Proper 9

July 5, 2009
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Reading 2: 
Psalm 48
Reading 3: 
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Reading 4: 
Mark 6:1-13
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on Preaching:

It seems to me that some of my best preaching comes from my imagination at play with the texts. Like a child trying to fit squares into holes and stars into boxes, I delight in the ways my imagination tries to fit texts together. It’s play. Yes, it’s correct to place a round into a hole and a square into a square, but what about Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels and what does a chariot look like when it swings low? As a parent, I think I know what it means that God loves me until I read about Abraham and Isaac. I think I know what it means to win until I read Revelation. I think I know King David until I read about King Jesus. By combining different shapes and textures together, strange insights appear. When I look down at a text, by the time it’s through with me, I find myself looking up. Askew is sometimes the right angle to read a text. Sometimes I find myself mouthing Pilot’s question about truth. When I let myself play in a way that is natural to me, I feel free. It seems that a preacher needs to learn how he or she plays, because what is play to one is work to another; what is clear to one is opaque to another. I have been fortunate enough to discover my style at playing with texts. Such play often takes me to odd places. I have learned to trust the narratives and entrust myself to their power. Playing with one text might leave me on a mountain top, and another in a quiet stream. Some make me feel small, others open new horizons of mountains and valleys. Some texts are quiet, others shout. The trick is to let the texts come out and play with no adult supervision.

The best stories are rarely linear and often surprise us and take us to a place we couldn’t expect. Likewise, the outcome of creative transformation cannot be anticipated or predicted. To trust a biblical text is to understand that cynicism and despair have no ground in the Bible. Hopelessness cannot be honestly sustained.

Discussing the Texts:

This time, Jesus was amazed. He had been amazing other people, blowing them away by his teaching and feats of healing. Massive crowds gathered. He had just come from such an event where people had grabbed at him, pushing and shoving to get closer, pulling his robe, wanting to just touch him. He was famous. One might wonder what would amaze Jesus? Every once in a while Jesus would marvel at someone’s simple act of faith. This text from Mark said that he went to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath. Everyone would be gathered for worship that day of the week. He spoke to the hometown congregation. But he is amazed that his own people, those he grew up with and regularly enquired of Mary how her son was doing, eyed him now as a stranger. “Yes, it is him, but what arrogance to speak to us like this.” Small town, familiar neighbors, looking out for one another, eyeing strangers as they walked through village streets. Neighborhood Watch. Can’t be too careful. He taught in the synagogue and they were offended. He wonders out loud “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, among their own kin, and in their own house.” Yet, even in his own house, his brothers and sisters and his mom and dad were baffled. His mom, of all people? He was amazed that his own people choose to be offended because he was, shall we say, uppity? Familiarity breeds contempt in this case. The text doesn’t say what he said that was so offensive, but we know what he’s been saying. The text doesn’t say what he did on his way out of town, except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. It’s easy to imagine the towns-people standing in the street, watching him leave. Did they holler at him, “Get out?” Did they gather fists full of dust to throw at him, leaving dust on their fastidiously clean robes and sandals? Or, when Jesus was out of sight, did they shake their heads and go quietly back to their tasks. “It’s so sad; his mother had such high hopes for him. Poor Mary.”

David had a very different reception by his own people in the 2 Samuel text. All the tribes of Israel came together and told David they were family, “We are your bone and flesh.” Not only did they receive him but they praised him for saving Israel and they knew God was on his side. They claimed that he was the one sent by God, the anointed one, the Messiah, dare we say. David was clearly the anointed one because of his power and courage in defending his people. “David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David.” Can you imagine Jesus’ own people reacting to him if he had claimed Nazareth as the city of Jesus?

David was 30 years old, and so probably was Jesus. What an odd contrast between two of God’s anointed, seeing as how David went on to spectacular failure and Jesus went on to... well, he didn’t act like a Messiah, now did he? David went up and then down; Jesus went down and then up. How is a person supposed to know which one is the true Messiah, given this stark comparison?

There is David ascending. Watch him outwit Saul and his enemies. See his bearing before the people: humble, yet proud, obviously chosen by God, even endearing himself to God. If God is on his side and we are on David’s side, how could there be eventual failure. Surely God will protect.

There is Jesus on his way out: out of town, out of sight, out of favor with the people. There will be no gathering of kings, no anointing. No ascending to a throne with a crown.

But watch out. Beware. Make no assumptions about David or Jesus and especially about God. Holding these two texts so close together will cause questions like sparks flying off a grinding wheel sharpening a knife, spraying hot light in every direction. What was it about David that undid him as Messiah? What was it about Jesus that made him Messiah, against all the odds and the odds-makers? So, you think you know who David is? Do you think you know who Jesus is? Whose side is God on? Which one was blessed? Go ahead and read the rest of King David’s story and tell me with a straight face that he was blessed. Read the rest of the gospel story, or better yet, you think you know how it ends without reading it closely? Then tell me with a straight face how Jesus was blessed. Whose side is God on?

After David is anointed and ascends the throne, he commands the largest army the people have seen. Surely God blessed David. And watch Jesus, leaving his home town and sending his disciples out two by two just like Noah before the catastrophe, and he tells them to take, what, swords, armor, helmets and tanks and guns? How can you prepare to be on God’s side? No, Jesus said “Take nothing for your journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” How’s that for an army of God?

Is the clash of these two texts meant to be ironic? It might be parody, poking fun at us and our expectations of kings and messiahs and presidents and armies and money and capitalism and some skewed sense of justice that is not fair and love that only harms. Maybe the texts are meant to be sarcastic. Spit in our faces of misplaced hopes and trust and dreams. Who is the true anointed one, the Messiah?

I hope you understand that I am taking a sarcastic tone because it might be the closest way to read the texts together. Because when they are brought close together they attract one another at the same time that they repel, and the generated magnetic field warps our imaginations and causes us to question our assumptions about how we thought the world works and how God provides. It is a great clash of opposing expectations and explanations. Who controls whom? Does the world we create feed our imaginations, or do our imaginations build the city that stands against God? Each text on its own makes sense in its own context, but bring them together and it challenges us in ways we hardly imagine possible.

Then, throw into the mix the text from 2 Corinthians. In the simplest terms, Paul says God said to him “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” This observation was in response to Paul praying to be relieved from a malady. He was taken up “to the third heaven” as if in a tornado like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, twirled around and set down. Where he went he does not know, only from some mystic brew. He concludes from his experience with God “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Spoken like a Zen master.

Process Theology and the Texts:

Process thought describes a God that for whom time is not symmetrical. That is, God does not know the future in the same way that God knows the past. The past is settled and the future is open. God provides possibilities to each unfolding event and then waits for the decisions of the creatures and responds by offering more possibilities appropriate to the next unfolding moment. In this view, the future is radically open. If God was not involved in this way, then each event would simply repeat the previous event and there would be no novelty. God provides truly new possibilities that, if chosen, lead to new actualities. We see this divine behavior many times in the biblical narratives. God responds to the characters in a dynamic give-and-take. Moses argued with God and got concessions. God is the only character in the Noah narrative that changes. This makes the narratives unstable. If God’s power is expressed as creative transformative, then the biblical narratives become unpredictable. An example of this instability is displayed in the two texts discussed above, in the contrast and comparison of David and Jesus. God operated very differently in the two stories. It’s the same God, but two different divine behaviors.

This points to two aspects of God’s nature. There is one aspect of the divine nature that does not change. God’s power is creative transformation and will always be working in any and all events to creatively transform. God is always loving. The divine disposition toward creation is love. The other aspect of the divine nature is that God is continually making adjustments depending upon the decisions of the creatures. In this way, God is dynamically involved with the unfolding of life, continually adjusting and responding to its unfolding by providing relevant possibilities to each moment. We see in many Bible stories that God is often the unstable element. Look at many of the stories in Genesis. God is the one who introduces a new invitation to Abraham. God messes with Jacob and Esau. God set in motion the path of Joseph. God calls characters out of their known present into an unknown future. But that’s the point: God is the one who calls us into our own unknown future. The lesson to be learned is that we can trust the divine call, just as Abraham did.

It is instructive to look at these two scenarios side-by-side and ask, where is God in the David story? Where is God in the Jesus story? How can God’s intentions be so different, even opposite?

One of the primary grounds of hope is how the divine attention is focused so clearly on each unfolding moment, to provide lures to greater possibilities becoming actualities. The Jesus story demonstrates this most dramatically and effectively. There is little in the gospel stories that lead us to believe that Jesus knew he would be resurrected. The story affirms his trust in the power of God as he moved into the last night of his life. God works with what is to bring it to where it can be.

Preaching the Texts:

A good strategy for preaching these texts is to place them side-by-side, the 2 Samuel story about David and the Mark story about Jesus. A juxtaposition of the texts and how the two narratives are contrasted and compared raises a whole set of issues that might not be possible by focusing on just one or the other of the texts. By holding them in tension it becomes possible to allow the texts themselves to be instruments of creative transformation. Not all stories are transformative, neither are all biblical texts.

One of the main issues is the nature of Messiah. Who is the Messiah? What qualifies him as such? When, where and how will the Messiah be manifested? Jesus confronted a religious expectation that the Messiah will look and act a lot like King David, only this time, he will be even more successful. Jesus did not fit these expectations. To get a sense of how powerful these expectations can be, look at how some present-day Christians expect Jesus’ Second Coming; he will look and act like David, riding in on a white horse with a sword to save his people.

These expectations lead us to the fundamental question of what kind of power the Messiah will embody. Jesus did not come with a sword or riding into Jerusalem to take control. By using David as defining Messiah, then Jesus failed. But how did the mantle of Messiah pass from David to Jesus? It was the recognition that coercive power is not the best kind of power for neither God nor human beings. Jesus embodied a different kind of power, not of this world. His description of the Kingdom of God represents a whole different set of expectations abut God and about the Messiah. The contrast is dramatized in a text from Revelation. In chapter five, the author of Revelation sets the stage in the throne room of God. And there is an expectation that the one seated on the throne with be a Lion, that is, a symbol of David. But what is revealed instead is a Lamb, that is, a symbol of Jesus, “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” 5:6. The question arises, who is worthy to open the scroll? Not the Lion, but the Lamb. Here is a prime example of how the idea of Messiah was transformed from Lion to Lamb. This is a paradigm shift about the definition of Messiah and why it applies to Jesus and not to David.

The preacher could simply make these observations. Let the texts speak for themselves as they are held in tension, side-by-side.

The conclusion of this process would be that divine power as manifested in Jesus is far more effective than the kind of power manifested in David. Jesus then is the true Messiah, but a very different version than even some present-day Christians expect from Jesus. This conclusion would call into question the current end-timers expectations about Jesus. Will he return with coercive power? If not, how do we even comprehend how Jesus would return with persuasive power? It would require a whole new scenario.

Children and the Texts:

It would be interesting to explore with the children the kind of power Jesus had. Talk about him teaching and healing. He had compassion and love and healing power. Is this the best kind of power to have? You can go in many different directions with this, depending upon the age of the children and their interests. One way is to talk about bullies at school. Talk about the kind of power they have, to threaten and hurt people. Is that a good way to treat people? What would be a better way to treat others? With kindness maybe. Do you know someone who is kind? It’s way more pleasant to be with them. Who has the most power, the bully or the kind person?

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.