Last Sunday I preached on the Transfiguration of Jesus. But the lectionary reading this year couples the story of the mountaintop Transfiguration of Jesus with the healing of a young boy down in the valley. The common interpretive wisdom on this passage (Luke 9:28-42) is that you have to leave the spiritual high of the mountain to go down to the valley where the real work of ministry is done. But, I think these two stories say something different. Could it be that the Light of Transfiguration on the mountaintop changes everything in the valley, too? Here’s the podcast. Let me know what you think.
Here’s the audio of the sermon I preached from Mark 10:35-45 last Sunday. The disciple brothers, James and John, boldly ask Jesus if he will grant them the privilege to sit on his right and left hand when he comes into his glory. Jesus addresses their ambition and desire for power, privilege, and prestige. Our 21st century problem is identical to their 1st century problem. Here’s my take on Jesus’ reply:
My sermon for October 11, 2015, from the Gospel reading. This is a familiar story of a very rich young man who finds out that he has to turn from his life of privilege to following Jesus if he wants to experience the kingdom of God.
Who Can Be Saved?
Mark 10:17-31 NIV
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
An Important Question
We know this story — the story about the “rich, young ruler” — because we have heard it since we were children. It’s the story about a young man who seemed to have it all, and yet this young man also had wisdom beyond his years.
So despite his wealth and social standing, which were without dispute, this young man comes to Jesus and asks a very important question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
That is a very important question. And we have to applaud this rich, young, and powerful man for being concerned with spiritual things, and not just his material wealth and social standing. So far, so good.
But, Jesus treats him rather badly. First, Jesus upbraids the young man for his courteous address. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks. “No one is good except God alone.” So much for courtesy. Can you imagine how this rich and powerful young man must have felt to be corrected like that publicly by this itinerant teacher named Jesus?
But whatever his feelings, Jesus doesn’t give him the chance to start over. Rather, Jesus then begins to answer his question. “You know the commandments,” Jesus replies. And Jesus, just to make sure the young man does know them, begins to name them: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’
Okay, right here we need to stop and really listen to what Jesus has just said. Jesus points the young man to the commandments, but curiously when Jesus begins to name the commandments that are necessary to have eternal life, he starts halfway down the list. Jesus totally skips the commandments that have to do with God: Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t take God’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath.
Instead, Jesus lists the commandments that have to do with our relationship with our fellow human beings: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud (which actually should be don’t covet, but that’s a discussion for another time), and honor you father and mother. So, Jesus covers all 6 of the Ten Commandments related to how we deal with others, but none of them about how we deal with God. Isn’t that curious?
Maybe Jesus knows that this young man is scrupulous, as are all Pharisees if he is one, about attending to his own personal, spiritual life. He prays, he goes to Temple, he offers sacrifices, he dares not utter the four letter, unpronounceable name of God, he certainly doesn’t make or worship idols or attempt to render God’s image in physical terms. His personal, spiritual life may be so in order that it bears no perfecting. I doubt it, but there is a reason Jesus says what he says.
I think Jesus is probing to see what the young man’s self-assessment is going to be? So, he lists the six things that govern how we deal with each other. Of course, Jesus redefines the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard it has been said….but I say unto you.”
Using this formula, Jesus reinterprets the commands about murder, adultery, truth-telling, and love for enemies. Maybe Jesus wants the rich young ruler to do a bit of self-examination on the spot.
Whatever the test is, the rich young man fails. He reveals his own blindness to his spiritual condition by saying, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Wow. Sounds pretty arrogant now, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus. For with his self-justifying statement, the rich young man just told Jesus everything he needed to know. This man is unaware of his faults, his failings, his weaknesses, his shortcomings, and thinks he has already done all he needs to do.
So, maybe the rich young ruler’s question about “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” was really a veiled, passive-aggressive attempt to get Jesus to compliment him. I imagine he had already set the scene in his head: He asks Jesus a question. Jesus replies with what he needs to do. He assures Jesus he’s already done it. Jesus pats him on the back and tells him, Well then, you’re just fine!
Only, that is not what happens because then Jesus drops a bombshell on him. “One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. The come, follow me.”
And with those words, the young man’s world comes crashing down. All his piety, all his ritual, all his social standing, all his own self-perception, all of it was wrong! Jesus kicks the props out from under his pseudo-spirituality.
Of course, this sounds harsh to us, too. But, what Jesus was addressing was the long-standing idea that if you were rich, that in itself was a de facto indication of God’s blessing.
Which is why Jesus’ disciples are astounded that Jesus says that it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. “If the rich can’t get in,” the disciples are thinking,”then, who can be saved?” If there’s no hope for the rich — the people God is obviously blessing — then there’s no hope for anybody!
Another Wrong Answer
Jesus replies to the disciples’ concern about who can be saved (if a rich man can’t), with a strange answer — “With man this is impossible, but now with God; all things are possible with God.”
Peter, ever the one to pretend he gets it first, thinks he gets it. And, characteristically he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!”
Of course, Peter skips over the part about selling everything they had and giving it to the poor, but he wants to get Jesus’ approval, so he gives his version. And, he and Andrew, and James and John, and all the Twelve had left their families (although they still saw them frequently), had left their business of fishing (although they would return to it from time to time), and had left their homes (although they still own them). But, of course, Peter hopes Jesus overlooks the technical details and praises him for his sacrifice.
But, Peter doesn’t get the reply he wants, any more than the rich young ruler got the reply he sought. Jesus says,
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”
So, the disciples who have given up some things, will receive those things back 100-times in this present age — brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and fields!
Wow. So, even if you give up something, you get much more in return. In this life. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye, this is real stuff here and now.
Oh, with one addition — persecutions! Ouch and wow. Couldn’t Jesus have left that out?
Oh, and in the age to come, eternal life. Finally, we get to the answer to the question the rich young ruler asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
So, Peter’s attempt to justify himself backfires.
Who Can Be Saved?
All of this brings us back to the rich young ruler’s question and the question of the disciples — Who can be saved?
Here’s the answer: many who are first (here and now, in religious practice, in social standing, in Forbes’ list of billionaires), will be last; and, many who are last (in wealth, in social standing, in outward religious practice) will be first.
This first-will-be-last, last-will-be-first stuff has been called “the upside-down kingdom.”
So, let’s answer the question, Who can be saved?
When I was a kid, my mother read to me the story of the Little Red Hen. The Little Red Hen. Remember that story? It goes like this: The little red hen planted some grains of wheat. When the wheat germinated and grew, it came time for harvest.
“Who will help me harvest the wheat?” said the Little Red Hen. “I won’t” said the dog. “I won’t” said the pig. “I won’t” said the cow.
“Very well,” said the Little Red Hen, “I’ll do it myself.”
And, the story goes on like that for the grinding, and then the baking. Nobody wanted to help the Little Red Hen.
But when the bread was baked, the Little Red Hen asked, “Who will help me eat this loaf of bread?” Suddenly, the dog, the pig, and the cow had different answers. “I will,” said the dog. “I will,” said the pig. “I will,” said the cow.
But the Little Red Hen had a surprise. “No one wanted to help me plant the seed, or harvest the grain, or grind the flour, or bake the bread. So, now you don’t get to help me eat the bread.” And the Little Red Hen ate the whole loaf all by herself.
Now, this is a Russian folktale, which might explain the harshness of the Little Red Hen, but here’s the point:
Jesus wanted the rich young ruler and his disciples to know that 1) whatever you give up to get to God is nothing compared to God; and, 2) whatever stands in your way of wanting to get to God will keep you from God.
Or think of it like this: If eternal life is existence in the presence of God, maybe we ought to get ready for it now. So, if we value (and cling to) anything other than the presence of God, then we’ll miss it.
No matter how much we do other stuff, no matter how much we think of ourselves, no matter what our standing in life, no matter what others think of us — none of that matters.
What matters is how much we want to know God. And our willingness to give up everything that keeps us from God.
What are those things? Well, for the rich young ruler, it was money, status, power, and prestige. We still struggle with those things today.
For the disciples, it was their own self-righteous because they thought, “We’re not like the rich young ruler because we gave up everything to follow Jesus” — except their egos, and their pride, and their arrogance.
Conversion Means Turning From One Thing and Turning To Something Else
So, again, who can be saved?
Well, the answer lies in the idea of conversion, which is at the heart of our Christian faith.
Jesus’ call to any who would be disciples was always a call to leave one way of life and turn to another way, the kingdom way. The Greek word is “metanoia” which means to “change one’s mind.” For those interested in knowing God, we have to change our mind about ourselves, our lives, the lifestyle we are participating in — we have to decide to leave all of that and turn to Jesus.
The rich young ruler’s problem was that he just wanted to add something to what he was already doing. His opinion of himself and of his own life indicated that he thought he was self-sufficient spiritually. It wasn’t about the money. It was about his unwillingness to give up one thing for something even better.
But, that’s too hard, you might object. It is hard, and that’s the point. What God calls us to is not the easy way of no sacrifice.
God called Abraham to turn from his homeland and the possibility of family, but God promised him so many descendants he wouldn’t be able to count them.
God called Moses to give up a life of obscurity in the back country to lead his people out of bondage into freedom, and promised to be with him.
God called David to be king over Israel, leaving the pastoral life of the shepherd which he obviously cherished.
Whatever we leave, give up, abandon, turn our backs on, in order to follow Jesus is nothing in return for what we gain — with persecution!
Don’t we wish that Jesus had just said, “You’ll get 100-times more in this life and in the life to come.” And that he had stopped there, without throwing the idea of persecution into the mix?
Why does persecution go with this life of turning from our old life and turning to Jesus? Because then we’re not like other people. We live a different life for different reasons devoted to a different purpose than the world around us.
It’s the spiritual equivalent of the sick chicken that gets pecked to death by the flock because it’s different.
Who Can Be Saved?
Back to our original question: Who can be saved? Let me tell you first who can’t be saved.
Those who depend on themselves without recognizing their own shortcomings can’t be saved.
Those who do not want to be transformed, can’t be saved.
Those who believe their life is god enough for them, can’t be saved.
Who can be saved?
Those who turn from self-sufficiency to God.
Those who recognize that God is God, and we are not.
Those who understand that the Creator of the universe has a better plan than ours.
Those who know that they need to change, to be changed, in order to know God.
The Bible tells us that Jesus loved the rich young ruler. He loved him for his piety, his interest in the kingdom of God, his desire to live a righteous life. But the rich young ruler himself went away sad because he knew, too, that simply adding something to his life was not the way to enter the kingdom of God.
Who can be saved? All who turn from life without God, to life in the kingdom of God.
Last Sunday I preached from Hebrews 1:1-4 using the theme, God Still Speaks. Hebrews reminds us that just as God spoke in the past through the prophets, God now speaks through Jesus in many times and ways. I hope this will be an encouragement to you to continue to listen for the voice of God in your life today.
The Old Testament reading for Sunday, August 9, 2015, is about the tragic relationship between David and his son, Absalom. I’ve titled it, “When Your Chickens Come Home To Roost.” I hope you have a great Sunday!
When Your Chickens Come Home To Roost
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33 NIV
5 The king [David] commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders.
6 David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. 7 There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.
9 Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.
15 And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.
31 Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”
32 The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The Back Story
Wow. Today’s story needs a lot of context, so let’s get started.
First, let me identify the players: The king is David; his son is Absalom; and, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai are commanders in David’s army.
Throughout the entire summer series of sermons, we have been looking at the stories of Samuel, Saul, David, and soon David’s son, Solomon. But today we come to a pivotal moment in the David story.
You remember the plot that brought us to this part of the story, don’t you? Here it is:
- The people of Israel and Judah demand that Samuel find them a king.
- Samuel warns them that they don’t really want a king because a king will take their lands, their herds, their sons, and their daughters.
- But after the people insist that they do want a king, because they want to be like other nations, Samuel anoints Saul as God’s chosen.
- Saul pretty quickly fails in his obedience to God, and God withdraws God’s Spirit from him.
- Samuel then anoints David, although Saul is still king. Awkward, to say the least.
- Finally, Saul is killed in battle and David ascends to the throne of both Judah, and then Israel, uniting the northern kingdom of Israel with the southern kingdom of Judah.
- Everything is running along just fine, until one day David sees Bathsheba. Unfortunately, Bathsheba is another man’s wife. So, David takes Bathsheba, sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant. This is bad, even for a king so David has her husband Uriah killed to cover up his adultery.
- Nathan the prophet confronts David, and pronounces judgment on David and his household for his wanton and willful sin against God, Bathsheba and Uriah, and the nation.
And, that’s where we pick up our story today. Oh, one item I forgot to mention. Nathan’s confrontation of David includes this prophetic pronouncement of the consequences of David’s sin:
11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” — 2 Samuel 12:11-12 NIV
Which brings us to Absalom. Absalom is David’s son by his wife, Maakah, daughter of the king of Geshur, and he was born in Hebron. When Absalom grows up, he defends the honor of his sister, Tamar. Tamar was violated by her half-brother, Amnon, who is also half-brother to Absalom. Eventually, Absalom kills Amnon, which alienates him from David.
David, however, appears to have a soft-spot in his heart for Absalom. After three years in exile in Geshur, David allows Absalom to return to Jerusalem. However, Absalom repays his father’s kindness — and weakness for him — by betraying his father, David.
Absalom and his entourage set up camp near David’s palace. When people from Israel come to David for justice, Absalom intercepts them, welcomes them, and hears their cause. He tells everyone that because his father David favors Judah, there is no one in Israel to hear their concerns and do justice for them.
Of course, this endears Absalom — who is a handsome guy — to the Israelites from the north. Eventually, Absalom gathers an army, proclaims himself king of Israel in his birthplace of Hebron. Absalom then marches toward Jerusalem.
David, hearing that Absalom is headed toward Jerusalem with a huge army, flees his palace, leaving ten of his concubines in charge of the palace. Concubines were sort of like second-string wives in David’s day.
Absalom is advised to ravish his father’s concubines, and thereby humiliate David before the people of Jerusalem and Judah. Absalom sets up a tent on a balcony of David’s palace, so all Jerusalem can see that he is taking his father’s harem for himself.
And so the words of Nathan the prophet are fulfilled —
11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”
David’s chickens had come home to roost. I am told that that phrase was a shortened version of a longer saying that went something like this — “Curses are like chickens. They soon come home to roost.”
And so it was with David. Not only had David’s sin against God with Bathsheba cost the life of their baby, it had also cost him humiliation by his own son, who was seeking to kill him.
Sadly, the story reveals even more tragedy. David’s forces win a decisive victory over Absalom’s army. As he flees, Absalom’s long, thick hair — for which he is notoriously famous — gets caught in the low-hanging limbs of a tree as he rides under it.
Hanging there helpless, David’s men see Absalom and take their chance to kill him, despite David’s plea to his commanders to “Be gentle with the young man Absalom, for my sake.”
When word reaches the king that his beloved Absalom is dead, David is inconsolable. So grief-stricken is he, that David’s soldiers slink back into Jerusalem under the cover of darkness because they are afraid of what the king might do to them.
Joab, ever the tough general, berates David for his grief for Absalom, while ignoring the valor of his own men who have saved his life. Joab tells David to get out there and greet his troops and give them his royal approval for having saved his life. David then appears to his troops and the Absalom chapter in the story of David comes to a close.
A Lot of Chickens Have Come Home To Roost
And so what is the point of this story? Well, I think one point is that King David, who was so successful in battle and so revered by his people, was perhaps not a very good father. He loved Absalom, but somewhere along the way, Absalom came to despise David, his own father. Perhaps it was because Absalom was one of six sons David had while in Hebron, all from different wives.
David may be a larger-than-life figure, but in some ways he was a colossal failure. Relationships with women or his children didn’t seem to go to well for him.
But I’m thinking today of another point to this story. A point that we might miss if we just focus on David as an individual.
David’s sin affected not only his life, Bathsheba’s life, but it affected the life of the united kingdom that David ruled. When Amnon, Absalom’s half-brother and David’s son, violated Tamar, David knew about it and did nothing. Maybe David thought that it would appear hypocritical of him to discipline his own son for the same sin he had committed.
Whatever the reason, David’s failure to obtain justice for Tamar infuriated Absalom. So Absalom waited, plotted, and finally took his revenge on Amnon two years later.
Disobedience to God not only affects the present, but it also affects the future. And sooner or later, our chickens come home to roost.
We live in a society whose problems are enormous. Many of those problems had their genesis in the past. But, while we are not to blame for the original problem, we are responsible for repairing the sins of the past in the present.
They’re Our Chickens Now
In other words, when those chickens come home to roost, somebody has to deal with them. And that’s not always easy. David had to deal with his own chickens — his sin with Bathsheba had far-ranging consequences that affected him, Bathsheba, his kingdom, and his relationship with God.
But sometimes, we have to deal with someone else’s chickens who have come home to roost.
When our grandson Ezra was born a little over 3 years ago, Debbie and I stayed at the farm and kept his brother, Ollie, while Amy was in the hospital. Part of life on the farm was getting all the chickens in the chicken coop for the night. At that time, Amy had about 30 chickens. That’s a lot of chickens, especially when they’re all free range and roaming about the place.
So as dusk came on that first night when we were alone at the farm, I grabbed the bucket of chicken feed from the feed room. I filled it full and rattled it vigorously and loudly. The chickens recognized the bucket as the one that contained their food, and came running toward me. Which was scary in itself.
By that time I had made it to the chicken coop. In one smooth motion, I opened the door to the chicken coop and threw a handful of chicken feed on the ground inside the coop. True to form, the chickens went into the coop, pecking at the feed on the ground. Quickly, I shut the door.
I felt pretty proud of myself, until I turned around and saw one chicken standing there all by herself. I dropped a few morsels of chicken food in front of her, to lure her closer to the door. Then, in one final, fluid move, I opened the door, threw chicken feed over the heads of those in the coop so they would run to the back, and then threw some in front of Chicken Little, but inside the coop. I fully expected her to step right in. But she didn’t. She just stood there.
By this time, the chickens in the coop had turned back and were coming toward the bucket and me, again, so I quickly shut the chicken wire door.
And there we were. Chicken Little and me. I suppose I could have picked her up, but I really didn’t want to do that. I’ve never picked up a chicken, and that was not the evening for a first experience.
So, I left her there. I was sure a coyote or raccoon would eat her. But such is life on the farm, I decided. However, the next morning when I walked to the coop to open the door for the day, there she was, standing right where I had left her. Defiant until the end.
My experience with chickens is not a perfect illustration, but here’s the idea: Those chickens that have come home to roost may not be your chickens, but you and I have to deal with them.
We may not be responsible for the problems of our family, our friends, or out society, but those are now our chickens. They’ve come home to roost, and all we can do is deal with them in the most helpful ways we know now.
The consequences of David’s sin and Absalom’s revolt was not Joab’s problem. They were David’s chickens that had come home to roost. But, because David was not treating the soldiers who had saved his life with gratitude and reward, Joab realized those were now his chickens to deal with. Joab confronted David, David came to his senses, and made the situation right.
Just remember — We may not be to blame for the chickens coming home to roost, but we are responsible for dealing with them when they do.
Last Sunday, I preached from 2 Samuel 11:1-15, which is the story of David’s abuse of power when he saw, sent for, and violated Bathsheba. To further compound his sin, David sought to cover it up, and eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed.
It is a shameful story, but it is also a story that is a current as today’s headlines. In the sermon, I moved from the story of David’s abuse of power to the history of the abuse of power in American life during the era of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and today. I offered this sermon treatment because that Sunday afternoon, white and black congregations were scheduled to gather for a meal and conversation together about race relations in our own community. This sermon prompted our congregation to examine our historical past, so that we could move forward to a more hopeful and inclusive future. Here’s the podcast:
What a week this has been for our nation! I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow in light of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the debates over the Confederate flag, and The Supreme Court ruling that marriage is a right open to all couples, including those of the same sex. If there ever has been a time in the life of our nation and community to address these concerns, this week has provided that opportunity.
How The Mighty Have Fallen
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 NIV
After the death of Saul, David returned from striking down the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days.
17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):
19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
How the mighty have fallen!
20 “Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 “Mountains of Gilboa,
may you have neither dew nor rain,
may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.
22 “From the blood of the slain,
from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 Saul and Jonathan—
in life they were loved and admired,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24 “Daughters of Israel,
weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished.”
A Week of Extraordinary Change
To say this has been an extraordinary week is an understatement. And, I hope you will bear with me as I read this manuscript today because I want to be very precise in choosing what I say and how I say it.
When we gathered this time last week our hearts were broken for our brothers and sisters in the Emanuel AME Church congregation. Nine of their members, including their pastor, had been gunned down during a Bible study in their church on the Wednesday night before last Sunday.
In the midst of that tragedy, we were astonished at the grace and forgiveness offered to the hate-filled assassin by those who had lost loved ones. We marvelled at the courage, dignity, and resilience with which Charleston and the Mother Emanuel community faced this tragedy.
In keeping with their response, many of us gathered in front of the Pittsylvania County courthouse this past Monday. Black and white together we prayed for those who had been killed, the martyrs of Mother Emanuel. We prayed for our own community, asking God to spare us a similar tragedy. Most importantly, we held hands — black and white — to say to this community, “We are one!”
I am very proud of you because many of you came out last Monday and stood and prayed with us. Others called to say that previous commitments kept them from coming, but they were with us in spirit.
I sense we passed a milestone in our community last Monday. My prayer is that we will make the most of this opportunity to continue to get to know each other, to talk about our community, and to work together to make it truly united.
Along with the tragedy, came an opportunity for those of us in the South to rethink an historic social symbol, the Confederate flag. While 150 years of post-Civil War argument failed to achieve consensus on the appropriate display of the Confederate flag, one photograph of a hateful young white man brandishing a pistol in one hand and the Confederate flag in the other accomplished. That one photograph moved political and business leaders to action.
Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina took the extraordinary position that the Confederate flag that flew on the grounds of the state capitol should be removed. She was joined in that position by United States Senator Lindsey Graham, and by the grandson of the late Senator Strom Thurmond. No matter what decision the South Carolina legislature makes, the public stand of these political leaders was extraordinary. Not long after that, Alabama removed the Confederate flag from its capitol grounds.
Here in Virginia, Governor McAuliffe ordered that the emblem of the Confederate flag on the Sons of Confederacy license plates be deleted. Governor McAuliffe was aided in that decision by a recent Supreme Court ruling. The Court held that the state of Texas could prohibit the use of the Confederate flag on license plates because license plates are a type of “state speech,” and the state could not be compelled to “speak” for special interests.
But, the big ruling came on Friday. The Supreme Court, divided 5-4 as it often is, ruled that the right to marry is a constitutionally-protected right which extends to all couples including those of the same sex.
I can’t recall a more extraordinary week in the course of our nation in my lifetime, with the exception of the Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954 which ended school segregation.
I will return to how we address all of these topics in just a moment, but first let’s look at the Scripture reading for today.
The Deaths of Saul and Jonathan
In the passage we read this morning, Saul and his son, Jonathan have been killed in battle against the Philistines. Saul has ruled Israel for 42 years (1 Samuel 13:1). But, his kingship has been under a cloud since Saul disobeyed God early in his reign. Saul did two things that God did not like. First, he offered a sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel, the prophet-priest, to offer it. Secondly, Saul did not carry out God’s command to do battle with the Amalekites, and to completely annihilate them.
Whatever we think today of the instruction to Saul to kill all the Amalekites, including men, women, children, and all their flocks and herds, the point for us today is that Saul disobeyed God. That disobedience caused Samuel again to rebuke Saul and to prophesy that God has torn the kingdom from Saul, just as Saul had torn Samuel’s cloak when Saul grabbed him.
In his final battle with the Philistines, Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, are killed. Jonathan and David have become close friends over the decades of Saul’s rule. They are such good friends that Jonathan warns David that his father, Saul, is trying to kill David.
Ironically, the nation of Israel wanted a king to lead them to victory of the Philistines, but at the end of Saul’s reign the Philistines controlled more territory than they controlled at the beginning.
Nevertheless, when news of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths reaches David, he is grief-stricken. David had passed on several chances to kill Saul because each time he had decided that he could not kill the Lord’s anointed.
So, Saul and Jonathan’s deaths become an occasion for mourning for David and the nation. David instructs that the men of Judah to learn the Song of the Bow contained in the Book of Jashar.
We no longer have the Book of Jashar, but the writer of Samuel includes the Song of the Bow in this passage. The song is a lament for a fallen leader, much as David is lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.
The Song of the Bow recalls the heroics and nobility of the fallen leader. It recounts his valor in battle, and inserts the names of Saul and Jonathan as heroes of the nation’s wars.
But three times, the Song of the Bow laments “How the mighty have fallen.” (2 Samuel 1:19, 25, and 27). And, that is my point today. Just as the mighty Saul and Jonathan could be brought down in battle, the mighty are always susceptible to defeat and loss.
Saul’s failing, among others, was his own arrogance and pride. He assumed positions he was not entitled to assume, and he replaced God’s command with his own judgment.
The Bible states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 NIV.
That brings us back to the events of this past week. How can we learn from Saul’s failures, so that it is not said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”
How Do We Respond?
What is our response as a community of faith to the events of this past week? To the shootings in a Charleston church? To the debate about the Confederate flag? To the ruling of the Supreme Court on same sex marriage?
First, let me set the stage for my answers to each of those questions. I am a pastor. I am your pastor. The word pastor means one who is a shepherd, one who cares for the flock. I perform my pastoral duties faithfully by caring for you. At times that means comforting you when you have mourned. Or rejoicing with you when you have good news to share. Or challenging you when we need to make a decision for the good of the congregation.
But always, foremost in my mind is my responsibility as your pastor. You are my flock. I pray for you. I check on you when you’re sick. I visit you when you need pastoral care or guidance. I counsel you when you have questions or concerns. My first priority is your spiritual health and wholeness.
That means that while I may have opinions about all of these issues, just like you do, my opinions are less important than my relationship with you. I am your pastor. That means I do not have the luxury of saying anything I want to on social media like Facebook or Twitter because what I say reflects on this congregation. I am aware of that responsibility.
Whenever we face decisions or challenges, I have a responsibility to pastor this church consistent with the views and values of this congregation. On those rare occasions when I have had a question about a pastoral function, I have sought counsel from the Deacons and they have guided me wisely.
I am not an itinerant prophet who stands apart from you with harsh words and then moves on to the next audience. I am not a bishop who oversees you and commands your ecclesiastical loyalty. I am your pastor, and I want you to know today that I take my role and responsibility as your pastor very seriously.
On these issues, and others we will face, I believe that we as a church must have a conversation and reach consensus on what we believe, whether we make that position known publicly or not.
Having said that, let’s return to the manner in which I believe we should respond to these issues.
First, we should respond in love. Whether we are discussing racial reconciliation or same-sex marriage, we have to be loving. Christians often damage their witness with hasty, ill-conceived responses to the latest blog post or newspaper headline. The church is to be the light of the world, not just an additional source of heat.
Whether we agree with others or not, our responses must be loving because that is what Jesus would do. It was only in response to the self-assured, arrogant religious leaders that Jesus was himself sharp and prophetic. With others like the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the dishonest tax collector, the outcast Mary Magdalene, and other seekers Jesus was redemptive and loving.
We also must be loving because there are people we know personally who are affected by these issues. Most people today know someone who is gay. We respect these people because they are our neighbors or coworkers, or because we’re related to them. Whatever our relationship with them, we want the best for them, just as we do for ourselves.
Secondly, we should respond humbly. If Saul’s sin was arrogance and pride, we face the danger of falling into the same pit. These issues are neither simple, nor do they have simple solutions. I have studied the issues of race, racism, and reconciliation extensively. The more I read and study, the more I realize how complex all of these social issues are. So, we approach all of these issues with humility. We neither know all the answers, nor do we understand the full scope of the problems.
In my book, The Reconciling Community, I suggested that there are five criteria for a church ministry of reconciliation:
- Remember our past and build on what is best about our history and heritage.
- Acknowledge that our past also contained prejudice and discrimination.
- Engage in mutual conversation and confession with those with whom our church is seeking reconciliation.
- Act with humility, in our words, our attitudes, and our actions particularly in how we as the majority race relate to minorities.
- Demonstrate a shared commitment to work together with others to transform community institutions including churches, schools, civic clubs, criminal justice agencies, local businesses, and other institutions where needed. (The Reconciling Community, pg. 98-100)
In other words, in the area of racial reconciliation for example, we have to get on the same side as our black brothers and sisters. Their goals of equality and opportunity have to become important to us, too. We approach that work humbly because no white person has any idea of what it is like to be black.
That is exactly what happened here in Chatham on Monday. Black and white citizens gathered at the courthouse because our black brothers and sisters were grieving. We prayed with them, we grieved together the loss of nine lives, we stood together to say that in this community when one of us is assaulted, we are all injured.
As our community reconciliation group continues to dialogue, we as members of this church have to conduct ourselves with humility. And humility means we don’t have all the answers. Jesus reminded us that we don’t point out the mote in someone else’s eye until we have acknowledged the beam in our own. (Matthew 7:1-6)
Thirdly, we should respond honestly. There is nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t understand this issue.” Or, “knowing what I know now, I don’t agree with you on this issue.” Frankly, there are aspects of the issues involving human sexuality I do not know nearly enough about. I look forward to learning and to understanding these issues more fully.
However, our honesty is not an excuse for insensitivity or rudeness. Nor is honesty an excuse for refusing to hear those who hold other positions. Until we can honestly acknowledge our own limitations, we cannot begin to understand others.
Fourth, we should stay engaged in the conversation. The world has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, and much dramatic change has come in the last 10 years. Some of that change we have embraced, some of it puzzles us, and some of it offends us. But the only way forward is to continue to talk, continue to try to understand, continue to look at how our own theology shapes our thoughts and actions.
Our church is facing its own challenges, challenges that did not exist in previous years. At the height of our influence, probably in the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century, this congregation did some extraordinary things. We helped found Hargrave Military Academy. We planted Samuel Harris Memorial Baptist Church, and we wielded influence in community and denominational life.
Thankfully our contributions did not end there. In the past 11 years, we have reached back to our past, building on the best of our heritage. We helped start the Boys and Girls Club, we helped build a community center, and we host a community music school. In addition, our ministry to seniors through our Adult Fellowship and bus trips has enriched the lives of many in this community.
Finally, we will continue to follow Jesus Christ as Lord of all. While that sounds like a simple and obvious idea, following Christ historically has meant service and sacrifice. When Christ called his first disciples, he called them from the certainty of the fishing life to the uncertainty of life in the Kingdom of God. We are reminded that God’s Kingdom begins here on this earth because Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Our responsibility is to do God’s will here, even as it is being done in heaven.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll have the opportunity to talk together about some of these issues. We need to work out our own theology in each of these areas. And, our community needs our leadership and our engagement.
If we learn to avoid the arrogant mistakes of people like King Saul, it will not be said of us, “How the mighty have fallen.”
Rather, our prayer is that others will say, “Chatham Baptist Church has been a humble and loving beacon of hope in this community for generations.” May it ever be so. Amen.