Meeting God in the Middle

Passage: 1 Samuel 17:33-49; Mark 4:35-41
Date: June 18, 2006
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

I believe that we often encounter God somewhere in the space between fear and faithfulness. Somewhere in the middle of all those things in our world and in our lives that strike fear in our hearts and our longing for a perfect peace we encounter God. I don't think that this happens in obvious ways. I don't think you can just point to it and say; there; an encounter with God! But I do think it happens. Though not always in the way we expect.

In the Gospel reading from Mark 4, Jesus is talking to his disciples, after a big windstorm on the sea. These disciples who are also fishermen by the way... Fishermen who you would expect would know what to do during a windstorm in a boat! And Jesus, seemingly confident of their abilities, gained from years in boats, calloused hands, and sunburned foreheads, Jesus is reported to have fallen asleep in the boat. But for some reason, Jesus sleeping makes them angry. And they wake him up and ask him why he doesn't seem to care about them, or the storm. And he utters those famous lines, "Peace, be still!"

And after Jesus has stilled the storm, the text reads: "...and there was a great calm." And then it says, "and he said to them, "Why are you afraid?""... there was a great calm. And THEN.. Why are you afraid? Jesus asks them about their fear, in the calm after the storm. I find that interesting. Can you think of a time when you were afraid? Can you remember your feelings in a calm after one of life's storms? Does this story in Mark's Gospel ring true in some way?

I was on an airplane a few months ago and I was traveling alone. I was seated next to a woman I did not know, and we prepared for takeoff. She was fidgety and obviously nervous. She began to arrange her personal size DVD player, and she ordered vodka from the flight attendant. During takeoff she reached out and grabbed my hand and made some little whimpering noise. After we were in the air she finished off the vodka. After a few minutes of calm, she asked me what I did for a living.... I told her...and...yikes, she was all nervous and fidgety again "I'm so sorry I grabbed you hand like that oh and I'm sorry about my drink. I assured her that her drink was fine with me, and we talked about her fear of flying. And I found myself wondering why I was not as in touch with my fears as she was. Was I just - not afraid of anything? Or was it that the things I was afraid of I didn't want to talk about on a plane with a stranger? Or was I just in denial of how scary riding on a plane should be if we stop to think about it. Or is it that fear is planted in her and others by forces in our culture that want to keep the American people scared for economic reasons. If we're scared, we'll pay a lot for things to keep us safe and calm and so forth.

"Why are you afraid?", Jesus asks the disciples. What makes us afraid? I ask you. I have been pondering that question and I wonder if the disciples "awe" of Jesus isn't another form of fear. In a poem by Mary Oliver, called "Maybe" this Biblical incident in the boat with Jesus is recounted.

"Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down"...
(that's how the poem begins...
...but it ends with a very different picture of Jesus:
"the disciples - miserable and sleepy
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it -
tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was -
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea."

For Mary Oliver in this poem Jesus is both the source of calm and frightening too. I wonder if that is how the disciples felt in their awe. First they're angry with Jesus who is the source of their calm for seeming to ignore them and then they are in awe of him. And in the middle, Jesus asks them about their fear, and seems to want some kind of faith from them. "Have you no faith?" is the question Jesus asks after he asks about their fear.
It seems it's not as simple as a prayer and response game, in which we pray, "Jesus save me", and then Jesus immediately says, "Peace be Still" and all is calm.
There is also fear, even sometimes after the calm. And there is this faith thing. Jesus seems to want a response from the disciples. Some kind of give and take some kind of interaction. Jesus I think wants the disciple/fishermen to do a little of their own sailing. He'll still the storm if they keep their hand on the rudder and tending to the sails.
Jesus is indeed a source of calm in life. What Jesus offers us transcends the power of nature and the uncertainty of life and death. But it doesn't just come to us without some engagement by us. In some way our lives are changed by this faith that comes to us in the midst of fear. And Jesus does offer us peace. But also seems to ask us to meet in the middle, and go half way in faith... In faith.
As I set that insight - next to the Old Testament text it seemed to me that there was a similar way in which we meet God in the middle that emerges out of that text. In the Old Testament, David meets Goliath. And the context or historical background of this encounter is the radical transformation going on in Israel at the time. Israel was moving from being a marginal company of tribes to becoming a centralized state. There were power struggles between these strengthening tribal alliances and the nations that surrounded Israel. The pressure of the Philistines was a major threat.
And so Goliath the Philistine represented the threat of powerful domination by a foreign nation, which the tribes of Israel are trying to ward off. But at the same time, David represents the beginning of Israel's own quest for unified national power which will come first under King Solomon. In this context, the battle between David and Goliath ensues. What David meets is not a storm but a struggle for power and national independence in the form of one big soldier named Goliath. The Philistines have been menacing the armies of Israel, and Goliath represents all that. And David prepares for the battle in a way we might NOT expect.
His soon to be father-in-law king Saul, doesn't think David should put himself at risk against the giant. Maybe he doesn't think there is any chance David will win. But David insists that he has met Loins and Bears and through it all God protected him. David's answer to Saul seems to be: "No, alone I don't have a chance but I don't go alone I go with God." Saul had tried to outfit David with armor in preparation: heavy bronze and chain mail and a helmet. But to underscore his point that God is with him, David takes off the armor. He will not go to battle wearing his father's clothes. He will not do it the way his father-in-law would have. But he does take his father's faith. The faith of that shepherd Jesse his father rather than the armor of Saul. And so as he prepared to meet the giant he selected simply five smooth stones from along the water's edge. He picked them up out of the running water the water that polishes down stones and removes rough edges. And he put them in his slingshot and went to meet the giant.
The story of David and Goliath is violent, and I have some questions about doing anything like David did, "In the name of the Lord". I also find myself depressed by the fact that I know how this story turns out in the Biblical books of Kings. Namely that Israel goes for kingly/worldly power, against what they are repeatedly told are God's wishes.
So I don't think this is a perfect hero story like Jack and the Beanstalk. If I remember right, Jack had to go meet the giant, in that story, because the giant had killed his father, and left he and his mother in poverty. The giant was basically the bad guy, and Jack the good guy.
The Biblical narrative, and the history of Israel, and the Middle East, are far more complex than a fairy tale needless to say. But what I take from the story is David's perspective on God in the midst of the difficult choices of standing up to the powers that be, in the world, in whatever way we sometimes do. Powers represented by Goliath, and powers sought by the struggling pre-king tribes of Israel.

Maybe powers we are still struggling to balance in this world. Powers of terrorism and counter-terrorism. And to horrors of both. When it comes to stilling storms or meeting challenges these Biblical stories encourage me to avoid thinking that everything will get fixed by just God alone without any engagement from us. But on the other hand we do not have to face life alone without God. And if we try to, we may never find the confidence or the peace that we seek.
What I can tell you is that the Kingdom of God - as I know it described in the Bible rejects the kind of power that would dominate tribes of any kind. The Kingdom of God as I know it - is about peace in this life as well as the next. What I can tell you is that somewhere between going it alone and thinking God will do everything for us is where I think we will meet God. What I can tell you is that I believe in that Kingdom even when I am scared.
As I read about deaths in the newspaper, all around the world and as I consider how much we consume in this country and I think about how religious language is used in service of political ends I am scared for the future. But when I remember that our youth group is even now helping with hurricane rebuilding and then I think that somehow that experience might change their hearts and that they are part of the church too I feel some peace.
How might we as a church continue to be a part of seeking God's Kingdom? In everything we do? As we ponder that, I'll end with a little anecdote about fear attributed to James Thurber by Marcus Borg. Apparently Thurber came upon a farmer with a couple of cows in the field. Around the field was an electric fence to keep the cows in. He asked the farmer, "How much does that fence cost you to operate?" "Nothing!" said the old farmer. "After the first battery wore out I didn't replace it. There's no power going through that line, so I don't have to pay anything. The cows learned their lesson the first time."

And Thurber goes on:
This is how it is in us. Freedom is there for the asking. Rise up cows!
Rise up all in bondage! The wire is dead come on out!

Well I can say this about the story. I don't know what the wire might represent for you and I exactly. Whatever is keeping us from a freer life or a more peaceful life. And I can't say for sure if the wire is dead. It may be harder than we think to rise up. But I think if we really hear Jesus words to us: "have you no faith?" And if we really truly want to respond "yes" we do have faith then we are called to rise up no matter what. We are called to rise up and say NO to the things of this world that dominate others and cause fear. And to say yes to the way of peace.
We are not alone in this. God will go with us. But we are called to begin.
Amen.