Father and Son

II Samuel 18

The historical chronicle found in the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings is the work of a group of editors known as the Deuteronomists. The Deuteronomistic history covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. We have been following this process in the period addressed in the book of Samuel, one book later divided into two. I Samuel begins with the call of Samuel who is to be the last of the great Judges, the charismatic leaders who arose in times of crisis. II Samuel ends in the final years of King David. The greater part of the books of Samuel concerns the David saga. The Deuteronomistic history explores the core questions that arise when a nation struggles to evolve to meet new challenges while remaining faithful to its founding instrument?

Israel’s core identity is forged in the Covenant (a form of contract) that God and Moses made on Mt. Sinai. In this sense, it’s helpful for us to think about the Covenant as a kind of constitution. In the historical tensions chronicled by the Deuteronomists, we find many echoes to our own contemporary experience as a nation. As in Ancient Israel, we too need to continually evolve to meet new challenges within the opportunities and limitations of our founding instrument, in our case the Constitution.

The Covenant between God and Moses forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel transitioned from a tribal confederacy into a Near Eastern monarchy, but with a difference: the Covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of regent. The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?

As we know because power corrupts there is a need for checks and balances. Alongside the institution of monarchy, a parallel institution of the prophet arose to call power to account. The prophet was to function as a kind of one-man Supreme Court, whose function was to declare executive actions legitimate or illegitimate according to the vision of the Covenant.

Today’s Old Testament reading concerns the rise and fall of David’s third son, the much beloved and stunningly handsome Absalom. We need, however, to set the David – Absalom relationship within its wider context.

***

The major turning point in David’s life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. His lust for her led him to orchestrate her husband’s murder, a murder executed by his ruthlessly loyal fixer, Joab. Enter the prophet Nathan, who calls the king to account and pronounces upon him God’s judgment and sentence. David confesses his sin. He accepts God’s sentence that the sword will never depart from his house. For the Deuteronomists, David’s downfall is also the defining moment of his greatness.

Through genuine repentance, David comes to know the power not only of God’s judgment but also of God’s forgiveness. God does not stop loving David and he knows it. It’s interesting to note that this growing sense of forgiveness does not avert the chain of personal tragedies, the sentence must be served. It changes the way David responds in the face of adversity. David has received both punishment and forgiveness at the hand of the Lord. In response to being nurtured by God’s continued love, we watch David rejecting his personal vanity and lust for power, and we watch him learning to become tenderhearted.

David is transformed by his experience of being forgiven and the evidence for this can be no more clearly seen than in the story of David and Absalom.

***

Last week I suggested that in his seduction or was it really his rape of Bathsheba (as a woman her voice is absent from the Biblical record, so we don’t know how she felt about this incident), David tried to erect a wall separating his personal choices from his public responsibilities. But God will have none of this and rejects the falsehood much parroted in our own time – that a lack of personal honesty and integrity has no effect on the holding of public office. David is forced to live through the consequences of private choices disrupting his public life.

We also seek to build a wall between the practice of our faith and life in the public square. Last week, I noted that when out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we practice our faith privately, we ignore the consequences in the public square resulting from our decoupling of faith from action. Whenever someone tells me that politics should be kept out of religion, they are telling me that their faith has nothing to say about the evils perpetrated in the public square of political life. To follow that path renders our faith next to useless.

***

David and Absalom are two case studies on the power of forgiveness. His repentance brings him to realize the limits of his vanity and the glorification of power. In Absalom, vanity and the arrogance of beauty coupled with a grievance-fueled rage and lust for power, consume and compel him to spurn his father’s forgiveness, leading him to sin even more egregiously. So, to the story.

***

Previously, as they say on TV, Absalom murders his brother Amnon to avenge Amnon’s rape of their sister, Tamar. Absalom not only kills Amnon but rages against David for his inaction in failing to punish Amnon for his crime. Following the murder of Amnon, Absalom flees to the north, but under the auspices of Joab, a kind of reconciliation allows him to return to Jerusalem. But although back in Jerusalem, physically, an emotional estrangement between father and son continues for two years before Absalom eventually returns to the king’s house.

David forgives his son, but Absalom secretly spurns his father’s forgiveness. Under the guise of a ruse of needing to fulfill a vow, Absalom goes to Hebron, where he has himself proclaimed king. He raises and an Israelite (northern) army and moves on Jerusalem. David flees the city with only his household, for Joab has forbidden the king to accompany the loyal (southern) army. Before he flees, in the presence of his retainers David makes Joab promise to:

 deal gently, for his sake, with the young man Absalom.

***

We might note an interesting aside, that on his way out of Jerusalem David ascends the summit of the Mount of Olives on his way to cross the Jordan, an ascent that finds an echo for us in Jesus’s journey via the Mount of Olives to the Cross.

***

Meanwhile, Absalom enters the city. His first demonstration of power there is to publicly rape the 10 concubines David had left to look after the palace. This action tells us something of how Absalom views the exercise of power.

images-1The two armies eventually meet in the Forest of Ephraim, where Joab and David’s southern army routs Absalom’s northern army, killing we are told, some 20,000 men. Absalom flees alone. As he does his long hair catches on a low hanging branch, suspending him in midair while his mule keeps moving forward.

The beauty of Absalom’s long, thick hair was the source of legend in those days. Afflicted by vanity the young man had failed to cut his hair in preparation for battle. We cannot miss the symbolism here, caught by his vanity, Joab and his shield bearers separate Absalom not only from his hair but from his life.

When news reaches David, he ascends to his chamber weeping. He cries out:

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!

Some commentators have wondered, having made Joab publicly promise not to kill Absalom, is David’s demonstrable grief an expression of plausible deniability in the death of his son? This takes the hermeneutic of suspicion too far, missing the fact that since his encounter with Nathan and confession of repentance, David is a changed man whose heart has softened.

God punished David but nevertheless continued to love him. David’s experience of God’s love as a sign of being forgiven led to his own transformation from the man who had lusted after another man’s wife and murdered her husband to get what he wanted, to a man who deeply loves his admittedly, ill-gotten wife, and now grieves for the death of the son who sought to take from him not only his crown, but his life.

 The lust to possess, the pain of rage that feeds a hunger for power, the fragility of vanity that abuses the trust of those we serve, the arrogance of beauty that demands satiation, the rage of the fire that consumes the heart when forgiveness is spurned; these are no match for the power of the tenderheartedness of forgiveness received. God and David – David and Absalom – two stories: of forgiveness accepted and of forgiveness rejected.

David was a man of his time. He lived guided by the stark and usually brutal moral standards of his age. He had seven wives and numerous concubines. He is silent in the face of his daughter’s shaming. He is hardly the role model for modern-day Christian manhood. Yet, his fascination for us lies in his willingness to allow God’s love to transform him beyond the limitations of his culturally shaped imagination.

Are we not also creatures of our age with all the insight and blindness of our culturally formed limitations? How do we transcend the limitations of our shaping at the hands of our time and culture?

Failure and its bitter lessons forged in the heat of repentance is the instrument that breaks us open enough to allow God’s grace to shine through the cracks in our brittle facades.

As Leonard Cohen says in his song Anthem:

Rings the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

I commend to you John Piper’s moving poem Absalom and David

Choices Made: Samuel 11:26-12:13

 

David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord.

Paul implores: I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Jesus warns: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.

***

The doctrine of separation of church and state has led to two assumptions highly favored by secularists and liberals alike:

  1. That the antidote to ‘bad’ religion is ‘no’ religion.
  2. The practice of religion is a personal and private right that has no legitimate voice in the public marketplace of debate and ideas.

The reality is however that while religion may be intensely personal, it is never private. Faith and its expression is always a public affair.

Throughout the Biblical record, the lesson learned ad nauseum is that the antidote to bad religion is not no religion, but good religion. Stanislav Volf uses the terms weak and strong religion in an attempt to avoid the more pejorative connotations of good and bad.

Weak religion is narrow, sectarian religion. Despite the megaphone voice of its proponents, it’s insecure religion, that seeks to impose narrow sectarian interest through force of law upon the body politic. Weak religion must be countered by strong religion – that is, a religiously rooted public interest attitude that embraces pluralism and insists on being heard as one voice among others in the space of civic debate.

***

The catalyst for my revisiting some of these thoughts is the story recorded in the book of Samuel concerning David and Bathsheba. In last week’s portion in the David saga, we heard about David’s covert discovery of Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house. The sight of her excites David’s lust. He has her brought to him and then commits adultery with her.

Because the Biblical record hardly ever preserves the woman’s voice we don’t know if Bathsheba is a willing participant or not, so we don’t know whether the adultery is rape or consensual. The differentials of power here might give us a clue, however. Having taken and made Bathsheba pregnant, David then engineers her husband, one Uriah’s death, so that she can be totally his. Like men of power, David has a fixer. Joab, commander of the army is David’s chief fixer. While David orchestrates, Joab executes Uriah’s murder.

Today’s portion opens with the only recording of Bathsheba’s voice we have and it’s the clearest indication of her feelings about the situation she now finds herself in. We are told that when she learns of Uriah’s death, she cries out in loud and public lamentation. Her grief at the death of her husband is further aggravated when the child she bears David dies (is taken by the Lord as punishment). The only redeeming element in this sorry saga is that it seems David loves Bathsheba. He comforts her, and together they conceive another child, a son, Solomon, who will eventually succeed his father on the throne. We will get to learn more about Solomon in a couple of weeks.

The focus of the action in this section of the David saga concerns the arrival of Nathan the prophet God sends to speak truth to power. In ancient Israel, the only check on the king’s power was the office of the prophet. Nathan skillfully confronts the king by telling him a story designed to provoke David’s outrage at an injustice committed. Moved by Nathan’s contrivance, David condemns the man in Nathan’s story for his act of injustice, at which point Nathan proclaims: You are the man!  images

David, having condemned himself out his own mouth, Nathan then pronounces God’s verdict:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”

David does not respond to Nathan with threats typical of a tyrant called to account; threats of retaliatory violence or banishment from future news briefings He simply utters five words of repentance: I have sinned against the Lord. 

Like all men of power corrupted by their autocratic instincts, David has tried to erect a wall of separation between his private (secret) acts and the domain of public affairs. From this point onwards, the rest of David’s reign is the chronicle of his increasing failure to maintain a separation between personal and public affairs as his personal choices have consequences that spill over into the public sphere of his kingship.

God’s verdict: I will raise trouble against you from within your own house, is fulfilled. David’s daughter Tamar is raped by her brother Amnon, and his complicity in Amnon’s crime through his silence and refusal to punish Amnon provokes his first-born son, Absalom. Absalom bides his time and eventually murders Amnon to avenge his sister. There is now only sourness between father and son, king and heir. Absalom flees from his father’s wrath. A deal is eventually struck allowing Absalom to come home. But things are not healed between them and Absalom looks for the opportunity to overthrow his father, but more of that next week.

***

David is remembered as the greatest of Israel’s kings. It is from his line that the prophets proclaimed the Messiah would be born. Being of David’s lineage is for the New Testament writers a crucial confirmation of Jesus identity as the Lord’s anointed one.

David is an autocrat with feet of clay. A strong man with a vulnerable heart. An autocrat, but unlike others who will follow in the long sorry list of Israel’s kingly failures he never confuses the fact that he is king under God, not king instead of God. The Deuteronomist identifies David’s true greatness as lying not in his achievements and power but despite his all too human weakness, in his humility before God. It is with five simple words that David accepts Nathan’s declaration of God’s verdict upon his actions.

***

Biblically rooted Christianity does not recognize a separation between private faith and public responsibilities. Like David, we come to grief when we try to separate the two. In our case, the attempt to keep faith a private affair renders us completely ineffectual as agents for God’s kingdom in this world. For private belief has public consequences. Even if we hide our faith under a bushel and never proclaim it in the market square – this is still a public action against which we will be judged by the promises of our baptismal covenant.

As the Christian Right understands only too well the public expression of faith is a political action. When out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we seek refuge in the illusion of faith practiced privately, we fail to proclaim the fundamental connection between what we believe and how we act. This failure has catastrophic consequences in the business of the public square.

Nonaction is nevertheless a political choice made and a negative action taken. The public nature of the Christian faith requires from us the courage to expose and actively resist what Paul identifies as the dark forces of this world – forces of systemic violence and injustice. Our failure to do so will have consequences we may neither desire, nor eventually be insulated from.

The Apostle Paul issues the following plea:

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

In John’s gospel Jesus warns the crowds clamoring for another miracle feeding:

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. 

What is the food that endures for eternal life? It’s not a ticket into heaven; it is not the pie in the sky when we die which is a grotesque distortion of Christian hope. No, the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man gives us is:

                                        To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

You don’t have to look too hard to contemplate what this looks like in today’s world, where individuals benefiting from a legal blindness to corporate enrichment at the public expense; where ordinary people languish, and the perpetration of injustice thrives barely concealed behind a barrage of outrageous falsehoods.

                                                    When the proponents of strong religion remain silent, might this not be the greatest falsehood of all?

 

10 Pentecost Proper 12 Year B    29 July 2018

                                           A sermon from the rev Linda Mackie Griggs

2 Samuel 11:1-15; John 6:1-21

 “’This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” 

Kings and prophets; prophets and kings. Biblical images, yet resonant today. Scripture speaks to us in its own kind of timeless language, calling us to respond to a world that, for all it has changed, hasn’t changed as much as we might have expected. Or hoped.

The question we hold when reading a Bible passage is, what is it saying to us right now about who we are and whose we are?

In the context of today’s readings, how does an understanding of the language of ancient kings and prophets uniquely equip us as followers of Jesus to serve in a time of turmoil more closely aligned with the kingdoms of the world than the kingdom of God?

A few weeks back we heard the people of Israel demand from the prophet Samuel,“Give us a king!” And after warning them to be careful what they wished for, he gave them what they wanted, anointing first Saul (who was a bust)and then David, the shepherd boy. Over the past few Sundays, our Old Testament lessons have documented David’s adventures as he defeated Goliath, mourned Saul and Jonathan, danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was restored to Jerusalem, and received God’s promise of a temple and a legacy.

Sometimes you can hear the Deuteronomist author speaking ironically through the text; reminding the reader that there is only One who should rule Israel, and that is God, who commanded, “You shall have no other Gods but me.” When God instructed Samuel to capitulate to the people and anoint a king, God warned them, you will regret putting your faith in kings- they may do good sometimes, but ultimately they will fail you. Yes, even David.

The Deuteronomist opens today’s story by throwing a little shade at David, noting, “in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle… David remained at Jerusalem.” In other words, he seems to have lost his military touch. He who had made his reputation as a mighty warrior wasn’t on the battlefield because he was staying at home to take care of more important business. No: he was lazing around the palace: He “rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house…”

The story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah is no romance. Not once in this account does the writer say that the two were in love. No; David saw something he wanted and he took her. Because he could; because he was King. And when faced with the consequences of what he had done,.he tried to cover it up by twice giving Uriah leave to make a conjugal visit to his wife, and failing that, he had Uriah, who had been nothing but faithful to his commander-in-chief, murdered in the field.

Please come back next week to find out what happens next, but spoiler alert: It involves the words of a prophet and comeuppance for a king.

A prophet is an intermediary for the Divine. The function of the prophet is to hold principalities and powers to account, to critique unjust systems and to demand change. If the people will insist upon putting faith in kings, then prophets will be called to keep them in line and call them— the people and the kings— to repent. Prophets are the keepers of God’s Vision. Their job is to proclaim the true Kingdom— the Dream of God for all of creation.

In today’s Gospel lesson from John, the people see Jesus multiply the loaves and fishes, and perceive that he is a prophet. But not just any prophet: This is the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures.

And to make this clear John packs this episode with allusions: to Moses (Jesus goes up the mountain to teach; he provides ‘manna’ in the form of bread,) and Elisha (an episode in 2 Kings tells of multiplying bread and fish for 100 people) and to the Tribes of Israel (twelve baskets of leftovers). Any Jewish observer of Jesus’ multiplication miracle or early Christian hearer of this text would draw the connection between Jesus and the prophetic tradition.

And yet. What do the crowds do in the next breath? They try to make him a king.  Like David.  Jeepers. No wonder he headed back up the mountain.  “Give us a king!” Brought face-to-face with the Kingdom of God as Jesus feeds the multitudes, people stubbornly remain blind to the vision of God’s yearning for reconciliation/union with God’s children. They fear taking a leap of faith into the arms of a God who says, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Too steeped in the culture of what they think a king is, they are unwilling to give themselves over to a new vision of kingship; of abundant life and loving relationship in God.

Relationship. That’s the key. There is a fundamental difference in the nature of relationship between kingdoms of the world and the Kingdom of God.

Martin Buber’s 1923 book, I and Thou, described it this way (This may be a refresher for some, but it is profoundly worth revisiting):  On the one hand, a person’s attitude toward another may be as if toward an object; something experienced or used as a separate entity. This is what Buber called an I-It relationship.

On the other hand, a person’s attitude toward another may be as if it is toward something that is not distinctly separate; something that is not simply used or experienced as an object as much as it is understood as a kindred entity. It is a connection from the heart of one being to the heart of another. This is an “I-Thou” relationship. A different, more grammatical, way of putting it would be that an “I-It” relationship is from subject to object, while an “I-Thou” relationship is from subject to subject.

Look at the relationships in our two stories. David sees Bathsheba. He wants to have her. He takes her. He sees Uriah as an obstacle. He removes him. I-It, I-It, I-It, I-It. Subject to object, user to used, every time.

Now, look at Jesus on the mountain. Jesus sees the crowd. He wants to feed them. He invites a child—a child— to share his bread and fish, and connects, I-Thou; the divine within Jesus to the sacred within the child and his small meal. He sets a table of abundance where all have a seat, and all eat until they are satisfied, with “nothing lost.” Nothing left behind. No one left out. I-Thou, I-Thou, I-Thou.

God yearns for an I-Thou relationship with us and with all of Creation. Subject to subject, heart to heart, sacred to sacred, not as consumer and commodity, but as lover and beloved. It is the grammar of Eucharist, spoken at God’s Table.

Think about it— no, scratch that— don’t think about it just do it; come to the Table to be fed unconditionally, the divine and broken in Christ reaching out to the divine and broken in you, offering pardon and renewal, solace and strength, and then sending you out to make those same kinds of connections in the world with everyone you meet— I-Thou, I-Thou, I-Thou. The grammar, not of kings of the world, but of the Kingdom of God.

This is how Jesus calls and equips us. This is the language of the One who comes to us in ways and at times we would not believe possible and says to us, moment by moment, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

loaves and fishes Tabgha mosaic

 

 

 

 

Interstices

Pentecost 9, Year B  22 July 2018

A Sermon from the Rev.Linda Mackie Griggs

(Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” 

As I was thinking about this week’s readings in the context of last week’s sermon and of this past week’s events I realized I had made an incorrect assumption. I spoke about the importance of continually seeking God—of asking the question, “Where is God in this?” as a spiritual discipline. I talked about the potentially world-transforming power of the practice of theological thinking, which would prioritize God over self-preservation and self-interest in our decisions.

That hasn’t changed. But in the process of making the argument I said that it is easy to find God in the beautiful, the good and the true.

Based on some conversations I’ve had lately I’m not sure if I’m right about that anymore. To say that it’s easy to find God in the beautiful the true and the good these days seems glib and naïve. It sounds like a platitude. And I hate platitudes. Platitudes are band-aids. Platitudes don’t heal the exhaustion and the worry and the feeling of helplessness in the face of an endless onslaught of bad and confusing news.

There’s a John Prine song whose refrain begins, “Blow up your TV, throw away the paper…” I can relate to this.

Is it any wonder that today’s Gospel had me rethinking part of what I said last week? This passage is almost claustrophobic. The crowds are everywhere; Jesus moves, and the crowd moves with him; not just following him but anticipating where he’ll be next. It never seems to stop. The disciples are exhausted and overwhelmed. And Jesus says,

“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile…”

Seriously, Jesus? Have you looked around? We can’t even eat in peace!

Jesus knows. He knows, but he gazes at the milling crowd, and:

“…he had compassion for them, like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”

Jesus doesn’t follow his own advice to withdraw and rest. Instead, he takes a deep breath and plunges back in.

Why? Why does the Evangelist highlight this tension between a need for rest and the demands and needs of a broken world? Because that is our story. Some days more than others. There’s something we need to notice here, and it has to do with who God is.

Jesus acts out of Compassion. The Gospels refer to Jesus feeling compassion at least eight times. This is crucial: Compassion is not just a feel-good term indicating pity and sympathy. Pity and sympathy can be felt at a distance. Compassion is something done up close—it means to feel with—in the gut. You can’t mail in compassion—you have to put skin in the game. Jesus feels with his people. It is this feeling with that manifests to us God’s very identity. The Incarnate one—the Word made flesh– shows us that God is Compassion.

“Come away to a deserted place and rest awhile.”

How does Jesus’ compassion for the suffering mesh with the call to rest? How do we resolve the tension between rest and the needs and concerns and worries that crowd behind us and run ahead to meet us, and demand that we fix, resist, heal, or listen right now?

A God of Compassion knows this—knows that we are exhausted and anxious. A God of Compassion asks us to remember something: God is God, and we are not. The world is desperately in need of healing in so many ways, but God knows that we are no good to anyone without rest and renewal. Without Sabbath.

“…rest awhile.”

God, who created and liberated, rests. If God rests, how much more should we do the same? But I’m not talking as much about the importance of a Sabbath day, though that is the ideal minimum; I’m talking more about finding Sabbath spaces in a world that seems to be going bonkers.

Walter Brueggemann, in his book, Sabbath as Resistance, writes,

“That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.”

God is God, and we are not. Our call to Sabbath is a call to remember who is in charge, and to remember that our efforts are only as good as our balance—our ability to pause and to be present to God and what God has given us. That’s what Sabbath is: Time to stop. To say that, yes, there is work to be done. It will be there when I return to it, but for now, what I have is enough. I am thankful right now. This is what a Sabbath moment looks like.

Sabbath is not a platitude, it is the Fourth Commandment. The key is to understand that work and rest are not separate entities. They go together. God’s first acts of Creation were not separate from rest; they included it.

What if our work included Sabbath in such a way that the two were deeply interconnected, like when water is poured into a container of sand and flows into all the little gaps between the grains? A Sabbath mentality invites us to let Sabbath seep into the interstices—those tiny gaps– of our work and ministry, cooling the anxiety and softening the edges of cynicism and exhaustion. Interstitial Sabbath takes to heart Jesus’ admonition that the Sabbath was made for God’s children, not God’s children for the Sabbath. An interstitial Sabbath state of mind opens our eyes to see God’s hand in the world about us. It transforms platitude into healing balm and renews us for the work ahead.

This isn’t anything new. Honestly it isn’t a whole lot more than setting the concept of mindfulness in a theological context. The terminology isn’t as important as the practice of paying attention, whether it is to the feel and smell of working in the dirt of the garden, the taste of a good meal, the sight of a work of art that gives you chills, or the sound of a sublime piece of music; all of these are moments that invite us into a sacred pause: This is enough. I am thankful.

Or as a wise person once said to me after a wonderful outdoor concert: “It’s things like this that remind you that the world doesn’t suck.”

And that’s the point. Our work and ministry are important. The challenges of the world are urgent. But attending to them is useless if we don’t have a deep understanding of why we do what we do—why we serve in the world. The beautiful, the good, and the true—these are all descriptors of the compassionate God who created us and calls us into work and renewal. The world needs us, yes; but the world needs us whole. 

I’d like to conclude with a prayer by Ted Loder, from his book, Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle:

O God of the miracles,

            of galaxies

                        and crocuses

                                    and children,

I praise you now

            from the soul of the child within me,

                        shy in my awe,

                                    delighted by my foolishness,

                                                stubborn in my wanting,

                                                            persistent in my questioning,

                                                                        and bold in my asking you

to help me unbury my talents

            for wonder

                        and humor

                                    and gratitude,

so I may invest them eagerly

            in the recurring mysteries

                        of spring and beginnings,

                                    of willows that weep,

                                                and rivers that flow

                                                            and people who grow

in such endlessly amazing

            and often painful ways;

that I will be forever linked and loyal

            to justice and joy,

                        simplicity and humanity,

                                    Christ and his kingdom.       

The Unasked Question

Pentecost 8 Year B Proper 10 15 July 2018

                                        A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs 

Mark 6: 14-29 

Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. “

Power, sex, religion: An unholy trinity. If we didn’t know better we’d swear this was the plot of an HBO series and not Holy Scripture. Except we do know better—the Bible is filled with conflict, drama, and violence, and why not? It’s about us. But of course it’s not just about us, it’s about God’s relationship with us. And if that is the case, then our response to even the most lurid and violent passages in the Bible must always be a theological one: Where is God in this? Where indeed?

Herod Antipas was not the favorite son of Herod the Great. He wasn’t even the second favorite. He was passed over three times to be named the heir to the Herodian Kingdom. He was finally declared heir, only to have his father change his will at the last minute so that Junior became merely a tetrarch—ruler of a fourth of the kingdom, while his brothers and sister ruled portions of their own.

Herod’s ambition far exceeded his inheritance—he fought his father’s will all the way to the Emperor in Rome, more than once making the trip to lobby for full kingship and for greater territory. But to no avail. So…he did what any self-respecting petty despot would do; he married his sister-in-law Herodias, whose first husband Philip held a much larger portion to the east. Convenient.

Herod also fancied himself in the mold of his father; a builder of great things. Seeking to boost his reputation with the Jewish community, possibly because he wanted to be seen as their king in the tradition of David, he rebuilt the city of Sepphoris for them after the Romans destroyed it.  He also built a great resort capital on the Sea of Galilee named for his Roman patron, Tiberius, complete with a stadium, a palace, a sanctuary for prayer, and access to nearby warm springs at Emmaus. Lovely, except he built it on top of a graveyard, making it ritually impure for pious Jews, so for the first several years he had to colonize his capital with Gentiles. Oops.

In his desire to ingratiate himself with the Jews and the Romans at the same time, even as he continued to badger the emperor for more territory, we see a pretty clumsy and chaotic tetrarchy, led by a man whose chief focus in life was one thing: himself.

Enter John the Baptizer. Repent! Turn your life around! Turn to God! Rethink your priorities! Oh, and your marriage is unlawful.

And we know how the story unfolds from there. We see Herodias’ anger and John’s imprisonment. Then Herod’s birthday party; the dance, the stupid (drunken?) promise, the murder of a prophet. We watch, transfixed, as Salome bears the bloody platter to her stepfather. It is done. No going back.

There had been a glimmer of hope in the heavily-shadowed Herod:

“When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

We had hoped that John’s message might take root, but apparently, Herod’s interest was merely self-serving—just another example of hedging his bets and adding a prophet to his Rolodex of potentially profitable contacts. Either that or a case of ‘keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ Regardless, when it came down to it John’s message wasn’t as compelling as the approving smiles of Herod’s cronies as they watched him wave his hand in an ‘off with his head’ gesture.

Where, oh where in this debacle of hubris, ambition, and manipulation is God to be found? Where is God in this story in which self-interest and expediency win out over integrity and transformation? In the battle between power and truth, power has won; how is God manifest here?

God is in the dungeon with John. God is beside his friends as they bear his body to the tomb. God’s tender grace is with them in their grief. God is there because we can trust that God hears whenever the blood of the innocent cries out for justice in the face of those who would choose expediency and self-interest over compassion and truth.

You see, the powerful only seem to have won the day in this story. In its beginning and ending we hear a premonition–an echo of hope. Firstly, as Herod hears of Jesus’ deeds of power and wonders if John has come back from the dead. It’s a whisper of what will come; not for John, but for Jesus. And again, at the end of the story, the whisper takes on the hint of a melody as the final line foreshadows Good Friday and the inevitable trumpet shout of Resurrection:

“…they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”

God is there, woven throughout. We can see it all if we look closely; we can hear it if we listen.

God is always in the Question—not just as we engage with Scripture, but as we walk in the world. God is always present when we ask, “Where is God in this?” Because when we ask, we are doing something existentially crucial to our identity as spiritual beings and as Christians: We are thinking theologically. 

According to scholar Karen Yust, it is easy for us to look at Herod’s decisions and see where he went wrong, and find God in the process, as we have just done. We already know the context—the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But it prompts a challenge for those of us who are outside of the story. How do we view our own decisions? Herod’s were bad-faith decisions—we can see that. We sometimes make them too—make choices out of self-interest rather than out of a sense of greater good.

Might it be that our need to be expedient and self-protective in our choices is a way of avoiding thinking deeply and theologically? What would the world look like if we asked, “Where is God in what I am doing or observing? What if we thought theologically as naturally as breathing?

It’s easy to do when in the presence of the beautiful, the good and the true. It is more difficult in the face of suffering and evil. But that is when it is most necessary and potentially transformational— when we find the beautiful, the good and the true in the darkness.

Steven Charleston, retired Bishop of Alaska, wrote about the boys trapped in the cave in Thailand:

“This long ordeal has made me think deeply about the meaning of rescue. To be lost in darkness, to be isolated, to be found: it seems the classic model of being brought back to life. But the one element made even more clear to me is the willingness to take the risk of rescue. Coming out of the cave takes courage, skill and trust. It takes teamwork. The spiritual metaphor we have been watching unfold in Thailand is a lesson to be learned as we pray these young lives to safety.”

Lost and found. Light and dark. Death and life. Emergence. Courage. Prayer. Trust.

These aren’t arcane theological terms. Thinking theologically doesn’t require special training. Simply ask the Question. Where is God in this event? This illness? This tragedy? This person? Ask. The mere act of seeking God is an act of finding, and being found—possibly even being rescued.

 

 

Bound Together

Pentecost 7 Year B Proper  8 July 2018

                                 A sermon from the Rev.  Linda Mackie Griggs

Mark 6:1-13

I’ve been thinking lately about fifty years ago. The events of the spring and summer of 1968 were like a kick in the gut for many in this country: Cold war with the Soviet Union; An unpopular hot war in Vietnam; Unrest and revolt in many cities, including at the Democratic Presidential Convention in Chicago; And the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy—two figures who had embodied hope to those who cried for justice for the poor and marginalized. Imagine: Two “I remember where I was when….” events in the course of just three months. It was a scary time—no one knew what was coming next.

It’s not dissimilar to when the Evangelist wrote the Gospel of Mark—late in the first century. It was around the time of the Jewish Revolt of 66-69. Persecutions of Jewish Christians by the Romans. And the martyrdom of Apostles Paul and Peter—two figures who had embodied hope to those who cried for justice for the poor and marginalized. A kick in the gut. No one knew what was coming next.

Mark was writing to scared people. People who feared for the future. His message, meant to be read aloud in Christian communities, was urgent and powerful. Perhaps comforting would be to take it too far since the call to follow Jesus wasn’t a call to be comfortable, but it was hopeful. It told the Good News of Jesus the Messiah—come to change a broken world and bring hope to the downtrodden. It was a call to everyone to repent—to wake up—to renew their lives.

Good News for scared people in scary times. Today the Evangelist tells us a disturbing story: Jesus goes to his hometown and receives a dubious welcome. He begins to teach…he hasn’t gotten two words out before the neighbors interrupt: “Wait a minute! This can’t be little Jesus, from next door? I remember when he was just so high, helping Mary’s husband in the workshop—by the way, did you hear Joseph’s not his real dad?…”

And they took offense at him.

THEIR Messiah wouldn’t be just the kid from Podunk, Galilee. THEIR Messiah would be someone of more…what? Sophistication? Erudition? Not born out of wedlock? (Word gets around…)   Whatever it was, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations of what THEIR Messiah should be like.

Expectations. Anne Lamott says that expectations are resentments under construction. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

The thing is, Jesus can’t be parochialized. He can’t be made into something proprietary, someone who’s been narrowed down, domesticated into what we expect—whatever that is. The people of the time expected a king with a capital K—to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to her former glory. Many of the people of our time expect Jesus to be a personal guarantor of a ticket into the afterlife—Jesus as a personal savior of my soul. Both of these are narrow expectations.

Jesus is bigger than that. This is not to dismiss the intimacy of Jesus’ healing presence, as we saw in last week ’s powerful stories about the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the hemorrhaging Woman. Jesus’ care and tenderness are seen throughout the Gospels and are a sustaining force in the lives of countless people. But as today’s story shows, that is just part of the picture, and if we seek to tether Jesus to our expectations of what we want him to be, there will be disappointment all around.

But Jesus shows us how to deal with disappointment. He moves on, and he sends his disciples out. Keep moving, he says.  Travel light. Remember you’re not alone.

He sends them out on short journeys—this is why they didn’t take a second tunic—the second one was used to double as a blanket if they spent the night on the road. Not taking an extra tunic, money or bread meant that they would be in fairly well-populated areas where they could rely on the hospitality of others. And if they were not welcome, move on and leave the rest to God.

This commissioning, according to scholar Ben Witherington III, is notable for a couple of things. First, note the fact that this is one of the few instances in this Gospel in which Jesus isn’t berating the disciples for not getting what he’s talking about. Perhaps this is because he has them doing something. There’s something comforting in thinking that maybe sometimes it’s okay to be better at doing the ministry than understanding it. Second, it is telling the hearers and readers of Mark’s Gospel that their survival as a community depends on evangelism and hospitality: Preach the Good News, using words if necessary, and get to know the people. The disciples were empowered by Jesus to exorcise and heal, and to call/challenge/invite everyone to turn their lives around—to live lives of compassion, justice, and care for the marginalized; to become part of the inbreaking of the Kingdom.

Jesus wasn’t about meeting anyone’s personal expectations. He was about transcending and confounding them. He was about realizing the Dream of God, and that meant letting go of what wasn’t working and getting back on the road. That’s what praying with your feet looks like.

The Evangelist wrote his Gospel for scared people, fighting despair and trying to make sense of their world. He wanted to offer a message of hope in trying times. He was calling them to follow Jesus on a challenging and deeply enriching journey of hard work, fellowship, and healing.

Jesus is still on the move. 68 AD, 1968, 2018–Jesus is still telling us to pray with our feet—but traveling light–carrying only enough righteous anger to give us courage to speak truth in love and to listen well.

I heard a song the other night at a 4th of July concerti, and the encore was powerful—as it began everyone recognized James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light”, which was a tribute to Dr. King; you could feel in the hush that fell that the audience was especially thirsty for a song of hope in a scary time:

…there are ties between us, all men and women living on the Earth. Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood, that we are bound together in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong.

We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist

There is a hunger in the center of the chest

There is a passage through the darkness and the mist

And though the body sleeps the heart will never rest.

 

 

 

It’s a Man’s World


For over a month we have been riveted by the unfolding stories from the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel. Samuel comprises one book, later divided into two – and forms part of the Deuteronomic history, a history focused on the ups and downs in the relationship between Isreal and Yahweh. The storyline in Samuel covers the period of transition Ancient Israel from a confederation of tribes towards becoming a unified nation ruled by a king.

As we heard last week, this was a chaotic and tension-filled transition. Samuel, the last of the Judges is now the king-maker and without telling Saul he secretly anoints David as king in his place. Saul becomes increasingly suspicious of David and is jealous of David’s growing popularity.

Last week’s reading also introduced the relationship between David and Jonathan, who at their first meeting experience love at first sight!

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

In today’s installment, we skip forward to listen as David learns of Saul and Jonathan’s death; father and son together having taken the last stand in battle against the Philistines. David’s response to the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is to compose one of the great love eulogies of all time. He cries out in anguish –

see how the mighty have fallen ……I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women, How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

***

Issues of gender and sexual identity continue to fuel our current culture wars making for an interesting answer to the question: were David and Jonathan in a homosexual relationship, or were they just platonic, Oxbridge-style soul-friends; the kind of tortured attraction between men characterized in the novels of E. M Forster and Evelyn Waugh; men desiring one another while keeping it in their pants so to speak, or in David and Jonathan’s case, under their kilts?

Biblical commentators under the influence of a traditional homophobic reading of this story have over the centuries gone to considerable lengths to deny any homosexual inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan. The difficulty that has confronted such commentators is how to interpret this love poem in fraternal terms that avoid its clear homophilic (love between men) or even homoerotic (sex between men) content.

Contemporary liberal commentators no longer directly deny the homophylic or homoerotic content of this text. However, many take refuge in their concern to avoid the danger of anachronism. Anachronism is where we project back into history our current attitudes, values, and ideas. There is, however, a growing body of commentators committed to a queer reading of this text (Bruce Gerig) who openly embrace the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan.

                                                     David and Jonathan are clearly an emotionally bonded couple. From their first meeting, Jonathan places his love for David above his loyalty to his own father- a very big statement in a patriarchal society. On a number of occasions, Jonathan protects David from the dangers of Saul’s murderous paranoia.

On the face of it, by declaring that Jonathan’s love is love beyond that of a woman, David, the inveterate womanizer, makes it clear that there is a homoerotic component to the love between them.

I share the view that the love between David and Jonathan appears to be certainly homophilic if not homoerotic in nature. So some ask, were these great historical figures gay?

***

Gayness is the recognition of homosexuality as a stable emotional, developmental state existing along a continuum of sexual identification and gender attraction.

It is, therefore, a completely modern concept. The Bible, whether here or elsewhere has no concept other than that all men are ‘heterosexual’.

I place the term ‘heterosexual’ in inverted commas, Like homosexual, it’s a term that conceives a variety of possibilities along a developmental continuum. Biblical writers had no conception of a continuum of different possibilities.

In the Biblical worldview, normative sexual identity was capable of distinguishing between the duties of procreation and the pursuit of pleasure; the latter holding the potential for what today we recognize as homosexual as well as heterosexual object choices.

The term homosexual comes from the Greek homos meaning the same, rather than the Latin homo meaning man and was first coined in mid-19th-century Germany. Thus, to read a modern concept of homosexuality – gayness or heterosexuality back into the relationship between David and Jonathan is anachronistic.  The terms homosexual and heterosexual, and the distinctions they imply are products of the modern age.

David and Jonathan were not gay in the sense that I am, for instance, gay. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures, evidenced in such cultures as diverse as those of Classical Greece and Samurai Japan. In these tribal-warrior cultures, the social and emotional inferiority of women was so great that while suitable as the bearers of children, women could not be considered as emotional partners with men.

These were in the general sense homophilic societies where the primary emotional identification for men could only be other men – a man’s men’s world. In such a world there is a discrete tolerance for men having sex with men, usually involving age difference relationships between older and younger men. Our social concept of homosexuality as a stable emotional developmental state, existing along a continuum of identity and gender fluidity has little relevance when reflecting on men’s sexual arrangements in such societies.

***

Therefore, is there value in this story for us as 21st-century readers? I think it warns us to be careful in our assumptions of the Biblical past. We need to question the assumption that in the patriarchal past, same-sex relationships were always forbidden. The predominant Jewish anxiety about homosexuality, evidenced in the early texts of the Torah, is rooted in a tribal society’s concern about diverting sexual energy away from procreation; babies meant survival. Yet, in societies where the primary emotional identification is between men and not between men and women, erotic expression was clearly tolerated. Thus, the Bible itself is a very unreliable witness to call in the attempt to use it to prohibit modern same-sex relationships.

The Anglican tradition of interpreting Scripture understands that interpretation shifts as each generation encounters the text from within the challenges of their own time and place. Anglican tradition accepts that meaning emerges in the dynamic of an encounter between interpreter, community, and text. As we encounter this ancient story, what are the questions we might bring to bear on this text?

Although there will always be dissenters, the prevailing Western view in the 21st-century is of sexual development in as a psychologically and environmentally driven, developmental process. Along the continuum of possibilities of sexual and gender identity, no one position is preordained for every person. Even biological gender is no longer considered the sole determinant of gender identity because as we are increasingly coming to accept, identity is a psycho-spiritual issue and not simply a matter of chromosomes.

So much for psychology and environment, but what about theology.

The story of David and Jonathan reminds us that the theology of human relationships rests not upon issues of gender but on the experience and expression of love.

Love as emotional commitment and ethical fidelity is the theology that underpins the experience of a love relationship between significant others.

   We may be biologically gendered for the purposes of reproduction, yet, this cannot be the final statement on either the purpose of sex or what it means to be made in the image of God.

God, despite the frequent use of the male pronoun, is non-gendered. Male and female are not terms we can ascribe to God. Yet, animus and anima are. These principles of masculine and feminine energy are central characteristics of the divine. When thought about in these terms the masculine element of creating comingles with the feminine elements of receiving and sharing – as God the lover beholds God the beloved, and God the love sharer.

For 21st-century Christians, it is no longer the gendered identity of the object of our desires that matters, but the integrity of the love that comes to bind two persons in a relationship that is of primary significance for both. The longing that characterizes such relational love- the giving, the receiving, and the sharing of love is a direct reflection of the divine nature and is the keenest indicator we have of our longing for God, and the longing God has for us.

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.

may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.

may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.

may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.

may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.

may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.

may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.

John O’Donohue

Tyranny: one short memory loss away

Old Testament Lessons

For the last month, we have listened to a broad historical outline sketched out in the first book of Samuel. I and II Samuel are the first two books of a larger corpus of Old Testament histories covering the period that charts the rise and fall of monarchical tyranny in ancient Israel.  More particularly, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, cover the same period but from different editorial sources. The books of Samuel and the Kings are the product of the D or Deuteronomy source as are the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, and Jeremiah.

D source

The Deuteronomic narrative emphasizes the themes of obedience and disobedience to the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Although drawing from older oral traditions brought south after the fall of the Northern kingdom in 721 BC, the books as written documents emerge between the 7th and 6th-centuries BC and are particularly associated with the discovery of the long-forgotten Book of the Law, uncovered in the wall of the temple during renovations, which launched the Josiah Reform in 622 BC.

The Deuteronomic history was further edited and re-cast by the scribes of the P or priestly source after 582 BC during the period of the Babylonian Exile in search of an answer to why God had abandoned Judah in 581.

Period of transition

I Samuel covers the period of political transition during which the Hebrew tribes emerge from a loose confederation ruled by charismatic judges, into the beginnings of a unified state that reaches its zenith under the kingship of David in the 10th-century BC.

With the advent of monarchy, the tension is set up between two competing theologies of government. Although Israel’s kings start out as agents of Yahweh, they are increasingly influenced by concepts of divine kingship that prevailed in the Middle East at that time. In resistance to this trend, the prophetic movement arose as a very necessary check on the notions of divine kingship, calling the nation back to its obedience to the Covenant with God.

Samuel

The person Samuel is the last of the great Judges in the line stretching back to Joshua son of Nun, the successor to Moses. Samuel now in his twilight years, is presented with the increasing demand of the people to give them a king so that they could be like the other nations. It’s clear that the loose tribal confederation is not efficient enough to marshal the necessary resources to resist the military incursions of the Canaanite kingdoms. Tired of being defeated in battle by their neighbors, the Israelites too, now want a king who would lead them to victory.

Samuel dislikes the people’s demand. He explains to the people that having a king will mean giving up their tribal independence and submitting to authoritarian, centralized rule, in which the king would have the first claim on their land, their labor, and their wealth. Samuel experiences the people’s demand as a personal rejection, about which he complains to God. God tells him not to get above himself, reminding Samuel that the people’s demand is not a rejection of Samuel, but a rejection of God.  God effectively tells Samuel to give the people what they want in the spirit of the proviso – be careful what you ask for.

Saul

images-1Samuel’s choice was very predictable. Swayed by Saul’s appearances – tall, dark and handsome, Samuel anoints him king. Like many seemingly strong leaders, Saul’s narcissism is on the surface at least, attractive and impressive. He cuts a large swagger, is a big presence, and the people mistake this for real strength. Yet, like all narcissists, he’s a big man with a fragile ego. He is quick to take offense, has poor anger management control, and increasingly becomes more paranoid and vindictive. Despite initial successes, it works out badly for Israel under Saul, and it works out very badly for Saul himself.

Nepotism, ambition, and theology

There is an interesting subtheme in the book of Samuel. Four weeks ago, we listened to the call of the boy Samuel. In calling Samuel, God repudiates the priestly succession of Eli because Eli’s sons were corrupt grifters who exploited their position of power and privilege to the detriment of the people. We next jump ahead in the story to where after many years of wise leadership the people complain that they need a king because Samuel is now old, and they fear being left at the mercy of his own sons, who they complain do not walk in the ways of their father but have turned aside and taken bribes.

Rulers are one thing, but ruling families where the members exploit the privileges of power for their own interests, are quite another.

Samuel’s dislike of the demand for a king is both theological and personal. Samuel had already appointed his sons as Judges to succeed him. As God thwarted Eli’s dynasty, so God seems to now thwart Samuel’s dynastic pretensions. What goes around come around.

However, the more important point is Samuel’s theological objection to kingship. The focus of the Deuteronomic history is faithfulness to the covenant between God and Israel. Yahweh is Israel’s only king. If Israel has a king like the other nations, Samuel rightly foresees that the prevailing regional models of divine kingship will cause Israel to reject Yahweh as their only king.

Samuel’s fears are well-founded. For the rest of the Deuteronomic history is the sorry tale of how Israel’s kings, again and again, placed themselves above obedience to the Covenant Law under which they ruled as God’s agent, not as God’s replacement.

Last week, we listened in the Samuel narrative to the anointing of the shepherd boy David to be king in Saul’s place. This time, God is leaving nothing to Samuel’s weakness for narcissistically handsome, warrior-like men with good legs. To Samuel’s imagesurprise, God passes over all the virile sons of Jesse until it seems he has run out of options. But there is one son remaining and when he is summoned he appears to be a boy with ruddy cheeks and bright eyes.

Samuel pours the oil of anointing over David in secret. No one tells Saul he is no longer king. But as David notches up military victory one after another, in today’s installment it seems something is beginning to dawn on Saul. Despite David’s successes and his ability to charm the increasingly paranoid king, Saul suspects something is up:

So Saul eyed David from that day on. The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

David

David goes on to become the exception to the rule concerning kingship in Israel. Though hardly a paragon according to contemporary evangelical ideals of virtue, he nevertheless ruled over a golden age never to be repeated. David ruled 7 years in Hebron before conquering Jerusalem and making it his capital from where he ruled a further 33 years.

By the standard of the times, his was a long reign during which Israel morphs into a unified and powerful kingdom, rivaling those of the states around it. But David’s monarchy is a blip in the long trajectory of good governance in Ancient Israel. Although David faced the pervasive tendencies to concentrate power absolutely, what saved him and the nation time and again was his love of God and his willingness to be faithful to the covenant ideal that Israel had only one king, and Yahweh was his name.

When the prophet Nathan accuses David of engineering the death of Uriah so he could take the man’s wife, David presented with his crime, repents. David’s greatness lay in his ability to recognize the limitations of his power when it came to obedience to Israel’s covenant with God. A man of his time, nevertheless David is rare among the Israelite kings in his desire to love and honor Yahweh.

When the king ruled as God’s agent and not in God’s place, the nation prospered because this covenant form of government offered a more effective set of checks and balances capable of successfully negotiating competing interests.

After David, monarchy brought disastrous consequences for Isreal, beginning with his son, Solomon, whose taxes and dalliances with foreign religions oppressed the people and set the scene for the division of the unified kingdom following his death.

The Deuteronomist’s repeated judgment on each reign was whether this king did or did not walk in the ways of David, whether this king was faithful or unfaithful to the covenant with Lord.

Lessons from history

The Covenant between Yahweh and Israel was intended to function as a constitution, setting out the system of checks and balances in the interests of good government. Like Samuel, the framers images-1of the American Constitution feared the people’s demand – give us a king, for there were many who at the time thought General Washington would make a fine king.

And so the Framers wrote into the Constitution the complex system of checks and balances to ensure governance capable of negotiating different interests, which when taken together represented effective governance, serving the interests of the people while not pandering to the rabble cries of the crowd.

Their vision was not of popularism – governance at the mercy of the crowd, but republicanism – government reliant upon a system of checks and balances in which power and the limits to the exercise of power are clearly set out.

I guess we are all wondering what the future holds, but one thing is clear, we are now in the midst of a constitutional crisis. What the Founding Fathers most feared, is the very thing that results when Congress, craven before the demands of the rabble, abdicates power to an increasingly authoritarian Executive.

What alarms me is the historical amnesia. Let the Deuteronomic history of the Biblical record of Israel’s struggles with itself and its God be a lesson for us.

As the prophets in Ancient Israel knew only too well, tyranny is but one short collective memory loss away.

 

 

 

A Holy Trinity: Bible, Kingdom, and Politics

St Martin’s first strategic priority is called embedding the Bible in community life. In addition to recently completing the year-long Bible Challenge, many of our ministry groups now routinely take some time for Bible reflection during their meetings. At the recent men’s beer and pizza evening, actually, it’s more pizza than beer, we devoted time in our two hours together to have a Biblical conversation.

Taking the gospel for Pentecost 4, I invited the men into a subjective encounter with the depiction of the farmer scattering his seed. I asked them to note the word or phrase that caught their attention. We then proceeded to explore each man’s free associations evoked by encountering the text. This is an ancient process, known as divine reading, and in its contemporary form raises the question: how might God be using my associations to this text to speak to me about what needs attention in the next 5-7 days?

***

download.jpgIn the E-News Epistle which came out on Thursday, I made a very bold statement indeed. I said:

Despite our current immigration debate’s political and social complexities, the Bible allows Christians to hold only one view on immigration – we are to welcome the stranger. 

Now I am aware that it’s always tricky, as Jeff Sessions is discovering, to appeal to the Bible’s text as literal evidence for any proposition we might wish to advance. For on almost any matter to do with how to act, what to believe, what is binding, what is not, the Bible is a collection of contradictory texts. You can use the Bible to argue for or against slavery, for or against the equality of women with men. It’s more difficult to use the Bible as evidence for God’s dislike of LGBTQ people because Biblical societies had no concept of an inherently natural and stable developmental state we recognize as homosexuality. However, the one matter on which the Bible is fairly consistent is the obligation to welcome the stranger. Hence my statement in the E-news is quite difficult to contradict.

If we ask who and what kind of God do we serve? Welcoming the stranger emerges at the heart of Biblical obligation because God’s word to Moses when he asked this very question; when they ask me who shall I say sent me? – was:I am the Lord your God who has heard your cry and brought you out of bondage in the land of Egypt.

The reason we are to welcome the stranger, God tells us, is because we were all strangers, once.

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When it comes to engaging with the Bible, there is no such thing as a plain meaning for the words on the page. There is the text, with its own history and context. Then there is us, and the context in which we encounter the text. Meaning emerges in the tension of the space between text as written and text as received by the reader.

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imagesMark offers us a rather uneventful story of the farmer who sows his seed by a rather careless method of scattering it, willy-nilly. He then forgets about it, getting on with his life, trusting in God’s goodness in creation to do the rest. The seeds sprout and fruit, though he knows not how. Unlike many of us, he seems OK with not needing to control the process. He knows well enough his real work will come when the harvest is ready.

Jesus’ gospel message is open your eyes and ears and see how the kingdom is in-breaking all around you. Its coming is not within our control, yet neither are we passive bystanders in its arrival.

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We cannot hasten the coming of the kingdom. Neither can anyone frustrate its coming. We have work to do, work of scattering the seeds of faith, hope, and love – scattering ourselves and our energies in the world.

We have further work as harvesters of the kingdom’s fruits. Faith ripens into courage, hope into persistence, and love into justice.

The kingdom’s coming is always counterintuitive. Its inbreaking is not another version of the myth of progress; advancing step by step and evidenced by things getting better and better, over time.  Will the coming of the kingdom be further advanced ten years from now? Experience shows it does not work like this.

We scatter, and the kingdom comes, though we know not how. Yet, are not the kingdom’s expectations advanced in a world where slavery is abolished, where women are emancipated, where LGBTQ men and women are accepted, and where the vulnerable stranger is welcomed? The answer is, of course. Nevertheless, the scourge of racism persists and in periods like the present seems even to grow stronger. Sexist discrimination, sexual exploitation of women, and the often-invisible limitations imposed by the glass ceiling, still remain firmly in place. Homophobia is still nurtured in the bosom of evangelical and patriarchal religion, and despite the divine requirement to welcome the stranger we tolerate the inhumanity of this Administration’s approach to immigration enforcement.

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This coming week is World Refugee Week when Christians are asked to address the difficult issues of migration and population displacement in the light of the coming of God’s kingdom. What is our response when children, even infants still nursing at the breast are separated from parents at the border; when unaccompanied children and adolescents are detained in Walmart megastores converted into prisons? How must we respond to the latest extrajudicial decree denying asylum claims to women escaping from domestic abuse, and women and children escaping from communities ravaged by drug and gang violence; violence fed and sustained by our epidemic addictions. And when we have the temerity to object to these inhumanities, the Attorney General manipulates Scripture in support of a policy that by any standards is as draconian as it is arbitrary. The primary purpose of our rule of law lies in it being a remedy against capricious and arbitrary exercise of executive government.

In the light of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, what should our response to immigration be?

Experience rather than prejudice and phobia should be the driver of policy. It is worth noting that communities across the country are benefiting from organized refugee resettlement programs, such as the one Dorcas International manages in RI. Economics dictate that if our economy is to grow to meet our national needs then migration is a principal source of the workforce growth necessary. For those escaping political and social chaos, compassion should temper suspicion.

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Neither a fearful nor a soppy handwringing response is acceptable.

The kingdom demands from us a hard-headed commitment to hold our legislators accountable for the fashioning of sound policy grounded in principles of justice that protect the vulnerable from the arbitrary and capricious exercise of power.

In authoritarian forms of government ruling through the mechanisms of scapegoating, the vulnerable today will eventually become you and me, tomorrow.

[T]he reign of God does not carve out a separate sacred space; it claims all aspects of human existence. There is no such thing, not in Christianity at least, as an apolitical gospel. There is no economically neutral gospel. There is no gospel that dismisses the importance of embodied existence and interpersonal relationships. …however your church conducts its ministry, if it doesn’t provide sanctuary, hospitality, sustenance, and renewal to those who need it, …. then it isn’t the gospel. In short, there is no gospel in which Jesus remains buried in the ground like a dormant seed. Matthew Skinner

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