Facing the Giant (sermon 6/21/2015)

This Sunday's Old Testament Lesson is the familiar story of David and Goliath, an ancient version of the mismatch seen here. The story of David's faith in the face of what would seem to be insurmountable odds could be a very good point of departure for a Sunday when we both recognize recent graduates, as well as receive new members into Active Membership in the congregation. The text is found in 1 Samuel 17:32-49:

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.

Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.  – 1 Samuel 17:32-49

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He’d been looking forward to this trip for a while – he and his extended family were all going whitewater rafting together in Colorado. But they were all relatively young and adventurous and in pretty good shape, so they decided they didn’t want to just ride down the rapids while the guides did all the paddling; they took one of the trips where they were doing some of the real work, too. In order to be in the proper position to do that, he would have to straddle the pontoon of the raft with one leg inside and the other dipped into the water. It all started out fine in the gentle water, but after a while they got into the whitewater, and in a moment of not paying enough attention, he got bounced out of the raft and into the rapids. After some intense moments of panic as he got washed considerably further downriver than the raft, he managed to get himself safely to shore. But the shoreline there was steep and treacherous, so he climbed up to the higher ground and found himself coming out onto a nice, rolling green pasture. He figured he thought he could walk down to the point where the river came out of the ravine, but no sooner did he start out than he came over the crest of a little rise in the pasture and discovered that he was face to face with a huge black bull, the biggest one he’d ever seen, standing right in his path. Not really knowing anything about bulls, or what makes them mad, but he had to decide: should he try to sneak around this beast without trying to make it mad; or should he go back down over the hillside and take his chances with the steep shoreline of the ravine?

Well, David Lose, the preacher and writer who actually experienced that story when he was a very young man chose to head away from the giant bull in his path, and go back down over the hillside to get away from it. In today’s Old Testament lesson, though, another David, an even younger David, took the other course. Not only didn’t he shy away from the giant Goliath, or try to avoid him altogether, he actually stepped out and directly confronted him, confident that God would help him. Life can be this way for us, too. We’ll often find ourselves at some kind of crossroads, having to make a choice like this one – face the giant or find a way to turn away from it? In most cases, we aren’t even sure which choice we make will be the safest one, and often enough, we won’t be able to retrace our steps and choose again if it turns out we made the wrong choice – accepting a new job, or starting or ending a relationship, which doctor do I trust, should I have the surgery or not; there are endless examples of it. All that we know is that whoever we are, we’re going to find ourselves from time to time at that kind of crossroads. Do we face the giant, or do we turn away from it? Which path is the best?

We’re all facing a giant this morning. It’s an old giant; one we’ve seen all too many times before; one that we just can’t seem to get past. When Dylan Roof went into that Bible study at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston and killed nine of them just because they were black, the giant of racism rose up in front of all us again, taunting us all just as much as Goliath taunted David. This giant, the evil, the sin, of racism and racist violence has been standing right there in front of us for almost 400 years in this country, without taking a single break.

This tragedy in Charleston isn’t ultimately a question of gun control, although that’s a big part of it. And it isn’t just a societal attitude of a cheapening of life in general either, although that’s part of it, too. This is specifically a problem of the demeaning and devaluing of the lives of a particular group of people, over against the lives of those in another group. It’s someone saying “Your lives don’t matter as much as mine.”

In the midst of this tragedy, we can tackle legitimate related issues, like demanding that the Confederate battle flag, that disgusting symbol of hatred and racism and bigotry and violence, finally be removed from any public place of honor. But we can’t let the side issues distract us from the main issue, the real giant. And we can’t take on an air of superiority, as if racism is only a problem in those states where you automatically get grits with your breakfast order whether you want them or not. This giant is everywhere. It’s in the South. It’s in the North. It’s right here, in our own midst. Every single one of us, you and me, carry racial prejudice within us, and whenever that racial prejudice uses some kind of power to harm or obstruct or impose injustice or inequality against others, that’s racism, and we’re caught up in it whether we do it directly ourselves or if others do it on our behalf and we’re just the beneficiaries of it.

Maybe the biggest problem is that too many of us really can’t even see this giant, or we want to pretend that he isn’t real. Oh sure, that giant used to be a problem in the past, but that’s all ancient history, and that these kinds of tragedies like Charleston are exceptions to the rule, they’re just unfortunate “accidents.” We’re all “post-racial;” we live in a color-blind society now. Nonsense.

So this morning, our hearts break, and we reach out to offer our love, and our condolences to all those whose live have been affected by this latest evil act of racism.

But even more than that, we have to ask ourselves, what can we do? How can we fight this giant? I mean, it’s certainly a good and a nice gesture to share prayers and statements of outrage or solidarity on our Facebook pages, and things like that, but in the end, what can we do about this kind of problem? In our Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 calls out the evil and sin of racism. And our new Belhar Confession calls out both individual and systemic, institutional racism, and points out that we are commanded by God to take whatever steps are necessary to end that racism, and to be actively involved in acts of racial reconciliation; to seek forgiveness and make amends for what we’ve allowed to happen in the past. So how can we do that? It’s a serious question, and one that we can’t answer this morning, but we need to answer it. What can we be doing, what should we be doing – here, in our own community – to help fight racism, and to help bring about racial reconciliation?

This is baccalaureate Sunday. Graduates, you’ll have to face this giant; in fact, you already are. Those of us who came before you have fought it to some extent, and we’ve made some progress against it, but not nearly enough. I pray with all my might that you’ll make more progress in killing it than we have. Just remember that the most success against this giant, the deepest wounds that it’s suffered, have been at the hands of those people who battled against it as a matter of their Christian faith. Those people who unabashedly called out racism as an offense, an evil, a sin against God. Those people who have called out racism in all of its forms, individual, institutional, direct and indirect, as incompatible with the kingdom of God. The biggest successes have been achieved by those people who placed their faith, and their trust in the God who empowered young David to succeed against Goliath – the God who has the power to calm the storm and the waves of the sea, and even the whitewater in Colorado. With that God’s help, we can beat this giant – it can’t be beat if we just try to take the easier looking path to avoid the giant, or if we close our eyes and pretend he isn’t there. But it can be beat.

Friends, let’s face this giant. And let’s beat it.

Thanks be to God.

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In the Weeds (sermon 6/14/15)

morning glories in field

[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.   – Mark 4:26-34

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I didn’t mean to give Ed a heart attack.

Well, it wasn’t really a heart attack, but at the time it almost seemed almost like one. Let me explain. You see, even though my father grew up on a farm, as part of a big farming family, I didn’t. I grew up as a town boy, and although there were plenty of farms around the town I grew up in, my firsthand knowledge of farming, then and now, is pretty limited. This made for some interesting situations in my first pastorate, which was serving a wonderful, small congregation in southern Ohio that was literally in the middle of miles of some of the most beautiful, fertile, flat farmland imaginable. As I’d navigate through the fields of corn, wheat, and soybean on the hour-long trip between my home and the church, it was like driving through an incredible, always-changing oil painting. And it was one of those scenes that caused Ed’s near-heart attack.

One spring, shortly after the fields had been plowed, I was driving down to the church for a Saturday morning men’s breakfast and Bible study. And I noticed that almost overnight, the fields had filled with a sea of little purplish-colored flowers. Their deep color, and the greenery glistening with the morning dew and sparkling in the bright morning sunlight, all under the almost endless, crystal-blue, biggest sky this side of Montana – it was really a strikingly beautiful thing. When I got to the church, as we were eating breakfast, I mentioned the scene to the guys there, and I said I knew the purple things were some kid of wildflower; I didn’t know what they were but in any case they sure were pretty. And that’s when Ed, who was around 75 at the time and had probably been farming since he could crawl, almost had a cow right there on the carpet. He actually spit his coffee, and his heart almost vapor-locked as he sputtered, “Pretty? Pretty? Those aren’t pretty; they’re morning glories! They take over everything and everywhere, they’ll choke out whatever you plant; I think I’ve spent half my life trying to get rid of those awful things!”

I am not a farmer.

Well in this passage from Mark, Jesus just told a bunch of people, undoubtedly including a bunch of farmers, that the kingdom of God is just like morning glories. That’s basically what mustard shrubs are. I know for a long time, when I’d read this parable and I’d try to imagine how Jesus is portraying the kingdom of God, I’d picture some big, majestic tree that’s chock-full of a bunch of cheerful, happy, Disney-animated wildlife, all singing some happy song like It’s a Small World or something like that.

But that wasn’t what Jesus was actually trying to portray at all. The farmers that Jesus was talking to knew that mustard shrubs were invasive, pervasive. They grew quickly, and they overtook scarce farmland. They were wild, erratic, and would get large, casting shade that stunted the remaining crops around them. And the animals that they sheltered were more cursed than cute; they were the animals who ate the seed before it could grow, and ate the crops after they did. So why would Jesus say the kingdom of God was something like that?

Maybe because whether we like it or not, the kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules. Wherever it takes root, it grows and spreads on its own terms, faster and more tenaciously than we’d imagine. It is anything but decent and in good order. It doesn’t care about our timelines or clocks or schedules or plans.  It goes where we don’t expect it to; it goes where we don’t want it to. It laughs at the neat, orderly rows that we’d planned for our fields; it really doesn’t care about the fences or boundaries we set or the pre-calculated yield per acre we’re expecting. And the people who end up finding shelter and a home in the kingdom of God are often the people who are looked down on in society – the scorned, the marginalized, the ones not fit for polite company, the ones who are just as troublesome as the birds and animals in the mustard shrub.

The people in Jesus’ time wanted their experience of God, their encounter with God and God’s kingdom, to be as carefully planned and standardized and managed and controlled as their farmland. They wanted to encounter God in a predictable and non-threatening way, a socially acceptable way that didn’t rock the boat. They wanted a God that stayed inside the lines.

But in this parable, Jesus was telling people that God’s love, the way of the kingdom of God, is always coloring outside the lines. God’s love knows no boundaries that we’d set for it, it doesn’t abide by any social or cultural norms we’d try to make it obey, it welcomes and accepts the most socially unacceptable within its loving shelter. While we might need to work hard to get the morning glories or mustard shrubs out of our farm fields, when it comes to God’s love and the kingdom of God, what we need to do is to just get out of its way and not do anything to obstruct it. Let it sweep up and cover the whole earth. Let it take in all of us, supposedly respectable and otherwise. The best thing we can do with this wild thing of God’s love is not to obstruct it, but to nurture it, to try to let it grow and spread even more.

And that’s exactly what we do in our Christian Ed ministries, all of those things that our congregation does that we recognize here this morning. Whether it’s directed toward children, youth, or adults, what we’re doing is planting seeds designed to grow the kingdom of God, to plant the love of God into hearts, and to spread that love to others. That’s our whole job as members of that kingdom. Father Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed on 9/11, had a short, very simple prayer that sums up how we should be part of God’s kingdom, and to let it grow as wildly and unpredictably as God sees fit. He prayed, “Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.” That’s a pretty good approach. But just to be on the safe side, make sure that when you’re saying whatever it might be that God wants you to say, they don’t have a mouthful of coffee.

Thanks be to God.

Love Story (Sermon 6/7/15)

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.     – Genesis 2:15-3:21

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A lot of sermons are developed to include some form of visual imagery within them; a painting of some kind of word picture or a jogging of your memory about something you’re familiar with. We preachers will do this for at least two possible reasons. First, they’re meant to help illustrate a particular point we’re trying to make. Second, they’re meant to stick in your mind a bit longer than just a bunch of words; they become a thing that you remember and which help to remember the rest of what was being said. If I can get you to remember Schrodinger’s Cat, or a Watership Down rabbit until, say, the following Wednesday, the odds are pretty good that you’ll also be able to say, “Yeah, I remember that – and the point behind it was….” That’s why so many sermons are structured that way.

But I don’t have an image like that today. Sorry. The reason I don’t is that the Lectionary text today, the second account of creation from Genesis, is its own strong visual image. We’ve all heard this story a hundred times, and we’ve all imagined it; it’s already a big imprint on our minds.

This is a love story, maybe the greatest of love stories; the story of the love of God for us. It’s a long passage, and there are probably a hundred different topics that could be preached from it; dozens of church doctrines and positions are drawn from it; but I want to point out just a couple of thoughts from the story today that I think are very important to us.

Imagine this scene in your mind: God has created the earth, and the human being. And upon reflection, God says that it isn’t good for the human being to be alone – that the human needs a helper, a partner, a mate; someone to be in relationship with. So, God sets out creating various options to offer to the human being as a potential partner in life, by creating all the animals. Picture this; God creates an animal and presents it to the human being for approval: “How about this one? No? OK, How about this? How about this? How about this?” Until finally, after all the rejections, God creates a woman and presents it to the man – “How about this?” And finally, the man says yes, this is an acceptable partner and helper for me; someone who is like me, flesh of my flesh; bone of my bone.

Did you get that? The eternal, transcendent God who created the universe, the cosmos, by sheer will, by just saying “Let there be…” doesn’t act with that same kind of power and authority to just create a partner for the man and say, “This is it!” God grants the freedom to the human being to choose for himself who will be an acceptable partner and helper in life. That’s an incredible degree of autonomy, of agency, of authority over his own life. And it doesn’t end there. Notice in the story that when God presented all the animals to the human being, God allowed the human to name them. Now that may not sound like a big deal to us, but it was to the culture that this story was written for. In ancient Hebrew culture to know the name of a person or thing carried with it some authority and control that you had over them, and to have the power of actually bestowing the name meant you had all the more power and authority over them. This was a major statement in this story about the nature of God. At a time when the cultures surrounding them had creation accounts that talked about the gods deciding to create human beings to basically be slave labor for them, and who didn’t particularly care for them, the God of Israel, and of us, is described as one who provides so much agency and autonomy in the world that we become co-creators with God. We see that creativity in music, and architecture, and painting, and the theater, and on and on. We have the power and authority to do all these things in the world and more – and maybe that “more” is precisely the point. Along with this much control and agency comes great responsibility. We can’t just sit back on our haunches in this world waiting for God to take care of us, or of some problem in the world. God has given us all of this agency and co-creativity, in order to do good in this world in God’s name. We can’t just throw up our hands when we see something wrong and say “Why doesn’t God do something about this?” because God has – God has equipped and empowered us to do step in and do something about it.

That’s a lot of responsibility that we get with that great degree of agency. And that’s the problem: the greater responsibility we have, the greater possibility we have to mess up. Of course, as we know, it doesn’t take long for the human beings to mess up in this creation story. And they really mess up big; no one could have messed up bigger than this. And you hear the emotion in the words of the passage; Go sounds like the parent of every teenager who’s done something stupid, and the parent cries out “What in the world were you thinking?!!”

But then, after the initial outburst, did you notice what God did? It was the very last line of the passage. Did he send lightning bolts to obliterate them? No. You can almost hear God taking a deep breath, and saying “OK, you made a mistake. And the mistake has consequences. This isn’t going to be the life, the future, I’d originally planned and hoped for you. But it can still be a good one. Let’s get to work and make that happen together.” Instead of the lightning bolts, God sits down in the garden with them and stitches some clothing for them. God equips them for the life, for the journey, ahead of them. That’s the kind of God that Adam, and Eve, and we have. That’s very, very good news. And knowing that, what more can we say but

Thanks be to God.