David in the Village and Beyond

(sermon 6/24/18)

child versus sumo wrestler

1 Samuel 17:1…49

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. David was the youngest; he went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. David rose early in the morning. He came to the encampment as the army was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. He ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. As he talked with them, Goliath came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. All the Israelites, when they saw the man, fled from him and were very much afraid.  David said to the men who stood by him, Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. 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 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.” 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!”  David 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. 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. 49David 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.

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Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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David lived in the village, out in the middle of nowhere, a young, good-looking but scrawny kid, living with his parents and his older brothers and their families. Being as young as he was, his contribution to the family’s work was to be the shepherd of the family’s flock of sheep and goats, while his older brothers did the tougher work.

But now, the king was at war, and that tougher work meant that his brothers were fighting in King Saul’s army against the Philistines, those perennial adversaries of the Israelites who seemed to always be mocking them and their God. On this particular day, the armies were encamped, facing each other, at a place not far from David’s village – so close, in fact, that David’s mother decided to send her boys a care package – sending them some good home-cooked food that had to be better than that army food, maybe forwarding on a letter telling how everyone was at home and encouraging them to be careful, and sticking in the last few hometown newspapers, maybe sending them a few pairs of fresh new socks, whatever. And once the package was ready, David was sent out to the encampment to deliver it. Once he got there and did that, he decided to stick around for a while, because frankly, herding sheep is kind of boring, and this was all very new and different and exciting, and really, wouldn’t you? What he saw there was unbelievable. Goliath, this big, hulking mountain of a man, standing out on the battlefield, taunting and mocking the Israelites to a one-on-one face off, calling them out and mocking them, and everyone, even the King himself, was cowering in fear.

Everyone, that is, except David, who, on this particular day, said no. Enough. Why should we put up with this bully? Why are we afraid of this big blowhard? Why? Maybe to some degree, it came out of that mindset that all young people have that they’re immortal, but he trusted God, and maybe figuring that no one else was going to challenge him, and if they didn’t, the Philistines were going to beat the Israelites, David figured he really didn’t have anything left to lose. And so he stood up to the man.

Of course, we know how it turned out. Because of this young, scrawny kid’s trust in God, and his willingness to stand up and do something about this injustice, God used David to advance peace and justice for the people.

There was another David, in another village – only this wasn’t a village out in the middle of nowhere, it was Greenwich Village, in the middle of Manhattan, and the year was 1969. This David didn’t live in the Village because that’s where his parents were; he lived there because it’s where they weren’t. They’d thrown him out of the house when he tod them he was gay. He was a young, good-looking but scrawny kid who was homeless, living on the streets, and who had to use all of his wits just to survive, which was all the harder because the world considered him a criminal, or a moral degenerate, or mentally ill, or maybe all three. He wasn’t even old enough to drink legally – but he had a fake ID that looked real enough, if you didn’t look too hard. In those days, New York’s liquor control authority could designate a bar or restaurant a public nuisance, and would revoke their liquor license, if it served even one customer who was gay, or who even seemed to look, gay, whatever that meant. What that led to was that most of the bars where gays could go were owned and operated by the Mafia, who could use their connections and bribes to usually keep the police away from the place, at least during the peak hours, and who would get tipped off before any raids did happen, so they could hide most of the money in the register so it wouldn’t be confiscated in the raid.

On this particular night, David decided to use his fake ID to get into a nearby place like that, a grimy little hole in the wall called the Stonewall Inn.

1 - Stonewall Inn

On one hand, he hated the place. It was dark, and dirty, and it sold mob liquor and beer, most of it coming off of highjacked trucks, all of it watered down and priced at twice what it would cost at the bar a few doors away. On the other hand, in a world that was completely hostile to him, it was his sanctuary – it was his equivalent of a church, where he could go, and relax, and feel reasonably safe, and where he could enjoy time together with his friends, being validated and not judged, and form a community, one to replace the community outside the doors that had rejected him. It wasn’t much, but it was one of the few places where he could just be himself.

But this night, there would be no sanctuary, because in a highly unusual situation, the bar was raided without any advance tip-off, during its peak business hours. In those days, if a person got arrested in a place like that, their name was printed in the paper, maybe even their picture would be printed. Many people were disowned by their families, many people lost their jobs, a number of people even killed themselves out of the humiliation and the consequences that would come from getting arrested. The police would taunt David and his friends mercilessly, and often beat them with their nightsticks, almost like it was a sport. Usually, when they were arrested, people wouldn’t do anything. They never tried to fight it, or to claim that they had a right to privacy. What could you do? You can’t beat City Hall, or the police.

But this night, something was different. Something clicked. This night, as the police started dragging people out of the bar and putting them into a paddy wagon to take them in for booking, something snapped. David and his friends suddenly thought, why are we allowing ourselves to put up with these bullies? No. No more. And so, on June 28th, 1969, David and his friends, a bunch of brutalized and harassed street kids who figured they really had nothing left to lose, stood up to their Goliath, the police and the system that criminalized them. Together, they fought back, engaging in an uprising that ran for three consecutive nights, but that really is still going on in many ways even today. Their courage in standing up to their bigger, more powerful enemy that night was the thing that got the gay rights movement to finally take off, causing positive change to the world, and yes, the church, too. God used David and his friends to bring things a little more in line with God’s wishes for justice in this world. If you’d said to David that God had used him this way, he’d have laughed at you, or maybe even spit at you, but still, that’s exactly what happened that night.

My first point here is that just as with the biblical story of David and Goliath, God uses unexpected, and often unlikely, people as agents of positive change in the world. And my second point, which we see in the story of David in Greenwich Village, is that by coming together, we can achieve far greater good than we could ever achieve by ourselves. Honestly, this is one of the key principles behind why Christ established the church itself, and it’s a key principle in our theological understanding that we’re called to be a connectional church, not just a lot of separate, independent congregations.

We know these things are true. We’ve seen how God can and does use normal, everyday people, often bringing them together as a group, in order to bring positive change. We saw it in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, when people of faith, including the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, Eugene Carson Blake – there he is in the spiffy straw hat, arm in arm with Dr. King –

2 - ECB and MLK Wash DC 1963

people of faith, and people of no faith, coming together to march in Washington, and countless other places. The power of their witness was the power of David over Goliath, and they brought real, positive change to our society.

We saw it just this past week, too, in several ways. Last Saturday, the Presbyterian General Assembly kicked off in St. Louis with a worship service. During the service, an offering was received, which was to be used to pay the bail of non-violent prisoners who were stuck in jail awaiting their trial, sometimes up to a year waiting for a court date, even before any possible conviction, stuck in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. It is truly the reinstitution of debtor’s prisons, one of the key grievances against England that spurred the American Revolution. Then, on Tuesday, a thousand Presbyterians marched through the street

3 end cash bail 2018a(1)

from the convention center to the city jail, where J. Herbert Nelson, our current Stated Clerk, delivered a check for what was received in that offering – more than $47,000,

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which was two or three times the typical offering during opening worship of a GA. Coming together, the church literally set the prisoners free, and the scriptures tell us to do. Their power was the power of David over the Goliath of an unjust bail system that oppresses the poor and people of color.

We saw the same thing just yesterday, when people from all over the country came to Washington in a mass rally for the New Poor People’s Campaign,

6 poor peoples campaign

speaking up for the poor and all oppressed people in our country. This movement has been staging rallies and protests in virtually every state in the union, and they have been noticed. Their power is the power of David over the Goliath.

And we see this same truth in the countless protests around the country of our current immigration policies.

7 immigration protest

Their power is the power of David over the Goliath of immoral and unjust federal policies – and their message is getting across to government leaders, and forcing them to change at least some of their policies.

But these truths are just as true when we aren’t protesting or rallying; they’re just as true when the only sit-in we’re taking part in is the one around our own dinner table. God works through the David’s of the world – the seemingly small, he seemingly weak, the seemingly outnumbered and outgunned – unexpected, unlikely people. People like you and me. God will work through us to enable us to overcome the Goliaths in our own lives.

What’s the Goliath in your life today? What’s the seemingly insurmountable giant that’s causing you fear, worry, anxiety? Whatever it is, remember that God empowers and equips and enables you to become a David, too – because the Spirit of Christ – the same Spirit who has power over the wind and the waves, and who commanded them to be still, and they obeyed – that same Spirit dwells within you, and within me.

Thanks be to God.

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A House United

(sermon 6/10/18)

hand in hand

1 Samuel 8:4-20

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

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Mark 3:20-35

The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

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What goes around, comes around. That must have been what Samuel was thinking as he sat considering what the people were demanding of him. God had first called him as a prophet when he was just a young child, to deliver the message to Eli, a chief leader of the people, that his time in power was coming to an end, as punishment for the misdeeds and corruption of his two sons. And now, all these years later, Samuel’s own two sons were ruling over two different regions that Samuel had put them in charge of, but they’d become corrupt, taking bribes and abusing their position in other ways, and the people were demanding an end to it. The irony couldn’t have been lost on Samuel.

Give us a king, they said. We want to be like all the other powerful kingdoms surrounding us. But Samuel understood the problem with what they were asking. Samuel understood that what was really underlying their demand was that they were actually turning away from trusting in God, and toward the conventional earthly understandings of power and the way to be a people. All the God-talk was OK when they went to the temple and offered sacrifices, but the rest of the time, they needed some kind of leadership that worked in the real world. After all, you have to be pragmatic about these kinds of things.

It boggled Samuel’s mind. So, you think there’s corruption now? he asked. Oh, just wait, if you want a king. A king will take your money, your property, your freedom, your rights, and even your children, and trample on them all, in the name of national security, national interest, national dignity, preserving the honor of the king, but really, for the most part, just to bolster the ego and provide luxurious perks for the king himself, at the expense of the people. Samuel knew this, and the history of the kings that followed showed him to be right. Even the two kings who have been held up as the best of them, David and Solomon, were deeply flawed and abusive and corrupt rulers, and the worst of the bunch were truly appalling.

And Samuel knew that the only way a king can get away with that kind of abuse of so many for any length of time without getting overthrown was to keep the people divided. Justifiably or otherwise, keep them afraid of the other kingdoms around them and see that they’re seen as a threat. And get them into nasty internal squabbles – this was a time when Jerusalem was still a Canaanite city, not an Israelite one, and there wouldn’t be a centralized temple there for many years. So where should they properly worship God – at the temple in Shiloh, or in Bethel, or Gilgal, or Mizpah, or Ramah? God could truly physically dwell in only one, so which one was it? Which one was the place for true followers of God to worship and sacrifice? And for that matter, there were countless prophets roaming around the countryside; who were the true prophets of God, and who were the false prophets? And on and on. Keeping the people arguing and fighting amongst themselves, creating artificial divisions and countless “us versus them” battles that would keep people from seeing the truth of the unity that God wanted for them, would keep them from focusing on the king’s abuses. There’s no doubt, and Samuel knew it well, that the easiest, most expedient, most self-serving way to keep ruling over the house, at least for the short term, is to keep the house divided.

But Jesus had something to say about this in today’s gospel text, when people accused him of being able to cast out demons because he was possessed by a demon himself. It was stupid, he said. What sense would that make? He asked. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

This as true today as it was then, and it’s just as true whether you’re talking about a literal household, a family, or a church congregation, or a community, or a country. And yet, everywhere we look, we see people working to create divisions, fractures, separations; to set one group of “us” against some supposedly dangerous, or immoral, or otherwise undesirable “them.” And it’s become such a natural part of our lives to constantly be at each other’s throat that we almost don’t even recognize it; we’ve been trained as well as Pavlov’s dog, as soon as a bell rings, we come out of our corners ready to fight tooth and nail over something, anything, as if our lives depended on it, and everything is reduced to black and white, no middle ground. I recently saw such a heated argument between two reasonably intelligent people online that I swear, if they’d really been in the same room together it really would have come to blows, just over whether they heard “Laurel” or “Yanny.” And of course, the divisions and brokenness that we allow ourselves to get sucked into, the things that divide our house, are often far more dangerous and harmful than that silly argument.

It’s an especially Reformed/Presbyterian thing to place a high level of belief in the idea that there is no aspect of our lives, no aspect of creation, that is outside of God’s scope or authority – that God is Ruler over all. It’s what we know as the doctrine of “the sovereignty of God.” It’s because of the sovereignty of God that Jesus always clearly, unambiguously taught his followers to work toward unity, not division, all areas of life. To mend, not to tear apart. To repair brokenness, not to create it, in our own lives, in our families, in our cities, in our world.

It’s because of the sovereignty of God, we can’t say “Oh, that all sounds good on Sunday, but that really doesn’t work come Monday morning. That just isn’t realistic. It’s naïve. You don’t understand the way things really work. You don’t understand how bad the situation is, how dangerous those people are, how immoral those people are, how different, how liberal, how conservative, blah, blah, blah. You just don’t understand how bad those other people are.

But they’re all God’s people. And everything is God’s kingdom. It’s all God’s house. And Christ calls us to be repairers, unifiers, of that house. To actively work to increase understanding, and unity, and to be peacemakers – and to just as actively work to oppose any thing, any one, any action, any policy, law, or regulation, any conventional wisdom, any stupid Facebook meme, that serves to divide and cause friction among us. Christ has taught us that we need to reach across these lines of separation, and even to work to eliminate the line to begin with, because they’re mostly artificial and meaningless anyway. And when we reach over those lines, we’ll discover the humanity in each other. And when we discover their humanity, we’ll also be able to see the  light of God dwelling within, and radiating from them. When we recognize their humanity, we’ll be able to see that they’ve been created in the divine image, the very image of God, every bit as much as we are, and are deserving of every bit as much dignity and respect, no matter how different we may seem. And we’ll be able to work together to erase those meaningless lines of separation and work for a house united.

What does that look like in practice, to be that kind of a voice of peace and unity in the world? Well, here are just a few very simple examples:

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Here are some faith leaders forming  a line against neo-nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville.

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Here’s a picture of some Christians forming a protective barrier around a group of Muslims at prayer.

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Here’s another example of the same thing.

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And here the roles are reversed, because it isn’t only Christians who understand that God wants us to be a house united. Here is a group of Muslims forming a human chain around a Christian church to protect it from attacks.

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And another example of the same thing.

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And another one, this time a group of Muslims standing in support of a synagogue in Norway.

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And the reverse, too, Jews standing in support of Muslims.

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And finally this last one. This is a fairly well-known picture; maybe you’ve seen it before. This is a photo of a young African-American woman named Keisha Thomas, taken in 1996.  That year, the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Keisha’s hometown, and as usually happens when the Klan stages a protest, there was a counterprotest to oppose them. Keisha was at that counterprotest, when someone noticed a Klan member there in the middle of the crowd. When people saw him, they started punching him, kicking him, knocking him to the ground and just beating on him. But Keisha saw what was happening, she used her own body as a barrier to protect him from any more beating as he lay on the ground, as she yelled at the people around her that this wasn’t right – you can’t beat badness out of someone; you can’t beat goodness into them. This wasn’t the way.

Those were examples of people working for unity in a larger group setting. Maybe most of us wouldn’t find ourselves in a situation like those. But maybe we’ll find ourselves somewhere when an immigrant, or a person of color, or an LGBTQ person, or whoever, is being harassed and bullied. Is there some way that you could intervene and let that person know that you’re there to be helpful and supportive to them? Is there someone in your neighborhood – someone who’s really different than you are; maybe not someone you’d usually invite to the backyard barbecue – but you find out that they’re suffering some family tragedy. Can you do some kindness for them? Christians are called People of the Book; I think it’s just as true that we’re the People of the Casserole. Stopping in for a brief visit, dropping off some food, maybe opening up a conversation – letting the person know that you care about them, and that you aren’t so different after all. That’s working to establish a house united.

Whether it’s in ways large or small, out of gratitude for the love that God has first shown us, Christ calls us to say Yes, we will follow Christ’s call to love. Yes, we will follow his call to be peacemakers. Yes, we will follow his call to unite.  And we will say No, we will not agree with those why try to separate and divide us. No, we will not accept any artificial, and meaningless, and harmful divisions among us, any more. No – not in our name. Because we know a better name, and a better way than that.

Christ called us to be a house united, because he knew, just as Samuel did before him, that a house united is what God had in mind all along.

Thanks be to God.