Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Mighty Have Fallen -- Sermon for Pentecost 5B

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

On Friday afternoon, the President delivered the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine members of Emanuel AME Church who were gunned down the week before during Bible study. It is a powerful statement addressing the ills that confront our nation, including racism and violence. It is also a strong statement of the grace that redeems and heals. The President began his eulogy with these words: 
We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.
After leading the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace,” the President intoned the names of those slain and called on the congregation and the nation to share in the grace that these nine had come to know:
Through the example of their lives, they've now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.
The circumstances were different, but the message David delivered when the news came that Saul and his son Jonathan had been killed in battle, carries with it that same sense of grace found in the President’s remarks.   

Over the course of the past few weeks we’ve met Samuel the Prophet, who anointed Saul as king, even though neither God nor Samuel were thrilled with this prospect. Over time, Saul proved to be a less than reliable ruler, so God had Samuel anoint David as his replacement. In the lectionary reading we skipped due to last week’s celebration, David proved his mettle by facing down the champion of the Philistines – Goliath. While the lectionary readings don’t reveal how the relationship of Saul and David began to sour, even as David’s relationship with Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan, began to blossom, these stories lie behind the words that David shares with his community. 

When word came to David that Saul and Jonathan had died in battle, David knew that he was now the king. Although had been living in exile, waiting his turn, now he needed to rally the people of Israel. To do that he needed to reconcile himself with Saul’s supporters. This eulogy is meant to be that statement of reconciliation. David and Saul may have been rivals, but now that the mighty have fallen, the rivalry must give way to unity among the people.

Saul and Jonathan fell in battle with the Philistines. Unless the nation came together as one people they would be easy prey for the militarily stronger Philistines. If they sensed any sign of weakness, the Philistines could attack and destroy the kingdom. So, you can see why David wouldn’t want to let the Philistines gloat about their victory. This might be a time of sadness and uncertainty, but they couldn’t let the Philistines know. Israel needed to grieve the loss of these two mighty warriors, but it was politically expedient for David to draw the people’s attention to his words of praise for Saul and Jonathan. Saying it was politically expedient doesn’t mean that it wasn’t deeply felt.   

Three times in this song of lament, David declared that “the mighty have fallen.” Even if David and Saul were estranged from each other, David recognized that God had called Saul to be king, and he refused to touch God’s anointed one. As for Jonathan, he was David’s closest and dearest friend. Jonathan had been put in a difficult situation. He wanted to be loyal to his father, and David acknowledges that loyalty, but Jonathan also loved David and wanted to be loyal to him as well. Jonathan even seems to have recognized that David would be the next king, ceding his own inheritance to his friend. These two are the mighty ones, warriors who defended the nation, but even as they stood together in life, they also stood together in death. 

In our day, there is a sense that death is something to avoid. Over the years that I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve had conversations with funeral directors who have confirmed my own observations that we’re uncomfortable with our grief. Tom Long and Tom Lynch wrote a book titled The Good Funeral that makes this point. We often turn moments of grief into moments of celebration, so we don’t have to deal with the reality of our loss. This may be understandable, but maybe not helpful.

Eugene Peterson writes this of David’s song of lament: “A failure to lament is a failure to connect.” He adds that this song is part of a story, in fact David is part of Saul and Jonathan’s story. Being part of this story, Peterson suggests, “means that we mustn’t get ahead of the plot – skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour the disappointments. Lament – making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it – is a primary way of staying in the story” [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christiansp. 121].  

While we are often uncomfortable with our grief that doesn’t mean that it goes away. We may want to avoid dealing with difficult issues, because conflict, like that which divided Saul and David, upsets us. We like things to stay on an even keel, but of course life doesn’t always work out that way. In our families and in our church, we experience times of sadness and grief. We feel the need to offer words of lament, but society tells us to keep that proverbial “stiff upper lip.”

We often struggle to make sense of our grief. Part of us wants to let go and get on with life. There is a time and a place when we do need to let go and move on, but as David’s song reminds us, we must first address the cause of our grief. By doing this publicly, David reminds us that we don’t have to face our grief alone. We can face our challenges together as a community. 

I believe that David’s lament serves as an invitation to the community to embrace those moments when public sharing of grief is appropriate. When Peterson speaks of the importance of not skipping over the hard parts, I think he’s putting his finger on an important issue for us as individuals and as a church when it comes to death. 

When someone close to us dies, we will grieve. We need to grieve. It’s only natural.  Sometimes there is a desire to skip over the painful parts, but we can’t. Now in this song David doesn’t focus on the things that divided him from Saul. He simply remembered Saul and Jonathan as Israel’s mighty ones. He mourns for Saul, but he feels distress at Jonathan’s death. Saul’s death had made it possible for him to gain the throne, but Jonathan’s death struck at his soul. So, whatever joy he felt at that moment was overwhelmed by his grief at the loss of someone so close to him.

   We live in an age that seeks to avoid death. We work hard to prolong life, even when there is no real hope of recovery. We have the machines that can keep the body functioning, even if the brain is dead. But when the spirit is gone, all that remains is flesh. What is resurrected is not the flesh, but the spirit. Dealing with grief isn’t easy. It doesn’t go away over night. While a funeral service won’t resolve every issue, it does allow the community to come together and share in the grace of God that sustains us during the difficult moments ahead. So, when the mighty have fallen, we cry out to God, “take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 5B

June 28, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Divine Criteria -- Sermon for Pentecost 3B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Do you know what it feels like to be the last person chosen for the team? Neither team captain really wants you, but you have to go somewhere. While it’s not fun being in that position, maybe you’ll surprise your doubters! 

Let’s consider, for example, the annual NFL draft.  Each year teams covet certain players because they’re sure they’re going to make a difference. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. I think most of us will agree that Matthew Stafford has worked out pretty well for the Lions, but Cleveland can’t say the same for last year’s first round choice of Johnny “Football” Manziel, who might already be on his way out of the league.  There are always first round picks who end up as flops, while players picked in the later rounds, or even as undrafted free agents, can go on to be stars. I know that the Michigan fans in the room will remember a guy named Tom Brady. He went to the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Six quarterbacks, none of whom did much of anything in the NFL, were drafted ahead of him. For some reason teams didn’t think that Tom Brady had much potential for greatness.  Who knew?

Last Sunday we met up with King Saul, who looked like a king. Unfortunately there was something missing on the inside. Several chapters later, with things in Israel going from bad to worse, both Samuel and God find themselves regretting the choice. Saul might have been a mistake, but surely God can fix things.

God did hatch a plan. Why not send Samuel on one last big assignment to find a suitable candidate in the town of Bethlehem?  Samuel wasn’t too sure about this new assignment, since if Saul found out he could end up dead. Not to worry. God has just the thing – a little ruse to fool Saul. God told Samuel to take a heifer with him and then invite Jesse of Bethlehem to join him in offering a sacrifice. Then, after that Samuel could identify and anoint the new king from among Jesse’s sons. 

After Samuel and Jesse offer the sacrifice, Samuel asks Jesse to bring his sons before him. I’m not sure whether Jesse had figured out what Samuel was up to, but he did as he was told. He lined up his sons so that Samuel could review them. Since this was a patriarchal culture, which assumed that power and privilege always goes to the oldest son, Jesse first presented his oldest son – Eliab – to the prophet. Samuel expected that this would be the one, after all, Eliab looked the part, but God said no.  Before you know it, Samuel has reviewed seven sons, and none of them meets with God’s approval. There’s nothing wrong with them.  They’re just not the right fit for the job.

Despite the cultural expectations, God isn’t impressed with this group of young men and God doesn’t seem to be bound by the assumption that the first born son gets the spoils. With a few modifications, including a change in British law that allows the first born child rather than the first born son to become heir to the throne, the British crown still goes to the oldest child of the current monarch. So, someday the throne of England should pass from Elizabeth to Charles, and then from Charles to William, and from William to George. If something happens to George, then Charlotte is next in line. Poor Harry, every time Will and Kate have a child he gets knocked down another peg. But, according to British law, this is the proper order of things.

While patriarchy still ruled, some traditions weren’t so sacred that Yahweh couldn’t change the rules. Of course, it’s good to remember that monarchy wasn’t God’s idea in the first place. So, if God wants to mess with it, who is going to object? 

But why did God pass over Eliab and the other six sons of Jesse? When Samuel raised the question, God replied:  “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7 CEB). God isn’t going make the same mistake twice. This time it’s heart over appearance.

What is interesting about the biblical story is that God often goes against the grain. Remember how God honored Abel’s offering over Cain’s, even though Cain was the oldest. God chose Jacob rather than Esau, even though Esau was the older brother. God does strange things. Part of this story has to do with the very choice of Israel. Israel was never a major power. It was always caught in between the intrigues of the larger empires – Egypt on one side and the Assyrians and then the Babylonians on the other. God could have chosen the mighty and the powerful, but that’s not the way God works. 

In fact, that seems to be Luke’s point in placing Jesus’ birth in a stable. The one whom God sent into the world to redeem it, isn’t born in a palace, but is instead born out among the animals. So it shouldn’t surprise us if God continues to change the rules set in place by our culture.   

Back to the story at hand, Samuel is clearly frustrated. Jesse had presented his sons, and none of them fit the bill. So finally, he asks Jesse if there’s anyone else. A bit embarrassed perhaps, Jesse confesses that there’s another son, but he’s out tending the sheep. Someone had to do it, and usually that means the youngest child, who is, after all, expendable. 

When I was reading this, I thought about what happens during the President’s State of the Union Address. All of the President’s cabinet members are in attendance — everyone except one cabinet secretary, who stays behind just in case somebody takes out the government. Now usually the person who stays behind heads up one of the “lesser departments.” You know the one whom no one would miss at the party! That’s David in this story, and yet he is the one whom God chooses to anoint in place of Saul. 

Now there is a bit of hitch in this story. Did you notice how the narrator describes David’s appearance? The translators of the New Living Translation put it this way: He’s “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12 NLT). Aren’t we back where we started, with a focus on the externals? David might be the youngest, but he still looks like a king – and as we learned last week: “It’s good to be the king,” unless of course you’re Saul!  But could that be the point, no matter what you look like on the outside, what counts is what is on the inside?   

Now, it’s good to remember that David isn’t without his faults. He’s as human as Saul, but something is different about him. That difference is David’s loyalty to Yahweh. Unlike Saul and unlike most of his successors, David tries not to do what is right in his own eyes. So, when Samuel anoints him as the next king, the “spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13).  In other words, Yahweh was with him and would stay with him, through thick and thin.

There’s a connection between this passage and the parable Jesus tells in Mark 4 about the sower who scatters seed on the ground, but finds it a mystery why these little seeds become grains of wheat. The sower can only see what’s happening on the surface, but not what’s going on below. It’s easy to rely on externals to make decisions, but that might not be the best way. Apparently, that’s not the way God works either.

Maybe you were the last player chosen, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not a person of value or that you don’t have gifts to share. Everyone here has value. As Paul told the Corinthians, every part of the body is important. Every gift is important. David had the qualities that God was looking for in a king. He wasn’t perfect – as we’ll see as the journey continues – but he had a heart for God. As a result, when Samuel anointed him, the Spirit came upon him with power.

May we learn to follow the lead of God and look not on the surface, but seek to discern what lies behind and beneath the surface, so that the realm of God might make itself known in our midst.  
Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 3B
June 14, 2015

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Christ and Culture -- Sermon for Pentecost 2B

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20

The Elders of Israel went to Samuel the prophet and judge, and told him it was time for a change in leadership. Yes, it was time to retire, and since his sons weren’t up to the job of leading them, they wanted a king, so they could be like all the other nations.  Apparently Samuel wasn’t thrilled with their request and so he complained to Yahweh. Yahweh told Samuel that the Elders weren’t rejecting Samuel’s leadership; they were rejecting Yahweh’s kingship.  While Samuel might have hoped for more backing from God, Yahweh told him to give the people what they wanted.  But, Yahweh told Samuel to warn the people about the downside of having a king.

    If they had a king, the king would want to control their lives. A king would draft their sons to serve in the military, take their crops and flocks, and essentially make them slaves.  Yes, as Louis XVI put it in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1: “It’s good to be the king!”