Sunday, June 17, 2012

Called and Listening: Sermon on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Scripture can be found here...

I was driving on Route 17 the other day, and I saw one of those displays that gives you a heads up on the traffic information you need to know. “Expect long delays,” it said.

Immediately I thought of David.

As so often happens when following the lectionary, it feels as if we’re just being dropped into the middle of the story here, and of course, we are. This is a story of a transition, between God’s anointed—Saul—who has lost God’s favor, and God’s newly anointed—David—who has found God’s favor. God has sent Samuel to be a kind of divine head-hunter, traveling to Bethlehem, to find God a new king over God’s people.

It takes a while.

Surely, this is the one! Samuel thinks to himself, as Jesse’s impressive sons are paraded before him, one after another. No, not so much, God replies. And God reminds Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for God does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.”

God looks on the heart.

It can take a while.

Finally, Samuel asks his host, Is that it? No more sons? Whereupon Jesse sort of shrugs his shoulders, and says, well, there’s my youngest, I guess, but we didn’t bother to bring him in. For one thing, he’s watching the sheep.

This tells us so much about the son—whose name has not even been mentioned yet. We even have to wait to hear his name.

The youngest, therefore the lowest in the family pecking order.

The youngest, therefore the one out watching the sheep, therefore the one whom of whom no great things are expected—he is not even paraded before the visiting prophet.

The one out watching the sheep, therefore a pretty strong and hardy fellow. Remember, shepherds were tough guys, fighting off predators, and poachers, and generally ready for a fight, day or night. These qualities would come in handy for David by and by.

On the other hand, the one out watching the sheep, therefore one used to having large expanses of time stretching out before him.  This quality would also come in handy for David, as God has Samuel anoint David to divine service, and then… nothing much happens. Not for a while. The time between David’s anointing and David’s actually assuming the throne is measured in years.


These things can take a while. It’s a good thing David had other things to occupy him. Things like making music. David is credited with pretty much the entire songbook of the bible, the book of psalms. And, really, making music is a noble occupation in its own right, at least as noble as political leadership, in my honest opinion. If all we knew of David is that he made music, that he wrote lyrics for the worship of God, songs like “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we would still remember him and revere him and think of him as a great ancestor in faith. For this reason, I like David’s story for today, for Music Celebration Sunday.

But I like David’s story for today for another even more wonderful and more universally applicable reason. I like David’s story for today because it is the story of a call to service, an anointing by God, which is not immediately followed by great and impressive deeds, but which is followed, rather, by a stretch of time. A delay. A discernment process, perhaps, during which David is just trying to feel out this whole thing, during which David is simply moving with the winds of change and the winds of God’s Spirit, into the next thing God has in mind for him.

God looks on the heart.

Today we have welcomed seven new members into the life and ministry of this congregation. And I am on record with all these folks as saying that I have a one-year-no-pounce policy. By this I mean: I believe that new members of a congregation ought to have a stretch of time during which to simply be. To sit in the metaphorical meadow of congregational life, in the presence of God and God’s people, simply listening. Some who join a church are going to have a very clear idea of how they would like to serve, and they may feel called to do that right away. Some of you have already told me how you would like to serve. For others, this is a process of discernment over time, and it can be good to take the time that is needed.

And so, I offer, for your consideration, David.

David, who is brought in from the field, from his daily work, to be anointed to God’s service.

David, who did not expect to find himself chosen for such work—and whose family sure didn’t expect it of him.

David, who had a variety of qualities, many skills, all of which proved not only useful, but filled with blessing and beauty for his work on God’s behalf.

David, who didn’t necessarily see the outcome at the outset.

So I say to you, those of you who are lifelong members as well as those of you who have been members for just a couple of minutes or a couple of days or a couple of months:

It can take a while.

You are called, each and every one of you. You are anointed to God’s service. Now, listen. Sit in that meadow of God’s love, and listen. Listen for the voice of God, for the wind of the Spirit, for the winds of change. Listen—to God’s word in Jesus, to God’s word at coffee hour, to God’s word in your day-to-day routine. Listen. God has a plan for you. It can take a while for it to unfold. Expect some delays. But just keep listening. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Our New Family: Sermon on Mark 3:13-21, 31-35

You can find the scripture passage here...

Have any of you ever had ‘family envy’? That’s a term I just made up, but I made it up in response to my own experience of it. I was at a wedding not too long ago, and when I met the family of the bride, well, I had a bad case of the malady. She was the youngest of four sisters, and within minutes of meeting them I was hearing hilarious tales of their childhood, beginning with an excursion one of them took involving a diaper and a twirling baton and culminating with an ill-fated and highly embarrassing trip to Baden-Baden. But it wasn’t the stories, exactly—it’s not that I wish I had been the one with the baton, or the one at Baden-Baden. It’s really that I wish I had been the one with the three sisters. Those shared memories, that experience of laughter until your stomach hurts, all that love.

I think it all started when I read “Little Women.”

Of course, one could look at it in precisely the opposite way, as well. One could say, “Thank God that’s not my family,” and I suppose the advent of reality TV has given all of us ample opportunity to have what you might call ‘family self-satisfaction.’ We can look at the sad or appalling or just plain bizarre exploits of the Duggar family or Jon and Kate and their eight, and then we can arrive at the conclusion that our own family is the best, the only configuration, you might say. Thank God we’re not those people, we sigh happily, as we tune in for the next episode.

Jesus’ mother and brothers may have had an experience of ‘family envy,’ in the passage we read this morning. Jesus was just acting so… well, bizarre. Jesus would have been ripe fodder for reality TV show. He was a miracle worker, and people would have tuned in to see what he would do next, or, more likely, to see him get his comeuppance—the child he couldn’t cure, the demon he couldn’t cast out. And here we see the kind of trouble that the network could have milked during May sweeps, with a month’s work of promos and all sorts of interviews in “TV Guide” and “Entertainment Weekly.”

“Miracle Man’s Family Turns on Him,” the headline would blare. Or, “Who’s Jesus’ Biggest Problem? The Scribes or Mom?”

It might be good to take a little time out right here to recall that we are now in Mark’s gospel again, after our long Lent and Easter journey into the gospel of John, and Mark presents Jesus in a very different way. Just one example of the differences: John shows us exactly seven miracles, or “signs” that Jesus performs. That’s all. The Jesus of Mark does seven miracles each day before breakfast… before we even get out of the first chapter of Marks’ gospel, Jesus has cast out two demons, healed a woman of a fever, and then proceeded to heal everyone who was sick in an entire town.

And another example: Mark and John show us very different pictures of Jesus’ family. Neither gospel tells us a story of Jesus’ birth. In John we see Jesus’ mother exactly twice: at the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus performs his first miraculous sign, and then, standing vigil at the cross. In Mark, this scene is our only encounter with Jesus’ family, and it is not a story we know well. In fact, it’s a little shocking.

As our passage begins, Jesus’ reputation for healing has spread so far and so wide that he has become like a TV celebrity running from the paparazzi. People are pressing in on Jesus—sick people, people who can only explain what’s wrong with them by attributing their symptoms to demon possession. Jesus needs to get away, but more than that, he needs to have some help. It’s as if there were only one heart surgeon in the entire state of New York, and the only way to get to her was to stalk her office and her home and the restaurant she goes to. Something has to change, not only for the surgeon, but for all those poor people in need of operations.

So Jesus climbs a mountain, and he organizes his followers to help him. He appoints them, and in the gospel, they are called ‘apostles,’ which simply means, ‘those who are sent out.’ And Jesus sends them out with two distinct purposes: to preach the good news, his message of God’s reign, and to cast out demons. And then he tries to go home for some dinner.

But the crowd is there, more endless dozens of people who are in need of healing, and Jesus and his friends and family can’t even grab a sandwich. And at this point, his family has had it. They have just had it. And so they go to restrain him, which, I think, means, to give him a good shake, to knock a little sense into him, because, our translation says, “people were saying, ‘he has gone out of his mind’” [Mark 3:21]. That’s a bad translation. It’s not that ‘people’ were saying it. His family was saying it. They thought Jesus had gone mad.

As shocking as this idea is, that Jesus’ family would have been, not only “unsupportive” of his ministry, but actively hostile to it, I think all we have to do is look at the portion I skipped over to understand the kind of danger Jesus was in. For the scribes to be, not only critical of Jesus, but to accuse him of being demon-possessed, is a serious situation indeed. Of course, it’s also a glaring failure in logic, as Jesus points out. But I imagine Jesus’ family is frightened for him. They want to protect him. So their first move is to try to pressure him to just quit it.

Jesus is not inclined to quit it. And when the crowd tells him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you,” Jesus gets a kind of funny smile on his face, and says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And then, with a sweeping gesture, he opens his arms in an embrace of those sitting around him, and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” [Mark 3:32b-35].

Here, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus re-defines family. No longer are kinship ties most important social unit, Jesus says. As one writer summarizes it, “For Jesus, family—at least, one type of family—is a community of people joined as an expression of their commitment to discover and manifest God’s will.”[i]  I can hardly think of a better definition of “church.”

Today we have welcomed three people into the family that is the church, and next week we will welcome eight more; and each time we do this, in a sense, the church becomes a new family, enriched as we are by these lives whose paths join with ours on the Christian journey. At the heart of this family, rather than a shared gene pool, is the commitment to discover together, and then try to live out, where God’s voice is calling us. At the core of this family, rather than a set of legal privileges and responsibilities, is the invitation to join with Jesus in the risky business of speaking God’s truth and sharing God’s healing. And yes, there will be shared memories, and there will be an abundance of laughter, and there will be love. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

[i] Matthew L. Skinner, “What Makes a Family? Mark 3:20-35” ON Scripture,, 1.