Friday, November 17, 2017

What can we say come July 1? 6th after Pentecost

     At least for us, July 1 will be a low attendance Sunday.  Also for us, on the Sunday close to July 4, we get dinged for not being sufficiently patriotic.  I wonder, with the fourth falling mid-week, if a bit of that will be mitigated.  I do try to draw on something July 4-ish (like the reconciled friendship between Jefferson and Adams - wonderfully retold in Gordon Wood's new book) so the disappointed will not feel entirely disenfranchised.  The Old Testament opens a little window to talk about the sorrowful loss of life in a national battle.  Delicate stuff.

     Grief marks all 3 texts, 2 Samuel and Mark directly (albeit with a quick cure in the latter), and 2 Corinthians indirectly (as Paul is fundraising for people who are dying from the famine).

     And so we begin with 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27, David’s moving, eloquent elegy over the tragic death of his beloved nemesis, Saul, and also the one he loved more than women, Jonathan (although David’s love for women veered toward the manipulative and abusive, didn’t it?).  David has passed on his own opportunities to dispatch Saul (1 Samuel 24, 26), and now grieves his passing.  No gloating, no triumphant mood.  Was it yet even more PR, more BS?  David is a broken mess; mothers don’t want their daughters to marry such a man – and yet his deep emotion, his contrite grief at sorrowful moments, seems to me to be genuine.

   In his splendid Brazos commentary on 2 Samuel, Robert Barron speaks of David as “a forerunner of Lincoln or Churchill.” We may not recall Lincoln’s military decisions, or Churchill’s practical direction of the war; “But is there an American who does not know the words, rhythms, and cadences of the Gettysburg Address? Lincoln led as much through poetic speech as through canny administration.” And who could forget Churchill’s stirring eloquence? “Leadership is a complex, multifaceted skill involving management and vision but also the capacity to engage the imaginations of those to be led.”

 Indeed, when Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s worst political foe, died just six months after his resignation in shame, Churchill summoned this marvelous tribute: speaking of Chamberlain’s disappointed dreams, he spoke of them as “surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour.

Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.” 

   Barron dissects David’s lovely song: “Glory” could also mean “gazelle,” intimating Saul was like a graceful animal finally tracked down. The “heights” were where Israelites often foiled their plain-preferring enemies (although there could be a hint that worship at the “high places,” which led to Saul’s and Israel’s repeated downfalls, lingers in there as a warning). David sings of Saul’s sword “not returning empty” – and of course, it had when he tried to kill David! The “daughters” weep over Saul – an obvious echo of their earlier chant when they praised David killing even more than Saul (1 Sam. 18:7).

   The song is intense, pulsating with sorrow – perhaps especially over Jonathan.  I love David Wolpe’s brilliant insight (in his fabulous biography of David) – noting the way as a boy David is full of music, and even here he produces a marvelous song for the occasion.  But as his own life breaks down, as his kingdom suffers one shock after another, and then when Absalom finally dies, “Now he can barely speak.”  Preaching feels the pain, preaching doesn’t trivialize loss, preaching provides words for the people out there, every Sunday, who very deeply feel the absence of someone they have loved – and often someone with whom the relationship was, like’s David’s with Saul, never reconciled.

    Before looking to the Epistle, let’s touch on the Gospel, Mark 5:21-43. Scholars rightly point out the artistic brilliance of Mark’s narrative – but should we better speak of the complex and brilliant wonder of Jesus’ life? 
The interruption on the way to Jairus’ house: is it Mark’s artistry? Or wasn’t Jesus the ultimately interruptible one? 

My mentor in scholarship, ministry and life, Father Roland Murphy, was stunning interruptible – part of his goodness to me and others.  

Anne Lamott famously wrote, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” Maybe there is a discipleship element in having plans but being ever ready to have them interrupted?

    A woman, who surely is sick and tired of being sick and tired, living (barely) in an era when physicians (despite their best efforts) did more harm than good, presses through the crowd and touches the hem of his garment – and is healed.  This semi-magical touch isn’t characteristic of the Gospel way.  Of more interest is the way the disciples never comprehend the press of the crowd, and how Jesus doesn’t mind.  Children aren’t to be hushed or sent away.  Jesus notices the one in the throng – reminding me of G.K. Chesterton’s lovely assessment of St. Francis: “He couldn’t see the forest for the trees; he didn’t want to.”

   Who could fail to be moved by the dramatic scene of so much wailing at Jairus’s home? And the way Jesus’ glimmer of hope elicits laughter – an echo of the cynical laughter turned to giddy delight in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac (Gen. 17-18, 21).  And how tender that Jesus speaks simply to the little girl – and Mark preserves his original Aramaic words, Talitha cum!  I will forever think of my friend (and the brilliant scholar) Ben Witherington when I ponder this text.  When his daughter Christy died unexpectedly, he explored his deep sorrow in a Christianity Today article that focused on this text (and then in e-book form, When a Daughter Dies: Walking the way of grace in the midst of our grief).

     And for me, that little detail at the end of the pericope, gathers up so much of Jesus’ tenderness, children’s real needs, and even some Eucharistic undertones: “Give her something to eat.”

     Finally we come to the unseen grief of unknown people – which is what so much of Christian mission is about. Our Epistle, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, is a subsection of the greatest fundraising letter in history.  How radical was Paul’s request for funding? In my exploration (in Worshipful) of the meaning of passing the offering plates, I point out that “In the ancient world, where charity just didn’t happen, and where the wealthy endowed games, parades and marble temples but never assistance for the needy, Paul asked people he’d recently met to give up hard earned money for people they had never met and would never meet… Whatever we might think about the poor and charity, Paul established giving as a holy obligation. Never forget that for Paul, the poor also are required to help the poor! Some of the most courageous, impactful ministries for the poor I’ve seen in my lifetime are fully carried out by people we’d think of as poor. I have a friend in Lithuania who engages in startlingly effective ministry with the poorest of the poor – while she herself is poor. And when I’ve preached in Haiti, we take up a collection for, yes, the poor.” Of course, we move beyond toxic charity, and we heed John Wesley’s counsel that it is better to deliver aid than to send it. But the increasingly popular notion that the poor should fend for themselves is unholy, unscriptural, and grieves the compassionate heart of God.

    In our Epistle, we are treated to the theological basis, motivation and necessity for giving (all rooted, not a charitable moods or tax reduction, but in that Jesus “was rich, and for our sakes became poor so we might become rich”).  I love Paul’s finger-wagging urgency: “Do something! Finish it!”  And the mood matters: Paul wants “eagerness.”  I hope all clergy understand that an annual stewardship sermon is a tactical mistake.  We preach money and stewardship all year along, or not at all – and it’s not nagging to give, but understanding the holy exchange of wealthy and poverty that is the Gospel life and the missional delight.  After all, July 4 is coming… and Americans need a radical cure from the bogus notion that I’m free to do what I want with what is mine.

    As a footnote to this, I would commend a wonderful book by Peter Brown (St. Augustine’s great biographer), Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D.  As it’s a dense, long, and small-fonted book, I pieced together a little summary of it…  Noting how the ancient world knew nothing of charity of those in need, he suggests that the bishops and the church “invented the poor,” at least as people to be noticed and cared for.  Of course, what Brown brilliant clarifies, is that the development of charity was not just strange to the Roman world – but should have been strange for the Christians. The Church, even at its most charitable, has adjusted to a far lower standard than the one Jesus taught, demonstrated and died for.  I love Brown’s phrasing: “Worldly-wise bishops offered the average rich Christian a series of compromises – almsgiving, church building, testamentary bequests – as so many consolation prizes for having failed the primal test of passing through the eye of a needle.”  He also, hauntingly for readers of a blog like mine, argues that the wealthy increasingly associated the bishops and clergy with the poor – and in fact decided to keep them poor themselves, so they would be dependent and not difficult.


 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 

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