June 24th – 4th Sunday after Pentecost

I really like it when readings from one week flow nicely into the second, as it gives me a chance to touch on some things I may have missed in the previous week. And that is what happened this week. As you may recall, last week, David was anointed as Saul’s replacement, but then, it seemed that not much happened. David returned to tending the sheep, and at some point, was invited into Saul’s service. You see, because Saul had turned his back on the Lord, he was plagued with an evil spirit, and the only thing that could soothe him was soft music. David, in addition to being a shepherd, was a bit of a musician, and he was pressed into Saul’s service. When David played on his harp, relief would come to Saul, and the evil spirit would leave him. But Saul didn’t know that David had been anointed for a specific task.
So today’s reading from the first book of Samuel showed Saul and his army at war with the Philistines, one of whom was Goliath, described in our translation as being over nine feet tall. Other translations claim that he was six feet nine inches, which is not nearly as far-fetched. But in any case, he was significantly taller than other men of his time, and put terror into the hearts of Saul’s army. In true mythic tale fashion, Saul promised great wealth to the person who could defeat Goliath, along with his daughter’s hand in marriage. As well, he promised to exempt the hero’s family from taxes, which I found most interesting.
So, as you already heard, the shepherd boy David volunteered to face the enemy, alone. And we all know the outcome. Now, this story has been used for generations to show how the weak can overcome the strong, but I have a slightly different take on it. Lately, we have been talking about faith. For instance, last week, we discussed the parable of the mustard seed, which Jesus used to show how a little faith could lead to great things. And I think that this is what happened here. David knew that he had been anointed, and that the Lord meant him to do great things. He had faith that God would not let him down. Just listen again to verse 37: The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw off the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine. David’s faith was such that he didn’t even pray before going into battle, knowing that the Lord was on the side of the Israelite army, and that he would be the victor in this lop-sided battle. I used the word lopsided deliberately, because, to the Philistines, it seemed sure that this untried youth was no match for their champion, but to David – and to us – it was obvious that Goliath was doomed to defeat, because David had the Lord on his side. While David knew what he had done to protect his sheep, he did not take the credit himself, because he knew that it was down to God that he had been able to succeed then, and that he would succeed now. Not only would he succeed, but the whole Israelite army would succeed, because this was the army of the living God. Imagine having that kind of faith!
Compare that faith, if you will, to the lack of faith shown by the disciples on the sea of Galilee that stormy evening. You need to remember a couple of things to understand what was happening here. First of all, most of Jesus’ companions at that time were veteran fishermen. If the storm was powerful enough to scare them, it must have been really something. And secondly, they had already seen Jesus do wonderful things, yet they feared that he would be unable to help them in their time of direst need. And there is a bit more to it than that. When they woke Jesus, they asked him: Don’t you CARE if we drown? That question has more than one meaning, as does just about everything in Scripture. It could indicate that they wonder if Jesus is capable of doing anything, or it could indicate that they wonder if he could be bothered to do anything. First of all, COULD he do it? And secondly, WOULD he do it? Because, as you know, these are two very different things. Many times we are perfectly capable to doing something, but we choose not to do it.
In the midst of the storm, Jesus was sleeping peacefully, with much the same mindset as David had before facing Goliath. Both of them knew, even if others didn’t, that everything would be all right. David had the faith that God would take care of him and the Israelites, and Jesus – well, he was God, so he had faith that he would be able to control whatever happened around him, until the time came for his death. The giant Philistine was a threat to David and the whole army, in just the same way as the storm was a threat to the disciples. Both were facing what seemed to them to be certain death. I found the choice of words in Mark’s Gospel interesting. Jesus got up, and REBUKED the sea into submission. Now, in the first chapter of this gospel, Jesus rebuked a demon. To me, the choice of words was no coincidence. To the people of Jesus’ time, the sea must often have seemed demonic, representing forces that were chaotic and threatening to human beings, who would have felt small and vulnerable and weak. And on this evening, it was certainly a place of chaos. Richard Swanson, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, makes a connection between what is happening on the sea and what Jesus has been doing on land. He has certainly been stirring things up, and making sure that people aren’t resting easily. Swanson commented: “He is already on the boat, on the sea, floating on chaos, which matches the implications of some of his teaching.” Just think again about the mustard seed from last week’s reading, which is so tiny, and which, at that time, could and often did grow into an uncontrollable weed. It’s odd to think about faith as a weed, but when you consider that it can choke out all other things which interfere with our relationship with God, then it makes sense.
For most people, this story of the storm at sea brings to mind the story of Jonah, who was also caught in a storm. He also was responsible for the calming of the seas, but in a very different way from Jesus. And we need to remember that this Gospel, like the others, was written after Jesus’ death and for a very specific community. This Marcan community would have seen the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale and cast out after three days as symbolizing Jesus’ being crucified, and in the tomb for three days before his resurrection. This early Christian community must often have felt like a crew on a storm-tossed ship, facing persecution and feeling small against the powerful and unfriendly forces who wanted to eradicate them. Mark, then, writes to strengthen the faith – the trust – of the early church in God’s goodness at work, beneath the surface of every storm and every trial.
However, we have to be careful. Too many people take this reading – and the one about David and Goliath – as assurance that, no matter what happens, God will deliver us from anything bad that happens to us. In this 100th anniversary year of the sinking of the Titanic, we know that bad things do happen. We can still remember Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans and the tsunami which killed so many people in Japan. This year my sister is again hosting two children from Belarus, which is still trying to recover from the Chernobyl disaster. I am pretty sure that the people involved in all of these, as well as countless others, prayed for God’s help at the time. And they must have felt that their prayers were not answered. The message in this story, then, is that, no matter what happens, God will be WITH us, not in a warm, fuzzy, everything’s-going-to-be-fine kind of way, but that he will be with us in any circumstances. And, you know, this is not necessarily comforting. When Christ quiets the forces that threaten chaos, makes the unclean clean, and restores the unacceptable to wholeness, these acts upend our cherished assumptions about order, security, autonomy, and fairness. Basically, we have to acknowledge that God at work in our lives can create rock our little boat, that he can create chaos. When God comes so near, we cannot hide. Nor can we push God away. And this is terrifying.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when he calmed the waves, the disciples were terrified. And Jesus said to them: Why are you still afraid? Do you still have no faith? I hear words of accusation here, and I realize that these questions could also be asked of each one of us. We, like the disciples, seem all too willing to believe that God is all-powerful, able to do anything, to fix any problems we might encounter. We always seem to have faith that God can do the miraculous. But somehow, faith of this kind works against us and against God instead of for us and for God. First, we put so much trust in God’s supernatural powers, that we forget to use our own skills and gifts which God has given to us. We, like the fishermen who suddenly were floundering on the sea, act like we don’t know what to do or how to help ourselves with what God has already given us. What we don’t realize is that God’s power and miraculous abilities are revealed as much in our gifts and talents as they are in multiplying fish and loaves, parting of seas, or bread from heaven. Some of us are gifted with music and drama. Some of us are gifted with a listening ear. Some of us are gifted with organization and management abilities. These gifts are miracles, God’s love and power manifest in us. When we face faith crises, these gifts are God’s way of already providing us with help in times of need. Instead of looking for a quick defying-the-laws-of-the-universe fix, God asks us to look inward to our own resources.
Maybe this is what frightens us. Maybe, this is what made the disciples still afraid. Maybe, indeed, this is why they were TERRIFIED. At least, that is the word used in the pew bibles. In other translations, it is rendered: they feared a great fear. And that isn’t a word we often hear in church – the word “fear”. And when we DO hear it, it is often re-translated into the word “awe”, since they are the same word in Greek. So we – instead of saying “fear of the Lord” – say “in awe of the Lord”, which is not inaccurate, but is also not as powerful. In addition to being awestruck by the Lord, we SHOULD fear him. We should fear what he may demand of us, what he may expect from us. What is the true cost of discipleship? For many members of the Marcan community, it was ostracism by their own society, by their own families. For many of them, it was torture and death. If that doesn’t strike fear into someone, then I have to question their sanity.
Scott Hoezee, one of the guiding forces behind the Centre for Excellence in Preaching, wrote a reflection about Jesus as Teacher, not as mighty military or political leader or – in today’s language – as celebrity, but a man preaching from a fishing boat to huge and hungry (in more ways than one) crowds on the shore, talking “about seeds and birds and trees, and most people went away scratching their heads and wondering when in the world they’d get to see one of those spine-tingling miracles they heard tell of”. Maybe, then, when we think we need a miracle, what we need most is to be fed by God’s Word. Or is God’s Word itself not the greatest miracle of all? Is God’s Word not the thing that is most likely to cause chaos in our lives?
Not that we need any more than we already have. The church itself is in the midst of a storm. This was obvious at General Assembly, where the theme On The Edge was meant to propel us into the water. We see the storm as denominations are splintered; we see it as churches are closing; we see it as people wander about faithless – or rudderless, to continue the ship at sea analogy. Without a rudder, a ship will go nowhere, and without faith, a church and a people will go nowhere. I am not saying that religious activity is declining. We see what is referred to as “seeker-friendly” churches springing up virtually out of nowhere. Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint – they vanish almost as quickly, because they have no substance. We see people claiming to be spiritual, but not religious, and you already know how I feel about that. In this country, we have the freedom to be religious in just about any way we want. The problem is that the way most people choose to be religious has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And that is where we need to start and to end – with the Good News, as it was brought to us by Jesus. Jesus knew that we would need to be told this again and again and again, just as the disciples were told again and again and again. Parable after parable covered the same material, bringing the same messages to them and to us. Jesus told them again and again about God’s love and about what Jesus would have to do in order to show God’s love. Jesus would go around the lessons with them again and again, helping them to become faithful servants. So it is with us. Have we still no faith? Faith in ourselves, and faith in our congregation. Faith in the vision laid before us, the path God calls us to? Fear not, God is a patient teacher, who will stay the course with us. Let us put our trust in our father, our creator, our teacher. God will not leave us alone to face Goliath or to be tossed about on the stormy waters. He will always be with us. Thanks be to God.


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