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We Can Change the World

Our three readings for this week hang together very well. Paul tells us that we need to work together in love, putting behind us the world’s way of doing things in favor of changing the world into the Eden God intended it to be. The Gospel lesson teaches us that miracles are possible, as it describes Jesus sleeping through a violent thunderstorm that rocks the boat, until his disciples wake him to their danger. He immediately rebukes the storm, and wind and wave become completely still. And then there’s David, with his sling and five smooth stones, taking down the giant Goliath, who has been busy mocking the Israelites and their god.

What is impossible for the person whose faith in God expects miracles? Jesus says that if we have faith, even faith as small as a mustard seed, we would be able to tell a mountain to move over, and it would. Would we dare?

Many years ago, a woman in a Bible study with me was complaining about the scaly skin on her hands. She was pretty much confined to a wheelchair, and when the weather was bad, her hands would pick up water and dirt, or water and salt from the streets, and her skin would develop these scaly patches. We talked about how she had wound up in the wheelchair as her legs had gotten weaker and weaker. She could barely stand, and walking had become impossible. I said, “I don’t have the kind of faith to pray for you to be able to walk, but I can easily pray for your skin to be healed. And I did, as did the rest of the class.

A month later, this woman asked if I might have the time to talk after the class ended. After the others had left, she turned to me and said, “I have something to show you. But I want to go into the sanctuary to do this.” When we arrived at the back of the sanctuary, she locked her chair and stood up. “Hold my chair, will you?” she asked. I unlocked the wheels and held on to the handles, but when I looked up, she was walking away, toward the front of the church.

I was breathless. There she was, walking. She grabbed hold of one of the pews and looked back at me. “Well, come on, Pastor. I haven’t walked this far, and I might need to sit down!”

The very next day after we had prayed for her, her legs had begun to tingle, and then to itch. She had gone to see her doctor, and testing proved that she could feel most of her leg -- something she hadn’t been able to do for several years. He sent her for physical therapy, and she had been going most days for massage and exercises, including walking. She wanted to find out if she could walk from the back of the church, where she usually sat, to the front to receive communion, which would be that Sunday. She walked to the front, across the front to the side aisle, and back to where she usually sat, with me following with her chair, just in case.

That Sunday, she rose from her chair and walked to the front to receive communion as the congregation first gasped and then gabbled, and then applauded. She turned and said, “Don’t you applaud. I didn’t do this, God did.” Our little group’s prayer of “some faith” had been enough to set her back on her feet. She still had to contend with some weakness, and the bottom of her feet were still numb, but her wheelchair days were over.

How do we explain such things? What questions do we throw up to deny they can happen? Or can we be like David, who was sure that if he were just to do what he knew how to do God would give him a victory?

1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49
This is, of course, a favorite Bible story for children. And a fun story to tell children, if you have the inclination of a storyteller, acting out the story a bit, being Goliath one minute and David the next. But what can adults learn from it?

Think of Jesus picking up a child and saying to those standing near, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Do we consider it to be Holy Writ, and therefore it needs to be believed without reserve? Or do we see it as a fairy tale?

Fairy tales always carry a moral lesson, no matter how far-fetched the details may be. We can suspend our disbelief enough to still catch the meaning. Jack the Giant Killer boasts so often, that when he accidently intrudes on a discussion about the need for someone to kill a giant, with his boast of having “killed seven with one blow” (actually meaning the seven flies that were attacking his sandwich) he gets the job. He becomes a giant killer by his cleverness, not by brawn. Beauty rescues the Beast from his own pride and arrogance by her persistent insistence on being accommodated by him despite being a prisoner in his palace, and winds up with a reformed prince for a husband.

So, what is the moral of this story? We have an arrogant giant versus a prideful youth, each certain they can kill the other. Which has the moral high ground? Let’s look at the particulars.

Goliath stood nine feet tall, according to the Bible.1 There have been men close to that tall in modern history. The tallest modern man was measured at 8 feet, 11.1 inches. He’s one of 17 modern giants eight feet tall and more, and died the youngest, at age 22. (The giant who lived the longest was 36 at death. Not that that enters into our study, but it appears Goliath wasn’t long for this world anyway.) He calls out to the Israelite army, “Why should all of you die in battle? Send out a man to fight me and decide this war that way!” That was not a happy thought for the Israelites. If their man were to lose, it would all be over. They would be slaves to the Philistines.

David was still young enough to not be enlisted in battle. He was young enough to be certain that if God were on his side, he couldn’t lose. On this basis, many a young man has decided to volunteer in the armed forces. He is old enough to appoint a keeper for the sheep, so he can carry provisions to his brothers, who are ready for battle. And that’s how he happens to be in the right place at the right time.

When David arrives, the soldiers are lining up for battle, and Goliath is approaching the front lines to issue his challenge a second time. David is incensed at the gall of Goliath. He calls him “this uncircumcised Philistine” and boasts of killing lions and bears to rescue his father’s sheep from their jaws. He has all the boldness of youth and all the faith of a righteous Israelite.

Saul agrees that David might as well try, since he’s so sure, so eager to do battle for his king and his God. But he is certain that David will need protection, and tries to dress him in armor. But David is smaller than Saul, and he’s unused to armor, so he nearly falls over when he tries to walk with it all on.

And here is the crux of the story. It’s not really about his faith in God, though that is absolute. He really believes that with God on his side he cannot fail. It’s about being true to himself, the young man that he actually is, rather than the armed soldier everyone thinks he needs to be. He takes off all of the paraphernalia of war, picks up his staff and his sling and sets out to find some smooth stones which will fly straight and not catch in the sling. He knows where to find them. A wadi is a dry riverbed, a place where the waters rush through in the spring, but is dry most of the year. So here, he knows, he can find stones that have been smoothed by many years of rushing water. He picks them up, puts them in his pouch, and strides forward, between the opposing lines of soldiers.

What a sight this must have been. Goliath may not even have his helmet on. No one in his own army, let alone in the Israelite army, could hope to hit his head with a sword. The Israelites of this period were well fed, but small, about five feet for the average man. How immense Goliath must have looked! And to see this young man come forward, all cheek and mouth, he must have seemed like a sparrow challenging an eagle. Though if you’ve ever witnessed one of those contests, you know that the eagle cannot win, because other small birds will join the first, flying above the eagle, screeching and pecking as they go, as the eagle has been threatening their chicks, or even a full-grown sparrow, to feed the eaglets waiting back at the nest. The eagle usually flies higher, to get away, rather than carry out the aerial battle.

Goliath is not laughing, either. He looks at this boy, who must have seemed so puny to him, and curses him. He’s insulted. This is the champion these Israelites send out to settle their score? He is smaller than the average Philistine, let alone Goliath! And what weapons does he have? A staff? A sling? “Come on, boy, I’ll kill you with a single blow and leave your body for the crows and wild animals to eat.”

David replies in a similar vein. “You have defiled our God, you curse our nation, and now you come with every weapon of war to kill me. Well, God will help me, and I will knock you down and cut off your head, and your whole army will die today.” And then he says the Bible verse so many of us memorized: “The Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’S and he will give you into our hand.”

How good it would be to have those words on the front of every courthouse and town hall in every country on earth. “The Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s.” If we truly believe that this is a Christian nation, shouldn’t we have the faith that the Lord will give us the chance for peace? Not that we don’t have to respond to a threat; David is doing just that -- responding to a threat. But he does not need anything more to win than what he is used to having at hand when his sheep are threatened: a sling and five smooth stones, and the confidence that he has used them before, successfully. He takes one of the stones, fits it into the sling, winds up and fires. The stone hits Goliath in the head. He has probably never been hit in the head in all his life! And this is no weak hit, it has the impetus that only the sling can give it. When it hits, it hits hard, and Goliath goes down.

When a person falls face down, it can be devastating. It is nearly impossible not to suffer a concussion from this kind of fall. Your head rings like a bell. Black eyes will form almost instantly. Blood gushes from your nose. You may knock out teeth, cut deeply into your lips. And the effects last for weeks afterward. Even if you don’t have the disadvantage of falling from a height of nine feet, it is not an easy way to go down. In Goliath’s case, he may be big, but being that big means he is not healthy. And falling that far is so much worse. He was surely dead moments after he hit the ground. But just to make sure, David borrowed a sword and cut off Goliath’s head. It’s good to be sure your enemy is truly dead.

David may have had the foolhardiness of youth, but he really did believe he could kill Goliath with the help of God, or he never would have tried it.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13
When we read 2 Corinthians, we are probably looking at fragments of several letters Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth. Our passage for today follows in order, but verses 14-18 are an intrusion into the text. The flow of the work picks up again at 7:1, and continues Paul’s exhortation for unity.

Like today’s church, the church of the first century was fighting. They had issues that seemed very important to them, but which we today shake our heads over. The biggest of these was the status of Gentiles in Christianity. Since Jesus was a Jew, many took the attitude that salvation was for the Jews, and if Gentiles wanted to join the church, they had to be circumcised and educated in Torah and the Law.

Paul had, originally, a unique viewpoint on this question. He was a Roman citizen, which was a rarity. The vast majority of people living in the Empire were not citizens. Scripture tells us that his father was a Roman citizen, so Paul was born to that privilege.

On the other hand, Paul was born a Jew. This means that his mother was a Jew, as only then could he be counted as Jewish. He was also well-educated, having studied under Hillel, a rabbi so famous that young men flocked to learn from him, rather like Harvard Divinity or Princeton Theological today.

So that Paul would push for the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of faith isn’t as outlandish as the Jewish Christians thought it was. But to understand the difficulties, we need to know that while Jews were bound together by the Law, the Gentiles were like the United States today, composed of people from Africa and Europe clear over to Persia (today’s Iran) and of every color of skin, eyes and hair. Like we are today, Roman society was a melting pot, with people being assimilated into the over-arching customs that defined Rome. When the church talked about the admission of Gentiles, they were talking about accepting a variety of customs, religious backgrounds, and viewpoints on the status of women, children and one another’s philosophies.

Paul wasn’t the only one to say that the church needed to be more open and accepting of differences. Peter, having had a vision from God, also dropped his insistence on Gentiles needing to become Jews first, before they could be part of the church. He said that God had taught him that everyone is of value in God’s eyes, and that prohibitions against going into a Gentile home were a thing of the past.

The inclusion of Gentiles also presented other problems than their “foreignness.” The Jewish law was very strict about what a Jew could and could not eat, what kind of material they could use to make their clothes, whom they could marry, and so on. The Sabbath was a holy day of absolutely no work, not even by one’s slaves, unless it was a question of life or death. The Roman world thought this was a sign of laziness. Paul writes elsewhere that if one were required to work on Saturday, it would be alright to keep Sabbath on a different day.

All of these differences had to be worked out if Gentiles were to be part of the congregation of Christ. And the working out often led to actual fistfights in the congregation, which spilled out into the street. Meanwhile, the authorities were highly suspicious of this new movement whose followers would not sacrifice to the Emperor. It was a tense time. And the people who had been fighting about all this began to focus on Paul’s teachings and Paul himself as the target of their anger. (Does any of this sound familiar?) This is the background of today’s passage.

The preface for this passage actually appears in chapter five, verse twenty. There, Paul says “[W]e entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” His argument is that in the incarnation, God reconciled with us through Christ, and expects us to preach that reconciliation to everyone -- no exceptions.

Then he goes on to explain to the Corinthian Christians what he has gone through to preach the Gospel. He lists his sufferings: he has been arrested, beaten, gone hungry, had riots break out against him. Meanwhile, he supported himself with his own trade (tent making) and preached, organized churches and wrote his letters. And what has been his reward? He’s been criticized by both sides, gossiped about, been honored on one day and derided the next. His theology has been criticized, his claim to be one of the Apostles has been called into question. They say that his suffering is laid on him by God because he isn’t righteous. His work isn’t what it should be, his poverty is only what he deserves.

After all this, Paul proclaims that his heart is open to them all (v. 11-12). He is not restricting his affection. But they are. “In return -- I speak as to children -- open wide your hearts also.” To do otherwise would be to accept the grace of God for themselves, but not for others. This is the meaning of his opening statement (v. 1) “not to accept the grace of God in vain.”

In saying this, Paul is echoing Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 7:2-4 (NRSV): “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?” This is the meaning of the grace of God: that we are forgiven even when we do not deserve it, before we even knew we were sinners and could apologize to God. We are given the Holy Spirit so that we can forgive and love one another, not so we can boast of our spiritual gifts (which are, after all, gifts, not rewards.) And these gifts are given to us to use in reaching out to the world in love, accepting one another just as we are, not as we wish others (and ourselves) to be. To accept the possibility of being filled with grace but being unwilling to welcome others into our circle is to accept God’s grace in vain. The implication is that we sin if we do not spread the love of God to all whom we encounter.

I have a sign on my back door that only I can see. It says, “Help me to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” My dog, who wiggles his whole body when I come back home; who gets this dreamy look in his eyes when I pet him; who, when I say, “Who wants dinner?” flies to me, eyes wide in wonder, as though it were Christmas morning rather than a daily ritual. If only I could express to God how wonderful it is to be in relationship with the Eternal with that unself-conscious ecstasy.

Mark 4:35-41
Mark’s gospel is the first of the Gospels to be written, and even it was written long after Jesus had died. The writing has an urgency to it, as though Mark were telling one story after another as fast as he can and is breathless from the effort. The Greek is koine Greek, the language spoken in the street rather than in school. Chapter four is a gathering of Jesus’ parables (stories set in everyday life that carry a heavenly meaning).

Mark presents the storytelling as all taking place in one day, sandwiched between stories of healing and interrupted by him characterizing his listeners as his family, rather than his mother, brothers and sisters, who are literally outside the circle listening to him, asking for him to interrupt his ministry to talk or come away with them. Clearly, this was a stress-filled day for Jesus.

When the day comes to an end, he asks his disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee. He climbs into the boat and curls up on the cushioned seat at the back of the boat. As he is sleeping, a wind comes up, and soon the boat was battered by a storm that is raising waves high enough to crash water across them all, filling the bottom with water. And still Jesus is asleep!

The disciples are terrified. Boats such as theirs went down every season, and they think theirs is about to be one of them. They shake him awake, asking, “Don’t you care that we’re dying here?” What did they think he would do? It’s a storm, not something easily overcome. And yet their reaction to what he does do is to become even more frightened -- of him, not the storm.

Because Jesus woke up and rebuked the storm in the same way he had rebuked the demon in chapter 1, verse 25: “Stop it!”  And then to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” and the storm stopped, and the water was smooth as glass. And did the disciples say, “Thank you! That’s better.” No, they did not. “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

It’s a good question. A little odd, since they woke him to ask if he didn’t care that they were about to die. Jesus ignores their awe, asking them “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Well, they did wake him asking for help. Isn’t that faith? What kind of faith does Jesus expect? No fear in the face of possible death?

But they were trusting Jesus could do something. They just didn’t expect that their cry would be solved in a few words. “Stop!” “Be still!” They were dumbfounded by the result. A dead calm sea. Time to start bailing the water out of the boat.

The tag on the end of this story is another demonstration of Jesus’ power to control the demons. They put to shore in the district of Gerasene and are at once accosted by a man who had been violently insane for many years. Jesus sends the demons over a cliff, and the man is in his right mind. But that’s not all of the story. The madman wants to follow Jesus, along with the disciples. But Jesus says, “No. Go home and tell them how much the Lord has done for you...”

These stories have meaning, even today. We do not have to believe that they happened just as depicted in Mark in order to get the teaching. But we do need to take them seriously. If it happened that you and I were in a canoe on a large lake when a storm came up, and I held up a hand and told the storm to “knock it off!” so we could get safely to shore, you would be liable to laugh. Who do I think I am to even try such a thing? Who, indeed, would even try? We “know better” than to tell a storm to stop. So we don’t try.

If we know that we don’t have control over something, we probably aren’t even going to try. And this is too bad, because miracles are all around us. For example, former President Jimmy Carter and Roslyn, his wife, started the Carter Center after he left the White House, and that organization has virtually eradicated Guinea worm worldwide, simply by teaching people how to filter water to remove the larvae. Last year, a worm that used to infect 3.5 million people every year infected only 30 people worldwide. 15 of those cases were in a single contaminated pond in Ethiopia. The other 15 were in a remote area in Chad. Who would have thought that one small organization could, in 25 years, eliminate a condition that caused people to suffer for weeks or months as a larva grew into a 3-foot long worm that made its way out of their bodies through a painful blister?

As Paul says in our reading from Corinthians, when we work together, we can change the world.

1 Six cubits (18 inches per cubit) and a span (9 inches).
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