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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—(JUNE 24, 2012)—BY JIM OGDEN

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49 AND Psalm 9:9-20 OR I Samuel 17:57-18:5, 18:10-16 AND Psalm 133:1-3 OR Job 38:1-11 AND Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, II Corinthians 6:1-3, Mark 4:35-41

Nobody ever said life was all smooth sailing.  We weren’t promised that all would be well all of the time.  The message of faith is that we can face what comes our way, that we need not fear giants and storms because they cannot ultimately destroy us.  Faith is about hope rather than fear.  It is about inner strength rather than weapons of war.  Many treasured biblical stories, including some in this week’s lectionary readings, are full of threat, demonstrating how faith faces threat.

Let’s start with giants.  The obstacles we face sometimes seem like giants who can crush us with one stomp.  (See Numbers 13:25-33)   If we choose the first reading from I Samuel, we have the beloved David and Goliath story.  As I’ve gotten older, it has become less beloved.  It is a story about war with a pretty gory ending, the cutting off of the giant’s head.  I suppose one could argue better the slaughter of one man than a whole tribe—or do as this reading does: stop before you get to that part of the story.

The hero of the story is a lowly shepherd, filled with faith and character, who rises to become the iconic king of the “Golden Age” of Israel.  It is this David, in fact, who becomes the model for the hoped-for Messiah.  It is important in the early church that Jesus comes from the line of David.  It is David alone who is willing to face the challenge of the Philistine giant.  All the others “were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  (I Samuel 17:10-11)  They laugh at David, saying, “ . . . you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”  (vs. 33)   David recalls his experience protecting the sheep from lions and bears.  (vs. 34-36)

It turns out, though, not to be typical warfare.  One doesn’t need heavy armor to face down the giants and challenges of life.  The armor will probably just get in the way.  David rejects the armor and defeats the giant with a slingshot and a single stone.  (vss. 38-40 & 49)

In a similar manner, the reading from II Corinthians talks about facing “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” with “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.”  (II Corinthians 6:4-8)

The gospel lesson turns us from a giant to a storm, equally fearful to those in the middle of it.  (Mark 4:37)   It doesn’t seem to bother Jesus much.  He apparently would have slept right through it if they had let him.  (vs. 38)   He awakes, quiets the storm as if it were all in a day’s (or moment’s) work, and rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith.  (vss. 39-40)   There’s not much practical advice in this brief reading—only that faith is more powerful than fear.  Repeatedly in scripture we are told not to be afraid.  We still have not heard that admonition very well.  Fear so often dominates politics and relationships, even our inner psyches.  Going down that road leads to sure defeat, so why do we keep falling into the trap of fear?

Psalm 107 speaks also of a “stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.”  (Psalm 107:25)  The courage of those who “went down to the depths . . . melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ ends.”  (vss. 26-27)   As in the Gospel lesson the Lord “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”  (vss. 28-29)   The context is the “steadfast love” of the Lord which “endures forever.”  That declaration sandwiches the reading—in verse one and verse 31.  It helps when we face giants and storms to know that we are loved unconditionally, to know that we are held in a love which cannot be destroyed.  As we were told in a recent lectionary reading from I John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . .”  (I John 4:18)

Notice that the reading from II Corinthians also ends with a focus on love—this time not God’s love but Paul’s love for the Corinthians, which he hopes is mutual.  “ . . . our heart is wide open to you.  There is no restriction in our affections . . . In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.”  (II Corinthians 6:11-13)   Don’t be afraid when you face all the afflictions I have mentioned, Paul seems to be saying.  Like Jesus in the boat, he is calling his readers to have faith, because they are bound together in love.  An open heart need not be afraid.

There’s a storm in the reading from Job as well—a whirlwind, real or imagined.  Job has been railing against God about the unfairness of life.  In the storm God reminds Job of how little he knows and understands about the way things work, so that Job is eventually left with nothing but faith.  Most of the reading is an extension of verse 2: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  (Job 38:2)    The questions continue on for three chapters until Job responds, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  (Job 43:3, 5-6)   Sometimes we try to conquer the challenges of life by trying to understand them, or by complaining about their unfairness.  Certainly understanding is something to be pursued and unfairness is something to be confronted.
Sometimes, though, we need to recognize our limits and simply trust, by embracing the storm and finding God in the middle of it giving us the assurance that in the end all will be well.

The second reading from I Samuel continues the story of the rising popularity of David.  It’s less about facing giants and storms and more about the storms that can rise when someone of humble beginnings becomes a threat to the powers that be.  David has become a threat to Saul.  (I Samuel 18:5)   Possessed by an evil spirit (and aren’t the powerful too often seemingly possessed by evil spirits), Saul throws spears at David.  David eludes him twice.  (vss. 10-11)   We’re told that Saul was afraid of him. (vs. 12)   There’s fear at work again.  It has become a popularity contest in which “all Israel and Judah loved David.”  (vs. 16)   Even Saul eventually stands “in awe of him.”  (vs. 15)

Tucked into the reading is another intriguing story about love between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son.  The back story includes tension between Jonathan and his father.  (See I Samuel, chapter fourteen, for some insight into that.)   Jonathan falls hard for David.  “ . . . the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul . . . Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”  (I Samuel 18:1-3)   Is it too much of a stretch to wonder if this is a “marriage” of sorts?   Whatever the nature of the relationship it is a story of two men who are soul mates and love each other deeply?  Does this contribute to Saul’s ill humor?  Whatever the nature of the relationship, it is always easier to face the storms of life, even the threat of death, when one is not alone, when one is surrounded with love as David seemed to be.

Psalm 103, the remaining Psalm, has only three verses.  It is too short to develop much of a narrative, yet it has one verse that has become a favorite of many, including former President Lyndon Johnson.  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  (vs. 1)  In the context of this week’s blog theme, maybe it calls us to first look for common ground when we face giants and storms in our lives.

Giants and storms will come, and it will take everything we have to get through them, including those three mighty weapons, faith, hope, and love—the greatest of which, I Corinthians 13 tells us, is love.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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