Want to Hear a Story of Faith?
For increasing numbers of people, at least in the West, the Bible has come a rather irrelevant book. It still sells well, and there are increasing numbers of translations, but we struggle to hear a word from this book that will speak to our lives. It’s not that science or the Enlightenment has taken away the authority of the text, it’s more that it’s just a very old set of stories. What hath Goliath or the stilling of a storm have to do with me?
I’m among that remnant that believes we can still hear God speak in Scripture, even though my perception of that word has been shaped by the Enlightenment and Science and culture. I struggle with the idea of an interventionist God, but I’m not ready or willing to let go of divine agency. So, I have to ask – where are you present in the text? I was blessed this week to hear expositions of the text from the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Richard Beck and Greg Stevenson, along with sermons from Mike Cope and Sarah Barton that brought the text to life. I appreciated the word from Brueggemann that invited us to embrace divine agency, even as we learn to discern that agency in the works of our own hands.
As you read the texts for this last Sunday of June in the year 2012, you discover that there’s not a real strong thematic edge. There are choices to be had among the readings from the Hebrew Bible. For my preaching and thus for this meditation I chose not to focus on David’s battle with Goliath, but rather the alternate text that follows after this one, where David and Jonathan’s lives become entangled, even as David moves up the ladder of military power. There is a word from Paul that speaks of his own struggles with persecution and the like, but in the end, he has great affection for the church that he had founded. Then, there’s the story of the stilling of the storm – where is your faith? Jesus asks. Indeed, where is the faith?
So, do you want to hear a story?
The first story highlights a friendship that emerges in the midst of a power struggle. Jonathan becomes the closest friend of his father’s greatest rival and who would seem to be his own greatest rival. Mel Brooks might be able to quip “It’s good to be the king,” but for Saul it’s a constant headache. He must fight ongoing border wars and deal with a people who asked for a king, but ended up not liking the results. Not only that, but it appears that YHWH also tires of Saul and pulls away from the king, leaving him lost and alone. Saul had recognized David’s popularity, especially after killing Goliath, and sought to co-opt him by bringing him into the palace. What better way to prevent the rise of a rival than keeping that rival close by. But David, though he appears to support Saul, becomes ever more popular with the people – and of course with Saul’s eldest son and heir.
Jonathan is a great warrior, but he doesn’t seem to have the same ambition as David. There is a kenotic element to Jonathan’s story. He is born into power and yet he’s willing to set it aside. In this passage he empties himself of everything that signifies his power and offers it to David, the rival of his father. What is happening here? It has to be more than friendship, though we see the beginnings of a deep and abiding friendship – the knitting together of two lives in a way that is difficult to understand. It can’t be that Jonathan is afraid of ascending to the throne. This is not a fearful man. He is, however, a man of humility and loyalty to one who becomes his brother.
After David is summoned to Saul’s court, we’re told that “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life, and Jonathan cared about David as much as he cared about himself” (18:1). This description of Jonathan’s love of David is repeated in almost exact wording in verse 3. Some have seen in this description, and the one found in 20:41-42, evidence of sexual intimacy between the two men. I understand why some have reached out to the text to give biblical support for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, but I’m afraid that this might be reading too much into the text. It also undermines the possibility that one can have a deep and abiding same-sex friendship that doesn’t involve sexual intimacy.
The story continues throughout the rest of 1 Samuel. David will become king after Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle. David will take Jonathan’s son into his household in honor of that friendship. The friendship is deep, but note that in this passage, though the two friends make a covenant with each other – as equals – it is Jonathan who makes sacrifices. It is Jonathan who has the greater love, which lays down a life for another.
Paul is a different situation. His story is that of defending his ministry. Some apparently were criticizing him and rejecting his teaching. The Corinthian Church was rather fractious. Paul had tried in the first letter to convince them that they should let go of their class distinctions and actually love one another. Apparently there were still those who pushed the envelope. Pushed into a corner, Paul recounts his story, how he and his companions had pursued their ministry with great endurance and did so “through problems, disasters and stressful situations.” Yes, they endured “beatings, imprisonments, and riots.” They had worked hard, endured sleepless nights and hunger. They lived lives of “purity, knowledge, patience, and generosity” – you hear echoes of the fruit of the Spirit. They had fought the good fight using the weapons of righteousness, and yet they were often treated dishonorably. But whatever the case, they pressed on. Indeed, they lived lives of faith “as having nothing but owning everything” (6:10). Perhaps this is a link to Jonathan’s story – in giving up his right to the throne, Jonathan had received what was most important to him – friendship. For Paul, what was most important was having the opportunity to declare the good news that “now is the day of salvation.” And why does Paul do this? Is it out of obligation? No, it’s clear from the closing words of our text that he does so out of affection for the Corinthian church. They may have erected boundaries of that affection – and we all know how this can occur in churches – but Paul’s heart is open wide to embrace this community that so often gave him fits. But such is the love of God.
In the Gospel of Mark we hear another kind of story. It’s one of those miracle stories that everyone seems to love. According to Mark Jesus was teaching the people alongside the lake. The crowd got large enough that he had to get in a boat to continue teaching, which he did through the use of parables, including the parable of the sower, the lamp and the bushel basket, and the mustard seed. We learn in the verses just prior to this story that Jesus taught everyone in parables, but then explained everything to the disciples in private. We love to believe that Jesus used parables to illustrate his teachings, so that the people might understand, but in Mark at least the parables cloud rather than illuminate (Mk. 4:33-34). But surely the disciples have begun to understand. After all they’ve been let in on the secret. But maybe not. And the question really is – do we yet understand the meaning of Jesus’ teachings?
So here we are out on the lake, after Jesus has finished a lengthy teaching session, and in one of our favorite miracle stories, a storm comes up and the terrified disciples have to wake Jesus up from a deep sleep. The twelve, some of whom are experienced fishermen, are terrified by the storm and can’t figure out how Jesus can sleep through it. They don’t really expect him to do anything about the storm; they just want him to share in their terror. “Don’t you care that we are drowning?
As Mark tells the story, Jesus nonchalantly stands up and orders the wind to be silent and still, and everything grows calm. At that Jesus turns to the disciples and asks “Why are your frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” Apparently not, for they ask each other: “Who is this? Even the wind and sea obey him! (Mk. 4:41 CEB). So what do we make of this story? How do we respond to Jesus? Are we people of faith who are ready to embrace his call to walk with God in trust (faith) or are we uncertain about what that involves? It’s an important question at this moment in history, for there is great uncertainty about the future. There is great fear about where we are going. We have, as Walter Brueggemann made so clear at a preachers conference I attended this week, become beholden to “military consumerism.” To walk away from this “dominant narrative” requires great faith, but we as the church seem timid, even terrified about the prospects of following the lead of the prophets and of Jesus. “Don’t you have faith yet? “ That’s a good question.
What stories of faith are stirring in our midst? What road must we take? Are we willing, like Jonathan and Paul, to take the more difficult way and persevere in the calling of God, not seeking our own glory, but that of God? Is there faith or is there terror? Are we left asking the question “who then is this?”