Sunday, July 29, 2012

“At the Heart of Prayer”



A Sermon based upon Ephesians 3: 14-21
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
July 29, 2012,  9th Sunday after Pentecost.

I begin with a story told by Brent Younger, whom I must thank for most of this sermon.  

From the house on the top of the hill, you could see a field of ripe corn with the bean flowers that promise a good harvest. The one thing the land needed was rain.  All morning Manuel had been examining the sky, "The water will come." During dinner the rain started to fall. Great clouds came from the northeast. Manuel thought, "These aren’t just drops of water falling from the sky. The big drops are ten cents and the small drops are five." Then all of a sudden, a strong wind started to blow and giant hailstones began to fall. For an hour hail fell on the house and garden. The countryside was white, as though covered with salt. The beans were left without a single leaf. The corn was destroyed. Manuel’s heart dropped. "A swarm of locusts would have left more than this. We won’t have any corn or beans. All our work is lost. Our only hope is God."

The next morning, Manuel wrote a letter: "God, if you do not help me, my family will go hungry. Because of the hail you sent, I need one thousand dollars to replant and live until the next harvest." He wrote "God" on the envelope and put it in the mailbox.

Later that day, the mailman picked up the letter addressed to God. At first he laughed, but then he thought: "I wish I had the faith of the man who wrote this letter. To believe what he believes. To write a letter to God." So as to not disillusion Manuel, the mailman decided to answer the letter, but when he opened it, he discovered that responding would take more than good will, ink, and paper.

He couldn’t raise the thousand dollars Manuel had requested, but he gave more than half. He put the money in an envelope and addressed it to Manuel. He enclosed a letter with only a one-word signature—"God." When he delivered the letter the mailman smiled like someone who has done a good deed. He watched as Manuel opened the letter. Manuel didn’t show the slightest surprise upon seeing the money, but he became angry as he counted it. The next day the mailman opened another letter from Manuel and read: "God, I only got $600 of the money you sent. Please send the rest of it again, but don’t send it through the post office, because the mailman is a thief." (http://introtoliterature-d.wikispaces.com/A+Letter+to+God, A Letter to God, Gregory Lopez y Fuentes).

WHAT SENDS US TO OUR KNEES?
That story makes us smile.  Sending a letter to God is silly.  Believing that God will send a thousand dollars in the mail is even sillier still.   Sometimes simple prayers seem so na├»ve.   For some people, especially educated, sophisticated people, is hard to take time to pray at all.  Why pray for something when I’m doing well all by myself?  In a world where we have so much already, it’s getting harder for many people to pray.   Maybe, part of the problem is that we are praying for the wrong things.  Maybe we don’t really understand what prayer is supposed to be.

In our text for today, Paul is praying.   He begins this text telling us: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father” (3.14).   We know from Jewish tradition that “good Jews” pray standing up, with their hands out and palms up.  They only kneel to their knees in emergencies.  What kind of “emergency” will send you to your knees beside your bed?  When was the last time you kneeled in prayer?  What does it take drive you there?

Again, Paul says, “for this reason I bow my knees before the Father.”   What “reason” will get you to your knees.  Maybe someone you love gets sick and you start praying.   Even though there is no scientific evidence that cancer nor heart disease cares too much about how much we pray.  But we will pray, anyway.  Some of the most prayed for people die too soon.  Some people who wanted it too end, keep suffering.   We face a big decision and we know we should pray about it.  We pray about some things we must do, but not too hard.  If we pray too hard, we might have to “do” something about it… give our own time, money, or effort.  During times of national crisis we pray.  We often pray for peace in times of war, but the war goes on, and on, and on.

What sends you to your knees in prayer?  Many things might, but often we still don’t pray so much.  Some of us haven’t prayed in a while, and others of us realize that if we fall to our knees we might have to have help getting back up.  So, how is your prayer life?   Can it improve?   What would give you reasons to pray?

The apostle Paul has plenty of reasons to pray.  He has suffered five public whippings and three beatings.  He has been stoned once, shipwrecked three times, and imprisoned more often than he can remember.  Now, he’s own death row.  He knows he will be executed soon.  WOULD YOU PRAY IF YOU WERE ON DEATH ROW?  The only light in room is from a small square window above his head.  Paul sets a parchment on the floor in the middle of the light and writes a letter to his friends. 

What would you say if you were writing your very last letter?   How about: “Dear Church, Get me out of Here!
This is feeling like a movie, like Dead Man Walking.  But there is no Susan Sarandon coming, and I didn’t do anything!  I’m innocent.  Do you know a good lawyer?  I don’t belong here.  You have to help get me out! 
But this is not what Paul writes.  Instead, Paul writes this letter from prison to his friends in Ephesus and he says, I’m paraphrasing:  "When I think of everything that is going on I get down on my knees before God,
AND I BEG GOD TO GIVE YOU, out of God’s glorious abundance, THE POWER TO LIVE BY THE SPIRIT (16). God grant THAT CHRIST MIGHT BE IN YOUR HEARTS (17). May you have the strength to grasp the width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (18) that surpasses our understanding. Let God’s fullness fill you (19)." 

PRAYING FOR SOMETHING MORE
 While waiting for the warden to call his number, Paul prays for the people, not for himself.  Paul prays for the people to have the same sense of God’s presence that Paul feels.  Paul’s life is coming to a violent end, but it doesn’t diminish his sense of God’s goodness and grace.  Paul’s own experience of the world’s evil, pain and struggle does not matter the most.   Trying to get his body out of pain is not his subject of prayer.  All that counts for Paul is that he feels the Spirit of God billowing through his body when he speaks about Jesus.  Having the presence of Christ in his life, Paul has no doubt that God loves him.  He has no need to be relieved of his suffering and pain.

Even while going through “Hell” on earth Paul feels like he is already in “Heaven”.  God is with him.  Paul feels God’s presence and he wants his friends to fell God’s presence too.   Interestingly, we seldom pray for what Paul is praying for.  We pray for all kinds of things: We pray for things to happen, we want or need to happen.  We pray that evil people will get what’s coming to them.  We pray for situations to change, for the stuff we need or want.  We pray when we are frustrated and want people to hear us.  We pray so life won’t be so hard.  We pray when everything else won’t work.  “O.K. folks, we say, since we don’t know what to do or we can’t do anything else, let’s pray.”   Sometimes we simply pray to find happiness, through the right job, the right car, the right ideas, the right kids; while even admitting we don’t ever get it all “right”.  Sometimes, like Manuel, we just need some extra cash in an unmarked envelope or to have the winning numbers at the lottery. 

There is a story about journalist who was looking for a story.  A journalist is assigned to the Jerusalem bureau of his newspaper. He gets an apartment overlooking the Wailing Wall.   After several weeks he realizes that whenever he looks at the wall he sees the same old Jewish man praying vigorously. The journalist wonders whether there’s a publishable story here. He goes down to the wall, introduces himself and says: "You come every day to the wall. What are you praying for?"
The old man replies: "In the morning I pray for world peace, then I pray for the brotherhood of man. I go home, have a glass of tea, and I come back to the wall to pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth."
The journalist is taken by the old man’s persistence. "How long have you been coming to the wall to pray for these things?"
The old man thinks for a minute: "Twenty, twenty-five years."
The amazed journalist asks: "How does it feel to come and pray every day for over twenty years for these things?"
            "It feels like I’m talking to a wall."

WHAT WE MOST NEED TO PRAY FOR
What we need to pray for, more than health, more than wealth, more than an easier or better life on earth, is a bigger vision of God for our lives.  We need to pray what Paul prayed for.  We need to pray to feel God’s presence, to be filled with God’s spirit and with the love of Christ, and to recognize that God is with us right now in our “inner being” (16). 

Unfortunately, praying for God’s presence and for the gift of God’s spirit is seldom what we pray for, but we should.  It is the prayer God always answers.   I had a lady come up to me once who was very troubled about those passages in the gospels where Jesus says plainly: “Ask and it shall be given to you” (Luk 11: 9) and the other in John, where Jesus says thrice, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14), and “whatever you ask in my name, the Father will give it to you”(John 15:16) and finally, “Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (16:23).  These passages were driving that lady crazy, for she said she and prayed and prayed, and prayed and it just did not happen.  I then told her to take a close look at those passages again and find out what “anything” and “whatever” meant and she could find her answer.  If she needed a clue Luke gives it.   John has the same answer written all around.   Luke’s Jesus plainly answer that the “anything” and “whatever” Jesus is talking about is not “things”, but the things of God.  Luke’s Jesus concludes his discussion about prayer with this clarification of what the heart of true prayer is all about:  13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luk 11:13 NIV).   Prayer is about praying for the gift and awareness of God’s spiritual presence.

Are you disappointed?  Did you think there was more to prayer than this?  I recall how disappointed Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was when he thought prayer was about getting “fish hooks”, but he didn’t get none so he quit praying altogether.  Bad mistake.  Huck Finn missed the whole point of prayer.    Instead, in his writings Paul speaks about “praying without ceasing” (Rom. 1.9; 1 Thess. 1.3; 2: 13, 5.17: and 2 Tim. 1.3) and praying in ways of the Spirit that are “beyond words” (8.26).   Our spoken prayers are not all there is to prayer.  We pray her at church, so we can be “prayerful” in every other part of our lives.  One of the oldest definitions of prayer is “bowing our heads so we can lift our hearts up to God.”  Prayer is closing our eyes so we can see God’s holy presence that surrounds us.  Prayer is the feeling about the moment that just happened, but you can’t explain what has just happened.  Prayer is the pain we feel when someone else is hurting and the gladness we feel when another person is filled with joy.  The Christian understanding is that every bit of our lives is a “prayer” given to God.   Listen to what the great G.K. Chesterton once said:  You say grace before meals.  All right.   /But I say grace before the play and the opera,  And grace before the concert and the pantomime,  And grace before I open a book,  And grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing,  And grace before I dip the pen in the ink. (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/12207).
More than anything else, the heart of true prayer is about opening and offering our lives up to God.  When we ask for health, wealth, and everything in between, we ask for too little.  The most audacious prayer is to ask  that God will surround us and fill us with the knowledge of his presence.   As Martin Luther once said, we come to church to “ask for silver” and God wants to give us “gold”.  The Olympic style prayer is to go for the “gold” in prayer, and it is to ask God for nothing less than….God.

What happens when we get the spiritual presence of God as the answer to our prayers?  When we get the understanding that God is present, everything that is around us changes.   First we lose the delusion that everything is about us---we are no longer the center of the universe.  Second, we start seeing others differently.  In Manuel’s case, we no longer look at the mailman as a thief.  In our case, the person who is sick might be the person who needs a visit from us.  The person we don’t like is no longer a stranger, but is someone we want to help.  And what about that jerk in traffic, who has just cut you off; they made a mistake, perhaps.  Because God is present you give them a break, even though they didn’t break for you.   Now, that tattooed person you just met is no longer a punk, but is someone’s child with feelings.  And what about that scary homeless person at the traffic stop, begging at the same light every day?  Could they be a human person who is helplessly enslaved to addictions we can’t imagine for reason’s we ought to thank God we’ve never known?  Could we be thankful enough to toss out a dollar to help them make their quoted for the day?  If Jesus were in that car with you, everyone and everything would be different.

This is what prayer is about more than anything else.  If we see God surrounding us, we might also see Jesus within us, and we might even begin seeing ourselves to be much different than we are.  Sometimes we can’t see that vision God gave us when we gave our hearts to him.  When we are weary with all kinds of responsibilities of everyday life; with family, work, and also church, we need a fresh vision of God to lead us back to a life that matters.  When the hard realities of life crash down, when we feel depressed, broken, overwhelmed, we pray and gain the knowledge that God is present to help us put the pieces back together.

It’s even interestingly what might happen differently now, if we knew that God was near.  We might stop watching that T.V program, put down the cell phone, and have a family dinner together, tell our children a story, take them on a hike, spend our time differently, our money differently, sing louder at church, read a poem, take time to be in a Sunday School class or a small group.  We might even walk up to someone and ask, “Well, how are you?” And really wait and listen carefully for a reply.  If we know that God is with us, we will tell the truth, even if someone doesn’t want to hear it.  We might challenge the prejudices or the negative spirit around us.  We might do something adventurous, maybe even work in a soup kitchen, work on a mission project, or go on a mission trip instead of the same ole vacation.

When we pray for God, God gives us all that he has; the courage we need, the trust we been missing, the vision that life is much bigger than just what we want.  One picture I keep in my mind is the one of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane.  We were studying this just the other night, how in the gospel of Mark, Jesus prays to the Father, “If it be possible let this cup of death be taken away from me, never the less, not my will, buy thy will be done.”  Three times Jesus prayed, but no answer.  The disciples all feel asleep.  He had no support from them.  But after Jesus finishes praying, suddenly he tells them “Enough, the hour has come….Rise up, he that betrays me is at hand” (Mark 14: 41-42).  Amazingly, Jesus stands up full of energy, confidence and courage, even though God does not give him and answer.  What does give him is himself.  That makes all the difference.

This is the heart of prayer.  We must pray, as Paul teaches us, for a bigger vision of who God is.  We must pray that our lives are in the center of his will and work.  We must pray that Christ dwells in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the power of love and grace.    Pray, knowing that at the heart of every genuine prayer, what we are praying for is God.   Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal



A sermon based on 2 Samuel 7: 1-14
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.  
                                            ---From Essay of Man by Alexander Pope

I realize that poetry does not go over well these days.  Listening to a sermon is hard enough.  But this line from British poet Alexander Pope’s most famous poem expresses the core truth of today’s text from 2 Samuel 7, where God promises that David’s kingdom will endure forever.  

Notice in 2 Samuel 7: 16, how through the prophet Nathan, God promises King David: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (NIV).  This is a very powerful and promising declaration, but it does not happen in any literal, historical way as we might think. The newer translations adjust the text a little saying that the promise stands “before me” (God) (NIV, NRSV), meaning it stands as God see it rather than “before thee” (KJV), as David or we might see it.   Thus, the King James Bible makes the promise even more difficult.  It translates: “Your house and your kingdom will endure before thee….”  This is exactly what does not happen.  David’s royal Kingdom or line does not stand in any earthly way, shape or form that David could see, if he were alive, or we can see today.    

If you research modern Israel today and the 1948 declaration of the Israel’s statehood (Israel still has no constitution) you will find no mention of the royal lineage of David.   To this day there are still no archeological findings that have yet to substantiate the ancient city of David.   While only a few historical scholars would doubt David’s dynasty was real, but even as we read the Bible’s internal history, David’s royal house came to an abrupt end when Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC.   Everything was destroyed with no trace left.  Since then, there has been no Davidic throne, no royal line that endures, and there have been no monarchs ruling over Israel.  If the Davidic throne still exists at all it must be “before God” as only memory.

HOPE IS NOT AUTOMATIC
This is troubling to people who try to make faith and hope as easy as 1, 2, 3 or as clear as “black and white”.   But in the real world of infinite numbers and multiple realities painted in “shades of gray”, most of us deal with life that hardly ever goes as planned.   Life is full of surprises and seldom turns out as we hope or expected.  A case in point is what happened to my dream of making a big splash when I finally got to speak in one of those large Lutheran churches in Germany.   If I made any splash at all, it was a “splashdown”.   It happened right after Christmas and we were having a special ecumenical religious service and the Lutheran pastor asked me to speak.  Of course this message was to be in German.  I was getting used to preaching in German, but this was my chance to speak in to a large group in a 700 year old church.  It was large, historical sanctuary which had been destroyed during WWII and was now reopened. 

I prepared my message and stood up at the appointed moment.   The feeling was exhilarating.  It was January and Christmas decorations were still hanging.   The pulpit was not yet finished, so I was standing behind a lectern beside of the Christmas tree.   I began my speech reading my well-rehearsed German with my American accent.   Then, suddenly, without warning, the lights go out.  I didn’t know if it was a power failure or something else.  But I knew what it meant.  I could no longer read my manuscript.  Fortunately, the Christmas tree was lit with real candles.  I was able to move closer to the tree and finish by reading read with candlelight.  But it was humbling and a great struggle for me and for those who listened.  I had to give up my dream of being a dynamic American Baptist missionary preacher making a great impression.

It some way or other, we’ve all had to give up a dream, a hope or an expectation of what might have been.  It’s never easy to let go of a dream.  It is especially hard when it comes to having to let go of someone we love, through death, divorce or some other tragic event.  If you’ve not had to give up a dream, a person, or give up on a promise, you will.  Dreams have a tendency to fly out the window and the saying has a ring of truth: “if you want to see God laugh, tell him your plans.”   The most stable, prepared life can suddenly become unpredictable when and “out of the blue” things fall apart.  

It is one thing for humans to deal with the unpredictable nature of life, but what it is much more challenging is to think about how God deals with it.  What does God do when the world does not go as God wills?  This is a truth from Scripture that most want to overlook or ignore.   We humans are “meaning makers”.   We tend to believe that there is a “reason for everything” and that God is always in absolute control.  Perhaps we can come to grips that we don’t have everything figured out, but we want to trust in a God who does.  We want to believe that no matter what happens, life goes just as God has planned.  Especially when life is pandemonium for us, or when tragedy happens, it is somehow sadistically comforting for some to believe that everything is already programmed from heaven and that life always goes as God has planned all along.     

Isn’t this what the defendant in Florida named George Zimmerman stated this week in his first national interview?   Even though he regretted what happened to Trayvon Martin, he said he is “not a racist” nor “ a murderer” and he adds, in very bold words that regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin,  “I believe it was all part of God’s plan.”   As you might imagine, this statement of his faith in God’s plan didn’t go over well with Trayvon’s parents.  When Trayvon’s Father was asked how he felt about it he answered to the contrary, “We must worship a different God because there is no way that my God would have wanted George Zimmerman to kill my teenage son.” (From www.thesource.com)  And how do we think about the recent shootings at the movie theater in Colorado?  Do we say that God had this all this planned out too?   

All of us have our own personal views of what God knows, does or doesn’t do.   We can understand that humans often “make God in our own image” or the image we want to believe.  George Zimmerman will not be the last person trying to be rescued by the God he believes controls everything.  And the Trayvon Martin family will not be the last brokenhearted people confronting a terrible loss, wanting to believe that God did not do this to their child.  In these very up-to-date human dramas unfolding before us, and perhaps even unfolding in our own lives, we all can see our own struggles to keep hope alive.   If you really think about it, people who don’t believe in God have much less to deal with when they face the unpredictability of life.  People of faith have much more to think about.  We who believe that “God is love” have to not only deal with ‘what’ has happened, but we also must deal with “why?”  For the faithful life raises the same kind of question in us that it raised in Jesus when he cried out on the cross: “My God, why?”  When life turns tragic, hope is not easy nor automatic.  It can be much easier to become an unbeliever.   Many do.

HOPE IS SOMETHING WE HAVE TO WORK AT
If we want to keep our faith when life does not go as planned or hoped, our view of God and our view of hope must grow larger.  If we ask ourselves: Does life always turn out as God promises and plans?   When we are really honest, we have to answer, No!  Things do not always happen as God plans---things like murder, a tragic death, an accident, or an act of nature or even a terrible act of human nature---God permits or allows such things, we say, for the sake of freedom and for the sake of human responsibility and growth, but these things do not always happen “in the perfect will of God”.  In this text, the endurance of David’s kingdom is promised, but it does not endure as God promises, as God hopes nor as God plans; at least it doesn’t if we take this text literally.   The biblical word from this text reveals just how complicated and unpredictable life can get for us and for God.   So, what hope is there is this?

Before we take this further, there is another amazing passage of Scripture about how God deals with the unpredictable in Genesis 6:5, where God suddenly realizes just how bad the world had become.  It tells us: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become…that every inclination of the thoughts of the heart was only evil all the time.”   This God who looks deep into the human heart seems very surprised, saddened, vulnerable, hurt and grieved that the world he has created is not working out like he had planned.  The King James Bible uses powerful language to say that God did not plan life to happen this way and it dramatically expresses how humans, not God, are responsible.  “The Lord was grieved that he made humans”, but then the KJV says, “And it repented the Lord that he made man on the earth.”  “Repented” is a very strong word to use for God.  But Scripture wants us to know that the evil going on in the world is not what God wanted nor planned.  It has surprised God so much that he had to change his mind about almost everything.  He must start almost everything all over again.

When you read a text like Genesis 6, you quickly realize that the God of the Bible is not the generic, comfortable, popular idol-god most carry around in their pockets or in mind.  Most people are more likely to imagine a god who floats around on a cloud controlling everything, who already has everything figured out, even before it happens.  But the biblical God is a very vulnerable God.  He is suffering love.  He gets jealous.  He hurts and feels pain.  Most of all, God grieves over how bad things are and because of how we get and how life gets, he has to make adjustments to his plans.  Bible scholars call this divine attribute found in Scripture, “changeable faithfulness.” To be faithful God will do things differently.  God is still the almighty, but he is also the God who brings strength through weakness.   God has plans for us, but he is the also the God who works his will through and not around human freedom.   God’s love is abiding and constant, but God will do “a new thing in Israel” to “take out the stony heart of flesh” and put in “a new heart and a new spirit”.       

Remember that text in Philippians which says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  (Phi 2:12-13 NRS).  The “fear and trembling” comes because God’s salvation depends at much on our work in God as it depends on God’s work in us.  We can’t earn salvation.  That was finished on the cross.  But we must receive and keep the faith, because God still at work and is not still finished with us yet.  God’s word and God’s promises can get complicated, but it is not because God does not want to keep his promise.  On the contrary, the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible revealed that things did not go as God promised because Israel broke their promise to God.  In the Bible, even the unconditional love of God has its conditions.

In the story of Israel’s royal history we know how it happened.  David’s Son Solomon overtaxed the people for his building programs and perhaps, even to keep up his harem.  Solomon was indeed a wise man in some ways, but he was very unwise in other ways.   After Solomon’s death, his son’s split the kingdom into two kingdoms and it never recovered its former glory.  Wicked and corrupt king after king are the rule with only a couple of exceptions.  Finally the kingdom and house of David crumbles.  The Hebrew prophets even declare that the end came about at the hand of God himself.   The kingdom fell, not because God broke his promise, but because people broke their promise with God.  Because of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God changed his mind about the kingdom, just as he once changed his mind about the human race.  God does not give up on his people, but has had to start over.  When Jerusalem burned it was fourth down and God punted.  God could not keep the promises which Israel had broken. 

This reminds us again that hope does not just happen.  Hope is not automatic.  Hope takes work—hard work.   It takes hard work on our part just and it takes hard work on God’s part.  God’s does his work through us and not around us.  This is why God has to deal with all kinds of stuff too, just as we do.   When life is both promising and unpredictable, we need a bigger understanding of God.  And if we are going to have hope in a world like ours, we going to have even work even harder for it.   

HOPE MEANS BELIEVING GOD NO MATTER WHAT
When God gave up on humanity the first time; he saved Noah to save the world.  When God gave up on Israel and David’s kingdom, he gave his savior Jesus, who came preaching the everlasting kingdom of God.   Just because God could not keep his promise to David does not mean, that God gave up on the promise altogether.   

Perhaps even more enlightening is that the people of Israel did not give up on the promise either.   When  the book of Samuel was put in final form it was already after the exile, after Israel and David’s throne was long gone.  But why didn’t the editor of 2 Samuel just cut all this unrealized promise out and move on?   Why didn’t he just simplify matters by saying that God’s promise was too big, too grand and didn’t work out?  Why not throw it out like a bad check?

No one knows exactly why the people of God held on to this promise.  No one knows why they kept reading and singing about it in worship, or why they kept on celebrating and reading Psalms, like the 89th Psalm, which declares: “I will declare that your love stands firm forever, that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.  You said, "I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant,  'I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.'"(Psa 89:2-4 NIV).   

Why didn’t they just drop the whole thing?  Even today, Biblical scholars are perplexed by Israel’s persistent faith.   It was a faith that, in spite of everything, kept on hoping for a King that would make God’s rule just as real “on earth as it is in heaven?”  Israel centered her worship and her hopes, not on how things were, but in how things would be, when God’s new “David” would come.   They called this new David the ‘anointed one’, interpreted by us as Messiah or the Christ.   Today, we know all these hopes as Messianic prophecies, but they once Israel’s stubborn and resilient faith and her hopes that God’s promise would somehow come true, in spite of everything.   As Isaiah wrote, “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land (Isa. 23:3).   Israel did not know for sure “how” or “who” this new King would be, but Israel knew that they had to keep believing God and that they had to keep hope alive.   Even when there were bad kings, good kings, puppet kings and pretender kings, Israel kept God’s promise close to heart, and Israel never stopped hoping, never stopped believing, and never stopped remembering or believing the promise, no matter what.

In the movie, Secondhand Lions, an irresponsible woman can’t be troubled by raising her own son, so she drops him off with her two eccentric uncles played by Michael Cain and Robert Duvall.  They don’t want the boy, and the boy doesn’t want to be there, but these things have a way of working out.  Hub, the Duvall character, teaches the boy some wisdom needed to be human and hopeful.  He tells the boy, “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in most.  That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love…true love never dies.  You remember that, boy….. 

“A boy should believe in those things,” Hub says, because, as Patrick Wilson has rightly said, “human beings are constructed by the things we believe in, not the simple, shallow thin things easily measured and calculated and subject to verification without any cost or risk, but the deep, weighty things that cannot be checked or determined but whose truth is known only by the diving into the deep and surrendering your life to it.    

Did the promise come true as Israel hoped?  No, and I’m glad it didn’t.  It is exactly because the promise God made to David did not come true like David, or everyone in Israel expected that we now have Jesus.   In Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected, God brings the promise of David’s kingdom to a whole new level, not just as a hope for Israel, but as a hope for the whole world.   Aren’t you glad that when God can’t keep his promise, when has to change his plans, that he is able to make us and even bigger and better ones?   When you understand Jesus, it’s almost seems as if God had it all planned all along.   And maybe he did, if you will always remember that the man with the plan is unfailing love.   Amen.
    

“Head On a Platter”



Mark 6: 14-29
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
July 15th, 2012

There is nothing like someone getting their head cut off to get our attention these “dog days” of summer.  

In the first Bible I ever had, a visually oriented children’s “picture” Bible, there was a large page picture illustrating John the Baptist’s head on a platter.   It’s the one Bible picture I have never gotten out of my head.   After all those years, it’s still there in pale purple ink.   It’s more dramatic than when they shot J.R.  It’s even more vivid than the real Dallas and the murder of J.F.K.    For some reason I can’t explain, in my head it made a deeper and darker impression than the first time I saw Jesus on the cross.   Being mesmerized by this “head-on-a-platter”, I could not grasp why they called the Bible “the Good Book”.      

Our text for today centers upon Mark’s flash back retelling of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Herod ordered John’s death at the request of his stepdaughter.   She had just “danced” before his ‘gentlemen’ club crowd impressing them so much that Herod was willing to promise her anything.   She consulted her mother about what she should ask for and her mother, Herodias, wanted John’s head.  John had preached that it was wrong for Herod to have his brother’s wife and evidently, Herodias didn’t like it.  She was just waiting for the chance to say “off with his head”!

But what does this sordid and repugnant story have to do with our world today?   Well, for one thing, we don’t have to search very far into the news reports and politics of today to learn about how many people would just love to have someone else’s head on a platter, so to speak.    They are not just doing that in Palestine or Iran, but also in Aruba, in  Mexico, in America and most anywhere you look.   The uneasiness of our times invites all kinds of uncivil speech and uncivilized behavior to become the new norm.  Daily news reports and reality and non-reality TV constantly fill our heads with all kinds of negative language, images and actions of scorn, hate, ridicule, revenge, bullying and increasing fits rage and anger.   And if you haven’t heard, they are even bringing Television’s favorite villain back.   J.R. Ewing and Dallas is returning to the airways.   I guess the new watchword in reserve is that you just can’t keep a “bad” man down. 

What kind of word can this story of the demand for having John’s “head on a platter” give to us, when someone, or life itself seems to want to have our “head on a platter”, at least figuratively speaking?   When life becomes cruel, unfair, unjust, and just plain mean, what can it mean, what should it mean to act and react like a Christian?   I believe this text gives some interesting insight into what it means try to be stay civil in today’s increasingly uncivilized atmosphere.

IT’S PROBABLY NOT ABOUT YOU
If there is any good news in this story at all, it begins with a surprise.   All that anger, hate, malice and rage directed toward you may not be about you at all.

Notice that this is how it was in John’s situation.  John the Baptist was a prophet.  He was even respected by Herod himself.   Our text begins by telling us that when Herod heard about Jesus he immediately thought about John, whom he had beheaded.   Herod believes Jesus is John, who has been “raised from the dead” (16).  The whole point is that Herod’s conscience is bothering him.  In verse 20 we read even that “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous man.”  While Herodias, his wife, wanted John to be killed, the text says “when Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.”  Evidently, when John preached, Herod heard the truth of his message, but the truth also came with some sharp edges which Herodias did not like.  She wanted John dead.

The truth can hurt sometimes, but the pain of the truth is a “hurt” that intends to help and to heal, if we are willing to take its medicine.  However, that it’s the medicine many do not want.   Also in Mark’s story about John, the problem was not in John’s telling of the truth, but in the inability to receive it.  The problem did not reside with John.   

All of us have run into something like this before.   We tell the truth or we try to do something that is right and someone can’t take it.  As a pastor you run into it often.  I recall several years ago, while pastor of a young congregation, the leadership team was reflecting about some creative ways to do evangelism during summer months.  At the invitation of a local baseball team, we decided to take a Sunday night in June, call off our evening service, and take everyone to the ballgame.  We bought tickets for members and asked members to participate by finding some unchurched friends and purchasing tickets for them.  At the Sunday morning service, while shaking hands, an older member took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “How dare you call off Sunday evening service for a baseball game?”  Since that person did not care to call me aside, but decided to call me out in a public place, I knew there was an intentional attempt to hurt me.   I could have taken this personal, but the truth was, that it was not about me.   The leadership team and made this decision together.   The cause was evangelistic.  It was only one Sunday.   But this person just could not bear the thought of not having church.   There was a problem, but it wasn’t about what we were doing, it was about something else going on in them.   It was something about their limited view of what it means to be church in the world or something else.  Not long thereafter, that person developed chronic Leukemia.  Fortunately, they did not hold a grudge and said nothing about the baseball event ever again.

I would guess that most times when people lash out at you, like Herodias did at John, or when that lady lashed out at me, it’s not about what happening, but it’s about something else altogether.   Another great biblical example is in the story of the man born blind in John’s gospel (John 9. 1ff).   Do you remember how the disciples, when they saw the blind man “blind from birth”, that they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  You can see here that what motivated the disciples question was not simply what was wrong with the blind man.  They had questions within themselves, probably about their own issues.   But amazingly, Jesus answers their question in a way that proved the problem was really not a problem at all.  According to Jesus, the blind man’s problem provided an opportunity for God to work, as Jesus answers, “…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”  How many of us could look at life’s challenges and problems this way, as challenges to overcome rather than ways or reasons to bring insult or to abuse another for what it happening around or to us.

So, the first truth in this story is that when people want your head on a platter (figuratively speaking), the problem is probably more than about what you are or are not doing.  You just happen to be the unfortunate one who has brought the issue to the surface.   As with John, and so with you, someone thinks getting rid of you will fix their problem, but the problem is more than about you.      

IT COULD BE A WAR IN THEIR OWN SOUL
The second message follows from this: When people lash out at you there is probably a war going on within their own mind and heart.   Can’t you see this with Herod and Herodias and the daughter of Herodias?   Anything you know about the Herods and their rule makes you think of anything but a happy family.   Their grandfather slaughter babies!   It doesn’t get more mean or dysfunctional than that.   Here, John’s preaches that Herod had stolen his “brother’s wife” (18) which was against both social and religious law.   We also have Herod’s birthday party where Herod himself has to throw his own party (does anybody like him) and brings in high officials.  

While at the party Herod is evidently attempting to impress his own guest by having in his own young, attractive stepdaughter to do a suggestive, provocative dance.  I just can’t imagine that his went over well with his wife, Herodias.   Anger, hurt, pain and disgust is between the lines everywhere.  When King Herod, perhaps feeling a bit guilty about everything, asked what she wanted of his kingdom as her gift for making such an impression, she does not immediately answer but went out to ask her mother.   That’s another bad sign as you can just imagine who was calling the shots.  When her daughter returns to ask for the head of John the Baptist, we are told the king is “greatly distressed”.   But to save face, he has to order the execution.  What a sad sight to see a King with no power at all being control by everyone else!

What is actually happening here is that we are seeing the pathetic inner struggle that went on among the Herods.  Again, the problem was not John, but it was the struggle within the Herod family for control, for power, for prestige and for their continued rule as puppet rulers under Rome.   It is their personal, family and political problem and struggles which caused them to lashed out and kill the true prophet of God.   

I recall another situation as pastor, when a wealthy couple in our church, who did not have children, began to help a family with children in the community.  They started bringing the children to church, reaching out to them, and even buying clothes and food, as their ‘drug addicted’ parents kept neglecting them.   The couple came to me and introduced the children so they could get me involved in the situation.  But when I did, as I went to Social Services to discuss the matter, they told me that my members where not really helping the children at all.  What money and showering of gifts was doing was keeping the children dressed and cared for, so that Social services could not find reason to intervene.  They advised me to get the couple to stop showering gifts, so they could see the situation as it really was and remove the children from the home and put them in a safe place.

When I attempted to tactfully advise the couple to back off for a while, they did not take it well.  They even lashed out at me for being an uncaring pastor.    As I continued to try to understand the situation and all their anger, I realized that most of the negativity was being fueled by the wife, who I found out later, had been herself neglected and found the church as her savior.  That was a good thing, but now she was projecting all that pain against me, when I suggested that they should restrain their gifts.   The truth is that it was not about just helping the children, but it was about this “wife” who needed help as a child, still trying to help the hurting child inside of her.  In helping the children, she was still fixated on her own struggles.  She lashed out at me because of what had happened to her, and in her mind, was still happening, she was unable to stand back and consider the bigger picture.

Often, this is what happens when people come after other person.  They are after someone because there is something still hurting in their own soul that has not yet been fully or completely healed.  We all see this in life.  Any of us can carry pain from one situation to the next, which can go in cycles and in new relationships until somewhere, sometime, somehow, we are able to get off car of shame, blame, and hurt and address the “struggle” that is going on within us. Until we address our own “struggles” we will keep dragging others into it, because, as they say, ‘misery loves company’.

THERE IS SOMETHING THEY AND WE NEED TO DO
This brings us to the third truth.  When someone lashes out at you, it is more than you they are lashing out at and it’s probably their own baggage they have not yet fully unloaded and are still struggling with.   But the most important truth from this story is that there is something they should do, must do, could do, but they are not doing for themselves, so now, what are they doing but are putting all the load on you.   Remember that Bible text in Galatians 6 which says, “Bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ” but then concludes, “You must bear your own load.”  This is what many cannot do, because the hurt is so painful in their own soul.

Can’t we see this in Herod’s situation?    Herod will not unload his own baggage, but unloads it all on John.   Look at it:  Mark tells us that Herod is haunted by his memory of killing John.   When he hears about Jesus, he can’t think about what good Jesus is doing, but he can only think of what he did to poor John.   But it goes back further.  Herod “liked to listen to John”.  He “feared” or respected John.  He was ‘greatly puzzled’ about the whole matter.  Perhaps, when he heard John speak about his illegal and unlawful marriage, he knew there were things he needed to do, perhaps to confess and conclude that he needed to do life differently.   But instead of changing his own ways, taking an honest look at himself or instead of admitting his own foolish promise, he gave in to the rash call for John’s execution.

Do you know how simply this could have come out differently?  Herod could have said, “Oh, what I said was so stupid.  How wrong to promise something I should not fulfill?”  But Herod could not do what he really needed to do.  Again, that was Herod’s problem, not John’s.  When people don’t do what they should do, when any of us don’t do what we should do, all kinds of other people can get hurt.  It happens all the time.  There are often very simple ways out of complex situations, but too often, we choose not to do the things we should do and life turns tragic and people get hurt.

In the first letter of John, the first strong word to the community of faith is one we need to keep ever before us, if we want to keep community with each other.  John writes: “If we walk in the light, we have fellowship with each other” (1:7) and for this fellowship to happen we cannot “claim to be without sin” (1:8), but we must “confess our sins” to each other so that God can “forgive us”.  This is always the first thing we must always be ready to do, if we want to get along with each other.  We must be willing to admit and confess our shortcomings to each other.  But Herod didn’t.  We often don’t.  When Herod refused to do what he needed to do, John was killed.  And when we refuse to admit our own issues or face our own demons, we and others will get hurt. 
I would like to end this sermon by saying that it all depends on us, but that is not what this text implies.   John the Baptist could not do anything about his situation when he was arrested either.    The final word from this tragic story is not what humans can do, should do, or won’t do, but what God will do.   Herod is now history.   John was tragically killed.  But after John came Jesus.   Even in John’s tragic death, we can see a picture of what Jesus will do for all of us.   Jesus also suffered at the hands of other people who wanted his head.   Jesus was not the problem.  Israel was struggling in her own soul.   People would not do what they should do.   But even in all this, as tragedy happened to John and to Jesus, it is still God who had the final word.   Jesus once said of John, “there has been no greater person born among women” but even as great as John was, or even with who Jesus was,  as human beings doing God’s work in the world, neither could not save themselves.  None of us can.  As one person wisely put it, “none of us will get out of this world alive.”  In the final run of things, we all have to find a way to trust God for the final outcome of what is bad and what is good, which eludes our predictions or our control.

So, the conclusion of this tragic story has not been fully written because our stories are not yet fully written.  When people are out to get us, like they were out to get John, sometimes there is not much we can do about it except trust that somehow, someway God will either deliver or eventually vindicate us.   Since all of our lives will finally come to the same ultimate conclusion of death, the only positive and most logical response we can have is this: that no matter what happens we must keep our faith and trust that in the end, God will work and win through us.  Yes, John was killed.  Jesus died on the cross,  But we know their stories are not their own.  They both belonged to God.  And when your life belongs to God, even with endings, there is hope for new beginnings.   The world of Israel gained a new beginning through Jesus and through John.   We too can gain new beginnings out of tragic endings, but it will demand faith.  Those disciples of John had to keep on going, believing and hoping, when they “took his body and laid it in a tomb.” (Mark 6.29).   If they could only hold on long enough for what God was about to do next.    Did they?  Can we?   We must!  When our head is on the platter, God is our only true hope.   Amen.



Sunday, July 1, 2012

GOD SHED HIS GRACE ON THEE

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
July 1st, 2012

Death has a way of clarifying things. 

This opening chapter in 2 Samuel is a lamentation, a eulogy, or a funeral dirge.   It was written by David upon the deaths of King Saul and his son, Jonathan as a song that celebrates their lives and mourns their heroic deaths in battle. 

However, while they lived, theirs was a complicated relationship.  David respected King Saul and he loved Jonathan.  But King Saul was very jealous of David and tried to kill him several times.  David was popular with the people and when David became King, Jonathan would lose his inheritance.   The whole biblical story reads like one continuing soap opera filled with as much, love, hate, war, intrigue, ambition and betrayal. 

The positive presentation in this funeral song reminds one of today’s political climate, where ambitious political candidates attempt to destroy each other in T.V debates, but are often seen joking or playing golf with each other in private.   Only a few weeks ago, when former president George Bush appeared at the White House to unveil his newly painted portrait, he quipped with current president Barak Obama: “Now, when you are making difficult decisions, just look up at this painting and say to yourself: “What would George do?”   Everybody laughed.  One reported commented: If we only had warmth and friendly joking like this in real life.   But life seems just too complicated.

Life was complicated for Saul, Jonathan and David too until everything changed. Saul and Jonathan are no longer opponents of David nor can they become companions.  They are history.  But instead of relishing in their end, David, like Abraham Lincoln upon the defeat of the South, decides to honor and mourn the dead rather than celebrate their demise.  Perhaps David realized the situation was far too complex for any holes barred-distinction of who was right and who was wrong.  It was time to forget the worst and celebrate the best.  It was time to end judgment and make room for grace. 

Could we see some parallels between the complex political situation of David’s day and our own here in America?   We live in times where political extremes are sensationalized by the media for shock factor, but the real shock is that it is growing an America that is increasingly divided and polarized.   If this current direction continues, we may not want to imagine what it might mean for our future.   This story of David’s ability to transcend the moment and look at the larger picture, may serve as an example of how we too might learn better political speech and kinder civil behavior in our negative political climate so we may find God’s grace.

RISING ABOVE OUR DIFFERENCES
One similarity I find between our times and David’s is that there are people out there in the world who want us dead.  Last week, a major, historic moment took place in Egypt, as it became the first Arab nation to democratically elect a freely chosen Muslim head of state, who has as his political platform, an anti-American stance.   Of course this is not the first anti-America state in the world, but we are seeing in our life-time a radical change in the world’s attitude toward America.  We are no longer majorly perceived as a “city on a hill” who might bring hope or be a “light to the nations”, but are seen by many to be a threat, a place of satanic darkness, a threat, and a danger to non-democratic regimes.   Even though some of the anti-America rhetoric in the world is radical and extreme to be sure, nevertheless it is still very important for us to reflect upon the truth that some people in the world really want us dead, are out there gunning for us, just like the Philistines wanted Israel dead.

Most all of us remember the terror of 9./11 and how the attack on New York sent shock ways around the world.   And even after 12 years of counter-attacks in our “war on terror”, the attitude toward the America has not recovered.   Because of our military might and prowess and some of the abuses that have occurred, our influence and respect has been reduced in the world.   Now, many peoples see us at the “big bullies” on the block.   Even if it is not true, the perception is there.  Can we change this attitude?   Should we? 

I think that David provided a very positive beginning to his Kingship by expressing his respect and honor toward his opposition in this hymn.   His words were an admission that: …In life they were loved and admired (2Sa 1:23 NIV).    David realized that before he could rule the nation, he had to prove that he was bigger than the differences between him and Saul and big enough to rule all his people.   Instead of attacking Saul, or being glad for his destruction and even though Saul tried to kill him over several occasions, David never lost his respect for the King, and in this moment he decided to rise above the situation, to show respect, and even to celebrate Saul’s great accomplishments.  Instead of seeking to distinguish himself from Saul in politic, he wanted to show his solidarity.   That took a “big” man and David was that man.  He had nothing to prove and felt that nothing would be gained by being negative, even toward this one with whom he differed.   As a  ruler and as a political strategist, David wanted the people to see him as a person who respected and even admired those he disagreed with.  In this way he was a political genus, just the kind of ethical, moral and political genius we need today.

At the heart of our original American spirit is a motto that the world does not hear much anymore, and we seldom quote.  E Pluribus Unum, which in Latin means, “Out of Many, One”  It is an original founding idea of our country which respects and even builds upon the value of having many differences among us.  It was not a motto that was used to extinguish the differences, but it was intended as a motto to bless them and to unify them around the higher calling of “freedom and justice for all.”    This respect and appreciation for all people is what America stands for but it is not always appreciated or perceived in today’s political climate of either/or.  Most people think America wants to rule the world, to run the world, or to police the world.   They think this because they see all the backbiting, the betrayals, the bickering and the disrespect that currently goes on in our political debates.  Can we blame the world for thinking we are all as just as disrespectful, negative and impolite to each other as we appear on news channels?   You certainly don’t see the respect for differences or the desire for unity in the airwaves or politic today.  We even have differing news channels to assure each side that they and their viewers keep on believing they always right.  To find a Spirit of fairness or cooperation and a desire for unity is getting even harder to find in our churches, isn’t it?  

But this extreme “know-it-all” arrogance is nowhere near the real world we experience.   For example, in a soon to be released movie entitled “Newsroom”, a well-seasoned reporter, played by Jeff Bridges, scolds a very naive American who arrogantly suggests that America is better than all other nations.  This kind of misguided, misinformed ignorance and arrogance makes matters worse.  When we persist on overvaluing ourselves while we undervalue others, there is no wonder other nations see us an overgrown bully in the world.   What kind of people will be become when we cannot tolerate or respect the people who differ from us or with whom we may disagree?   What happens when we cease to believe that God is bigger than our differences, or when we feel we have to take matters into our own hands, or we can no longer endure a land or a community where there are “many” who can still be “one” without losing the many?

I remember meeting a German woman who married an America serviceman and came to live in North Carolina.   In our first conversation, I asked her about the last time she had seen her “Vaterland”.  She surprised and shocked me by saying that she hadn’t been back since she left and was never going back.  I thought it was about the Nazis and the war, but it wasn’t.  She told me she wasn’t going back to Germany because life there was not as simple as it used to be.  She said in the town where she lived everyone used to be German, but now there are all kinds of people living there.  “Germany is not Germany anymore.”  There are “too many” and they can never be “true Germany” again.  

Isn’t it sad when the person we are is the only kind of person we can imagine having worth and value to God?   America has always been “many” different kinds of people coming to this nation for a better life and for new opportunities.   We have been known around the world as a nation that gives freedom to others while respecting differing cultures, religions and viewpoints.  But in today’s political climate and with growing threats in the world, more fear is growing than appreciation and respect.  We need more people who can sing David’s song and rise above differences to higher levels of respect, of learning, and being able to value the “other” person.   

KNOWING THE REAL ENEMY
As we watch and observe the lack of civility and loss of public respect for both the “stranger” and the “other” in our society, what can we Christians do to be “salt and light”?   Can we guide the overly negative, divisive, dying and decaying culture to rediscover civility and respect?   Could we, who know one stronger than David, show a compassionate and unifying spirit among our fellow humans, even among those with whom we disagree with or consider our own enemies or enemies of the cross?   Will we be examples that help our culture take a different direction than we are now headed, rather than be the kind of arrogant people who continue the hurt and broaden the shame? 

Another example we can see in David’s hymn is that David keeps before him and before Israel who the true enemy is.   In verse 20 of our text, he reminds the people that there are enemies out there who would be glad that Saul and Jonathan are dead:  "Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice. (2Sa 1:20 NIV).  These were their enemies.   Yes, Saul and Jonathan saw things differently and would rule differently, but still, in David’s eyes Israel’s King and son remained heroes and were never his ‘real’ enemy.  In this song, David keeps the true enemy in front and never mistakes his brotherly opponents nor his neighborly opposition as his greatest enemy.   Could we do that?  Could we do that in this culture that tends to so easily disrespect and “demonize” the other, no matter how close to us they may actually be?  Can we keep the true enemy in view and not get caught up in the great tragedy of “friendly fire”?    

The apostle Paul reminded us for once and for all who the real enemy is.   Paul had all kinds of people against him, both in the world and in the church, but he made an observation which people caught up in the political heat of this world often forget.   Do you recall Paul’s words:  “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Eph 6:12 KJV).   In this Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has an imaginary chief of demons instructing a junior demon is how to get people to turn from doing good and to turn against each other.   “Don’t tell them there is no god,” he suggests, but tell them “there is no devil.”  

Do we know who the true enemy is?  Do we realize that when we take sides on extreme or divisive viewpoints that what pulls us apart from each other that this is the worst enemy of all?   I had a friend from north Iredell, who was also a seminary student with me and studied with me in a class on the book of Revelation.  Once, the class got sidetracked onto a discussion about whether there was a personal devil or Satan alive and loose in the world.   There was much discussion and many young, very idealistic students got carried away in the discussion and ended up saying they thought the great “evil” of this world was only human inspired.   They suggested that there was not any real supernatural evil force beyond our wrong choices.  Thus, they concluded, there was personal evil, but they suggested there was no devil.   After hearing that conclusion, my friend had had all he could stand.  This quiet sort of fellow finally stood up asked to be able to stand and to a statement.  He said, “Well, if there is no devil, what in Hell are we here for?

I’m not saying that we must go back to seeing a “devil with a pitch-fork” behind all that is wrong with the world.  But what David understood is something we do not so easily see, as we observe the evil in the world today.  We often fail to realize that beyond the evil that opposes us and opposes God, is not the evil “of “ the other person, but it is always about the evil that that has gotten “into” the other person.   David did not succumb to demonizing Saul, nor Jonathan, but David kept his focus on who the real enemy was.  And if we want to rise above our differences and grow up to be the people we have been called to be, as a particular, God-called, missionary people, we must recognize too that we are still sinners and still people who capable of great evil or great good, just like anyone else.   As Jesus himself suggested to his disciples, if we want to rise above our own arrogance with each other, we must learn that the “splinter” we see another’s eye is nothing compared to the “log” that can get into our own eye of pride and arrogance.  Our hate for the other, our divisiveness toward to other, our disdain for another who is different from us or who disagrees with us, or who just sees things differently, is much more inspired by the devil than most of the differences we have among ourselves.

MAKING ROOM FOR GRACE
The final question David’s hymn brings to me is the question of freedom and grace.  David had complete freedom to express his feelings about Saul in any way he chose. He could have used his freedom to solidify his power, to prove his right and calling to rule.  But instead of ruling their minds, using their death to his credit or by claiming the power of his popularity, David decides to rule the hearts of the people.   He makes room for grace.  Rather than expressing and resentment, disdain or contempt for Saul, he celebrates Saul’s contribution, legacy as “blessings” that will be missed by the people: "Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold. "How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights.” (2Sa 1:24-25 NIV)

How different David’s attitude of respect and grace is compared the divisive climate in our nation as we move into this election year.  Could we be as respectful for those we disagree with as much as David did?  Could we strive to make room for God’s grace in our own situation?   Of course, “America, America, God Shed His Grace on Thee” is not an easy prayer to pray.  Are our current failings in politic, in religion and in ethics, really worth the freedoms we still have?   I can imagine when those Terrorist were being trained to try to take down our nation on 9/11, many of them were being told and trained to believe that America is not worth it.  In some way, shape or form, they were brainwashed to believe that America and her great wealth, her great power and her great freedom is too risky for the rest of the world.   So, what did those Terrorists decide to do?  They decided to take us down.  It didn’t happen, of course.  It still hasn’t happened and probably won’t.  Our army is too strong.  Our resolve is still great.   

But the truth is, most great empires and great peoples are never taken down by others from the outside.  The greatest normally die another way.  Most great nations die, not by enemy opposition from the outside, but most crash and burn from the inside.   And this is exactly what disturbs me most these days.  How long will it be until the failures of freedom, our lack of responsibility and failure to make room for grace, overtake the values of freedom we’ve had for so long?  

What is most important about this David’s musical tribute to his opposition, is not just his attitude of respect, but is his firm faith and belief in God’s providence in all things.  Even though David had an impossible relationship with King Saul, David still finds a way to honor Saul and Jonathan heroes.  He names them “the mighty (who) are fallen.” David decides not to dwell on the negative, but on stay with the positive and thereby, he opens the door for God’s work of providential grace. 

Can we make room for “grace” in our lives, our world and our own nation?   We live in land that has many differences which often compete against each other.   We have a constitution that protects not just our viewpoints, our ideas or our opinions, but it also protects the freedom of others.  For this reason our freedom must always be negotiated.  Without the constant exchange of free ideas and ideals, freedom cannot and will not work.  But in this struggle, we must always make room for grace, learn to rise above our differences and continue to recognize the real evil that is against us all.    David’s song, which plays the sound of God’s grace in our complicated world, gives us an example of respecting others, not only in the time death, but also in difficult moments life and liberty.   If we want freedom to ring, ring, and to keep on ringing in our ears, we must sing louder the song of God’s grace into the nasty politics and divisiveness of these times. 

Do you recall the film, Amadeus, that won praises several years ago?  It was the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.   One thing the life of Mozart reminds is our constant need for God’s amazing song of grace.   We all know that Mozart's music was brilliant; perhaps the most brilliant ever written or performed.  But we also know that Mozart’s music was much better than he was.  This is also true of us also.  God’s music of grace played in our lives is much better than we are.   Perhaps this is why the music continues.  As long as we allow God’s to play his tune of grace in our lives, our lives can find a “sweet sound”.   A great hymn, "Jerusalem, My Happy Home”, puts it this way: There David stands with harp in hand / As master of the choir;  Ten thousand times that one were blest / That might this music hear.”

Perhaps David knew in his heart that giving these “fallen heros” a word of grace is the music the world needs most.   Understanding, respect and grace are the lyrics that freedom must continue to sing in these days too, or there will be no real music left.   Amen.