Compassion on Account

(sermon 6/25/17)

using atm

David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!” The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.” Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet. – 2 Samuel 9:1-13


Being together with our high school students at Montreat got me thinking about when I was around their age. And reading this week’s sermon text made me remember a particular incident that happened when I was just a little older than them. It was right after I graduated from high school and headed off to college, and I was doing all the things that a college freshman moving into a new town had to do to get settled in. One of those things was opening a checking account at a local bank. This was the Fall of 1978, a time when banks were just starting to dabble in having ATMs. Not all the banks in town even had them, and I picked my bank in part because they did – and I liked the flexibility that it offered, being able to do my banking any time of day or night. And I did. I used my new ATM card a lot. One of the times that I used it in the middle of the night, I was pulling an all-nighter in the architecture design studio. It was around 2:00 or 2:30, and I needed a break, and I was hungry. I wanted to go across the street to the Penn State Diner for a Sloppy Joe and a coffee, but I didn’t have a dime to my name at the moment, either in cash or in my bank account. I had actually deposited a check that my parents had sent me in the mail, but the problem was that the bank took three days for an out-of-town check to clear, and here I was, at two o’clock in the morning just before the dawn of the third day. I knew the money really wasn’t in my account yet, but I figured I could walk down to the bank and withdraw twenty dollars, and by the time anyone came in the following morning to see that I’ve overdrawn my account, the deposit would have posted and it would be a moot point. I felt a little guilty about it, but, did I mention I was really hungry? So I walked to the ATM to withdraw the money that I knew wasn’t technically there. I inserted my card and punched in my PIN number and my withdrawal request – but when I did, the machine swallowed my card, and the screen said “Unable to process transaction at this time. Please see a teller during banking hours for more information.” Crap. I was busted. I was mortified, knowing I was going to have to go into the bank in the morning and admit what I’d tried to do, and that I knew it was wrong, and apologize and throw myself on their mercy, and hope I wasn’t going to have to pay some hefty penalty for having tried it. I walked back to the studio, still broke, and still hungry, and now worried about what the morning would bring.

diner state college

The Diner, pretty much as it looked back then on the night of the attempted crime. Oh man, how I wanted one of their Sloppy Joes, a coffee, and an order of their famous Grilled Stickies – sadly, on this particular night, it wasn’t to be.

So the next morning, I went into the bank and stood in line waiting for a free teller. When one was open, I started to spill my guts to him, explaining that I knew what did was wrong, and I won’t do it again, and I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah, until he finally broke in and said, “No, no, no, wait a minute, hold on! The machine didn’t hold your card because of that. We just instructed the machine to do that the next time you used your card so you’d come into the bank to retrieve it. You see, you use our new ATM more than anyone else in town, and we just wanted a chance to thank you in person for making use of the new service. In fact, we’re actually giving you twenty-five dollars, just as a small token of our thanks for embracing the new technology!”

Well, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that this didn’t go at all the way I’d expected. But to this day, I still remember the dread and worry and fear that I felt about being summoned to the bank.

That memory came to mind when I read today’s sermon text, the story of David and Mephiboseth. I like this story – and not just because it’s fun to say the name “Mephibosheth.” I can’t help but think that Mephibosheth had to have a similar kind of dread that I had waiting to talk to the bank teller, only much more so, when he was summoned to meet with King David. He knew that not only had his grandfather, King Saul, been killed, but all of Saul’s children were hunted down and killed too, including his own father, Jonathan – partly out of revenge, and partly to eliminate anyone who could claim to be the legitimate heir to Saul’s throne, and posing a challenge to David’s reign. For his own part, he’d suffered permanent injury when he was just a five-year old, when Saul and Jonathan were killed, and his nurse, knowing the great danger that the boy faced, was hurrying so quickly to run away and hide him that she dropped him, crippling him.

I imagine that for the rest of his life, Mephibosheth did everything he could to keep a low profile, and to keep away from David. But now, all these years later, when Mephibosheth was a grown man with a child of his own, David finds him and summons him to the palace. By all normal expectations, Mephibosheth probably thought that this was the end for him, and his son, too.

David undoubtedly recognized the potential political threat that Mephibosheth posed to him. And maybe a part of the way David’s decision to have him live in the king’s palace was a page torn out of Don Corleone’s playbook, to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

But he was also concerned with something much more important than just that. David and Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, had had an intensely close, loving relationship, one that far surpassed any normal friendship. In reality, in the midst of the division between David and Jonathan’s own father, Jonathan’s heart and support were actually with David, even though he stayed on his father’s side out of a sense of obligation owed to his father. Because of the deep, steadfast love that the two had for each other, they had sworn a covenant of commitment, loyalty, and care, for one another and for each other’s families as well. Now, David was making good on his covenant with Jonathan, bringing Mephibosheth into his own household, restoring his grandfather’s property to him, and considering him one of his own sons in the royal household. In a sense, he was adopting Jonathan’s son as his own.

This was an amazing expression of grace that David was extending to Mephibosheth. But it was also an expression of hospitality and compassion – and undoubtedly one that David’s recommended against, in the name of personal and national security. Some people have said that this relationship between David and Mephibosheth is a representation of the relationship between us and God, and the unexpected grace that we receive from God. I guess in some sense that could be true, but I think it’s more an illustration of how we’re supposed to treat one another. David treated Mephibosheth with compassion in spite of the potential threat he posed, keeping his covenant and honoring the deep love that he’d had for Jonathan.

How many times have we withheld grace, or compassion, or hospitality to someone because we see them as a potential threat to our own safety, security, or well-being? How many times have we done that to people we’ve seen as a threat on a national scale? How many times have we done it on a personal level? The story of David and Mephibosheth point us toward a different way, a better way – the way of the kingdom of God.

Whatever else it might be, this story of David treating Jonathan’s child with grace and compassion should be a reminder that just as David and Jonathan were in a covenant of love, so are we in a loving covenant with God, too; one that requires us to extend grace and compassion to all of God’s children. When it’s easy, and especially when it’s hard. When it might even come at personal risk. When others would say we need to think of ourselves first.

It isn’t any secret that showing people this kind of grace and compassion can be very risky business. But we need to do it, and we can do it, because of the grace and compassion that God has already given us – that God has already deposited into our account, expecting us to give it to others, and to do it now, not later. We don’t even need to wait three days for the deposit to clear.

Thanks be to God.


(sermon 6/4/17 – Pentecost Sunday)

springdale pentecost in the park-communion

Participating in the Lord’s Supper as we celebrate Pentecost in outdoor worship at Beckley Creek Park this Sunday.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’   – Acts 2:1-21


Take a minute, if you will, to imagine what Jesus’ disciples have gone through in just a month and a half, leading up to this story that we just heard. Within that short time, Jesus has been arrested and executed; they’ve been demoralized, scattered, terrified; they’ve seen Jesus raised from the dead and ascending into heaven. After that, they gathered together – we’re told that there were about 120 of them – and they started to figure out what they’re going to do next. One of the first things that they did after Jesus’ ascension was to fill the leadership vacancy left by Judas Iscariot, selecting a man named Matthias to replace him. Then they started getting down to the business of what they do now.

And so it was on this one particular day – it happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, which was a festival celebrating the wheat harvest that came fifty days after the second day of Passover – Jesus’ followers were all gathered together, maybe meeting to develop a mission statement, when it happened. Suddenly, throughout the whole city, there was a loud, chest-shaking sound like a powerful wind that confusion, and undoubtedly some fear, in the hearts of everyone who experienced it. It caused people to run out into the streets to see what was happening. Inside the house, Jesus’ disciples heard it and felt it too, and added to the noise were the flame-like appearance over all of their heads, and their suddenly speaking in languages that weren’t their own.

pentecost painting

An ancient wall painting of the Holy Spirit coming to the disciples on Pentecost

As they went out into the street, they encountered the other people of the city – all of the Passover pilgrims and visitors had long since gone home; these were the actual residents of the city now. As we heard in the reading, these residents included people originating all the nations surrounding Judah, and speaking all of those different languages. Jerusalem had a very diverse, pluralistic population, and now here they all were, encountering these Galileans with flames dancing on their heads and all speaking their own native languages. I’d imagine this just made people even more confused and knocked off balance, wondering what all this really meant.

In the midst of all the confusion, Peter gets out in front of everyone, and just weeks after he and all the others were cowering behind locked doors for fear of their lives, he boldly tells them what this is all about.

Our observation of Pentecost is a celebration of this event – this coming of the Holy Spirit and filling and energizing God’s people, certainly not for the first time, but definitely in a bold, unmistakable way, and in a way that gave those disciples the courage and the tools to quit hiding behind locked doors, to come out into the open and proclaim God’s truth and good news for all people, from any nation, any language, any background; in a way that enabled them to get on with the work that God had called them to. So for that reason, we observe Pentecost.

But we don’t celebrate it as just a remembrance of a single historical event; a single, finite point on a timeline. We see it as an important milestone, but just one milestone, in the overall history of the work of the Holy Spirit in human history, which continues to this day. On that day, the Holy Spirit filled those disciples with a combination of courage, and comfort, and challenge, and uncertainty, all at the same time. And the Spirit does the same thing within our lives, in our time, too. God certainly works within us to equip us and embolden us do whatever it is that God is calling us to, drawing us to, in our own individual mission and ministry in God’s kingdom. But as clearly as we can see that, we also know that we also have some uncertainties, maybe about where it will all lead. It has always been that way.

That day in Jerusalem, we see the Holy Spirit enlightening and empowering people and maturing their faith and sending them out beyond just their own small body of the faithful, even in spite of what had to be some misgivings. And we see the same thing happening over and over again in the lives of God’s people. In just one example, we saw the Spirit at work in this country in the 1960s, in the Civil Rights movement, in the life of Eugene Carson Blake, who was the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church at the time. Blake was asked to be part of the famous March on Washington organized by Dr. King in 1963. There are historical photos of Blake taking part in the day’s activities and that we can point proudly to. But looking through Blake’s papers, it turns out that he really was torn about participating; he didn’t originally want to do it. He was worried that his participation would cause further dissention and division within a denomination that already was not of one mind on the issue of civil rights. And he also worried somewhat about his own personal safety, too – to be that close to Dr. King place one’s self in potential harm’s way, to be sure. In the end, though, Blake knew that the Holy Spirit is leading him, drawing him to do it, because it was the right thing – the God thing – to do. To stand up for justice and equality wherever it’s being denied is always the right thing to do. And so he did it. He put on his clerical collar, and his iconic straw hat, and he marched, literally arm in arm with Dr. King at the head of that march, and he delivered a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just a few minutes before Dr. King delivered his now-famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

march on washington 1963 montage

Eugene Carson Blake, in his iconic straw hat, marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington DC in the summer of 1963.

And today, as we observe Pentecost Sunday, we see this same work of the Holy Spirit in our midst just as clearly as it was in today’s reading, too. We see the Holy Spirit leading us into new things, new ventures, new ways to worship, just by virtue of being out here in the park. And most importantly, we see and we acknowledge God’s Spirit present and working in the lives of these young people who are being confirmed this morning. And we see it in the lives of the high school students who we’re commissioning to represent our congregation at the youth gathering at Montreat this coming week. Both of these groups of young people, and the adults who are traveling with the high schoolers, are evidence that God continues to work in our lives, challenging us to understand God, our faith, and ourselves more deeply; and challenging us to move out beyond our own small church family and out into the broader church, the broader world, in service to God.

springdale pentecost in the park

Confirmands being received into full membership of the church on this day

commissioning of high school youth 2017

Commissioning some of the high school youth and adults about to participate in the national High school gathering at Montreat

So today we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit who has always been sending the church out to new and different places by worshiping in a new and different place, and by seeing God at work in the lives of each one of the people we’ll confirm or commission today. For each of them, and for the love of the God who dwells within them, we say

Thanks be to God.