HOMILY FOR JUNE 24, 2018 – THE REV. STEPHANIE SHEPARD
1 Samuel 17:1-52
Pentecost 5, June 24, 2018
St. John the Apostle
“Telling the Whole Story”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
I want to begin by acknowledging that Thursday June 21st was Aboriginal Day across Canada. Here in Port Moody, we celebrated with local First Nations by blessing and raising a cedar Welcome Post as a sign of reconciliation and partnership in the wider community. For this parish, which participated in the preparation of the ceremony and potlatch at Rocky Point Park, I want to add my thanks. Taking part is a pledge that the Anglican Church has a sacred responsibility in Coast Salish lands and waters, to the peoples and the environment where we work and live. Those of you who were able to be present know that it took a long time on Thursday evening to tell the whole story of how this Welcome Post came to be. You and I are now witnesses to share what we have experienced with others.
That is not easy to do in a few sentences. And there is good reason for that. What happened is now a collective memory; each of us remembering details that stood out for us. These are important, and we carry them forward as our part. So much is missed if all that will be told to future generations is a simple synopsis. Is anyone here old enough to remember Readers’ Digest Condensed Books? Classics of literature and bestsellers were revised by ghost writers as “quick reads” and distributed in the thousands to the masses. If you didn’t have the time or inclination to get through a lengthy volume, you could skip through the plot twists of “War and Peace” or even the Bible. Of course, lots of interesting stuff had to be dropped in favour of brevity, but you had the choice of seeking out the original.
Except we don’t, do we? Condensed versions are more to our taste. Let’s hear it quickly, then move on because we’ve grasped the basics. Take the story of David and Goliath. Even people who have never picked up a Bible think they know what it is about. Common knowledge is that it’s the tale of the triumph of the underdog. Little wins over big, against all odds. If you sat through Sunday School, you may have been treated to a lesson with cheerful pictures. But the saga in chapter 17 of the book of 1st Samuel has some distressing details that don’t make it into the sanitized version for children. We heard some of it this morning. If I had been cruel, I could have made X read the whole thing but I thought it would be hot in church this morning!
Would we really include the following details without adulterating them for those of a more tender disposition?
Verse 44: The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the wild animals of the field”. To which David replies, “I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistines army this very day to the birds of the air and the wild animals of the earth.” (verse 46). Then in the death scene, there is the description that “David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead and he fell face down on the ground… then he grasped his sword [Goliath’s presumably] and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.” (verse 50-51). Now I know that children are resilient little creatures and that the latest Marvel Avengers movie has much worse violence, but I cringe a little.
Apparently, generations past were thought to be made of sturdier stuff. Young Victorians were put to bed at night with the tales of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, replete with painful and descriptive tortures and deaths. How well would you sleep after hearing about Saints Felicitas and Perpetua, sentenced to death in March 205 A.D. for being Christians at the time of the Roman persecutions:
“When the day of execution arrived, they were led to the amphitheatre. The others were ordered to run the gauntlet between the hunters such as had the care of the wild beasts. The hunters being drawn up in two ranks, they ran between, and as they passed were severely lashed. Felicitas and Perpetua were thrown to a beast. The beast made his first attack upon Perpetua and stunned her; he then attacked Felicitas and wounded her much; but not killing them, the executioner did that office with a sword.” Superhero stories have always been told with a purpose- to face evil in order to conquer in the name of Ultimate Good.
But I think many of us squirm when we meet up with stories like this, especially those from the Bible’s Old Testament. We’d much rather avoid dealing with all the blood and the warfare and the jealous God of Israel smiting His enemies. There are some concessions in the lectionary: suggestions of what verses to leave out in public worship, or skipping over the parts of psalms that are more reflective of the human condition than how we ought to pray. Wouldn’t it be nicer to just read passages from the New Testament and emphasize a God of love and forgiveness? *A note here: this is not the reason that St. Johns is choosing to shift to two readings per Sunday for July and August. It is a concession to a historic building that gets very warm in the summer!
Picking and choosing only the bits we want to deal in with the Bible is dishonest. We can’t hide the nastier manifestations of being human under the carpet. We don’t always know the motivations of the writers and editors of the books and why a story got recorded the way it did (that’s what studying the Bible can help with). Most of all, we can’t pretend that faith will protect us from the uncomfortable and painful things that come up as a result of being exposed to the whole story. Life is nasty at times. So knowing how God has helped people face it is important. That’s why the details add up.
After all, the life of Jesus is meaningless without the cross. We proclaim that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour. Yet we much prefer the image of empty cross of the risen Christ to the crucifix portraying the dying man. With trepidation, I have signed up for a course at the Vancouver School of Theology on theologies of the atonement. In part, the syllabus reads:
“Many mainline Christians express discomfort with the doctrine of the atonement. Yet for the New Testament Christ’s saving work is central to our identity as Christians. What do we do with it then? Ignore it? Redo it? Creatively retrieve fragments from the tradition and reimplement them in preaching and worship in new ways? Or respond more forcefully to critiques of atonement that seem not to have taken its biblical and theological merits into account? We will attend to feminist challenges of the atonement, to those anxious about the violence it seems implicitly at least to endorse, and the inarticulateness that results from two generations of neglect in the church. By the end we hope that you can preach, teach, design worship, and pray the atonement with some degree of confidence.” This is not actually my idea of a fun time for study leave, but it is important. I want to be able to name and voice the hope that is in me.
Only when we struggle with the more difficult parts of scripture can we hope to move deeper in understanding God’s plan. We have to deal with the darkness in order to find the light. Name the struggle to grasp the hope before us. There is in the story of David and Goliath an encouragement for us. Each of us has to face up to the thing in our life that has taken on the face of Goliath. Something so big and so dreadful that we feel small and helpless in comparison. To do so, we have to have the courage and patience to learn the whole story. The things we think we know and that we would name as important, but also the disturbing bits that don’t fit and may give us insight into the other. Maybe our condensed version isn’t enough. Perhaps we have been in denial about what we can and can’t do to bring about justice, forgiveness, or peace.
The answer is that strength comes from God. He won’t surround you with bubble-wrap so that you don’t have to face the difficulties of life. And you can’t keep layering on protective armour so that the painful experiences don’t touch you. That will just weigh you down and keep you from moving forward. Instead, you will find victory in having the courage to step up with what you have: faith that the whole story is in God’s hands. Amen.
August 17, 2018
August 17, 2018
August 17, 2018