Weekly Preaching: July 1, 2018

June 25th, 2018

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

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


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

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

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

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

The song is intense, pulsating with sorrow, perhaps especially over Jonathan. I love David Wolpe’s insight (in his fabulous biography of David) which notes the way David as a boy is full of music, and even here he produces a marvelous song for the occasion. But as his own life breaks down, as his kingdom suffers one shock after another, and then when Absalom finally dies, “Now he can barely speak.”

Preaching feels the pain. Preaching doesn’t trivialize loss. Preaching provides words for the people out there, every Sunday, who very deeply feel the absence of someone they have loved, often someone with whom the relationship was, like’s David’s with Saul, never reconciled.


Before looking to the Epistle, let’s touch on the Gospel, Mark 5:21-43. Scholars rightly point out the artistic brilliance of Mark’s narrative, but should we better speak of the complex and brilliant wonder of Jesus’ life?

The interruption on the way to Jairus’ house: is it Mark’s artistry? Or was Jesus the ultimately interruptible one?

My mentor in scholarship, ministry and life, Father Roland Murphy, was stunningly interruptible. It was part of his goodness to me and others. Anne Lamott wrote, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” Maybe there is a discipleship element in having plans but being ever ready to have them interrupted?

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

Who could fail to be moved by the dramatic scene of so much wailing at Jairus’ home? Or the way Jesus’ glimmer of hope elicits laughter, an echo of the cynical laughter turned to giddy delight in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac (Gen. 17-18, 21). And how tender that Jesus speaks simply to the little girl – and Mark preserves his original Aramaic words, Talitha koum, which means “Young woman, get up.” For me, that little detail at the end gathers up so much of Jesus’ tenderness, children’s real needs, and even some Eucharistic undertones: “Give her something to eat.”


Finally, we come to the unseen grief of unknown people, which is what so much of Christian mission is about. Our Epistle, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, is a subsection of the greatest fundraising letter in history. How radical was Paul’s request for funding? In my exploration (in Worshipful) of the meaning of passing the offering plates, I point out:

“In the ancient world, where charity just didn’t happen, and where the wealthy endowed games, parades and marble temples but never assistance for the needy, Paul asked people he’d recently met to give up hard earned money for people they had never met and would never meet… Whatever we might think about the poor and charity, Paul established giving as a holy obligation. Never forget that for Paul, the poor also are required to help the poor! Some of the most courageous, impactful ministries for the poor I’ve seen in my lifetime are fully carried out by people we’d think of as poor. I have a friend in Lithuania who engages in startlingly effective ministry with the poorest of the poor — while she herself is poor. And when I’ve preached in Haiti, we take up a collection for, yes, the poor.” 

Of course, we move beyond toxic charity when we heed John Wesley’s counsel that it is better to deliver aid than to send it. But the increasingly popular notion that the poor should fend for themselves is unholy, unscriptural, and grieves the compassionate heart of God.

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

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