Stories We Tell: Goliath, the Underdog

sermongraphic-01-01 (12)

DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 21 JULY 2019

Good morning! My name is Kenny, and I’m the lead pastor here at Revolution. I’m also–and you might be able to tell this just by looking at me–not much of a fighter. I never have been. I remember the first real fight I ever got into was in third grade: I was on the playground, and there was another boy I was in an argument with, and after yelling for a bit, we shoved each other. And then, right as things were escalating, I remember the bell rang that ended recess, and our teacher called everyone to come in. And at that point, the other boy, who was closer to the school building than I was, turned from the teacher back towards me and reached his hand out, as if to shake it. So, I took his hand…and he suckerpunched me right in the face. I fell down, and he and all the other kids ran up to where our teacher was to go back into school. I sat on the ground for a second and then brushed myself off and started to head in…but by the time I got to the line, I was late. So, I got detention. 

I am 70% sure this is a true story. It happened a long time ago, but I think I’m remembering it right. 

In any case, this story comes to mind this morning because today, as we continue in the fifth week of our summer series Stories We Tell, we are turning to our first story that’s really about interpersonal violence…and this always makes me uncomfortable. I’m generally okay with natural violence, or even Divine violence, when God intervenes in His creation in destructive ways: those things make sense to me, on some level, because I can accept that the sinfulness or selfishness of our actions in this world have consequences. But I really don’t like stories where people are violent towards other people…and that violence claims to be justified on God’s behalf. I don’t think I dislike these kinds of stories because I got punched in the face in third grade! But I do think there’s something about fighting that always feels like a failure to me. If we’re fighting, that means we have failed to fix our problem in some other way. At a moment when we should have shaken hands and gone back to class, one (or both) of us have made another choice: to get revenge…or just to cause pain.

In the history of the church–and in ancient Israel’s history before that–there are so many times when people’s desire to hurt one another has gotten wrapped up in all kinds of problematic ways with their beliefs about “God’s will.” It has been–and continues to be–a serious problem for the church as we proclaim ourselves to be people of grace, love, and hope to not only the people in our world who look like us or believe what we believe, but to everyone, no matter their background or even their hate towards our faith. If the key to the kind of life Jesus lived and challenges us to follow is perfect love, we ought to question any and every time we believe we are being led towards violence. 

revband

I chose this picture mostly because I wanted everyone to remember that time Sarah Kramer wore sunglasses at church

As most of you know, before I was a pastor at this church, I was in the worship band. I love to play music, and for most of my life, I have loved playing in church bands. I still love it, and I miss being able to do it more! My favorite part of playing worship music is the music…but words also matter to me. And every once in awhile, a song gets popular in church culture that has words that just get under my skin. Nine years ago, there was a song by Chris Tomlin called “Our God” that you will still hear sometimes, and during the “bridge” of the song (which is that repetitive part, usually near the end!) the lyrics go: 

And if our God is for us 

Then who could ever stop us?

And if our God is with us

Then what could stand against?

And man, I hated that part of this song. It bothered me not because it’s technically untrue: the words actually come from the book of Romans. But there’s something about singing those words, in America in 2010, that felt backwards to me. It felt like what we were saying was really: “if we are Christians, whatever we do will succeed.” And that flips the equation in an important way: because God isn’t a secret weapon that we get to wield, as followers of Jesus, in our own conflicts. We are the instruments God gets to use in whatever ways he sees fit. Maybe I’m doing that thing I often get accused of doing and “reading too much into it.” But then again…maybe I’m not. Maybe these questions about violence, and God’s authority when it comes to what we do and who (or if!) we fight, matter more than we might think they do.

All of that is a long way of getting into our story for today, which is one where these two big ideas–first, that interpersonal violence is fundamentally a selfish act, and second, that God is the one in authority over all things–start tangled up before they end up getting sorted out again. It’s the story of the young, future king of Israel David and the fearsome giant Goliath. It’s a story that is so well known, the basic plot is part of our cultural vocabulary: we see “David and Goliath” stories everywhere, and even saying those two names together is a shorthand way of identifying one side in a conflict as a heroic and brave underdog and the other as a too-cocky strongman.

davidgoliath1It also implies who is at least “supposed” to win in a conflict: nobody roots for the “Goliath.” In America, especially, “Goliaths” are the rich and heartless and ruthless bad guys: they are giant corporations, rogue billionaires, arrogant elites…they are the hockey team from the rich side of town; they are Cobra-Kai. And we all want to be the Davids: the pure-of-heart underdogs who take those jerks down a peg. 

But if we take a step back from the way we adapt the story of David and Goliath in American culture to look at the story itself–and why it was retold for generations–what might we see? How might it be different? And if we start with those initial questions about God and violence in our minds, what do we see getting tangled up…and sorted out…in this story? 

michelangelodavidThe “David and Goliath” story can be found in the 17th chapter of the first book of Samuel the prophet, whose origin story we heard last week! It begins with a border dispute between the Israelites and their neighbors to the west, the Philistines. During the reign of their first monarch, King Saul, the Israelites have been working to fortify and secure their borders against other regional powers. At the start here, the Israelites are attempting to keep the Philistines out of an area called the Valley of Elah, and this has led to a stalemate, where both armies have encamped on neighboring mountains. Each day, an enormous Philistine–a giant–named Goliath comes down to the valley in the middle and taunts the Israelites saying, 

1 Samuel 17:8-10

“Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us […] I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

This works on the Israelites, who are terrified of the man and continue to fret in their encampment. It goes on for 40 days. 

This is the first part of what I was talking about earlier when I said that this story begins with the entanglement of those 2 big initial points: one, that interpersonal violence is selfish and two, that God is the source of authority. Here, Goliath is making the conflict as interpersonal as it can possibly be: he is willing to fight any Israelite, one on one, for the future of the two kingdoms. But where he’s wrong is on that second point, about whose army Israel is. He says, “are you not servants of Saul?” To the descendants of the Israelites who told and retold this story for generation after generation, this moment was the first part where every child’s eyes would have widened: they would have heard Goliath’s mistake!

hobbitchildBecause the Israelites aren’t servants of their king…they (and their king) are servants of God. So, Goliath is woefully miscalculating who he is up against! And for the original audience of the story, that point would have been immediately clear. 

But, as a story, the tension here then mounts up…because what we see next is that the Israelites are making the same mistake Goliath is making: they, too, have forgotten who they serve. 

In the next few verses, a humble shepherd named Jesse sends his youngest son, David, to check on his older brothers, who are serving in the Israelite army. David becomes our window into the lives of the everyday soldiers, and when he arrives, he witnesses some perplexing and upsetting things: the soldiers are abuzz about the giant, but although they are terrified of him, the gossip is all about the rewards being offered by King Saul. They say to David,

1 Samuel 17:25

“Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.” 

David asks around about this, and sure enough, it turns out to be true: the carrot being dangled in front of the soldiers in order to motivate them to fight Goliath isn’t the honor of serving God but the rewards of serving the king. Surprised by this, David goes before Saul and says to him,

1 Samuel 17:32-37

“Let no man’s heart fail because of [Goliath]. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

There are a few things to note here, and I am really tempted to get into David’s own pridefulness here…but I think that if we really want to see this story as a story–which is to say, to see it for its original purposes for the Israelites–I think this is a red herring. The heartbeat–at least, at this point–is whose side David recognizes he is on. At the core of the David and Goliath story is this odd mix-up of favorites and underdogs: the Israelites see Goliath as an obviously superior threat to them, and Saul sees him this way, too! But David has a different and–it turns out–more righteous perspective: he realizes that Goliath is no more a threat to God than those lions or bears were. And Goliath is actually actively defying God! David sees this fight as almost too-easy: obviously, God will humble the arrogant Goliath, and it will be an honor and privilege for David to be the one through whom God acts. 

This is the part of the story where things are rightly ordered again, because here, David’s recognition of God’s authority means this isn’t really an incident of interpersonal violence…which is so often an exercise in selfishness. It’s a fight between God and a giant…and David is just the instrument. The “selfishness” in Goliath’s position–boasting in his own greatness–and the selfishness in the Israelites’ position–the bribery of King Saul’s rewards–both fall away as David sees the situation for the absurdity that it is: some man is openly mocking God. This, in David’s time, as in any time, is a reckless and foolish thing to do.

So, the story unfolds just like we might imagine it will: David refuses the king’s armor (some heavy symbolism there), gathers 5 stones from the riverbed for his sling (some more heavy symbolism herewhy 5 stones?), and then he squares off against the giant. The giant taunts him, laughing at David’s puny choice of weapon. David replies by saying, 

1 Samuel 17:45-46

“You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down.”

It’s a pretty cool moment. Then, with his first stone, he knocks Goliath unconscious, takes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head. The crowd goes wild! For a moment, things are rightly ordered. 

davidhead

So, where are we going with all of this? What can we really see? 

The big, big point–the headline here–is a pretty simple and important one: what makes David’s fight with Goliath important is that David realizes who the real underdog is. He understands that all authority is God’s. Moreover, that the Israelites are a people set apart by God for his own purposes, and he has promised to preserve them now and forever. Goliath is nothing before God: he’s just a tall man with a big stick. 

This is an idea that meant a lot to the Israelites, and it means a lot to us, too, because we also cower time and again before false gods and empty threats. We allow things that seem like “Goliaths” in our own lives to keep us in submission, even though a greater and better hope is right here with us. We become slaves to addiction or depression, when the God of all hope and authority is on our side. We can be challenged by the story to see our fears for what they are, and to trust again in God’s love for us and his power over earthly afflictions. 

If that’s the message you most need to hear today, we should repeat it! God is greater than fear. He is greater than what oppresses you. And you are his. Do you see things this way? How can you remind yourself of this?

But as true and encouraging as this is, there is more to this story. Because it is also a story warning us against what happens when we confuse ourselves for gods. When we assume that God’s power is a weapon we get to wield, so long as we say the magic words or pray the magic prayer. Saul brings the “weapon” of David’s faith into his own camp, and he tries to wield it. Even though he is right there at the battle with the Philistines, he never objects to the formula Goliath presents: every day, for 40 days, he hears Goliath say that the soldiers of Israel serve Saul…and he never protests. He has presided over a situation that David, when he arrives, immediately decides is absurd. 

And we make this mistake, too. We sing out, “If our God is for us, who can stand against?” and even though those words are true, what we mean when we say them is: Because I am a Christian, I am right and I cannot lose. 

This might seem really abstract, but let me try and explain how it is digging at me this week: when I stepped into my current position at the end of last year, I thought the hard part of this job would be the pastoral part. I thought late night phone calls or emergency emails would wear me down and stress me out. But that hasn’t been the case: in fact, those things are often–despite the pain within them–encouraging to me. It feels right and good to be able to sit with someone in a dark time, or to counsel or help others in a moment of need. It’s not exhausting, it’s life-giving. But what has been hard has been watching and trying to measure the success of our church. I know that many of the metrics we use for church health are bad measurements: I know that tracking tithe dollars or Sunday attendance doesn’t tell us nearly as much about how healthy we are as a church as seeing folks volunteer in a new position or attend a new group or grow in their commitment to their faith are! But here’s the thing: tracking dollars and butts and seats is way easier than tracking those things…and it can feel like a measurement of success, even if it’s a poor one. 

So I find myself sometimes feeling like a failure after a Sunday when attendance was low. I feel defeated, like I have let everyone down. I want to figure out what magic button to push to make things change and fill the seats on a Sunday…or the baptismal pool, for that matter. 

But what I’ve been thinking about a lot this week is how much I’m acting, in moments like that, like Saul did in his fight with the Philistines. I’m looking at what I’m doing, and trying to figure out how God can show up and help me win. I’m singing to myself, “If our God is for us, then who can stand against!” and I think I’m being appropriately humble. But in truth, I’m treating God like a secret weapon. Whether I want to admit it or not, I’m being incredibly selfish

But what this story challenges me to do is to flip that script: the point isn’t whether I succeed or even whether or not Revolution succeeds. It doesn’t really matter if we’re a church of 100 or a church of 1,000…what matters is what God is doing in our city. What matters is his victory, and his authority. The “goliath” isn’t church attendance; the “goliath” is inequality and hardship and heartbreak in our community. That’s the enemy; that’s what’s mocking our God, saying that this is “just how things are,” and there’s nothing anyone can do to make things better. 

And we should be a church of Davids in this context: we should be a people who look around at the fearfulness and timidity and low expectations of our community and wonder, who in the world do these people think they are? Who do they think God is? Poverty is not a challenger to God. Racial injustice is not a threat. Medical debt is no contender. Fear and hopelessness and loneliness are paper soldiers to our God. And if we can recognize this, God can use us to show our city love and power and authority like it’s never seen before. Our God is not fickle or indecisive: he tells us over and over again that he loves every single one of these people; he grieves the way our selfishness and our sin set us against him; and he will fight to bring them back into a relationship with him. That’s his work, and we know it. And man, I feel sometimes like we see these truths and talk about these truths, but we can be so, so hesitant to grab stones from the river and let God use us to do something that the world might think is impossible but we know is nothing remotely out of God’s ordinary. And you know what keeps me from doing that? It’s worrying whether or not our church will grow enough

What a crazy thing to worry about! God’s mission is what is important. Sharing what we have learned about who he is with people who need to feel deeply loved by him is what matters. We can and should be fearless in the roles we play in our community because we know who the “Goliaths” really are.

That’s all so abstract, I’ll close by trying to make it as personal to us as I can. What I’m getting at is this: 

Are we really paying attention to the things God cares about in our lives and in our community? What is he doing? Where is he opening doors for us to be light for others? And when we see those opportunities, are we stepping into them with a real willingness to let God use us? 

Are my eyes and ears open for my neighbor? When I hear about an opportunity to take food once a month somewhere, or join an Open Table to support someone transitioning out of homelessness, or offer a ride to someone, or open a room in my home to someone, or to foster or adopt, or to serve inside or outside my home church…when I hear about these things, is my instinct to say, “of course I’ll do those things! I hope there’s still room! I can’t wait to see how God has victory here!” Or is it to deflect, like the soldiers do to David, and say: “surely, someone else will do it.” 

Because here’s the thing: God will not be mocked. Someone else will do it. But man, what a privilege it would be for that someone to be us. To be this church. We could be fearless. Not because it means anything at all for us or our future…but because God is great, and if we are with him, what could stand against? 

Stories We Tell: Joseph, His Brothers, and that Amazing, Technicolor Dreamcoat

sermongraphic-01-01 (12)

DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS 7 JULY 2019

There’s a story my wife, Meredith, loves that has its roots (as best I can tell) in a Chinese proverb. The story goes something like this:

farmerson1Once, there was a farmer who owned a prized stallion. The stallion had served him well for many years, but as time passed, its health began to fade. One day, in an effort to help the horse regain its strength, the farmer decided to let it graze on the fresher grasses in the foothills of the neighboring mountains. But at the close of the day, the stallion did not return to him. After several days away, the farmer’s friends from the nearby village came to him to grieve with him. “What a tragic day,” they said. “You must feel so sad, losing a horse you have cherished for so long.” “Why should I feel sad?” the man replied. “It is neither good nor bad my horse has left; we shall see.”

The next morning, lo and behold, the stallion returned to the farmer, bringing with it twelve strong and beautiful wild horses and led them together through the farmer’s gate. Hearing about this strange event, the villagers returned to the farmer’s house: “What a wonderful day!” they said. “You must be so happy to have such luck!” The farmer again replied, “It is neither good nor bad the horses have come; we shall see.” The villagers leave, confused and irritated by the farmer’s mood.

A few days later, the farmer’s only son went to the pasture to begin breaking and training the wild horses. As he was working, he was thrown from a horse and broke his leg very badly; it would never heal completely as long as he lived. The farmer’s friends again came by to extend condolences: “We are so sorry for your loss,” they said. The farmer’s reply, of course, was the same as always: “It is neither good nor bad; we shall see.”

A year later, the country entered into a war, and an officer from the military came to the village, enlisting every able-bodied boy into the army. Of course, because of his leg, the farmer’s son was spared. “What a blessing-in-disguise!” the villagers said to the farmer. And he responded to them as he always responded: “It is neither good nor bad. We shall see.”

The story can go on like this for as long as the teller can keep their audience’s attention. But of course, the point of it is always the same: because we are people of limited perspective, we are always in a poor position to judge the ultimate fruitfulness of events. It is wise, then, to keep an even keel and accept the circumstances we face only as they are.

I think Meredith loves this story because she excels at this. Over the course of our lives together, I am always the emotional one, getting caught up in the blessings and trials of things and seeking to find “calling” or “correction” in every turn of our unpredictable story. But she is better at keeping her head down, staying focused on the work that is in front of us to do and the ethics we both want to live by. “Things are neither good nor bad,” she might as well sometimes say; “we shall see.” I think there is tremendous wisdom in this! But, as a Christian, I also feel like there is work underneath the stability and acceptance that this story promotes. There is more to it, I think…and my hunch is that it has to do with how what we feel connects to what we do with the lives we are given to live.

josephbrothers

Today, as we continue in our series exploring the oral traditions that provide the base for both Jewish and Christian Scriptures, we are arriving at our own version of that Chinese proverb in the story of Joseph, who is the great-grandson of the Israelites’ patriarch, Abraham. At first, Joseph’s story unfolds much like the story of the farmer and the horse: the things that seem to be blessings in his early life–the favor of his father, God’s revelations to him in a series of prophetic dreams–turn out to cause great hardship for him; meanwhile, the trauma in his life–slavery, sexual assault–lead to his great blessing. But what will distinguish Joseph’s story from other proverbs is what he does with his discovery that blessings and curses are really God’s to define. As we begin retelling his story, I want to invite you to look past the “fortunes” Joseph experiences and try to focus in on that central feature here: how do we live both humbly and boldly as people who are small parts of a story bigger than us?

familytree

Joseph’s story begins in the shadows of the stories that came before it: his grandfather, Isaac, had been the favored and legitimized son of his great-grandfather, Abraham, who sent his older half-brother, Ishmael, away and rejected him. Then, his own father, Jacob, stole his birthright from his own older brother, Esau, by tricking his grandfather after his grandfather had gone blind in old age. And at the beginning of Joseph’s story, this family tradition of upsetting the customs of respecting birth order and strength in an honor culture has continued in Joseph, who is the eleventh-born of twelve sons of Jacob, but who has nonetheless been set apart by his father as the most privileged and beloved. After giving an honest (and negative) report to his father about how his older brothers were shepherding the family’s flocks, Jacob gives Joseph a special robe woven with strands of many different colors (here’s that ‘technicolor dreamcoat’ you might have heard about). This robe signified to all of Jacob’s children that Joseph was favored and, likely, in a position to inherit his father’s possessions.

josephcoat

“Hey baby-lamb, can you knock it off for just ONE SECOND so we can take this picture??”

Now, this might seem conspicuous and unfair enough. But the story goes that Joseph is also favored by God, who gives Joseph a dream one night in which all 11 of his brothers bow to him. The next morning (and presumably wearing that coat!) Joseph tells this to his brothers. They respond by saying,

Genesis 37:8

“Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

Or, in our own parlance: “Not cool, dude.”

Sometime later, Joseph has a second dream, and in this one, not only do his brothers bow down to him, but so do his father and mother. Although you might think he would know better, Joseph doubles down, again telling his family…and now, everyone is upset with him, including his dad.

josephdream

“Hey, at least you guys are stars in this dream instead of just bundles of wheat!” Joseph might have at least offered…

Shortly afterwards, Joseph’s brothers are again in the wilderness with the family’s flocks and Joseph is sent to check on them. When they see him coming in the distance, the other 11 brothers conspire with one another and initially decide to kill Joseph and blame it on a wild animal. But Joseph’s oldest brother, Reuben, talks the group into merely abandoning him in a pit. When Joseph comes, they take his coat and do all of this, dipping the coat in animal blood and planning to take it home to show their father.

After this, at least a few of the brothers happen upon a group of merchants headed to Egypt, and they decide to make a quick buck on the side, selling Joseph to the merchants as a slave. Not everyone is in on this deal, which causes trouble later.

josephpitIn any case, the book of Genesis goes on to recount Joseph’s experiences in Egypt, and suffice to say, this is the part of the story that looks the most like that Chinese proverb we began with: Joseph rises up in the ranks among the slaves, only to fall again after he rejects a sexual advance from his master’s wife. This leads to his imprisonment which, of course, seems like a “bad” thing…except that it leads to the discovery that Joseph can interpret prophetic dreams, which catches the attention of the pharaoh, who brings him into his own court. Once there, Joseph does his dream thing, which seems “good”…until the dreams are threatening to the pharaoh, which causes trouble…until they come true, and Joseph’s fortunes rise again: it’s a whole back-and-forth thing.

In the end, Joseph rises to become head of the entire kingdom’s agriculture, having foreseen a 7 year famine and called for stores of crops to be set aside to ensure the kingdom’s survival. He’s doing well for himself: he has been naturalized as an Egyptian and is a personal confidant of the pharaoh.

At this point, we rejoin Joseph’s story in chapter 45 of Genesis, when his brothers–starving after 2 years of drought–come to Egypt to beg for aid. They don’t know Joseph is alive…and they definitely don’t know who Joseph has become. But, as God wills it, they arrive before him, asking him for help. After a time,

Genesis 45:1-5

Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Joseph goes on to gain permission from the pharaoh to move his family to Egypt where they will be well provided for. There is a bit more to Joseph’s story, but we’re going to pause here to think through what it is we might see in this story as we revisit it this morning.

The theologian and author Frederick Buechner once wrote,

“Almost as much as it is the story of how Israel was saved from famine and extinction, it is the story of how Joseph was saved as a human being. It would be interesting to know which of the two achievements cost God the greater effort and which was the one he was prouder of.” (from Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (1979))

For Beuchner, and for many readers, the heartbeat of Joseph’s story is Joseph’s transformation from a young man who accepted privilege without question, lording it–however unwittingly–over his brothers and even his father with little awareness of how his actions might be insulting or hurtful into a man who could live humbly and generously. The experiences in the pit, as a slave, as a prisoner, and ultimately, as a trusted advisor of the pharaoh have taught Joseph the lesson of that old Chinese proverb: it has taught him humility and a right acceptance of his place in a plan beyond him.

A few verses later in that conversation with his brothers, Joseph says to them,

Genesis 45:8

it was not you who sent me here, but God.

He has accepted our first major point for this morning, which is that God is working in ways beyond our understanding. As a result of this, although we can see certain events as “righteous” or “evil,” ultimately labeling things “blessings” and “curses” in the long run is a fool’s errand.

In our own lives, I imagine we all know a bit about this. I have certainly experienced apparent “trials” in my story: making a tremendous mistake in choosing a college once upon a time (that’s a story for another day); having my career plans trashed by the Great Recession; having them again wiped out and rewritten as I have changed jobs in the last few years. My family has endured our share of minor crises and scares, each of which has led me to want to question God’s justice and goodness.

But we have also blossomed in the wake of specifically bad decisions we have made: again, in stories for another day, I have said “no” at first to some of the best people and events to ever come into my life, and it is only through God’s grace and insistence on my good that my life has been fruitful in the ways it has been fruitful.

In all of that, I have learned firsthand that I don’t know what will be a “blessing” or “curse” for me. I have no honest choice, then, but to choose humility, as best I can, and trust in God’s character and faithfulness. I admire Joseph’s ability to say, even of being left for dead, that it was God who did this to him…and that it was for everyone’s benefit. I hope I can feel that way about all the turns in my own life one day…and I would invite you this morning to consider the ways Joseph’s example challenges you, too.

As I reflect on it, I think the key to finding peace in that challenge is this second part of Joseph’s story, which gets us back to my initial invitation to see past the Chinese proverb of acceptance and peace to the work Joseph sees an opportunity to do. Because Joseph doesn’t only accept that what his brothers intended as a curse has been turned by God to a blessing…he sees purpose and work in where God has put him. Joseph says to his brothers,

Genesis 45:5

“do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

This continues a thread that is ever-present in Joseph’s story, and which sets him apart as a “hero” in Jewish and Christian culture: wherever he is, Joseph seizes the opportunity to live righteously and use the gifts and talents God has given him. When he is a slave, he works hard and faithfully. When his master’s wife attempts to seduce him, he says that to sleep with her would not only be a sin against his master but a sin against God, who expects him to live honestly and righteously. And he runs away. When he is in prison, he cares for his fellow prisoners and interprets their dreams for them. When he is brought into the pharaoh’s house, he does the same, living peaceably and honorably, while using his gifts to serve others…even those who are oppressing him.

Joseph’s life is marked by these characteristics:

  1. He seeks to live righteously, even in an alien culture
  2. He has compassion on those around him, even when they don’t share his beliefs
  3. He is quick to extend forgiveness to others, no matter the depth of their wrongdoing
  4. He deflects honor and insists on living humbly

This last point, I think, is what Frederick Buechner sees and admires in Joseph’s story the most because he believes it demonstrates how Joseph has changed here: if his early life was marked by, at best, naivete about how his dreams of his brothers and father “kneeling before him” might get their dander up, his acceptance at the end of the story of God’s hand in all things has led him to refuse any personal credit. To tie this thread together, he says–beautifully–”God sent me before you to preserve life.” He is where he is because God put him there, and not just so he could achieve a personal zen…but so he can preserve life, which is sacred to God, no matter whose life it is.

It seems to me we can be rightly challenged by Joseph’s story and example in a few specific ways:

  1. We can refuse to be motivated by envy or embarrassment: Joseph’s brothers act cruelly because Joseph’s favored status makes them feel insulted and embarrassed. We should be wary of these feelings and what they might lead us to do. We can and should live kindly with one another and trust God to lift up and tear down as he wills, for his own purposes.
  2. Similarly, we can be challenged to trust in what we have experienced and seen of God’s character, even when we are “in the pit.” This morning, some of you might feel like you are in that kind of a place: you are under more strain than you can bear, and it can be really hard to see any light or any good reason to trust God. And you might be expecting me to do a certain, pastoral thing here and tell you that, even in the pit, things are going to be okay! But I’m not going to do that. The reason is because it’s not always true: there might not be any light in your pit! But the Joseph story challenges you to look beyond your own experiences to find hope. One of the things I desperately hope our church can be–one of the reasons I think it is worth doing church the way we do it–is because our relationships with one another give us the chance to find encouragement and to see God moving in stories beyond ourselves. It may be that there is no obvious hope in my life right now…but if I am just one part of this church, I can draw comfort from what God is doing in your story, too. When we share stories on Sundays, I think this is one of the beautiful things that can happen: we can offer hope, comfort, and companionship to one another, just by allowing others to see and know who we are and by learning about who they are, in kind. All of this honors what still stands as the best example of how something awful can be used by God for good in Jesus’s execution at the hands of the Romans on the cross: if even that awful moment can be redeemed and used by God for such unimaginable good…what might God do with our moments in the pit, too?
  3. We can do good work wherever we are. We have gifts, talents, and skills that can be put to use now, for the benefit of others. Being in a “pit”–or, in Joseph’s case, in slavery, or in prison–doesn’t remove us from people we have a responsibility to love. In fact, it often puts those people into our lives! If you’re the type to write things down, this is something you should note: who else is in the pit with you, and what could you do to love and care for them, right now?
  4. And lastly–and also most importantly, in this story–you should refuse to believe that the glory for the blessings in your life is ever your own glory to receive. You can remember that the glory is always God’s.

josephegypt

At the very end of the book of Genesis, Joseph’s father Jacob dies, and his brothers worry that Joseph’s kindness towards them will die with him. They are afraid vengeance is on its way, and so they throw themselves before Joseph and say,

Genesis 50:18-21

“We are your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done: the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

Thomas Constable, a pastor in Plano, Texas, summarizes things like this. He says,

Joseph’s response to his fearful brothers reveals his attitudes toward God and them. He humbled himself under God’s authority. Joseph regarded God as sovereign over him, and the One who had providentially guided all the events of his life. He knew that God’s purposes for him, his family, and all people were good. Consequently he behaved with tender compassion toward his brothers. Joseph proved to be his “brothers’ keeper”. Genesis opened with a couple, Adam and Eve, trying to become “like God.” It closes with a man, Joseph, denying that he is “in God’s place.” [This reveals] a pinnacle of Old Testament (and New Testament) faith: To leave all the righting of one’s wrongs to God; to see His providence in man’s malice; and to repay evil not only with forgiveness but also with practical affection, are attitudes which anticipate the adjective ‘Christian.’ (from Constable’s Notes on the Bible, Vol. 1)

Constable points out that Joseph is someone who reverses Adam and Eve’s desire to be “like God” by specifically refusing to accept the position the Egyptians–and his brothers–are putting him in. He remembers where he has been, as well as where he is, and he makes sure that any glory is given to God and not to him. Even more than that, the text says that he reassures them of his love for them and speaks kindly with them.

Rohingya-refugees

Or perhaps we are. 

Of course, it is not very likely that any of us will ever be in quite the position Joseph is, overseeing the survival of a kingdom and managing the cases of desperate refugees like his brothers.

But we are in positions–each one of us–where we can be people of forgiveness, of generosity, and of life. We are always in positions where we can use our voices to speak up for others…or to ride them down…or, maybe most damningly, to say and do nothing. Joseph would have been absolutely within his rights and his authority to simply turn his brothers away: to pretend not to recognize them or see an essential and important humanity in them, and let them return to the mess they made for themselves in a foreign land. It was, after all, their fault! They were the ones who sold Joseph to the Egyptians, and it was Joseph whose dreams predicted the famine. They could have been the ones to benefit from him, had they not specifically rejected his visions! If Joseph had simply done nothing, no one–not even his brothers–would have known that he had chosen not to act on their behalf.

But because Joseph remembered that he was where he was because God had put him there, he recognized that he had an obligation, not to his brothers or to the pharaoh, but to God to be a person who “saves many lives.”

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about how relatively easy it actually is to live a quiet and moral life: there are challenges, sure; but for the most part, we can do this. What’s hard is living a loud one. You do it by choosing to speak. If I’m honest this morning, my life has been far, far too quiet.

At the outset today, I said that we should look past the ways that Joseph’s story was like that story about the farmer and his horse, and that the key to this was noticing what Joseph does, even as he achieves a similar kind of “zen” when it comes to keeping an even keel and accepting his circumstances. So, what does Joseph do? He accepts the responsibility God gives all of us to be people of forgiveness, love, and hope. That’s a challenge, and a truth, that makes this story worth telling, over and over again. It’s also one that should not be shrugged off or ignored easily.

My prayer this morning is that we let the uneasiness of this challenge settle firmly on top of us. That we allow it to make us squirm a bit. That we feel the obligation to live loudly not out of a spirit of common humanity or a conviction to live righteously (although those are good things!) but because we owe it to a God who has put us where we are to preserve life. 

Do we really believe that?

Or are we still arguing about horses?

Stories We Tell: Noah, the Ark, and the Great Flood

sermongraphic-01-01 (12)

DELIVERED AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, 30 JUNE 2019

Today, we are continuing in the second week of our series Stories We Tell, which is an 8-week journey through some of the most famous stories of the Old Testament of the Bible as they might be seen through the lens of storytelling. This means we are trying to take these stories on their own terms and ask ourselves as we read them: why is it that a people might delight in telling and retelling these stories, versus any others? What is that these stories can tell us–as they told our ancestors–about the world we all live in and our relationships with the God who created it?

Noah Ark engraving

This morning, we are looking in particular at the story of Noah, the Ark, and the Great Flood. Perhaps more than any other story we will cover this summer, the story of Noah is famous. However, it’s not necessarily famous in the most helpful of ways.

Here’s what I mean: although the big ideas of the story–a great flood that wipes out the earth; an “ark” that saves select people and animals–seep into the plotlines of countless movies, TV shows, and other stories we tell in one way or another, the most direct conversations we have in American culture about Noah have less to do with the symbolic meaning or spiritual value of the story and much, much more to do with logistics. Few stories from the Bible are closer to the center of the ongoing fight between “American Christians” and “science” than the story of the Flood: believing in the Flood story has become a kind of shorthand for disbelieving in scientific discoveries about the age of the Earth or evolution or even climate change.

ark2And disbelieving the Noah story has become its own shorthand for choosing science over religion. Right now, there are multiple “Noah’s Ark Replicas” around the United States (including one that seems like it will never be finished off I-68!), and each one isn’t just a hobby, it’s a way of declaring to the world: the Noah’s Ark story is scientific, and because IT is scientific, the Bible is true!

But I want to start this morning by asking each one of us–myself included!–to try and step away from that debate, just for the next 30 minutes, so we can try and have another conversation about the Flood. I’m not trying to replace your interest or feelings in that other debate with something else–you can still hold on to your beliefs about all of this–but I want to hopefully add a few new things to think about that can sit alongside those beliefs, too.

To start, I want us to do our best to try and imagine a kind of life that is very, very different from our own. This week, my friend Travis, who is a bit of scholar on ancient Middle Eastern culture, said that the trick with the Noah story is remembering that “you don’t always know what else was on television” when you read stories from the Bible. What he meant was that the stories the ancient Israelites told and retold didn’t exist in a vacuum: they existed in a cultural context where other people were also telling other stories about their past. And among those cultures, stories of floods were quite common. This makes sense, of course, when you think about the riverland regions these cultures existed in: flooding was a major danger and a regular occurrence, so it would make sense that stories would exist to help remember and explain the spiritual significance of these events.

Gilgamesh

a relief depicting a scene from the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

But even if flood stories were “what was on television at the time,” there are things about the Israelites’ flood story that stand out…and can teach us something, I think, about who we, as inheritors of the Bible, might believe God to be.

However, to get to this point, we need to try and imagine what it would be like to hear a story like this. We have to try and remember that to the ancient Israelites, the flood story was itself a story from an almost unimaginable time in the past. It was a legend about their ancestors, and not only theirs, but everyone’s…even the people of the neighboring tribes who harassed them, or the migrants and wanderers passing through. It was a campfire story, passed down faithfully from generation to generation in village after village, and what was important about it was less a matter of when it happened or where it happened but what it had to say about why things were the way they were. It was a story to help explain God, as well as what we are all doing here on this planet. So, as we recap the story, we want to hear it with these concerns in the front of our minds: who is God, anyway…and what are people supposed to be like? So, on to the story.

fire

A fire crackles. The sky glitters with innumerable stars. The voice of an elder begins: Once, long ago,

Genesis 6:5-7

The Lord saw that the wickedness of people was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made people on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out people whom I have created from the face of the land, people and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

But among people, there was one who found favor in the eyes of the Lord: a man named Noah.

Genesis 6:9; 13-14

Noah walked with God. […] And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

God went on to lay out specific instructions for the size and layout of the boat, and this was important, because he also told Noah that he would send two of every animal–a male and a female–to fill the ark so that the seeds of his creation might survive and flourish on an earth wiped clean of sinful violence. And

Genesis 6:22

Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

After he was finished, and the animals had arrived and led themselves to their stalls, Noah gathered his family and entered the ark. The rains began to fall,

Genesis 7:16

And the Lord shut him in.

For 40 days, the storm raged. Water burst from the ground and collapsed from the sky, filling all the earth, even over the highest mountain top. The ark and its passengers survived the terror of the storm. And then, as the rains stopped and the waters began to recede and fill the great depths of the oceans, Noah sent out a dove. After wandering lucklessly, it came back to him.

Genesis 8:10-12

He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore.

When the waters had dried up, Noah and all of the animals left the ark to go and make homes for themselves. But first,

Genesis 8:20-22

Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal […] and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, [he said] “I will never again curse the ground because of man, […] While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

To seal this promise, God set the rainbow in the sky as a sign and reminder. Then, he said to Noah,

Genesis 9:1-6

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. […] Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it, and from man. […]

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

After this, Noah and his children (despite some complications) go on to do as God commanded and fill the earth. Likewise, the animals reproduce and find new homes. The fish…well, I guess they were fine throughout the whole thing. But from that day forward, the earth has not faced the fullness of God’s wrath nor has it been flooded to the highest mountain. And people–our ancestors–have sought to rule one another with justice. So ends the story of Noah.

I know that took quite awhile to tell, so I want to be clear and move pretty quickly through the observations I would like to share with you for the remainder of our time this morning. First, and to go back to my friend Travis’s point from the beginning, I want to talk about a few of the things we see in this story that set the Israelites’ flood story apart from the flood stories of their neighbors. Even if floods were “what was on television,” our spiritual ancestors saw different truths in this kind of story than others did.

And after that, I want us to look at the flood story in the context of the Israelites’ theology, or their sense of who God had revealed himself to be. This, I think, is where we can best see ourselves in the Noah story.

So, to begin: what can we hear here, as we listen in over our ancestors’ shoulders, about who God is, why the world is the way that it is, and who people are designed to be? 

I think the first observation we might make is that the consequences of the Fall, which we talked about last week and which flow from the decision human beings make to treat others and all of creation arrogantly, have spread throughout all the world in the form of violence. The Noah story says that the world was wicked because it was violent, and that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” The story is saying that even if our own time seems bad–even if the world around the ancient Israelites, or the world around us in the 21st century appears to be spiraling out of control–things were once worse. There was a time when no one thought to do good or to act kindly towards anyone else. Violence was ubiquitous. This, in an odd way, is a reassurance: it’s a way of trying to counter that thing every generation does where we see things escalating instead of cycling. The story begins, “once…things were terrible.”

Second, the violence of human beings “grieved [God] to his heart.” In nearly all of the other flood stories, the gods are actively trying to ignore human beings, but their violence and their noise make that impossible. There is a general sense that what we want to avoid doing (if we don’t want to be destroyed by a flood!) is attracting the gods’ attention. But the Israelites insist on a different understanding of their God: he actively cares for his creation. He is present, watching over it and grieving as it continues to turn away from him. This extends the ideas of the Garden of Eden story from last week, where we said that brokenness is the result of rejecting relationship, not breaking rules. God is present and cares for us.

Third (and quite relatedly), what makes Noah stand out is not his strength or wisdom but his faithfulness and obedience. As the preaching team prepared for this week, one of the things the team noticed was that Noah never speaks in the story: he simply does what he is asked to do. As I was reading for today, I latched on to what the text says about the kind of person Noah was: it says he “walked with God,” just as Adam and Eve had once done. Noah is not so good God must spare him…but God sees in him a faithfulness that leads to God extending grace to him. God gives him the opportunity to be saved…and then Noah trusts God and obeys. There is a picture here, for those people sitting around the campfire, of how we are all supposed to live in relationship with God: the point isn’t the sacrifices or the rule following; it’s the relationship, which in turn yields invitations to receive grace and calling…and then to be obedient to that calling. It’s a way of thinking about our spiritual lives that is as true for us now as it was to the Israelites 3000 years ago!

And fourth, the Noah story ends in a covenant between Noah and God. God gives Noah work to do: be fruitful and multiply; steward the plants and animals of the earth; establish justice between people. And alongside that, he makes Noah a promise: he will not destroy the earth with water again. For a flood-plagued people, this must have been a key part of the story and why it was told and retold: even if your village is threatened; even if disaster strikes your life…humanity will go on. The floods won’t reach to the mountaintops. The droughts won’t last forever. The sickness will pass. The story of the Great Flood for the Israelites is ultimately a story of hope, not punishment: God will do the work of saving us.

So, if those are 4 things we might observe about the story contextually for its original audiences, what might we see in this story that extends to the bigger ideas the Bible is laying out for us about who God is and how we are meant to live?

For many Biblical scholars, this conversation begins before the Noah story, with a brief story about Noah’s father, a man named Lamech. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, we can find a list of the descendents of Adam’s son Cain, who is remembered in the Bible as the first person to commit murder. Lamech is Cain’s descendant, and after taking a wife, Lamech says to her:

Genesis 4:23-24

listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold,
then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

cain-slain-by-lamech-grangerScholars point out that Lamech’s boast helps us understand the nature of the “violence” God is grieved by during Noah’s time. Here, Lamech brags about killing a man unjustly, merely for the crime of “striking” him. Lamech seems to know this is an auspicious thing to do: he imagines it is much grander an act of power and violence than even the murder his ancestor committed. But it also speaks to a problem in a post-Garden-of-Eden world, which is that there is neither a system nor authority from God to exact justice. When Adam and Eve leave the garden, they also leave behind God’s law in order to forge a new path, based on their own limited understanding of the “knowledge of good and evil.” This brief anecdote about Lamech makes it plain that they have not done a good enough job: violence is running rampant, in part, because there is nothing to rein it in or to set limits on what kinds of violence will be permitted.

For scholars and theologians walking this road, all of this makes what God says to Noah after the flood incredibly important. God tells Noah,

Genesis 9:5-6

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

In other words, God is laying out for Noah–who is a new kind of Adam: a common ancestor for all the world, and a man who did walk with God instead of rejecting that relationship–a grounds for legal authority and justice in the land. At the root of that justice is an essential truth for the ancient Israelites and for us: every person on this earth carries with them the image of the God who created them. Everyone. And this, the Bible says, makes their lives sacred and valuable. To take the life of another person will “require a reckoning,” whether from a beast or from a man because humanity is set apart in all of creation. Humans are–whether they know it and live it out or not–the beloved reflections of God.

As profound an idea as that is for us, I would challenge you not to leave your seat by the campfire quite yet. Take just one more moment and imagine why this kind of an idea would matter to you in your life as a villager, in a small community, surrounded by communities who might be hostile to yours, in a natural environment that is unpredictable and overwhelming and dangerous: why would this story be worth telling and retelling?

I think it’s because it tells you that no matter how much it might seem like your life is trivial and unimportant and meaningless, none of that is true. You are an image-bearer of God. And so is your neighbor.

For theologians, as well as for our own ancestors in the church, the “Noahic covenant” is an essential moment in our relationship with God. It’s not just about the rainbow: it’s a moment when God officially sets people apart, post-Fall, as cherished creations with a future. He grants Noah and his children authority to carry out justice, as well as a responsibility to steward creation. To expand the passage from earlier, God tells Noah:

Genesis 9:1-3

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”

The “fear” and “dread” part might be throwing you off, but look deeper here: God is saying that the responsibility for that initial command–the command to “Be fruitful and multiply”–is Noah’s. He and his descendants may eat from anything on the earth…but they are also responsible for the fruitfulness of those things.

In addition to teaching us about who God is, the Noah story teaches us about who we are…and what work we have to do.

Who are we? We are the cherished image-bearers of God. Common descendents of a single, common ancestor. Brothers and sisters with one another, the world over. The tribe next door that stole your flocks? They are your kin. The tribe on the other side that shared their crops with you? Kin. The kings you’ve heard about in the kingdoms of Babylon or Egypt? Kin. Everyone has God’s fingerprint on them, and everyone’s life is infinitely valuable.

What work do we have to do? We are stewards. We are caretakers of God’s creation. That means, when it comes to our neighbors, we are people of justice: we stand up for one another; we right wrongs when they are committed. And when it comes to creation, we are laborers, called to seek the flourishing of all things. There’s a part of me right now that wants to run down the laundry list of what that might mean for us in 2019: to call out the ways we fail in these jobs; the ways we abandon our responsibilities to fight for justice, to see all others as kin, to labor for the fruitfulness and prosperity of the planet. But as much as that is all true–and as much as I would love for you to talk about these things today over lunch or throughout the week!–I don’t want us to fully abandon the experiment we are engaging in this morning of trying to hear this story as it might have been heard by our ancestors around that campfire. So, if we can, let’s try to step back into the firelight, just for a moment.

As the fire sparks and fizzles, and as your family members get back to laughing and joking with one another, what might be on your mind as you reflect on the story you just heard?

I think, more than anything, the story of the Flood leads you back to two essential truths not just for your time, but for all time: The first is that you are a part of a larger people, loved and protected by God. No matter how bad things are, God will preserve his creation. He will do this because he is present…and because he loves you. The second truth you might see is this one: you are not alone. The people around the campfire with you depend on you, and you have an obligation to them. Your relationships–all relationships–depend on at least the idea of justice. There is a way things are supposed to be, and when they aren’t that way, we have a responsibility to one another and to our creator to try and repair them. To own our mistakes. To forgive the mistakes of others.

So now, with those ideas sparking others inside us, what happens when we step away from that campfire? As we reflect on an ancient story of a mountain-drowning flood and animals marching two-by-two, what will we carry with us?

I hope what we carry with us is a sense of the work laid out in front of us. We are to treat one another as infinitely valuable creations of God, not just here in this room or even in Annapolis, but the world over. Do we actually do that? Do you see others–all others–as family? And if you did, what would change about how you live? If it were a brother or sister who was just arrested, or who overdosed, or who fled violence in another country, what would you drop in the busy-ness of your day-to-day life in order to help? Can we carry that same level of responsibility with us into our relationships with strangers…and if we could, how different would the name of Jesus look in this world? I think, maybe more than anything, that’s the right place for us to land this morning…because it gets at something profoundly true: who people BELIEVE God to be is shaped by who we SHOW him to be. We are people of authority. How are we using it?