An acceptable time

A sermon for Proper 7; 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49, Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

These last three weeks have been ones of remembrances. This morning’s gospel story is Jesus and the disciples sailing across the sea to Galilee. It always reminds me of an early adventure with Angie. We went to a nearby lake with some friends. Someone brought a small 12-foot Sunfish sailboat. It was a good day to sail, with a good steady breeze, so, I asked her if she’d like to go sailing, and she said yes. We got on the Sunfish, Angie sitting amidship and me at the rudder. We enjoy a brisk ride across the mouth of the cove. Then it came time to turn around. I carefully told Angie to watch out for the boom as it would swing around pretty quickly. I pushed the rudder to the right, the Sunfish turned as expected, Angie gracefully duck as the boom swung when the wind changed directions. It was perfect, ~ until the boom clipped me on the shoulder and knocked me off the stern. After my lifejacket popped me back to the surface, and she could see I was safe, Angie broke out in righteous laughter. It really was funny.

Another remembrance of the last weeks, was our trip to the beach, with most of my entire extended family, let’s see 36 of the 44 of us were there. We have been going to the beach ever since I can remember. Until my siblings and I were in college we went every year. Now as our families include other families we go every even-numbered year. In 2010 we were ready to leave the Alabama Gulf coast when we learned Angie’s sister in law died, so we went to Williamsburg to her funeral, then to Litchfield Beach. On Thursday we learned her uncle had died, so we drove to Roanoke to his funeral, then back home. This year Angie’s aunt died. Only we had driven down with our daughter and her family, and we didn’t have proper clothes, so we drove home a day early, repacked and drove to Roanoke for her funeral. I am quite sure we will continue to go to the beach; however, I suspect we may feel leeriness in 2026.

The third remembrance is Jeff Session quoting Romans 13:1

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God (NSRV)

as a justification for the zero-tolerance enforcement of immigration law, resulting in the separation of children from their parents. There have been all sorts of articles, columns, Facebook postings, with all manner of opinion. One that caught my eye was Melissa Florer-Bixler’s reflection on her Sunday School class discussion.

[They are] Anabaptists, Mennonites who are descendants of an illegal breakaway from the Catholic Church. Early Anabaptists were hunted down, drowned, tortured, and burned for the anti-government action of baptizing one another upon confession of faith in Jesus Christ. This was a political act, one that defied the authorities of the day (Florer-Bixler).

They ponder how to respond to Session’s use of scripture. They note how Paul has experienced all sorts of hostility from government and religious officials. They explore how he may be saying God is control of everything, and all human institutions, including Caesars, King, and governments are divine puppets on a string. They consider how the verse may be a warning against religious zealotry, leading people to refuse to pay their taxes. They even venture into the idea that chapter 13 is a smuggling operation, saying … the correct words that would allow his letter to successfully make its way through the empire’s checkpoints (Florer-Bixler). Most powerful is her noting that in their circle are:

  • A woman who escaped religious persecution in Russia as an infant
  • A man who watched his daughter struggle through mental illness and addiction
  • A widow who nursed her husband through a slow death from cancer, and
  • Two doctors who have spent their careers working at clinics for indigent patients.

She writes it is from these lives where biblical interpretation is to take place, how the words of the bible are meaningful in the questions and challenges of the day (Florer-Bixler).

When I heard Mr. Session’s comment I was first drawn to Leviticus 19, which is a reading from a recent Morning Prayer. It is part of the Holiness Code, a guide for life for Israel. A sort of extended Ten Commandments. Its instructions include

 9 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: (Leviticus 19:9-10).

which we rarely hear. My favorite ignored verse is:

you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. (Leviticus 19:19).

 it goes against modern farming practices and makes it difficult to get dressed; most everything we wear is some sort of blended fabric. However, the relevant verse is

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34).

 

And here, we come back to my falling off the boat, and Jesus sailing with his disciples across to “the other side.” This is the first jolt to the disciples.

It is Jesus first venture into Galilee, a land of the gentiles, a hostile land of an undeserving people with no rights to the Messianic promises (Francois III).

We are comfortable thinking about divine justice. We’d just as soon avoid Jesus’ intrusive call to the other side, where stigmatized, marginalized, and demonized people live. [To] shores … populated by others (Francois III). The truth is that we learn to see and know God/Jesus/Spirit in the presence of the other, the people not like us, the alien.

The challenge in today’s reading is our response to the Trump Administration, whether we support its policies and actions, or detest them. All of us are called to sail to the other side with open hearts (2 Cor 6:13). Psalm 9 verse 16 reads The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the question is, are we?

The last remembrance for today is Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is only 25 verses. In it Paul tells Philemon he is returning his runaway slave Onesimus. Paul describes his relationship with Philemon; how he considered commanding Philemon to let Onesimus stay, but instead bases his appeal on Paul’s and Philemon’s mutual love. Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back,

no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 1:16).

Paul’s argument goes to the farthest shore. In this morning’s reading from 2 Corinthians, he argues that the true basis for all our relationships includes everyone’s relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit in whose image all of us, Christian or Gentile, resident or alien are made. Drawing on Psalm 69 (vs 13) Paul quotes God

At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation, I have helped you (2 Corinthians 6:2).

 and goes on to say now is acceptable time, now is a time of salvation.

Now is an acceptable time to be the servants of God we are called to be. It is not simply about not tearing families apart; it is about how everyone treats everyone else. It is about who we elect as our representatives in God’s designated governance, which is to promote the presence of the kingdom not US values or America first, but divine values, and God’s is always first.

The vessels of our lives seem to be in a great storm and all sorts of waves are beating into that in which we place our lives. It is easy to perceive that Jesus is asleep, that God/Jesus/Spirit is indifferent to the threat that we are perishing. The calling ~ is to have faith to trust. The same Jesus who rebukes the wind and calms the sea, will still the storms of your lives and bring peace. The calling is to extend that divine calm and peace to those who live on or journeyed from other shores, in our prayers, in our words, in our actions, and in our governance.


References

Florer-Bixler, Melissa. “How Jeff Sessions reads Romans 13 and how my.” 15 6 2018. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/how-jeff-sessions-reads-romans-13-and-how-my-mennonite-sunday-school-classdoes>.

Francois III, Willie Dwayne. “June 24, Ordinary 12B (Mark 4:35-41).” 6 6 2018. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org/article/living-word/june-24-ordinary-12b-mark-435-41>.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

 

 

 

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Plentiful Words, Rare Truth

A Sermon for Proper 4; 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20), Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

Just a week or so ago the NFL owners meeting ended. They adopted several rule changes. One involves kickoffs, during which 40% of concussions occur. Another is that it is now a penalty for a player to lead with their helmet when tackling. These are designed to improve the safety for players. Another change involves rule about players not standing during National Anthem. You may remember the controversy this has caused the last year or so. It is interesting how the actions of a few define all the players. We rarely hear about other kinds of actions by NFL players in regular news. On Facebook, I recently read of two. In one a player helped a lady who was having difficulty paying the $50 fee for her oversized bag. He stepped forward and paid it for her. She offered to repay him with the cash she had, he simply replied, “Use it to pay it forward for someone else.” Another player noticed an elderly woman having trouble getting her bag from the overhead compartment. He got it down for her and carried to the front of the plane. The flight attendant told her the wheelchair and escort would be waiting for her, to take her to lobby. They got to the terminal, there was the wheelchair, but no attendant. So, he pushed her in the wheelchair, to the lobby where her daughter met her. Both these stories were posted by others who saw the behavior. It is a combination of stories, some controversial, some in service to others, and other things as well, that paints the truer image of NFL players.

This morning’s reading from 1 Samuel is the same. The appointed verses are the story of Samuel hearing God’s call and with Eli’s help, answering “Speak Lord, for your servant is here.” It sounds like a prophetic call story, but it does not have the typical structure of a prophetic call. (Birch). However, the optional verses and the story in Chapter 2 (2:11-17 and 22 – 34) tell the rest of the story. Eli’s sons are moral and spiritual hooligans. (Bratt). They grossly abuse their priestly office for their self-interest. It is no surprise then that all Israel does as they see fit (Bratt). The prophecy, by a stranger, in chapter 2 is against Eli and his priestly lineage. The word God tells Samuel to tell Eli repeats that prophecy. These verses reveal the complete story of what is happening here (Birch).

This story is more than Samuel coming of age and taking his first step in service to God. This is a story of a time when the Word of God was rare, and visions were uncommon (Birch). It is significant that Samuel has no basis on which to recognize the Lord’s summons (Birch). His failure to recognize God’s call mirrors the Israelites’ continually ignoring God’s voice (Bratt).

I do not believe God’s word or divine visions are rare these days. Quite the opposite. Doug Bratt puts it this way It’s increasingly hard to actually hear God speaking. It’s hard to untangle so much of the noise that our culture makes from God’s Word of Life. So many people claim to speak for God that we need some kind of good theological filter. The cacophony, the noise of so many competing voices is a sign that there is more at stake in our public, political, religious, and civic institutional decision making, that what the arguments are about. What is at stake is

  • who we are,
  • how we talk to one another,
  • what we model to the world, and
  • how we respect our foundational institutions and values (Friedman).

In describing the fall of one more respected public figure, connected to handling an exploitive sexual relationship, Ross Douthat writes

the big story … is a high-stakes showdown between two generations. Both generations are theologically conservative, but the figures raising their voices … have been —associated with a vision of their church that’s more countercultural, less wedded to the institutional [alliances], more likely to see racial reconciliation as essential …

[T]he temptation to dismiss discomfiting revelations as fake news, to retreat back into ignorance and self-justification, is at least as powerful as the impulse to really reckon with the truth.

[T]he question posed by this age of revelation is simple: Now that you know something new and troubling and even terrible about your leaders or your institutions, what will you do with this knowledge? (Douthart).

It may well be, that as in Samuel’s day, like Israel, many in our world simply do as they seem fit (Bratt).

I do not think it matters if you use an Ignatian concept of the Spiritual Examen (Ashley). or Lectio Divina, or African Bible Study, or some other form of discipline to discern God’s calling or vision. I do believe an indicator of whose voice you are hearing is how it leads you to lead others to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

The story of Samuel coming to know the Lord is a stark reminder that there are no guarantees that our call will be easy. Every time has its own peculiarities and God-filled silences and cacophonies. Each of us is called to be a prophet, in our own way. That call includes continually listening for the Voice, and then to speak what we hear (Bridgeman). To faithfully hear and speak takes a willingness to get out of the way, to hear without editing, to act, and then take responsibility for our response to what we have heard (Epperly). To be a prophet involves an openness to the advice and wisdom of others who might help us in discerning God’s call. (Birch). But whether we are prophetic or not our words, our actions, or lack of words or action, plays a part in others coming to recognize the voice of the Lord and divine visions.

None of this is easy. And as strange as it may seem, it is Eli who models this kind of self-awareness, and openness to God’s word. The judgment against him and his sons is harsh. It can never be expiated, can never be atoned for, never be corrected by sacrifice, or offering (1 Samuel 3:14. And though Eli is neither corrupt nor unfaithful, he accepts divine judgement, rather than seeking self-interest, when he says, “It is the Lord.”

It is hard to accept and harder to speak truths that challenge what we like and what benefits us. I think this is the source of all the turmoil in response to black ballplayers kneeling rather than standing as the National Anthem is sung. I expect we try to define the prophetic role as predicting the future and not speaking hard truths, because speaking the hard truth is lots harder, and personally costly. Today’s Psalm is clear

It is a fearful thing and a loving thing to know that God has searched me and known me, sits with me, rises with me, sees my path, and knows all my ways, is behind me and before me, lays a hand upon me (The Living Church).

The psalmist provides us a powerful, source of strength and hope wherever we go, we are in God’s care: no emotional, spiritual, or geographical state can take us beyond God’s presence (Epperly).

 A final observation. In all the prophets’ words about harsh truth and oncoming disaster, there is always a word of hope and a path to God’s presence. The same is true here. The reading ends

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:19-20).

You know I am fond of saying “The Kingdom of God is right here right now.” I know this is especially true as we accept our prophetic voice and name the evils where we are, such that all God’s people may know and show justice, mercy, and humility, to each other and before God.


References

Ashley, Danáe. “Bread, Law, and Spirit, Pentecost 2 (B).” 3 6 2018. Sermons that Work.

Birch, Bruce C. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Frist and Second Books of Samuel. Ed. Leander Keck. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. X vols. OliveTree App.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 4B 1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20). 3 6 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/&gt;.

Bridgeman, Valerie. “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20].” 3 6 2018. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?&gt;.

Douthart, Ross. “The Baptist Apocalypse.” 30 5 2018. nytimes.com. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/30/opinion/paige-patterson-southern-baptist-convention.html&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 6 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Friedman, Thomas L. “Sounding Code Red: Electing.” 29 5 2018. New York Times. <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/opinion/midterms-trump-democrats.html&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Nelson, Thomas. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The Living Church. Righteousness and Mercy. 3 6 2018. <livingchurch.org>.