Weekly Preaching: June 27, 2021

June 23rd, 2021

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27. I love it when, in preaching, you can say out loud a place name like Ziklag. Sounds exotic, but particular – like we’re stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. It’s a tragedy. Saul, slain in battle. David’s lament is eloquent, hard to improve upon by commenting on it. Years ago, I speculated about the idea of a book club in heaven, whose members are the biblical writers, Matthew, Paul, Isaiah, Moses, Peter, John, and David. Do they praise David for this beautiful lament? What other great sorrowful expressions of grief do they admire and wish they could have mustered?

I think of Homer’s vision (in The Iliad) of Andromache learning of Hector’s death: “‘My heart is in my throat, my knees are like ice… O God, I’m afraid Achilles has cut off my brave Hector, and has put an end to my husband’s cruel courage.’ She ran outdoors like a madwoman, heart racing. Black night swept over her eyes. She reeled backward, gasping, and her veil and glittering headbands flew off.” Consider Walt Whitman's marvelous poems, "O Captain, My Captain," and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," composed at the death of a public figure as pivotal as David, Abraham Lincoln. More personally, much of Emily Dickinson's poetry is fixated on death. And there's W.H. Auden’s “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking, silence the pianos and with muffled drum bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. He was my North, my South, my East and West, my working week and my Sunday rest.” Preachers are way too swift to correct or fix grief, whereas Scripture enables the grief to deepen, as it must.

With 2 Samuel 1 and these and other poems, shrieks really, we see how questions of suffering and beauty play out. The preacher’s job isn’t to squelch grief, but to discern the love, the loveliness, and odd catharsis in its expression. Notice, in a shocking way to us, how David is gracious to his foe, perhaps the way Churchill spoke glowingly and appreciatively at the funeral for his nemesis, Neville Chamberlain. There’s Gospel in this simple fact. Walter Brueggemann suggests that “this poem is a useful model for public grief among us,” busy as we get with power and our pet ideologies.

Little details in David’s lament intrigue. “How the mighty have fallen” is a testament to what happens to all the powers, even those we treasure like our own – reminding me of Shelley’s poem, surveying a ruin in Egypt: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert… near them half sunk a shattered visage lies… On the pedestal these words appear: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” So it is with the powers of this world.

Notice the weeping of the daughters of Israel, drawing our minds to the weeping of the women who watched Jesus trudging toward Calvary bearing the weight of his cross. David alludes to the “heights” – but does he mean simply the high ground where the battle was fought, or is he subtly reminding us of Saul’s and Israel’s repeated idolatry at the “high places”? Saul’s sword “did not return empty” – but it did, even when he tried to use it to kill David himself! What a great, unusual, untidy, marvelous, and utterly unboring sermon could be preached on this great text!

2 Corinthians 8:7-15. Paul launches the greatest, most theologically profound fundraiser ever. We need to recall that charity, giving for others, especially those you don’t know personally, simply did not exist until Paul started it. The model and motivation for generosity? No prosperity gospel, no obligation, but a sensible, passionate reply to and imitation of Christ’s generosity! In my book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, I explore how the offering collection opens up an invitation for us to ponder all of our money in light of Christ’s generosity. Lots of stuff in just 10 pages there, including...

Mother (St. now!) Teresa: “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which has value before God. This giving until it hurts is what I call love in action.”

Check out my book and this chapter, which focuses on God loving a “cheerful giver” (from this same 2 Corinthians fundraising letter!) – with examples like St. Francis’s friend Brother Juniper giving away all his stuff, even the clothes off his back, and the possessions of other friars! (it’s “cheerful,” the Greek meaning “hilarious”), or the grandfather in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: “He would take laundry right off the line. I believe he was a saint of some kind. There was an innocence in him. He lacked patience for anything but the plainest interpretation of the starkest commandments. ‘To him who asks, give,’ in particular.”

Mark 5:21-43. There’s a painting I’ve loved so much I made it my Facebook photo a while back. It’s in a lovely new chapel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the village of Magdala, Mary Magdalene’s hometown. At ground level, this painting shows the woman reaching out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment - from her lowly, ground-level perspective.

She must be a woman of considerable means, having spent huge sums on doctors, in a day when most people couldn’t afford any doctor ever. But all the cash and care money could buy didn’t bring her any health. She was sick and tired of being sick and tired – until she heard about Jesus. Due to her illness, she would have been regarded as unclean, not welcome in any crowd, much less coming face to face with this travelling rabbi / healer / maybe Messiah. But she presses forward, as close as possible without being noticed, barely brushing her hand against the low hem of Jesus’ robe.

And, voila! She is healed. Power flowed from him, into her – and he wasn’t even trying. No wonder we speak of the Master’s touch, the way simply being close to Jesus brings an unanticipated wholeness. Jesus notices, puzzling his disciples – and then he has more mercy on her, treating her like no one else would, as a whole, infinitely valued child of God.

Mark’s storytelling technique is amazing – or perhaps things just unfolded in the way he reports. When that almost magical touch happens, Jesus is on his way to visit another child of God, a little girl, the daughter of a powerful Roman military man, Jairus. Important mission: saving a child. Jesus is unfailingly “interruptible.” Important things to do, yes, always, but along the way there’s always a person, someone requiring just some compassion, a kind look and word. Jesus shows us how to be attentive while we’re headed toward wherever we’re going.

Jesus gets to Jairus’s house – late. We can’t be sure she’d have been alive if he’d ignored the woman grasping his hem. He would take his time later getting to Lazarus's tomb... The little girl has passed – and if we read slowly, we can overhear the loud wailing of her family and neighbors. Invite your people to feel their pain. Jesus did.

I love the little details of this healing. He could have thundered a word from the yard. But he enters the home. He takes the girl by the hand. Ask your folks to picture that. Feel your hands. Precious Lord, take my hand… He speaks – and onlookers recalled what he said in his and their native language, Aramaic, so moving that Mark, writing in Greek, records the Aramaic! Talitha kum. Rise up, little girl. So tender. This 12 year old girl stood up. Imagine the sound of the shock, the rejoicing, maybe more intense than the wailing just moments earlier.

And then, showing his immense compassion and understanding, Jesus speaks to her family: “Give her something to eat.” She’s been sick. She’s got to be famished. Let’s get back to normal. Little girls eat. Families feed their children. Envision Jesus standing in your home. It’s time to eat. He gets that you’re hungry. Enjoy. Be nourished. What a week to have Holy Communion!


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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