Readings: 1 Samuel 17:1a,4-11,19-23,32-49; Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
The lectionary for this week is a colourful tapestry of drama, factional disputation, allegory, all woven together into a rich mixture, like good fruitcake. It begins with the well known and loved story of David and Goliath. What a gift the Old Testament was to Sunday School Anniversary preachers, with its endless supply of warfare, treachery, lust, murder, betrayal, even love.
The selection from Samuel picks up the story immediately after David has killed Goliath. Still holding the giant`s head, David is presented to king Saul and we can only assume Saul scored Goliath`s head as a trophy. Anyhow the outcome of the meeting is that Saul insists David remain in his household. Furthermore, David develops a lifelong friendship with the king`s son Jonathon. David becomes a fixture in the king`s household and is given many assignments, all of which are accomplished successfully and to even more public acclaim. Another page of history is being set in place.
Saul was a jealous king. As he sent David into battle, time and again, was he hoping that this young man would bring glory to the kingdom, or that he would be killed; or perhaps that there would be both outcomes. Saul`s jealousy consumes him through much of his reign. Even at this early stage he makes a couple of attempts to kill David, then not long afterwards offers his eldest daughter in marriage. David is a bashful lad, a bit hesitant and reluctant to respond too quickly, so Saul marries the girl off to someone else. Although at a later time David does get to marry Saul`s younger daughter. Channel 7 could script several episodes of Neighbours from this material.
The story of the son of Jesse is a thrilling yarn and one which exposes the character of Saul, David and Jonathan. The story reveals deep friendship, treachery and hatred, we see arrogance and delusion. One cannot get away from the gratuitous violence which permeates the whole drama and whilst we need to acknowledge this as being part of a 2500 year old perspective on God and his will, we need to be more astute in using if to discern God`s purposes. One could also note that there is a lot in common here with other stories of similar vintage especially amongst the classical Greek myths of Cyclops and Odysseus and their struggles with supernatural forces. These are stories which were intended to help us explore our common humanity in all its messiness. The one of David proceeds on several levels, because he is part of a much larger dynamic. There is the continual threat to the nation posed by the Philistines, and as if that were not enough, there are Saul`s personal struggles with his own inner demons, his questionable judgement, his growing isolation from the people. David plays his role with confidence in the God who he sees as always present with him. As Howard Wallace puts it,
`not a call for foolhardy confidence that can be reduced simply to putting the Lord to the test. God does not play cheap games. It is a call for faith in the God whose power and presence undergirds all of life and one who undercuts false assessments of security in strength.`
The appeal of David`s story lies in the richness of its human qualities. We can identify with each of the characters, if not within ourselves, then in other people.
In the gospel reading Mark`s description of the storm describes what he saw as the underlying cosmic battles between good and evil. Probably the story was sourced from a real incident, in that the Sea of Galilee is notorious for sudden violent wind storms. Reducing it to its literal detail is not just to lose the rich symbolism, but to raise some interesting and probably unanswerable questions - such as `if they did not expect a miracle why did they wake him?` or `if they did expect a miracle, why the expressions of fear and awe when it occurred?` I think there is more value in looking at the story through a wider lens. Mark locates the passage immediately after a series of parables. There is the lamp under the basket, the sower, the mustard seed. He has Jesus declaring that the parables are intended to be elusive, in the sense that only those ready to hear and to see will understand them. (Mark 4:12) The disciples undoubtedly all nodded sagely at this remark. After all, it feels good to be part of the `in` crowd. Then, at the end of this particular segment of the story they are exclaiming, `Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!` (Mark 4:41) Clearly they had failed to understand and not for the first time, their concept of the gospel was shaken. Like all good storytellers, Mark makes connections, or allusions, to other stories that the listeners would be familiar with. Here he evokes Jonah, asleep amidst the storm; or perhaps he is prompting recollections of the psalms. Such as, `who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations` (Psalm 65:7) or, `He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up; he led them through the depths as through a desert.` (Psalm 106:9)
You have all been around long enough to know that life can have its uncertainties, sometimes storms, and mostly these manifest themselves quite unexpectedly.
Back in 1984 Lynley and I were in Singapore for a few days whilst I was supposed to meet with various business contacts. During the first couple of days I developed symptoms which included periods of high fever and pains in the joints. We quickly fled home to Perth. It was six months before I was fully recovered. What caused it? Who knows, the medical profession certainly didn`t. What about storms, like the violent ones to which Mark refers? The wind can be frightening when in develops slowly but generally we cope, it`s when it suddenly descends upon us that it can get quite scary. A few years ago we were staying at Glenelg Beach in our little pop-top caravan. There was a lovely view across the bay which was partially obscured by the little ensuite toilet block. In the middle of the night a storm swept in from the south west, one which was more wind than rain although severe enough to unroof a number of houses in the foothills. We woke up in the wee small hours with the van shaking, rattling and whistling. I kept my head well under the pillow, but I could hear this little voice next to me saying `Do you think we ought to go into the ensuite?` `No,` I replied, snuggling down even deeper. All very scary. Daylight revealed some very minor damage to the caravan and only a bit more to our psyche.
In all these kinds of unexpected circumstance I think the truly frightening aspect is the realisation that you are no longer in control, that the situation could escalate quite quickly, indeed, even become catastrophic, and there is very little you can do about it.
Mark is showing us that the gospel is a struggle against what he would describe as demonic and destructive powers; that Jesus came to liberate people from such forces. The furies of nature symbolise the deep and destructive forces which can dwell with us and have the potential to destroy us; however in Jesus there is the power to conquer these. In this allegorical picture Mark is asserting that there is hope, true liberty lies on the path which Jesus marked out. In the very ordinariness of life, in the times of trauma, we can make a difference. Reading Paul`s epistle to the Corinthians takes us back again into the travails of the emerging Christian church - some might ask what`s changed? The issues in Corinth were not unlike a perfect storm. This was a major dispute working itself out in a manner that Paul felt his legitimacy as an apostle was being called into question. His assessment was probably quite accurate and he knew that the his credibility and capacity to spread the gospel was founded upon his being accepted as an apostle. He knew the plausibility of his detractors, all those fervent and eloquent pied pipers, those snake oil salesmen who impress people with talk of special claims to knowledge and wisdom, of charismatic gifts. Those power hungry eloquent voices, then and now, for whom love for humanity was not of the highest priority. Paul challenged the Corinthians about these things and exhorted them to keep the faith.
Titus had reported that there had been changes for the better in the congregation at Corinth and Paul wanted to hurry the process along. He cannot speak to them personally so he has to draft his letter carefully - he does not want to upset them and damage what progress has been made. His strategy is to challenge them to step away from the opposition, which he portrays as unbelievers serving idols. Paul is inspiring them and us to keep returning to the way of compassion and vulnerability: the way of Jesus.
Today we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church. In 1977 the event was a challenging and indeed for some people a frightening experience. It meant change; a compass realignment which led to some stormy waters; some people even abandoned ship. For others it took time to realise that the form and structure might have changed, but the new unity still rested firmly in the unchanging presence and power of Jesus Christ.
In preparing for today I read a piece by Moira Laidlaw who observed that the UC is affiliated with the World Communion of Reformed Churches and hence subscribes to the principle `reformed and always reforming`, which is in itself a call to faith. As a denomination are we truly faithful to that premise? Life does have its stormy passages, some sudden and unexpected, others we foresee. It`s faith which strengthens us to cope and faith which opens us to the possibility and process of re-formation. There are many memories lingering in this room, funny ones, sad ones, challenging ones, inspiring ones. They are safe and familiar, but they are just memories. They do not represent the future - that is something we can attempt to forecast, but we cannot foresee. All we can be assured of is that it will be different and our past experience as a community of faith will assist in our charting a safe course.
As the Uniting Church in WA we are very much smaller in number than we were in 1977; indeed we are markedly fewer than we were just a decade ago. The realities are that we struggle to maintain the work of the church with the structures which we have in place. Some would argue that as an organisation we are no longer viable. What is clear, is that the church is struggling to confront the realities of its circumstance. Change does not come easy, especially when it goes to the heart of an institution we hold dear. Part of the problem of course is that none of us is getting any younger and the will to answer the call to arms, to seriously challenge the infidels, is a bridge too far.
I am very conscious that my experience of church politics is limited to WA and that the circumstance in other Presbyteries may be very different. Here in WA, some decisions of the Synod and Presbytery do not suggest to me that there is any recognition that the world has changed with respect to many social and economic issues. Better education and scientific progress has made much of the theology of the 19th century redundant, never mind that of the 20th century. Furthermore, the Australian community no longer respects or even recognises the role of the institutional church, and with good reason. No more do we have the authority to shape legislation or community attitudes, and we should cut our cloth accordingly. The world still needs to hear the gospel message, but that message needs to be delivered in manner and terms on which the community can connect.
My theology, my concept of church, my definitions of mission, probably differ from many of those people who make up the councils of the church. In one sense that is as it should be; I am all for a diversity of views. We do actually call ourselves an inclusive church. But meaningful debate doesn`t just happen, it has to be encouraged and facilitated, new ideas and directions explored, rather than desperately seeking to preserve the institution by going on the defensive and pulling up the drawbridge.
According to its website the Uniting Church `has long taken a role in the political arena, encouraging moral, social and ethical integrity.` Assembly website `Our Faith in Action` It was to be a prophetic voice in the community, the voice which would speak truth to power, and there have been occasions when it has done so.
In 2018 the community no longer believes we occupy that place. As a church we seem to be unable to speak on anything contentious. We struggled mightily over the rights of gay people, we were divided and therefore silent on same sex marriage.
The UC has not had anything to say to the WA Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into end of life matters. I would have thought this topic could be of relevance to congregations. On inquiry I learnt that the failure to make any comment was deliberate - it was perceived as too contentious. It`s little wonder that today`s disciples are terrified when the storms start to rock their boat of certainty, but huddling together in the little cuddy cabin clinging on to yesterday and chanting ancient creeds will not save the boat.
Bill Loader has this to say and I believe it is relevant to this congregation -`[today`s] passage follows a wonderful flourish of ideas in 2 Corinthians 5 in which Paul talks about becoming a new creation and exercising a ministry of reconciliation. Underneath these powerful affirmations is an agenda which says: our ministry is legitimate. It may not look flash. It may be characterised by hardship, difficulty and failure. It may lack the impressiveness which others generate. But it is legitimate. More than that, rather than being deficient, it matches how Christ was and what Christ intends. As Christ faced suffering for the sake of the good news, so that now characterises Paul and his associates. This is no ground for despair. To imagine ministry primarily as success and victory is to depart from the Christ story of ministry.`
So, tomorrow is another day, let`s approach it in faith and confidence ready to man the oars, as we are able, and continue to venture faithfully into the future. Amen