06 July 2009

Trusting Power

Jenny Howard, guest preacher
Northside Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, MI
6/21/09 More Light Sunday

1 Samuel 17:22-23, 32-49
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Good morning! Welcome to Northside’s annual More Light Sunday observance.

More Light Sunday, of course, is not an official Presbyterian holy day. Oh, no. It’s a recent custom, started five years ago by More Light Presbyterians, which is an unofficial, grass-roots organization within the Presbyterian Church (USA). This organization explains on its web site that More Light Presbyterians is “a network of people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church.”

More Light Sunday, then, is a Sunday, usually in June, for all Presbyterians “to recognize and celebrate the presence and gifts of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and their families in our local congregations …. [because] we believe in a Gospel and a Church for all God's children.”

Now, before I say anything further about More Light Sunday, let me say a few words about this morning’s Bible readings. I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do, say something about the Bible readings; that’s what you’re all expecting, right?

Today’s Bible readings are from the Lectionary. As many of you know, the Lectionary is the calendar of agreed-on Scripture for each Sunday, used by many Protestant churches. It’s a three-year cycle, so three years from today, I should be able to re-use this sermon.

My point is that these readings were not selected specially for More Light Sunday. No, these are pretty ordinary readings. David kills Goliath; Jesus performs a miracle – calming the storm; and Paul preaches reconciliation between an unruly congregation and the larger faith community.

You’d think for More Light Sunday we’d use something more like this familiar verse from the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!” Or this well-loved verse from the prophet Micah, which was the theme Scripture of our most recent national General Assembly: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

More topically, following the defeat of “Amendment 08-B”, which would have allowed the ordination of lesbians and gays – in view of the defeat of that amendment, the national More Light organization suggested these two verses, the first from the Gospel of Luke:

"Christ also taught them by a parable that they must always pray and never lose heart."

and the second from Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

"So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap in harvest time, if we do not give up."

But to me, the official Lectionary readings that just happen to be scheduled for today are excellent More Light Sunday readings. And I’m going to tell you why.

First, though, a brief congregation participation moment, to give you a chance to stretch, and make sure everybody’s awake. I’d guess your answer to this might be shaped to some extent by your politics. Raise your hand if you don’t trust power. Now raise your hand if you do trust power.

When I’m done, I hope that I will have persuaded all of you to trust power.

Let’s look at power in today’s readings.

First, Goliath. Now there’s power. We didn’t read all the details about this guy today, but here are a couple of highlights from earlier in the chapter. Goliath was 9’9” tall. His armor – not counting the armor on his legs or the helmet on his head, just his coat of mail – weighed 125 pounds. The head – just the head – of his spear weighed 15 pounds. It’d be like throwing a stick with a bowling ball on the end. One powerful warrior. And yet, David – the youngest, probably scrawniest of 8 brothers – David beat Goliath. How did he do that? You might say by being a really good shot with his sling, but that’s just the weapon he used. How did this kid, too young to join the army, beat this gigantic, battle-hardened soldier? David told us when he uttered the last words Goliath ever heard: “Know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

Hold that thought as we re-visit Mark’s story of the boat in the storm. Jesus has been regaling the crowd with one parable after another. While they’re still scratching their heads, he tells the disciples to hop in the boat and go to the other side of the lake. The “lake” is the Sea of Galilee, 8 miles wide and 200’ deep in the middle. Several of the disciples are fishermen, remember, so they’re steering the boat. Jesus is tuckered out from all those parables, so he’s taking a nap in the back of the boat. I can imagine the conversation: “James, it’s getting cloudy, and the wind is kind of picking up.” “Right, John, I know.” “Don’t you think we better turn back?” “John, Jesus said to cross to the other side of the lake.” “I know, James, but…” “John, do you want to wake Jesus up and tell him we decided not to do what he told us to do?” “Well, no, not really…” Now, archaeology tells us something about the size of these 1st century fishing boats… roughly, you could put one in the middle aisle here. We also know how much power a serious storm can pack on the Sea of Galilee: the waves can be as high as 10’, like as high as the ceiling here. The disciples were afraid – with good reason – that these powerful waves would sink the boat, and they’d all be stranded in 200’-deep water, in a storm, miles from the nearest shore. Picture it – everybody’s working furiously to prevent that disaster – maybe four disciples pulling at oars, a couple of them manning the tiller, and one standing lookout, and the other five trying to bail water out as fast as it comes in. And one person is not doing anything to help out, he’s … in the back of the boat, sleeping! It’s easy to understand why the others shook him and yelled, “Wake up! Don’t you care that we’re all going to die?!” Jesus, waking up, takes a look around, rebukes the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!” And suddenly, eerily, it is calm and quiet. Then Jesus rebukes the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Still no faith?” and presumably resumes his nap where he left off.

Here, just like in the Goliath story, we see that God can defeat any adversary, no matter how powerful – whether it’s a storm on the Sea of Galilee, or a 9’9” warrior.

Clearly, then, the lesson for today is, as long as you have God on your side, there is no power that can’t be defeated, and you will prevail! And from the verses about justice that I quoted earlier, we know that God is on our side in this whole inclusive-church, ordaining-gays-and-lesbians business! So all we have to do is have enough really strong faith, and ask God to get rid of our adversaries – either killing them like Goliath, or at least making them be still, like the storm! Right? RIGHT? RIGHT?!?!


No; as usual, it’s more complicated than that. And as is so often the case, it falls to Paul to teach us how complicated, messy, and difficult it really is.

Paul, of course, is not dealing with the question of ordaining gays and lesbians. Heck, they didn’t even know what gays and lesbians were back then, not in the way we use and understand those terms today. But Paul does have his hands full with the church in Corinth.

We don’t have to know what the specific dispute was that led to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, though it does seem to be some kind of leadership struggle. Somebody else is trying to take control of the church in Corinth, and to oust Paul, or at least oust Paul’s authority. But even though we can only speculate about the details, we do know what today’s reading – the beginning of Chapter 6 – is about: reconciliation. Paul is offering an olive branch to his adversaries in Corinth. He’s not backing down about what he and his followers believe; in fact, he says: “We have commended ourselves in every way…. by genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.” Convinced as he is, though, that the “power of God” has given him the “weapons of righteousness”, he does not call for God to smite his adversaries like Goliath, or still them like the storm. Instead, he offers them “genuine love” and “truthful speech”. He reaches out to them, “Our heart is wide open to you…. open wide your hearts also.”

In the real world of real people, Paul knows that victory without reconciliation would be hollow indeed. His goal is not to “win” so that his opponents “lose”. His goal is to build a church that is as inclusive of all God’s children, as it is faithful to God’s Word. For this more nuanced goal, Paul can’t just call on the power of God to set things right and let it go at that. Paul knows that he must himself follow God, must do what God has called him to do. He knows he must love his neighbor – even if his neighbor is vying with him for control of the church in Corinth.

He must trust that God will use God’s power in the best way that it can be used. Work for what is right, and trust God’s power.

And that more nuanced, difficult, complicated, messy goal is ours too, in the struggle to open the church to the ordination of anyone who is called by God to serve in the ministry – anyone, whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or “straight”.

Our goal is not to build a majority so that, in the democratic Presbyterian process, “we” can defeat “them”. Our goal is not to be such a thorn in “their” sides that “they” finally give up and leave “our” church to “us”. Our goal is not to have God make “them” be still, shut “them” up. And our goal is certainly not to have God give “us” the power to physically, violently defeat “them”.

Nor are we called to surrender our beliefs. Wherever God has given us the light to see justice, we are called to speak the truth about justice. We are called to work for justice. We are called to lead the whole church, called to reach out to all people, called to build a church that is as inclusive of all God’s children, as it is faithful to God’s justice.

We are called to trust God to use God’s power in the best way it can be used. Work for what is right, and trust God’s power.

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