Thursday, June 28, 2012

"David Mourns..." - II Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Read the text here: II Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Reflections on “David Mourns…” – II Samuel 1:1, 17-27
You might have noticed by looking at the Scripture citation above that we have jumped over lot of material between last Sunday and this weekend.  Last week we heard the story of David & Goliath in I Samuel 17 and this week we are at the death of Saul in II Samuel 1.  In the process we have skipped over chapters 18 through 32 in I Samuel.  From the standpoint of the lectionary I can understand this, but for the purposes of the story we are missing a lot that would help us to understand this rather odd text for today.  So in as few words as I can muster allow me to fill in the blanks a bit.  From the high point in the relationship between David and Saul when David kills Goliath things go from bad to worse.  David is brought into the home of the King where he soothes Saul, who seems to be suffering from depression and paranoia, by singing and playing the harp.  Eventually Saul drives David out of his household, against the wishes of his own children, the crown prince, Jonathan who has become David’s closest and best friend and his daughter Michel who has fallen in love with David.  David first takes up residence in the hills and gathers a band of thugs and becomes a highway robber where he swoops down on unsuspecting caravans, plunders them and kills anyone who is there.  Eventually he moves into the territory of the Philistines, makes peace with the Philistine authorities and actually becomes a kind of mercenary for them against Israel and others.  In short, David becomes a bandit and a traitor.  During this time he has two opportunities to kill Saul, who had unwittingly wandered into David’s clutches.  On both occasions David chooses not to kill Saul.
Finally Israel and Philistia are at war again.  David is not participating (actually the Philistines didn’t want him to, they don’t completely trust him).  Saul’s paranoia and depression has turned to terror, and in an effort to find peace Saul consults a fortune teller (called the witch of Endor) who conducts a s√©ance and brings the spirit of Samuel up from the dead.  Samuel is not pleased and tells Saul that he will die in the battle the next day.  And true to the prediction Saul, Jonathan and Saul’s other sons are all killed in the battle.  It must be said, though, that according to the text, Saul and his sons die fighting bravely for their country. An Amalekite messenger brings this news to David, expecting David to be pleased and, I suppose, expecting some kind of reward. The messenger fabricates a story that makes him a part of the death of Saul.  This only angers David, who has the messenger executed. David then enters into a time of mourning for Saul and Jonathan.  He composes a song – The Song of the Bow – and orders it to be sung throughout Israel by all of the tribes.
The fact is that David is not cheered by the death of the only real obstacle to his becoming King of Israel.  He mourns, and his mourning appears to be sincere. Now, I doubt that David liked Saul very much, but it appears that he respected him.  Even as they engaged in the cat/mouse games of Saul pursuing and trying to kill David, nevertheless David continues to hold Saul in respect, if for no other reason, than the fact this Saul is the King, the Lord’s anointed. What does this say to us about how we relate to those others who we feel are our adversaries or whose positions we feel are detrimental to us personally or to our nation? Think about the political figures that you dislike and want to see defeated in the upcoming elections.  Despite your disagreement and antipathy, can you still respect the person as a fellow human being, who has a position of authority bestowed upon him/her by the people? The ugliness and hate that is displayed in the context of politics is really extreme and is ultimately damaging to us as a nation and to us spiritually as individuals.  And we are all guilty of this, to some degree – myself included. This story calls for us to take a step back from this. Disagreement is fine and good and expected – but hate is out of line.
So, David writes a song and sends it out to be sung.  The Song of the Bow is certainly an odd song in many ways.  It gives voice to intense national grief. But there are several things that it seems to be lacking. 1st, there is no call to revenge.  This song lays out and accepts the grief of the loss of the King, the Crown Prince and the others and provides a cathartic vehicle for the expression of grief, but it does not call on people to seek revenge. This is important, for often in certain circumstances, grief can too often give way to seeking revenge, and revenge never, never satisfies. “Turn the other cheek,” said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.  Gandhi once said “and eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  Shakespeare’s famous story of two young lovers “Romeo and Juliet” is ultimately not a story about young love, but it is a story about revenge and how destructive revenge is, for in this story the young lovers, many of their friends and others are destroyed by the hate between these two families.  David does not call for revenge – but rather, David calls for mourning.
The song is also missing any mention of God and it seems to also lack a sense of hope.  This song gives vent to grief. And this, in and of itself, is a gift, for we do need to find ways to express our grief at the losses we suffer.  We all suffer loss of many kinds: the death of loved ones, divorce, break-up of relationships, loss of friends, even children growing up and moving on is a loss.  I think we are not always so good at expressing our grief.  We push it aside, shrug it off and pretend it is no big deal.  But it doesn’t leave us, it will become a part of us and it will change us.  David’s song reminds us of our need to find ways of venting and dealing with our grief – both personal and collective – in an open and honest way.
As Christians we read this song through the lens of the Gospel and because of that we can recognize and hold on to the hope that comes in the resurrection of Christ. In the Gospel for today two people take the risk of reaching out to Jesus – the leader of the synagogue and the woman with the flow of blood.  They reach out to Jesus in fear and loss, but with a sense of hope that Jesus can heal and bring life into the midst of their darkness of illness and the social ostracism that comes with it.  In both cases Jesus brings healing. And God can bring healing to us as well. We will always have our losses and griefs with us, and they will shape us to some degree, but we do not need to be stuck in our grief.  God offers us healing and grace. God calls on us all to reach out to God through Jesus and give our grief to God.  Hear these words from the book of Revelation: “And God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain with be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:3-4). Amen.
Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Reflections on the text – “David and Goliath”

Read the text here: I Samuel 17:1-49

Five Smooth Stones*
Of all the stories in the Old Testament perhaps there is none which is as well-known and well-loved as this story of the little shepherd boy, David, defeating the big, well-armed Philistine champion Goliath. The entire construct of this story – the little guy defeats the big guy - has entered into our national consciousness and is often referred to when a small community, for example, is able to prevail over some large corporate conglomerate.  But there is a lot more to this story, so much more in fact, that it is impossible in one week to examine the story completely.  In preparation for this week I read a number of articles and sermons – one of the best is an essay on the nature of religious violence: “After He Killed Him, He Cut Off His Head: David, Goliath and Sacred Violence” by Dan Clendenin – find it at:
So, what is your experience with this story?  I suspect, like most, you heard this story as a child and so you continue to identify with the hero of the story – David.  I would be willing to bet that if I took a poll that the large majority of people (of all ages) would say that they identify with David in this story.  But, why then do we spend our lives working so hard trying to become Goliath? Think about it.  Goliath represents a people, the Philistines, who were more advanced than the Israelites.  They had the latest weapons, they had the best technology, they were called the “Sea People” because they lived on the coast and had trading partners throughout the Mediterranean.  By contrast, the Israelites were still fighting with old-fashioned weapons which were no match for the iron weapons of the Philistines; they were land-locked and had little to know commerce outside of their own tribes; they were provincial and petty, often fighting among themselves.  In short, Goliath represents power, strength, knowledge, wealth and influence; David represents – well, none of those things.  Which side are we on, judging from how we spend our lives and what our priorities are?  For many of us, we spend our lives trying to be Goliath. (Aside: isn’t it ironic that even David becomes Goliath eventually!)
In the Gospels, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem – the road to crucifixion and along the way Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about crucifixion, James and John argue about who is going to be the most important in the new Kingdom of God and the other disciples spend their time planning and dreaming about the power, wealth and glory that they think will be theirs when Jesus finally takes over.  In the midst of this Jesus turns to them and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)  We are like the disciples – all of us striving to be Goliath, striving to turn Jesus into Goliath.  What is required of us are Five Smooth Stones to help us recognize who we are as God’s children, and how we should relate to the world and to others.
Stone #1 – Know the world.  David was a shepherd. He learned to deal with the world through being a shepherd.  This was hard work; it was dangerous and dirty work. But it taught David the skills he needed and he learned about living in the world.  We too have a wealth of experiences that should help us to learn to live in this world.  No experience is worthless, we can learn from everything.  And God continues to give us all kinds of experiences to help us to continue to learn and grow.  None of us ever get to the point where we can say we know everything we need to know.
Stone #2Know your community.  David was brought up in a family in the town of Bethlehem that is of the Tribe of Judah, which is of the nation of Israel.  David was strongly connected to his roots, and this gave him strength and confidence.  We live in a world that devalues community, and celebrates the individual.  But yet, community is one of God’s great gifts to us, and separated from community we will spiritually languish.  Steeleville is one dimension of the community that is a part of our lives, also our families.  But also, importantly, so too is our church community – Peace and the Wartburg Parish are also a gift.  Are we grounded by regular participation in Word and Sacrament?  In what ways do we participate in the broader community?
Stone #3Know yourself.  King Saul tried to dress David in his own armor for battle.  But David had enough self-knowledge and self-assurance to say, no this is not me, and I cannot fight like this.  If David had gone into the field with that armor on he would have lost! How many times do others try to dress us in their armor or try to make us into something or someone we are not?  Do we know ourselves well enough to say – No! This is who I am and what I need to do!
Stone #4Know God – Goliath is not God.  That seems self evident, but it really isn’t.  We like to try to re-create God in our own image and we do it all of the time.  Consider this quote from Duke Divinity School’s Dr. Samuel Wells: “Let me tell you another tragedy of this story. How has it happened that Christians in this country have lost so much of the respect and trust of people of other faiths and of no expressed faith? I’ll tell you how it has happened. It has happened by Christians turning Jesus into Goliath. And that’s a tragedy. Jesus is not a cosmic or political or cultural bully. Jesus is not Goliath. Whatever your view of truth -- faith or no faith -- Goliath is not God. David knows that. David knows where the secret of the universe lies, and it’s not with Goliath.” Through Word and Sacrament, through prayer and study we need to always be in touch with the God who calls us to humbly follow him so that his love, grace and forgiveness might flow through us.
Stone #5 Trust in God.  David is faithful.  David trusts in God.  No matter how selfish David is, no matter how many mistakes he makes he always has a sense that God is with him and is there ready to forgive him and strengthen him for service.  So to with us – we are called to trust in the Lord and be open to God’s forgiveness and to be faithful to God’s call.  Note – I did not use the word “faith” which is a noun. I used a verb – “trust.”  For what we are called to is an active faith.  A faith that like David, calls on us to act in love and courage and trust daily reaching out in God’s love to others.

The title and inspiration for this sermon comes from an address and essay by Dr. Samuel Wells, of Duke Divinity School entitled “Five Smooth Stones.”
Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.
The audio of this sermon - from 6/23/12 - can be found in the media section of 
wartburgparish.com 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

David Anointed As King - I Samuel 15:34-16:13


Read the text here: I Samuel 15:34 - 16:13
Great Expectations
The people had demanded a King and the prophet Samuel, the last of the Judges, had anointed Saul to be King over this tribal confederation that was called Israel. Now, at last, the people had a King, like the other nations that surrounded and threatened Israel’s security. Now, at last, a King would unify the country, provide the security they all craved and lead the people to be faithful to Yahweh. Well, that was the expectation at least.  But, somehow things didn’t quite work out the way they expected. The Philistines, the Amalekites and others were constantly attacking Israel so that it seemed like Israel was never secure and always at war. And when not leading the army Saul preferred to return to his farm in the land of the tribe of Benjamin.  No central government, no palace, no center of worship.  In short, King Saul was a total disappointment. He just wasn’t the kind of King the people wanted.  And more importantly, he was not the kind of King that either Samuel or Yahweh had expected him to be.
This part of the story that is in our text for today brings the kingship of King Saul to a climax. It is most profoundly a story of expectations – great expectations that are not met. Saul fails to meet the expectations of Yahweh and the people, but he is the anointed King and Samuel expects that that should count for something and initially resists the call to anoint a replacement. This calling to find a new King was not what Samuel expected at all. So Samuel travels south and shows up in Bethlehem surprising the elders with his presence.  (A visit from a high-ranking court official is never good news for a little village like Bethlehem.) So Samuel (with the help of Yahweh) has created a story to cover the real reason for his visit.  It is not exactly a lie, but it certainly isn’t the whole truth. We would not have expected God’s prophet to act in such a typically political manner (with Yahweh’s assistance and blessing no less!!!).  And then comes the examination.  What a Kingly looking man is Jesse’s oldest son Eliab, surely this is the one who is chosen. Not so, Yahweh tells Samuel for Yahweh examines the heart and pays no attention to outward appearances.  All of the adult male children of Jesse are rejected, this was certainly not what Samuel expected.  “Are there any others?” asks an exasperated Samuel.  “Just the brat little brother who is out watching the sheep,” comes the response. “Well, call him in,” commands Samuel.  And lo and behold here is the one.  This child, who is maybe as young as 11, is anointed the new King of Israel.  Who would have thought? This is not what we expected at all.  And, of course, this sweet child David goes on to be a great and terrible King who is deeply flawed, selfish, murderous and lustful.  This is not what was expected either.
This is first of all a political text and since we are in the midst of a political year we must also allow this text to point out to us that we are sometimes very much like the fickle people of Israel.  We “anoint” our political leaders with great enthusiasm and excitement and we expect them to accomplish great and wonderful things and at the same time be completely beyond reproach.  And then, 2 or 4 or 6 years later we look at them and are disappointed because they didn’t accomplish all that they promised, and they had this or that moral failing and they didn’t fix the problems which have been years and years in the making.  And our expectations are disappointed and we look to the other party or a newer, younger more exciting candidate who we then “anoint.” And the pattern repeats.  We really need to look no further than presidential politics to see this pattern being played out over and over again.  And then follow the theme down the line through all of the other political positions. Perhaps part of the problem is our expectations themselves. Perhaps part of the problem is our tendency to “anoint” and then sit back and wait to see what will happen next; our tendency to judge on the basis of our own narrow self-interest. But we must recognize what the Old Testament prophets are constantly proclaiming: namely, that we have a responsibility to others, especially those who are struggling, suffering, hungry, sick or lost.  Therefore, we need to find ways to determine if those who desire to be “anointed” have the heart to care for others, the patience to listen, the wisdom to consider various options (not just their own or their small constituents positions) and the courage to compromise and make hard decisions that benefit all of the people.
This issue of frustrated expectations is not only a political issue.  It is one with which we ourselves struggle.  We have all had the experience of having great expectations frustrated.  Perhaps it was a new job or a relationship, or a person who we look up to. Others are expecting great things from us; perhaps we are expecting great things of ourselves or others.  But we don’t measure up, and others are disappointed in us.  Or the new job turns out to be not so great after all, and the new relationship turns out to be flawed because this person doesn’t really meet our expectations; or this mentor, coach, pastor, friend turns out to be human with faults that we did not expect.  We look back on our lives and can only see a string of unfulfilled expectations, broken dreams and disappointments. And so we are disappointed in ourselves or maybe we blame others for our own shortcomings. 
But there is another issue that is important here when we talk about expectations and that is forgiveness.  In our text today all of the expectations of all of the human characters are disappointed.  No one measures up in this story.  That should tell us something.  Perhaps we have expectations that are too high for ourselves and others.  Perhaps we need to rethink our expectations and add in a measure of grace and forgiveness.  Is it possible? Can we forgive those who disappoint us? Can we forgive ourselves for not measuring up to our own expectations? Can we look beyond our pre-conceptions and expectations to recognize the gifts that this person, job, relationship brings? Can we see that we too can look back and see that there is much to celebrate in our lives.  Despite what we expected, we have accomplished many things and others have been touched in deep and profound ways by their contact with us. We have made a contribution to the world.  God has been at work through us!  Ultimately, this text calls upon us to celebrate that because of Jesus, the anointed, now we are all anointed in our Baptism as members of God’s family.  Our anointing brings with it forgiveness and grace which then empowers us to move beyond the narrow limited expectations we and others place upon us and helps us to claim our heritage as God’s sons and daughters.
 
Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Israel Demands a King – I Samuel 8

Read the text here: I Samuel 8:4-20
This is the first sermon in the summer series on King David.  The lectionary has a continuous series of readings from I and II Samuel and I Kings.  
Israel Demands a King – I Samuel 8
When you think of David from the Old Testament, what do you think of?  What kind of image comes up in your mind of this man?  David and his defeat of the giant Goliath, perhaps? David as the boy shepherd; or David as the singer and harp player? David as a pious, faithful man of God and a man whose faith was so strong that he was able to write the book of Psalms?  What about David as the outlaw and mercenary?  Or, David as the traitor, turncoat who allied himself with the Philistines against his people and his King (Saul)?  What about David as the bloody and ruthless dictator who never gave a second thought to wholesale slaughter if it fit into his own plans for advancement?  How about David the lustful King who preyed on women? David the quintessential Mesopotamian Despot and Dictator?  Are those images you have ever considered?
Probably not, what we Christians tend to know about King David is really rather limited and has been whitewashed to some extent over the years.  But the fact is that David was all of those things listed above – the good and the bad and the ugly.  He was both faithful and pious and power-hungry and ruthless. The Old Testament books of 1st and 2nd Samuel present us with a man who is faithful and flawed, and the Court Historian often lays out his flaws in graphic detail.  So why do we want to enter into the sordid life of this man?  There are two reasons for this – First, because David is so vitally important to the salvation history as recorded in the Old and New Testaments.  From the moment he appears on the stage of Biblical history David looms large throughout all that follows.  As the Messianic beliefs began to emerge during the period of the Greek occupation the one essential expectation was that the Messiah, when he comes, will be of the lineage of King David!  One of the points of the opening Christmas story of the Gospel of Luke is that Luke wants to make sure that everyone gets the connection of Jesus with King David.  Jesus is of the “lineage of David” the Gospel tells us, and there are genealogies in both Matthew and Luke that make sure we catch this vital point.  David is therefore a part of the story of God’s saving action through the incarnation of Jesus.
But that is not all.  Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from exploring the life of King David is this – David is a man.  He is a human being.  He is not divine.  He has his moments of piety and faithfulness, but he has a lot more moments of failure and faithlessness.  In this he is just like us. And God sticks with him, no matter what (like us).  In fact, God’s way of reaching out to this creation that God loves is through the agency of human beings – like David and like you and me.
We begin the story today with the Israelites demanding a King.  They had lived as a loose tribal confederation since the time of Joshua.  But it had not gone well.  The book of Judges tells the sad stories of what a mess things were under this loose confederation and as the threats from outside powers begin to grow, along with the economic possibilities which are perceived if only they would be more organized, the people come to the last judge – Samuel – and demand a King.  Samuel takes the request as a personal rejection at first, but God reassures him that it is God who is the object of the rejection.  But God nevertheless agrees to the request, probably because God was fully aware of how much of a mess things had been and that the original plan might have been good in theory, but in practice (taking into account human failings and selfishness) it wasn’t working.
This is an interesting story to consider in light of the fact that we are entering into our own national political season.  And one of the major debates between the democrats and the republicans is over how big should the federal government be. We have the small government republicans who want to leave certain things like social net programs to the states and on the other side the democrats who feel that the federal government needs to have a role in these kinds of issues.  Well, reading this passage today might suggest that there are pitfalls on both sides, and neither side will bring in a utopian paradise, because the same problems – human failings and selfishness - will always be a part of the equation.  This text calls on us to be vigilant and realistic.  And to try to see the bigger picture. Ultimately God agrees to the request because God can see that, even with all of the potential problems and pitfalls, ultimately this is the best solution for the majority of people. And this is what is important for us as well.  The question to ask is not what is best for me – but what is best for others, for my neighbor – especially the poor and unemployed and hungry and destitute.
So, we embark on a journey and an adventure this summer as we will enter into the story of King David. And in this story we will see reflected back our own story of our own struggles and failings, and of God’s never-failing commitment and presence.

Thanks to Peace Lutheran Church is Sioux Falls, South Dakota for these wonderful graphics and permission to use them.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Reflections on the Holy Trinity


Here I Am, Take Me
It is nice to be right.  And it is nice to know stuff that can back up our rightness.  The problem comes when an issue or question arises where there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer.  And this is often the case with questions of faith.  There is an experiential and a relational dimension which tends to mitigate the knowledge / facts part of the issue.  But yet Christians are often among the worst offenders in the “I know the answer, and I am right” approach to faith.  Now, of course I recognize that there are certain tenants of faith that we do hold on to and need to feel some confidence about.  But that is not what I am talking about.  I am talking about the tendency to take any issue that comes up, apply a cookie cutter paradigm to it derived from a very narrow reading of scripture and then to pronounce: “Here is the answer, I am right and this is God’s position!”
But there are some things that we simply cannot know and despite our natural instinct of curiosity we have to accept that some things are a mystery.  And that is not only ok, but it should lead us to a little more humility. The arrogance that is sometimes displayed by Christians does not only push people away, but it imperils our own relationships with God, for it is simply blasphemy.  Read these words from the prophet Isaiah.  This is God speaking through the Prophet:
I don’t think the way you think.  The way you work isn’t the way I work. For as the sky soars high above the earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think surpasses the way you think.  (Isaiah 55:8-9 – The Message translation)
That is pretty clear, isn’t it?  And it is a particularly apt reminder on the day that we celebrate the Holy Trinity. This is a particularly difficult doctrine and one over which there has been a lot of conflict over the years.  I am not going to try to explain it, because it is as much a mystery to me as it is to anyone else.  And, I do not have all the right answers here.  But I can share a few illustrations and thoughts.  All of which are not the whole story and have their limitations, but perhaps they might help us to think about the Trinity in a new way.
First, a story from St. Augustine: One day St. Augustine was walking on the beach when he encountered a little boy trying to pour the whole ocean into a hole he had dug. When Augustine told him what he was trying to do was impossible the little boy said "neither can you fit the Holy Trinity into your tiny mind."  From there St. Augustine offers this illustration of the Holy Trinity (and it is one of my favorite images): When you think of the Trinity, think of love – God the Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved and the love shared between the two is the Holy Spirit.
Here’s another, from the Desert Fathers: Think of the Holy Trinity as Light – The source of Light is the Father, the light itself which provides the illumination is the Son and the warmth one feels from the light is the Holy Spirit. And one more, from Meister Eckhardt: When the Father laughs at the Son and the Son laughs back at the Father, that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasures gives joy, that joy gives love, and the love is the Holy Spirit.
Finally, allow me to share that for me the Holy Trinity is primarily about relationship.  The Trinity is a relationship within God’s self of Father, Son and Spirit, but it is also how God has chosen to relate to us and how we experience God.  The Father, Son and Spirit define our relationship with God.  It is so easy for us to fall into a focus on one person of the Trinity over the others.  Some Christians relate to Father, some focus on Jesus, some on the Spirit.  But to do this is like getting a bike for Christmas and instead of putting it together so you can ride it, you pull out the seat or the frame or the wheels and play with that part and ignore the rest of the bike.  You aren’t going very far on that bike if you do that.  Similarly, we limit our own experience of God when we focus on one person of the Trinity and exclude the others.  This is one reason we regularly remember our Baptism and Luther encourages us to make the sign of the cross – this keeps us grounded in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.
And lastly, in Baptism we are brought into this relationship that God has within God’s self, and we become a part of the relationship within God and this should define our relationship with others.  The images above lift up joy and laughter, light and love.  This is the gift the Trinity offers to us and the gift we are called to allow God to reflect to others through us.  In the Isaiah text, the prophet fears that he is about to be destroyed because he has gotten so close to the divine, but in fact he finds that being brought into God empowers him for service.  In the same way, Baptism empowers us for service as well.  Here I am, Lord, take me – in the name of the Father, Son+ and the Holy Spirit.  Amen!

Stained glass window for Holy Trinity Parish
The audio from this sermon - with additional illustrations from the musical "Godspell" is now posted at wartburgparish.com