Monday, June 25, 2012

Things Not Always as They Seem

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7) includes I Samuel 17:32-49; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

As I listen to our readings this morning, I hear one caption that applies to all three: Things are not always as they seem.

I wonder if that simple message resonates at all for you, today. Things are not always as they appear.

This is doubly true in that action-packed portion of I Samuel. Goliath is thought to be invincible, but he is not. David is said to be just a boy, but he is more. Each of these men represents a certain kind of strength and power, and in the contrast between these two different kinds the point of the story is revealed. You could even say that it is the chief and central point of the entire Bible.

The Philistine warrior is all about size. The Hebrew shepherd is all about speed. Given David’s technology, all he needs is for Goliath to hold still long enough that he can get off a good shot; and when you’re the size of Goliath, and loaded down with iron and bronze, you do a lot of holding still and moving slowly. While this contrast does give us something to think about— like the advantages of traveling light—it barely scratches the surface of the differing strengths and powers of these two men.

Dig deeper and notice that for the warrior there is no higher power, no greater cause, no transcendent frame of reference, than his own brute force and arsenal of weapons. “Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.” That is life, for Goliath.

David’s reply reveals the contrast between them. “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand… so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel…” That is life, for David.

The shepherd is a rustic theologian. What he sees as he looks on the encounter before him is not a giant of a man growling for blood; David sees a big windbag mocking the God of Israel, and all around him those hosts the Lord God of hosts has to do his bidding, an army of angels, their fiery swords filling the sky, confirming what David knows: You don’t mess around with God. (I know, I made some of that up, but I do believe we get to use our imaginations as we tell these stories, don’t you?)

So while Goliath sees himself as what the show is all about, David seems himself as a small cog in the gears of God’s action to establish God’s people, Israel. He sums this up, saying, “The Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s…” To Goliath, our caption applies: Things are not always as they seem.

Those words apply to David, too. He is no small cog: he is on his way to meteoric promotion and all its attendant dangers. And the more powerful he becomes, the more he yields to the temptation to lead with the sword and cause Israel’s history to be written in human blood. Things are not always what they seem.

That insight fits also our portion of St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians: “We apostles are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

There is Paul, the next principal voice of the New Testament after Jesus, describing what to expect if you’re a follower of Jesus. Bliss, rapture, comfort, security, and fulfillment? Not so much. And yet, because we are committed to what God is doing in the world, we learn to trust God’s ability to work through what the world dishes out, the afflictions, hardships, hungers, and sleepless nights we experience—not only to build up what God needs in the world, but also to build us up. For Paul, like David, the battle is the Lord’s. And things are not always what they seem.

Which brings us to that boat on the Sea of Galilee. Waves swamp that little boat, as a sudden storm threatens them with mortal danger. And Jesus is asleep in the stern, on a cushion. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” It looks to them as if he does not.

I’m pretty sure they had spent enough time with Jesus by then to realize that mystery and paradox would likely remain their constant companions as long as they followed him. He was training them to respond in trust rather than react in anxiety, to cast all their cares on
God who cares for all. So in this moment they cast their cares on him: Teacher? Teacher, wake up! Do you not know? Do you not care?

They’re simply being honest, aren’t they?

I doubt this will be the last time his disciples urgently ask whether God is still in the battle with them, still on board, still with hand near the helm. As the agents of political and ecclesiastical treachery circled around them at that last Passover, their anxiety must have shot high, for he spoke to it directly in the Last Supper (which we’re still unpacking, each Lord’s Day) when he used the bread and wine of table fellowship and the water and towel of servanthood to shape their faith into an adequate answer to their fears.

Things are not always what they seem. A crisis may give birth to honesty and new determination to choose trust over anxiety. Smooth sailing may not develop our skills of navigation.

How does this little caption apply to you?