“Have you not read…” | Sanctuary III | October 15

Texts: 1 Samuel 21:1-6; Mark 2:23-3:6


Let’s take a field trip in our imaginations.

On this field trip, we’re heading out of the city.  We’re going away from dense populations of people are toward dense populations of corn and beans.  On this trip we’re traveling not just through space, but also through time.  This is a magic school bus kind of field trip – if anyone’s familiar with those children’s books.  We’re traveling back a couple thousand years to 1st century Palestine.  As we get closer to our destination we notice that the agricultural fields and the places where people live aren’t as segregated as they are now.  There are small fields at the edges of villages and towns, with public paths running through them.  We get out of the bus and start walking.  We find one of these paths and notice that we’ve left behind the crops of the new world and are surrounded by barley and wheat – crops first domesticated in the Ancient Near East.  The wheat is fully mature.  The head of grain is heavy enough that the top of the stalk is bending under its weight.  It’s harvest season.  We veer off the path and head into the field.  We put our arms to our sides, open our hands, and feel the brush of the grains as we walk through them.

This, of all places, will be the site of an important dialogue about ethics, law, and theology.

These first three weeks of October have turned into a sanctuary trilogy.  In my own study I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how common a practice sanctuary has been, dating all the way back to Ancient Greece and Egypt and Israel, and likely before that into pre-history.  The first week focused on what sanctuary looked like before the church, and last week focused on the 1000+ year practice of sanctuary throughout medieval Christian Europe.

Sanctuary in the churches began largely as a form of penance and reconciliation.  The bishops protected and interceded on behalf of the wrong-doer as they sought to make things right with God and the one they harmed.  But it eventually lost its theological grounding.  It became domesticated, a routine function of the legal system.  It still protected one from the death penalty of royal justice, but in its later versions it typically involved a felon reporting in to a church, acknowledging their crime, and agreeing to leave the kingdom.  In England, after a traveling judge would visit the church and hear the case, the felon would be given safe passage to a port and sent on their way, never to return.  In other words, in a tremendous irony alongside what sanctuary in its present form is trying to protect from, sanctuary at the end of the medieval period involved the church serving as a holding cell for someone awaiting deportation.

As church and secular laws changed, sanctuary became more and more restricted until it was essentially outlawed.  Focus on the well-being of the soul, and repair of harm faded.  Focus on punishment as a form of deterrence, for the public good, became prominent.  Restorative justice was swallowed up by punitive justice.   In 1623, King James 1, passed this definitive legislation: “And be it so enacted by the authority of this present parliament, That no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary shall be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.”  If you’re looking for more irony, this is the same King James who commissioned the King James Bible.

Since then sanctuary has again shifted in its function.  It has become a minority practice, sometimes done in the shadows, which puts a new twist on the image from Psalm 91 from last week “In the shadow of the Almighty.”  Sometimes done in the open.  Sometimes done as an act of civil disobedience.  Some of the more prominent and heroic examples include the Underground Railroad, and villages like Le Chambon in southern France that sheltered over 5000 Jews from the Holocaust.  And of course the Sanctuary movement of the 1980’s that gave protection to Central Americans fleeing the violence of civil wars.

The scriptures for this week aren’t concerned with heroics.  We’re in the middle of a wheat field, remember.  But this is a site for a dialogue about the purpose of laws, and the site for Jesus staking out his approach to this.

So we’re in this wheat field, which gives us a front row seat to what’s happening in Mark chapter 2.  Jesus and his newly called disciples are walking through this very field, and they begin to pluck the heads of grain.  They’re spotted by Pharisees, who come over and challenge the lawfulness of this act.

What they don’t challenge might surprise us private property minded folks.  They don’t charge Jesus and his crew with trespassing, and they don’t charge him with stealing.

The Torah was clear that grain fields existed not just for personal profit, but for the public good.  They were part of the social safety net for the poor and the landless, resident aliens.  Landowners were actually restricted from harvesting all of their fields.  They weren’t even allowed to go back and pick up the grain they missed on the first round.  These were known as the gleaning laws.

Leviticus 19:9-10 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  Eight verses later there’s a little saying that may be more familiar to us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Give it up for Leviticus!

It was not a problem for Jesus and his new friends to be exercising their gleaning rights in someone else’s field, but it was a potential problem that they were doing this on the Sabbath.  This event is contained within sacred time.  And in sacred time, according the Exodus 34:21, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day, you shall rest (you shall Sabbath).  Even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.”

So the question is, Is this a violation of Sabbath law?  What to think of this micro-harvest by Jesus and the gleaners – which is probably what they were planning on calling their new band.  Jesus and the gleaners.

Before we get any further down this path let’s abolish any thought of this being a case of Christian freedom and liberty versus Jewish legalism.  Jesus was a Jew.  Jesus was a Jew.  The Pharisees, as portrayed within the New Testament, are often caricatured to represent an extreme branch of the Jewish family tree.  The Pharisees were the forerunners of rabbinical Judaism which emerged later, and would come to teach unequivocally that “The Sabbath is given to you, but you are not slaves of the Sabbath.  We should disregard one Sabbath for the sake of saving the life of a person, so that person may observe many Sabbaths.” (Mechilta Shabbata 1, in Sabbath and Jubilee, by Richard Lowery, p. 124)

What was and wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath was a lively topic of discussion within first century Judaism, so when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, he stays within the tradition.  He anchors his response within the scriptures in order to claim that what he’s doing is within, rather than outside, their common tradition.

The Pharisees implicitly cite Exodus 34 about keeping Sabbath even during the harvest, and Jesus cites another passage.

If you’ve ever been in one of these scripture-versus-scripture conversations, you know they can be exhausting and not a little bit frustrating.  Sometimes they’re important, sometimes it’s better to just let go, or walk away.

Of all the angles Jesus could have taken in the wheat field on the Sabbath, he does some creative interpretation of a story about David and the priest of Nob found in 1 Samuel 21.   “Have you not read…?” Jesus begins.  Well, of course they’d read the story.  They probably had it memorized.  But they probably had never seen it with the spin Jesus puts on it.

We have received overwhelming support for our decision to be a sanctuary church, but within the first couple days, we did get several emails and a voicemail into the office that had a similar message.  Each time the person said they were a Christian, but thought what we were doing was wrong because Romans 13 says we are to obey the governing authorities.  So who’s within the tradition and who isn’t?  Or, to ask it a different way, which part of the tradition are we using to interpret that part of the tradition?  Have you not read…  How would you fill in the blank to respond?   “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or the command throughout the Torah to provide for the resident alien?  Or Jesus’ practice of aligning himself with outcasts?

Jesus references the story of David and the priest at Nob.  Rather than being about sacred time, Sabbath, it’s a story about sacred space and sacred objects.  It takes place in a temple rather than a field, and involves wheat in its value-added form, a loaf of bread.  And not just any loaf of bread, but the Bread of the Presence, which was set on the table in the temple and replaced every week, a sign of Divine hospitality.  But here’s the catch: according to the Torah, the Bread of the Presence that was replaced with a fresh loaf, was only to be eaten by the priest – also in Leviticus (Leviticus 24:5-9).

In this story, David comes into the temple and meets the priest Ahimelech.  David is not yet king, but has made quite a name for himself as a warrior.  He’s so popular, that King Saul is consumed with jealousy and has been trying to kill him.  David is now on the run, which explains why the text says Ahimelech is trembling when he speaks to David.  The priest is aware that if he gives aid to this upstart former-shepherd, he could be charged with harboring a fugitive.  This, too, is a story of sanctuary.  His fears come true in the following chapter.  A loyal follower of Saul – who had been in the temple during David’s stay – becomes an informer.  And Saul comes to Nob and kills the priests, including Ahimelech, for giving assistance to his enemy.

But Jesus doesn’t get that deep into the story.  He zeroes in on the fact that David is hungry, there is a pressing human need, and there’s no other bread in the temple except the Bread of the Presence, the holy bread.  Hunger, urgency, and mercy, take precedent over the Levitical holiness code, and priest Ahimelech gives the bread to David to eat.

Quoting from Mark: “’Have you not read,’” Jesus said to the Pharisees, “’what David and his companions did when (they) were hungry and in need of food?  He entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’  Then he said to them, the Sabbath is made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

Jesus and his companions continue through that wheat field and walk right into a synagogue where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Before he does this, he poses this question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?”  In this context, doing harm means doing nothing.  Which is more lawful?  To do good, or to do nothing, and thus do harm?

Maybe these are examples of civil disobedience.  Or maybe these are examples of Jesus claiming the compassionate stream of his tradition and inviting others to step into the stream with him.  Whatever it is, it’s an example within our tradition that poses important questions about the hierarchy of values that we live out.  Especially in an age in which sanctuary is in friction with the law of the land.

What is especially beautiful about these stories of Jesus and the gleaners and David and the holy bread eaters is that they affirm something that the Christian tradition has too easily discounted.  Rather than doing away with the Sabbath, and rather than doing away with the idea of holy space and holy bread, they affirm and expand holiness.  To offer bread to a hungry person is what makes bread holy.  To do good and heal and protect makes the Sabbath and all days holy.  It’s not that Sabbath disappears into the ordinariness of the rest of the week.  It’s that the holiness of Sabbath infiltrates the rest of the week.  The holiness of the house of God infiltrates ordinary space.

As we keep working at this thing called Sanctuary, my prayer for us is that we not view it merely as an exception for exceptional times.  Sanctuary is the norm that filters its way out into other parts of our lives, and transform us into the likeness of Christ.


Baptismal identity and privilege | 18 January 2015 | MLK weekend

Christ stain glass

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

The image behind me, also printed on your bulletins, is a stained glass window in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was a gift from the people of Wales, after that church was bombed in September, 1963, less than three weeks after the March on Washington and King’s “I have a dream” speech.  Four black girls died in that bombing.

Much transpired between the giving of that iconic speech and the words King delivered at Stanford University in April, 1967. Less than a year after that he was killed at the age of 39.  King still expresses hope in the words we have been hearing this morning from that speech, but they are tempered by the continued resistance and outright violence and hatred directed against blacks and the civil rights movement.  The new movie Selma, which I hope all of us have a chance to see sometime, is set in 1965, and is one of those events that happened after the hopeful and beautiful dream of 1963 spoken in Washington DC, and before the more solemn and urgent plea of 1967, spoken at Stanford.  Because we are listening to some of that speech today, my words will be brief.

Last week Joseph Sprague spoke to the racial inequalities in our prisons and criminal justice systems.  The recent police shootings of black males and grand jury trials have highlighted continuing racial disparities both in attitudes and in systemic injustice.  And here we are, on the weekend our nation has set aside to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s important for us to hear together these challenging words from the King of 1967.  “What I’m trying to get across is that our nation has constantly taken a positive step forward on the question of racial justice and racial equality. But over and over again at the same time, it made certain backward steps… And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again… And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always right to do right.”

These words join with the lectionary scripture readings for the morning of God’s call to the young Samuel, reminding us that it’s never too early to begin God’s work, and that since the old and experienced Eli was also in the temple but was not hearing the same call, that each new generation must hear for itself what is the call of its time.  In John Jesus calls Phillip and Nathaneal into a journey of discipleship that will lead them away from the familiar and perhaps comfortable world of Galilee toward Jerusalem, a journey that, for Jesus, will result in what is pictured in this stained glass window.

I invite you to look again at this image and to ponder it.  One of its signature characteristics is how the artist portrays the hands of Jesus.  The right hand, you may notice, is turned, in a pose of opposition.  If you are or have ever been a parent of a teenager, you may recognize this gesture as closely resembling “talk to the hand.”  If you are a teenager, or have ever been a teenager, perhaps you have struck this pose yourself once or twice.  While not always a great conversation tactic among family, it is an essential aspect of our relationship with injustice.  It is an expression of active resistance.  Jesus does not go passively to the cross, but accepts this fate as an act of resistance against all that is evil and all that defies and threatens the power of life.  On the cross, Jesus exposes and overcomes the powers of violence, making a public display of them, as the writer of Colossians says in 2:15.  This image asks us to meditate on the question of how we actively resist that which belittles and harms life.

On the other hand…the left hand is open.  It’s in a position of vulnerability.  It’s an offering of oneself.  It’s a gesture of forgiveness grounded in the ultimate hope of healing and reconciliation.  If you have ever seen the artwork displaying early Christians in prayer, you’ll note that their hands are not folded in the way we associate with prayer, but are up, and open, in a posture of surrender, and openness to God.  “Your will be done.”  We receive the grace and goodness of God through an openness that is both strong and vulnerable.  This is what prayer looks like.

Last Sunday I was out of town and missed the chance to preach on what the lectionary has designated as a day to remember the Baptism of Jesus, the first Sunday every year after Epiphany.  I invite us to consider this image of Christ as a wonderful example of what our baptismal identity means.  Our baptismal identity, our heeding of the call of God which came to Samuel, and Mary, and Phillip and Nathaniel, and also to us, looks like these two hands of Christ – both actively resisting injustice and being open and vulnerable to the work of the Spirit, relating to our enemies in such a way that transforms the landscape, refusing to treat them as a permanent enemy.  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And I want to approach this image from one other angle.  As we become more aware of the ways that racism persists, we become more aware of what has been appropriately called White Privilege.  White privilege, to be rather concrete about it, speaks to the social fact that I could go into a local Wal-Mart and take a bb gun off the shelf that is for sale and not have someone in the store who sees me with that gun suspect me of being a threat, call the police, and have the police come into the store and shoot and kill me without asking questions – something that happened last August about an hour’s drive from here, to John Crawford III, in Beavercreek, Ohio.  John wasn’t white.  John was black.  White privilege means the systems work for me, assume the best of me, give me second chances and the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t target my neighborhood for extra patrol.  White privilege means I can decide whether or not I want to care about any of this.  It means I have the privilege of not having to think about race every day.

White privilege is not a cause for debilitating guilt, but the more we become aware of it, it is a cause for responsibility and another way of heeding that Divine call which comes our way.  It’s cause for recognizing that our baptismal identity happens within these bodies we have been given.  These bodies which carry other identities – of race and gender, and mental and physical ability, sexual orientation, national citizenship and immigration status.  Our baptismal identity informs how we live with all these other identities.

And so as a parting thought, looking at this image one more time, we can notice that this portrays a black Christ.  There is a sense in which we identify with this Christ, with the two hands of resistance and forgiveness.  But there’s another way, if we are in the position of privilege in any of these categories, that we should not pretend that we’re the ones on the cross, not the ones having injustice directed at our very being.  And so our baptismal identity takes us to a different place.  A place of listening.  A place of honoring and learning from the experience of others, and allowing that to transform us.  From a position of privilege, we are not in this image, but we are witnesses of it.  We honor and accompany the way others resist and the way others keep their hands and hearts open to those who harm them.  Our baptismal identity reminds us that even though we could ignore this image, we have chosen to live with it, to be haunted and troubled by it.  Ultimately, to be redeemed by a Christ who gave his live for the whole world, no exceptions, and continues to extend the hand of grace to those ready to respond in the same way as Samuel: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Rachel Smith – A Dream of 2012 – 1/1/12 – 1 Samuel 1-2

This sermon was given by Rachel Smith at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship January 1, 2012

My Friends we made it. We are here…. January 1, 2012.  While looking over the worship materials it was suggested that theme for this week be “Embracing a wide body.” While I am certain that many of us can identify with that statement after all of the holiday eating; I am inviting you into a different sort of expanse.  (While Keith Lehman is not here this morning, I want to compliment him on his dedication to the widening of our church body by promising to buy me chocolates if I presented today) So here goes…


I decided to title my thoughts “A Dream of 2012.” I wanted the title to call out to you the nature of my relationship with what I am about to say. My words are work I have not accomplished. They are a dream. They are a prayer for the parts of my existence that seem well… cracked.

2012 is going to be different right? Right?

Hey, let’s not wish the year away already! After all, it’s only the first day!  There is plenty of time to lose 20lbs, calculate our taxes, and learn that elusive 2nd language we have promised ourselves for years we were going to master.  Certainly the things that slipped through the cracks last year can be remedied in the next 365-day cycle.  January 1st, it’s the great do-over, the mulligan, another chance, the promise of more time to get it right.

Humans have been feeling this way a very long time.  Something I stumbled across in my readings this week was a description of the Roman god Janus, January’s namesake.  Janus is depicted as a two-headed man. His silhouettes are facing right and left with shared headspace connecting them in the middle. Picture him in your mind. We are going to need this image as we journey through the past, present and future today.

Janus is the god of gates and doors. He represents beginnings and endings. He was celebrated in harvest and planting, marriage, birth, and other important beginnings.  He is considered a transitional figure between childhood and adulthood, war and peace, the country and the city, primal and civil life.

Appropriate for January is it not?   A superpower that will help us get from point A to point B with success certainly sounds appealing to me.

For Christians, Epiphany is the great beginning. God has become man and is here among us to save us. What has long been promised has finally come.

But I would like to start far away from the epiphany; far away from the realization that the word had become flesh.  I want us to hold the Luke scriptures of the Magi’s visit in our mind’s eye and travel back in time to 1 Samuel 1, to Hannah, the first pray-er of Mary’s famous song which was just read in chapter 2.

Growing up I have realized that women in the Bible may not have been exactly like they were portrayed to me by my teachers. Likely, they were much more complicated characters.  In my childhood I accepted a sort of Edith Bunker portrayal of Hannah. “Oh Elkanah!” she would lament to her husband “Do you love me as much as you do that Barbie home-wrecker Peninah?”  Elkanah in his Archie-style would shoe her away saying “Geez Hannah, ain’t I a better husband than ten sons any day? Shut your mouth already I’m trying to watch my show!”

Inwardly she fretted and suffered while outwardly she did her best to sing at the piano. She was a stand by your man, make lemonade, and suffer in mostly-silence kind of gal.  And why wouldn’t she be? As a next-to worthless barren woman she should be glad she had a kind husband who was willing to overlook her inadequacies and lavish her with affection and extra cuts of beef on sacrifice days.

Desperate to know she has any worth in the world. Hannah cries out to God in front of the Eli.  She is such an emotional wreck that Eli assumes she is drunk. She prays for a son to fulfill the desperate, empty eternal longing that only a child could fulfill in her. The want is so great she bargains with God that should she conceive, the child will be returned as God’s servant.

As an adult, I now wonder if Hannah’s prayers extended far beyond the simplistic female stereotypes. Did her feelings go deeper than inadequacy, deeper than want or embarrassments? Did they extend into an indescribable longing, a spiritual groan? A longing I suspect resides in each of us; one that begs to hear “This too shall be made right.”  Whatever our “this’s” may be.

A friend once told me something that has stuck with me. “Wanting things to be different is a part of grief.”

In Hannah’s community the Jews were wanting their lives to look very different. They were searching for a leader. They were looking for a king. The priests who were guiding them were corrupted. And Eli their father who sat outside the place of worship assuming Hannah was drunk, tells us more about what the community was like than how insane Hannah may have seemed.

I now see Hannah as a person who’s individual, family, and community troubles have aligned.  She is not delusional and emotional. She sees the situation clearly.  The vessel holding life together is cracked and it is going to burst.  There are cracks in her body, her family, and her community.

A favorite song of mine chimes, “Little cracks they escalate, before you know it it’s too late.” Hannah bargains with God for the impossible. A child where there can be none, but not just a child, a son, and not just a son, a servant who can be given to God to come and make things right.

I want to think of Hannah’s anguish as an outpouring of an informed woman.  One whose sees and knows herself in light of the greater spiritual world.  “It’s me, it’s my family, it’s all of us. Come and fill our cracks. Breathe of heaven hold us together. Save us.”  I want to think she prayed the prayers of the feminine, the prayers of a mother, and the prayers of a peace seeker.

Return with me to the present (If you’re thinking of our picture we are somewhere in Janus’s neck area).  Did you know there are cracks in everything?  Well not exactly cracks but spaces, holes. These holes have a special name: wormholes.  Some of you science geeks may be well aquatinted with this term.  A recent article I read by physicist Steven Hawking called “How to build a time machine” points out that nothing is flat or solid. All matter has height, width, depth, holes, and wrinkles.  It’s a principle of physics.

Now let’s jump to Janus’s other head: the future.  In the future many scientists hope that time travel will not be a ridiculous premise on which countless sci-fi movies are fashioned.  Scientists hope that in the future we can turn our attention towards “the fourth dimension” that is the measurement of time we consume in space. So now we will have height, width, depth, and length of time in space.  (Not good news as most of us are not getting taller, are getting wider, trying to keep any depth we had, and good news/bad news taking up more space in time).

If time gets to be measured that means it has height width and depth. And if it has dimension it has wormholes. And if it has worm holes maybe we could get inside one and travel from one side of time to the other side of time. This would be time travel.   In case I lost you, picture something that looks a lot like Janus.  This time instead of heads imagine a line on the right and a line on the left.  The line on the left represents the past. The line on the right represents the future.  The lines are filled with tiny holes we cannot see. A tunnel connects a hole in the past and a hole in the future.  If we were small enough we could walk through the hole into the tunnel and out the other hole, landing in the future, or the reverse landing in the past.

We have one big problem though. We are not small enough.  You would have to be smaller than a molecule or an atom. You would have to be something so small it doesn’t even appear to be solid. It’s called quantum foam.   And here is the thing everyone is trying to figure out… How do we get small enough to get into a crack that size and make it bigger so we can travel through time?

Wait a minute. We are not small enough? Who wants to be small? We are the 99%. Power in numbers!  Being big enough to overcome our enemies is the solution isn’t it?  If it’s not somebody ought to call Occupy Wall Street! If we can only just stuff ourselves with more of something we will be satisfied…right?

After reading Hannah’s story I have some new advice for Occupy Wall Street.  Let’s try this: a national invitation of all the nation’s barren men and women, all of the longers, all of the impotent, the oppressed, the fed up, the exhausted, the un-noticed, the over-noticed, the poor, the sick with wealth, the unsatisfied, the longers who yearn for something small enough to get in our cracks and make right everything that has gone wrong.  And we will cease from fighting and police raids and politics and pray.  We will pray for someone and something that can infiltrate the smallest cracks and the widest oceans. We cry out with a mother’s anguish for someone who can navigate our holes and walk us out of the tunnel and to a place where the proud are fallen, the humble are lifted, and the hungry are filled; where we are right with ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors in Cincinnati and in every place in the world. . Can I get an Amen?

Last week Joel pointed out a funny image of Mary as the holy mother.  It was T-shirt depicting Mary that stated “Abstinence is 99.99% effective.”  If we follow the logic, Jesus is a bet on .01%. That’s pretty small. And who knows how far those 9’s extend?  It might be even smaller. The chances don’t look good for a pregnancy.  But epiphany is where the upside-down kingdom comes roaring in and Janus’s two heads spin.  It is the point in time when we say “You know what, my money is on the baby.”

Perhaps this is why after Hannah prayed Mary sang.  In right step she transformed the ancient words of longing and anguish into the chorus of the hope filled. Joel has been reminded us of this song all throughout this advent season: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” My soul makes bigger the place for the .01, the quantum foam, the only being able to enter the largest and tiniest of holes of our broken and cracked places.

And so this is my story and this is my song for 2012: That I pay close attention to my longings that I don’t dismiss them or hide them.  But that I see them as spaces for something so much smaller and more powerful than I to fill.  The one who enlarges and makes right: the one whose breath is life.

The Last Sermon of the Year – 12/27/09 – Luke 2:41-52, 1 Samuel 2:18-20,26

Note to self: The Sunday after Christmas is one of those times when people come to church more for the singing and less for the sermon.  Have some words to share, but not too many.  Have a point, but don’t belabor it.  Say it, then step down and let the music do what only it can do – lift our hearts, take us beyond ourselves, unite us with the angels, so to speak. 

Time is a funny thing.  And not just in reference to the length of sermons on certain Sundays.  One minute you’re holding a baby, next minute you’re watching them walk across the floor, walk out the door for school, across the stage for graduation, down the aisle.  I don’t really know about that yet, but it seems to be the consensus out there.  Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.  Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem because there was no room for him in the inn, but already he’s 12 years old, getting ready for his bar mitzvah, already showing signs of separation from parental authority, puberty.  Goodness.

Several weeks ago before a committee meeting several of us were having some pre-meeting small talk and the issue of the passage of time came up.  A couple theories were proposed.  Ron Headings said he thought that time is drawn out in the mind when one is learning new things.  So children experience time slower as their brain adapts to new patterns, new thoughts, new activities.  If you’re living in a routine for long enough you travel through time faster as your brain basically already knows what’s going to happen.  The key to life: keep learning new things.  Carol Lehman then brought up the theory that I’d also heard before.  As you get older, each day or year is a smaller percentage of your life and thus goes by faster.  To a one year old, one more year is like doubling their life.  To a fifty year old, one year is just another fast trip around the sun, a smaller sliver of life than each year before and thus a faster orbit.  This theory makes sense to me, but I hope Ron’s idea is more true.  It gives one a little more feeling of control over how fast time seems to go rather than the inevitable acceleration that comes with aging.

Luke’s story goes quickly here, but he’s the only gospel writer who even manages to mention Jesus’ adolescence.  If it wouldn’t be for this story of the boy Jesus in the temple we’d go from cradle to 30 years old in a heart beat.  Mark and John don’t even mention the cradle part.  It leaves a lot of room for the imagination about what was happening all those years.  Carpentry internship with step-dad Joseph?  Torah studies by candlelight after a hard day’s work?  Who knows?  Pretty unlikely they had any Torah scrolls in the house, actually.      

We do get a little fuller picture of the boyhood of Samuel.  Samuel’s mother was barren and makes a deal with God that if God give her a son, she’ll give God a priest.  Hannah gets pregnant by her husband Elkanah and lets rip a poetic song that sounds a whole lot like a warm up to Mary’s Magnificat.  “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God…The Lord raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts up the needy from the ash heap.”  After giving birth to Samuel, Hannah must have longed for time to stand still.  Just a few short years nursing her son and then he’s off to live at the temple to be brought up by the priests.  The book of 1 Samuel says, “Samuel was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod.  His mother used to make for him a little robe and take it to him each year, when she went up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice….Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”  The passing of each year was probably measured for Hannah as a matter of inches.  This year’s robe she is sewing a few inches bigger than the one before.      

The empty spaces of the four gospel narratives of Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood were tempting for other writers.  There’s a second century document called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that has some interesting stories about the boy Jesus.  As a five year old he turns clay into birds, but he gets in trouble because his does it on the Sabbath.  He gets mad at a boy for bumping him on the shoulder and so curses him, but later heals him.  He brings a boy back to life who has fallen off of a roof and then has the boy explain to people that Jesus had not pushed him off of the roof to cause the fall.  There’s also a time when a teacher named Zacchaeus wants to teach Jesus.  Joseph asks the teacher to watch out because only God can keep this kid under control.  Then the story goes like this: “4 As Jesus heard Joseph saying this, he laughed and said to Zacchaeus, “Really, teacher, what my father has said to you is true. 5 I am the Lord of this people and am here in your presence and have been born among you and am with you. 6 I know where you are from and how many years there will be in your lives. I am telling you the truth, teacher, when you were born, I existed.

9 Then, the Jews who were present and heard Jesus were amazed and said, “What a strange and remarkable event. The child is only five years old and already he says such things. For we never heard anyone who speaks words like this child does.”

14 So Joseph took him by the hand and led him into the classroom. 15 And the teacher wrote the alphabet for him and began to practice it many times, but the child said nothing and did not answer him for a long time. 16 Becoming outraged, the teacher hit him on the head. After enduring this stoically, the child said to him, “I am teaching you more than being taught by you because I know the letters you are teaching me and your judgment is great.  These things are to you like a copper pitcher or a clashing cymbal which do not offer glory or wisdom through sound. 17 Nobody understands the power of my wisdom.” 18 Then, when his rage was finished, he said the alphabet from alpha to omega very quickly.

19 Looking the teacher in the face, he told him, “Since you do not know the nature of the alpha, how are going to teach me the beta? 20 Hypocrite, if you know, first teach me the alpha then I will believe what you say about the beta.” 21 Then, he began to tell the teacher about the first letter. And the teacher was not strong enough to say anything.”

Luke echoes Samuel in more ways that just having Hannah play the prelude for Mary’s Magnificat.  The boy Samuel grew “both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”  After the incident in the temple with the elders, we hear that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” 

I guess increasing in years is pretty automatic for all of us.  Increasing in wisdom takes hard work.  Apparently for Jesus, growing in wisdom is connected with the picture we’re given here of Jesus in the temple, “sitting with the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.”  It’s good to see our youth asking so many questions as they keep studying scripture and learning about the life of faith.  It’s a good sign.  How did the infant Jesus in the manger become the preacher from Galilee?  The only picture in any book of the Bible we’re given to fill in the gap is this one of the questioning, listening, adolescent.

Mary retrieved her son from the temple and heard about what he had been doing and learning there, and they headed back home to Nazareth.  Jesus grows in wisdom and divine and human favor, and his mother pondered and treasured all these things in her heart.              

With the Thomas infancy gospel it’s kind of wild reading some of these stories about Jesus that didn’t make it into the Bible.  It makes me realize how hungry I am to know more about his life.  But it’s a pretty bizarre picture of Jesus.  This Jesus has no need to “increase in wisdom and in years and divine and human favor.”  He’s already got it all figured out as a five year old.  Greek scholar.  Although from the looks of it, he’s not gaining much human favor with that attitude.     

It looks like another of those funny things that happens with time.  A century after his life, once the stories about him have circulated, beliefs about him and his relationship with God have started to be formulated, people are already re-imagining the past in a way that fulfills their particular needs in the present.  The wise 30+ year old person of Jesus gets encased in the body of a five year old.  The Greek language of the writer becomes the language that Jesus studied and spoke, rather than Jesus’ native Aramaic.  Centuries later, Jesus is a blond haired and blue eyed savior straight out of Europe casting a strong vote for colonial expansion and then the forward march of the free market.  Goodness.  Time does wonders.

Now it’s the end of a year, the end of the first decade of this millennium, and we’re drawn toward looking back over what’s gone well, what’s gone wrong, what we could have done differently, how unexpected events shifted the course of our lives and our nation.  We ponder.  We reflect.  We treasure in our hearts the gifts of the year and the decade.  We acknowledge the unfolding of time and we recognize ourselves as responsible agents within time. 

We have little control over the passage of time, but we do seek to keep growing in wisdom.  We try and interpret the past in a responsible way, and not a way that only confirms what we already think we know.  We hold hope for the future.  And we remember those mysterious words that Jesus would later say so often during his adult ministry.  The kingdom of God is now.  This present moment is the place where we are invited to meet God and to make God’s ways a reality.  So we pray Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  Open wide for us this present moment and let us embrace it for all its glory and wonder and majesty.  We treasure these things, each moment, in our hearts.  This moment we can join with the heavens and sun and moon and mountains and hills in their eternal song of praise. 

And that means it’s time to stop talking and start singing.

The Pinnacle of Success – 6/21/09 – 1 Samuel 17,18

A couple weeks ago Abbie and I watched a video online of a speech given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the recent bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.  The subtitle of the book is “One woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesian,”  with each country corresponding with one of these at times transcendent experiences of Eat, Pray, Love.  This is a book that Abbie has read and greatly enjoyed and one of the many on my ever-lengthening to-read list.

The surprising thing about the speech was that it was not about the book, per se, not retelling any of her stories or going more in depth with other things she experienced in her travels that didn’t make it into the book.  The speech was about her reflections on the possibility of this book, this best selling book with rave reviews, being the high point of her creative career, and some of her own fears and thoughts about what that might mean for the rest of her life.  As soon as the book became popular, she said, friends told her she was doomed.  Now, whenever she would write, she would be expected to come up with something just as, if not more brilliant.  She would always be in the shadow of this towering success, the person who wrote that Eat, Pray, Love book.  Which, she confessed, was a significant fear that she had.  She spoke briefly about writers and artists of the 20th century and how some of the most insightful and praised artists were those who also had psychological struggles, some taking their own life, and she raised the question as to whether the rigors and expectations for creative output were connected with this.  And so, in a very honest, straightforward, and at times humorous way, she laid out some of her own thoughts on this.  What if, as a person only in her late 30’s, she has already accomplished her greatest life work?  Could she be at peace with this?  Where does that leave her now, especially as she is getting ready to release her “much anticipated” next book?

(To see the video of this speech, click HERE)

As I was reading and studying the David and Goliath story this week, I couldn’t help but make some connections between that speech and this event in the life of the young David.  Surely, by any variety of standards one could use, this story, this feat of David, would have to be considered one of if not the high point of David’s legacy.  The story itself has all the elements of a classic.  There is the perfect villain, the unlikely child hero who also happens to be a poor peasant shepherd, suspense, the promise of the king’s daughter in marriage, the battle scene, and the triumph of good over evil.        

Gauging from how the story has endured over time, it has truly been successful.  If Jay Leno were to do his Jay-walking and ask people on the street to name a story about the life of David in the Bible, along with the no-doubt bizarre and ill-informed answers he would receive would also most likely be the common answer of David and Goliath.  This is a story whose influence has become firmly embedded in our culture.  We love to cheer for the underdog, the David, and when a sports contest features a dominant team highly favored to win over a less powerful team, sports commentators commonly refer to it as a match of David versus Goliath.  

One recent example of a public embrace of a David type figure was the rise of Susan Boyle, the small-town, middle aged, plain looking woman who entered the Britain’s Got Talent contest.  As she came out on stage, the audience and judges acted more out of the impulse of the Roman Gladiator scenario, with the judges rolling their eyes in mockery of her desire to be a successful singer and the audience smirking in anticipation of her getting tossed to the lions as soon as she would start to sing.  When she did sing, “I dreamed a dream” from the musical Les Miserable, suddenly the scenario shifted to something like David and Goliath.  The audience, and the judges, after one beautiful line of music from her mouth, almost instantly, began cheering in amazement for this newly found David who was conquering the Goliaths of ageism and judge-a-book-by-its-coverism.  Susan Boyle quickly became a You-Tube sensation and the hero of just about everybody who has heard her sing.  And, by the way, if you haven’t seen the YouTube video, it’s very much worth watching, to hear her great performance and also to reflect on this massive shift of spirit that took place when people recognized they were in the presence of beauty.  We love David.  We love Susan Boyle.  We love the underdog.  The whole scenario has captured our cultural imagination.  

  (To watch this video, click HERE)

Internal to the story itself, this is presented as a high point of success.  Things are looking very good for David after he defeats the menacing Goliath and he goes from an unknown small town nobody to a national hero.  Instantly he has the attention and the praise of the King himself, Saul, and Abner, the commander of the army.  David’s charisma proves to be magnetic and he gains a soul mate.  Right after speaking with the king after the battle in 1 Samuel 17, chapter 18 begins this way: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan, the King’s son, was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  Saul took David that day (into his service) and would not let him return to his father’s house.  Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.  Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.  David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him.” 

David’s celebrity status makes it difficult for him now to go through towns without being praised and drawing the attention of everyone.  Songs and poems are written about him.  When he would go through a town with the king and his army, the women would come out and sing “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”  Saul had been the first king of Israel, chosen in part because he was a head taller than all the other men, a Goliath in his own right, but this event is part of his fall from power and David’s rise.  Chapter 18 ends by telling how one of the king’s daughter loved David and was given to him as a wife.  It then concludes by noting that in all the battles “David had more success than all the servants of Saul, so that his fame became very great.”  In the course of a short time, as a result of defeating Goliath the Philistine, David gains a soul-mate, is the subject of poetry and pop music praising his strength, is rising toward the throne of Israel, becomes married to a woman who loves him, and becomes famous.  

Can it get any better for David?  Has he reached the pinnacle of success?  Or, maybe more important of a question for us, is this how we are supposed to remember David?  Is this his main legacy?  Is this what is most important about his life that we are to admire or even seek to imitate?  Elizabeth Gilbert was that person who wrote that Eat, Pray, Love book.  Susan Boyle was the woman who wowed the UK and online world when she sang “I dreamed a dream,” and David was the unlikely hero who defeated Goliath.  

One of the remarkable aspects of the Bible is that it keeps telling the story.  Our culture may decide to drop Elizabeth Gilbert and Susan Boyle as ‘so 2009,’ but the biblical memory extends beyond this moment of fame.  Which is to say, it holds up as valuable, as important, as worth remembering, other aspects of David’s life. 

And this is important in a couple different ways.  For one, what we learn of David is not always pretty.  Murderer, adulterer, liar, disobedient to God.  There is no attempt to maintain a clean image of this supposed hero, or promote any kind of hero-worship. 

But there is another part of this that I find interesting.  By continuing to tell the story, by giving us these other events in David’s life, it allows us to ask the question of what really is important from this life of David.  What kind of legacy does he give us in our tradition?  How does our memory of him inform our understanding of a faithful life?

David and Goliath is a story of the weak being lifted up and the strong being humbled, a central feature of the God the Bible portrays, and a good value for any culture to have, but it’s also a story of great violence.  This is, after all, a battle scene, a story about killing, and a little more than just killing.  After David strikes the Philistine in the forehead with one of his stones out of his sling, we are told, “Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.”  A little later we learn that David takes the head with him back to Jerusalem, a lovely trophy of war.  We could spiritualize the story and say it’s about defeating the giants of our life and overcoming the odds stacked against us, a fair interpretation in many ways, but the fact remains that this story, as it is told, is dripping with blood.  The severed head of one’s enemies is being held up as a triumphal sign of victory.  Is this is the high point of David’s life?

What I’d like to suggest is – maybe not.  There are other stories that we can hold up that offer us a different picture of success. 

One example happens not too long after this.  King Saul has become jealous of David’s fame and success and has already made a few attempts at David’s life. David has become a fugitive, with Saul and a large cohort of men pursuing him.  At one point, David is hiding out in the back of a cave, and Saul who is hot on his trail, chooses this particular cave to take a pit stop from the pursuits and relieve himself.  So there’s this pretty funny and ironic picture of David the fugitive in the back of the cave, looking out seeing his sworn enemy in a rather compromised position at the front of the cave.  What to do?  He could have believed that this was a case when God has delivering his enemy into his hands.  He doesn’t even need a sling and five stones.  All he has to do is come up and put a sword through the king.  Saul will never know what hit him and David will be the new king.  It would be David and Goliath, the sequel.  Instead, while Saul is there doing his thing, David sneaks up quietly and cuts off a piece of Saul’s garment that he’s placed to the side.  Saul gets done with his business, gets dressed, and leaves the cave.  And this is what happens told in 1 Samuel 24 – “Afterwards David also rose up and went out of the cave and called after Saul, ‘My lord the king!’  When Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.  David said to Saul, ‘Why do you listen to the words of those who say, ‘David seeks to do you harm.’  This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you.  See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands.  I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life.”  And then Saul responds.  “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.  For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away?” 

Whether David knew it or not, this could be a more important legacy than his defeat of Goliath.  Not a public act, but something done in the isolation of a cave.  It was in his power to take life, but instead he had mercy.  He becomes a peacemaker and uses his power for reconciliation rather than destruction. 

Unfortunately, this story of David’s life is not as well known.  It’s not even a part of our lectionary readings, which contain a wide swath of scripture that are read in a three year cycle.  Which means, that if one were just to stick to the script each week, we’d never hear this story in a worship setting.  I wonder what difference it would make if we started remembering this story.  If, when people now were asked to name a story from the life of David, they would first name the story of David and the Cave, or David’s act of reconciliation, or whatever it would come to be called.   

The New Testament doesn’t mention the story of David and Goliath.  As far as I can tell, Jesus recalls just one story from David’s life, when he draws from this same period when David was a fugitive on the run.  Being out of food, David stops in on a local priest, and asks for bread for him and his men.  The priest has nothing but the holy bread that was to be offered to God and was only for the priest to eat, but gives David this bread to eat.  Jesus tells this story to those who accuse him of wrongfully healing on the Sabbath, showing that the purpose of the holy things of life – the Sabbath, sacred bread, whatever, are for giving and restoring life, not withholding it.  So, according to Jesus, perhaps this was the pinnacle of David’s success.  An obscure instance when his companions are hungry, and he and a priest cross over the sacred boundaries of the culture in order to give food where it is needed.  In this way, Jesus does fit the title of Son of David, that so many called him.

Elizabeth Gilbert ends her talk by noting that as much as we would like to believe otherwise, we are not completely in control of the creative process that flows through us.  At certain points in our lives we get caught up, filled, moved into a writing or a project that wants to find fulfillment through us.  It’s impossible to know when such a movement will happen.  The best we can do is to remain open to it, and, as she says, to keep showing up everyday.  Judging by scripture’s standards of success, I’m not even sure that we will know in our lifetime what has been our greatest accomplishment, or if it even matters to try and keep track.  We show up everyday for the work we’ve been given, remain open to the Spirit, and see the ways we may be instruments of God’s peace in ways we do and don’t yet recognize.

Provide For Me Someone Who Can Play Well – 7/20/08 – 1 Samuel 16:14-23

“Provide for me someone who can play well.”    

I can think of a few different scenarios where one might hear these kinds of words.  These could easily be the words of a high school coach speaking to his team during a timeout of a close ball game, trying to motivate someone to step up and take leadership so the team can come together and pull out the win in the final few minutes of the game. 

Words like these could come out of the mouth of an orchestra conductor during a tryout session, looking for the best players of the various instruments to fill out the available chairs and produce the best overall sound.

“Provide for me someone who can play well,” could be the chant of discontent fans after another rough season, getting more impatient with the team and hoping that soon a new player or a new manager will come along and turn things around.  I will refrain from making reference to any local teams in this case.    

A situation where these words appear that I wouldn’t think of right away is the one that comes from the scripture reading from 1 Samuel.  Here the plea to “provide for me someone who can play well” is not related to competition, winning, or assembling a successful ensemble, but, strangely enough, has to do with healing.  The physical act of playing is directly connected to mental and emotional restoration.  King Saul is in anguish, afflicted by an evil spirit as the text describes it, and his preferred medicine for regaining his health is someone with the gift of play.     

Of all the subjects we’re touching on this summer – Eat, Work, Play, Pray, Rest – play may come off as having the least amount of substance as it relates to our spirituality and relationship with God.  It has the feel of being light and fluffy and fun like cotton candy without a whole lot there for any kind of real sustenance.  How serious can play really be, after all?    

I read a couple articles this week that talked about some of the research that has been done on play from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.  The puzzle for these folks is why something that seems to be as useless and unproductive as play has come into existence in the first place.  Since the process of evolution is pretty good at selecting out these kinds of behaviors as unnecessary to survival, it’s surprising that an activity that uses up our limited time and energy, and can even make us vulnerable to injury, is still going strong in our species.  Perhaps we are evolving away from play as we grow more efficient and productive in how we live, leaving behind this lower form of interaction.  But what these researchers find is that in the animal kingdom, play increases, rather than decreases, with increased complexity of the brain, with humans being the most playful of all creatures.  One article even went so far as to say that “It can truly be said that we are made for play; after all, humans are among the very few animals that play as adults. What the evidence adds up to is this: we are most human when we play—and just because we play.” “ http://psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19990701-000030.html

So play may be in itself something that has developed that helps us survive – and to thrive as human beings.

This story of King Saul and the young David is an example of this.  The story is only the second time we meet David, a part of a series of stories that tell about the rise of David and the decline of Saul.  We’re first introduced to David as a shepherd boy, the youngest of eight sons of Jesse who, despite his youth, is selected by God through the prophet Samuel to be the next king of Israel.  The king he’d eventually be replacing, Saul, had been successful early in his reign but had come to be mentally unsound, going into fits of rage and living in torment.  As a way to remedy this, Saul’s servants tell him, “Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.  Saul agrees to this plan, and, commands, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.”  Of all the people who could have been selected, they bring the young David into the court to be with Saul, who, aside from being a shepherd, we now learn is also a musician.  The plan works well.  Whenever Saul was afflicted by this tormenting spirit, David’s music would relieve him and make him better. 

What would Saul have done without someone who could play well?  Would he have been able to survive and have any kind of sanity during his remaining years as king?

Since I married a music therapist I have been more sensitized to the ways that music and other forms of play are healing agents.  Abbie has worked with art therapists, play therapists, and other music therapists who are using the power of play to relate with kids and adults in ways that open up new forms of communication and expression and health that wouldn’t happen otherwise.  Even though Saul’s servants had the right idea with David 3000 years ago, these are fields that are fairly new in our culture and are continuing to grow as they learn about the possibilities that play has to offer.  

Expanding play beyond music, I also relate this story of King Saul and David with my friend Shem whom I speak about from time to time.  Shem took his own life about four years ago and the year that we were living in Atlanta together was a year when he was starting to enter into some of the darkness of depression and emotional volatility.  Every once in a while the five of us housemates would go out to a local park and get a game of ultimate frisbee going.  I remember one time specifically when Shem made the off hand comment that he found it troubling that the only time he ever felt really alive was when he was playing ultimate frisbee – running around, throwing and chasing down and sometimes diving after the disk.  At the time the comment sounded like him saying that he just really had a lot of fun playing, but now I’m convinced that this activity of play meant something far deeper for him than just a fun time.            

Play is woven in to the very fabric of creation.  After six days of work, God took a seventh day and made it holy, a Sabbath whose purpose is purely for the act of rest and enjoyment, of which play is a part.  Creation’s climax is when God and creatures have no other duties, except the holy duty of enjoying the world together.   

We have traces in the way that our own language has developed that capture the connection between creation and play.  A common word for play is recreation, simply adding to the word “creation” the prefix that means “again.”  To experience play is to undergo re-creation.  To be made new, to start over fresh.  When we play well, our play re-creates us. 

One of the ways play may be so necessary for adults is that it frees us from being stuck in the same patterns of living day after day.  To play is to step outside of the norms and rules that we are used to living by and to take on an entirely new set of rules.  We also get to step outside of our social roles that we act out every day and take on other roles.  When we are playing, we are suspending the world that usually defines who we are, and allowing ourselves to be something different entirely, with a whole new structure of relationships.  Play reminds us that the rules and norms of the world that seem to control our lives are not absolute.  They don’t control every part of us.  Sometimes there are other rules, and it is possible to live under other norms as long we are all agree to play that way.  And this is a very freeing, very liberating thing to experience.  It’s one of the most powerful aspects of re-creation.

Maybe the reason kids play so freely is because they’re not yet caught up in any set pattern of how they are “supposed” to order their lives, and they haven’t settled into any single identity that supposedly defines who they are.  For them the world is soft and flexible, wide open to new possibilities.  So they’re constantly creating new worlds through their play, making believe that they are different characters.  When we age we come to believe that the world is less and less flexible, and we, in turn, become less flexible.  If we aren’t careful, we stop playing, and accept that we are destined to live under the one set of rules that have been given to us.  And we become, in a way, trapped, imprisoned, and enslaved.            

To talk about play as re-creation, and as a way of keeping us being enslaved is to begin speaking theological language.  This borders closely on one of the ways that the Apostle Paul speaks of salvation in his second letter to the Corinthians.  He says, “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”  In this, I find play to have a rich connection with the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and the creation of the church.  What if we were to think of Jesus’ ministry as an invitation to play the game of life by an entirely new set of rules?  We’re all trapped in the rules of self-preservation, survival of the fittest, and might makes right, thinking this is the only game in town, and then Jesus the game master comes along and says that he’s creating a new game that we can start playing right now if we so choose.  The game is called “The kingdom of God” and, like every good game, demands that the players step outside of the roles and patterns of relationships that usually define them and accept new rules.  It’s an extremely challenging game because so many of the rules are counter-intuitive, almost like reverse of the rules we’re used to living by.  Like what kind of a rule is “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will wear?”  Or what kind of a rule is “Do not judge?” Or “take up your cross and follow me?”  The players have to keep relearning and rehearsing and practicing in order to unlearn the standard rules and act these out.  In case in our growing up we have become too rigid to be able to imagine that a game like this is even possible, Jesus teaches that no one can get started in the kingdom of God unless they become as little children.

Once we do get started we should know that some people will be at an advantage over others.  Everyone who wants can play, but certain people will have an easier time catching on.  Jesus calls them “Blessed.”  For example.  “Blessed are those who mourn.”  If you’re mourning the loss of a family member, a broken relationship, loss of your own health or a certain ability, or if you mourn your own failures, you’re going to “get” this kingdom of God game better than those who aren’t mourning.  You’re also at an advantage if you hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice.  If your soul is discontent with the way the world is, if you hunger for fairness in our laws, you’re going to do well in the kingdom of God.  If you’re merciful, if you’re pure in heart, if you’re a peacemaker, you’re blessed and will better intuitively grasp these strange rules that Jesus teaches.  Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, harmed and treated poorly because they have chosen to do what is right, these people will understand how this game works.       

At the end of Matthew chapter 11 Jesus puts out an invitation that starts like this: “Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Given the picture of Jesus as the gamemaster, here’s a paraphrase of that invitation in this light:  “Come unto me, all you who are tired of the same tired rules that seem to be running the show and I will give you new joy.  Play the game that I have created, and try out my rules.  For I am humble in heart and ask only that you come ready to learn.  For my game will be a delight to your soul and my rules will nudge you toward wholeness.”

Play is powerful.  It opens us up to new possibilities and carries with it a healing power that puts us back in touch with the purposes of creation.     

In closing I need to point out a problem with what I’m saying.  Actor Steve Martin has said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture.  I think play could be substituted for music – talking about play is like dancing about architecture.  Talking is just a very limited and incomplete way to communicate its meaning.  The best way to know the gift of play is to do it, to be re-created through it.  Break out the instruments, the balls, the frisbee, the cards, the gameboard, and that kingdom of God game that doesn’t seem to come with any accessories except a guidebook.  And maybe, to our great surprise, we’ll find that we are most alive, most human, and most close to God when we are playing together.

Seeing and Being Seen Below the Surface – 1/20/08- 1 Samuel 16:1,4-13, 1 Timothy 4:6-16

Youth Sunday – Click HERE for a short description of the service in which this sermon was preached.

When a young person from the Lakota people reached their early teen years, they were prepared to set out on their Vision Quest. During their Vision Quest they would go out alone into the wilderness, taking nothing with them except water. They were to look for a spot, a place that caught their attention. When they found their location, they would sit down and settle in. It was understood that they would not move from that 10 foot radius for the next two to four days. Not to explore the woods, not to get food, not to avoid any animals that may come their way. Without any one or any thing from their life there with them, their task was simply to look and listen. What they were looking and listening for was a sign, or some kind of message or voice that would serve as a guiding vision as they entered their life of young adulthood. Because they believed that the Spirit spoke through all things, the message could come in any form. With no food of their own and the possibility of becoming food for any wild animals that may pass through, it was also a time to overcome personal fears. The experience was to take the youth outside of the smallness of their own self, and connect them to the Great Spirit who had a larger purpose and direction for their life. When their time was up, they would return to their people and meet with the spiritual leader who would help them interpret their experience. Whatever kind of direction they received from their Vision Quest was what became the defining part of their new life with the tribe. Undergoing this rite of passage was what marked the transition from childhood to the beginnings of adulthood.

Well, after many long hours of discussion, your parents and I came to the conclusion that we would not take you out into the woods and drop you off for several days. Even though we knew we had some connections in rural Indiana where there might even be a wild animal or two, we decided this was probably not the best idea. But we did think it was important to create a service that might be a similar kind of rite of passage for you, marking the transition you are making from childhood to adolescence.

You are entering a time of life when you are beginning to ask questions about who you are and who you want to become. It is an exciting, mysterious, difficult, confusing, age. The exciting part is that the world is wide open to you. One of the great things about our culture is our value that each person should be allowed to pursue their own interests without having to play out an assigned role. You’re at the point where you’re still a ways off from having to make any major decisions about your life path, but you’re beginning to ponder and explore and consider the possibilities. What are the ways you want to use your gifts to serve others? What are your gifts? What are your interests and passions? These are exciting kinds of questions to ask.

The confusing part is that this is a time of life of rapid change. Not only are your bodies and minds changing, but your relationships are in transition. You are still very much a part of your families, but you’re beginning to gain some independence from your parents, in what you do and in how you think. You’re taking more of your cues from your peers in regards to how you think of yourself. Peers can be difficult people. This is not easy territory. I’m probably not alone in this group in saying that my junior high years are not at the top of my list of all time favorite memories. Along with this is another type of question that you’ll be asking yourself over the next while. The question more difficult than what you want to become is who you want to become. What kind of person do you want to be and how do you become that person? What kind of habits will you need to form and what kind of spiritual disciplines will you need to have to help this along? It’s especially challenging since many voices around you are promoting a self-oriented approach to life rather than a God-oriented approach.

So, I picture that Lakota youth out in the wilderness surrounded by trees, birds, the wind, leaves, and stones, listening for what kind of voice may come out of her environment to guide her. I also picture each of you in your own environment, surrounded by friends, homework, activities, TV and the internet, church, and family, also listening and looking for what kind of voice may come out of your environment to guide you. I’m not so sure you get the easier path. Wild animals come in many forms. How do you face your own fears and be at peace with yourself in the world? How do you listen when there are so many different voices speaking to you? Which ones are God’s leading? Which ones are distractions?

A pastor and writer by the name of Fredrick Buechner says this: “When you are youth, I think, your hearing is in some ways better than it is ever going to be again. You hear better than most people the voices that call to you…When you are young, before you accumulate responsibilities, you are freer than most people to choose among all the voices and to answer the one that speaks most powerfully to who you are and what you really want to do with your life. But the danger is that there are so many voices…The danger is that you will not listen to the voice that speaks to you…To Isaiah, the voice said, “Go,” and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey?” (Fredrick Buechner, 2006: 37-39 Quoted in Road Signs for the Journey, p. 35)

When we got together and looked through some possible scriptures for today the story that most caught your attention was the anointing of young David as king over Israel. This is a story very much about listening and looking. And one of the reasons you gave of why you were drawn to this story was that there is an unexpected ending. Samuel, the mature, experienced, prophet is sent on a mission to anoint the next king of Israel. If anyone had practice and expertise at listening to God it would have been Samuel. Ever since his mother, Hannah, dedicated him in the temple when he was just a baby he had served in the temple and been mentored by the other priests there. When he was a boy he had heard God calling his name, even though the older priest didn’t hear anything. Now Samuel is older and his task is to go to the house of a man named Jesse and choose one of his sons to be king. Unfortunately, it appears that Samuel’s hearing isn’t as tuned into God as it could be. He is immediately drawn toward the oldest son who is tall and strong. Not that there’s anything wrong with being tall, but Samuel isn’t looking very closely for what really matters. And so we get this line in the story that caught your attention: “humans look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” From David’s perspective, this story isn’t so much about seeing or hearing, as it is about being seen in a certain way.

There is an interesting relationship between how people see us and how we see ourselves. Or, how we think God sees us and how we see ourselves. We tend to see ourselves through the eyes of others. A psychologist by the name of Dr. James Fowler talks about how the movement into adolescence has to do with becoming a “self-conscious” person. And the initial way that we become self-conscious is that we learn to see ourselves as others see us. He has a little line that describes this which goes like this. “I see you seeing me, I see the me I think you see.” (Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian, 2000, p. 46.) Dr. Fowler goes on to say that “this accounts for the (adolescent’s) rather sudden new depth of awareness and interest in the interiority (emotions, personality patterns, ideas, thoughts, and experiences) of people – others and oneself. It makes for a newly ‘personal’ young woman or man. I see you seeing me, I see the me I think you see.

Young David has the experience of being seen in a way that neither Samuel, nor David’s father or brothers, or David himself could have imagined. Each of these characters limited their view of David as being the youngest brother, the last in line for any kind of opportunity. But then God’s way of seeing changed all that. David was not only a sheep herder, but he was also the Lord’s anointed, full of the spirit of God.

This would have had to have been a startling and even disturbing experience. There’s no sign in the story that David was looking to be king. He hadn’t written any essays in elementary school of how he wanted to become to next king of Israel. But something new happens for him when someone else first sees him as the Lord’s anointed. He is first seen in this new identity, and then he slowly becomes that new identity.

Something similar is going on in the other scripture that you chose. Timothy is in the process of being shaped and taught by his mentor, Paul. Timothy might have seen himself as too young, too inexperienced, not good enough for the job, but Paul saw someone who God had gifted to be a leader and a teacher. One of Paul’s purposes in writing Timothy would have been to help Timothy see himself through Paul’s eyes, who was looking in the same way as Samuel learned to look at David, not at how things appear, but at the inner reality of things. Paul says “Don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with you life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture… Cultivate these things. Immerse yourself in them. The people will all see you mature right before their eyes.” (Message translation).

An important experience for me when I was about your age, even a little younger, happened because people were looking below the surface in my life. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I was asked to preach a sermon at my home church. We were a small group, maybe 40 people or so, and I knew everyone, so it I felt comfortable saying Yes. I chose for my text the entire book of Job, even though I had read only the first and last couple chapters, and not the 40 chapters in between. The sermon probably wasn’t all that ground breaking, but afterward something very important happened. People told me I did a good job and that I should keep studying and writing and speaking. The pastor joked with me that if he was ever sick he was going to give me a call to fill in for him. Because of the way others saw this experience of mine, it was the first time I was able to see myself as someone who may want to do this in the future. This didn’t mean I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but it is a time I remember when I started to see myself in a new light. I would imagine that others here have similar kinds of stories from their own lives – when others pointed something out in them that helped them know themselves better.

We look for signs from God and we listen for God’s voice. We are all on our own Vision Quest, and we have to learn how to listen well to the calling on our life, whatever that may be. But as we ourselves try and look below the surface of things in this way, we will also find that there are others looking right back at us below our surface. Not seeing us just for who we appear to be, but for our whole person. These people are some of God’s greatest gifts to us.

We are called to look at each other below the surface, in the way that God sees us. One of the important things that we do together as church is to simply tell each other what we see when we look in this way. We may be able to see gifts and potential and the Spirit of God in others in ways that we can’t see in ourselves. We want to learn how to see each other in the light of God.

For each of you youth, I can say with confidence that there are a lot of wonderful things God has placed in each of your lives. I know this because I can see it, and because others here have seen it. We are blessed to have you a part of our fellowship as you move through these adolescent years. The surprise ending is that God has not only anointed young David, but has also anointed you. Whether you know it or not, we see the Spirit of God in each of you and pray you can tune your ears to the adventure of your calling. In a little bit, we’re going to get quite a bit more specific about this. I will ask each of you to come forward one at a time and listen to some of the voices from CMF speaking to you about what they have observed in you.

Before we do this, let’s sing together one of the songs the youth have chosen, which speaks to the reality of the voice of God that calls to each one of us.


In their highly communitarian culture, the Lakotas sent their youth out into solitude to hear the voice that would guide them. In our highly individualistic culture, we are surrounding our youth with community and praying that within this faith community they are able to hear the voice that will help guide them as they listen for God’s leading in their life. It was common for the Lakota youth to take from their circle some kind of physical object, like a feather or twig or stone, as a reminder of their Vision Quest. And so as a physical reminder of this time we will be giving each youth a notebook to keep. The first several pages of the notebook were made by the youth and represent part of their personality and who they are. They second part of the notebook contains comments, notes, blessings, from the congregation. It’s not to late to contribute to this, so over the next few weeks you can still send notes to Jane Patty who will help compile them. This can be something that each of you can refer to anytime as a reminder of what people see when they look at you.

Now we get the chance to hear just a few of these comments for each of you.