Saturday, July 21, 2018

Welcoming Mephibosheth

2 Samuel 4:4, 9:1-13
July 22, 2018
William G. Carter

Saul’s son Jonathan had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled; and, in her haste to flee, it happened that he fell and became lame. His name was Mephibosheth...

David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!” The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.” Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants.

It is an astonishing story. For all of his swashbuckling exploits and his macho persona, David was capable of kindness.

Here’s the story. A lot has happened since the last time we were together. King Saul and his son Jonathan were in a battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. The battle did not go well. Jonathan and two of his brothers are killed in battle. King Saul also dies in a questionable and dishonorable manner.

On that terrible day, the news comes that Saul and Jonathan have died. It seems Jonathan had a five-year-old son named Mephibosheth. He was just a boy, tended by a servant. She scooped him up, ready to run away and carry him to safety. Somehow she stumbled, the little boy fell. He broke his legs or his feet; the orthopedic surgeon was unable to give us a proper diagnosis. All we know is the little boy never walked again.

The nurse servant got him out of there. She hid him in a little town, out in the middle of nowhere. And there he stayed while the nation went through more turmoil. Apparently Saul had a fourth son who should have been out in the battlefield with his father and his brothers. When Saul and the others were killed, it was the general of the army, General Abner, who declared this fourth son, Ish-bosheth, should be the new king.

I guess neither of them had been reading the Bible. If they had, they would have known that David had already been secretly anointed as the next king. A couple of renegade soldiers knew it, because they cut off the head of Ish-bosheth, thinking that David would approve of their help. He did not, and that’s all we have to say about that. Suffice it to say, there was a lot of political maneuvering and military nonsense that went on for a while.

And the whole time, Mephibosheth is hunkering down in a little village that nobody would be able to find. You see, this is the way it worked: when the new king comes to power, he gets rid of anybody related to the old king. There’s no continuation of authority. The new broom sweeps clean, although in that day, it was usually a hatchet or a sword that did the sweeping. They were brutal times.

Maybe not so different from our own. I will never forget when a few of us were having lunch in a small cafĂ© in Port-au-Prince, on our first mission trip to Haiti. A well-dressed man walked in and sat two tables away from our group. Our guide froze. She looked terrified. After we left, she explained that man had been a leader of the secret police for Papa Doc, the notorious dictator who once ran the country. She said, “We should have gotten rid of him while we had the chance.”  

This was the way a transfer of power happened in ancient times: eliminate anybody from the old palace. And then David, the brand new king, asks, “Is there still anybody left from the house of Saul?” They find one of the old palace servants, a man named Ziba. As the story will later reveal, Ziba is an unsavory fellow. For now, he bows before the new king, and then he rats on Mephibosheth. Ziba tells David how to locate the young man in the town that nobody could find. More servants are dispatched, and Mephibosheth is brought to the palace.

So imagine what he’s feeling. The Philistines had it in for his father, his grandfather, and his uncles – and they are still out there somewhere, making trouble. His other uncle thought he should be the king, but he was eliminated rather quickly. This new king David is not from his family. At best, David had married his aunt, but by all accounts, that marriage is not going well. David has a growing reputation. His power is growing exponentially and he summons Mephibosheth to the palace.

They bring Mephibosheth, who is unable to stand on his own, unable to walk, unable to run away. And maybe the young man knows that the new king David has already issued a decree: “Nobody blind or lame shall be admitted into the king’s house (2 Samuel 5:8).” That decree is staring him in the face: “Nobody blind or lame shall be admitted into the king’s house.”

So David calls out his name, “Mephibosheth!” Yes, sire. There’s a long pause, and then David says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you are going to eat at my table. I regard you as one of my family.”

It is an unexpected move, the last thing Mephibosheth could ever imagine. He knew where he came from. He knew what was usually done to members of the last ruling party.

And he had this disability. As one of the scholars says, “The term ‘crippled in both feet’ implies four characteristics: (1) economic vulnerability, (2) physical vulnerability, (3) permanent immobility, and (4) religious alienation.”[1] That is, not only did the greater society think of him as marginal, but that God had somehow declared him expendable.

Mephibosheth calls himself “a dead dog.” He says, “Who am I, that the king should look upon a dead dog such as I?” (9:8).

David knows who he is: this is the son of Jonathan, his dearest friend. And this is the son of Saul, the first king that God gave to the people. As David and Jonathan made a covenant to always love one another (1 Sam 18:3), the covenant continues in the next generation. It’s like the covenant that David’s great-great-grandma Ruth made with Naomi: “Your people shall be my people; where you go, I will go (Ruth 1:15).”

David knows who he is: this is the son of Jonathan, worthy of his continuing kindness. And David knows something more: Mephibosheth is also a child of God, worthy of an even greater kindness.

In the nuances of the story, David asks at first, “Is there anybody left in the house of Saul, that I might show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (9:3) But then he goes on to ask, again, “Is there anybody left in the house of Saul, that I might show the kindness of God?” (9:3). That’s what he says, the kindness of God… the word here is chesed, usually translated “loving-kindness.” This is continuing kindness, unearned covenantal kindness. It’s the closest thing in the Jewish scriptures to the New Testament word “grace.”

So this is an enormous moment, if only because it is the only time in Jewish Bible where it speaks of “the kindness of God.” And that kindness is not only shown to the grandson of an enemy who is also the son of a friend. It is kindness shown to a man whose disability has made him vulnerable in his world and therefore expendable.

I think we know the lesson here, without overdrawing it. But it is worthy of emphasis again, with a remarkable story like this one. Who are we going to welcome? Those who are fit, healthy, unblemished, and physically capable? Or do we welcome the rest of us, who may have some part of us that is unfit, unhealthy, a bit blemished, with physical challenges?

It would be enough to simply recount a few stories. Back in the early nineties, when we were planning to renovate this building, we met with architects who were capable and imaginative. Our building task force was every bit as capable, maybe even more so. At one point, as we looked over some blueprints, one of the architects said, “Now, you know, the church is exempt from having to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act. That could save you some money.”

The task force looked at him, sized him up as well intentioned. Then one of them said, “We know we are not bound by a law to make this building more accessible to people with disabilities, but why wouldn’t we?’ The opinion was unanimous. There had to be cuts in the curbs, doors and aisles wide enough for wheelchairs, and other small but critical decisions to make rooms like this available and accessible to all. How else would we show the kindness of God?

A few years after that, I had a friend who was the activities director at a nursing home. She asked if she could bring over some residents for a Sunday morning worship service, and we said, “Sure!” We pulled out a pew so a few wheelchairs could get in, and she showed up with eight people. No problem; we are resourceful Presbyterians. Another pew was taken out, then another, and everybody rolled in. We had enough forethought to make extra large-print bulletins and asked the organist to play a little louder than usual.

In a hospitable gesture, the Deacons offered to prepare a nice dinner for our guests. Dieticians were consulted, tables were set, spaces prepared for the wheelchairs, hosts and hostesses were deployed. After the benediction, we suddenly discovered the real challenge: how would we get eight people in wheelchairs to the room downstairs? There was no elevator.

Some of the prevailing voices of that era said, “There’s nobody here who needs an elevator; we’re not going to spend the money on an elevator.” Well, of course there was nobody here who needed an elevator, because the people who needed an elevator weren’t going to bother with a building that they couldn’t get around in. They stayed home.

Suddenly, despite all best intentions, eight people were here in wheelchairs that morning, and we had tables set for them downstairs. And it was the second week of December. It was snowing and there was ice on the sidewalk. As we wheeled our guests out to the sidewalk, in the snow and ice, and backed them down the hill to the lower level, there was a moment when three of our guests almost became Catholics.

We can laugh at ourselves now, but there is nothing funny about welcoming Mephibosheth. The recurring question of every church, of every decent human being, is “How might we welcome those that the world shuts out?”

Now, granted, kindness was not the most obvious character trait of David, Israel’s favorite king. Goliath was not the beneficiary of David’s large and generous heart. Neither were the two hundred Philistines that he carved up to win the hand of his first wife in marriage. Neither, for that matter, was his first wife highly respected; David had a hard time staying home.

Yet here’s this thin slice of experience, when Mephibosheth is welcomed and fed as one of his own, as one of God’s own. Just like our own uneven experiences of welcoming those whom the world pushes out or pushes away outcasts, there are the occasional moments when we get it right. And the vision is set before us: how would it be to truly welcome everybody --- in the name of God?

A thousand years after David, there came a holy man, a healer who touched the untouchables and healed whatever he could. And this holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, had such an enormous heart that the people of his time called him the “Son of David.”

One day, he said, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…and you will be blessed (Luke 14:13-14).” I like to think he learned that lesson from great-great-grandpa David. But I think he probably learned it from his Father in heaven. For such is the kingdom of God, a dominion where everybody experiences God’s kindness – and there are no barriers, boundaries, or stumbling blocks, physical or otherwise.

In the meantime, we have saints from time to time who remind us what the kindness of God looks like, how it feels. I think of the Rev. Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers. In the new documentary about his life and work, there is a clip of Fred chatting with Jeff Erlanger, a child in a wheelchair.[2] There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater. These were not tears of sympathy or pity. Nobody dared to say, “there, but for the grace of God…” Oh no.

Because we know what David could see at his table. Grace is when you befriend a young man with profound disabilities and treat him as a child of God – because he is. All of us are.

All of us.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Elias Yemane, Mephibosheth: Transformation by a Covenant Love (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing ) 27.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

I Could Have But Did Not

1 Samuel 24:1-12
July 15, 2018
William G. Carter

When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the wilderness of En-gedi.” Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to look for David and his men in the direction of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheepfolds beside the road, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. The men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’” Then David went and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. Afterwards David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” So David scolded his men severely and did not permit them to attack Saul. Then Saul got up and left the cave, and went on his way. Afterwards David also rose up and went out of the cave and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.

David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of those who say, ‘David seeks to do you harm’? This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak, and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life. May the Lord judge between me and you! May the Lord avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you.”

One of the easiest things to do is to divide the world into “friends” and “enemies.” To think this way is to declare there are people who are on your team, and others who are not.

It happens among nations, perhaps beginning with a border dispute, an unfair tariff, or a difference of politics or religion. Lines are drawn, boundaries are fortified, and those in power decree who is friend and who is enemy. You can’t be both, you are one or the other.

It happens in communities. Differences of perspective may harden into differences of opinion. Informal lines are drawn, tempers flare, parents tell their children not to play with the children of “those people.” Fierce divisions form, sometimes developing from the smallest matter. You are either on this side or that side.

It can happen in families. Perhaps the long standing feud begins with an unfair bequest, a curious engagement, or a social slight unintended or otherwise. Separate tables form at the family reunion, or someone noticeably chooses not to attend at all.

Which will it be: friend or enemy?

In a long section of the David story, David is on the run because Saul has declared him an enemy. For the better part of the last five chapters, the young hero has had to stay on the move. Oh, it was a great day when David took down Goliath and scattered the Philistine army. It was something King Saul and his soldiers couldn’t do. And that is when the trouble started.

David comes into town, the people cheer, the women dance to the sound of tambourines, and Saul is angry. They never did that for him, and he’s jealous. Imagine what a jealous and somewhat incompetent king can do!

From that day on, Saul has his eye on David. He accidentally throws his spear on David, just missing him. It was, as we used to say as kids, “accidentally on purpose.” Then Saul gives David an army job to get him out of town, figuring the Philistines will finish him off in battle. Yet David’s success continues. He returns to the city and the people cheer even louder.

Then the king hears that one of his daughters has a crush on David and that really sets him off. He tries to hand off another daughter, the ugly one, but David says, “No, I have my eye on the one who has her eye on me.” So the king thinks about it. He decides to go along with the marriage, provided David will get for him a hundred Philistine foreskins, preferably with the Philistines no longer attached. It’s a ridiculous request, and little bit dangerous, but David meets that challenge too, so the king is obliged to give him the girl.

And from that day on, goes the story, King Saul was David’s enemy (1 Samuel 18:22). The animosity started with jealousy, deepened in fear, and bubbled up in rage. Saul threw his spear at him a second time, hired some assassins to slay him in his daughter’s bed. David escaped, paused long enough to give Saul’s son Jonathan a big hug and a blessing, and then ran full speed into the desert down by the Dead Sea.

That’s where the story for today begins. Off the western shore of the Dead Sea, which you know is one of the lowest elevations on earth – 1412 feet below sea level. Nothing much lives there; that’s why it is called the Dead Sea. Surprisingly there is an oasis there called En-gedi. It has a fresh water spring, a waterfall, some palm trees, and some animals that might be tasty for the exiled traveler and his small band of supporters. Everything you might need in a desert oasis!

That oasis also has some deep caves in the hills surrounding the waterfall. King Saul gets word that David and his supporters are hiding down there, so he sets out with an army of 3000 men. David and his guys take shelter in one of the caves. They keep quiet as the king’s army scours the hillside.

And then, as we heard, something incredible happens. The king himself feels the call of nature. He climbs into one of the caves to relieve himself – and it’s the same exact cave where David and the others are hiding. Saul doesn’t see them, his eyes temporarily blinded by the bright desert sun. David’s men whisper, “Here’s your chance. The Lord has given him into your hand.”

So David creeps up behind the king. He has his dagger in his hand. The king doesn’t know he is there; apparently he was preoccupied. And David takes that dagger, raises it, and cuts off part of the royal robe. Then he creeps back into the shadows and waits for Saul to finish his business and leave.

I try to imagine the whispers in the cave: What did you do that for? What did you get a piece of the robe when you could have had his throat? Why would you let this war continue when you could have finished right here and now?

But David, it seems, had a twinge of conscience. Yes, indeed, the Lord had indeed given Saul into his hand. And it was also the Lord who had selected Saul to be the first king of the nation when the people had prayed for a king. He was, in Bible speak, “the Lord’s anointed.” David, as you know, was already the Lord’s next anointed, but the regime change wasn’t going to happen this way. As Walter Brueggemann comments, David wasn’t going to stick a dagger in the heart of someone “squatting in vulnerability.”[1]

So David waits until Saul departs. He waits a little longer until Saul is across the mountainous valley. Then he crawls out of the cave, yells to the king, and waves the piece of cloth that he has cut from the royal robe. Saul stares in shock, spins around to see a missing chunk cut out of his robe. Then he hears David say, clear as a bell, “I could have, but I did not.”

“I could have, but I did not.” What a rare and remarkable thing to say! We all know a lot of people who wouldn’t have thought twice about such an opportunity. Life has trained them to act now, think later, feel their feelings long after the job is done.

Certainly David himself is capable of such clear and decisive action. That day he confronted Goliath the giant, he didn’t pause on the battle field and declare he had second thoughts. With a nine-foot-tall Philistine bearing down on him with full armor, he didn’t stop and reflect on his feelings. No, he swung the sling around the head and let it fly.

And that moment in the palace, when he was strumming his harp for the king, playing such soulful, healing music for all who could hear it, David saw King Saul stand with his spear and thrust it in his direction. So he ducked. He didn’t plead with the king and ask, “Did I play a wrong note?” No, he got out of the way.  Sometimes you have to act.

What’s remarkable about this moment is that it reminds us sometimes you don’t have to act. And you don’t always have to react. Sometimes it is best to use some restraint.

These days, that word “restraint” sounds like a garbled word in a foreign language. First thought that comes to mind, tweet it for the world to see. That embarrassing picture is immediately put on Facebook. The music that is too time-consuming to pay for is downloaded without permission from those who made it. And if somebody has a gripe, grudge, or an unsubstantiated complaint? Give an anonymous call to Talkback 16 and let your neighbors know.

I was chatting with a group somewhere and one of their cell phones went off. She took the call and started a new conversation while the rest of us were trying to continue our conversation. No hesitation. And the guy next to me had no filter, either. He interrupted by beginning a third conversation about how rude it is for somebody to take a call when something else was going on. No restraint in him, to be sure.

When the air cooled a bit, one of the group said she had instituted a new rule for her household: no cell phones at the dinner table, and that includes going to the restaurant, too. A couple people stared at her and one said, “What if somebody tries to reach you?” She said, “I sit at a table to eat and talk to the people who are with me. Anything else can wait until we’re done.” Now, that’s the practice of restraint.

In an instantaneous society, do we really need everything right now? Do we need to respond and react to everything? Of course not. We know that. But the technology makes it so tempting, doesn’t it? While I was working on this sermon at my computer, I had a second window open in Amazon and added three things to the shopping cart. Then I remembered: this is a sermon about restraint, the spiritual practice of holding back and holding off.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the American historian, tells us something we didn’t know about Abraham Lincoln. When he felt the urge to tell someone off, he would compose what he called a “hot letter.” He would pile all of his anger into a note, and then set it aside until his emotions cooled down. Then he would write at the top of the page, “Never sent, never signed.” That meant General George Meade would never hear from his commander in chief that Lincoln blamed him for letting Robert E. Lee escape after Gettysburg.[2] Imagine that: a president who could practice some restraint. Who knew?

It would have been all too easy for David to give in to his impulse and sink that dagger into the man who wanted him dead. His companions were egging him on – “Do it!” And they added their own spin on the spiritual dimension – “David, God has put King Saul into the palm of your hand. Go ahead and take him out.” But he did not do it. That’s restraint.

Many years later, along comes Jesus, the Son of David. He’s in a garden late at night. Suddenly Judas Iscariot steps out of the shadows and gives him a kiss. A band of thugs grab hold of Jesus, and one of Jesus’ own friends takes out a dagger and starts waving it around. He cuts off a man’s ear. Jesus shouts, “Put that weapon away! Everybody who uses a weapon will perish by a weapon.” That’s the truth, according to Jesus.

And then, listen to what he says: “Don’t you think I could appeal to my Father and he would send twelve armies of angels? But that’s not the way God’s script unfolds (Matthew 26:47-53).” Instead of ramping up the violence, Jesus uses restraint – because that is always the way of God. God does not win over people by blasting them away.

When God comes down from heaven, he is found, not as an armed soldier but as a peasant child in a feeding trough. And when that child grows up, he looks into the eyes of a woman caught in an act of unfaithfulness, then looks into the eyes of the mob that dragged her – and not her partner – before him. He says, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” The scene freezes and everybody walks away. That is how restraint can save somebody’s life, how it can save a number of lives.

The New Testament word for this is “forbearance.” It means to give somebody some breathing room, to hold back and give somebody some space. When Paul writes to his church in Rome, he says it is God’s restraint, God’s forbearance, that saves your life and mine. Paul says, “Do you despise the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience?” (Romans 2:4). This holy kindness is what gives us the freedom to return to God. God has no interest in punishing us, because God wants to welcome us.

This is how we are called to regard one another. That other person over there, the one you can’t stand, that person is unfinished, just like you. Can you grant them room to grow and to grow up? Are they allowed to flourish, just like you?

In a grand and unexpected move, David steps out of the shadows into the bright light. He calls out to King Saul, waves the corner of the royal cloak, and says, “Why do you listen to those who say I want to do you harm? I could have but I did not. I have not sinned against you even though you are hunting me to take my life.”

Do you know what King Saul says, when he finds his voice? I didn’t read the next paragraph, but I will give you the pithy summary. King Saul looks at David and declares, “You are the kind of king that our nation needs.”

And in that moment, the enemy no longer looks like an enemy.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press) 166-169.
[2] Maria Konnikova, “The Art of the Unsent Angry Letter,” New York Times, 23 March 2014.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

More Than a Bromance

Series: Beloved Rascal
1 Samuel 17:55-18:5, 20:1-42
July 8, 2018
William G. Carter

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. 

There you have it, in black and white: the Bible affirms that two men can love one another and make a covenant to each other. Are there any questions?

For some people, this is a startling text. It’s like finding a pebble in the oatmeal. David has just accomplished the ultimate macho deed. With the simplicity of a sling, he has taken down Goliath, the fearsome Philistine giant. His valiant deed has chased away the Philistine army, at least for a while. It’s an impressive moment on the battlefield. King Saul askes his general, “Who is that kid and where did he come from?” Neither one of them know.

When David arrives to introduce himself to the royal court, the head of the Philistine still in his hand, Jonathan, the firstborn son of the king, take an instant liking to him. Actually it’s more than a “liking.” The storyteller says, “The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” When David moves into the palace at the king’s demand, Jonathan made a covenant with David, and the storyteller says a second time, “because he loved him as his own soul.” This is the word of the Lord.

It is no surprise to all of us who remember the family tree of David. He had a great-grandmother named Ruth. Ruth made a covenant with a woman named Naomi. They took a pledge to one another and said, “Where you go, I will go, and your people shall be my people.” Know how I know that? The lady preacher read that passage at my wedding fifteen years ago, as two divorced people pledged their lives to one another. I took her people as my people, and she did the same.

Now the objection may be sounded: if David had a great-grandmother who made a covenant with another woman, there must have been a man in the picture too, if only because David’s grandfather had to be born, in order for David to have a father. That’s true. Ruth married a man named Boaz. She did that after she made a covenant with Naomi.

If all this sounds confusing, I should point out that sometime after David and Jonathan made their covenant together, David married Jonathan’s little sister. Her name was Michal, and she was the first of his many wives. If that sounds weird, you should hear about the dowry her father demanded. All I know is this is biblical morality, and I don’t argue much with the Bible.

Is it possible for two men to love one another? Good question. It’s a question that makes some people twitch. As various societies and cultures have expanded and declined, there have been many ways that households have been formed and people have chosen to live together. In the past few weeks, I’ve come across three different people who were raised by their grandparents; the mother and father were nowhere in the mix. I also think of some unmarried people I know – Beverly in Manhattan, David in New Jersey – who felt God’s calling to adopt orphans as their own daughters. These have been costly commitments on their part, and a lot more courageous than something I would ever do. There are many different ways to construct a family, to build a household, and the Bible certainly reveals that too.

Again, the objection may be sounded: What about Paul and what he said to the anything-goes practices of the Roman Empire? A closer look reveals that most of those texts are addressing abuse and idolatry, hardly the same as covenant making.

Or other objectors harken back to the ancient purity codes of Leviticus, where the temple priests declared what was clean or unclean. Eating lobster, for instance, was considered unclean – a law that God Almighty later undermined in the tenth chapter of Acts. Touching a leper was also unclean, and Jesus himself stepped over that law to heal some lepers that he regarded as fellow human beings.

But let’s stay with David and Jonathan for a bit, because we must never talk about matters of the heart in the abstract, as if there are timeless principles or scientific propositions that govern what is “right” or “wrong” in human relationships. David and Jonathan are not theoretical principles; they are real people in flesh and blood who love one another. They have names. They have lives. And the Bible says they have souls.

Three times in the first verse of chapter 18, the Bible speaks of their souls touching one another. In our parlance, we might say they were soul mates, soul partners, or soul friends. In the old King James Bible, it’s translated, “their souls were knit together.” Now, that’s the essence of love.

Have you ever had somebody you’ve felt that way about? After he was sent to a boarding school as a teenager, the author Frederick Buechner describes his first friend that he made:

Like me, he was either no good at sports and consequently disliked them, or possibly the other way around. Like me – though through divorce rather than death – he had lost a father. Like me, he was a kind of oddball – plump and not very tall then with braces on his teeth and glasses that kept slipping down the short bridge of his nose and a rather sarcastic, sophisticated way of speaking that tended to put people off – and for that reason, as well as for the reason that he was a good deal brighter than most of us, including me, boys tended to make his life miserable. But it was Jimmy who became my first great friend, and it was through coming to know him that perhaps I was not, as I had always suspected, alone in the universe and the only one of my kind. He was another who saw the world enough as I saw it to make me believe that maybe it was the way the world actually was.[1]

It’s a brilliant description of how I’ve come to love many of the people that I’ve loved. There is a commonality, a shared space, a stunning realization that we are not alone, and that we don’t have to be alone. We are partners who share values and make commitments, seatmates on Spaceship Earth. What happens to one of us will alter what happens to the other one of us. In the days after Goliath the giant is defeated, Jonathan and David agree to get through life together.

This is the beginning of an extensive friendship, the longest recorded relationship like this in the whole Bible. It is a life-giving bond, and turns out to be a lifesaving one as well. Within just a few paragraphs of the text, King Saul, Jonathan’s father, becomes intensely jealous of David’s success. More than a few times, he takes a spear, throws it at the shepherd boy, tries to perforate him and pin him to the wall. Jonathan becomes David’s confidant and his advocate, which only drives Saul further toward insanity.

Some might suggest that is the true nature of the relationship. David is in need and Jonathan takes pity on him. Or, as is the case of many human relationships, it begins and develops out of mutual neediness, as two needy souls circle around one another. But the biblical text is repeatedly clear: “Their souls were knit together” (18:1), Or again, “Jonathan loved David as he loved his own life” (20:17). 

And after the terrible day when Jonathan and his father are killed in battle, David sings this lament, “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.” (2 Samuel 1:26). Yes, it’s there in the text; who are we to argue with the Bible?

I reflect on the deep friendships that I have known in my life, and I invite you to reflect on the friendships you have known. There are people that I’ve loved so much that I would walk through fire for them. How about you? And maybe the beginning of the relationship was relatively unimpressive: the teacher assigned you to sit by one another in English class, or you noticed the pretty eyes of someone in the dormitory lounge, or you met in the gym after work.

I think of my great friend Jim, who voted to approve my candidacy as a minister in 1981, has had second thoughts about it, and has been my roommate at countless preacher conferences since. Or my dear friend Virginia, lost to us all through breast cancer; she could complete my sentences and then try to improve them. Or my friend Al, the saxophonist, first a terrifying teacher, then a colleague, now an occasional employee and a true-blue soulmate. Or my wife; mutual friends tried to fix us up when we were recovering from divorces, and quickly discovered we didn’t need their help.

C. S. Lewis wrote a wonderful book on love. He suggests that God’s hidden hand is behind all of these relationships which first appeared to begin so randomly:

We think we have chosen our peers. In reality a few years' difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another...the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting -- any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances. A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you," can truly say to every group of Christian friends, "Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another." The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.[2] 

So David and Jonathan became good friends, soul mates, companions who truly love one another. In a real mystery, God brought them together. What a blessing that neither one of them had to negotiate the next few chapters alone!

Let this be a reminder to us all that love is the gift of God, the giving of God’s very essence to God’s own children. From time to time, we are nudged out of our isolation and our independence, and brought more deeply alive by those who reveal their beauty … and ours. I sincerely hope you have people that you love, without hesitation or restriction, and I deeply hope you know there are people who love you. Love is the greatest gift of God.

We give thanks for this gift, however love finds us, whatever shape it takes. Love is the gift that is so far behind our all-too-common tendency to conflict, division, and short-sighted judgment. So today, let’s simply affirm and celebrate the divine truth, that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:16).

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (New York: HarperOne, 1991) p. 70.
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: HarperOne) p. 114.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Facing the Giant

Series: Beloved Rascal
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-12, 19-23, 32-49 (50-51)
July 1, 2018
William G. Carter

Israel loved King David. The nation never tired of telling stories about him. He was a monumental figure, the second of their kings and by far the greatest. And as my parents told my little brother, also named David, the Hebrew name means “beloved.” Indeed, he was, as my brother is. For the next five weeks, we are going to hear and learn from some of the David stories, including a few that the church has been a bit reluctant to tell.

The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

This story is the one that everybody knows. It inspires action figures and pictures in children’s Bibles. When I was a kid, it even inspired the Lutherans to create a Claymation children’s show with a little boy and a talking dog. There is something here for the kids: the little guy takes on the giant and he wins.

There is something here, too, for the adults. The little nation of Israel, small and disregarded, found a hero in this shepherd boy who triumphs over the enormous Philistine. David is just a kid, sent by his father to deliver some lunch boxes to his brothers, who were serving in the army of Saul, who was king of Israel at the time. The brothers are in the battle lines against the Philistines, and the battle isn’t going so well.

It’s not that there has been a great loss of life. In fact, as the story begins neither side has struck against the other. The battle lines are formed: Team Israel, small and ragged, over here; Team Philistine, strong and mighty, over there. They face one another, shake their swords, and grunt at one another, when suddenly Goliath steps up.

Israel’s never seen anybody like that. That giant is about ten feet tall. He’s covered with armor plating. His spear is enormous, and the iron tip on it must weigh fifteen or twenty pounds. And he’s ugly – the Bible doesn’t say that, but you know he has to be ugly. So, he’s big, and he’s ugly, and he has a big mouth. While David drops off the food, he hears Goliath mouthing off.  

“I can take you all,” he says. “There is no way you Israelites will win this war. Look at how big I am! Look at how impressive I am!” Then he proceeds to insult them, demean them, denounce them, dismiss them, and he makes all this noise before the battle even begins. This went on for forty days. It was a battle of words. Every day, Goliath was step out, strut his stuff, and insult the Israelites. What do you expect? He’s a Philistine.

When John Cleese and the guys of Monty Python wanted to insult somebody back, they said, “This is just the sort of blinkered philistine pig ignorance that I’ve come to expect from you non-creative garbage.” That, and “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.”

Words, words, words. No action, just a lot of words. That is all the Philistine has going for him: an endless heap of insults. That, and he’s nearly ten feet tall.

David hears all this: the forty days of insults, the put-downs and the swaggering. In response, he has only one word in his repertoire: God.  Goliath speaks garbage, David speaks of God. There’s a world of difference between them.  

When the giant sees little David, he makes fun of him: “Am I a dog that you come after me with a stick?” David could have insulted him right back and said, “You’re no dog; you’re worse than a dog.” But he doesn’t say that. He says, “God who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine.”

Goliath of Gath says, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” As Eugene Peterson translates, “Kid, you’re going to be road kill.” Yet David says in response, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”

Do you see the shape of the battle? The oppressor, the giant, inflates himself with a lot of words. The hero of the story – we already know David will be the hero – speaks first and foremost of God. God has protected him against the wild animals before. God will deliver him from this wild-eyed Philistine. For David, it’s all about God.

This is the primary lesson that Israel draws from the story. They are God’s people, claimed in God’s promises to Abram and Sarah, marked in God’s covenant, released from Egyptian slavery by God’s power, and led out of chaos by God’s Torah instruction. God is bound to them, and David knows this in advance. That’s why he doesn’t need to rely on all that armor that King Saul wants to put on him. He has the blessing of God.

So, David preaches a short sermon on judgment and then he lunges toward the giant. He whirls the sling around his head and hits the bullseye, right in the middle of Goliath’s forehead. The giant falls on his face like an eight-hundred-pound statue. David pulls out the giant’s sword. It’s so heavy he can barely lift it over his head, but he gives it a swift swing – whhht -- and then looks up to see the Philistines running away.

Like I said, this is the story that everybody remembers. If they don’t know anything about the Bible, they probably still know about the story. It’s David against Goliath, Bethlehem against Rome, the American colonists against King George, Rosa Parks against the white people of Montgomery and Martin Luther King against Bull Connor and his dogs, it’s the 1962 New York Mets against the 1961 New York Yankees. We know the story: it’s the little guy against the big, well-armored, well-funded enemy, and the little guy wins.

What we might miss is how the little guy wins: he relies on his wits, rather than his words. He is small enough that the giant figures he is insignificant, but his small size works to his advantage. Goliath is loaded down with a hundred pounds of armor. His defensive system makes him slow to move, while David is agile. His spear is so heavy he needs a separate soldier in front of him just to hold his shield.

Not only that: there’s recent medical evidence to suggest that Goliath had trouble with his eyesight. It’s in the story. He says to David, “Have you come against me with sticks?” David is holding only one stick, his sling. And the medical experts tell us that, given the pituitary malfunction that creates enormous growth, there is usually blurred vision.

As Malcolm Gladwell says in his book on David and Goliath, that’s why the giant has a shield bearer – to guide him out onto the field. Which is to say, he may be big, and he’s certainly ugly (Philistines are always ugly), but Goliath has some built-in flaws. With all his swaggering insults, he can’t even see his own flaws – which could be why he spends most of his ink in this story saying nasty things about David and his tribe.

And, of course, Goliath, despite his probably poor eyesight, misreads the situation entirely. He is dressed for armed combat and he’s up against a shepherd boy. The shepherd boy has fought off wild animals with just a sling . . . but don’t think for a minute it’s “just a sling.” He whirls that contraption around his head, lets the stone fly. From a hundred feet away, the stone would have been hurled “at a velocity of thirty-four meters a second – more than enough to penetrate the skull and render him unconscious or dead.”[1] The whole conflict would have been in a few seconds.

I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s book. It is well-written, like all his other books, and he listens to this three-thousand-year-old story deeply enough to draw a lot of lessons from it. We can learn, for instance, about the importance of courage. As he declares, “Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.”[2] Witness, he says, the city of London standing up to the Nazis in World War 2 and still fighting, even after the city was repeatedly bombed.

Or a civil rights leader like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a black Baptist preacher in Birmingham. His house was bombed by the KKK one night, and a police office pulled him out of the wreckage. The cop said, “Reverend, I know these people. They are vicious. If I were you, I’d get out of town.”

Shuttlesworth said, “Well, officer, you’re not me. Go back and tell your Klan brothers that if the Lord saved me from this, I’m here for the duration. The fight is just beginning.” A few months later, he takes his daughter to enroll in an all-white high school. He is met by white men with brass knuckles, clubs, and chains. They screamed at him, called him names, smashed the windows of his car. He went to the hospital, discovered he had minor kidney damage, checked himself out, and stood in his pulpit to tell his church he had only forgiveness for his attackers.

You know, my friends, it’s a brutal world out there. There is a lot of hatred, a lot of angry words, plenty of insults, and even a few giants. But what can they do to us if the God of David is with us? What could ever separate us from the love of God, which is revealed to us in Jesus, the Son of David? And what might we accomplish if we are faithful, persistent, agile, resourceful, and clear-eyed about what God wants this world to become?

So, Israel remembers David, the resourceful shepherd boy who stands up to the ugly giant. This is the best-known story about him, and we will hear more stories in the next four weeks. The Bible moves on quickly from here; Israel does not gloat about David’s victory over the giant; there will be plenty more ups and downs yet to come.

But when Israel does remember the story one more time, in a glued-together psalm, written down hundreds of years after the moment and placed on David’s tongue, there are these final words from that beloved rascal: “I took away disgrace from my people.” (Psalm 151:7, Greek version). Disgrace is taken away, finally and ultimately, and grace steps in.

Grace always steps in. The giant may be on the battle field, but the God of grace is with us. And grace will win. See you next week.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (New York: Little, Brown, 2013) p. 11.
[2] Ibid, p. 149

Saturday, June 16, 2018

When Yelling Does No Good

Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2018
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

For all of his powerful deeds and compassionate works, Jesus was a storyteller. When he spoke about God, and how God rules over the heavens and the earth, he often used a story.

Once upon a time, a traveler fell among thieves, who robbed him and left him for dead. Two religious leaders passed him by, and the one who took care of him was a dreaded enemy. Which one is the true neighbor?

There was a man who had two sons. The younger boy ran off with a share of the family fortune, blew it all on wine, women, and the roulette table, then came back to his Daddy with his tail between his legs. Is it right to throw him a welcome home party?

A king threw a wedding banquet for his son. Invited a lot of people, none of them would come. Invited a lot more people, they all gave excuses. So he sent his servants to round up the kind of people who could never attend one of his parties… because that the kind of kingdom that he wanted to have.

Jesus doesn’t toss around a lot of doctrines. Nor does he offer a lot of “do’s” and “don’t’s.” He tells stories, and he leaves it to people like you and me to figure out what kind of truth may be inside those stories. So today, we have a couple of stories, each one taken from the experience of farming.

The second one isn’t actually a story at all. It doesn’t have a plot. In a good story, as you know, something has to happen. This happens, then this happens, then this… and in this story, hardly anything happens at all. There’s a little bitty seed, the smallest of all seeds. Somehow it grows, nobody quite knows how.

It’s a mustard seed, which grew into something called a “mustard shrub.” It was widely regarded as a weed. The kingdom of God is like a weed. It grows out of control. That’s the second story.

The first one is a bit more intentional. Once upon a time, a farmer scattered a lot of seed. It was something he wanted to grow, a crop that he intended to raise. But here’s the thing: the farmer throws around all that seed and then he goes to sleep. That’s the story. That’s all there is. One day the harvest will come, but for now…nothing happens.

I like that parable. I like it a lot. The farmer casts about some seed and lets it go. He does not hover. He cannot rush. He will not yell, because yelling would not speed up a thing. For the time being, nothing happens.

Do you suppose this is the way God is? That God is not a helicopter parent, buzzing around overhead to make sure we’re doing the right thing? That God does not hover, or wag the finger, or raise the voice? That God doesn’t plant a garden and then stand over it screaming, “Now start growing!” No, the farmer tosses around the seed and lets it go.

What I like about this parable is also what is most maddening about it. Nothing happens, or it doesn't look like anything's happening, or if it's happening, there is an unseen benevolence beyond our control. The lesson seems to be that God is in charge of his own kingdom. Imagine that! No amount of badgering, controlling, shrieking, convincing, cajoling, or conniving will advance the rule of God over all things. 

Maybe there’s a lesson here in parenting or grandparenting, or perhaps there’s a corrective for how our rookie parents once handled us. As I think of my own father, I don't remember him yelling very much. I often knew where he stood, but he also gave me a lot of room to make my own mistakes and to correct them. 

Like that summer night when I was nineteen or so. I was out on a date with a pretty woman. We drove around the car, we parked the car, we started up the car and drove around some more. Then we went to a place called “Pancho’s Pit” to get something to eat. The hour was late, it was time to take her home. So we went out to the car, kissed a little bit, and then I turned the key to start the car and nothing happened. Nothing at all. You know how when something doesn't work, you keep trying it again and again? Yep.

So about one in the morning I was forced to do the thing I dreaded: call home and see if I could score a ride home for me and my young lady friend. I mean, they always told me if you’re ever in trouble, call home, so I did. My father answered.

Whenever he answered the phone in the middle of the night, it always sounded like he had been awake for hours. In a deep voice, he said, “Yes?” I told him my dilemma and where I was. He asked no further questions and said, “See you in twenty minutes.” Twenty minutes later, here came the paneled station wagon. 

As it turned out, it was a busted distributor cap which I would have to fix the next day. Dad arrives, my friend and I get in back seat. He looks at me in the rear view mirrow, doesn’t say a word, but I know the look. So say to my friend, “How about if you ride in the front seat and I'll sit in the back?” Dad smiled. We took her home, dropped her off, I walked her to the door, climbed back into the front seat. We started up, and Dad said four words: “You never mentioned her.” I gulped. He said two more words: “Pretty girl.”

We drove the rest of the way home in silence. It was about two o’clock as we rolled into the garage. It seemed that I was going to get off without a speech. The car came to a stop. He turned off the engine. I reached for the door handle, breathing a sigh of relief, and Dad said, “Wait a minute.” I froze in horror. I braced for the speech. The silence was deafening.

Then he said it… know what he said to me? He said, “Just be glad that your mother didn't answer the phone.: That's all he said. He never had to raise his voice at all. 

Maybe you have noticed this is precisely how God works most of the time, how God parents us all. There’s no yelling, no badgering, no bullying, no exertion of influence. We have freedom to grow, freedom to flourish, freedom to mature, and freedom to both take note of, and respond to, the unseen kindness that grants us life.

It can be a terrible freedom. If God gives us the room, we can do all kinds of things. We can make all kinds of mistakes. Yet we also have the freedom to grow, to flourish, to change, to grow. And it can happen when it really doesn’t seem like anything is going on.

It’s like the wisdom from Malcolm Gladwell. He says, “If you do anything for ten thousand hours, you start to become good at it.” Twenty hours of work a week, for ten years; that’s a long time. Then you realize, “I can knit a sweater, I can write a novel, I can play the clarinet, I can run a marathon. It didn’t happen overnight; good things take a while. Even in the moment when the fog lifts and we get a clear-eyed view, we might just discover there’s some progress we have made… and it might even be in spite of us. The kingdom of God grows because God is at work. Usually just out of sight, but out there, staying busy, sometimes effecting change even in us.

I was talking to a medical professional the other day. I’ve been making regular visits, due to my sedentary, lazy, middle-aged life, and the effects of too much pepperoni pizza. In the middle of our conversation, I blurted out that I have begun walking on a treadmill. She looked at me in astonishment and said, “Are you feeling okay?” We both had a good laugh, and it felt good.

Sometimes good things happen, or healthy things happen, because God awakens us, or nudges us, or simply works behind the scenes. That is one way of saying that we shouldn't take a lot of credit for what's happening to us due to the grace and kindness of an unseen God. The seed is planted, it grows and bears fruit, and it happens even when we are asleep.

So if you are frustrated with your life, or dismayed at the general condition of the world, take heart. For this is God's world. And I think we can give God a good bit of the responsibility for how things are going to turn out. That's faith.

Perhaps you have heard the name of Angelo Roncalli. Ring a bell? Later in life, he took the name of Pope John 23rd. He presided over the Roman church in a time of enormous turmoil. It was John 23rd who oversaw a great many sweeping changes at the time of the Second Vatican Council: a less legalistic approach to faith, a turn away from a legacy of medieval gloom and doom, a change from worshiping only in Latin to the language of the people, an openness to non-Catholic Christians.

These were enormous changes, and they came with a high emotional toll on the Pope. He would stay up late at night, reflecting, fretting what would happen, worrying what he should do. Some nights he would open his heart in late night prayers, as he thought the trials and tribulations of the day. So he would say out loud, “Angelo, who governs the church? You – or the Holy Spirit?” After a pause, he added, “Very well then. Go to sleep, Angelo. Go to sleep.”

As for us, we can welcome the rule of God if we’re patient, if we hang in there and persist over the long haul. There’s a poem that I like, from the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My mom gave me a copy years ago, probably after years of putting up with my dad. The poem keeps popping up, so I think that’s a sign to give it to you. I’m going to read it, sit down for a minute, and then we’ll get on with the rest of the service. Here is the poem:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

 (c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.