Wednesday, July 29, 2015

His was a better song than the Rolling Stones' . . .

     Those paying attention to the lectionary may notice that we shift this week in the Gospel.  We jump from Mark back into John.  It might seem a curious thing to do.  Part of the reason, no doubt, is that the editors of the lectionary preferred giving us all an opportunity to study the Eucharist in depth for a few weeks.  John’s account is full of symbolism and meaning.  Mark tends to just hammer away from point to point.  I think the other reason, though, is that we have to begin to grapple with the question of Jesus.  Who is He?  Is He just another prophet like Moses and Elijah?  Is He simply the ANE’s version of a hippy, dippy teacher and preacher?  Is He yet another philosopher with some truth claims that seem enlightened (love your neighbor as you love yourself?)?  Is He a charlatan?  Is He little more than the “Buddy” represented by the statue unveiled in Dogma by Bishop George Carlin?  Who is He?  John is a wonderful place for us to examine the question in depth.

     John sets the Feeding of the 5000 clearly in terms of Passover.  For those of us who forget, the Passover was a meal that was instituted by God to mark Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.  As the Angel of Death was killing the firstborns of all those who had no lamb’s blood to mark their need for mercy, Israel was eating the feast, ready to travel.  It is a complex meal.  There were rules about how the food was to be prepared, how families could come together to share, how participants were to dress, how they were to recline, and other such things.  John places this miracle clearly in terms of the Passover.  How do we know?

     Verse 3 starts us off.  Jesus goes up the mountain.  In English, we tend to ignore articles such as a, the, and an.  They are rather unimportant in our language as a whole, except to professors and teachers of English.  I can’t recall for sure, but I do not believe articles ever provoked a song for School House Rock on Saturday morning.  In Greek, the articles are generally contained in the noun.  When we translate a noun, we can add any article we see fit, so long as the sentence is not changed.  But, from time to time, the Greeks added articles.  You all might be already starting to fall asleep as you did in English and Composition in high school, but the presence of an article in Greek is sometimes like us bolding a word in text.  John tells us Jesus went up the mountain.  Why is that significant?

     What was the mountain?  What was its significance in the history of Israel?  The mountain was where Moses turned aside to see the bush.  The mountain was the destination given to Pharaoh when Moses first told him that the Lord wanted Israel to come to worship Him.  The mountain was the place where Moses received the ten words.  The mountain was the site of the theophany that terrified Israel.  To be sure, there are other important mountains in Israel’s history, but none are tied to the Passover.  How can we be sure that John wants us to see this mountain in the light of that mountain?  Verse 4 – Now the Passover was near.  Anyone reading the beginning of the passage has had their suspicions confirmed.  John wants to have us in mind of the Passover as he narrates this story that gives us insight as to who Jesus is.

     We are told a large crowd is seeking Jesus.  I know it is hard for some of us to believe, but there was a time when cell phones, texting, e-mail, and other devices did not exist.  This story takes place even before the telegraph—you young ones can ask older ones “what’s a telegraph?” later.  Information spread mostly by word of mouth.  Travelers would encounter one another on the road and ask each other about the villages and towns the other had passed through.  For example, if a traveler from Jerusalem on the road to Damascus met a traveler on the road from Damascus to Jerusalem, they might pick each other’s brains.  Any sign of bandits?  Any natural disasters like floods or fires?  Any armies on the move?  Any big news?  Both would share information.  That’s how news spread.  As crossroads and other travelers were encountered, news could go in other directions.  That’s how the news about Jesus’ healings have gone forth.  Sure, people have told neighbors and customers, but the crowds that look for Jesus are considerable.  Think about it for a second.  What would it take to make you walk miles for a chance encounter?  But you can imagine the news shared, right?  Yeah, the road is good.  Everything seems normal as far as that stuff, but let me tell you what I heard from these other travelers, or saw myself.  There’s this prophet or Rabbi, His name is Jesus.  You’ll never believe what He did.  By word of mouth, Jesus’ name has spread throughout the countryside.  People are flocking to see, to touch, to hear, to be healed.  Such a group finds Him today. 

     Jesus asks Philip where to buy bread for the people to eat.  Philip, we are told, is being tested.  He responds like a great Vestry member.  Whoa, Teacher, we could spend 180 denarii everyone would only get a little.  The need is too great.  The resources of the Apostles seem to insignificant.  Andrew must be the problem solver.  Well, we have this kid with five loaves and two fish, but, you know, look at the size of the crowd.  Andrew is right.  Their resources will be a crumb to the ocean of hunger in the crowd.

     Then Jesus does the unexpected.  He has the people sit down in the grass.  Mark reminds us it is green, telling us in another detail it is the time of the Passover.  John seems to have figured he has been clear enough.  Jesus takes the loaves, blesses them, breaks them, and distributes them to the Apostles with instructions for them to distribute to the crowd.  Then, John says, He does the same with the fish.

     Think about your expectations within this crowd.  If you are sitting in the back, do you really expect to be fed?  Seeing the Healer hold up the five and two loaves, what are your expectations?  No matter how careful His disciples are, there is no way I’m getting fed.  Mathematicians may claim that wholes can be divided infinitely, but bread will not be divided up infinitely, let alone for 5000 men, plus women and kids.  Jesus issues curious instructions to the disciples, though.  He instructs them to let everyone eat their fill.  John tells us that everyone got as much as they wanted.  How hungry would you be after walking some miles?  If I invited you to eat wafers this morning in Nashville, how many would it take for you to be satisfied?  Jesus satisfies the crowd with only five loaves and two fish!

     There’s another sign, of course, to be discerned.  Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers.  We are told they collected twelve baskets of leftovers, after feeding the crowd until all were satisfied, from five loaves and two fish!  Sceptics, and those who reject miracles, will try and explain the event.  “You see, the crowd was moved by the generosity of the young boy to share what they had with one another.  The leftovers came from the people and not from Jesus’ provision.”  Such sounds plausible to our ears.  Look again, though, at the story.  What happens?  The people have an “aha” moment.  They are determined to make Jesus king.  Do you think sharing would really inspire you to risk the wrath of Rome?  No.  Would people sharing really inspire you to risk your life, your family, everything you have?  The people, like you and me this morning, are put in mind of the Passover.  To be sure, they want the Passover on their own terms, but they and we get a bit of a glimpse into Jesus.

     First, we see how Jesus seems to rank in the line of the prophets.  Israel held that the two greatest prophets were Moses and Elijah.  Nobody here is shocked by that statement.  But have you ever paid close attention to the story of the Exodus?  Moses always intercedes on behalf of the people.  Usually, he intercedes by grumbling.  Lord, you gave me these people to lead, but they are unruly.  They are hungry.  They prefer the collar of slavery to the freedom You promise.  You have to help me.  When the people hunger, Moses prays to God and God sends the quail and God sends the manna.  Never in the Exodus account do people think the miracle comes from Moses.  God simply acts when Moses calls upon Him.

     Jesus, by contrast, does not intercede with God.  Jesus does not ask His Father to act because it is within His power to act—He is God!  Jesus blesses and breaks and distributes, and all get their fill!  The people are put in mind of the Passover.  The allusion to Moses cannot be missed.  Moses intercedes; this Jesus does it Himself!  He is the prophet who has come into the world!  Scripture, specifically Moses and other prophets, have foretold that the Anointed would come.  In this Passover themed miracle, Jesus is claiming that mantle for Himself.  But it is His mantle to claim, and not that of the people.

     The second insight we get in this reading is how the people have not changed.  You would think that a people who chose Saul would be careful about their next king.  You would think that a people who had been subjected to the rulers of Kings and Chronicles would have second thoughts about placing a crown upon anyone’s head.  Heck, some have seen the results of rebellions and would know the hurt they cause.  But they recognize Jesus is the One foretold and act to make Him king.

     Jesus, of course, is a king, but He is a unique king.  He is not so much a king of the people as He is a king for the people.  One of the fascinating reads in Scripture is of the peoples’ rejection of God as king.  God warns them what kings will do to them.  Still, they reject God and embrace this idea of becoming like those around them.  Samuel, in particular, throws a fit.  But this is a lesson that the people must learn for themselves.  God, in His mercy, gives them a king, but He promises that, one day, His King, will sit on the throne.  Of course, the anointing of that king will be completely unexpected because God has a bigger plan in mind.

      Our third lesson this morning is one of the Passover.  As good as the Passover was, as important as it was to Jewish identity and cultural heritage, Jesus has a Passover in mind that exceeds by orders of magnitude the Passover experienced by the Jews.  Unlike Moses, who came only to free the Jews from Egyptian slavery, Jesus has come to free humanity from the hopelessness and death of sin.  What is about to happen is a Passover far greater, far more amazing than any of those present can ever imagine!

     Sceptics among us and out in the world might still want to argue that Jesus’ lack of intercession does not mean He is God.  John apparently realized that too.  The story continues with Jesus heading back up the mountain to hide from the crowd.  Meanwhile, the disciples are heading to Capernaum via boat.  Typically, a wind blows up and makes it hard to row.  Looking, they see Jesus walking on the water.  The testimony to the ANE would be clear.  Water was a force of chaos.  Large bodies of water were to be feared because they were unpredictable.  Jesus, perhaps echoing creation in Genesis, comes strolling across the water.  When the disciples see Him, they are terrified.  Then Jesus, using the words of the burning bush, says to them, “I am.  Do not be afraid.”  Two great signs; one great God!

     All that is fine and good, and certainly we will spend the next few weeks speaking of the sacraments and the way that Jesus is the bread of life.  But it seems to me that this story hits us in a couple places here in Nashville, at this specific time.  One is in the question of stewardship.  I sort of had to laugh during this first seven months among you.  It was important to the Search Committee and the Vestry that your next rector be engaged in Stewardship.  As one whose discernment process really began as the result of a stewardship sermon some eighteen years ago or so, I assured them that I had no problems speaking and preaching and teaching about stewardship.  Heck, living as a priest with seven kids, I think, requires a great deal of stewardship on mine and Karen’s part.  Gregg and I were speaking Wednesday, though, how the lectionary has not really made stewardship, at least in terms of financial giving, a priority.  Looking ahead, I won’t get a great opportunity to speak to it until October.  Who designed this lectionary, anyway?  We are laughing a bit, but it is a curious consideration in light of the fact that we have had no money teachings by Jesus, even though money is His most discussed subject.

     In my short time here, I have met many Phillips and Andrews at Advent.  There are a lot of practical, rational people who attend church here.  Better still, at times, they engage in my sermons and teaching.  One argument I have had with a number of people here is whether they are equipped to do the ministry to which they acknowledge that God might be calling them.  As you all have figured out, I am a big fan of the soft-sell approach to evangelism.  I think we have better results when we answer peoples’ questions about what informs or motivates us than when we hit the street corners thumping our Bibles.  The best way to get others to ask us those questions is to live our lives as if we believe that Jesus is God, as if we believe we are redeemed from our sins, and as if He will come again to take us to that Great Feast.  Listening to this story, those people probably sided with Phillip or Andrew.  Jesus, this would take too much.  Jesus, I have a bit, but it is like a drop in the ocean.  Interestingly, it is the boy, the child, who provides the resources which our Lord will use this morning to satisfy the crowd.  The little boy does not argue with Jesus.  He just gives Him the bread and the fish.  He acts with a childlike faith.  When the adults thought it was impossible, we have this boy offering bread and fish for Jesus.

     Brothers and sisters, if God is calling you to a ministry, one of two things is axiomatic: either you are already equipped, or He will equip you for the work He has given you to do.  You might not think you are equipped, but you probably are!  A lot of us have skills we tend to forget we have.  But our Lord does not, and He is able to call them forth in our lives when they are needed.  More amazingly, though, if we do lack skills, even then we need not worry.  He will provide.  One of the promises of this Eucharist that we share is that we are inheritors of all benefits of His passion.  That means we get to claim what is necessary to glorify God in Christ!  And make no mistake, brothers and sisters, when we know we have a lack and still feel that tug, we have no doubt on the other side who was asking.  There is never that confusion that makes us think we did it rather than the Lord.  So, brothers and sisters, if He is calling you, you are already or will be prepared.  He has promised.

     Along those lines, though, there is a wonderful reminder about the sacraments.  In this story, we cannot miss the beginning of the transformation of the Passover into the Eucharist, a transformation which will not be completed until His Resurrection, reminding us that the bonds from which we have been freed are those of the evil heart.  We talk in confirmation class that sacraments are outward and visible symbols of God’s grace.  In this story you should see the beginning of the Eucharist, a Passover meal.  From time to time, I think we like to delude ourselves into thinking that we are good enough, that we deserve some benefits from God.  But the sacraments of the Church are there to remind each and every one of us who approach God that we approach the throne of mercy and of grace.  What do we bring to God that He needs from us?  Our hurts?  Our fears?  Our failures?  The evil that is in our hearts?  I know we want to pretend that we are full of any number of good qualities in our hearts, but do our lives bear that desire out?  How many of us struggle just to thank Him once a week for this incredible gift?  No.  And it is at this table, this place, where we give thanks, eucharisteo in John’s writing today, that God loves us despite our sins, that God desires life for us despite our willing embrace of death, that God wants incredibly glorious things for all His children despite our ignorant willingness to fight over the scraps and crumbs of other idols!

     We are all like that crowd.  We have come to Jesus because the stories about Him call to us.  Like those who were willing to walk for hours on foot for a mere glimpse or touch, we give up the comforts of bed or crossword puzzles, we hear the derision from friends and neighbors for “wasting our time”, and still we come.  We want to know, we need to know, that we are loved.  And the sacrament explains that mysterious truth to us in ways we may never be able to communicate to another.  We come to this sacrament with the veneer of our world stripped away.  Do we not approach the Eucharist with tears, only to learn that He has cried for us?  Do we not approach the Eucharist with wounds, only to learn that He has been wounded for us?  Do we not approach the Eucharist convinced of our own isolation, our own unlovableness, only to learn that we are always, tenderly loved?  Do we not approach the Eucharist dying, only to learn that He has died for us?

     My favorite commentary reading this week compared the Eucharist to a picture that brooks no falsehood.  Each and every time we gather, we are confronted with our sins and failures and reminded of our inadequacies ever to earn our way back into God’s grace.  Then, just when it seems we are doomed, He enters.  He breaks, He blesses, and He distributes, much as He did before these 5000 we read about today.  Nothing we have brought is used.  We haven’t planned ahead.  We have not been picked because we are uniquely better than anyone else.  And we are fed!  We are filled!  We are reminded of His presence, of His gift, and of His promise!  And fortified with those we are sent back out into a world that is starving to learn the truth conveyed in the mystery of the sacrament, a world where people want the same as us—to know they are loved dearly.

     The story in John’s narrative, we might say, ends in a strange manner.  Why don’t we stop at verse 14?  Why do we go seven more verses, especially when the verses seem unrelated?  In truth, those last seven verses remind us of the reality we will face within our hearts and out there in the world as we go about the work He has given us to do.  Jesus heads back up the mountain to be by Himself for a time.  No matter what the people intend, Jesus will not be cajoled away from the Father’s plan of salvation.  Jesus will not be taken by force; nor will He take us by force.  As Lewis said it in Narnia, He is a good lion, but a dangerous lion.  Jesus has more work to do, and a far greater throne to ascend, than the people understand, even though they do recognize the sign.  Later that evening, the disciples encounter Him as He walks across the water.  The imagery of the Exodus is complete.  Deliverance is among them, though, admittedly, they will not understand the slavery from which they are freed until Easter morning.  He even identifies Himself as the I am of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush.

     As we prepare to be fed and sent back out into the world to do the tasks He has given us to do, our Lord knows full well the storms, the enemies, the indifference, the need, everything we will encounter that seeks to thwart our missions.  Goliaths and storms crop up everywhere God’s people are at work.  We are reminded, of course, that those who share in His provision are never really alone.  In real terms, that meant He could walk three or four miles on the water to reach His disciples.  To us, it means that He can cross whatever chaos exists in our lives, quell it and our fears, and remind us of His presence with us.  One of the deep reminders of the Eucharist, brothers and sisters, is that we who eat His flesh and drink His blood are members incorporate in that mystical body.  He is part of us just as we are a part of Him.  Better yet, we are heirs!  Each week that we gather, each time that we gather, to celebrate this feast and all that goes with it, you and I are confronted with His promise that He is with us even to the end of the ages.  Just think, we who are wearied, scarred, bloodied, tired, doubting, fearful, are forced to chew on the flesh and drink of the blood, reminding each one of us that never again are we ever alone.  Never.  It is as incredible a thought as it is a promise.  Then again, our Lord is always about providing us more than we can ever ask or imagine . . .

     I have intentionally skipped over much of what may be preached at churches in our community this weekend with respect to this reading.  The fact is, we have a few weeks to discuss Jesus as bread, to discuss people’s response to His claims, and anything else that John has to say these next few Sundays.  This week, I want you to look at the painting.  I want you see how Jesus has met you on your journey and satisfied you, even when you were loathe to let Him or not yet convinced of your need of Him.  Think on that gracious brow and amazing hand, that loved you, lifted you, and asked only to let Him satisfy you!




Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Of houses and dynasties . . .

     We are approaching the zenith of Israel’s impact on the world around it.  As we have discussed this season after Pentecost, it is an incredible history, to be sure.  What started out as a promise to Sarah and Abraham was just fulfilled, politically speaking.  David has ascended the throne.  The elders of the tribes have all made a covenant with David.  David has taken the city of Jerusalem to be his capital city.  Foreign kings have provided the materials for the building of a palace.  Life is good, and God is clearly in control of events in the world.  As I have reminded you many times these last weeks, the historians who wrote Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are not so much concerned with history in the way many of us are.  Some names, some dates, some events are relatively important.  Of far more significance, though, is the fact that God is reaching into life to affect the present and to keep His covenant with the patriarchs and matriarchs.  Think of the last month.  David went from being the youngest of a family bigger than mine, forced to watch the flock while his brothers dined with the prophet Samuel to being king over all Israel.  Given that the old king was still alive, laid more than one trap for David, such an outcome is improbable, to say the least.  Yet, as He so often is, God was with the least and made the least the greatest.

     Today, we read this story of David’s desire to build a Temple for the Ark of the Covenant.  Since the days of the Exodus, the Ark, when possessed by Israel, has been in the Tabernacle, a big fancy tent.  David thinks it not right that he lives in a palace while God is stuck with a tent.  So, unlike his predecessor, David asks the prophet if he can build a temple for the Lord.  Nathan agrees, initially.  Then, of course, the word of the Lord comes to Nathan, who goes to David and reminds David that God does not need a temple.  God is everywhere.  Unlike the gods and goddesses of the ANE, who need a focus of power, God is God wherever and whenever He is.  He does not need a Temple to effect His purposes.  He does not need a Temple to commune with His people.  And so, in a bit of polemic against the dumb idols of the nations, God tells David through Nathan that he will not build the Temple.

     David’s desire, though, is not evil.  David is not trying to uphold the honor of God as did Uzzah just a few verses before.  No, David is motivated simply by thankfulness and humility.  And so, as a result of this offer to build God a house, God swears an amazing covenant with David.  God swears that He will make David a house.  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.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.  David is blown away by the promise.  Our lectionary editors separate David’s response from the promise of God.  David is humbled and overjoyed, though, that the Lord has decided to build him a house.  Having just survived the twenty years of Saul’s contrivances, a bit of a Civil War, and the death of his friend Jonathan (a son of Saul), David recognizes the import of God’s promise.  Of course, David has no real idea who this offspring will be.  David does not understand that Jesus will be that Son under whom God places the authority of the world.  As is so often the case, God is promising something beyond our wildest imaginations or desires.  We see, in the most spectacular way, the best answered prayer to our collect this morning.  David is a great grandfather, many times over, of the Messiah!  Can you imagine?

     You should.  Why do I answer that question so abruptly?  We have, from time to time this year, reminded ourselves of our heritage in Christ.  I have pointed out how we have been adopted into God’s family.  Our adoption is unlike anything ever seen in the world.  We are adopted as firstborn children into God’s kingdom.  We are princes and princesses in His eternal kingdom.  Who can explain the math, let alone the titles?  How can we get a double share, as the firstborn are promised, if we are all adopted firstborns?  Truthfully, I have no idea, just as David had no idea the scope of the promise that the Lord was making with him in this passage.  Like David, we have the stories of our ancestors and we have our own experiences.  God has always kept His promises, so somehow, we are all going to be kings and queens in His eternal kingdom.

     But, and there is often a but, God is not just speaking to us about the eschaton, the final judgment, just as He was not just speaking to David about the eschaton.  God reminds David that it was He who took David from the fields and the flocks and made him king.  David himself has testified that the Lord helped him when he saved his sheep from the jaws of lions or wolves or bears.  David knows before he fights Goliath that the Lord will help him in the battle against the seeming titan.  David knows the paths to the throne from the last twenty years was difficult, arduous, full of turns and switchbacks and plot twists.  The evidence is before him, even as it is before us.  Now he is king.  God has kept His promise yet again.  And now that God is going to make a house for David, a house to which you and I belong and to which all humanity is called.

     Fifteen times in this passage, God and David speak of house.  Depending upon its context, house can mean Temple, a dwelling-place, a palace, or a dynasty.  Given that it appears in this passage fifteen times, you might get the sense that a house was important, in all senses of the word.  But they, aren’t they?  We have this almost primal urge to want to belong to something greater than ourselves.  It’s almost as if our very being senses that there is something to which it needs to be attached.  I see the nods.  Who is not nostalgic about their school?  Heck, I’m in SEC country now, who in this room does not bleed crimson or orange or commodore gold or blue or whatever color when football rolls around?  Why do youths seek gangs and clubs and fraternities?  Heck, I laughed at Sarah’s school because some of the ladies wanted desperately to belong to the Harry Potter houses.  Real ladies wanted to belong to fictional houses.  Why do adult seek other organizations such as Jaycees or Rotary?  Yes, the business contacts can be good, but the sense of belonging is the real draw.  And here’s the best news of all: we are all, by virtue of our baptisms into the death and Resurrection of our Lord, we are baptized into David’s house!  We belong to that dynasty that will last longer than the sun and moon endure.  We belong to that house that will be given true peace, true rest from our enemies.  We belong to that house in which the Lord dwells and leads.  It is an amazing thought, is it not?  You and I are heirs, and firstborn heirs at that, of the very promises God made to David in this passage.

     Looking at some of your expressions, I can see such an idea never really dawned on you before.  That’s right, David is not some far off figure in some far off land about whom we read from time to time.  David is part of our family; or rather, we are now part of his family.  Sometimes, in my more fanciful moments, I wonder if David ever has time to stop the “Whom am I, Lord?” as he meets and greets the saints who continue to enter into glory ahead of us.  It would be unimaginably cool to be the great grandsire of the Messiah; how much more unfathomable humbling would it be to see saints and people like you and me entering into your house!

     That call upon us, that invitation to us comes with a cost.  Thankfully and mercifully, it was paid in full by David’s ultimate son, Christ our Lord, but we still have our part to play.  What is the tagline?  With great power comes great responsibility.  I had the pleasure some eleven or twelve years ago to hear NT Wright preach on this passage.  NT Wright writes books like you or I sneeze.  Just imagine a quick allergy sneeze and, boom, there’s a book.  That’s how quickly it seems he produces books sometimes.  Tom has been given a wonderful gift, and he seems to exercise it well.  He is one of the two or three best known Anglican theologians in the world today.  Anyway, in his sermon on this passage, Tom discussed how houses have sigils and signs to identify themselves.  Think back to the Crusades and the Medieval Ages and the knights with their painted crests or flowing banners.  Those crests and banners testified as to who was on the field.  Those of you who watch or read Game of Thrones see how important that can be in some battles.  Heck, classicists like me remember how Patroclus inspired the Greek troops at Troy wearing the armor of Achilles.  I suppose the modern incarnation of this would be the kilts in Outlander.  I know, you are all laughing at the idea of kilts being modern.  In some parts of the country, though, this idea of a cloth pattern representing your clan is being re-discovered.  Rotarians wear pins; fraternity brothers and sorority sisters have handshakes and greetings.  Houses have these signifiers that help them identify themselves to one another as well as to those outside the group.  Not unsurprisingly, Bishop Wright preached on the idea that our sign, our sigil, our identifier as a house is the cross of Christ crucified.  I see the nods.  It makes sense.

     But, and Bishop Wright is ever the flesher out of details, the cross is not just a sigil for us.  It is a standard, a battle flag, if you will.  We are called, by virtue of our baptism, into battle against forces that reject the sovereignty of God.  We are called to stroll into places and plant the standard of the cross and remind ourselves and those around us that God claims sovereignty even over that particular territory where we find ourselves.  You see, there are forces and enemies of God arrayed against us.  They are doing everything they can to blind people to the love of God.  They give headlines to those Christians that we wish were muzzled.  They give “rational” arguments for things to be the way that they are.  And slowly, over time, the world begins to by in to what they are selling.  Now the world believes that glory is an appearance on a reality television show.  Now the world thinks love, if it really exists, is best found on a dating show where men and women throw themselves at the bachelor or bachelorette in question.  We glorify war and raise kids on shooting video games, and we wonder how tragedies like Chattanooga, Sandy Hook, Columbine, or elsewhere happen.  We use sex to sell everything, and even marvel at the abundance of sex on the internet, and then we wonder why sex is such an issue for husbands and wives.  We listen as people drop the “til death do us part and in richer and in poorer” as antiquated, and then we wonder at the divorce culture we have become, where sociologists now notice that marriages have become relationships that exist until something better comes along.  And make no mistake.  You and I have played a role in the siren songs that have seduced society around us.  We have been timid in planting our standard.  We have been shy about proclaiming our Lord.
     And we engage in this battle with weapons that seem foolish to the world.  We don't pick up guns or swords.  We don't worry much about the world's armor.  We pray, we fast, we study, we serve, we worship, and we give thanks, all the while knowing and trusting that the power that will overcome these forces of evil derive not from us, from some well-intended desire to try and do good, but from our Lord, who is working in us far more than we can ever ask or imagine even as He did in our brother David.

     When God speaks of making a house, He speaks of making a dynasty.  If I asked you to name a dynasty, some of you would yell out the late 20’s or early 60’s Yankees.  Smart people might suck up to the new priest and suggest the Steelers of the 70’s, the Reds of the Big Red Machine, or even the Celtics of the 60’s.  Historians among us might toss out the Khans, the Tudors, maybe the Kennedy’s or the Bush’s.   Those are all well and good, but their honor and their glory pale when compared to the glory promised our house!  Brothers and sisters, we should be living a life full on in the shadow of the cross, that those in our circle of coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, and even our enemies should want to know why we do what we do, how we find hope in the hopeless, why we are so determined to be a beacon of His light in a far too dark world.  Make no mistake, neither Bishop Tom was nor am I calling us to the street corners with Bibles and repent signs in hand.  But God is calling us to be His standard bearers wherever He has planted us.  And such a calling is full of responsibility.  It means being that prophetic voice when those around us buy into the false narratives of the world.  It means being that helping hand when others have fallen, serving them as He served us.  It means being that shoulder to cry on when others mourn, just as our Lord was often full of compassion and even, at times, moved to tears.  It means being that cheerleader when others are full of joy, reminding them of the true source of life’s blessings and the eternal promises and joy offered by the one whose standard we have become.

     Sitting here, listening to that other voice in your head or heart, you may have a thousand other reasons to think you are not up to the task He has given you, that your set of circumstances ill-prepared you for any significant role in His kingdom building process, that you are beneath His notice, that your circle of friends or enemies have their minds made up.  When we listen to those other voices, we can think of any number of storms that might rise up to swamp us or any number of Goliath’s that might appear to fight us.  But there is one voice, one promise!  There is a refrain throughout David’s narrative.  Today, as David was asking of Nathan whether to build God’s house, Nathan responds with a nearly ignored line, “God, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

     Brothers and sisters, when we plant that standard, when we commit to living life, full of His grace, with a determination to share His love, His mercy, and His hope, we never undertake that battle alone.  Each of us baptized into His house is sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever!  The prophet even uses the word Lord, reminding David and us of the personal relationship, the covenant that God has sworn with each one of us who call upon His Son for salvation.  From that moment forward, our Lord, our Head of our House, is never separated from us.  He is always with us.  And it is the same Lord who lifted David from the flock of sheep as a ruddy faced boy to be king of Israel who lifts you to His glorious purpose.  The same God who protected David when Goliath battled him, when the Philistines fought him, when Saul sought to kill him, when his son Absalom sought to kill him, and countless other events that threatened David’s very life, has extended that covenant to you and to me through that great grandson of David.  God is every bit able to lift you and to lift me as he did David before us.

     And, lest we think this covenant was made unawares, God knows full well David’s sins, just as He knows ours.  For the rest of Scripture, we will be reminded of Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba.  We will read of a census.  We will read of sons and grandsons who erect idols in the Land promised to Sarah and Abraham.  We will read of grandsons who kill the people they are charged with shepherding, of stealing plots of land they desire, knowing full well that land was granted to those people by the Lord Himself.  We will read of falling away and all kinds of sins.  If this book was a piece of propaganda, it is the dumbest propaganda ever created.  Who extols someone by never forgetting their faults?  Yet David and those who come after remind us that not even our sins will permanently separate us from the Lord.  Yes, God takes sin very seriously.  But thankfully, mercifully, He takes forgiveness just as seriously.  And that standard, the Cross, is the means by which we become a House who proclaims freedom to slaves, who brings health to those suffering from disease, who offers help to the poor, who offer words of forgiveness to those burdened by their failures!

    Brothers and sisters, you who have accepted His offer are part of the greatest dynasty the world will ever know.  It may not know it today, or tomorrow, or next week, next month, or next year.  But one day, when our Lord returns, all in His House will be lifted up and glorified, gathered up to share in that wonderful response of David, “Who am I?”  Brothers and sisters, we are His.  And it He who calls upon you and me to plant the standard of His House wherever we are planted, that His light may become a beacon of hope to a dark and dying world, a world that rejected Him when He came into His own, but a world He purposes to redeem in spite of itself.  Why not share in His purpose?  Who knows what amazing wonders He has in store for each one of us, just as He did for that shepherd boy now become king?



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On the soaring language of Paul and God's lavished grace . . .

      I wish you could have seen the faces at 8am.  I proclaimed the Gospel, prayed, laid the Gospel book back on the altar, and then told them I had had 4 sermons pop into my head quickly last Monday.  I told them as well that, unfortunately, there had been no real discussions with individuals outside the Psalms and Genesis Bible study classes.  Rather than let me struggle with guessing at which sermon those present needed to hear, I asked them to pick one, and I gave a quick outline of all four.  As you might imagine, their faces told me that clergy had probably never asked them what they wanted or needed to hear before.  But, and this is where I should have had my phone out filming the faces as a sermon illustration on David’s joy, I offered, in the silence, to simply preach all four sermons!  You are all laughing, but tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if I did that at 10:30am!  You all do owe 8am a debt of gratitude.  More often than not, they share what they thought of my sermons and offer suggestions.  I like to think that the 10:30am sermon is better than the 8am version.  On more than one occasion, I have gotten the “that was a good sermon on . . . but I really wish you would have preached on  . . . “ and I have switched sermons as a result.  If you have not found yourself falling asleep during these services the first few months of my tenure, much of the credit lies with those who come to early church.  By the way, that you are chuckling and elbowing one another with smiles is a testimony that you share in the joy evidenced by David today.  I know the visitors among us are trying to figure out what is wrong with us.  Wait, did we not pull into a church this morning?  Christians should be somber, serious, opposed to fun, incapable of sarcasm, and all those other descriptions that some embrace, right?  Wrong!  But that was a sermon pushed off until the future.  Maybe in three year’s time we will look at joy again.

     8am wanted to talk about Paul’s letter to the Ephesians today.  More specifically, 8am attendees admitted that they sometimes wonder whether God listens, whether their work makes any difference, whether God even notices their struggles.  Paul might seem a weird place to turn to many of us.  I often think that Paul was a man out of country.  He should have been a Scot rather than a Jew.  You are laughing, but tell me, how tolerant are the Scottish in your life about whining and complaining?  Ever hear them use the phrase “Buck up!”  In many of his writings, Paul is very much a “Buck up” or “shape up” writer.  Thanks to his writings, we can piece together the pastoral problem or problems which would cause a congregation to reach out to the Apostle.  More often than not, Paul is seen as brusque and determined.  I give thanks that I baptized none of you.  As if to say, hey, this one is on Apollos or Peter or John.  You idiots countenance behavior that even the Romans deplore!  Ok.  He does not use the word idiot, but he is clearly upset with those at Corinth who have failed to internalize the Gospel.

     Sometimes, our focus on Paul in his letters to Corinth and Rome and other places causes us to forget that Paul had a complete perspective on the Gospel of Christ and how God’s plan of salvation is being worked out in us.  It might seem to be a heady thing to say, particularly in this day and age when professional and armchair theologians are attempting to drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus, as if there is a Jesus Christianity vs. Paul Christianity warring out there in the wider world.  I think we often forget that Damascus Road experience which profoundly impacted Paul.  He met the risen Christ, he spoke with the risen Christ, and he spent three years considering the impact of that experience with what he understood about God in light of the torah and the Cross and Resurrection of this Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God!  There can be no arguing with the result.  This man, who was one of the most feared and most zealous persecutors of the early Church, did a complete 180.  The zealous persecutor became the zealous herald.  Heck, as Christians, and as Episcopalians in particular, we believe the letters of Paul, included in the Bible, to be God-breathed.  I don’t know that many in our heritage have ever understood the letters to have been dictated by God.  We have understood the letters, as with the rest of Scripture, to have been inspired by God.  But we recognize that God also likely had a hand in the editing and gathering.  Why did we keep these letters and not others?  What about these letters that survive was important?  What was in those other letters that caused them to be lost? In the end, faithful Christians believe that God simply thought some were needed and that others were not.

     Paul’s letters often allow us some insight as to issues facing the early Church.  We have to imagine the other side of the conversation, but such is pretty easy.  If Paul is chewing the church out for feasting like Romans while some in their midst go hungry, we know the kind of meal against which he is railing.  If Paul is writing a letter asking a fellow brother in Christ to treat the returned slave, who is now a brother in Christ, as a fellow brother, we can well imagine the societal and family pressures that will be applied against the slave owner and the call of Christ to live transformed lives in all segments of society.

     Given all that, Ephesians is a bit of a challenge for us to deduce what was happening in Ephesus that needed to be addressed.  Rather than a checklist of answers, Paul seems to be giving a bit of a lecture or sermon on the results of union with Christ.  The language is soaring.  There is no real “do this, don’t do that,” “you should be ashamed of yourselves,” or any other list of problems.  Instead, Paul seems to be addressing a group from prison who has forgotten their place in salvation history.  Thankfully, such never happens in today’s Church, does it?  None of you ever feel disconnected from God in the slightest, right?  We all feel confident all the time, right?  We never wonder if God really cares about us?  We never worry whether the Cross and Resurrection applies to everyone else but us?  We never wonder whether our work and our ministries in thanksgiving to God ever make a difference, right?  I mean, there is only so much poverty, so much hunger, so much need out there.  We never feel like our work is futile. . . or do we?

     It seems to me one of the pastoral problems addressed by Paul are those issues of security and meaning.  Ever the good pastor, Paul recognizes that there is a time to confront and a time to cajole a flock, a time to kick in the backside to remove inertia and a time to reign in enthusiasm, a time to demand action and a time to call to reflection.  His letter to the Ephesians, it seems to me, gives us an opportunity to bask in God’s love of us, to reflect upon His grace in our lives, and to wrestle with those servants of His enemy who constantly remind us that we do not really matter.

     Look closely at the letter in your Order of Worship.  Did you know that the entirety of this passage in Greek is just one sentence?  The rest of the passage is full of dependent clauses and phrases.  We don’t speak or write like that in English, but look at the words..  Now, except for the sentence in verse 8-9, imagine these are all dependent on that single sentence.  Bookending that amazing sentence is the reminder that all of this was God’s plan for our redemption.  I am by no means a grammar nazi, and I certainly lack the love of writing as my brothers and sisters who love psalms and poetry; but even I can see how Paul is reminding those in Ephesus and those in Nashville of our place and value in God’s plan of salvation!

     Does God really love you or really know you?  In amazing, lofty words Paul reminds us that God chose us before the foundation of the world.  Listen to that again.  Before, even, He created the heavens and the earth, He chose you and me to be holy and blameless before Him in love!  Wow!  The next time you wonder about your significance in God’s plan, in your ministries in the world, in your ministries here at Advent, say those words again aloud.  It is hard to devalue oneself when one knows the value placed upon one not just before being formed in the womb, but before the foundation of the world!

     What kind of value do we have in His eyes?  Admittedly, Paul could have stopped in verse 5, but he goes on to describe our value to God.  In other words, it was not enough that God destined us to be saved in Christ before the foundation of the world.  God destined us to become full, adopted sons and daughters through Christ.  Put differently, you and I are princes and princesses in His family.  More accurately, we are Princesses and Princes in the Holy family.  Think of your favorite royal family today.  Maybe you love Kate and William.  Maybe another royal family elsewhere in the world catches your attention and longing.  Your inheritance, your adoption is greater than theirs.  How can I say that with a straight face?  How can Paul imply that?  The Creator of Heaven and earth has adopted us.  In Christ, we are made his holy and blameless children.  Best of all, nothing, not even death can separate us from our inheritance!  How do we know?  The Resurrection of Christ.  God has already demonstrated His power to keep His promises to us.  The Kate’s and William’s of the world will pass away, the Disney princes and princesses were never real, but you and I will be Princes and Princesses for all eternity!  That, brothers and sisters, is a promise!  That, brothers and sisters, is a reminder of the value which our Lord places upon each one of us, even those who, in the end, reject Him.

     Sounds too good to be true, does it not?  Paul seems even to understand that, though.  How does Paul describe what has been given and prepared for us?  God has lavished us with His grace.  We have been forgiven our sins and made adoptive sons and daughters in His family.  Our sins should have made the second impossible.  In fact, they did.  But God paved the way so that we could be adopted, so that we could be made holy, so that we would be blameless in His eyes.  Ever spend any time in the torah?  Next time you are feeling righteous and holy, start reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy.  We treat it like a do/don’t do list.  To the Jews, it represented what it was like to live in full communion with, in the very midst of, a righteous, holy God.  About a year into a Bible Study at my last parish, one of the guys joked that they had looked forward to tying all the laws to the Ten Commandments and to the two Great Commandments as a kind of academic exercise.  What had happened, though, was that he had gained a greater understanding of the grace offered him by God.  All of us knew what he meant.  We figured we were decent Christians.  Heck, I was a priest.  But we ended up treating Deuteronomy like a checklist of our own sins and forgiveness before we got around to the academic exercise.  We gained a far greater understanding of the grace He had lavished on each one of us.  Some of you are laughing, but when we apply the noose that Jesus tightens when He discusses the torah and its intentions, I think the only sin I successfully avoided was the digging of the latrine on the wrong side of camp.  And let’s face it, I can’t even take credit for avoiding that sin.  I have not been called to a camp by God and asked to dig a latrine!  I see others nodding in agreement.  About the only thing that used to keep us from sinning was opportunity.  But that is precisely why Paul wrote those words.  We have been lavished with grace.  Not only are we forgiven, when we had no right to expect to be, but we are adopted, since before the foundation of the world.

     The meat of this big sentence, of course, is Paul’s reminder that all of those was accomplished through the work and purpose of Christ.  All things have been gathered up in Christ.  Our sins are forgiven in Christ.  Our adoption is made possible in Christ.  Our inheritance will be completed in Christ and His Return.  Everything, in Paul’s eyes, points to the work and person of Jesus Christ.  He is the focus of creation.  He is the possibility of redemption.  He will be the means by which we are sanctified and glorified for all eternity!  He is the means by which sinners become united, filled with purpose and power.  All other paths, no matter how enticing, no matter how alluring, fail.

     And, just so we are aware, Paul makes sure that the promises are not just a future, vague event.  Already we are realizing His promises.  To be sure, we will not realize them in full until He comes again, but we are already experiencing a foretaste, a precursor to the appetizer.  How do we know?  Paul covers both ways, though, interestingly I think, in reverse order.  After we have gathered, participated in the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament, what do we pray?  Whether we are following Rite 1 or Rite 2, we thank God for nourishing us with the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of His Son our Lord, and then what do we pray?  We ask God for the grace to accomplish the work He has given us to do.  Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we ask God to give us part of our inheritance.  We recognize, as Paul says, that we have work to do, but it is His work we really want to be about.  The things of this world, the cares and the concerns of this world, at least in our liturgy if not our own minds—we are supposed to understand that the real work to be done is the work that He has given us to do.  Our work, our efforts will not glorify Him, unless our hearts and minds are in accord with His will and His purpose.

     It is a weighty thing, is it not, to lay claim to God’s lavishness.  Who wants to seem greedy?  Who wants to risk offending?  Yet Paul reminds us that our inheritance was assured when we were baptized into the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  What makes it possible for us to be so confident that we can ask God to supply us with whatever is necessary for us to accomplish His will?  What makes it possible for us to stand before Him blameless and holy?  Our baptism.  That sacramental act, that outward profession of an inward and spiritual grace, reminds us and all those around us that we are now one of those whom He chose to redeem before the foundation of the world and, by virtue of His lavished grace, gifted by the Holy Spirit with a pledge of our inheritance.  Put in easier words to understand, we are buried in Christ’s death and raised with Him in new life, that we might live for His praise and His glory.  The gift of the Holy Spirit reminds us not only of the promise, but it begins to equip us, to gift us, to lavish upon us, those things that are necessary for us to accomplish His will!  And remember, all this wonderful, soaring language is from the pen of hard-nosed Paul! 

     Brothers and sisters, I recognize the difficulty of accepting the truth of Paul’s discussion and the promises of God.  We live in a world and age which bombards us constantly with anti-gospel messages.  Have it your way?  We can fix what’s wrong with you (your face, your chest, your stomach, your legs) in a year’s worth of easy payments.  Over and over again, false prophets offer all kinds of idols which seek to undermine our faith, which seek to challenge our loyalty, which seek to question our confidence.  I get it.  I understand the difficulty you face in this world, in this place, in trying to be a loyal disciple of Christ.  Better still, so does God.  He understands far better than me right now the pressures that you face.  He knows the seeming lack of provision which compels you to work as if you were of this world.  He knows the seeming lack of love in your life which causes you to question your own worth in your own eyes and in His.  He knows your fears and hurts which cause you to cry to Him to help your unbelief.  And despite all our worry, despite all that would seek to isolate us from Him, still He reaches out that hand of love from the hard wood of the cross.  He reminds us each and every day that He loved us enough to save us, even when we were comfortable with being His enemy.  And He reminds us in the words of St. Paul this morning, that love for each one of us was present before He laid the foundation of the world.  And, if we will but trust and follow Him, that love will still be present in our lives even when these foundations have been torn out, and the new creation has come!




Wednesday, July 8, 2015

On fulfillment and faith . . .

     Truthfully, I was unsure where to go this week for us as a parish.  I feel like we have spent enough time on our discussions of faith and the effects faith in God through Christ should have on our lives, our outlooks, everything about us really, these last couple weeks.  Usually people come in or call to talk about last week’s sermon.  So far, in my short time at Advent, people have wanted to chat about my sermon every other week but one.  And just so y’all know, I’m not talking about the “attaboys,” “good one, father’s,” or the “that’s the best one yet’s.”  I am far more concerned with how you all reflect on the sermons and the teaching even as you read Scripture and then examine your lives.  I think for us as a parish and for us as individuals, those are far more important.  So imagine my disappointment this week when nary a comment came my way.  I’m not disappointed that there were no discussions, mind you.  I’m disappointed that I am not sure where we are this week.  It makes the crafting of a sermon that much more difficult, particularly when we as Episcopalians have been stuck on a subject for a couple weeks.  Our lectionary is supposed to move us along, is it not?

     Our choices for reading this week were certainly interesting given that lack of dialogue.  We could focus on Mark, and I could call you to leave everything and follow God.  But that seems a bit premature.  We could focus on Paul’s mystical experience and leave ourselves wondering why we have not had one ourselves.  The reading from Samuel is incredibly tough.  I know some of my colleagues who have been away these last couple weeks were even wondering why the editors chose that passage from 2 Samuel in the first place.  I even considered the psalm and its wonderful image of God’s holy city, Jerusalem.  But I was not sure yet how to tie that image to our collective lives here in Nashville.  In the end, since it was the 4th and we are all about heritage this weekend, I decided to have us look at the passage from 2 Samuel.  History is only so good for us if we use it to understand our present and to shape our future.  That certainly seems to be a lesson included in today’s readings.

     We have blown through the narratives of Samuel rather quickly since the Feast of Pentecost.  We have touched on the call of the prophet, on the peoples’ desire for a king, the anointing of Saul, the rejection of Saul and the anointing of David, and David’s battle with Goliath.  It sounds like a lot to cover, and it is, but we have skipped tons.  As always, I encourage you to pick up the books at home and read in between the selections of our lectionary editors.  For example, this week we pick up at the end of a civil war.  Essentially one tribe is supporting David.  Saul’s son, Ish-Bosheth, has the support of most of the others.  More strange to our ears is the fact that many of those fighting to keep Ish-Bosheth king realize they are fighting God.  The couple chapters before us include David taking back Saul’s daughter, whose betrothal cost him a hundred Philistine foreskins, the murder of Ish-Bosheth’s general and king-maker, and finally the murder of Ish-Bosheth.  To say that those men get an unexpected reward is the height of euphemism!

     Now, following this civil war and the murder of the pretender, the tribes of all Israel come to David.  They remind David that they are, like him, descendants of Abraham and Jacob.  They may be very distant cousins at best, but they are still family.  They acknowledge that God has anointed David as king over all Israel, even though Saul was alive and still king.  Better still, they acknowledge that David was the one who led them to victories under Saul.  So they ask David to fulfill his role as shepherd and as king.  It is an interesting request.  God has different expectations of His kings than do the people of Israel or the surrounding “ites.” God, in fact, warns Israel that the king they choose will use them, will take their daughters as wives and concubines, take their sons to fight his wars, take their wealth to pay his sycophants, and take their produce to feed his aristocracy.  Saul does precisely all that.  He rejects God and, unlike David who sins quite a bit, even refuses to repent.

     Now, of course, everyone wants the fighting to stop.  So they ask David to be God’s shepherd of them.  And we are told that the elders of the tribes make a covenant with David and that David makes a covenant with them.  Then we are given this little bit of disjointed history.  David reigned over Israel for forty years, 7 years and six months at Hebron and thirty-three years at Jerusalem.  The only problem with that, of course, is the fact that Jerusalem still belongs to the Jebusites!  So, and our lectionary editors skip this part, David marches on Jerusalem and takes the city via the water system.  I suppose our editors skip over the section because of the references to the “lame and the blind” not being able to enter the palace.  But David takes the city and begins to improve on its defenses.  From that time forward, the city becomes known as the city of David.

     Some of you may wonder why David takes the city.  It is ok.   Scholars do from time to time.  Is Jerusalem part of the Promised Land?  No.  It was outside the land granted to the tribes of Israel as an inheritance.  But people being people, how do we feel when somebody famous or important is from our home town?  Prophets and judges would routinely set up their center in the lands of their family.  It gave to the tribe from which they were descended a special feeling of privilege.  It also made the other eleven somewhat discontented.  On the cosmic scale, it’s like our brothers or sisters reminding us that they are/were mommy’s or daddy’s favorite.  It’s cosmic because now that authority is “proof” of God’s favoritism, right?

     No, Jerusalem is outside the covenant lands.  It is, in modern language, a District of Columbia.  It was not part of Maryland or part of Virginia.  It was it’s own place, separate and apart.  David will not be seen so closely associated with the tribe of Judah.  His city is in a place outside the Promised Land.  His authority and his power and his glory will be shared equally by all the tribes.  There will be no tangible reminder that he belonged to one tribe and that they, just by virtue of his birth, share in his glory.

     Those who have been engaging with me in Bible studies are probably already sick of the reminder, but the purpose of Samuel is not simply to give us a history lesson.  To clarify that better, I should say that the history lesson that the author of Samuel is wanting us to learn is not so much concerned with those things that we teach and learn in history classes today.  Let’s face it, how many of us know our ancient Israel geography well-enough to know the locations of all the cities mentioned in Samuel?  How well do we understand the dates?  Heck, how well do we understand the names of the places and the people involved, many of which give us insight as to the purpose of the book?

     What is the purpose of this lesson?  Look at our last verse.  What does it say?  Does David become great because of his military genius?  His trade acumen?  His dogged determinedness to see Israel elevated on the world’s stage?  No.  The author is clear that David becomes greater and greater because the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him!

     Think of that commentary for just a second.  There are a number of scholars who like to point out that much of what we call the Old Testament was written as propaganda to justify the rule of the Davidic line.  There is a strongly accepted idea out there that because David won, he got to write the history.  We should feel sorry for Saul and his family because David was an usurper.  We should feel sorry for all the “ites” and the Philistines because David stole their land.  But is that the testimony of Scripture?  Is David elevated because of his power?  His genius?  His skills?  He goes from being a shepherd tending his father’s flocks to a king tending the Father’s flocks because God has chosen him!  If these “history” books are mere propaganda of the winners, they are not very good.  We are reminded over and over of the sins of David.  Repeatedly, we are shown that David’s failures cost lives, lots of innocent lives.  Yet Scripture holds them up to us constantly.  Why?

     And David’s life simply mirrors the life of Israel.  Are Abraham and Sarah chosen because they were young and beautiful?  Because they were star-crossed lovers?  Because they like to travel?  What elevates the standing of the matriarch and patriarch in the eyes of their descendants?  Their faith in God.  When they had no reason yet to believe, still they trusted the Lord.  Like David, the journey of their descendants was not what they likely expected.  But they trusted that God would fulfill his promises to them, even if her laughter had her changing diapers at age 100!

     The modern equivalent of what is happening in these history books would be as if someone did a history book on Reagan and recounted the Iran Contra every few pages or did a history book on Clinton and reminded us of the Lewinsky affair every couple paragraphs.  Who does that?  Who does that when one is interested in propaganda rather than truth?  No one!  We hide the faults of those whom we want to elevate by propaganda and put forward their successes.  We “paint their actions in the best light.”

     I suppose that the nudge to this sermon began in Bible study on Monday.  One of the ladies commented that, for her, David’s story was a reminder of the patience required when serving God.  When the group asked her to continue her thought, she explained that it always helped her to remember that it took twenty-five years or so for David to realize the fulfillment of God’s promises to him!  She’s right, you know.  David was anointed king by Samuel somewhere around age thirteen.  He is not made king by the elders of Israel until he was thirty-three.  David spent twenty years on this arduous path to the throne.  Many times, his predecessor wanted to kill him.  You and I would say that David would have been within his rights to slay Saul.  But David is obedient.  David is so obedient that he even sings to Saul, the king trying to kill him, when the evil spirit sent by God claims his mind.  David finds himself jerked around by Saul, he finds himself on the run, he finds himself placed in impossible situations.  But he trusts God and God’s promises.  Today, we read of the fulfillment of those promises.

     All of this story, taken together, should give us a bit of improved perspective as we face the day and the future steeped in our faith.  What do I mean by such as a statement?  First, we are given these stories as a reminder of the fact that God keeps all His promises to His people and to us.  With the coronation of David by the elders, Israel has truly become a nation.  How long ago was that promise made to His people Israel?  Long before they were a people.  Back then, there was a husband and a wife, Sarah and Abraham.  Think of the journey.  When only seventy existed in this family, they went to live in Egypt.  Eventually, they were enslaved.  Then came the events of the Exodus, then Joshua’s rule, then the rule of the Judges.  This fulfillment has been years and generations in the making.  Do you think people along the way wondered if God was in control?  If God was powerful enough to keep His promises?  If God even wanted to keep His promises.

     Tom reminded us in Bible study this morning about the fulfillment of Jesus’ creation of His Bride, the Church.  We happen to be reading the same passage from Mark as our Gospel lesson this week.  Tom remarked about the ridiculous notion that fishermen and a few others could be counted on to become the Church.  Today, of course, we see the beginning of that transformation.  These fishermen and others go out preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  In many ways, they claim the benefits of His coming passion far better than many of us in today’s Church.  And we have the benefit of the Cross and Empty Tomb to inspire us!

     I know that events in the world sometimes seem to be chaotic.  In the last couple weeks I have had long conversations with brothers and sisters who lament and who cheer the decision of the courts, who lament and who cheer the developments in our national church, who lament and who cheer the decision to tear down a flag whose meaning has been co-opted by bigots, who are proud and who worry about loved ones serving the cause of freedom in locations that seem so far from our beloved shores.  If anything, our times resemble the times described in Scripture.  The world is always in a process of rejecting God.  We read every Christmas Eve that He came into what was His own and that His own rejected Him.  And then we are shocked when something happens in the world to proclaim that God does not care, that God is not able to keep His promises, that God does not love us, that God is even real!

     Stories such as David’s or the disciples remind us that God really is in control.  Part of the reason these stories were retained is so that we could find encouragement in them.  If David is our brother in his great-great-great-great (however many) grandson Jesus Christ, then his story is part of our family’s story—The story of redemption.  And just as our brother had to live in faith as if God would make him king over Israel despite all the evidence to the contrary, you and I are called to live a life as if we are sojourners in this land, a people set apart and called to a Feast by the Father.  In that way, all the stories of the saints who have gone before us can serve to exhort us, to encourage us to keep living in the sure and certain promises of God.  Nothing, no power of the Enemy no plotting by humans not even our deaths can prevent Him from fulfilling His promise to each one of us!  Nothing.

     Of course, even as we look back and remind ourselves of the stories of God’s faithfulness, we are given eyes to see the present and understanding to not fret too much about the future.  For all the fulfillment described in this passage, is David’s construction of the city the sacred city described in the Day of the Lord?  Of course not.  We still have not seen that city.  In a couple chapters, David will forget by whose hand his strength increased.  David will sleep with Bathsheeba, murder her husband, ask God to punish Israel for his sin in a census, and any number of other sins.  He will act like anyone except one who knows that God put him on the throne.  Unlike Saul, though, He will repent.  When God reminds him that he has disobeyed, David will repent.  But he will still have to live with the consequences of his sins.  Forgiveness, David will learn, as we all do, does not mean that we get a pass on the consequences.  We just get a pass on the ultimate consequence, death and separation from God.

     Should we as Christians, trying to be faithful to God, be concerned about the world around us?  Absolutely.  But should we be surprised when the world acts in ways that reject God?  Of course not.  But we need to be looking at the worldly evidence with faith-filled eyes.  This day that we read about in the life of David should never have happened.  How could Israel ever become a nation?  There were too many other nations arrayed against it.  At times, super-powers defeated it and enslaved it.  What of those super powers?  Egypt?  It is around but not nearly as influential on the world scene.  Assyria and Babylon?  Gone.  Persia?  It’s culture impacts us, but as a nation it is no longer.  Greece?  Rome?  Each of those countries believed themselves blessed by the gods and the expression of all that was best in humanity.  If we have begun the death throes in this country, as some worry, should we be surprised?  And should we really worry?  We read in Scripture that God saw His people through it all!  He will, no doubt, see His people through the issues of today.  This existence, my brothers and sisters, is not even close to that to which He calls each and every human we meet.

     How about our church?  Well, seeing as how David, the man after God’s own heart committed more than a few sins, maybe we should quit wringing our hands so much and get back to work.  We skipped a civil war between last week’s reading and this week’s reading.  Should we really be surprised that there is bickering in our midst?  Yes, errant decisions cause tremendous pain and suffering for God’s people, but it is in pain and suffering where God anoints His servants and calls the world around them to repent.  It is in those moments when we think things cannot be redeemed that God delights in showing His glory and His power.

     One last note, and I have skirted its edges this morning.  I know that Carola spoke at some length with you about it during the interim.  She has shared she did, and some of you have asked about it.  What our beloved sister on Monday captured about David is a theological understanding expressed in Caola’s teaching among you.  David lived for more than two decades certain that God would make him king.  Even though the king was alive and circumstances still confessed that David was anything but king, David lived a faithful life, trusting in the promises of God.  You and I have been speaking of worldly events this morning.  We have spoken mostly of past events, history, and the present.  All of these events, of course, give us glimpses and peeks into the ultimate fulfillment of those promises.  You know it as the tension between the already and the not yet.

     Good.  I see the nods.  Brothers and sisters, we sometimes act as if this world, as if our surroundings, are the best for which we can possibly hope.  How sad is that?  You and I are promised that we will be present with our Lord, as was Adam and Eve so long ago, for all eternity.  Such presence is described as a Wedding Feast, a banquet.  It is described as a place with no crying, no suffering, and no death.  Given the world that we live in, how can we really ever begin to understand such a promise?  And, yet, that is precisely the promise He makes.  And He calls upon each one of us to live in this day, in this age, in this place, aware of our surroundings, ministering to those caught in its vicissitudes, but with an eye on that ultimate fulfillment.  We can face privation, pain, suffering, disappointment, national upheaval, and even death itself, because we know the God who anointed David, the God who sent out the disciples two by two, the God who raised Jesus back to life that wonderful Easter morning, the God who pledged Himself to each one of us has promised.  And He always, always keeps His promises.