July 8th, 2018: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Pr. Joe Britton, and "Precious Lord, take my hand"
8 July 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12)
Today we are going to rehabilitate the word “weak.” It is a word, like a number of others, which has had a lot of use as of late. In previous sermons, we have already revisited truth, and lying, and human dignity (that was Easter Sunday), and a couple of weeks ago, bullying (in reference to David and Goliath). But today’s topic is weakness.
The word is suggested to us, of course, by the epistle lesson, one of those rather inscrutable passages in Paul where it’s not clear at all what he’s talking about. But his point comes pretty clear in the end: for a Christian, strength comes from the realization that we are in and of ourselves weak, and know that we rely on God for our strength.
The context is this: Paul is describing “a person in Christ” who was caught up into the third heaven (not the blue sky, not the realm beyond the sky, but into heaven itself), where he had a vision of the strength of God’s mercy and grace. Now, although Paul uses the third person here, he actually seems to be talking about himself. He is the one who has been granted the sight of the glory of God, and it is comparison with that vision, that he realizes how weak he is in himself.
He muses that there are two possible responses: one is to boast of how great it was to have had this experience, placing the emphasis on his own privilege. Or the other response, is to use it as a means of self-knowledge, seeing clearly his own need for what has been disclosed to him. He chooses the latter, and so comes to his conclusion, which is the point of what he trying to get across to his readers: when we know that we are weak, then it opens us up to know the strength of God. Or, as the great nineteenth century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon put it, “We can know that God’s grace is sufficient, only when we know that our strength is insufficient.”
Weakness, it turns out, is not the opposite of strength, but rather an honesty that we cannot be fully who we are meant to be, except by relying on something greater than ourselves—on friends, allies, communities, civilities, traditions, and ultimately, on God. Even Jesus seems to have to learn this lesson in today’s gospel, when he realizes that he can do no miracle in his hometown, but must turn to his disciples and send them out to carry on his work. Weakness is a willingness and openness to seek help, to engage the world, to look outside of ourselves, to realize that we are not at the center of our own universe. Weakness is what makes us strong.
Now, that is Paul’s point, but it may all still seem a bit abstract. So let me try to bring it a bit closer to home by turning to that old gospel song, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” which we are going to sing together at the end of this sermon.
The song was written in 1932 by Thomas Dorsey (his picture is in the bulletin, if you want to look at it). Dorsey was a minister and blues singer who was living in Chicago and struggling to make ends meet for himself and his young wife Nettie. Reflecting on his troubles, he once remarked that, “The trouble with singin’ the blues, is that when you’re done you’ve still got ’em.”
While he was at one of his out of town gigs, he received word that his wife had died in childbirth, and he rushed home only to have his newborn son die in his arms shortly thereafter. Heartbroken, Dorsey was inconsolable. The women of his church, however, rallied round him, and flooded him with letters of condolence and encouragement which planted the seed in his mind for what emerged as his most famous song: Precious Lord. Perhaps you remember the words:
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the night.
In the song, he pours out his grief, his sense of helplessness, his weakness—and then, unable to anything else, he reaches out his hand to the Lord, asking for help.
And out of this lament of weakness, strength has come indeed. It has of course comforted many a person in grief, and is sung at countless funerals and memorials. But it also became a well to which the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement returned again and again, seeking the strength to carry on in the face of violence and brutality that they faced, and so in a very real sense this song helped to change the course of our nation’s history.
It was Martin Luther King’s favorite hymn. In the movie Selma, when he is at a particularly low point, he calls up his friend and colleague Mahalia Jackson seeking some word of encouragement. Her response is to sing Precious Lord softly to him over the phone line. Whether that call ever really happened we don’t know, but we do know that he asked her to sing Precious Lord at his funeral, anticipating that he would die young. And the song is closely associated with his last hours—in some tellings, it was sung at the rally the night before he died where he gave his Mountain Top sermon, or in other tellings, the last words he uttered before being cut down by an assassin’s bullet were a request that it be sung that night at the meeting he was preparing to attend.
In any case, the key is that out of the naked weakness that Precious Lord gives expression to, has come towering strength and resilience. But it is a strength that has had its roots in community—the consoling women of Dorsey’s church, the fellowship shared among civil rights leaders, the mourning of a nation after King’s death. So when you go home today, perhaps you will want to listen to just a few of the recordings that have been made of it, and you’ll hear what I mean: Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, Tennessee Ernie Ford, even Elvis Presley. Each, in his or her own way, pours out a soulful lament that touches us at some place deep within, where we know the true neediness of our inner selves, but find God’s strength therein.
For you see, the lesson that we human beings have to learn—and sometimes have to learn over and over again—is that we are not sufficient unto ourselves, not as individuals, not as races, and not as nations. We try to pretend that we can put ourselves first, and come out ahead. But all we really do when we do that is to break down those bonds of community and affection that hold us up and challenge us to be more and to be better than we are in isolation. Without the other, we are diminished. Without the stranger and the foreigner, we are impoverished. Without the poor, we are grudging. Without the grieving, we are arrogant. Without the weak, we are shallow.
So if you will, take out the Gather Hymnal, and turn to number 955, and remaining seated, let’s pray together the words of Precious Lord, hearing in them the assurance that whenever we are weak, then we are strong.
1 July 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace.” (Mark 5)
Does the name Drew Gilpin Faust mean anything to you? She just recently stepped down as the president of Harvard University, and for some years I have found her to be one of the sanest and steadiest voices in our society.
In her farewell address to the university, she recalled rather ironically her inaugural address given eleven years earlier in the same spot. “Inaugural addresses,” she remarked, “are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about.”
But she went on to say something else about the peculiar genre of inaugural addresses: they are, as she put it, “expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.”
So in her valedictory address a few weeks ago, she returned to that theme of hope, reaffirming its central role in the life of any great institution. “Hope,” she said, “is implicit in our efforts [as a university] to model a different way for humans to live and work together. … But hope also implies work that is still unfinished, aspirations not yet matched with achievement, possibilities yet to be seized and realized. Hope is a challenge.”
Now, if universities are meant to be in the business of hope (as President Faust said), how much more so should be the church! But if hope is, as she said, fundamentally a challenge, then it is also inescapably rooted in change. To paraphrase Paul, who hopes for things already seen?
Hope looks forward to an altered state of affairs, to a time when the world in which we live will be different. Where there is no change, therefore, there is no hope. And that’s why too often the church turns out not to be in the business of hope after all: we come to church seeking stability, rather than conversion.
Scholars of the early church, however, point out that for the first Christians, change was what they were all about. Their passion for change was born out of the fact that in Jesus, they had finally found someone to whom they could give their ultimate allegiance. Caesar and his surrogates, while perhaps deserving of their routine respect and compliance (out of self-preservation if nothing else), were not worthy of an unwavering loyalty. Only Jesus, as Lord of Lord and King of Kings, deserved that.
And why? Because those first Christians believed that in Jesus, they had encountered someone who spoke a truth that could not be superseded: a truth about the nature of a human community founded in acceptance and compassion that was nothing less than God’s truth about humanity. And if one was going to live out that truth, then it implied the need for some pretty big changes in the way each of us relates to other people in the world.
Jesus enacts that very truth in today’s gospel—twice, no less. A woman who had been suffering for years from a hemorrhage, having heard about this new voice of hope, comes near to him desiring only to touch his cloak. Jesus, sensing the depth of her need, turns to her and in one word—“Your faith has made you well”—extends recognition and acceptance to her of such power that she is not only made physically well, but is able to go her way in peace. The miracle in the story is not her healing: the real miracle is Jesus’ acceptance of her, after she had been shunned as unclean and unfit for years, which relieves her of all the guilt and shame she had carried.
Indeed, at the core of every one of Jesus’ miracles is just such a change. His presence or his words cause a shift in someone’s perspective, and that shift is so momentous that it evokes in them an experience of hope and healing. Hope requires change, and change is the engine of hope. Without it, there is, well, there is only more of the same—and in that there is no hope.
But hope requires something else as well. Hope requires community. In the second healing story, woven around the first, Jesus is on his way to the home of Jairus, one of the leaders of the synagogue, whose daughter is gravely ill, at the point of death. Having stopped to reach out to the woman, however, Jesus now learns that it is too late—the little girl is already dead. Jesus won’t give up on her, however, and goes on to Jairus’ home.
There he challenges everyone’s perspective that hope is lost, telling them that she is not dead but only asleep—in a coma perhaps. And then, going in to her and taking her hand, he pulls her up out of bed. Again, the mechanism of the healing is change, a change in the understanding of her true situation. But here, another element is emphasized as well. Jesus does not go into the girl alone, but takes with him Peter, James and John, as well as the girl’s parents. The healing must be done in the company of others, in community.
And of course, if you think about it, since hope depends on change, and we are unlikely to change except as we encounter and are influenced by others, it’s no wonder that hope likewise depends on community. Which is why, at the heart of the Christian community, is Jesus himself, who is constantly inviting us—like the woman and little girl of today’s gospel—to be healed, which is to say, to be changed.
But not all communities are such motivators of hope and change. There are also other kinds of human groupings, as we know all too well nowadays, which rely on the closed instincts of tribalism to reinforce the status quo, substituting the false hope of establishment and privilege—where there is no change—for authentic hope.
And that is why, it is so important for we the church to be a community of change, which is to say, a community of hope. As we pray in one of the Eucharistic prayers, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” In short, as Christians, we must model in both our individual and corporate lives a vision for the human family that does not accept resignation in the face of suffering and want, but constantly pushes for change and reform.
President Faust, in her closing comments, recalled a beloved Harvard coach who once spoke to an athlete, saying “This, this is what you can be. Do you want to be that?” Those are words that the church is called to speak to the world: to hold up God’s vision of a truly compassionate, reconciled human family and to ask, do you want to be that? Which is, of course, ultimately an expression of hope, because it is at root, a call to change. Amen.
24 June 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, and slung it.” (I Samuel 17)
So if you were the preacher today, what would you say after the events of this week [i.e. the separation of children from their parents at the border]?
Perhaps the best we can do is to turn back to the texts we have before us, and see what God might say to us today through them—which is of course what Christian people have done for centuries as they tried to hear God’s word afresh in each new age.
So we have before us the story of David and Goliath—not an auspicious place to begin, you might suppose, and I confess I’ve never preached on this text before. But let’s see what there is there, and if there might be a word for today.
The setting is this: King Saul and the Israelites are facing the threatening army of the Philistines. They are caught in a bit of stalemate, facing one another across the Valley of Elah. For forty days, the Philistines have sent out a certain Goliath between the lines to taunt the Israelites, and they have cowered in fear as a result.
Now, Goliath was the quintessential bully, who loves to tease and taunt his adversary. He is described as being a physical giant, and he had clothed himself with lots of armor and a big spear. Goliath’s Philistine base kept egging him on, and obliged them by becoming increasingly belligerent toward the Israelites and their “fake” God.
So to make a long story short, Goliath lays down a dare to the Israelites: send someone to fight with me out here in the open, and if he wins, we shall be your servants, but if I win, you become our servants.
The Israelites are terrified by this proposed deal, for they are certain that no one could prevail against such a foe. But then along comes David, who though he is only a young boy, offers to go out and engage the bully Goliath. Saul, of course, quickly objects: who is David, to confront such a foe?
But David reminds Saul that even though he is young, he has guarded his father’s flocks single handedly, and whenever the sheep were threatened by a lion or a bear, he has courageously and successfully protected them.
(Now, the early church—which read the scriptures at multiple levels—heard here clear echoes of Jesus’ parable of going in search of the one lost sheep out of a hundred, so in their minds, the story became an allegory for Jesus himself, the good shepherd who will leave no one unsheltered or unincluded.)
In any case, Saul relents, and lets David go into battle. But before he does, he tries to clothe David in a suit of armor like that worn by Goliath. But David says he cannot wear such things, for he is not used to them (again, understood in the early church as a form of idolatry, relying on something other than the protection of God). So David casts all that aside, and takes with him only a slingshot and five stones that he has placed in his pocket.
The contemporary essayist Malcolm Gladwell has tried to characterize this slingshot as the technological advantage upon which the entire story hinges (David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, 2013). As he reads the story, it is this innovation that turns the tide, and he draws various conclusions about our own circumstances. But frankly, I’m a bit skeptical that the Biblical writers had in mind technological superiority when they crafted this story. More likely, it seems to me, is that the slingshot with five stones represents something spiritual, or moral, rather than technological.
In fact, again according the interpreters of the early church, the five stones represent theological virtues such as faith, justice, service, generosity, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. David, in other words, goes into battle equipped with the things of God, rather than the things of the world. That is the advantage, the edge, that he has over Goliath, who relies only upon physical strength and rhetorical bravado.
And what happens? Well, you know the story. Despite of all Goliath’s taunts and armor, David hurls just one stone out of his arsenal of Godly virtues, which strikes Goliath squarely in the forehead, and the giant immediately falls face down on the ground, vanquished.
Told this way, the point of the story is pretty clear: even in the face of Goliath’s bullying and superior size, David is still more powerful because he follows the ways of God. David takes a sack with five stones—five virtues—with him into battle, not because needs all five, but because any one of them would be sufficient. As we all know, this story is often cast as that of an underdog triumphing over a stronger adversary (sportscasters for instance love to make that reference), but perhaps what it is really about is that David is made stronger than Goliath, by equipping himself with the ways of God, or with what Paul in today’s epistle calls “the weapons of righteousness.”
And perhaps herein lies the lesson in this story for us today: we as Christian people must reaffirm that those virtues of faith such as justice, compassion, service to the other, and unrestrained generosity are what make us strong. Perhaps Gladwell was right after all: the story is about the slingshot, except not the slingshot as a technologically superior weapon of war, but the slingshot as a representative of a higher moral ground.
I’m put in mind here of Martin Luther’s immortal hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” I had never thought of it in this light before, but perhaps it could be said to be a song of David, as if it were one of the psalms:
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word (one little
stone) shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill: but God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever. Amen.
10 June 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (Mark 3)
A crazymaker is someone whose erratic and unpredictable behavior introduces an element of anxiety and distress into some human community. Crazymakers are the type of person who breaks deals and ignores schedules; who thwarts dreams and plans; who expects the world to cater to his or her whims; who find ways to spend your time and your money; who manage always to triangulate any situation; who are superior blamers, yet with a sense of personal superiority. In short, crazymakers are people who constantly create dramas, where no such drama is necessary. As Julia Cameron writes in her book, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, “ Life with a crazymaker is debilitating. It becomes a battleground with many skirmishes. … The crazymaker is always looking for the ‘big deal’—the one that will prove the crazymaker right.”
We have all encountered such people: it may be someone in our extended family who keeps everyone at a family gathering on edge. It may be someone at work who disrupts implementing decisions that have been made and goals that have been set. It may be someone in a community organization who always throws a monkey-wrench into what others are trying to do. Crazymakers can turn up anywhere, even in high office.
In fact, in our reading from First Samuel this morning, both God and the prophet warn the people of Israel against wanting a king to rule over them. Up until then, the people had been ruled by one thing and one thing only: the Word of God, given to them at Mt. Sinai. Kings, warns Samuel, have a way of taking for themselves what is not rightfully theirs; they rule not for the common good, but for their own benefit; and they consider themselves to be above the law. They are, in short, the ultimate crazymakers.
Yet, it seems to me that there are nevertheless two types of crazymakers, and that it is important for us to distinguish between them. The first type is the one we are most familiar with: people whose erratic behavior and the resulting disruption of the community is ultimately all about them. Perhaps it is because they crave attention, so they call attention to themselves by acting outside the norms and expectations of everyone else. Perhaps it is because they are deeply insecure, and so cannot contribute positively and meaningfully to a community’s larger goals lest they be left out. Whatever the reason, their behavior is disruptive for the sake of being disruptive—nothing good comes out of it, and people find the behavior exasperating and self-centered.
The second type of crazymaker, however, is someone whose unpredictability is thoughtful and deliberate, and actually intended for good by breaking open a system to reveal either its unrecognized potential, or its inherent flaws. The prophets of the Old Testament, for instance, were this kind of crazymaker—constantly upsetting the applecart by pointing out how the people had forsaken God’s ways, or by calling them toward a higher plane of enacting more fully God’s justice. Their disruptive behavior was positive, directed, motivated by purposes larger than themselves.
And Jesus, too, was also this second kind of crazymaker. Think back to last week’s gospel, where he deliberately upset everyone’s expectations of what appropriate Sabbath observance looks like, turning the Sabbath inside out by healing the sick and feeding the poor even on the seventh day. The assumption was that such work could not, and should not, be done on the Sabbath. But Jesus retorted, “Are we made for the sabbath, or is the Sabbath made for us?” Or in other words, do not works of mercy performed even on the Sabbath reveal more about its intention to draw us into the circle of God’s compassion, than does strict observance of its proscriptions which excuse our indifference to the plight of others? To the people of his day, that was crazymaking!
In fact, by today’s reading, the people have grown convinced that Jesus must be “out of his mind,” a true crazymaker in the worst sense of the word. Even his mother and brothers come looking for him, to beg him to come home, out of the public spotlight. But in another act of crazymaking, Jesus breaks open the very idea of family, saying that whoever does the will of God is now his brother or sister. Suddenly, we are all members not just of our nuclear family, or even our cultural family, but of one human family bound together by loyalty to God’s ways of inclusion and compassion!
Crazymakers like Jesus have something different in mind, than does the narcissistic type of crazymaker who focus attention only upon themselves. Jesus’ crazymaking directed not toward himself, but away from himself, and toward God. It is not that he wants to be the center of attention—far from it—but rather, his intention through his unpredictable behavior is to awaken people to the ways in which their complacent idea of what religion looks like ends up shutting God out altogether. Over and over again, Jesus performs signs that are meant to shake up people’s fixed ideas about such things as who is my neighbor? Who deserves mercy? How far is far enough, when it comes to forgiveness?
… which raises an interesting question for us. In our own lives, do we look to our religious faith primarily for comfort and reassurance, or do we look to our faith to be challenged and disturbed? Do we come here to church expecting our Sabbaths to be quiet, peaceful, and uneventful—or do we come expecting to be confronted by the newness of God’s Word, and to be changed in the process? Scripture itself bears witness to both expectations: the psalms that we sing each week can for instance both soothe us, and unsettle us. Perhaps they suggest that we can never be truly comforted, unless we are also changing and growing. So I leave the question to you of what your own expectation is: to be consoled, or to be challenged? But as you do, you might want to include in your reflection … that Jesus was a crazymaker. Amen.
May 20, 2018: The Day of Pentecost, Steve Petrunak, President of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians