glory." We do have a problem with our desires. But the problem is not that our desires are too strong -- and they need to be stamped out, cooled off somehow. Rather, the problem is our desires are just too weak. Like Samson, we settle for so much less than God wants to give us. We dally with money, sex, pleasure, power, when God wants to give us love, genuine intimacy, a wealth too precious to spend, the glory of being children of God, heirs of eternal life.

At Christmas in 1951, the preacher's son, a promising seminary student, was home for the holidays to preach the student sermon. Church members were especially excited because, not only was the young man back to preach, but he had brought home a girlfriend to meet his parents, a beautiful young soprano named Coretta Scott. Martin Luther King, Jr, stood in his daddy's pulpit and preached a sermon called "How the Christian Overcomes Evil." He used an analogy from mythology -- those sirens, who sang their haunting, seductive songs, luring sailors and their ships onto the rocks and shipwreck. Ulysses managed to get through, though he stopped up the ears of his sailors; he had himself tied to the mast of ship and managed only with the mightiest effort to avoid shipwreck. By such heroic determination we often try and fail, not being all that heroic. But the Christian way is exemplified rather by Orpheus. When approaching the sirens and their songs, Orpheus simply pulled out his lyre, and played an even more beautiful song, so the sailors were allured by his music, and did not even hear the sirens. So, let us hear the song of the ages, the melody of the heavens, the harmony of the faith, sung by that great cloud of witnesses, the chorus of saints who like Samson heard the music of glory.


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