On Succession and Civil War (Based on Proper 14, year B)

Sometimes leaders stay on too long.

They get tired.  They lose their sense of mission.  They remain because they’ve grown used to power and can’t imagine not having authority.  Some leave gracefully, like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; others hold on like Mubarak in Egypt.

Most stay too long.

Institutions get nervous during times of transition.  It’s one reason monarchies develop – business can continue smoothly. Even non-monarchies like Syria, North Korea, India and the US each have their peculiar political dynasties.  And the problem of succession is not merely experienced by nations, but by corporations, churches and other bodies that get work done.

There are good reasons to be anxious.  If succession doesn’t happen well, we run the risk of civil war.  In the midst of such trouble, it’s easy to forget the basic rules that keep the nation peaceful.   We look to the rule book to ensure peace.  In our political life, for example, we can disagree, but everyone has a right to vote (well, perhaps not these days).

In the reading last Sunday, David had ruled for nearly forty years; he’d been running the kingdom from the office, and although he remained enthusiastic and confident in his abilities, his soldiers were unimpressed.  David’s son Absalom wanted his own turn. He’d gathered support and was undermining his father.

Perhaps Absalom thought the throne should have been his; perhaps he thought his father was too disinterested, too old to rule effectively.  He knew he could do better.

But Absalom’s thick, long hair was caught in a tree, and as he hung, Joab, David’s advisor, disobeyed the command to keep Absalom alive.

Joab believed, perhaps, Absalom would not truly submit; that there would always be the risk of Absalom’s treason.  Perhaps Joab was jealous of Absalom.  Joab had worked for David’s favor; while Absalom held David in contempt but David still adored him.

The story does not have a clear moral – it lifts up for us to see how family love and political necessity create chaos.  We do not know if Absalom would have been a good king or not.  We only know that David also had a deep love that was stronger than his son’s betrayal.

In the day’s gospel, alluding to Torah, Jesus tells us he is the bread of life.  In the wilderness, generations had passed; the older generation that remembered Egypt as a secure home was being replaced by a new generation looking forward.   Remember there was conflict along the way; in part because of the differences in generations succeeding each other; and the temptation of ineffective Gods along the way.  But they were fed, and would come to the new abundant land.

The way we think of the bread of life is one way the church asks us to look at the threat of chaos and civil war.  Jesus is the son of the Father; who takes on a role as the obedient son – who survived his own death.  We eat the bread to represent ritually that even though we are individuals, who may be stubborn, proud and envious, we nonetheless share in this one participatory act of mutual honor and submission.  We trust that we need not be defined by our urge to kill each other; that we need not always fear being the loser in our daily work.

For around the table, as we eat the bread, scripture says there is enough for all.   The raised Jesus is meant  to free us from the  worry raised by the disappearance of strong leadership.  Instead, the reminder: when we learn we have enough, there will be enough for all.

It may be too much to hope for a world where we can all acknowledge our limits; that we can be free while accepting our common inheritance; and that liberation requires responsibility. But we elevate the bread and wine of life, if only to show the contrast, that we still have a choice:  Life or death; together we will survive.  Alone we will not.

Not as a nation.  Not as a world.

Lectionary, Proper 6, Year B

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 and Psalm 20
Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

How do we choose leaders? What was it about David? He was the youngest; he was also the one doing the work. This is counter to the way leadership is often handed: to the eldest.

I’m also intrigued by the liturgical element. We anoint people for a variety of reasons. Our anointing people is a way of reminding them that they are kings; as subjects to Christ they have their own personal authority.

Why did the leaders fear Samuel? After all the men had passed Samuel, he didn’t choose any of them, but the boy who wasn’t there? David wasn’t respected, it seems, in his own family.

The psalm today is a great example of the church being for people: 20:4 May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans. Amen to that!

How does work give us meaning and make us feel powerful? The last verse in Ezekiel is I will accomplish it. Accomplishment – how does it work with grace and God’s power? That we can accomplish things is an analogue to God’s creativity; our work is a mirror and reflection of God’s work. This might be an entry into seeing our own lives, our work, as callings. Psalm 92 develops this sense of God’s work.

Paul is considered, by some, a great humanist – he’s like a positive psychology cheerleader. I think the reading is provocative: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! A human point of view is through status, success, failure. In Christ, we see people through their passions, desires and dreams. We see them each as kings. We are confident in them. When we talk of faith – let us first discuss what we have confidence in.

The Gospel is the Mustard Seed parable. A few notes to remember: the mustard seed is like a weed. It’s everywhere. It also doesn’t take much to harvest. Sometimes when parishes work to hard, they are missing the point: it is better to work naturally, to harness the gifts that are already present. Play to our strengths.

Easter 7 Year B

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

I might use the first reading from acts to discuss how the church selects leaders. I’d probably diminish using a lottery system (is this a proof text for gambling?), and look for a metaphor that describes how people get selected by God for leadership. The lottery dimension might open up other metaphors using games that require luck, but I’d probably allude to the Hegelian world-spirit idea. I would also emphasize that sometimes we just get chosen. Might be useful to find modern Matthias stories. I imagine Matthias being on the bench, and then being asked to pinch hit. Does he hit a homerun? Who knows? He’s in the lineup.

The Psalmist says “1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

Using the idea of leadership, this is one way of describing who leaders are supposed to be. Granted trees do sway; but the continue to grow and bear fruit. What is wicked will not last.

The Letter this week is a useful proof-text for those who believe that only a verbal, intellectual agreement with the proposition that Jesus is the Son of God is the way to eternal life. “5:11-12 And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” I think that “God gave us eternal life and this life is in his son” is a very important phrase that is worth memorizing. It does encapsulate the Gospel precisely.

It is also a truism. It doesn’t give us wisdom in itself. It feels much more like a chant. The hard work for the preacher is defining what eternal life is, and what it means that eternal life is in the Son. I usually interpret “eternal” as “fullness,” so we are looking for a fullness, a completion of our task. We have a life, and we are asked to do work. God will give us what we need to do the work, if we know his Son. But what did the son offer us? Peace. For those who find the language of “life in his son” opaque, I would begin with the promise of peace and wholeness. Once we know our mission in life and have the space to fulfill that mission, we are promised a life worth living: an “eternal life.” Jesus Christ, by offering his faith that destroyed the embarrassment of a failed God, actually returns the power to us. To have faith in his Son, is to accept the gift that our work matters, and that we can do the work. Jesus did not take the power back into himself. He gave it to us.

The sermon in John continues. As I said last week, it has the feel of a hymn, a chant, a series of words designed to be etched into the hearts of the cult. They are like glue, or stitches, to heal a broken people. They tend to speak for themselves liturgically.

However, I might use this as an opportunity to explore “sanctification.” Is it something that happens when we bless? What happens to us when we are sanctified? Is it like washing our hands? Or are we set aside? How so, when Jesus then sends us back into the world. Sanctification is about setting some boundaries, at the very least, so that we can learn to see and discern more clarity. Sanctification, perhaps, allows us to understand the “truth.”

Now “truth” is pretty complex, so I am dissatisfied with leaving such a thick, powerful word become simply a song for the community. Obviously, as a philosopher, such a word requires some exploration. I’m always tempted to move quickly to Augustine’s sentence “all truth is one” (I believe he said this in his commentary on Genesis, but it might also be in On the Trinity, but I forget), and defend how science has examined truth. But I might explore how wrong platitudes are sometimes, and that truth tends to dismantle the convenient beliefs we have. I might explore how truth in Christ destabilizes other “truths” especially those that revolve around social stability, wealth and violence.

Last week my core metaphor was sky-diving and rock climbing. If I go the sanctification route, I might use metaphors that have to do with containers, clutter, and organization – for sanctification is, in some sense, a description of how we organize the soul.