Saturday, July 25, 2009

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

07 Pentecost B 09
July 19, 2009

2 Samuel 7:1-14a
1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." 3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."

4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" 8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

Psalm 89:20-37
20 I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
21 my hand shall always remain with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him.
22 The enemy shall not outwit him,
the wicked shall not humble him.
23 I will crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
and in my name his horn shall be exalted.
25 I will set his hand on the sea
and his right hand on the rivers.
26 He shall cry to me, 'You are my Father,
my God, and the Rock of my salvation!'
27 I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
29 I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure.
30 If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
31 if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness.
34 I will not violate my covenant,
or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness;
I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall continue forever,
and his throne endure before me like the sun.
37 It shall be established forever like the moon,
an enduring witness in the skies."

Ephesians 2:11-22
11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called "the uncircumcision" by those who are called "the circumcision"--a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands-- 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.


A few weeks ago, on Fourth of July weekend, we were treated to a patriotic song, sung by Ernie Winn. He did a great job, didn’t he? I’m hoping he’ll sing a lot more in our worship services. What do you think?

Did you notice the passion it aroused in our congregation? In our early service, almost spontaneously, the whole congregation stood up. They did so in the late service too, but with a little prodding from Ernie. People began to sing along. It’s a popular song, and the refrain is apparently pretty easy to remember. I noticed many people had tears in their eyes.

Now before anyone begins to worry that I’m going to challenge anyone’s patriotism, let me say that I am a patriot. I love the United States of America. I stood up with you all, at both services. I sang along, too, and my heart soared. I certainly love my country. It is one of the greatest experiments in human history, and I deeply believe in it, and I earnestly pray that it will continue to work. I am particularly proud of the peaceful intentions of our governmental system. It is designed and intended to diminish violence as a means of changing the country’s direction. We have regular revolutions in America, but they are very rarely violent.

I love other values on which our Constitution stands. Justice, freedom, equality. These are my values, and I treasure them, and I treasure my nation for submitting itself to such noble things.

And I know many here may be worried that I’m going to launch off on some theory of church and state. Let me comfort you. I believe in the freedom to worship as we choose and I believe that the government should not establish any particular religion. These are more reasons I love the United States of America.

No, the reason I bring up this moment in our congregation’s life was the intense passion I observed in the faces of our members and friends. I identified with this passion, feel it myself. I can’t tell you how often I’ve wept hearing a stirring rendition of some great American anthem, how moved I am by seeing our troops marching in a parade, how proud I am of our struggles and our victories, how sad our losses make me.

The feeling is deeply embedded I think in most Americans, despite being divided on many other issues. Liberal Americans sing national anthems, recite the pledge of allegiance, are swept up in the pride in our country, just like conservative Americans. It’s one of our best features in fact.

I would tell anyone I’m proud to be an American, and I would probably get a little heated if anyone really criticized my country. I wouldn’t have a bit of problem sharing with anyone why I believe in my country.

I did a little research on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, and I was kind of surprised by what I found. I guess I assumed that the pledge had its beginnings at the founding of our nation. As usual, I was wrong. It’s a very interesting history.

In 1891, a Christian schoolteacher named Frances Bellamy was pressured to leave his congregation because of his socialist sermons. I don’t believe he submitted to the pressure. He was a fighter, was old Frances, and he belonged to a movement called Christian Socialism. His father was a Christian utopian writer who imagined a future United States in which the government provided for the welfare of every American, regardless of creed, gender or ethnic origin.

The next year, 1892, old Frances composed a pledge for his students to recite when the flag was raised every morning. It read as follows:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

It ended up being pretty popular and people started using it a lot. Frances even designed a salute. Some of our members may be old enough to remember it. Arm extended, palm down. When the Nazis adopted the same salute for the Fuhrer, FDR suggested we change it to putting our hands over our hearts.

The changes in the pledge were under the authority of the National Flag Conference until 1923, when Congress finally adopted it as the official Pledge of Allegiance. It was the National Flag Conference that changed “my Flag” to “the Flag of the United States of America.” Bellamy actually disliked the change, but he was ignored. His vision for the pledge was to focus on the word “Republic” and it was largely influenced by the experience of division in the Civil War.

Incidentally, after Bellamy retired, he finally left the church over the issue of racism among Christians.

After the Pledge became official, immigrants were compelled to recite the pledge as the passage to citizenship. It also became compulsory in public schools. In the early forties a radical Christian group fought against the public schools requiring students to recite the pledge, because they believed pledging allegiance to a flag was idolatrous. Mob violence ensued and quite of few of these Christians were beaten and killed. But the Supreme Court agreed with them and ruled it unconstitutional to compel unity of opinion, even about the flag of the United States. To my knowledge that ruling has stood since 1943.

In 1954,in the depth of the Cold War against the communist nations, the DAR and the American Legion lobbied to include “under God” in the pledge. It was voted in, and Eisenhower wrote: “These words will remind Americans that despite our great physical strength we must remain humble. They will help us to keep constantly in our minds and hearts the spiritual and moral principles which alone give dignity to man, and upon which our way of life is founded.”

I don’t intend to get into a debate about taking these words back out of the Pledge. But these scripture passages have raised the issue in my mind of allegiance, and last night, I wondered, if those words were removed, what would I do as a Christian? Would it not push upon me the necessity of making a choice?

Allegiance. The scriptures bring to us a word from God about allegiance. David says to God, “Let me build you a house,” but God says to David, “Let me build you a house.”

God was making a pun. Hard to believe but true. God is a punster.

Puns, many think, are the lowest form of humor. I’m sure you’ve heard of the three-legged dog who walked into a saloon in the Old West and announced: “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.” Or of the girl who had a boyfriend with a wooden leg, until she broke it off. Or about the guy who emailed ten puns to friends, in the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh; but no pun in ten did.

God was making a pun on the word “house.” David meant a building, God meant a dynasty. God was saying that from that day forward, only descendants of David would rule over Israel, and that Israel would forever be ruled by descendants of David. This is one of the covenants.

A covenant is a mutual promise made on the basis of mutual love. It’s a very, very important idea for us. Governments are run on laws, and that’s a good thing. We need laws, because lots of us are still willing to take advantage of each other, and laws protect us. But a covenant, even the covenant at Mt. Sinai, where God laid out the Ten Commandments, is not a law or even a set of laws. A covenant, a mutual promise made on the basis of mutual love, is a core concept of our religion.

The simplest example of a covenant is a marriage in its ideal form. A couple who loves one another exchange solemn promises on the basis of that love. In fact, God often compared his relationship to his people to a marriage. God even compared his relationship to David with a marriage. In its ideal form, a marriage is not governed by laws. We have laws protecting married couples from each other in the event of a failure of the marriage, and this is a wonderful example of the difference. Every couple that divorces wants the courts to award the custody of children and marital assets to the spouse that is in the morally superior position, but the courts could care less about that. Usually, except under extreme circumstances, assets are split fifty-fifty, male children go to Dad and female children go to Mom, period. The courts don’t have anything to do with covenant.

To be a Christian is to be in covenant. It is exactly like a marriage, except of course that it doesn’t involve sex or procreation. It is a mutual exchange of promises based on mutual love. Without the love there can be no covenant. Without the promises there can be no covenant.

Our patriotism, I believe, is also a good example of a covenantal relationship. We love our country, and on the basis of that love, we solemnly pledge our allegiance to it. My question this morning is, do we have the same passion, the same almost reflexive pride and joy, in the nation to which we belong under Jesus Christ?
It’s a very different nation, the kingdom of God, and its ruler is very different from any human government. We’ve been hearing a lot about David these last weeks, and we’ve been seeing the contrasts between ruling God’s people in God’s name and other human types of governance. Last week we had fun dancing before the Lord, but the point of the sermon was serious. David was willing to abandon the dignity usually according to heads of state in order to lift up the dignity of God. Before that we contrasted the dependence of most nations of wealth and military might to the people of God’s dependence on the power of God. The people of God have always gone into battle outnumbered and outgunned, to deliberately demonstrate that they depended on God to defend them.

And in the new covenant in Jesus, whom we believe sits at the right hand of God for all eternity as the descendant of David who is king over God’s people, we practice forgiveness as our security policy, in contrast to human nations who defend their security with violence.

Do I feel the same swelling passion for this strange and otherworldly kingdom that I feel for the fifty United States of America? Less, more? Am I willing to give account to anyone of my love for my king, Jesus, as I would for my earthly government? Do I truly pledge allegiance to the kingdom of God? Do I believe that my citizenship in the kingdom of God is truly covenantal; am I as committed to Jesus as I am to my marriage? Am I as passionate about announcing the forgiveness of God for all people, as dedicated and willing to work for the invitation to people of all nations into the kingdom of God, as I am passionate about American values and the interests of my country? Am I able to distinguish the difference between a human government backed by wealth and force, and the kingdom of God backed only by the power of life and love?

I ask these questions not only of you but also of myself. It’s something I’ve never really considered quite so closely. But I will say this, without hesitation. The word of God today is a call to God’s people for allegiance to his chosen King, Jesus.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

06 Pentecost B 09
July 12, 2010

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart 4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13 and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

16 As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought in the ark of the LORD, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

Psalm 24
1 The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
5 They will receive blessing from the LORD,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
6 Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is the King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory.

Ephesians 1:3-14
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

Mark 6:14-29
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."

17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." 25 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." 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Party Time

I remember as a young teenager, just starting to get interested in girls; it was a different time. The coolest dancer I ever saw, though I wouldn’t admit it to my friends, was Tom Jones. My mother was like a teenager watching him. Mom was, I figured, a female. Her reactions might reliably be a guide to the reactions of the younger females running around at school. If she got visibly agitated watching Tom Jones gyrate, then if I gyrated like old Tom, why the girls at the dance might get agitated too.

So when nobody was at home, I’d put my mother’s Tom Jones albums on, and get down with my bad self. In my mind I could see the girls standing around, transfixed with desire. Of course, if anyone had walked in on me I would have simply died of embarrassment.

What I eventually discovered of course was that dancing felt good. It just plain felt good. I got pretty good at it and one of my first theater experiences was as lead dancer in the musical Kiss Me Kate. I went to acting school in the late seventies and was brutally trained in tap, jazz, modern and ballet. But the real dancing we did were in the bars and clubs of Pittsburgh. It was the time of disco, the time of three-piece white suits with big collars, not a good time. Few of us were disco junkies. No, we sought out the sweaty, loud and smoky clubs where bands like the Pretenders were playing this weird new-sounding stuff that would come to be called “punk” and “new wave.” We wore retro fashions with lots of leather, dyed our hair weird colors.

And the dancing, well, it was out of control. We were dancing with all our might.
Dancing is primal behavior. Oh, sure, we can dress it up, tame it with steps and routines, but even when we do that, the goal is to let the movement just well up out of your deepest center. It’s natural to living things to dance. Birds do it, bees do it. We come out of the womb dancing.

You ever see a baby flapping his arms and laughing her head off? Who knows what they’re really thinking, but a lot of development people think the baby is just plain delighted to be moving. She’s like, “I have arms! Woo-hoo! Look at this! Look at what I can do! I am rocking and rolling here!”

Of course, dancing is usually done in public. This is why a lot of people don’t do it. Maybe they don’t move well, they’re not very coordinated, they don’t look graceful. They don’t dance in public because they don’t want to look stupid. Others don’t want to let go of their control. Dancing with all your might is an out-of-control kind of thing.

I was blessed enough to be able to hear the MGM Choir at the Christian Music Festival. I remember at a certain moment, when the choir was just totally letting loose with that hard-core funky piano, the pulsing beat of the drums, the wild shouts of the singers, and I was there, well, you know, clapping.

But I could feel the music creeping into me. I could feel it calling me. It was saying, “Go on, Mike, get down.” It’s like some kind of crazy infection. It starts way down deep and it wants out.

But I was clapping. I restrained myself. I maintained control. I kept my cool.
Behind me there was this young woman, and she was just rocking. The hips were going, the arms were going, her eyes were closed and she was gone. Now, there was nothing lascivious about what she was doing. It was a totally different vibe. She was worshipping. And her dancing called to me too. It said, “Come on, Mike. I know you love the Lord. Get funky.”

But I just kept clapping. I remained a good little white boy.

That primal thing is kind of scary. To give up control, to go at it with everything you’ve got, well, that’s just plain undignified. I’d look like an idiot. People would be rolling their eyes.

David was the newly installed king of Israel. God, through him and his men, had enabled Israel to reclaim their most sacred object, the ark of the covenant, which, if you don’t know what that is, well, it’s kind of a throne. Instead of having a statue representing God, Israel had a beautiful empty throne. Unlike all the other religions of the day, Israel looked for a God who really existed, one they didn’t make up themselves. God had told them to make the throne and promised to ride on it with them, wherever they carried it.

Well, that throne had been captured by the Philistines during the troubled reign of David predecessor, Saul. But they had problems with it. Bad things happened to the people that kept it. So they gave it back. “Get this poisonous thing out of here,” they told David.

So it was a day of great joy when the throne of God was brought into the City of David, Jerusalem. And David put on a priestly vestment and danced with all his might before the Lord. He got down with his bad self. He got the funk. He was shakin’ and bakin’.

And the people of God around him, all the plain people who worked the fields and herded sheep and cleaned the houses of the rich and powerful, thousands of them, watched their king, watched him make a fool out of himself for God. “Look at him,” they said, and laughed. “He’s out of control.” And they said, “Yep, that’s that way we feel about it too.” And they danced too. They lost it. Just went crazy.

And they were just like that baby, flapping her arms and laughing. “Hey, God, look at me! You gave us life and love and work and food, you set us free from the slavery in Egypt, you fed us in the wilderness, and we thought we’d lost you, but you came back, just like you said you would! Woo-hoo! Watch this one, Lord! I got the moves for you!” They were hopping up and down and shouting and singing and the trumpets were blowing and it was a party, I’m telling you.

But there were people, of course, who were not pleased. We heard about Saul’s daughter. It’s pretty certain, given how gracious David had been to Saul and his family, that Michal was well taken care of. She had been a part of the royal family and David allowed her to continue in the life to which she’d become accustomed. House full of servants, nice piece of real estate, close to the temple, bright sunny rooms. And she was looking out her big window, the one with the good view, watching all this commotion. “That’s pathetic,” she was thinking. “That’s totally inappropriate. What kind of king makes a fool out of himself?”

And all the rocking and rolling before the Lord led to something quite amazing. The king fed all the people. All of them. A rich and luscious gourmet meal, the kind only kings generally got to eat.

If you read a little farther in Second Samuel, you’ll find that same Michal running out of her house and confronting David. “That was totally inappropriate for the king of Israel,” she scolded him. “Dancing like that half-naked right in front of the maids.”

And David said, and I quote, “I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor.”

What kind of king makes a fool out of himself in front of God and everybody?

Herod was also a king of Israel. And he wasn’t dancing. He was the kind of king that didn’t dance. Oh, he liked to stand on the sidelines, tap his foot a little. He was quite a fan of old John the Baptist, liked to listen to him, was even willing to admit he came from God.

A lot of people had that attitude about Jesus. “What a good speaker! I like listening to him.” And then they went home and forgot all about him. Jesus even said at one point, “We play the flute, but you don’t dance.” Someone said, “You can be a fan of Jesus and not be his disciple.”

No, Herod didn’t dance. Other people danced for him. Now, that’s a king, don’t you think? That’s the whole idea of leadership, isn’t it? Making other people do what you want them to. A reward here, a punishment there, and people get in line.

In this story, Herod was invited to dance. He had the opportunity to do like David did, to look silly in front of everyone. He had the opportunity to say, “I blew it. I should never have promised such a stupid thing. Of course, I’m not going to execute John. He’s from God.” It’s the dance that John himself had invited him to dance. The dance of repentance. The dance of turning in a new direction. But Herod said no, no, he’d have to sit this one out.

And just as David’s dance led to a meal, so the dancing at Herod’s court leads to a different kind of meal. Not cakes and meat, but the head of a prophet on a platter.

In our congregation, in every congregation, I’m willing to bet, are people who are dancing with all their might. They’re filled with the spirit of thanksgiving for what God has done in their lives and continues to do, and they don’t care who knows it. There’s more and more of such people at Philippi. It’s something to behold. They are getting down with their bad selves. They got the funk.

And their dancing calls others to the dance, and it all leads to a wonderful meal, where everyone gets fed. It’s the dance of life for the God of life. Yes, it makes us a little uncomfortable when people just lose it like that. It’s a little scary, that loss of control. Who knows where it will lead?

It’s not a big difference, it doesn’t seem, between tapping your foot on the sidelines and dancing with all your might. But the meals that come after sure are different, aren’t they?

The way of the world calls for leaders that inspire fear and obedience. But the people of God need a leader who is dancing with all his might before the Lord.
We have such a leader, an eternal king. He danced his way through the land of Judah two thousand years ago. And they nailed him to a cross to stop him. But they couldn’t. He’s dancing still.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

05 Pentecost B 09
July 5, 2009

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
1 Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, "Look, we are your bone and flesh. 2 For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel." 3 So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. 4 David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. 5 At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
9 David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. 10 And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.

Psalm 48
1 Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain,
2 beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
3 Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defense.
4 Then the kings assembled,
they came on together.
5 As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
they were in panic, they took to flight;
6 trembling took hold of them there,
pains as of a woman in labor,
7 as when an east wind shatters
the ships of Tarshish.
8 As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the LORD of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes forever.
9 We ponder your steadfast love, O God,
in the midst of your temple.
10 Your name, O God, like your praise,
reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with victory.
11 Let Mount Zion be glad,
let the towns of Judah rejoice
because of your judgments.
12 Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
13 consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
14 that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will be our guide forever.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. 3 And I know that such a person--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-- 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, 7 even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Mark 6:1-13
1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house." 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Striving for Weakness

We’re honored to have Dr. David Brown with us today, and part of our community celebration has been to remember the remarkable ministry he was able to do among the youth of Deltaville in the late sixties and early seventies. I can’t tell you how impressed I am by pastors with such gifts. I’ve done only a little youth ministry in my career and found it among the most draining and frustrating work I’ve done. Those who do it are able to form close relationships with a very difficult age group.

One member of the old CYU said that in the time when they were rebelling against their parents, Mr. Brown (as they called him in those days), became a kind of alternative parent. He was able to unite kids from all kinds of traditions into a coherent community of faith and service that accomplished great things. It amazed everyone then, and it amazes us today.

Well it happens that we have a story of Dr. Brown’s namesake, King David, this morning.

The story of David is rather repetitive. In one episode after another, David is given the opportunity to choose between trusting in God and trusting in himself or his armies or his wealth or his military technology. Consistently, David chooses to trust in God. He modeled himself on the patriarchs, who believed God’s promises no matter how impossible they seemed, and instead of taking things into their own hands, waited patiently for God to do what he had promised. There were exceptions of course. Every biblical hero but one, at one time or another, failed to trust in God and tried to manage things themselves, usually with bad or even disastrous consequences.

And at the end of the passage, the scripture gives us the reason why David would thereafter be considered Israel’s greatest king: “because God was with him.”

Because God was with him.

Jesus, David’s descendent, was also anointed by God to rule over God’s people. And clearly, God was with him also, because God’s power flowed through Jesus, freeing people from the many ways in which they suffered. If they were sick, God healed them. If they were possessed by demons, God cast them out. If they were hungry, God fed them. But all these miracles pointed to the greatest one of all: that through an ordinary human being, God was coming into the world to do what only God could do, to set people free from the spiritual forces that oppressed and destroyed them.

God was with Jesus. As Jesus said in another gospel, “Of myself I am nothing; the Father does the works.” Jesus opened himself willingly to be God’s conduit of grace.
Jesus never elevated himself above other people. He insisted that he was an ordinary person and he also insisted that anyone could do what he was doing or even greater things. I think a lot of Christians love to hear that Jesus was an ordinary man, but few of us are ready for his challenge to do greater things than he.

He called the twelve from among the lowest caste of society, just as he himself had been called from humble origins. He assembled an entourage of disciples out of outcasts and sinners. It was as if he wanted to send the message that if these losers could be messengers of God’s grace, so could anyone.

But of course, there were those who didn’t get it. Even the twelve themselves seemed to find this message hard to accept. In our story today, Jesus is rejected from his home town of Capernaum because everyone knew him there. They knew his family, they knew he came for poor working stock. “You’re just an ordinary person like us. Who do you think you are?”

Paul was one of those Jesus sent to carry his message in word and deed, but there were those in Corinth who were contesting his message and claiming they knew better. We’re not sure exactly what this other message was that he was teaching, but we think it was some kind of otherworldly thing, a denial of the real world in favor of the spiritual. I saw a bumper sticker that might sum up their message. “I love Jesus and to hell with everyone else.”

It appears also that these false apostles were a lot more charismatic than Paul was. They got along better with everyone, they were charming and bright. They had great speaking voices and they dressed well. Moreover their message was more congenial, more flattering. People tend not to care too much about people outside their own circles, and these teachers told them that was just fine with God. The false apostles affirmed the Corinthians in the beliefs they already had.

Paul on the other hand was annoying, egotistical, a troublemaker. He had poor people skills. He wasn’t a very smooth talker. His ideas were hard to understand and even harder to accept. He was pushy, always exhorting those he taught to a new and different and strange way of life. He stirred up conflict in the community, got himself and other people arrested. By the world’s standards, he was a weak leader.

God wants to do something amazing. He wants to heal his creation and draw it back to him. He wants to liberate his people and all creation from the forces that oppress and destroy them. And we have an answering desire, deep in all our hearts, to do the same thing.

But we can’t do what God wants done. Sure, we can do a lot of things. We can force people to do what we want. We can persuade people to different points of view, sometimes, though even that is pretty difficult. We can put band-aids on the social ills of the world, we can go to war and kill our opponents. We can argue and yell and fight and judge and cast out the people in our families or communities that don’t act the way God wants them to, or the way we want them to.

But we can’t do what God wants done.

David was the greatest king in the history of Israel not because of his great skill as a leader or because he was a great example or because he was strong or because he had superior numbers or superior military technology. He was the greatest king in Israel’s history because he made himself weak so that God could be strong. Jesus is Lord not because he had great moral fiber or religious genius or great people skills. He is Lord because he made himself weak so that God could be strong. Paul wasn’t able to found so many congregations throughout the world of his day because he was a great guy that everyone loved. He is our greatest apostle, whose writings comprise the majority of the New Testament, because he made himself weak so that God could be strong.

And I think I can get an amen from Dr. Brown when I say that he was able to united a bunch of rebellious young people into a Christian community of love and service not because he was or is any expert on human development or psychology or even because he was good with kids. He was able to do what he did because he made himself weak so that God could be strong.

It’s when we become weak that God comes alongside us with all his healing power. It’s when we give up fighting the forces that we have always thought we could beat, that God swoops in and wins the victory.

It’s when we admit this that the miracles can begin. It’s when we admit we have no power over the sin within us or the sin in other people that we become open to the one who does.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong.” Jesus said of children that such as these would inherit the kingdom of God, the ones without status, the ones without power, the most vulnerable ones.

Today we will bless a little child, Jack Disher. We Disciples don’t baptize infants because we believe that our decision is an important part of entrance into God’s church. But many churches do, not because they want to take the choice out of our hands, but to announce to the world how little our decisions has to do with the great things God wants to do through us. The story of God’s work in our lives is beautifully pictured in the image of a helpless baby being claimed by God.

The world doesn’t see weakness that way, however. Weakness is a fault and not to be trusted. In the world, we demand of our leaders personal righteousness, flawless character, perfect social skills, and a charismatic personality. An ordinary carpenter couldn’t really be the Messiah. A bunch of bumbling fishermen couldn’t really carry the authority of God. An obnoxious Jewish tentmaker couldn’t really have been sent by God. A little shepherd boy from the country couldn’t really be the anointed king. A small church in a sparsely populated rural community couldn’t really be a colony of God’s kingdom. A bunch of rebellious teenagers couldn’t really become the church.

Eight years ago I made a little decision. I decided to turn my will and my life over to the care of God. Only last year, I was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit by a pastor in this room who is a wonderful example of one who has made himself weak so that God might be strong. I hope that I can be as weak as he when I grow up.

So many churches send the message to the world around them. “Don’t bother coming unless you have it all together. If you don’t already know how to be Christian, you won’t fit in here.” One of the things I love about Philippi is that we don’t send that message. “If you don’t know what to do, if you have been brought low, then we are here for you. We know how you feel, because we are weak, like you.”

And the weaker we get, the stronger God is among us.


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost Year B 2009

04 Pentecost B 09
June 28

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
1 After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.
17 David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18 (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:
19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
20 Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.
21 You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you,
nor bounteous fields!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.
22 From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
nor the sword of Saul return empty.
23 Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25 How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26 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.
27 How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!

Psalm 130
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

2 Corinthians 8:7-15
7 Now as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you --so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.

8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something-- 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has--not according to what one does not have. 13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15 As it is written,
"The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little."

Mark 5:21-43
21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, "My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live." 24 So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, "If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well." 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my clothes?" 31 And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, 'Who touched me?'" 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."

35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" 36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, "Do not fear, only believe." 37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." 40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

A Dying Child

I’ll never forget seeing my daughter Hilary come into the world. I saw her emerge into the light and the most stunning memory I have is of seeing her blue eyes for the first time. But she was born with double pneumonia and couldn’t breathe. She was whisked immediately into the neo-natal unit. Not long after a somber doctor informed us that they didn’t expect her to live more than four hours.

I don’t know that I have ever experienced such crushing loss. All the hopes of my life seemed to dissolve into nothingness. I hadn’t been a father for more than an hour and already I was losing her.

And so I can feel a certain kinship with Jairus, and I know there are members of Philippi who feel that kinship as well. There’s a way in which even the possibility of a child dying completely unhinges a parent.

We think of God as creator, savior, sustainer. We think of God sometimes as the great and powerful Oz, the one who has the power to make things happen. Many think of him as the stern and righteous judge of humankind.

But Jesus invited us to call our God “Father.” Last week we heard some moving tributes to beloved fathers of members of our congregation. Also, Deacon Dennis Mann and Cheryl Prince Teagle both wrote lovely tributes to their fathers for our July newsletter, and interestingly, they both spoke of the Father-hood of God. They were blessed to see in their own fathers many of the qualities we associate with the Father in heaven. I encourage you to read their wonderful words.

But some of us have had the experience of less-than-perfect fathers. I never had a father growing up, and I myself was a far less-than-perfect dad. I know though that at that moment when I heard my daughter was sick and close to death, I would gladly have traded my life for hers. Of course, if you are a mother who has lost or nearly lost a child, it is really no different.

I think this is an important dimension of what Jesus meant when he invited us to call God “Father.”

When God looked down on his child, Israel, he saw a people diseased and dying, perhaps even already dead, a people who had for centuries suffered under the oppression of foreign rulers, whose faith had become twisted and corrupted as those in religious authority took advantage of those under their rule. He saw a people who were trying all kinds of things to make themselves better with no success.

The interpretive key to this story is the number twelve. Did you notice? The woman with the hemorrhage had suffered for twelve years, and Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old. Twelve is an important number in the New Testament, and it’s never used for no purpose. It’s certainly possible that the girl really was twelve and the woman really had been sick for twelve years, but even if these are facts, they are reported for a reason. Twelve is the symbolic number for the people of God, Israel.

You’ll notice also that the story of the woman with the hemorrhage is sandwiched into the story of Jairus’ daughter. Of course, that might well been how it happened, but I think Mark is also telling us to think about the woman in the context of the story of the dying child.

And so we have the story of the desperate grief of a parent for his dead child, and in the midst of that story, we have another story of an unclean woman, cut off from Jewish society because of her unstoppable bleeding. To be unclean meant not only that you couldn’t approach God in the temple, but that anyone who touched you would also be made unclean, also cut off from God. We read in the book of Leviticus 15:
When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.

Every Jew hearing this story would have known that in touching Jesus, the woman would, according to the law, have made Jesus unclean. This is why she was so terrified of admitting to Jesus that she had touched him.

We are to understand the story of the outcast woman desperately seeking to return to fellowship with God and her community in the light of the other story of a father’s desperate desire to save his dying daughter.

The suffering of grief is the suffering of separation. It is the pain of lost community. God looks down on his world full of divisions and anger and hatred and injustice the way I and Hilary’s mother looked down on our daughter in the neo-natal unit at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, the way every parent in this room who has ever nearly lost or actually lost a child looks down on theirs. He looks down and his heart breaks and he longs passionately to offer his life to save his child.
And because he is God, the giver of life, he alone can offer his life and yet remain alive.

But what about that child? I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for my little girl to come into the world and immediately have to fight for her life. We who live in this broken and fragmented world look up to heaven with the desperate desire to be made well and whole.

On that terrible morning back in 1988, I called my pastor and told him in tears that it looked like I would lose my daughter. Pastor Martin came to the hospital and we put on the gowns and the masks and we went into that neo-natal unit where my daughter lay struggling for her life and he took a little Styrofoam cup and he baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Most of you know she survived. I’m thankful to that hospital and to all the staff. I keep their pictures to this day. But I’m mostly grateful to my Father in heaven. It’s one of the many signs that brought me to faith. And I know not every parent is so fortunate. But I know my Father in heaven will someday restore those children too.

This healing is available to all of us who are broken. During these last six weeks as I have come back from the experience of donating my kidney, I have been reminded in various ways of how fragile and broken I still am, even after all the marvelous work God has done. Like the woman with the hemorrhage, I suffer with a spiritual illness with which I have struggled for years to recover. It’s a problem that pushes others away from me no matter how much I might long to be close to them. I have gone to doctors and hospitals and counselors for years, but nothing has healed me of my illness.

And this week, as I reflected on the ways I still push people away from me, this story came to me, and I saw a vision, a vision of a crowd. Somewhere in that crowd in Jesus, the Holy One of God, so full of God’s Spirit of grace and love that it pours through him like water to all who believe.

And I realized I believe. I believe that if I could just find him in that crowd, if I could just get close enough to him, if I could just reach out and touch the hem of his robe, I would be made whole again.

And not just for my sake, but so that I could become a part of the new and risen community. Instead of pushing people away, I could embrace them. Instead of defending myself, I could offer myself, and help the whole world to heal.

And so I am looking for that man in the crowd. And I will keep looking for him. I believe I can find him here among you. Right here in flesh and blood, alive. No one in this room can fix me, and I can’t fix anyone in this room. But when we gather together and we share ourselves with one another, when we stay with one another no matter what, he comes among us.

Do you believe this? Do you suffer with anything that cuts you off from anyone? Have you been seeking healing and have not been able to find it? Could you believe that this man Jesus might just come among this crowd of people, somewhere among them? Would you like to touch his robe?

I know I won’t stop until I do. As the psalmist sings in today’s psalm:

5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.