July 26, 2009

Two stories. One lesson.

Proper 12

July 26th, 2009

St. Columba’s Parish, Washington, DC

I started writing a letter this week to the group who helped put together the Revised Common Lectionary, which is our source for the schedule of readings we use each week in our worship. The part I like about the RCL is that we hear the Old Testament narrative as a long, week-by-week story, especially during the season after Pentecost. But my curiosity is about today’s Gospel lesson. If you have a Book of Common Prayer printed before about 2007 when the RCL was adopted by the Episcopal Church, and you look on page 908, you’ll see that the Gospel lesson for Proper 12 (today) is Mark 6:45-52. This is Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water. The RCL editors shifted from Mark to John, and added the beginning of the narrative which is the feeding of the five thousand, and is immediately followed by an account the walking on water story. And my question is why did they do that? Both stories are equally powerful and equally famous. Both stories stand on their own as miraculous acts of Jesus, events that show his power and his glory. So why put them together and ask thousands of preachers to have some sort of consternation about which story to preach?

The story of the feeding of the five thousand is recorded in all four Gospels. And in Matthew’s, Mark’s and John’s accounts, Jesus’ stroll on the Sea of Galilee immediately follows. In both stories, Jesus has done what would have been impossible for anyone else. He has provided an amazing banquet of bread and fish out of nearly nothing and then went by foot to find his disciples as they crossed the water.

In the first miracle, Jesus provides a non-anxious presence to calm a crowd that, according to some scholars, was teetering on the edge of rebellion against their Roman occupiers. The Jews were overmatched and outmanned, and it would have been a one-sided battle. Instead, Jesus reveals his glory by giving the people what they need versus what the want. The Jews were expecting a messiah who would be a great military leader like King David, someone who would send the Romans back to Italy, or at least out of Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus gave them fish and bread. Staples of life.

In revealing his glory, Jesus is showing that he can fill our worldly and spiritual needs. But the witnesses of this miracle didn’t want to see that. They had their expectations. They knew what they were looking for, and they thought they’d found it in this guy. Instead of seeing the miracle on Jesus’ divine terms, showing that he is the source of life like he showed the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, the people want to put their own interpretation and implications on what Jesus has done. Instead of seeing Jesus as the one who can bring about fulfillment of the complete range of human needs, the people put their expectations on him that he can do whatever they want him to do.

How often do we do that? How often in our own relationships, not only with God, with our parents, children, spouses, partners, friends or co-workers, do we put our own expectations on those relationships with the other person’s expectations as an after-thought?

He goes away to the mountain, one of his favorite retreat spots, and his disciples head across the water to Capernaum. What makes John’s account of the walking on water miracle different than Matthew’s or Mark’s is that it is told from the perspective of the disciples who are in the boat. The other stories are told from Jesus’ perspective, when he seeks them out and goes almost unnoticed at first. This time, it is the disciples who see Jesus walking on the sea, and, in a completely understandable reaction, were terrified. Unlike other Gospel stories of raging waters and frightened disciples, Jesus does not command the waters to be still. He tells the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”

Before they could take him in the boat, they were on the other side of the water. This is not a miracle for the sake of having a miracle. It was an act of glory to calm the fears of the disciples. It should be noted that there is nothing saying that the disciples were indeed calmed just because Jesus said, Do not be afraid. But one has to wonder how they felt when they saw their Lord and their teacher standing with them in the midst of the rough waters. I wonder how they felt when they found themselves suddenly in the place where they needed to be. Was Jesus with them the whole time? Had he shown up at just the right moment? Did he know that the winds were going to pick up and they’d be frightened?

What strikes me the most about this part of today’s Gospel is that it doesn’t say that Jesus got them where they needed to be. He said, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” The winds may very well have continued to toss the boat around, but the very real presence of Jesus got them to the place they needed to be.

On about Wednesday of this week, I stopped writing my letter to those who wrote the Revised Common Lectionary about why they would have put these two stories together. Instead, I started wondering why we had not put them together before. In this one Gospel lesson, Jesus reveals his glory to those around him, and in his glory, sharing his gifts of grace to give his followers exactly what they need.Ours is a God of abundant love, standing ready to give us what we need, if we will open our hearts to receive that love.

Let us pray: Christ, our brother, we thank you that you know our needs before we can ask. We thank you that you have given us what we have needed and not always what we have wanted. Help us to see your hand at work in the world about us and to know your glory as it is revealed every day. Be with us in the storms of life. Let us know your presence and let your presence calm our hearts. All this we ask in your name. Amen.

July 5, 2009

The Saga Continues

Proper 9, Year B, RCL

July 5th, 2009

St. Columba’s, Washington, DC

The Saga Continues

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts always be pleasing to you, Oh Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I want to take a quick poll, and please be honest. There’s no judgment here. If you’ve ever had a TV show, that you just HAD to watch, wouldn’t have missed it for the world, one where you set the DVR (or the VCR if it was back in the day), your phone is or was off the hook, your spouse, partner, kids or roommates knew or know not to disturb you… raise your hand. Like I said, there’s no judgment. It’s OK, we’ve all had that show.

Most recently, mine was Battlestar Galactica. Not the old one with Loren Green, which was incredible, but the re-imagined series with Edward James Olmos that was on the Sci-Fi channel for about 4 seasons. Once I was introduced to it, I was hooked. It had action, suspense, complicated romance, political twists, and, of course, lots of stuff that exploded. And like most science fiction, there is some excellent theology running throughout.

I only mention Battlestar Galactica, or whatever your story-line of choice is, because our lectionary readings from the Old Testament Scripture during these summer months are sort of like that weekly drama. The readings this summer tell the epic story of the rise of the monarchy in ancient Israel as it’s recorded in the books of First and Second Samuel. Every episode builds on the previous one. What we are hearing these Sundays are more like a “re-cap” episode since we are missing some of the more dramatic pieces of the story, but we will hear the major details about the first three kings of Israel: Saul, David, and Solomon, and the prophets of God who led and advised them, mainly Samuel and Nathan. These two books give witness to what is arguably one of the most crucial periods of transition and change in the history of ancient Israel. At the start of First Samuel, the people of Israel are a loose band of tribes facing internal squabbling and a serious external threat from the Philistines. By the end of Second Samuel, Israel has an established central government and is moving rapidly from being a simple agrarian society to a major trade partner in the region.

Today’s lesson begins the second stage in the epic where David is named king by the elders of Israel, more importantly, by those in the Northern Tribes of Israel. A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of how David was anointed as a young boy by Samuel while Saul was still king. Samuel was searching for a man after God’s own heart, and God led him to David. Samuel’s anointing put David on the map, filled him with the Holy Spirit and prepared him to be king.

By the time we get to today’s lesson, David had already assumed the kingship of the Southern Tribes of Judah, which is where he was born. Once Saul and his son died, the tribal elders from the Northern Tribes of Israel called upon David to take the reins and continue leading as their king. This was not really a triumphal, “now we are one big happy family” moment, though. The leaders of the northern tribes are looking for peace and stability and were out of options. Their last connection to Saul was his general Abner, who was killed in battle, so these tribal leaders were really at the mercy of David. He had the wisdom and the political and military power behind him to crush anyone who got in his way. Just about the only bargaining chip the leaders from the Northern Tribes had was to say, “We are your bone and flesh.” In other words, “Hey, we’re all family here, right?” One commentator said that they are saying, “Please don’t leave us to our own devices. We need your help.” Another commentator suggests that the tribesmen were afraid that David would wipe them out. They knew of his military prowess and intellect, and know that it was really David, and not Saul, who led Israel and Judah to great victories over the Philistines. They knew that God was with David during Israel’s battles. This image of a shepherd, by the way, was a very common adjective to describe the king or ruler over a people. But nonetheless, they knew David was the one whom God had chosen to be their leader. That’s what a portion of this reading is about, giving honor and acknowledgment to God who used David to bring victory to Israel.

So David is presented with a choice. He could have laughed at them. He could have slaughtered them right then and there. He could have said, “You’re on your own.” But he didn’t do any of those things. David made a covenant with them before the Lord.

Throughout First and Second Samuel, it is evident that it is God who opens the doors and makes it possible for Israel to rise up as a nation. The underlying question laid out by the writers of this epic is “Where does true power lie?” As one commentator wrote of these books, “In the juxtaposition of human power and divine will, God possess the final authority.”

David is a man after God’s own heart, so what does he do? He enters a covenant with the Northern Tribal leaders. Freely. Of his own choosing. Can you imagine a King who makes, not a contract, but a covenant?

In the theological sense, a covenant is an agreement initiated by God that says, “Here’s what I, your God, am asking you to do. I will be your protector and provider. I simply ask that you love and follow me as your only God.” Covenants, especially in Scripture, are conferred with some sign. For Noah, it was the rainbow. For God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, it was circumcision. For Moses, it was the giving of the 10 Commandments. The giving and receiving of rings are often the symbol of the covenant of marriage, a covenant in which we believe God is an equal partner. The sign of the New Covenant established by Christ at the Last Supper is the bread and wine as the symbols of his body and blood.

David probably didn’t know about wedding rings or the Eucharist, but he more than likely knew about Noah, Abraham, and Moses. So he knew what a Covenant was. David’s choice to enter into a covenant with the Northern Tribal leaders sent a strong and humble message that, unlike the reign of Saul, this will not be a reign of raw power, bending on a whim, but one that will be based on mutual needs and responsibilities.

That underlying question in First and Second Samuel of where does true power lie is one that has followed us into the 21st Century. If David, a man whose most notorious sin we will read about in a few weeks, can be called a man after God’s own heart and lead the people through a covenant relationship, what would it look like if we were to build our relationships around our mutual needs as a community and as the family of God? What if we were to think first about our responsibilities to our neighbors, whether or not they are our flesh and blood and not think first about what we have to gain from other people?

The true power that we see in these stories in First and Second Samuel is the amazing power that God has to act through each of us to reach beyond ourselves, build relationships and advance Christ’s message of love and forgiveness. These are the stories of God’s divine purpose intersecting the usual patterns of power in the world. If David, the youngest and smallest son of an obscure family, can be called a man after God’s own heart, and carry the weight of the future of Israel, despite his own short comings, do you wonder how God can use you?