Lectionary Commentary

June 21, 2009
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 7

Commentary by Rick Marshall

See also: [Year B Archive]

Sermon

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49 or
Job 38:1-11
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Discussing the Texts:

This set of texts is a treasure-trove, a bonanza, of metaphors, images and language. It will be difficult for a preacher to narrow the focus. Sometimes a preacher has too many ideas and stories and might want to resist covering too much territory. Here it might be better to go narrow and deep rather than broad and shallow. It would be interesting to go over each text early in the week, set it on the back-burner, and then be alert to the story the mind eventually finds most irresistible, which would be a fortunate outcome of the process. Sometimes a text choses the preacher. Then the use of secondary materials can become a useful part of sermon preparation.

Let’s begin with the familiar narrative of 1 Samuel, and then move to the end of Job’s story, which will require some background to the story, then notice how the language of the Psalm poetically and liturgically expresses the idea of God as redeemer, and finally to the gospel story of Jesus calming the storm.

There are few Bible stories that have survived in my memory from my Sunday School days as a child, but this is one of them: the battle between the militarily superior Goliath and the youthful, seemingly vulnerable, David. I was taught, quite naively as it turns out, that I was meant to identify with David. The logic is simple: God was against the bad Philistines and was on David’s side, God’s chosen, and the outcome was never in doubt. We, like David, are on God’s side, therefore the happy outcome of our life is never in doubt. Christians often have a hard time identifying with any character in Bible stories except for the hero. The intellectual confusion comes when the Bible story is designed to undermine the world as we understand it. If God’s attitude toward empire, for example, is hostility, then how can this story be understood inside the current empire? Care must be taken in sorting out what the story says, and what is more important, what it doesn’t say and only implies. This text is highly problematic in how it is used in Church communities. The story sides with the underdog. Israel is simply outgunned by the Philistines. They have the latest in military hardware; they flaunt their superiority and presume their dominance. Goliath was the “shock and awe” of their day. The story is a fairly direct form of narrative. There is the hero, there is the antihero; the conflict is straightforward and the denouement is expected. The power of the story is in its artful telling and the ramifications of the resolution for those for whom the telling of the tale was important. The details of the conflict are told with relish, giving the impression that whenever this story was told, it filled the people of Israel with hope in light of sometimes insurmountable odds against them.

The focus of the story falls on two characters: Goliath and David. The drama is complex and takes its time leading up to the culminating act, which is told bluntly, like a hard right punch to the head, or, in this case, a bull’s eye shot to the forehead. A violent act is often blunt, sudden, decisive. The story does not dwell on the battle itself, but on the dynamics leading up to it and the new possibilities set in motion for both David and the people of Israel of their vindication by their God. The stage is a battlefield. The armies are amassed on either side; the Philistine army on one hill, the Israelite army on the other. The challenge is thrown down daily by the best equipped and fiercest soldier. The story takes pains to describe in detail Goliath’s armor and his bravura. The author of the story wants to make it clear that Goliath is far better equipped for battle and under any circumstance should be feared. The author tells us the Israelite army is afraid. Goliath tried daily for 40 days to lure them into battle, taunting and cajoling, making fun of them. The reader can almost see him strut and shake his armor, yelling out to the world just how strong he is and how he plans to crush anyone who comes up against him. The reader is not to miss the number of days the daily challenge went, unchallenged by Israel’s army. Forty is a number that crops up in many places as a period of testing: the forty days in the wilderness, the forty days of rain on Noah and the arch, the forty days Jesus was tested in the wilderness. So the challenge is a time of testing for Israel. How do they respond to the obvious deadly threat?

God is still the main character of the overarching story, yet is quietly working behind the scenes, off stage. The hand of the Lord is moving out of our sight; David is divinely guided. He is the least and last of his brothers. He is merely a “bat boy” a “water carrier” for the military. As we’ve seen so many times before in the Bible, God uses the least expected, the last, and the seemingly weakest character, to carry out a divine intention. David rises to the challenge but in an unexpected way; by putting on the usual armor for defense, he realized it’s obvious limitations. Outside of the normal channels of military power, he uses the same method by which he protects the sheep he tends. A sling and a handful of rocks is a simple weapon. The story centers on the rock that was propelled toward the head, the brains, the best of the Philistine army. One deadly strike at the command center of the opposing army, and the whole thing collapses in a heap of useless military equipment. I can’t help but think of the wreckage of the US military in Iraq and its superior arms and security measures and national pride so much at stake, so vulnerable. So much for the shock and awe of the Philistine army. So much for the power of the sword or gun, the jet fighter and helicopters, and bombs.

This is a clear and sharp cautionary tale--even a rebuke--about presuming to be on God’s side. The story then continues in David’s favor, but questions remain. Even before the smoke clears, it’s plain to see that it is a mistake for those in power to presume that God is on their side. The message is timeless. The president of the United States needs to be well aware of such stories of arrogance and reliance on coercive power.

The Job text makes even more sense in light of the David story. Yet, it takes a long narrative arc to get to the main point spoken from the whirlwind. As the story of Job begins, the world seems to carry on oblivious to matters of justice and fairness. It’s impossible for faith to be naïve and presume that such faith will make one secure and comfortable. Unbeknownst to Job, a bargain has been struck. God’s involvement in the world’s affairs is not direct or obvious. So when disaster strikes us, how is faith to be held? We get a magisterial answer to the questions that arise because of Job’s suffering, much in tune with many of the psalms. Job’s story ends with the famous scene of the whirlwind. How did the reader end up with this reversal? As a meditation on suffering, faithfulness and justice, the text ends with the questions which have been posed to the divine being thrown back onto the questioner. This is a little odd because many of the psalmists have no problem demanding some answers from God. It is a powerful reminder of the relationship between the Creator and the creature.

The Psalm 107 text beautifully and powerfully affirms God’s steadfast love and celebrates how God redeems: ”Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” God is of the compass, showing no partiality to tribe or nation. The language of verses 23-32 is a fitting corollary to the story of Jesus calming the storm a sea in Mark chapter 4. God is the cause of the storm, and God is the one who calms it; this is the God of life and of death.

The Mark text is another famous story about power and faith. The text follows the statement that “with many such parables Jesus spoke to them as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” This is a common teaching technique used to first disorient the listener in order to provoke them into a different way of seeing things.

First, the symbolic use of water is important in understanding this text. Bodies of water, lakes and seas, can be foreboding and fearsome because of the unpredictable and dangerous forces of nature that can be unleashed. The seafarer often gets caught in the furies; many ships have gone to the bottom of the sea. Jesus begins teaching a large group, pressing him to the point where he must get into a boat to continue teaching. The sight of Jesus teaching from a boat bobbing up and down on the undulations of water, the liquid power of nature, is meant to say something about the kind of power Jesus spoke of and embodied.

Then comes the invitation: “Come, let’s go to the other side.” They launch off in their boats; a storm arises, calamity is near. We can imagine them straining against the wind and waves, filled with fear. Their response seems normal. Anyone would be afraid. The odd part of the story is where is Jesus? He’s asleep. They wake him and accuse him of not caring that they die. Jesus is aroused from his sleep and calms the storm. He then turns to his disciples and asks them the question that is meant for all: Why are you afraid? Where is your faith? Of course they get to the other side and the story goes on, but the question is meant to linger. The larger religious point is obvious: this story becomes an invitation to the reader to move into their unknown future with trust in Jesus that they will arrive safely on the other side, whatever the other side might be. The questions, Why are you afraid? cuts to the heart of the gospel story.

Process Theology and the Texts:

Several ideas emerge repeatedly in the Bible: What is the nature of power? What is sin and human failure? How does God help or redeem? What kind of power does God have? Why is God so much against empire? Particular texts raise their own questions. Why was God so enamored with David, given his obvious failures? Why was God so against Saul and so obliging of David? And this is why it is not helpful to take these stories literally as if they were reporting an actual historic events. To remain at the surface of the story of David and Goliath is to miss the deeper dynamics of the failure of coercive power and empire. Process theology addresses the question of divine power most effectively.

The story of Job is nothing if not powerful. Clearly parabolic, it deals with some of the most fundamental issues of justice, suffering and what faith looks like in a broken world. Where is God in all of the wreckage of life? This is where process theology is so helpful by using an image of God that is highly related to everything that goes on in the world, from moment to moment, receiving into the divine experience the suffering of the word. Redemption takes place in God’s own experience of the world, working with what is and transforming it into what can be.

Creative transformation is the nature of divine power, which is working always and everywhere to create new life where there has been death, and giving hope where there is despair, peace where there has been distress.

Preaching the Texts:

It would be easy and tempting for the preacher to handle these stories in a safe, literal way, by leaving them frozen in the past. By treating them at arm’s length, the stories are drained of their power. Its often helpful to ask the question, “What is this narrative designed do to the reader?”

A sermon could easily use the David and Goliath story as a lens though which to talk, for example, about the moral implications of military action in Iraq by the United States military, a war of choice. The United States is the current empire and stories such as David and Goliath are powerful critiques of the nature of empire.
 
In the movie, “In the Valley of Elah,” Tommy Lee Jones is a father who is trying to find out how his son died at a military base in the United States after returning from the war in Iraq. With a deep sense of sadness, he goes from one authority to another, first the local police and then the military, back and forth and to his son’s buddies. In one scene, he is at the home of the female police officer who is trying to help him. She asks him to read a story to her young son before bed. With great tenderness and awkwardness, he ends up, in a powerfully understated scene, telling the story of David and Goliath. The viewer sees the anguish on the man’s face, hears it in his voice, as the connections are made about his own life, which has been dedicated to military service and, now, he is thinking of his own son and the dubious purpose he died for, and how the empire uses our sons (and daughters) for military fodder.

It’s hard not to draw the obvious parallels between the biblical story and the current American-sponsored war in Iraq. We can connect the dots ourselves: Goliath is the equivalent of our Stealth bomber, or the latest in military technology. But most readers identify with David, who is the hero in this text, and completely miss the irony of this misidentification. Goliath stands for military might. This story is used effectively as a commentary on the current empire, or which ever empire it might be, because all empires have similar behaviors in the kind of power that is used and for what purpose it is used: far too often to protect those who have from those who do not have. Earlier in 1 Samuel the Lord specifically outlines the “ways” of the king in 1 Samuel 8:10-18. This is a sobering analysis of the deathly purposes of empire. It will take and take and take. “But the people refused to listen” and wanted a king so that they may be like all the other nations. (8:19)

The text raises another (of many) question: What does it mean to “win”? It’s one thing to be competitive and skillful in games and some aspects of life, but when coercive power is used in relationships, then it can be destructive. And when it is used by a government or a military, violence has moved to a different battlefield. Who wins when people are physically or emotionally harmed or even killed? What does it mean that the Philistines had a superior military? What would it have meant for them to vanquish the Israelites? What did it mean that David “won”? What would “winning” look like in the war in Iraq?

Empires tend to become top-heavy, with a nation’s wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer, and then the empire becomes heavily armed and feels the need for coercive power in the form of a military and the latest technology of arms in order to protect “national security”. Empires at such a stage then become vulnerable in being caught up in their weaponry and fear and coercion. Terrorists know where the soft spots are. One clean shot and the empire teeters on collapse. Then, out of fear, the empire contracts and focuses more rigidly upon national security. God knows this and so does David--and so does Osama Bin Loden. But it’s the same narrative repeated over and over. It’s in the nature of empires to self-destruct eventually. It was true for the Egyptian Empire and the Syrian and Babylonian Empires and the Roman Empire and all the rest of them, and it will be true of the American Empire as well. So much for the doctrine of American exceptionalism. The preacher could focus on the central issue of the autonomous action of human structures built to protect and secure our future on our own terms. Sin takes on added depth when viewed in light of empire. The Apostle Paul takes this issue head on in Romans.

The narrative of David and Goliath can be a prism through which we can see our current cultural situation in light of the dynamics of the narrative. As a prism separates the light spectrum, we can understand and see the underlying dynamics of the story. The problem for the American Empire is that it sees itself in David, but behaves like Goliath. The preacher could use this approach from a prophetic point of view and make a strong case that the question is not “Is God on our side?” but “Are we on God’s side?” The answer to each question is the difference between empire religion and biblical religion. Risks are always attendant when using the prophetic mode of preaching. Just ask Jeremiah Wright.

A sermon could focus on the story of Jesus calming the storm. Again I make the point that if this story is taken literally as an actual historical event displaying Jesus’ miraculous power, then the story will be drained of its power as a vehicle for transformation. I often use this story at funerals. It is a gemlike narrative that, simply told, has great power for meditation. The main features of the text were worked out above. This is a good story for talking about fear verses faith and what it looks like to entrust our live in God’s hands.

Children and the Texts:

The obvious choice for a story for the children would be the David and Goliath text. The tale could be told simply, followed by a discussion about power. What kind of power did Goliath have? And what kind of power did David have? Where is God in the story? Do you know people like Goliath or David. There was a bully in my school who was big for his age and he liked to pick fights with smaller kids. That’s like a Goliath, isn’t it?

It would be fun to dramatically tell the story of Jesus calming the storm. It would be easy to help the children imagine being in boat and in a storm and trying will all their strength to row to shore, but they can’t. They are afraid. Talk about fear. Where is Jesus in the story? Talk about how odd it is that he’s asleep. Who woke him up? What did he do then? What did he say to those in the boat after everything calmed down?

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.