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.
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’
Wisdom’s Invitation: Proverbs 9:1-6
Wisdom is a woman at work. Look at all she does in just six verses. She has built an entire house. Do you know how long it takes to build a house? Do you know how many skills it takes to build a house? Carpentry, masonry, plumbing, painting, engineering, design. Maybe you throw in a little tile work for a nice backsplash in the kitchen. It is so much work to build a house. It’s sounds like it’s not a very small house either. She invited many people. She’d need a big space to host them all. So, she built a house, directing her staff and working alongside of them. Wisdom is a woman at work, making sure she has room for everybody who walks in her door.
Her home is both practical and beautiful. She has created seven pillars. These aren’t just posts to hold up a wall. They are monuments, hewn from trees or carved from stone, honoring God and marking this home as a site of something holy and good. This is skilled work, work done with years of training and practice. These pillars were not hastily thrown together. They were crafted, beauty drawn out of raw material to give glory to God and show hospitality to her guests. She created seven pillars, but she didn’t stop there. She cooked, too.
I imagine her holding court in her kitchen. You have seen someone at work like Wisdom was at work in this scripture. This is Julia Child prepping a turkey with efficiency and good humor. This is Mary Berry from the Great British Bake Off making sure the bottoms of her pie aren’t soggy. This is my mother-in-law Sherry Dunn making the best sausage balls in the state of Georgia. They are perfectly round and perfectly cooked through every time with the right cheese to sausage ratio. Wisdom ask for help if she needs it (she usually doesn’t). She’ll show you how to cook if you ask. Here, go cut these onions. Wash that big skillet. It's almost time to put on the potatoes. Wisdom brought out the good wine and probably some sparkling grape juice because she knows that some people in recovery are going to show up and they deserve delicious drink, too. The table was set. Maybe it is fine linen and china. Maybe she had to pull out every mismatched plate in the house because she knew people will keep showing up, and, by God, she’s gonna feed them all, even if the dinnerware isn’t all the same. Wisdom had been cooking. You could smell the feast a mile away.
All she needed was the company. She sent the girls from her household out to bring the neighbors. But, the girls aren’t the only ones with invitations. Wisdom, who sawed and cooked and served right alongside the workers, Wisdom went out with the girls, and started inviting people. She was not just inviting the wealthy or the powerful or even people she knew particularly well. She invited strangers, people she’d never met before. Remember, this is a party at Wisdom’s house. Some people behave like they’ve never encountered Wisdom before in their lives. Many people choose not to invite them over because it. Wisdom is different. It’s those people... this translation calls them “the simple” or “those without sense”... who got invited to this dinner. She said that’s the people who needed to be there. She wanted them to come so badly that she went out and found them herself, shouting out into the streets, the hills, and the high places: “A great feast has been set for you. Come, eat, and drink. If you do, you will learn something good.” Wisdom is a woman working, and cooking, and welcoming strangers into her home.
Wisdom is also our neighbor Margy who invites you to her home, feeds you until you feel like you might burst, and then sends you home with three plates of leftovers, including one whole plate that is just dessert. You never walk away from Wisdom’s place empty-handed. Insight and understanding are Wisdom’s signature dish. Wisdom makes the best understanding. It is almost as good as my great grandmother’s biscuits. The great thing about Wisdom is that she always has enough to share. Like the couple of cookies handed to you when you get home from school, or the piece of hard candy fished out of a purse to sooth a wiggly child, Wisdom makes sure there’s enough insight ready so that anybody can have some if they ask.
What does this scripture mean when it talks about “insight or understanding”? In my research, I found Dr. Wil Gafney’s explanation biblical wisdom helpful. She says that wisdom is not simply intellect. It is also skill, expertise honed by experience and practice. A person who is wise does not come to wisdom immediately. Wisdom is cultivated in the same way that an apprentice learns a skill from a master. Wisdom is your grandmother showing you how to add enough flour to dough to keep it from sticking as you roll it out. Wisdom makes sure you point the knife away from your thumb when you whittle, not towards, so you don’t slip and cut yourself. Dr. Gafney calls this heart-and-head knowledge. Wisdom is teaching, practicing, listening, and knowing all wrapped up together.
Dr. Gafney made a list of some people who are called wise in the Hebrew Bible: the people who build a tabernacle, that is a resting place and home base, for God in the book of Exodus; in Deuteronomy, the people of Israel who keep the Torah, that is, God’s commandments, are called wise; the shrewd woman who leads her people and saves them from death in 2 Samuel 20:22; and King Solomon, in 1 Kings 4, who was able to build a country because he uses his wisdom to build up his people. Their lives are models of wisdom. Dr. Gafney puts it this way, “[W]isdom is craft: statecraft, Torah-craft, craftwomanship, craftsmanship and craftiness.” It is using all your wit, all your training, all your intuition honed by experience, to honor God and to save your people. Therefore, to be a person of faith it to crave understanding the same way you crave that big piece of pie that has sat, tempting you, on the corner of the table all afternoon. This portion of Proverbs that we read today is about teaching people to crave insight and understanding the same way they crave a good meal in a lovely home crafted by a strong and smart woman. Proverbs tells us that Wisdom is a woman who is inviting you over. You would do well to accept that invitation.
This is a compelling vision of Wisdom, isn’t it? A woman, competent and welcoming, ready to empower you and make sure you have what you need to thrive. It is a vision that is not only in this one portion of Proverbs. Personified Wisdom moves all over scripture. In earlier parts of Proverbs 8, Wisdom is shown both as a part of God and as a craftswoman working alongside God to create the cosmos. The voice of Wisdom says, “I was beside God, like a master worker, and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing in God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” Sometimes this Wisdom is layered onto God’s word in the law, Torah. The Psalms say Wisdom-Word-Torah is a banquet and sweet like honey.
New Testament writers were even inspired by this image of personified Wisdom, and rooted their understanding of Jesus’ ministry and identity in it. Have you heard these words from the beginning of the book of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was the beginning with God. All things came to being through him and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” The author of John was talking about Jesus. But, doesn’t Jesus sound like Woman Wisdom working with God hewing and carving the cosmos out of chaos? And, don’t we read about Jesus moving through the Gospels, like Woman Wisdom, inviting all kinds of people, but most especially the people with the greatest needs, to eat and be full and be changed by eating together?
From the earliest days of our faith, well before there was anything called Winthrop Congregational Church United Church of Christ, well before there was even anything called Christianity, there was Wisdom and there was an invitation and there was hospitality and practice and work together to make something beautiful and useful. Not only do we return, again and again, to Wisdom’s table when we hear her call, but we also learn how to craft this table and cook this meal at her side, at Jesus’ side, so we can go out like the girls into the street and invite others to the feast, so we can make a bigger table, more pillars, bigger piles of food. Our is a faith rooted in this vision of abundance, of a table full of food that is always there if you but ask for it. We can even learn to prepare this kind of meal, to build this hospitable home, by the side of the One who makes it best. But, Wisdom doesn’t want us just to hoard this gift. Wisdom’s invitation, God’s invitation, is to pass it along, sharing it with others who need some space at the table and a little food to eat. Wisdom is going to the high places to invite everyone to come and eat. Are we ready to come to this feast and are we ready to help cook next time?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
I am particularly indebted to Dr. Wil Gafney who crafted such a powerful commentary on Woman Wisdom: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1360
Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, "Proper 15 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
James Limburgh: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3747
Sara Koenig: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=370
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Live In Love: Ephesians 4:25-5:2
When I was in seminary, I learned a song that went something like this, “I know I’ve been changed. I... I know I’ve been changed. I... I know I’ve changed. The angels in heaven gonna sign my name.” It’s an old gospel song. You may have heard Aaron Neville or Tom Waits or the Staple Singles cover it on some of their albums. It is a song written from the perspective of someone who has had a religious conversion. They have become a Christian and feel the Holy Spirit working on them. Something has changed and they are ready to testify to that change in word and deed. They go on to sing, “I know I been converted./Lord knows I been redeemed./ You can wake me up in the midnight’s hour/And I’ll tell you just what I seen.” One of my favorite things about this song is that it asserts that religious belief isn’t just something you talk about or an extraneous part of your life. This song demonstrates an understanding of faith as a force- it changes you- and also a tool- with it, you help change the world. It is a great song, and it is a song that reminds me of today’s reading.
This part of Ephesians is about how to actually live a life shaped by the Gospel. It is about concrete practices for living out a faith that changes you. This is a faith that can completely overturn your life. It is a faith that makes you rethink cultural divisions that you once thought were unchangeable. It is a faith that demands both confession and forgiveness. It is a faith that asks you to give up power to be a servant. You will be changed if you are actually committed to it. But the change doesn’t happen all at once. It keeps happening. There are even some ways you can live in community that help you continue to be changed by the Spirit present in others. Today’s reading is about helping Christians continue to be changed by and changed for one another. It’s pretty powerful.
In our current cultural context, and frankly, during any times of anxiety, it can be easier to be short or contemptuous or ungenerous with people with whom we disagree, even at church, where love is to be our guide. This author believes that there are seven practices that can help us live into the change Christ is making in us. Here’s how they spell them out:
1) There is to be no falsehood in the church. Lies or hateful speech that are only intended to cause harm has no place in religious community. That doesn’t mean telling the truth is always easy. It’s not. But it should be done without malice, manipulation, or intent to slander.
2) It’s ok to be angry. But don’t let the anger make you forget your commitment to God and one another. Anger is often justified and is an appropriate response to injustice. But, don’t let your anger be corrosive or fester.
3) Don’t steal stuff. Allow people who have stolen things the option to make amends. Practice grace by allowing former thieves the opportunity to return to honest labor and service of neighbor.
4) Let no evil come out of your mouth. I read once that this phrase is better translated as “let no putrid talk come out of your mouth.” Don’t say malicious words that infect the entire community. Putrefaction is a sign of death. This a community of life where Christ is a fragrant offering.
5) Do not lament these changes that are being asked of you. Yes, itt is hard to change. It is hard to learn to live life differently. This guidance is a gift, even when living different is a struggle. The changes brought on by the struggle to live life anew are signs of the Holy Spirit. These holy struggles are what redemption looks like.
6) Put aside bitterness, wrath, and manipulation. It does not further the cause of Christ.
7) Be kind. Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Confession and forgiveness are central to who we are.
These seven pieces of guidance, not rules, exactly, but practices to guide our life together, they are not simple. But, they are good. They are worth trying. The person who wrote Ephesians (we’re not sure if it was Paul or a student of Paul’s) said to follow this guidance is no small feat. He said it was, in fact, like imitating God. You see, God is rooted in truth and resists malice. God offers forgiveness in place of bitterness. God allows second chances. When we do these things, we are living a life changed by the God whom we imitate... we are reflecting God’s light through the prism of our own experience, back out into the world.
This is a world that too often needs a reminder of God’s spirit of love and forgiveness. This weekend is the anniversary of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one woman, Heather Heyer, who was imitating God’s call to truth-telling, was run over by a white supremacist attending the rally. Today, white supremacists are rallying in Washington, D.C. to call for the creation of a version of this country that runs completely counter to the values outlined in today’s scripture. These events, both a year ago and today, are marked by bitterness, malice, manipulation, and fear. Thank God the church can be a counter example of such hatefulness. Thank God that Jesus showed us how to live differently in this world. Thank God that Gaby, Alice, and Penny are being baptized today, reminding us of what it means to commit to God and to a community of faith. We have already been made more generous, more lively, and more kind by their presence in this church. Their choice to partake in this sacrament is a gift to us, reminding us of the power of faith to change ourselves and our world for the better.
I know I’ve been changed. I know they’ve been changed. I know we’ve been changed and we can be instruments through which God works to change this world. We will imitate God today, welcoming them, again, into this church. They will imitate God today, by standing with us and celebrating. May we all be ready to imitate God in this world. It is so much better to live in love than in hate. Indeed, that’s how we know we’ve been changed. When we seek that kind of love instead of malice. Let us practice this love together and out in the world beyond our doors.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.Therefore it is said,
‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’
(When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:1-16- Growing in Every Way
In a recent conversation with my colleague Rabbi Erica Asch, she said that she thinks when certain ideas are repeated in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they are important, it also means that they were hard for people to learn. God, and our ancient teachers, have to keep repeating themselves because we keep forgetting the lesson. Our reading from Ephesians carries with it a lesson that might seem familiar to people who have heard different parts of the Bible. You may have heard something like it when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves in the Gospel of Mark. Or maybe you heard something similar in the letters to the Corinthians when the people argue about, well, everything. I imagine that this reading may feel familiar if you’ve ever been a part of a group of people that has struggled to have one single identity when members of the group feel like they are really different from each other. Being a church, a group of loving but fallible humans, has never been easy. It wasn’t during the earliest days of this movement and it’s not now. But, it is possible to have rich, gracious Christian community shared among all kinds of people. We just keep needing to be reminded of that fact. This portion of Ephesians shows how one particular group of Christians kept learning how to be church together.
Scholars tell us that Ephesus was an important and diverse city in ancient Rome. It is not surprising that the church reflected the community in which it developed. Some of these Christians were Jewish. Some were Gentile. The early Christian movement became well known for including people of lots of different ethnicities, as well as different social classes. Slaves, wealthy widow women, everyday tradespeople, fishermen, and farmers all came together in many ancient churches. While it was great to live in such a diverse community, it could also be difficult to build relationships class and ethnic boundaries. This is certainly true of the diverse church of Ephesus.
They were complaining about each other, specifically about who got to have the most authority and privilege in their community. According to the scholar Grace Ji-Sun Kim, it appears that these Christians wanted to draw lines of privilege based on both ethnic background and type of service to which one was called, types of service that I imagine may be connected to levels of education and training that people had attained. Thankfully, the author of this letter knew that Christ calls us to a community that is guided not by old social divisions, but new love in Christ.
Some people thought that the Jewish followers of Jesus, who had been Jewish himself, should have greater authority than people who came to Christ from other religious and ethnic groups. This author had to explain to them that Christ had broken down the divisions between Jew and Gentile, and that they were to no longer be bound by this particular cultural divisions. In chapter 2 of Ephesians, this author explains it this way: “For [Jesus] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us... he came and proclaimed peace to those who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Jesus himself gives people a special revelation of God that is not bound to their ethnic group.
There is a second, also important conflict in this community. That is the main point of this part of chapter 4. Not only are they having trouble navigating the old division between Jew and Gentile, they are also arguing about what kind of spiritual gifts are most important. Apparently, rather than celebrating having members who have a diversity of talents and gifts from God, they were arguing over who's gifts were most important. It would be like our Sunday School teachers, choir, trustees, and deacons all fighting over whose job was more important to the church. They apparently spent at least part of their precious time together jockeying for position, trying to assert that prophets were more important than pastors or teachers more important that apostles.
This author had to explain that such arguments were a waste of time and took away from the unity that they were seeking in the Gospel. He had to explain that all people received grace through Christ, and that just because the gifts may be different, that doesn't mean that one set of gifts is better than the other. These folks needed to be reminded that it takes all kinds to build the church, and it does the Gospel no good to pit people in the church against each other based on what they have gifts for doing at church. As scholar Susan Hylen put it, Christ does not require uniformity to create unity in the church. Grace abounds in many different forms and the church is richer for it.
On this day, when we welcome two people into Christian community through baptism, it is helpful to read this reminder that all of us have gifts that strengthen the church. We are a whole body, knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped. These two, Autumn and Charlotte, bring with them gifts and abilities that make us stronger and more ready to follow Jesus. This reading and their presence reminds us that each part of Christ’s body has been given gifts that allow us to serve our neighbor. We are called to use all these gifts for equipping the saints so they can better follow the Gospel. There isn’t a hierarchy of gifts. Being the body of Christ means that we are working together enriched by our differences, not divided by them.
While I think this author may underestimate the gift of childlike grace, I do think they were on to something when they talked about “growing in every way” so that we become more like Christ who is leading us. It’s like we are all puzzle pieces, holding a small spark of God, that can only be clearly seen when we join together. Without each of our gifts, we miss something of the Divine. When we all aren’t present, we don’t have all the ligaments that help us move. Even though we are spending our day celebrating Autumn and Charlotte’s baptism, and we typically aren’t arguing about prestige and authority, I think it’s good to be reminded just how necessary we each are to the whole. It is our calling to equip the saints in our lives and to recognize the gifts they bring to the church. The gifts don't have to all be the same. The people don’t have to be all the same either. We just have to be ready to use what we have to serve God and neighbor. God has never needed us to be all the same. God has just needed us to be ready. Are you ready to grow in every way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5203
Brian Peterson: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3749
Sarah Henrich: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2599
Susan Hylen: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=373
Grace Ji-Sun Kim, "Proper 13 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songsand lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
It was told King David, ‘The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.’ So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lordhad gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt-offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
To Dance with God: 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
What exactly is this ark that has gotten David so excited that he is dancing down the street? This does not seem like typical king behavior. Given that we don’t talk about the ark of the covenant every week, it's probably a good idea to take some time to remind ourselves just what it is. I mean, some of us might have some idea because we've seen that one Indiana Jones movie where a bunch of Nazis are looking for it and end up with their faces melted off. I must warn you, there is much less face-melting in 2nd Samuel. There are a few plagues and a whole bunch of dancing, but no face-melting. What is all this dancing about anyway? Who is it for?
The scholar Samuel Giere wrote a summary that I found helpful, especially since the ark is in two other books before it pops back up here in this book. Here's the short version of the ark's history. Way back during the Exodus, God told Moses to have someone craft an ark, which is kind of a container, that will hold the tablets of the first ten commandments. An artisan named Bezalel created it. Moses put the tablets inside and then put the whole thing into the newly constructed tabernacle. When they left Mount Sinai, they carried the ark with them. Later, in the book of Joshua, the ark was at the front of their procession across the Jordan River. And, later still, in the terrible massacre of Jericho, the soldiers march the ark around the city walls before the walls come tumbling down.
Then, we really don't hear about the ark again until the time of Samuel, the last judge to rule the Israelites before the monarchy began. Samuel slept in the room with the ark when he was a boy. In this book of the Bible, the people called the Philistines are the greatest enemies of the Israelites. Early in 1st Samuel, they steal the ark. While nobody's face melts off, a bunch of other really bad stuff happens to them, like tumors and town-wide panics. Scripture tells us they were happy to give the ark back, and even threw in a little extra gold for the Israelites trouble. The ark got left in a town called Baale- Judah. David, our dancing king, decided to bring it from there to Jerusalem.
To catch us up on what has been going on in 2nd Samuel, David had been consolidating his power and had defeated the Philistines, winning the city of Jerusalem. As one who, since a very young age, has felt God at work in his life, David wanted to bring the ark, the symbol of the covenant and the very presence of God, into the city that would come to be central to Israelite worship. Remember, this ark isn't simply a keepsake box to hold special trinkets. That is one thing the Indiana Jones movie got right. It was very special. Somewhere between its creation and the march into the Promised Land, this ark became known the central site for God's presence with God's people. It's like when you hold a magnifying glass in the sun, condensing all the sun's powers into one hot, burning point: The ark was the hot, burning point of God. The ark is God's throne. The ark is also a speaker through which God makes Godself known. In parts of Numbers and Exodus, it says that Moses would hear God from between the two Cherubin on the ark. In retrospect, it makes sense that David would want this tangible presence of God to be in the midst of his people in their new capital.
I imagine that many of us understand the celebration part of this story. A battle has been won and God is being brought into the city. Of course, David would dance. Of course, the people would play instruments and sing with great joy. Of course, they would build a brand-new cart in which to transport the ark. God was returning to the midst of the people. This is a reason to celebrate. So, bring on the lyres, harps, tambourines, and cymbals! But this story isn’t all celebration.
I don't know if you were paying attention to this whole passage, but did you notice that the story goes from verses 1-6 to verses 12-19. There's a story in the middle that’s left out of today’s reading. It is not a joyful one. It’s one that reminds us that God's power as resides in the ark is not a neutral force. For all the joy that can come from restoration with the Divine, the God of David was dangerous, too. When the ark was not handled with a specific kind of care, people could die, and, not just people who were identified as enemies like the Philistines. In the story that is left out of today's reading, an Israelite man named Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark to keep it from tipping out of the fancy new cart. God got mad. God killed Uzzah because he touched the ark without permission. It doesn't seem to matter that Uzzah was trying to keep the ark from falling. He still died.
David, who had moments earlier been dancing his heart out, erupted in fear and anger against God. He did not anticipate a seemingly innocent man's death in the middle of his victorious parade. David then began to doubt that he could be a good steward of the ark. After such a terrible incident, he said, "How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?" He took it to the home of a man named Obed-edom and left it there for three months. He could not see a way forward after such a terrible and terrifying act. I read a scholar this week named David Garber, Jr. who said this part of the story, the story of the death of Uzzah, is hard for a lot of Christians to know what to do with. We often think of God as approachable, like as Jesus who welcomes children or a God who is like a gentle, powerful parent. This God in this story is the opposite of approachable. Garber says this God is shaped by a sense of dangerous otherness. We end up doing what David did. Put that terrifying mystery somewhere else. We don’t tell that story at church. We avoid the dangerous other until we can figure out what to do with it. Let’s skip that part of the story and get back to the dancing.
We do eventually get back to the dancing. Having the ark, while dangerous, was also a blessing to Obed-edom. His household prospered. Three months after the first disastrous attempt to bring the ark into Jerusalem, David tried again. He danced again, though it seems with more intention and maybe a touch of solemnity. David danced before God giving all he could, with only trumpets to guide the rhythm. He does something other interesting stuff, too, stuff that priests only usually did. He wore a small piece of clothing called an ephod (and little else). He performed a sacrifice. He constructed a tent in which to house the ark. He even blessed and fed his people. His wife Michal saw all this leaping and dancing in not nearly enough clothes and though David had debased himself instead of shorn up his reign as king. But, David was satisfied with his procession. The people seemed satisfied, too. God quietly sat among the people, not too disturbed to strike anyone down and seemingly prepared to offer blessing over punishment once again.
This is a complex text, isn't it? I mean, the most straightforward reading, the one facilitated by chopping up the story to emphasize the two dancing parades while also pairing it with today’s other reading, the joyful Psalm 24 that discusses God's power and enthronement over the world... that reading is a pretty joyful one. Our church and our world could probably use some more joyful dancing. But, a comedian named Hannah Gadsby recently pointed out, our stories are shaped as much by what we don't tell as what we do tell. Uzzah died, punished by a mysterious God. Michal was not impressed by her husband's pageantry. This story, while bracketed by raucous dancing, is not wholly joyful. The God in this story, pleased with dance and song, but angered by an errant touch, is not wholly approachable or even really fully comprehensible.
Another scholar I read this week, Cláudio Carvalhaes, suggested asking a couple questions of a text to help capture the breadth of possible interpretations and maybe even identify what interpretation is most needed today. Let's think about the most local version of “community” first. What does each text have to do with us and our community of Winthrop? On your bulletin, write down these questions: What is God telling us to consider? What is God telling us to do in Winthrop? To Change? To Move? To Engage? To transform, right here, today with guidance from this complicated story? We are in a curious season of the church year, between the firey beginnings of Pentecost and the expectant and hopeful beginnings of Advent. This is a time when we are guided by the Holy Spirit, through the texts we've inherited. What is the Spirit telling you about these texts today? Let's be quiet together for just a moment, then we'll sing a little and pray. After that, I‘ll invite you to share what the text and the Spirit are saying to you today.
* If you are reading this sermon after I preached it, I invite you to write in the comment section of this post what about this story is inspiring you today.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Samuel Giere: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3683
Cláudio Carvalhaes, "Proper 10(15)," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
David G. Garber, Jr.: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2526
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Maryand brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
What You Carry With You
I went back this week and looked at the first sermon I preached here as your pastor. Not the one with the plates... that was my candidating sermon (if you weren't here for the sermon about the plates, ask me about it after church)… but the first one I preached after I officially began my time here as your pastor. I remember feeling a lot of pressure that Sunday... pressure to do well, pressure to be interesting and insightful, pressure to do right by the scripture I was preaching. And, boi, was it a doozy. It was so complicated. It was a part of Matthew 11 that was half annoyed Jesus and half compassionate Jesus. It's not that irritation and compassion don't go together. How many of us have found ourselves both irritated and compassionate over the last couple weeks? That's what Jesus was feeling in that reading. Frustrated with religious leaders in his community and trying to lead with compassion in his life. It was a heavy story from the middle of Jesus' ministry that was about being in the middle, as in, in the midst of ministry. At the beginning of our ministry together, I had been hoping for something a little perkier to start off our time together.
I think I was looking for an optimistic setting-off-on-an-adventure story. Kind of like a "once upon a time" but without the fairytale mess that can follow. But, since I often preach from a preset reading schedule precisely so I will be pushed to preach difficult texts, I went with the text suggested for the day. Four years later, I've been trying to figure out if I would have been more confident then preaching on our Gospel text for today. This story from Mark isn't from the middle of ministry. It's fairly near the beginning. Jesus has been baptized. He has been doing some preaching and healing. He's even gotten some disciples. He has been traveling around the area a bit and has decided to return to his hometown. We're not exactly sure why he came back, but it seems like he's beginning something, and his hometown is as good a place to start as any. On my first Sunday as your pastor, maybe I would have liked to preach about something starting. Or, maybe not. It turns out that this was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
Did you hear what happened in this story? Jesus was back home preaching at the synagogue and everybody wondered who they heck he was. I mean, they knew who he was. He was a carpenter. They knew his brothers James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. They saw his sisters crowded around. They knew his mama. Most of all, they knew that skilled in wood-working though he may be, there was no way he should have had the confidence to preach the way he did. How could a boy from this neighborhood grow up to be a man who could work such miracles? There was no way he could. They had changed his diapers. They knew all the stories of his teenage indiscretions. There was no way they could take him seriously. So, scripture tells us, they didn't.
Their inability to take Jesus seriously ends up having real consequences. Did you notice the part where Jesus is unable to heal anyone there? It said, "he could do no deeds of power except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them." A scholar I read this week said we need to pay particular attention to this part. In the first five chapters of Mark, Jesus is able to do all kinds of things that demonstrate his power. Just last week we heard about the woman who was healed after touching his cloak and another girl he healed. In the first five chapters, he was powerful enough that just touching his clothes could heal someone. He was powerful enough that even death could not stop him. Why, all the sudden, wouldn't Jesus be able to live out such power? The scholar I read this week, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, says it has everything to do with what the people believe.
Let’s look back at some of the other works of power Jesus performed. In Mark 2:5, a man is brought to Jesus to be healed. His friends actually lower him through a hole in the roof of building in order to get to Jesus. Jesus saw the faith of this man, and the friends who lowered him through the hole, and said his sins were forgiven and he told him to pick up his mat and walk. And, the man did. When the woman touched Jesus in 5:34, he said that her faith is what really made her well. Even after this encounter in chapter 6, in chapter 7, when a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, it is her stalwart faith and stubborn hope that convinced Jesus to do so. Let us also not forget that when a father brought his son to Jesus to be healed in chapter 9, Jesus told the man that all things can be done for the one who believes. Immediately, the man cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief." Jesus healed that man’s son, too.
Did you hear the key element in all of those stories? Belief. In Mark, healing only comes with believing. Power isn't something Jesus inflicts on you without your consent. Every time he speaks, it is an invitation to believe. Those who cannot hear him... who choose not to listen... they miss out on the transformation. When Jesus went home, only a couple people were able to be healed. They believed. Everyone else, they thought they knew Jesus too well for that. How could the carpenter heal anyone? How could Mary's boy preach like that? They were too distracted by what they thought they knew to be able to receive something that would give them new life. How could Jesus start something new with them if they wouldn't believe? The power was always in the belief.
Interestingly, even with the setbacks in his home town, Jesus doesn't stop teaching, though he doesn't stay in town, either. He begins to travel to other villages in the community. It’s like if Winthrop was his home, but he went to Wayne and Monmouth and Readfield, maybe even as far as Fayette and Mount Vernon. Interestingly, he only taught these other towns. He did not do the signs of wonder and healings. It’s like the experience in his hometown taught him that these were his people. They knew him too well to believe. But, he also didn't want to leave them without the possibility of transformation. You see, even if they couldn't believe him, they might believe others. So, he sent out the twelve.
Because divine power in most fully made manifest in relationship, Jesus sent his followers out in sets of two and asked that they be fully reliant on other people's hospitality while they did the work of the Gospel. They could only take a walking stick, the clothes on their back, and the shoes on their feet. This was an urgent calling. They didn't have time to gather provisions. God would provide for them through other people. They were to take the hospitality offered to them, not travel around to see who had the cushiest house for them to stay in. He also gave them another direction. He said, “Don't try to make them let you stay if they can't hear you. Leave. Shake the dust of their homes off your feet. Do not even carry their unbelief with you on to the next, possibly holy ground.” Jesus then gave them the power to heal and drive out unclean spirits, work that only he had been doing up until this point. Off they went, and they healed people and drove away demons. They did the work that others would not have let Jesus do by himself. Their own faith in Jesus helped them carry his message in a way the people could finally hear it.
I began today's sermon remembering my first sermon as your pastor. In that sermon, I talked about how Christ's call to compassion may look heavy and unwieldy, like the yoke we'd find on oxen. Today, four years into our ministry together, I think it's worth noting that sometimes we may have an idea about how we might start a ministry, like Jesus did in his hometown, and sometimes, the first idea doesn't actually work all that well. Sometimes what we're preaching isn't connecting because the people can't hear us. They have too many preconceived notions about who we are and what we could possibly know about healing and wholeness. If the people aren't hearing us, we may have to be like Jesus and find another way to do the Gospel. Jesus sent out the twelve and asked that they fully rely on God and other people. What is our next strategy for sharing Christ's message of healing and wholeness? Are we the ones being sent out, two by two, or are we training up the ones who will be sent?
Jesus' message is worth sharing, even if initially others may not be able to hear us. They didn't always hear Jesus. But, he made sure that everyone got the chance to hear and believe. He found a way to get more people to hear. We can, too. Who are the people who need to hear God's word of love and justice in this place? How can we make sure they hear it from people who they can trust and believe? Who are you able to go to with just a walking stick and sandles, and invite to believe?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Cláudio Carvalhaes: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3729
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5186
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002)
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.