Sheepscott Community Church June 21, 2009
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1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 20-23, 32-49
2 Cor. 6: 1-13
Mark 4: 35-41
Do You Still Have No Faith?
As implied in the title, this morning I will talk about faith, the kind of faith that can sustain one in a little boat on a big sea, can meet the enemy nine feet tall with five small stones in our bag. The characters in my message this morning are all characters we have read and heard about before: Jesus and his apostles––oh, those weak in faith––and David and Goliath, two names that go together as surely as milk and cookies, mom and apple pie, firecrackers and the Fourth of July.
When this gospel comes around, I like to tell the story of my last meaningfully long sail with Jon on Penobscot Bay. On a fair day, with a following wind that enabled us to do an unbelievable 7 knots down Penobscot Bay from Rockland to Castine, Jon and I happily sailed, grabbing a mooring for the night in Castine harbor. I had an obligation the next day that meant we had to return, even though Jon was reluctant considering the overcast skies and the early fog. We left the mooring at about 10, and our trip down the bay began uneventfully and with the help of the motor because the wind had not yet risen.
As we approached the end of Islesboro, there was a sudden dramatic change in the weather and the sea, not unlike how one writer has described storms on the Sea of Galilee, which we heard about in today’s gospel. On that small sea or lake, notorious for its storms that seem to come out of nowhere with shattering force, the unnamed writer says, “It is not unusual to see terrible squalls hurl themselves, even when the sky is perfectly clear, upon these waters which are ordinarily so calm. The numerous ravines at the upper part of the lake operate as narrow gorges in which the winds from the heights are caught and compressed in such a way that rushing with tremendous force through a narrow space and then being suddenly released, they agitate the lake in the most frightful fashion.
Fast forward to Penobscot Bay. We watched the clouds suddenly building up overhead, in the most frightful fashion, if I may borrow that term. The water began to churn and the waves built, likewise in a most frightful fashion. Within minutes, the motor was rendered useless as it was lifted out of the water, its blades turning in air, as the boat pitched and rose, pitched and rose. Jon was reefing the sails and I was attempting to steer our 19-foot Cape Dory Typhoon through the 8-foot waves. Eight feet might not sound very high, but in a little boat like that, eight feet is very high. Shades of Sebastian Junger’s Perfect Storm, where the fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, was confronted with 100-foot waves, monstrous to imagine.
I was scared, and doubly so when Jon, braced against the seawater pouring over the bow with each dip and rise, turned and told me to get below. Yes, sir. Below I began to pray, thinking immediately of Jesus calming the wind and the waves with a word. Okay, I thought, and then spoke aloud, “In the name of Jesus be still! Settle down! Be quiet!” No change. I’ll try it again. “In the name of Jesus, be quiet!”
The wind and the waves did not quiet, but Jon did manage to continue down the bay and somehow angle us off into a little notch of a harbor on North Haven. Amazingly, the sun came out and we hung our clothes over the boom to dry. After catching our breath and decompressing, Jon thought we could try to cross the bay to Rockland in order to get me to my commitment, and so we pulled anchor and started off. We were barely back out into the bay when the same roiling clouds and turbulent waters drove us back. We were able to sail into Pulpit Harbor––appropriate, yes?––where we spent the night.
So what went wrong? Why didn’t those winds and waters settle down when I spoke to them in the name of Jesus? Was it my quavery voice that betrayed my little faith? Did the winds and waters have a mind of their own that was only amused by this pretender to the name and powers of Jesus? Incidentally, Jesus uses the same language to address the winds and waters, viz., “Be quiet! Be still!” as he uses when he addresses the demon in the possessed man recorded in Mark 1: 25: “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. I’m not going to elaborate on that coincidental language at this time, but I point it out as a matter of interest.
So, as I say, what went wrong with my command? After all, in John 14: 12, Jesus is quoted as saying, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.” Well, I repeat, what happened?
We can agree that Jon and I, thanks to his sailing skills, are here with you today, and that on that day, apparently that was how God chose to hear and answer that prayer. In praying for the winds and waters to be calm, I was really praying for safety, and that’s exactly what we got, My intention was honored, and w e made it safely to port, but on more natural rather than supernatural terms. Do you suppose that’s the way it is most of the time? Some of us tend to look for those moments that we will never forget instead of seeing God in Jesus folding the laundry and smoothing out the wrinkles right in front of us, which is to say, acting through and in the most ordinary actions and circumstances of our lives.
But, I am not ready to let go of this. I return to the quotation from Jesus in John about us who have faith in Jesus doing what he has done and doing even greater works than these because he has only recently in our liturgical calendar returned to the Father from whence he has sent his Spirit, a mere three weeks ago on Pentecost. And because of that Spirit, we are not just predisposed to imitate but to embody the Spirit and thereby the Christ himself. Why would we settle for less? Either he meant what he said or he did not?
I exhort you, I exhort us, with the concluding words of Paul in the reading from Second Corinthians this morning, “Open wide your hearts also.” Not just a crack to see what’s out there and evaluate it for weeks, months, years, a lifelong before allowing it entrance or not. Open wide your hearts also, to allow the Spirit of the living God in full force. We ask. God comes. But I think it may take years to fully believe that we deserve to have what we ask for, and that is why our prayers in faith have less effect than we would like them to have. And of course, we don’t deserve anything, except in Jesus. It’s all for God and out of God’s mercy that we have or don’t have. So let us pray to God to increase our faith––if we dare.
Think of the faith of David in this morning’s reading from First Samuel. Here’s this teenager with a slingshot and five stones he has picked up––but I would guess they were perfect stones for his purposes; in the smallest things, expertise out of practice counts––so here’s this teeneager and his stones and slingshot standing at the battleline ready to encounter Goliath the Philistine champion, all nine feet of him with bronze helmet on his head, with bronze armor on his body and legs, and a bronze javelin on his back. Whether or not Goliath the Philistine was truly nine feet tall, we do know that he was the tallest and biggest and strongest among all the Philistines and that is why he was their champion. The Philistines had placed their faith in the strength of a man, and that faith had been rewarded, at least up until now.
Enter David, and what does he say to Goliath? “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a god in Israel. All those gathered here will know it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
Now that’s big talk for a little guy. Its purpose was to put fear into the opponent, the way wrestlers grunt and grimace at each other or baseball players chatter on the diamond. Talk, talk, talk. But David’s talk also was of his champion, the champion of the Israelite people on whose behalf he would fight, full of confidence in the outcome because he was full of confidence in God and full of faith that shaped that confidence.
This was the god for whom he had composed music on his harp and to whom he had sung while tending his sheep. He loved God and he believed God’s love for him. He had no idea of what lay before him, that he would become the greatest king that Israel had ever known and that from his line would come the Messiah, Jesus, the Christ. All of that lay in the future. What stood in front of him now was a man big enough to block the sun. If David had any fear, he didn’t show it in the scriptural account, but he did have chutzpah that was built on his faith, and he pushed it to the limit.
David was in the moment, fully in the moment believing in God, not in this hulking mass of flesh that obscured the sun. His eye was on the prize, the love of God for his people being victorious. That’s what he believed in.
My faith on Penboscot Bay was nowhere near that level. I did see the towering water and waves, and I did believe as much as I could. And Jesus could use even that faith as part of bringing about a good end for me and Jon. I feel sure of that. That makes me think of David’s five small stones––not much to work with, but enough to give God the edge that was honed by faith. And those small stones in turn make me think of the apostles, with their little faith. Jesus, in spite of his frustration with them––”Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”––despite his frustration, he was able to make lemonade from those lemons, to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear they were because of the Spirit whom he sent on Pentecost.
David was filled with that Spirit of God, and King Saul, in an alternative reading for today from the Hebrew Bible, knew that and was jealous of it, largely because he knew the Spirit had departed from him. His own jealousy of David’s accomplishments had brought this about. I want to depart a bit further from our reading in First Samuel and read a section that those who choose the lectionary readings did not include in today’s reading. It is so reminiscent of last week’s gospel, when Jesus’ family had come to bring him home because they thought he was out of his mind. That gospel concludes with Jesus asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother.” When David first comes into the Israelites’ camp to bring his brothers some food, in obedience to his father Jesse, his oldest brother Eliab “burns with anger” the scripture says, and he asks, Why have you come down here? ... I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is. You came down only to watch the battle. What about those sheep you left in the field?
“Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” This sounds so much like family of our time, a family of Jesus’ time. Some things don’t change. As Jesus said, a prophet is never known in his own household and one’s enemies and foes are the members of one’s own household. In David’s case, his brothers were jealous of him, for they had been passed over by the prophet Samuel for the anointing, and they would make David pay for that in every way they could. But he was not undone. More important that he should be faithful to listen to God who knew his heart, and not to the voices of those around him who presumed to know him but were actaully speaking out of the judgments in their own small hearts, their own jealous and ungenerous minds.
David’s faith and acquiesence to God’s will made possible not only the defeat of the Goliath that infamous day but also the establishment of the kingdom of Judah over which King David ruled for many, many years of prosperity. Although he sinned in those years––we all know the story of Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba––he also always repented, remembering who he was before God, a good example for us.
I think David never lost his childlike faith and that enabled a greatness that glorified God. We can be inspired by his faith and accept the words of Jesus that greater works will we do than Jesus himself––yes, even calming the waters of Penobscot Bay––because he has given us his Spirit. Again, I exhort us with Paul, to “open wide our hearts also” that that Spirit might come in, might show us and tell us through our lives who we are in God. That we might be the small stones in the sling of David, apostles for this dispensation to bring about change, to move the world, yes, the world, in the direction of peace through our own mutual forgiveness and through our choice to love one another. Amen