Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Fortress by Any Other Name

Sheepscott Community Church July 5, 2009

2 Samuel 5: 1-5; 9-10

Mark 6: 1-13

A Fortress by Any Other Name

Three things are on my mind this morning: the idea of “fortress” as it is recorded in this morning’s first reading from Second Samuel; how that idea of fortress figures in our life with Christ, especially as related to repentance, which the disciples were sent out to preach according to this morning’s gospel; and finally, after considering fortress, after considering repentance, how can the communion we will share this morning bring it all together on this holiday weekend.

So, let us first consider this morning’s reading about the anointing of David as king. He covenanted with the elders of Israel, then reigned over Judah in Hebron for 7-1/2 years and over all of Israel from Jerusalem for 33 years. That latter, wider reign came about when David wisely sought out a place for his capital that was in neither the northern nor southern kingdom per se. Instead he located the kingship in Jerusalem, choosing a neutral site right on the boundary of the northern and southern tribes. He thereby revealed his intention to elevate his throne above all tribal claims and jealousies. It was a strategic and consolidating move.

In order to capture Jerusalem and make this so-called Fortress of Zion his capital,  David had to overcome the Jebusites, who were stunned when he and his men gained access to what the Jebusites thought was an impregnable fortress. How they did that was by climbing up and  through the underground water shaft that supplied the city’s water. David was nothing if not a brilliant military strategist, but I must note that he never made a move without first seeking divine guidance. While he knew the political and military importance of securing that capital, that fortress, he knew that––as we sang in unison this morning––the “mighty fortress” is our God, was his God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. That mighty fortress predated and would postdate Jerusalem forever. He had his ducks in order, his priorities straight. His faith was intact. 

When the human fortress of the Philistine Goliath, whose story we heard again two weeks ago, when that man  stood before David , he was no match for the faith that David had in his God, the mighty fortress. Five small stones and a slingshot, wielded by a faith-filled teenager dropped that fortress of a human being to the ground.

Consider the body as fortress, a fortress that can break down, whose walls can be breached at any point, but increasingly with advancing age. I suggest that we ourselves, following the example of David, take control over this fortress that is the body, where we have allowed that control to pass to the power of others, whether that be people or habits and do what we can under the guidance of the Spirit with our own good minds and self-discipline to ease the body’s burdens by simply taking care of ourselves insofar as we are able. I am not denying the reality of disease and debility but simply making a plea for good choices.

We don’t have to do this work on our own, but hand in hand with the Spirit of God in the Christ, Jesus, whose love is absolutely restorative; whose love can raise us up in ways we haven’t yet imagined. A promise from the Book of Joel, 2:25, that I have seen fulfilled in my life and others again and again: “I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten.” As I said, Christ’s love is absolutely restorative. Superman got in trouble when he tried to turn back time, but the Lord of time and space can do this. If you remember nothing else from this sermon today, remember “I will restore to you the years that the locust has eaten.” Everything is possible with God. Is there a ticket for admission? I’m afraid so. We have to want restoration, resurrection and allow it. That famous picture of Jesus knocking at the door––there it is right there––speaks volumes about the sacredness of our own own lives and free wills. God never forces anything on us, but the invitation is always there, that knock on the castle door that can only be Christ’s, and we know it. We know it when we hear it.

To open or not to open? We’re all pretty comfortable in our inner chambers where we live out our perceptions of reality. Didn’t he see the Do Not Disturb sign on the door? We know if we let him in there’s going to be trouble. As I was just saying, restoration of the fortress of our bodies, of our lives comes with a price tag, and the price tag is surrender. Dang! Didn’t you know it? Okay, what’s the deal, you might be willing to ask.

What Jesus’s knock at the door represents is a radical call to respond. Radix, radicis, Latin for root. A radical change is a change at the root. We may be called to let go of things we look to as fortifiers of our fortresses, things that mediate our life experience, put the experience enough out of focus so that we don’t have to deal with the full impact of what a life is. Habits or addictions, or people, who can be both to us, family, church, material things for survival, creeds, all of these things, things that are good for the most part in and of themselves, can function as mediators or modifiers of direct experience that keep us in  illusion and from the fullness of the lives that are our own to live, hidden but discoverable in God. Think of Jesus––in this morning’s gospel and in the gospel of two weeks ago––singularly separating himself from his family, refusing the neighborhood’s or his family’s definition of who he was. These are hard words to hear, I know. Radix, radicis––radical.

Why do I say that we sometimes use our habits or addictions to mediate rather than directly experience a focused life? Well, what follows is nothing you haven’t heard before, but it is most immediately in this morning’s gospel: “They––the apostles––went out and preached that people should repent.” Jesus sent them out to deliver that disturbing message, disturbing because repentance means a change of heart and a change of action. It is bound to hurt because it involves the bitter realization that the way we are following is wrong. It is bound to disturb because it can mean a radical, a complete reversal of life, which is precisely why so few people do repent, because the last thing they want is to be disturbed, to radically change.

Repentance is no sentimental feeling sorry; repentance is a revolutionary, a radical act, precipitated by the grace of God that leads to profound life changes, and that is why so few repent. 

Before the apostles could go out and preach repentance, Jesus told them they should take nothing for the journey but a staff––no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; sandals but not an extra tunic. What Jesus is saying is that they must take no supplies for the road but must trust God––the mighty fortress––for everything.

That assignment of emptiness, perceived vulnerability and weakness in its dependence on others, reminds me of the story of a remarkable young woman named Maura O’Hallorhan, a Christian Zen monk who died in 1982 at the age of 27, having achieved enlightenment. Born of Irish parents in Boston and raised Catholic, Maura grew up  with a concern for social justice and a strong attraction to the spiritual life.  She studied Eastern religion and became convinced that its wisdom would amplify her own Catholic Christianity. She applied for admission to a traditional Buddhist monastery in Tokyo, one of only a few Western women ever to be admitted to the very male world of the Zen monastery.

As part of her training, she joined the other monks on an annual begging expedition in the North during the cold of winter. With her shaved head and monk’s robe, wearing only straw sandals in the snow and sleet, she would pass through the streets, holding out her bowl and begging for alms and donations of food. Not so different from Jesus’s disciples, and no less radical in character. She was dependent on others’ hospitality, as were the disciples, who could to a degree count on hospitality as a sacred duty in the Near East. When a stranger came to town at that time, it was not the stranger’s duty to search for hospitality, but the village’s duty to offer it. Which, in a way, is what we did for the busload of folks who came from Massachusetts to the W.W. & F. Railroad on Thursday. 

As a post script, Maura O’Hallorhan finished her Dogen’s thousand-day training and left the monastery. She was killed in a bus accident in Thailand on her way home.

Will we be asked to deny ourselves at the level of the disciples, or of Maura O’Hallorhan? Probably not, but I wouldn’t discount it. I think our willingness is all. Our personal surrender in repentance, acceptance of our responsibility for the state of our spiritual life before God, as well as our bodies. In essence we deposit all of our valuables in God’s bank. Unlike valuables entrusted to Bernie Madoff, we can trust God with our valuables, our meaning, what matters to us––all of it is safe with our trustworthy God, with our mighty fortress. And God can draw on that principle of what we have deposited as God wills. Can we handle that? Can we acquiesce to that level of surrender? Of trust in God? God doesn’t make us, but we can choose it, although we don’t know the outcome of our choice, what it will look like, how it will translate into action in the world, whether we will appear as fools to others. Why would anyone in his or her right mind do that? Why leave the comfort zone of popular or social acceptability, illusion or not?

I have spoken before of levels of surrender in my own life––and it does seem to be a lifelong process, doesn’t it? When we think we’ve given it all over, wait six months, and see what surfaces next. As we let go of those habits, things, people, illusion of control over anything but our own life––and that in a measured way––when we, like Maura, are left with nothing, then do we have breakthrough. Then do we experience the simultaneous tears and laughter of enlightenment, which then only wants to play out in service to others. 

You may not want that level of radical repentance involved in really taking responsibility for your life and what it is before God and in God, but you may be willing to think about it. Good. I don’t ask any more. I do guarantee––and this is the piece from experience––that God never fails. You will not be left high and dry.  As psalm 48, which we read earlier says, “For this God is our God forever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end,” We are ever safe in the fortress of God’s body, knowable in the Christ, and that knowable in each other and most quickly, if you will, in the communion we share this morning. 

We do become one in the sharing in some lovely and mysterious way. We are open and opened with each other because of the presence of the Spirit of the living God who makes us one. Because we have chosen to be here this morning, God is here this morning and will honor our choice by letting us taste the good life that He is, that we are for each other. 

Let me add this of Paul’s from Romans: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus  our Lord.” And I would add: if we want it. We can begin to appropriate this promise in Paul that proceeds from a repentant heart by consciously praying the prayer of repentance before the communion this morning. Let us be conscious of each other when we do that, knowing that some of us are suffering from a  profound sense of loneliness and isolation, and helplessness in overcoming that sense. Amen.


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