Sunday, July 26, 2009

On the Green Grass: Sermon on Mark 6:3-44

Yes, it is true: this is not the passage that was appointed by the lectionary. They offered John's account of the loaves and fishes. I decided to use Mark's.

Sometimes all it takes is the tiniest detail to change a story, to make it something it never was before. Like the story we are reading today: I wonder how many times each one of us has read this passage, or heard it. Some version of it is repeated no fewer than 6 times in the New Testament, twice in the gospel of Mark alone—the story of how Jesus takes a few loaves of bread and fishes and stretches them to feed, not just a dozen, not just a hundred, but thousands of people. It is safe to say, this is one of the central stories of the Christian story, one of the scenes that is recognizably “us.” It’s one of those stories that, if we have been members of the church for any time at all—or even, if we have been paying attention to Monty Python movies—it is one of those stories we know. It’s our story.

And yet… each time the story is told and re-told, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there are details that are included or left out that can change how we understand the story. Today, we will be paying attention to certain details Mark feels compelled to include. Today, we will be noticing his particular version, found in chapter 6.

The first detail I want us to notice has to do with the context of the story. What has been happening, just prior to this episode? Mark tells us, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (6:30). Jesus’ disciples have just returned from their first foray out into the world without Jesus. He has sent them off, for all intents and purposes, without their training wheels. They’ve gone out with some pretty strict instructions… they were to go two by two, and they were to take virtually nothing with them in the way of provisions. They were to rely on the kindness of strangers, staying with hospitable people. And they were to preach the good news and do their best with the healings and the exorcisms. And, apparently, their foray without training wheels has gone pretty darned well: Mark tells us, “…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” (6:12-13). Nice job! And now they’re back again. And Jesus does something pretty pastoral, and pretty smart. He invites them to take a rest. “He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves” (6:31-32).

That just makes sense: down time. About fifteen years ago I was with a bunch of college friends who had gathered for an informal summer reunion at the beach in Maine. This is that group I’ve mentioned to some of you; out of eight of us who hung around together in college, one is a priest, one is a minister and one is a rabbi. We are our own punch line. We usually attempt to walk into a bar together, at least once. At the point of this reunion, we were all at pretty disparate stages of life—some were already settled in careers, others were still searching, some were married, some were single, one or two had children. One friend, G., was in the midst of an internship in Internal Medicine and Family Practice at a hospital in Massachusetts. The coupled ones started to press him about his single status. “Come on, G.,” we chided him. Still not dating anyone? Aren’t you ready to settle down yet?” G. shook his head emphatically, and spoke of his work as a doctor. “All I do is talk to people, and touch people,” he said, “for stretches of forty-eight-hours at a time or longer. When I get home all I want to do is be by myself. The last thing I want to do is to be with someone, or to touch someone. The last thing I want is to date someone.” We backed right off. Clearly, for G., at least, the work he was doing as a healer was absolutely draining him dry. The time for dating was some other time. He needed his down time badly.

Now imagine Jesus’ disciples. An intense speaking tour combined with the work of healing and casting out demons sounds like pretty exhausting work. Of course they’d need down time. And so Jesus wisely tries to arrange it. They pile into a boat and head off away from the crowds. That’s the first detail that makes this come alive for me: how drained and exhausted Jesus and the disciples were. How badly they needed a rest.

Of course, the crowds simply keep coming, and a rest would not seem to be in the cards for anyone this day. So, as Jesus is disembarking from the boat, he sees again an enormous crowd, and he is moved to compassion for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (6:34b). Here’s another one of those details that jumps out as new to me: “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” What about that crowd struck Jesus that way? Did they have a particularly lost look about them? Were they wandering around, looking unsettled and confused? Or did they look as if they were afraid?

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to glean that the life of a first century Palestinian Jew might have been a fear-filled life. There was the matter of being occupied by the awe-inspiring and brutal Roman Empire. There was the matter of disease and, apparently fairly prevalent demon-possession. There was the social stratification that placed the vast majority of Jesus’ audience either at the bottom of the pecking order or off the chart entirely. Life was nasty, brutish and short, and fear was a daily condition of life. Like sheep without a shepherd, the people were living in fear.

Our fear is not something most of us like to talk about. Much of the time, it is there beneath the surface, a kind of low-level, nagging sensation that we try not to pay too much attention to. But it is very real. And we have many of the same things to fear as people in the ancient world: disease. Violence. Uncertain economic times. The possibility of job loss, the possibility of not finding another job after the loss. The general fear of being rejected—either personally, or professionally. Our children’s safety, and our own. Aging, death. The list goes on, and each of us can add to it, tweak it so that it reflects a perfect little map of our psyches. Like sheep without a shepherd, we can live in fear.

Only, there is a shepherd. Here’s the detail that changes this whole reading for me: after noticing that the hour is late, and after finding out exactly how much in the way of provisions the disciples have to feed the crowd (not much; remember Jesus’ instructions on going out. These folks were traveling light)… after all that, Mark offers us this detail: “Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass” (6:39). If there existed any doubt in our mind as to what this story is trying to tell us, I believe this single, lovely detail can help us to turn our attention in the right direction.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. ~Psalm 23

Jesus is tired, and all his friends and followers are tired, and he has encountered this crowd on whom he has compassion, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus and his friends move beyond their tiredness and demonstrate, in as vividly as possible, how Jesus is the shepherd these tired and frightened sheep have been looking for. He makes them recline in green pastures. He restores their soul. In his presence, all those things that haunt their sleep—all the fears in which they live—vanish. He prepares a table for them. Even at his most depleted, he offers hospitality. He is the shepherd they have been looking for.

And the bread and fish are abundant. Out of a few loaves and fishes a dozen baskets full of leftovers emerge, and let’s not overlook that detail either. How many disciples do we traditionally think of? A dozen.

The lives of disciples can be pretty exhausting and overwhelming, then and now. I know that the mountains of details that need to be seen to can make this work feel overwhelming at times, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. The details of our lives—and remember, we are the church, wherever we go and whatever we do—can be overwhelming, and sometimes we need a break, a time out, a time away, like Jesus and his disciples were striving for. But I also know that sometimes the work must come first. Sometimes the needs are so pressing, we need to press on as well, in order to respond to those needs. The truck full of tools that has to be taken to the Gulf Coast. The funeral luncheon that must happen. The person who needs a ride to the doctor. The friend who needs a listening ear, and a word of encouragement. Sometimes we need to press on, even when we think we are so tired we just can’t do it.

And this gospel story is telling us, in the same breath: do take the time to rest. You need it. You deserve it. And when rest is impossible, when you need to press on, know that you too will be provided for. A dozen baskets of food for a dozen disciples: it’s no accident. This our good shepherd too, one who is ready to provide for us as well. I think that’s one reason why this is our story. This story still applies to us, this central story of the Christian life with its lessons of rest, and comfort from our fears, and hidden abundance. This is our story, and the angels are in the details: the acknowledgment that life is hard and tiring. The encouragement to take our place on the green grass for a time of refreshment. The assurance that we will be cared for and fed, even as we are encouraged to care and to feed. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene

Anyone who has wandered by this blog at least has a glimmer that I have an interest in/ obsession with/ fascination about Mary Magdalene. It is a name I have adopted for myself, at least here in blogland. I thought to write about Mary and select an image from the internet to go with my writing. But as I browsed, I realized the sheer diversity/ disconnection of the myriad images of Mary make an interesting topic in themselves.

Take the Donatello above. This statue is related to late mythology about Mary, that she ended her life as a hermit, atoning for her sins. None of which is mentioned in the scriptural accounts, mind you. All of which were attached to her in the early medieval period by a pope who, apparently, thought she needed to be taken down a peg.

The image above speaks, still, to her attached identity as "sinner." Clearly, say "woman" and "sinner" in the same breath and you get: "sex!" Mary has been identified, variously, as having been a prostitute (again, no scriptural evidence whatsoever) or the woman taken in adultery (I repeat myself to the point of becoming tiresome: no evidence, unless you count the interpretation by Franco Zeffirelli).

This anime representation intrigues me because it is so devoid of content. The most I can say about it is: frilly collar? Really? And yet, it appeals to me, because I think Mary has very much become a tabula rasa on which we all project our wishes and hopes (and fears and anxieties).
This much we know about her: She is named as one of the women who followed Jesus (as in, "Follow me") and provided for him and the disciples out of their means. I would posit that this brings her into the circle of disciples. We also know that Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary. (Aforementioned pope draws an equation between these and the seven deadly sins, leading to the idea of Mary as sinner, prostitute, etc.) And, finally, and I think this is what the fuss is really all about, we know that Mary was both at the cross (looking on from a distance) and at the tomb on Easter morning-- it says so in all four gospels. And she is the only person at both those places, in all four gospels. Which makes her the pre-eminent witness to both the crucifixion and the resurrection.
A woman with that much moral/ethical power in the ancient, very male-oriented world? Must be taken down a peg.

Please note: I subscribe to a brand of Christianity which recognizes that we are all sinners. I'm not trying to say Mary was somehow exempt from that bit of being human. I also am neutral as to the subject of her having been a prostitute; I'd have no "problem" with it, if there were a shred of evidence of it being true. Jesus' affect on people, the ways in which he helped them to break out of all sorts of prisons, would make sense for someone who was a sex worker, and such a breaking of chains would be incredibly, poetically beautiful. In fact I'd love it. If it were true for Mary Magdalene. Which, apparently, it is not.
Why do I love her so? Perhaps precisely because she has been so manipulated, and yet the truth of her unique witness still bursts through the muck of the manipulation. Perhaps because smearing a powerful woman is an old, old story, and I appreciate that so many know the truth about her now. Perhaps because of the sexy pictures! Who knows. But I have adopted her, I have taken her on, and she is the apostola apostolorum, apostle to the apostles, and for that, any woman would have to want to follow in her footsteps.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Spiritual Blueprints: Sermon on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22

Some of my favorite summer memories, as a very little girl, had to do with weekend visits from our city cousins. This was a family of boys on my mom’s side, all in their early twenties who regularly took a break from working construction in hot Philadelphia to stay at a little bungalow on the water, just a few blocks from where I grew up. The boys seemed to bring the fun with them, and that bungalow holds memories of “firsts” for me—everything from the first time I heard the voice of Janis Joplin belting out “Me and Bobby McGee” (that was during a twilight barbecue; the memory of her voice echoing across the water is mingled with the aroma of sizzling hamburgers) to the first time I ever went swimming at night in the ocean (because my big, strong cousins were there to protect me! Years later I found out that, at six, I could have out swum any one of them). These memories have a special charm for me because that bungalow is no longer there. That bungalow fell to a great building project.

Also from the time I was a very little girl, my parents were planning to build their dream house. We lived in a big, comfortable apartment over the family business, but from the moment they discovered that bungalow, the waterfront location enchanted them. They had a vision, they could see it: our family, living on the water.

As early as fifth grade I remember the blueprints spread across our kitchen table, and the conversations about the permits my parents would need to enlarge the footprint of the house, to drill pilings into the water so that a deck could be added and docks for boats. When I was in high school my mother and father attended hearings for those permits, some of which they returned home from tight-lipped and angry. The permits for the pilings were the hardest to get—the house was on the inland waterway, a federally protected area, and for a time it seemed the project was, in fact, dead in the water. But the summer before I left for college they finally broke ground to begin construction. A decorator was hanging blinds in the bedrooms the same month I received my bachelors’ degree. To my parents’ everlasting chagrin, only a part of their vision came true: I lived in the house exactly one summer, the summer before I got married, at age 21, to my college sweetheart.

Building plans are notorious for the hitches, the glitches, the stopping and starting again. I have never met a person who built a house who didn’t have some story to tell of the hurdles they had to overcome, the unforeseen problems with the site, the permits, the neighbors, the financing. Building is a tricky business. The one who wants to build has to have a firmness of purpose and intention that is almost religious in nature: they have to be able to see it, that long dreamed-of home, they have to have the determination and the vision to see the project through to its completion.

David has a building project in mind in this week’s passage from 2 Samuel. All claims to the throne but his have been swept aside. “The king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him.” It’s at that point that he turns to his chief advisor, the prophet Nathan, and muses, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Remember those cedars of Lebanon, symbols of God’s strength and blessing? David has built himself a royal castle, and his conscience is gnawing at him: perhaps the ark of God deserves at least as royal a dwelling as the king?

Understand: the ark held the tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God. God’s handwriting! But it held much more than that: the ark was believed to house what in Hebrew is called the Shekhina, the very presence of God. There was nothing holier than the ark in all the history of God’s people Israel. Even the temple priests (once there was a temple) were forbidden to look directly at it. David’s concern about the ark’s housing, if genuine, was certainly understandable.

Truth be told, there was probably more to it than that. The kings of the ancient near east saw in temples and palaces opportunities to enshrine their achievements in ways that would live forever. David had what one writer calls “an edifice complex”: the idea that, ‘long after he was gone, people would look at his temple and say, "King David built that!”’ David had acquired the throne: now he wanted his acquisition to be remembered when he himself was no more than dust. He had already built his castle. Now he wanted to build Yahweh’s temple.

Initially, Nathan says, “Go to it!” But that night—in a dream?—the Lord speaks to Nathan and says, Hold on. This construction project will have to wait. Through Nathan, God challenges David:
Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word … saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” ~ 2 Samuel 7:5b-7

In other words, I think God catches on pretty well to David’s real motives here: to build something that reflects on himself, not on God. And God’s unequivocal reaction is: Don’t do it. Don’t fence me in. I have another plan for you, a set of spiritual blueprints. You say you want to build me a house? I am going to make you a house, and it isn’t going to be made out of cedar. It’s going to be your flesh and blood.

If there’s one issue that continues to appear and reappear in my work with the larger church, it’s this: an ongoing concern about buildings. And please… don’t misunderstand me: my heart is as moved by a beautiful sanctuary as the next person. I love our church… just last week you heard me waxing lyrical about the stunning beauty of our ceiling. But we make a grave error when we mistake “the building” for “the church.” A sanctuary can be beautiful, and it can be a wonderful space in which to worship, and it can contain in its walls and windows and pews a multitude of memories of those whose hard work brought it into being. But a building is not a church. A church is a thing of flesh and blood. We tend to think we go to church. We forget that we are the church.

Our reading from Ephesians brings this home:

…you are… members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. ~ Ephesians 2:19b-22

We are the church. The people of God, being built… but into what? What are God’s spiritual blueprints for us? One writer tells this story:
Sometime in the early 1970s, the president of AT&T called all his managers into a large room for an emergency meeting. Attendance was mandatory. Speculation ran high as to what announcement would be made. Perhaps a breakthrough in technology. Perhaps a downsizing. Perhaps ...... They could tell by the grim look on his face that something extremely serious was about to be revealed. When all were seated, the president went to the podium and said, "The telephone as you know it no longer exists." Muffled giggles rippled through the room. What game was this? They all knew he was wrong. They had used phones that morning. He continued: "Anyone who does not believe that statement can leave this room right now and pick up your final paycheck on the way out of the building." Sober silence prevailed. No one left. They all just stared. "Your job today is to invent one." He broke the group up into small teams and they spent the rest of the time coming up with a new phone. Some people wanted one with no cord...... in the car, or to carry around.... to know when another call was coming be able to forward calls to another number, to see the person on the other end, to send other kinds of messages on it. About 60 items distinguished the telephone they invented. Many are now the features that we take for granted, from call-waiting to [cell] phones, and the list has not yet been completed.

We are the church. The people of God, being built, according to God’s spiritual blueprints, into something we can’t even imagine yet. But it is precisely our job to begin imagining! I think the first step in imagining how God might want to build us into the church is to recognize that, like David trying to box God into a temple, we tend to box the church into these walls. But the church is so much more than that, because the church is you, going about your lives, outside these walls. The church is you, working at your computer or sawing lumber for wheelchair ramps or taking a pot of soup to someone’s house. The church is you, coaching Little League or soccer or synchronized swimming. The church is you, as you care for your aging or dying parents or spouses. The church is you, as you raise your children, sit with them as they do their homework, take them to camp. The church is you, celebrating your anniversary with your beloved. The church is you, apologizing to someone whom you have hurt, and you, accepting that apology. In everything we do, at work, at play, in and out of our homes, in and out of this building, we are the church.

The one who wants to build has to have vision. He or she has to have the burning desire to see the project through to completion. We know that God has that vision: God can already see, already does see us as the raw materials for God’s dwelling place. We are God’s long-dreamed-of home. Our task is to open our minds and hearts so that we can simply—cooperate. Be the good materials, give God the permits, sweep away all other considerations so that we can, finally, together, allow God to create in us that long dreamed-of dwelling place. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Jim Taylor, Opening Comments for Sunday July 19, 2009, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B, Midrash Discussion List.

Chuck Meyers, Dying Church, Living God: A Call to Begin Again (Kelowna, British Columbia: Northstone Publishing, 200) 37-39.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Michal: Glimpses of Grace; Sermon on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-23

I suppose at some point in their lives, many little girls—at least, little girls in the United States whose families have some disposable income—have been caught up in the “princess” phenomenon: the idea that, if I were just a princess, oh how wonderful my life would be! The thought is wrapped up in very specific visual formulae—the princess gown, the tiara. And with it comes the kind of social event that every girl either dreads or longs for: the royal ball, the royal wedding, where, as princess, she gets to be the focus of much adoring attention.

The desire is not to be queen, mind you—a woman with some power of her own, at least symbolically—but a princess. The daughter of a king or queen, a girl whose power is by association, and whose power lies, at least as the story goes, in her beauty, and usually her goodness, and, of course, her desirability.

A few years ago Peggy Orenstein wrote an article about the princess phenomenon as it has been sweeping our culture for about the past ten years. She writes,

I finally came unhinged in the dentist’s office — one of those ritzy pediatric practices tricked out with comic books, DVDs and arcade games — where I’d taken my 3-year-old daughter for her first exam. Until then, I’d held my tongue. I’d smiled politely every time the supermarket-checkout clerk greeted her with “Hi, Princess”; ignored the waitress at our local breakfast joint who called the funny-face pancakes she ordered her “princess meal”; made no comment when the lady at Longs Drugs said, “I bet I know your favorite color” and handed her a pink balloon rather than letting her choose for herself. Maybe it was the dentist’s Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” I lost it. “Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?” She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother. “Come on!” I continued, my voice rising. “It’s 2006, not 1950. This is Berkeley, Calif. Does every little girl really have to be a princess?” My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?” [1]

That little girl could easily have been me. I was raised lovingly reading and re-reading the stories of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. I became obsessed, for a time, with getting my mother to try to style my hair like Leslie Ann Warren’s up-do in the televised version of “Cinderella.” Add to that the fact that I knew that I was adopted, and you have the makings of a full-on fantasy life that includes my having actually been born a princess. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with princesses?

That would be a great question to ask Michal, who, in our passage is referred to repeatedly as the “daughter of Saul,” though she is also the wife of David. What’s wrong with being a princess? In Michal’s case, what is wrong probably has something to do with the other characters in your story. In Michal’s case, what is wrong is this: she has been caught up in the struggle for power between Saul and David.

There is something about David that is just so compelling. He is a figure who will forever be larger than life, because of the number and nature of the stories that have been preserved about him in scripture. A few weeks ago we heard the wonderful tale of the prophet Samuel looking over the sons of Jesse, one by one, until he said, “No, none of these will do.” And finally, the boy David is brought in from the pasture where he has been tending the sheep… “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome,” the passage tells us. Prince Charming himself! Samuel falls in love with him, just as, apparently, the Lord has, and promptly pours a flask of oil over his head, anointing him king over all Israel.

The problem is, there is already a king, previously anointed, and his name is Saul. But he has lost favor with the Lord, and that is why Samuel has been sent in search of another. From this point, it’s game on for David and Saul. And Michal finds herself in the middle.

After David’s spectacular victory over Goliath, the Philistine, his popularity soars among the people, and Saul gets an idea. His daughter is in love with David, just like everyone else. Saul makes David an offer: he can have Michal’s hand in marriage if he will pay a particularly grisly and over-the-top bride price: one hundred Philistine foreskins. Saul, of course, has no intention of seeing this come to pass: the idea behind the plan is that David will be killed before he can perform any such feat.

But this is David. He manages to acquire the foreskins—in fact, he acquires two hundred of them—and, thus, he acquires the bride. And, as a princess, Michal helps to secure David’s claim to the throne in human eyes (though we know that, since it is already God’s will, the eyes of the people are just icing on the cake). Saul, seeing that his plan has massively backfired, sends assassins to David’s house to finish the job. Michal, still in love with her husband, helps David to escape by planting an idol in his bed and claiming he is ill to fool the somewhat dimwitted assassins, while letting David down through a window to escape to his freedom.

While David is off navigating the final coup against Saul, the elder king takes his daughter—perhaps as punishment for her role in securing David’s escape?—and gives her to another man, Paltiel, to be his wife. The text is silent as to what transpires between Michal and Paltiel. After the death of Saul, David has already acquired two more wives, each of them politically advantageous in her own way. But Michal is a politically necessary wife for David, helping to prove his claim to the throne. And so he sends for her. As she is taken away, there is a heartrending scene in which Paltiel follows her, weeping, until he is chastised and sent home by one of David’s lackeys. In Paltiel, at least, Michal has found someone who actually loves her. But David needs her, for his own purposes, and so he takes her.

This is the background to today’s passage, in which we see the triumphant David dancing with all his might in the presence of the Lord, as he brings the Ark of the Covenant into his city. Michal, the daughter of Saul, taken by force from the only man who has loved her for the purposes of political expediency, sees her husband the king dancing nearly naked in front of all the people. She witnesses what must be described as David’s unfettered joy in the service of the God who has put him in power. She is, perhaps understandably, less than enthusiastic.

What’s wrong with being a princess? Perhaps Michal’s story is a painful illustration of what is wrong when your story is not your own, but is told in the service of another story. What’s wrong with Michal’s story is that it is not her story, but David’s. I cringe at verse 23. After giving us David’s rather petulant response to Michal, that hey, you may not like my naked dancing, but I bet all the serving girls do—we read Michal’s post-script: “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.” Because, that’s what you get when you are an ancillary character in someone else’s story, and you complain, however obliquely, about the person who has treated you as no more than property.

The story of Michal is preserved for us, and that, in itself, constitutes a kind of good news, on at least two levels. First, we can read the story of Michal with eyes and hearts that have been informed by a kind of evolving ethic of human relations, and we have scripture to thank for that ethic. The same scripture that elevates David to be the greatest king of Israel (despite his often abysmal track-record with women, his abuses of power, and other foibles) has spoken to us of the great dignity imparted to us as men and women by our creator. “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). Even as we read of David’s harsh use of Michal, we have a point of reference that tells us that no one made in God’s image should be subjected to that kind of treatment. Even as we read the story of David, we can choose to shift our perspective, and read it as the story of Michal. Sometimes the most powerful thing about a terrible story is that we try never to forget it. Sometimes our memory is our most potent weapon against repeating the outrages of the past.

The other glimpse of grace we can find in Michal’s story is… David’s story. David is courageous, and faithful, and devoted to Yahweh. And he is brutal, and ruthless, and conniving. He exemplifies the great glory and the great brokenness that lie at the heart of humanity. John Calvin called that brokenness “total depravity.” He recognized that, when push comes to shove, we human beings will act in selfish ways, even in ways that separate us from the love of God.

And yet, in the end, the moral of David’s story is that nothing is able to separate us from the love of God. In our reading from Ephesians, we are told that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Our chosenness is another essential principle of Calvin’s understanding of our relationship with God. Like David, we have been chosen by God to be in relationship with the divine. But note—holy and blameless in love. In other words, God’s love for us does not depend on our perfection, thank God. It does not depend on our being good, on our doing good, though—of course, good can and should be the fruit of our relationship with God, our response. No. Our relationship with God depends on one thing and one thing alone: Grace. God’s love for us, despite everything. God’s love for our fully glorious and broken selves. The good news in this story is the recognition that God’s grace is far bigger than our brokenness, and that we can depend on that grace to see us through.

What’s wrong with being a princess? Perhaps the heart of the matter is this: our story must be fully our own. Our relationship with God must be fully our own. Our dancing before God , our pouring out of our sorrows before God must be our own. We cannot live out anyone else’s life of holiness but our own, the one we have been given, the one that is the truest expression of our glorious, and broken, and very real connection with the source of our being. David and Michal are not so different, really—Michal who risks her reputation by helping the man she loves to escape, David who risks his reputation by dancing with abandon before God. What I would have wished for Michal in her life would have been a sense that it was God who ultimately owns her, and not one of the men between whom she was shuffled time and again. What I would have wished for her—and perhaps she did come to know this in time, in the silence after her story ends—would be a sense of that overwhelming grace of God that transcends our actions and the ways in which we are acted upon. We are not our own, Calvin says, but “we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal.”

With tenderness towards this unhappy princess, we close the book on her story.


[1] Peggy Orenstein, “What’s the Matter With Cinderella?”, New York Times Magazine, December 24, 2006.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Peril on the Sea: Sermon on Mark 4:35-41

Because it is summer
and because I have recently been to my dad’s house at the shore
and because I grew up not just by the water but, essentially, in it,
and because I still define myself by my complete and utter love for the sea,
it’s important that I remind myself that this is not a story about the sea as I like to think about it:

a place for recreation, for vacation
a place for hanging out with friends and family
a place for joy, abandon, refreshment and sensual delight.
a—let’s face it—somewhat tame thing that bears little or no resemblance to what is meant when we speak of “peril on the sea.”

This story from Mark’s gospel bears no resemblance to all my instinctual understanding of the sea. Instead, Mark speaks of a place:

that is seen as a workplace—a dangerous one—for the fishing families who live on its shores.
that is capricious and terrifying: because it is large and shallow, the Sea of Galilee is prone to sudden and violent storms when the winds rise up, storms which disappear just as quickly when the winds die down.
that evokes, for the ancient people who inhabit Galilee, even more ancient creation stories in which the world arises out of chaos. The sea represents that chaos: powerful, primordial, untamable.

The sea as Mark sees it, as Jesus and his friends experience it, is not your typical summer vacation spot.
It is a force of almost supernatural magnitude.
It is something to be reckoned with.

Jesus and his friends are tired from a day of teaching.
In other words, it has not been a day of miracles—no demons have been cast out, no blind men have received back their sight, no little girls have been raised from the dead.
It’s more like… a day at the office. A fairly ordinary day.

But Jesus seems to have out-of-the ordinary plans for his friends.
At the end of a long day, everyone exhausted from rubbing elbows with the crowds, and pitching their voices loud enough to be heard a good distance away, and even just standing a long time, Jesus doesn’t say, Hey, let’s go get a burger.

He doesn’t say, Man, I am so beat… let’s go back to Peter’s house to catch up on our sleep.

He doesn’t even say, Where are some wounded and hurting people that I may heal them?

He says, Let us go across to the other side.

The other side of the sea, that is. The wild, capricious, untamable, terrifying sea.

Let us go out of the Jewish Palestinian world of Capernaum, the place where everybody knows our names, and across to the other side… the side where the Gerasenes live, the non-Jewish world, where there are no synagogues, but where there may well be, and probably are, people to be taught and healed just as well as here at home.

Let’s go across to the other side, Jesus says, and see what we can do there.

But Jesus decides to let his friends steer the boat. He curls up and falls asleep.

Years ago I attended Chautauqua Days at Local Church, on a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer.

It was a wonderful summer fair modeled on the great institute of learning and faith in Chautauqua, NY.

At one point I wandered into the church, really, to get out of the heat. As I walked down the center aisle I realized I was looking at a really unusual communion table… the entire thing was carved in the shape of a boat, and reclining, taking up about the bottom third, was Jesus, asleep.

It was beautiful. It took my breath away. But it also disturbed me.

There is something that seems wrong about the idea of Jesus being asleep.

How does that psalm go?

The one who keeps you will not slumber.
The one who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:3-4)

That’s how I prefer to think of Jesus. That’s how I prefer to think of God… not slumbering, not asleep on the job…

What if I really need Jesus and he’s… asleep?

This was a very real issue for those who first heard the gospel of Mark.

Remember, those who first heard this story preached as gospel, as good news, were living in that strange time after Jesus was out of their sight.

He had risen, yes.

He had given them instructions for how to live in his absence, yes.

But then… he had gone away, out of their sight. He might as well have been somewhere taking a nap, for all they knew.

What if we really need Jesus, and we just can’t seem to find him? What if it seems as if he’s not there? Or, worse, as if he’s asleep on the job?

Look up. Look up at the magnificent ceiling of this church.

The first time I ever saw this ceiling was on a September evening in 2003.

I came to St. Sociable so that our local governing body could examine me, so that the leaders of our church in this area could determine if they felt my understanding of our Christian faith was something that could be shared.

Could I teach the faith?

I walked into this sanctuary on a very warm September evening, and I looked up at the ceiling, what is called in church terms, the nave. Nave, as in navy. Nave, because it is traditional for the ceiling of a church to look very much like the bottom of a ship.

The church is a boat, it is a ship. And we are all in this boat together. The question for us is, do we still believe Jesus is in the boat with us?

That was the question for Jesus’ friends. If Jesus was asleep—if he was, in a sense, checked out—was he still in some way truly with them? Could they depend on his presence and his power?

You have Mark’s answer.

Mark says, yes.

The church is a ship, and it is moving as the wind directs it—the Holy Wind, Holy Spirit.

Even if it seems to have blown off course—which sometimes, it seems to do—we can trust that the Holy Wind will blow it back in the direction true which God intends for it.

The church is a ship, and we are all in it together.

The primordial, powerful, chaos that seems to reign all around us?

Jesus is still with us, in the ship.

The terrifying storms that blow up, as they so often do?

Jesus is still with us. We are not alone.

Even the workaday grind… the nets we cast and the cargo we haul and the dirt we have to wash off ourselves at the end of the day?

Jesus is there. Jesus is still with us.

In work and in rest. In recreation and in refreshment. In calm and in storm. In peril and in safety. At mealtime and at bedtime. In working week and in Sunday rest.

Jesus is there. Jesus is still with us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


The image above is "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Dutch master Rembrandt Van Rijn. It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. It has never been recovered.