Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Like David in the Valley of Elah

“Like David in the Valley of Elah”
A sermon preached on PentecostIV 7B
St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Laurel, DE
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

I don’t know about you, but I come to church this morning with a very heavy heart. The events in South Carolina have deeply troubled my spirit.  I can only imagine what you all may be feeling – what emotions you carry in your heart.

Some of you may be shifting in your seats and thinking, “Oh, God. I come to church to be uplifted; to spend some time away from all that mess in the world. I come to learn something about my faith. I don’t need politics in the pulpit. I can read the New York Times or the Washington Post when I get home.”

This is not a sermon about politics. I trust you won’t read anything like it in the NY Times. 

My intention is for this to be a sermon about the promises of the Gospel and the hope we have in Jesus. But, I would not be a faithful priest if I ignore the horrific pain that is just outside our doors which some of you have brought into church with you this morning.

As Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote about her priestly discernment,  
“Being a priest seemed only slightly less dicey to me than being chief engineer at a nuclear plant. In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without losing great danger and getting fried in the process. All in all, I was happier in the pew.”  

In his statement about this national tragedy in South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Dan Thomas Edwards, Bishop of Nevada wrote, in part:
It is too small a thing to condemn racism once again. It is too small a thing to condemn gun violence once again. It is unacceptable to attribute the violence against a Black congregation to a deranged lone gunman when systemic racism and systemic violence are pervasive and are being overtly acted out with increasing frequency. We must not “heal our people’s wounds too lightly,” as Jeremiah put it. Nothing short of the gospel can speak for us to this tragedy, a gospel not just proclaimed but acted on to usher in the Kingdom. We need a lot more Kingdom right now  . . .  . . . We need the gospel to infiltrate the real life of the people and make the creation new right now.
Not “heal our people’s wounds too lightly” and not just proclaim the gospel but get the gospel to “infiltrate the real life of people”.  You understand what Ms. Taylor was talking about in terms of “getting fried in the process.” You’ll forgive my preference for sitting in the pew. 

Mark’s Gospel (4:35-41) does offer us a great deal to consider about how we might rely on Him when storms like this terrible national tragedy enter our lives.  
Many of us clearly identify with those disciples in the boat in the middle of a storm. Jesus was asleep on some cushions in the stern. They went to him, woke him up and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And, it was Jesus to the rescue! He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And lo! There was a dead calm. 

If only . . . .  If we just had faith. More faith. Enough faith. That’s the answer, right? All of this is happening because we’re afraid and we are afraid because we have no faith. Simple. 

I am hearing the words of the Prophet Jeremiah. “Do not dress the people’s wounds too lightly” (6:14) or “ . . . cry ‘Peace! Peace!’ When there is no peace”.

I submit to you that, in order to better understand the Gospel, we need to understand something from the Hebrew Scripture which we heard this morning. It was the first option – the passage from 1 Samuel 17(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49). I think there are some things we can learn about faith and conquering the Giant of Racism and being like David in the Valley of Elah. 

It’s the story of David and Goliath which we all think we know but, tell me, when was the last time you heard it as an adult – much less, in church? It’s a classic battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. The nation which emerges as winner of the battle will be lord and master over the other.
You may have missed the connection by the gentile language of “servants” but hear again the words of Goliath: 

He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, "Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us."

Just so we’re clear, we’re talking about slavery based on race and religion here.
Saul and the rest of the men of Israel heard the words of Goliath and saw his great size and strength and they were sore afraid. When young David appeared, fresh from the fields of tending sheep, he also heard the words of the great giant but said he would fight him. 

When Saul and the other men protested, David reminded them that, as part of his job as a shepherd, he sometimes had to defend the sheep against lions and bears. Surely, if God was with him in battle against the lion and bear, then, with God’s help, he could take on this giant.

Saul reluctantly agreed and tried to dress David in his armor, but David could hardly walk in it. He took it off and “he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi (or, a dry river bed), and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.”

Goliath laughed at the sight of this young boy, “ruddy and handsome in appearance” but David laughed right back. Drawing one of the smooth stones from his pouch, slug it and hit Goliath, bringing him to his knees, and he fell dead, face down on the ground. 

And thus, David did kill Goliath in the Valley of Elah.
Here’s what I think: I think the church, the Body of Christ, has been asleep in the stern of the boat. The storm of racism has been swirling around us for a long, long time.  In many ways, the issues for which we fought and many died in the Civil War are still alive and well and continuing to tear apart the very fabric of this nation. 

Here's what I think: I think Jesus has been waiting for US to wake up. I think it’s time for us to take off our protective armor and get back to the basics of our faith. I think we all have experience fighting lions and bears in our own lives. 

I think we all have slingshots of power and authority and a pouch where we store at least five smooth stones of faith. We all know how to protect and defend that which is precious and important to us. 

Either we believe what we say in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States that “all men – all people – are created equal” or we don’t’. Either that’s worth defending or it isn’t.

Either we believe what we say in our Five Baptismal Promises – that we respect the dignity of every human being” or we don’t. Either that’s worth dying for or it isn’t. 

Indeed, I believe the five smooth stones we have to fight off the Giant Evil of Racism can be found in those Five Baptismal Promises:

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

And, there it is, my friends. Those are the five stones we have at our disposal. They are five stones made smooth by the baptismal waters of our faith. We have our own slings – the authority of our baptism in Christ Jesus – to take those stones into the Valley of Elah and take on the Giant Evil of Racism. 

We who call ourselves Christians, we who have built the story of our faith on the stories of Hebrew and Christian Scripture, can change the story of this country by the witness and actions of our own faith. As Brene Brown writes:
When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending. 

Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us.

We will not get away from the violence and heartbreak. Fear and scarcity will continue to run roughshod over our country. Yes, the violence in Charleston is also about access to guns and, more than likely, mental illness. But it’s also about race.

Our collective stories of race in the US are not easy to own. They are stories of slavery, violence, and systemic dehumanization. We will have to choose courage over comfort. We will have to feel our way through the shame and sorrow. We will have to listen. We will have to challenge our resistance and our defensiveness.
I do believe that our Five Baptismal Promises will help us to do this. It won’t be easy. Our leaders will not be allowed to cry “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace.  We will not be able to dress our wounds too lightly. We will have to call up prophets and listen to them speak.

I do believe, in the words of Bishop Dan Edwards, we will need to do 

a lot more justice in the distribution of resources and opportunities, a lot less racist blaming of minorities to distract poor whites from the real forces behind their growing numbers and declining quality of life, a lot more curiosity and imagining our way into each others situations, a lot less grudge clinging, a lot more hope for the common good, and a lot less scrambling to get our piece of the action.”

I do believe we can wake up, drop all of our protective emotional armor of self-deception, resistance and defensiveness and carry our five stones made smooth by the waters of our baptism into the Valley of Elah. 

I believe that together, we can bring this Evil Giant of Racism to its knees – with God’s help. I believe we caninfiltrate the gospel into the real life of the people and make the creation new right now”.  I believe Jesus will cry out “Peace, be still” and calm the waters of the storm.

And, I don’t know about you, but that belief, that hope, that vision, that shalom peace, that work of moving us through the storm and closer to the Realm of God is the reason I come to church.
To learn how to be more like David in the Valley of Elah.  

(Lectionary lessons)
Note: In place of the Nicene Creed, the congregation was asked to reaffirm their Baptismal Vows, which they did with great vigor and amidst tears.


Melody said...

I wholeheartedly agree.

I have seen posts on facebook that make me nervous and sad, the latest being one that says,
"I'm afraid of a world run by adults who were never spanked as kids and got trophies for just participating."

I reposted it with the following commentary added:
"Really? Because I'm much more afraid of a world ran by adults that feel that violence solves problems. That it is okay to hit people that are smaller than you. And that felt like to be top dog you have to be better, faster, smarter than others.
I long for a world where children are taught peaceful negotiation by example. Who are taught that kind words are more powerful than threats. Who feel that they are enough, and that no one is better than someone else simply because of education, money, and power. That the leader is the one that serves most.
I want leaders who are compassionate, diplomatic, and thoughtful."

This is what I wrote as an introduction to an article that I posted on facebook regarding Dylann Roof, the gunman the Charleston shootings:

"In a Washington Post interview, Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, said his mother 'never raised him to be like this.'
'The whole world is going to be looking at his family who raised this monster,' Cowles told the Post. 'I’d be the executioner myself if they would allow it.”
That doesn't sound too much different than why Dylann shot 9 African Americans.
"Witnesses told investigators the gunman stood up and said he was there 'to shoot black people,' a law enforcement official said.
He answered one man’s plea to stop by shooting him, said Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of the church’s slain pastor who has talked to a survivor.
'No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country,' he said, according to Johnson. '… I have to do what I have to do.'"

I believe that the number one place that we start working for peace is in our homes. There is an essay entitled "Children Learn What They Live" that I'm sure we've all read. Its premise is that as children live with different ways of looking at and living life, that will become their normal and that is what they will do. There is the scripture in Proverbs that teaches us to train up our children in the way they should go, and in their old age they will not depart from it.

As I have been reminded of this principle, I have worked even harder to help my children and grandchildren to use their words rather than hit, scream, and get angry. I have been trying to model it for them and verbally remind them, in a gentle way, when it seems they've forgotten.

There are many steps to anger, hatred, and frustration long before someone pulls a trigger, punches, or stabs, and I believe that learning how to calmly talk and negotiate need to be skills that we focus on, especially with our children in their youth. That is something that we can work on every day, when our own tempers flare as well.

(As an aside, “All men are created equal” is in the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution.)

Thanks for your insights!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Melody 0 There are so many layers to this latest tragedy. Unfortunately, the worst place to have this conversation is on social media, and I fear that's the only place we WILL be having this conversation. This is an incarnational issue. This is incarnational work. So, I agree with you: We need to have these conversations in our living rooms. And, in our churches.

unkmonk1 said...

It will be tough to have such conversations in Mainline protestant living rooms and churches; your churches are basically, what, 95% White, even after forty years of "Celebrate Diversity!".
Either your "Multicultural Resource Officers" aren't doing smething or you don't really mean it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

"what, 95% white?". LOL. Obviously, you haven't been in an Episcopal church in a long, long time. You might want to check the headlines - we just elected Michal Curry, bishop of NC as the first African American man to be Presiding Bishop. Do try to keep up.