June 28, 2009
Commentary by Rick Marshall
See also: [Year B Archive]
2 Samuel 1:1-27
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Discussing the Texts:
It’s interesting how dipping into the narrative a little farther down stream from last week’s text can take us so quickly to a completely different dynamic in the story. This is especially true of the 2 Samuel text; a lot has happened with David’s dangerous rise to power while a king still is enthroned. We have moved to an important transition in the story. By the end of 1 Samuel, both Saul and Jonathan are dead. 2 Samuel begins with David receiving the news of their deaths and all of the dynamics of grief are brought into play. It has been a difficult road to this point for David. The one who sought to kill him and the one who sought to love him are mourned together. Even the one bearing the bad news suffers as well. So begins this stage of the story with an expression of grief that tis fitting for a lost king (Saul) and a beloved friend (Jonathan). It is a stately affair and the words of solemn remembrance are lined out as a hymn of grief in verses 19-27. David is aware of the weight of the crown which will be on his head; so much is on his head, so many expectations, not only of the people but of God. Saul’s decline and David’s rise is God’s doing. David is humble before the divine power that works it way behind the scenes. The transfer of power has been carried out. Now David is publicly anointed King of Judah. Here begins another story of rise and fall, only this narrative is even sadder than the failure of Saul, for David, who is beloved by God, will ascend the throne in power, and eventually will lose everything in failure. Eventually, 2 Samuel becomes a funeral dirge of David’s failure and then a litany of failed kings coming after him, one after another. This grim story of David finally put’s to bed the idea that empire is a solution to the human dilemma. The reader gets the impression that even God had hopes of the king’s success. So, again, the character in the narrative who learns the harshest lesson is God. The refrain of the public liturgy is the observation “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war parish. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” A lesson that has a shelf life of times of peace. As readers, we are meant to feel the rhythm of rise and failure of a long succession of kings; the repetition dulls the mind.
Such is the problem of empire, the power that is used, the security that is promised. Even the best and the brightest will ultimately fail, even if they begin with great hope for the future. The text forces us to contemplate what kind of power can be trusted. The text wants us to question the issue of power. Both 1 and 2 Samuel lay bare this central issue. If we are careful readers of this great narrative, we end the story with a conclusive trust in the power of God. The question remains, what kind of power does God have?
We see a very different meditation on the nature of divine power in the story of Jesus healing the sick woman and the girl in the gospel text. The text has a fairly typical structure, that is, one story is nested within another story, one plays off the other. Such a structure makes the text dynamic. It is not a static tableau, but creates in the reader an engagement with the imagination. What is it about one story that acts against or in support of the companion story? It is left to the reader to struggle with the dynamic that is created by the two stories. This is a powerful story-telling technique. It raises questions about who Jesus is and what is he doing?
The larger story is about Jesus moving through a crowd of people who have come to see him for many different reasons. He is a sensation, a healer, a teacher, a magician. A leader of the synagogue approaches Jesus in despair and falls at his feet. His daughter is ill and at the point of death. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” Jesus went with him. On his way, a woman who has had a bleeding illness for 12 years approaches hesitantly, thinking “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be made well.” She touched Jesus and was healed on the spot. Then the story says, “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’” And his disciples said, What do you mean “Who touched me?” the crowd was pressing in with so many hands extended. The woman, thinking she is in trouble, confesses. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Then the story shifts back to the synagogue leader’s ill daughter. In a more intentional process, Jesus deals with several people while moving closer to the sick girl. This will be private, whereas the other healing was public. Jesus said the girl is not dead but sleeping, which causes the grievers to laugh at him. He moves closer now, accompanied by only the child’s mother and father. In the tenderest moment in the story, Jesus “took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Little girl, get up!’ She got up and moved around. Jesus told them to keep this quiet and to get her something to eat, signifying that this was no ghost, but a healing of a real person. But what kind of healing? Jesus makes the story murky by saying she is only asleep, but the others know she is dead. Why the intentional confusion? The stories raise more questions than give answers. The question often on the lips of those who witness Jesus is “Who is this guy?” He responds differently to each situation. One moment, there is a public display of healing; then the next moment, private and tender. And when Jesus sensed power leaving him, the reader wonders, what kind of power? It’s obviously a healing power, but is it limited and Jesus felt a drain, or did he sense it’s movement? How did he detect the movement of power from him to her? And this happens after he calms the storm and then throws out demons. Some run away in fear, others want to follow him wherever he goes. Who is this guy? And what kind of power does he possess? It’s no wonder that the religious leaders of his day were in a quandary about him. The next story in Mark is about Jesus being rejected by him home town. He went to his home synagogue and taught. The town’s-people ask each other, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!” Jesus is someone they watched grow up among them. Now he has become too big for his britches. “And they took offense at him.” Deeds of power? Mark 6:5 says “And he could do no deeds of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. “And he was amazed at their (town’s-people) unbelief.” Mark said he couldn’t do any deeds of power there, except for a couple. It sounds like he did do deeds of power there.
Jesus has a healing power through touch, even by someone simply touching his clothes. What kind of power does he possess? If God is defined by love, then God’s power is, at heart, deeply relational. We see Jesus mediating this kind of power by attending to the sick, the poor, the outcast. The 2 Corinthian text assumes this kind of relational love when the author encourages acts of love.
Process Theology and the Texts:
There is a handful of central divine attributes which are worked out in many biblical stories: mercy, compassion, steadfast love, Creator, Redeemer, Deliverer, etc. But one divine attribute is even more deeply embedded in the divine character in biblical stories and that is the nature of divine power. This attribute defines all others. It is a question that is most often not even asked: What kind of power does God have? It has been assumed by much of traditional theology that God has coercive power, is omnipotent, and is passionless and unchanging, that is, unaffected by the world. Since this has been an assumed theological understanding, it often goes without question, until tragedy happens and then another set of questions is put into motion: If God is loving, how can God allow bad things to happen? Isn’t God in control of everything? Doesn’t God have a plan for my life? Doesn’t God know the future? The traditional Christian understanding of power is a bundle of assumptions that has caused philosophical problems at the very heart of the God of the Bible.
A process theology looks at this text and says “Of course,” Jesus’ power is relational, it is organic, and his teachings point to nature for metaphors of understand how God’s power works.
In addressing the issue of what part of the drama of life is influenced by God and what part is influenced by humans, process theology says both. We are co-creators with God. God gives us relevant possibilities in the forming of each moment, and we chose among those possibilities as to how we incorporate all of the factors from the past and integrate them into the decision of the moment with a mindfulness of the future impact this decision might produce.
Preaching the Texts:
It’s possible to use together the two texts discussed above, 2 Samuel and Mark. But each requires its context to fully appreciate the dynamics of the narrative. So I will discuss sermon ideas for using either one or the other of the texts.
The text from 2 Samuel is part of a much larger and important narrative arc that carries the people of Israel’s request for a king to its final, tragic, conclusion. The main question that is answered is this: Is it possible for human beings to create well-being and security on their own terms, or does well-being depend upon God? Is it possible to have a hybrid structure that combines he best of human inventiveness along with God’s creating, transforming, power? There are purists who would argue that no human structure will, by its very nature, produce well-being, and then, at the other extreme, believe religion should have no part in human structures. There is a similar issue for preachers who must exercise judgement on when to use the pastoral or the prophetic voice. Is a hybrid possible between these two voices? Of course, but the preacher must “thread the needle” as they say, using great care in speaking prophetically.
It might be best to let the narrative have it’s way in the sermon. By telling the story, with relevant background, it makes its own case. Simple questions can be raised in a sermon that are organic to the text. Why did David grieve over the very one who wanted to kill him? What was the nature of David and Jonathan’s relationship. What does King Saul represent in the story? What does David represent? Most importantly, how do we account for God’ strange behavior? Why was God against Saul and undermine him compared to why does God favor David?
I believe that it is easy to miss the overarching theological point of the David narrative, which is this: If David is the best and brightest possibility for leading an empire and yet he fails in the end, answered the question. If left to their own devices and schemes, are human beings able to create, on their own, well-being and security. The answer the story gives is a resounding NO. But must we sit back and watch God do everything and the answer is NO. Them how is God’s power and human power ideally interact to produce well-being and security?
Another sermon could focus on the narrative from Mark. Again, it’s hard to improve on the narrative itself. The preacher could call attention to the structure of how the two stories work, one smaller tory nested in a larger story. Some of the confusions that Jesus introduces in the story could be pointed out. Jesus being jostled in the middle of the crowd feels power move from him to another who has merely touched his garment. He says that the child is sleeping, when everyone there knows she is dead. Did he heal her, or did he perform a resurrection? Why is one act of Jesus done in pubic and the other in private? Where is God in this narrative?
Children and the Texts:
It seems that the Mark text would be more appropriate for children, because the text from 2 Samuel is jarring and violent and best saved for an adult hearing.
The leader of the time with the children could question the children’s experiences of being sick. The girl in the middle story is young, about 12 years old. Talk about her parents and how they tried to help her. How do you think they felt? How do your parents feel when you are sick? The girl’s parents went to Jesus and asked him to help. alk about the process of Jesus drawing nearer to the child with such tenderness. Talk about how a touch can sometimes be healing. When you get sick, who do you want to be with you? Your mom, your dad, maybe grandma or grandpa. How did they make you feel better? Extrapolate to Jesus. How do you think you would feel if Jesus touched you when you were sick? What kind of power did Jesus have? Healing power.
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.