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.