Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 32-49
Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was sixcubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armoured with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, ‘Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.’ And the Philistine said, ‘Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.’ When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. David said to Saul, ‘Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.’ Saul said to David, ‘You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.’ But David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.’ David said, ‘The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.’ So Saul said to David, ‘Go, and may the Lord be with you!’
Saul clothed David with his armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armour, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.’ So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.
The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, ‘Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.’ But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.’
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
Sticks and Stones
There is this thing about an underdog story that people really love to hear. People love to see a bully get his come-uppance especially if it is at the hands of an unexpected, apparently weak, or ineffective foe. I think most sports movies of the last 40 years center around this premise. We like it when it looks like our heroes just might not make it but then they suddenly come through. I think that's why people like the story of David and Goliath. They like the image of a boy, armed only with a staff and a sling-shot, facing down a trash-talking, well-armed, and well-trained giant of a man, and winning. Even people who might otherwise be creeped out by the thought of a teenager going off to do either kill or be killed by a soldier may still come away from this story impressed by the young shepherd who avoids this tools of the professional soldier and wins using the tools he knows best, the tools that allowed him to protect his sheep and his deep faith in God. This is a good story, even if it's there's a little more talk of decapitation that I typically enjoy in my Scripture readings. I, too, have a fondness for underdog stories, and this is one of the most well-known in the Bible. Even as we live in a culture that is increasingly un-familiar with many of the stories in this Book, David and Goliath remains familiar. Everybody loves the underdog.
I've gotta say, though, it has been difficult this week to think about this particular story of unexpected victory with another story about an unexpected attack filling up my newsfeed. It has been difficult for me to do the things I normally do to prepare a sermon. I haven't spent as much time as I usually do looking up the historical context of the scripture or studying different translations of the story. I haven't read a whole lot of commentaries or other sermons where people have worked through this story to shine some light on a new way of encountering the Divine in these words. I haven't done these things because all I've really been able to think about since Thursday morning is Charleston and the terrorist attack that changed the lives of nine families and one church forever.
White terrorists have been attacking black churches for decades, if not centuries. I think many of us recall the stories of bombings of black churches during the Civil Rights movement, particularly the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a bombing that took the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Denise, McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. That bombing was 52 years ago. But, black churches have been attacked far more recently. In the mid-1990's there was a string of arson in black churches in the South, including a church in the city of Knoxville near where I grew up. During that period, eight different churches in South Carolina were burned in what was likely arson attacks. There were so many burned up churches that the Department of Justice got involved and there were hearings before Congress. Since 1996, according to Mother Jones magazine, there have been at least 11 more attacks on black churches that range from cross burnings on the lawn to break-ins and vandalism to yet more arson. And, lest we think that this is a purely Southern phenomenon, one of these attacks was in Massachusetts and one was in St. Louis. Even a daycare in a church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida was vandalized and set ablaze, apparently because black children were cared for there.
The church that was attacked on Wednesday day had actually been attacked before. Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, often known as Mother Emanuel, was founded in 1816. It is one of the oldest historically black congregations south of Baltimore. It's denomination was founded when Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other black members of Philadelphia's St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church grew weary of the racism they encountered while trying to be full worshiping members of that congregation. Members of Emanuel had also withdrawn from a local Methodist church due to that church's biased actions towards them, particularly in regards to a local burial plot. They chose to align their new congregation with the African Methodist Episcopal tradition because they saw it as a way to maintain a dedication to Christ that they loved in the Wesleyan tradition but not be bound to the racist hierarchy of their prior denomination.
Part of the reason black churches have been targeted, especially during periods where black people and their allies are organizing for justice, is that the churches were often places where people met to strategize. In communities where it was often frowned upon, if not outright illegal, for black people to gather in public, the church offered a very literal sanctuary where they could make plans to work for freedom. Mother Emanuel became one such church. Within a few years of it's founding, it was placed under investigation because authorities learned that one of it's founding members, Denmark Vesey, had organized a slave revolt. The Charleston elite lived in fear that the people they enslaved and terrorized on a daily basis would rise up against them. They could not allow the people to organize. They dealt swiftly with Vesey and people who were deemed to be his co-conspirators. They hanged 35 people. The church, Mother Emanuel, the sanctuary from the grinding life in the slave-south, was burned to the ground. Goliath seems to have won that battle.
Here's the thing about David, though. David is not easily destroyed. The church rebuilt, and continued to worship in their building until 1834, when all black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. Even after their church was made illegal, they used the tools they had to continue the fight. While David had a staff and a sling-shot, they deployed the tools of the oppressed: secret meetings... word of mouth... worship in the dark. They continued to meet in secret for the next thirty years, keeping their church and their faith in God's freedom alive, despite the government's best efforts to break them down. They actually adopted the name Emanuel, that is "God with us" when they formally reorganized after the fall of the Confederacy in 1865. I wonder if they chose that name in particular as a celebration that they outlasted the system of slavery that was intended to destroy them. I wonder if they felt like God had to be with them. They knew from Exodus that God stood with oppressed. I wonder if they chose to celebrate coming through by reminding themselves that, yes, indeed, God was with them. They were alive and slavery was over. In a way, you could maybe even read the history of this church as an underdog story. They survived and outlived the bully institution of slavery. This church is David. It is too bad that the racist system that made slavery work has been much more difficult to slay than that giant Goliath. Slavery may have been destroyed. Racism certainly hasn't.
There are some who are saying that they don't know what could have motivated a young man to go into a church and murder most of the people whom he met there. It is very clear to me what motivated him. One of the survivors quoted him saying, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." With these few sentences, he placed himself in the company of a long line white supremacists who use the specter of supposed black violence to justify terrorizing black people. He told us in a few sentences that he believes racist narratives about minority take-overs to be true, and that he was so compelled by this belief that he felt the need to start a race war in order to rid his precious country of unsavory people of color. As I am writing this, reporters have uncovered his racial manifesto. He planned an act of terrorism in order to strike fear into the hearts of an entire group of people. He picked this church not because he hates Christians (he appears to be a Christian himself) but because he hates black people and he wanted to make them afraid. And, Lord knows he has. Can you imagine what it is like to walk into a predominantly black church this morning? Can you imagine what it is like to walk into Emanuel AME Church this morning knowing that someone took advantage of your Christian hospitality to bring death and destruction to people you love? How long will it take for them to stop worrying whether or not the white stranger who just slipped in the back is coming to join them for worship or coming to kill them as they pray? How long will they continue to look for Goliath?
I read an article this week that argued that it is particularly important to name this act for what it is, an act of terrorism. The reason is that, according to this author, it is all too common for us to label foreigners, especially Muslim ones with dark skin, as terrorists as a way explain that their heinous behavior is a product of their culture or their religion. Some people aren't inclined to label this act as terrorism because he is American, white, and Christian. If we are going to be honest, we have to admit that terrorism is not limited to other nationalities and other religions. It is quite often home-grown. Terrorism is not just in the Other who lives far away. It is right here, right now. Let us not forget that the first anti-terrorism laws in this country, including the original the Ku Klux Klan Act, were intended to stop hateful, white, American, Christians from murdering their black neighbors and burning down their churches.
It could be also be easy to dismiss this as simply a Southern issue, a terrible remnant of Jim Crow. But, racism is in the North, too. My house was built by a slave owner. The foundation stones of my home were laid using money made from coerced labor. And, here, at this church, while we are rightly proud of the abolitionist legacy of our former pastor, Rev. David Thurston, we also know that he once got fired for preaching about freedom too much. Just down the road in Phippsburg, in 1912, the residents of Malaga Island were evicted from their homes because they were poor and because many of them were black or of mixed race. People chose to shame their descendants, insulting them because of their racial heritage. It has only been in the last few years that people could speak of being from Malaga with pride. In Maine, this week, before the shooting in Charleston, the report on Wabanaki children in the state welfare system came out. It is full of stories from people who have suffered racist abuse while in state care. These aren't even stories from 100 years ago. They are stories from the 1960's to as recently as two years ago. You know what else I found out? Right now, at this very moment, there is an active Klan group and an active Neo-Nazi group in Maine. I, myself, have seen a man with Neo-Nazi tattoos walking on the rail trail in Augusta. Goliath is here, in Maine. I've seen him. He wears his SS tattoos with pride. She tells her foster kids that they are lucky because they look white. He laughs when his friends tell a racist joke. She locks the car doors when a person of color walks by.
I have had trouble figuring out some good news to share with you this week. I mean, we could use it. But, I don't know where it is yet. Goliath seems to be winning. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop and for David to pull out that last smooth stone and fling it towards his enemy. But, David hasn't done that yet. Things are still looking bleak. The hard thing is that we are right in the middle of the battle against racism and sometimes people think they are David when they are really Goliath. We have got to make sure that we're actually on David's side in all of this. We've got to make sure that the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. are not forgotten. We've got to do some work to make sure what happened to them never happens again. On Monday, people are gathering in Portland to remember the fallen. It will be at 5:30 at the Merrill Auditorium. I'm going. I can fit four more people in the car with me. Maybe we can make a plan to slay this giant together.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Roger Nam's commentary on the David and Goliath story: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2474
The history of Emanuel AME Church: http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/churchhistory.php
The history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: http://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/
Here are two articles that discuss the history of attacks on predominantly black churches:
More information on Denmark Vesey: http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/denmark_vesey.html
Here are two articles about why this is rightly called an act of terrorism:
Two resources for learning more about the history of Malaga Island:
The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps travel of hate groups in the United States. Here is a map that have that shows two active hate groups in Maine: http://www.splcenter.org/hate-map#s=ME
In order to help people understand the wider context of the violence in Charleston and the response to the attack, several folks have worked together to develop the Charleston Syllabus. There are many good resources here: http://aaihs.org/resources/charlestonsyllabus/
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Tiny Seeds and Large Branches: Mark 4:26-34
Friends, I do not know if you noticed, but we had a very long winter. We saw more snow this past winter than I saw in the first 28 years of my whole life. We saw more snow at one time than Tasha and I saw in 6 winters in Illinois. Tasha could stand on the snow in one corner of the house and reach our roof. When Sugar the dog would take off running in her pen, sometimes she'd hit a powdery spot and we'd lose half of her into a snowy hole. Then, she'd pop back up, tennis ball in her mouth, and keep running until she fell into another powdery hole. At some point, I stopped sending pictures of the snow to my family in Texas. They got too worried about us. They began to question our life choices. And, worse, they began to make fun of us and tell me how warm in already was down there. I tried to remind them that Maine summers are glorious, but, they didn't care. They knew how to handle the heat. The cold was too overwhelming and the winter as just too long.
But, now, it seems that summer may actually be here. I'm trying not to say it too loudly, though, for fear that we'll get another cold snap and I'll have to go find my jacket again. But, signs all around me are pointing to Summer. I have roses growing in the backyard. Some of our apple trees are becoming full of tiny fruit. I have even found ripe wild strawberries in one of the flower beds. The lighting bugs fill up our hay field every night now. They tell me that the good weather is probably here to stay. They tell me that it's probably time to be out digging in my garden. Far be it from me to ignore a lightning bug. I have begun my planting. And, soon enough, I will have some early vegetables to harvest. I have already begun to fret over the later summer harvest, the tomatoes, green beans, okra, cucumbers. I have already begun dragging my poor wife out to the garden to see the plants that she swears look just like they did yesterday. A lot of my free time is spent thinking about seeds and plants. It seemed like a stroke of luck when I read today's suggested Gospel reading. Look... Jesus is talking about seeds and I love talking about seeds. How convenient.
Did you know that Jesus is called teacher more often in the Gospel of Mark than in any other Gospel? He spends a lot of time in this Gospel teaching. He usually teaches through parables, a kind of complex, often confusing, short story. The goal of a parable, according to one scholar, is to use common images in uncommon ways in order to provoke people into deeper reflection and, therefore, more substantial understanding. It makes sense, then, that when speaking to a bunch of sustenance farmers in rural Palestine that Jesus would have told a parable about seeds. These farmers and fishermen would have recognized stories about sowing and reaping, two activities utterly necessary to their daily lives. If they wanted to eat, they had to farm or fish or hunt. Growing and cooking food was work, hard work, and not a little bit of luck. If Jesus wanted to teach them something about the Reign of God, it makes sense that he would have used seed and sowing metaphors. His stories would have spoken to very real, very serious parts of their lives. And, given what I know about this congregation full of gardeners, I bet these words about sowing and reaping catch your attention, too.
Jesus began this parable by describing the work of every farmer. The sower scatters seed on the ground, and watches as the seed germinates. Jesus describes the steps of germination with a phrase that I find particularly lovely because I have seen in happen countless times in my garden: “the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” The opening... the unfurling... the first bits of green... that is what I live for in my garden. I’m sure others in the room know the feeling. It is where I see the first tiny glimpse of what I hope will be a verdant and delectable future. I suspect, despite my modern privilege, the ancient sower and I are not totally different in that regard. We pray that our fields will be full of these little green shoots of hope. Jesus then says, when the time is right, the sower harvests the mature grain. The sower does not know exactly how the seeds grew into mature grain. The sower can only trust that the seeds will indeed grow and that the harvest they bring will offer her family nourishment.
Parables are great because there are so many places to enter into the story. I think Jesus' description of the seed's germination is particularly interesting. He says that the seed will sprout and grow, but the sower does not know how. Thanks to science, we modern growers have a little clearer idea about what is happening during seed germination. At the end of day, though, despite the fact that we may have a really clear plan for how to make sure that our seeds have exactly what they need to grow, most of us still don’t know how, or if, that tiny seed in our hand will ever grow. Even with our modern technology, most of the time, we're like the farmers that Jesus talked to all those years ago. We stand in our garden with a hard little seed that we place into cool, moist dirt, and we trust that it will grow. We can’t usually force the seed to grow. All we can do is work, wait, and see what will grow.
Jesus reminds us that we can't really control all of what we plant. Growth often happens of the earth’s own accord. We may help it along now and then. We till the soil and add compost. We keep the rabbits out and pick off the Japanese beetles. But, the growing, the sacred, incremental unfurling and the inching toward the sky, that is a process beyond the work of the sower. We may plant and tend and wait. But, we can’t crack that shell open. We can’t replicate those cells or build those roots. We can only make sure they have somewhere hospitable to grow. A power far beyond us takes care of the rest.
Maybe poking around in my garden does teach me something about the Reign of God. Perhaps this process of vegetable cultivation is not all that different from spiritual cultivation. Our spiritual lives and worshiping communities do not burst forth fully formed. Like farming, tending our spiritual communities requires hard work, and not a little bit of luck. In this process, there are some times when we sow our seeds, and there are some times when we need to be present and wait for them to grow. It can take quite a bit of discernment and not a little bit of patience to be in that in-between, dark and fertile growing time. But, we have hope. The Gospel of Mark reminds us that God’s Reign is in that space between what we can do and what is done just beyond us. Spiritual maturity is knowing that there is a point where we must sow seeds, and a point where we wait and let the plant grow. If we are attentive to how it grows, then we can hopefully reap the benefit of its nourishment.
Something else comes to mind with all of this talk of seeds and planting. For as much preparation as the average farmer does, the plants don’t always behave in ways that we expect. Volunteer plants pop up out of compost bins and forgotten corners of the yard. Squirrels and birds leave little presents that sometimes grown up into a watermelon in the middle of your tomato plants. Even with all our preparation, growth happens in ways that we don’t expect. The Holy Spirit will make it’s way up in tiny shoots and tendrils in the most unexpected places. And, are we ready to make use of the unexpected bounty? Or do we treat it like a weed and spray it down because inspiration didn’t come like we expected? This, too, is the work of the farmer, knowing when to celebrate unsuspected nourishment.
The Gospel of Mark reminds us that we, too, can be sowers, even those of us without an inkling of a green thumb. There is much sustenance to be had, if only we will take time to plant and tend it. The Reign of God will produce of itself and we can work together to clear a space for it. Today we celebrate the service of two very important groups of sowers in our midst, the choir and the Sunday school class and teachers. They have shown us all kinds of new growth over this last year. They began a new kind of Sunday School class and learned new music. They helped us feel the presence of God through song, and they have taught us interesting and new things about God during the children's moment. Through their service to this church, they have shown us ways to work and tend our Holy Garden, and we have greatly benefited from their labors. As they begin a well-deserved season of rest, how can the rest of us learn from the work that they have shared over the last year? Where is the fertile ground that the rest of us can tend to grow new things with God? Maybe we'll even feel called to join their ranks when they begin to meet again in the fall. After all, Jesus calls us to be sowers and these two groups offer much fertile ground in need of our tending. Maybe the seeds of singers and teachers are in you right now, just waiting to bloom. Maybe, though, you're getting ready to sow some other amazing seed in God's Kingdom. Either ways, let's work this land together. It won't be easy. But, the harvest will come. And, it will be delicious.
Resources that Pastor Chrissy found helpful in writing this sermon:
...and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
The True Kindred of Jesus Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
Families That We Value: Mark 3:20-35
All week long, or at least as long as I have been thinking about what to preach this week, I've been thinking of this story that I don't fully remember. I've tried looking it up and I've tried asking people if they've heard it, and so far nobody has heard this story, or at least, what I can remember of it. But, even though I don't remember the whole story, I think I remember enough to share it with you. There was once a family who lived in California. There was a mother, a father, and a son. There may have been more kids, but most of the story happens between this one son and his mother. This young man, like many young men, had something important to tell his parents. He told them he was gay. Now, for those of you who haven't had to do this or haven't had someone in your family have to do this, coming out can be a very scary thing. Not every family is happy to hear such a revelation. Not only can these conversations be uncomfortable, they can be downright dangerous, especially if you are at a point in your life where you depend on your parents for shelter and food. As of 2013, about 40% of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ. Many of them are homeless because they were kicked out or had to leave for their own safety after coming out to their families. This young man came out in the late 1980's or early 1990's. It was even more difficult then.
Things did not go well between this young man and his family. He left his town and moved to San Francisco. Many young people did this. San Francisco was a safe haven. When their own families rejected them, they could build new families among their friends in the city. However, even as San Francisco existed as a safe harbor and place to re-construct a family, something dangerous was happening in the city. Beginning in the early 1980's, people started dying. At first, physicians thought it might be some kind of cancer. Eventually, they realized that it was a particularly virulent virus. The virus itself didn't seem to kill you. But, it destroyed your immune system and left you exposed to all kinds of other illnesses that would. Early efforts to research the cause of, and treatments for, the disease were stymied by the fact that the people mostly likely to get sick, sexually active gay men and IV drug users, were not exactly considered to be worthy patients. More than a few people seemed to think that they brought this upon themselves. Others went so far as to say that this virus, HIV, was their punishment from God for behaving in such sinful ways. Meanwhile, while healthy people debated how much money it was really worth to spend on the people who had contracted HIV, people continued to die. The young man I told you about, the one who had come out to his family and had taken refuge in San Francisco, was one of them.
His mother received a call one day. The person on the other end said, "You're son has died. I thought you should know." I must say, I don't remember this part well. I don't think she ever saw her son alive again. I don't think she visited him. I don't even think she knew he was sick. I think she just received a call that he was gone. A story similar to this happened all over the country, anywhere where families had been broken up, and unable to reconcile even in the face of disease and death. What a life this was... to be facing death and at the same time feeling so disconnected from your family of origin that you don't even call them to tell them that you are sick.
Eventually the mother, who, if memory serves me, had been sober for many years, ended up relapsing into drug abuse. She left her family and left her town. She ended up in San Francisco, too. This city, for as much as it could be as safe haven, was also a place where you could get lost in whatever fed your addiction. And, she got lost. She ended up contracting HIV. She struggled to get sober and find a safe place to live. She ended up in a set of apartments where many people in a similar position lived. It was affordable. I think it was somehow connected to a clinic or treatment community. And, it was full of people who had a sense of what you were going through. It was mostly safe and mostly clean. It was a place that she could try to pull together the pieces of her life.
Soon after she moved in, she met a guy who lived down the hall. He had been there a while and could show her the ropes. He'd also been diagnosed as HIV+ for a while. He could help her navigate these waters, too. They became friends and took care of one another. He eventually developed full-blown AIDS and began that painful decline into the opportunistic infections that would eventually take his life. The woman, who had lost the opportunity to care for her son in his last days, would support her friend in his. One day, she was in his apartment. I don't remember if she was helping pack up things after he died or if she had just run in to pick up something for him while he was at the hospital. She found a box of photos and began to look through them. Imagine her surprise when she saw a face she recognized. In her friend's photos, she saw her son. No. I don't mean metaphorically, like she saw some features that reminded her of her boy. I mean she actually saw her son's face. In some of the pictures, he looked healthy and happy. In others, she could see that he had begun to decline. And, by his side was her friend from down the hall. As her son grew sicker, her friend, who had first been his friend, took care of him. It was this friend who was by his side in the hospital in his last days. And, if memory serves me, it was this friend who called her and said, "Your son has died. I thought you should know."
I'd like to tell you another story about a different family that seemed to be in conflict. A son had left home. A lot happened while he was away. His reputation grew, and not always in very good ways. His family heard some scary things about him. They heard stories about death and illness. They heard wild tales of spirits and demons. They heard about holes broken through roofs and fights with community leaders and about a whole host of new friends, none of whom seemed to have a job or anything productive to do with their days other than walking around making people angry and trying to figure out riddles. They heard all kinds of strange stories and they were worried about the son and brother. When they heard he had come back home, they went to find him because they had been told that he was literally beside himself and needed someone to take control of him before he hurt himself. Some people even said that his demons had gotten the better of him and he needed to be stopped.
His family came to get him, but he was surrounded by all the new people that he had been hanging out with. One of the newbies said to the son, "Hey, your mom and brothers and sisters, are outside asking for you." And, how did he welcome his concerned family? He said this, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" To add insult to injury, he looked around at these people that he barely knew and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!" I can't even imagine what it would have been like to hear him say that. They had traveled all this way and they just wanted to protect him. He didn't even want to talk to them. They were from a community where blood-ties mattered... where your family was everything. If you left them, your were rejected everything that their society was based on. And, he was denying his blood in favor of strangers he barely knew. He finished with these words, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." And, then he moved on to a new place and began to teach a new crowd along the sea. Some of his family may have followed him, but it's not clear. They are only explicitly mentioned one more time in the book of Mark. His mother may have witnessed his death and may have gone to tend to his body. But, it might not have been her. It could have been another woman named Mary. She may not have seen her son ever again. Who knows. Maybe one day she simply got a call from his friend saying, "You son has died. I just thought you should know."
I know that people complain that the current calls for expanded adoption rights for LGBT families and marriage equality are "re-defining" millennia old institutions. I hate to break it to them but Jesus redefined family long before Tasha and I did. He developed a system of relationship that relied not simply on what family you were born into, but on how you respond to the spirit moving in your life. Jesus teaches us that family is more than blood. Family is built through doing the will of God. Did you know that at this point in the Gospel of Mark, nearly all of the miracles that Jesus performed that demonstrate that he is one doing the will of God are healings. The first three chapters of Mark are full of sick people seeing his help and compassion. What that means for me is that I'm pretty sure the will of God looks a lot more like the neighbor who tends to his dying friend than it looks like the act of estrangement that led that young man to San Francisco in the first place. I'm pretty sure that young man's mom would agree. She finally learned how to build her family a little bigger through doing the will of God. I hope that we can, too.
Works that Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
I wish that I could remember where I heard the first story I shared in this sermon. I heard it many years ago on a radio program or in an audio book. I've searched for it so that I could recognize the original author and the family. If you have heard this story and know to whom I should give credit, please email me so that I can properly cite this source.
James Boyce's Commentary on Mark 3:20-35- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2468
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2002).
Dale B. Martin, Sex and The Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).
Karoline Lewis, "Family Matters," https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3639
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
On Being Sent
I think a good argument can be made that the book of Isaiah has influenced Christianity more than most other books in the Hebrew Bible. When early Christians turned to Hebrew Scripture to try to understand the life and ministry of Jesus, they often looked to Isaiah. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus first seems to explain his mission, he quotes the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."Scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp also reminds us that during Advent, when we speak of a child called Immanuel, that is "God with us," we are quoting a prophecy of Isaiah. Whenever we talk about the importance of the Messiah, we are building upon the work of Isaiah who first described an anointed ruler who would come from the line of David and would restore the nation of Judah. And, according to Blenkinsopp, whenever we read a description of God's people surviving and even triumphing despite being pitted against all of the world's great powers in later Hebrew Scripture or the New Testament, we are reading echoes of Isaiah. If we are going to spend some time with a Hebrew prophet in hopes of learning something more about the Gospel, Isaiah is a good place to start.
We're starting by learning how Isaiah became a prophet of God. As prophet call stories go, this is a pretty interesting one. In some ways, it is a lot like other call stories. Like the stories of Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah reports an encounter with the Divine. In this case, Isaiah describes a presentation of God that is designed to show God as a kind of ruler that is very different than earthly ruler. God is so grand that the hem of God's royal robe can fill the whole temple in Jerusalem. Unlike earthly rulers, whose attendants are mere humans, God's difference as ruler is demonstrated by God's supernatural attendants. God's attendants are called Seraphs, which literally means "burning ones." Their grandeur nearly matches God's. They are described as having six wings, two sets of which they use to protect their tender body parts from the sheer energy or power or whatever it is that emanates from God. These Seraphs are a choir, and they sing a refrain that may be familiar to you: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory." So thunderous was their song that the walls of the temple shook. The temple even filled with smoke, perhaps from the burnt offerings of the faithful.
Like other prophets, Isaiah grows concerned that he is unworthy to be in God's presence. He says that he is a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips. And, yet, despite feeling as though he is not worthy, he is amazed that he has seen God. "Yet, my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then, one of the Seraphs flies to him and offers him a way to feel clean before God, a ritual where the seraph takes a live coal and puts it to Isaiah's lips. Have your lips ever burned with words you felt like you just had to say. Maybe this felt something like that. Or, maybe it was more like when you drink hot coffee and it immediately wakes you up. Either way, the seraph told Isaiah that his sin was no more... it was blotted out. And, immediately after this ritual, Isaiah, for the first time, heard the voice of God.
It is this next part of the story that diverges from other call stories. In many other call stories, God calls a person by name and the person responds. We can look to Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and Samuel as examples of people who respond when God calls them out. But, scholar Patricia Tull points out that that's not what happens here. God never says Isaiah's name. God simply asks a question, seemingly to the seraphs: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" God doesn't seem to have one particular person in mind like God did in those other call stories. And, here we have Isaiah, who just moments earlier felt unclean and unworthy, piping up and saying, "Here am I; Send me!" And, it turns out that God takes volunteers. God says, ok. You want a shot. Go and take my words to your people.
I have been thinking about this burst of prophetic volunteerism all week. I can't help but think about what would inspire me... inspire us, to jump up and say, "Send me" when we hear God asking for volunteers to go speak to God's people. I've been trying to think about this in terms of how we can re-imagine and reinvigorate our sense of mission and vision. Like, I've been trying to think of some new ministries can we develop that get us so excited that we jump up and say, "Send me!" when we hear about them. The thing is, though, I've been kind of distracted. I've had a hard time thinking about Gospel volunteer opportunities here in Winthrop because I've spent a lot of time worrying about a bunch of volunteers who have been gathering in another church in another small town thousands of miles from here. Each morning since last weekend, volunteers have been showing up at First Baptist Church in Wimberley, Texas. They've heard a call, too, but this time, rather than hear a call for prophets, they heard a call to find the missing. It has been muddy, bug-infested, heart-breaking work. But, they were not promised that it would be easy. They were just told that it was necessary. And, they stood up and said, "Send me."
The last time Tasha and I went to central Texas, when we drove by the Blanco River, it wasn't much more than a wide, shallow stream. The drought has been so bad for the last 5 years that even large lakes have nearly dried up. To help give you some perspective, Medina Lake, which is about an hour from Wimberley, was usually about 5 times bigger than Maranacook. Until last week, it has been so dry that was 5 times smaller than Maranacook. Then, the rains came. Enough rain to fill make Medina Lake twice the size of Maranacook. Nearly a foot of rain dumped on cities and towns in this huge swath of the central plains, hitting parts of Oklahoma, Central Texas, and northern states in Mexico. Car, trucks, even whole houses were swept away by the rapidly falling river. Thirty-one people have died in Texas and Oklahoma. Fourteen have died in Mexico. Eleven people are still missing in Texas. The governor has declared 47 counties to be disaster areas. If you heard today's reading from Psalm 29 and wonder what the breaking of the cedars of Lebanon might sound like, I bet you could find someone in central Texas who could tell you.
Remember how Jesus said that the heart of the law is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself? Well, hundreds of volunteers in Central Texas are taking up the call to love their neighbors, and have been looking for all of the missing people. In Wimberley, this means that they meet up at the Baptist church or the high school. Many of the volunteers are friends or family of the missing. Some, like Irasema Rivera, know what it's like to lose someone they love with no explanation. Rivera, who's brother disappeared years ago and was never found, said she wanted to help because, "You want to know. You just want to know." The volunteers sort out donated bottles of water and make their way down muddy river banks, hoping for signs of life while being fully aware that they may find instead the bodies of the dead. John Charba, one of the volunteers, said this about his time working with the others, "It's inspiring, and in brings to me a sense of family and community that I didn't know was out there." John's cousin Randy is still missing, as is Randy's six year old son, William. They have found the body of Randy's wife Michelle. Her body was found because the call for help went out, and someone answered, "Send me."
I really hope that the people who have suffered in the wake of these storms don't think God made the storms happen to punish them. That way of thinking about God bubbles up in times of trauma when people are looking for answers to unanswerable and hard questions about why disasters happened. Some may look to Psalm 29 or even other parts of Isaiah that fall after our reading for today to show that God creates these disasters for a reason. But, Psalm 29 was written about the first thunderstorms of the fall, the rains that allowed the people of Israel to have enough water to farm and drink after a long rainy season. It was not written about a storm sent to punish people. It was a powerful gift. My hope is that rather than seeing God as punishing people through disasters, instead, people would see God as present in the pain alongside the broken and wounded. After all, God knows what it is to lose a son. And, God, through Christ, knows what it is to suffer alongside humanity. And, God, through the Holy Spirit, is what calls out to us, "Whom shall I send?" and, then gives us the courage to respond with "Here I am. Send me!" So, yes, God is there in the storm, but not to break humanity, but to connect us to one another and to the Divine so that we can survive when these disasters strike.
The people in central Texas that I've talked about today know that you don't always hear your call from God sitting on a big throne. Sometimes you hear God through the pain of your neighbors. While they might not be prophets, they are living into a holy calling of love and compassion with each muddy step they take. I pray that all of us, prophets or not, can hear God's calling, even if we don't feel worthy or prepared. I prayer that we can be ready to say, "Send me."
Works that Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Patricia Tull's commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2458
J. Clinton McCann's commentary on Psalm 29- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2453
Karoline Lewis, "The Necessity of Three"- https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3627
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year B, A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993),
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=629
Manny Fernandez and Richard Pérez-Peña, "Hundreds Form Search Parties to Seek Survivors in Texas Floods," http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/28/us/texas-oklahoma-louisiana-storms.html?_r=0
"Coming, this Weekend, for South and Central Texas: Up to Five Inches of Rain," http://tpr.org/post/coming-weekend-south-and-central-texas-5-inches-rain
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.