Cross of Grace

A community of grace sharing God's love with no strings attached.

Summer Sunday Worship:
8:30 am & 10 am

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Game of Thrones - David: Flawed and Faithful Keeper of the Crown

2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-17, 26-27

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord…

Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him — that she is a sinner.”

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.”

“A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”


So, King David is kind of a mess, right? He gets as much praise and prominence in the story of our faith as he does infamous notoriety for the transgressions we just heard about in 2nd Samuel. Not only is he lifted up and revered as the slayer of giants, as the composer of psalms, as the wise and faithful king during the Golden Age of Israel’s monarchy … but all of that is tarnished, not just by his selfish, misogynistic infidelity with Bathsheba (which might actually, fairly be considered rape, under the circumstances), all of his glory is stained, too, by his strategic, sneaky, underhanded, manipulative murder of Uriah, her husband and one of David’s own faithful soldiers. It’s another story that seems straight from the cutting room floor of “Game of Thrones.”

And all of that sin did more than just stain David’s legacy and the way we’re forced to remember and wrestle with what we know of his history. David’s sin impacted him and his reign in real time, too. The days and years following that transgression against Bathsheba and that tragedy for Uriah were filled with more of the same for David, for his family and for the kingdom under his rule, too. In spite of the forgiveness he is promised by the prophet Nathan, in the verses that follow what we just heard, David’s life and that of his family were filled with the consequences of his sinfulness … filled with even more shame and struggle, more rape and revenge, more deception and death, more trickery and tragedy, and so on. We just don’t have time to read or recount it all this morning.

Sin, for David – and for so many of us, it seems to me – can have a cumulative effect on our well-being, until we find a way to mitigate and mend its brokenness in our lives.

When I was a kid – maybe in the 2nd grade – old enough to know some bad words but young enough to get into lots of trouble for saying them. I was playing football with my brother and some friends one day. At some point during the game, I did a bad thing … I said a bad word … a word that’s bad by grown-up standards, never mind that I was in elementary school … and my older brother heard me. And I don’t remember how long exactly, but for a very long time it seemed, my brother would bribe me with his knowledge of my sin.

If he wanted me to do something for him, he’d threaten to tell my parents until I did it. If I was on his nerves, he’d promise to tell my mom or dad about that thing I’d said until I left him alone. If he wanted something from me, he’d hang my sin over my head until I gave in.

It was a miserable position to be in. I felt helpless and at my brothers’ mercy. I was frustrated and angry that he had that kind of power over me. I was scared to think of what kind of grounding I might get if my parents found out about their youngest son’s potty mouth. And, I think most of all, I was embarrassed to think about their reaction to what I had done.

Now, I don’t remember anything specific … I wasn’t the King of Israel, so my power and influence were limited … but it’s easy to see how my sin affected my every day life. It was intrusive and harmful and fear-inducing, like a little Scarlet Letter eating away at my conscience and my sweet, slightly less than innocent, pre-pre-pubescent soul.

Which is what the power of sin – what the consequences of sin – can do in our lives. And most of us don’t need a vindictive older brother’s help with this. Our sin eats at us. Sin nags and gnaws at us. Depending on how severe or shameful, how dramatic or damaging our sin might be, it can impact and influence, it can cloud and color every part of our existence, like it did for King David, in spite of his faithful desire to do and to be otherwise.

Well, I wish I’d have known my Bible better when I was a kid. Because if I’d known about this morning’s Gospel story – about this woman with her alabaster jar of ointment; about Jesus and the grace of God he offered – I might have handled things with my brother differently.

See, Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus over for dinner and this woman ‘from the city’ hears about it, shows up and has the nerve to anoint the feet of Jesus with a jar of ointment and her tears. Simon can hardly believe it and, had he had the chance, he likely would have told the woman to stay away – that she wasn’t worthy of his company, let alone the company of Jesus. He might even have threatened, like my brother, to tell Jesus all he knew about what made her so sinful.

But, there was something Simon didn’t know. Simon hadn’t heard all that the woman with the alabaster jar had heard about Jesus, this prophet from Galilee. And I don’t think we always hear it, or believe it, either.

See, this woman’s tears weren’t only – or even primarily – repentance for her sin. What I mean is, Jesus doesn’t offer her forgiveness because she showed up with that ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. If you look closely and use a little imagination, you’ll see that she must have known something about God’s grace and her own forgiveness before showing up to that dinner party. How else would she have had the nerve to invite herself into the home of a Pharisee, interrupt dinner and get so cozy with a stranger?

And besides that, Jesus says it plainly: “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” “Hence she has shown great love.”  “Hence…!” Jesus seems to imply that the grace of God – the forgiveness she craved – had already come. And her anointing – her tears and her ointment – were a repentant, joy-filled response to the love of God and to the forgiveness she already knew and expected from Jesus.

But that’s a hard thing for us to swallow sometimes. No matter how much we talk about grace; no matter how often we remind ourselves that God’s love and forgiveness come with no strings attached – we still make room for our own guilt, for our own shame and for our own ability to point fingers and place blame and cast judgment on those who sin differently than we do. And we still let the shame of our sins do a number on our own lives, too.

But, as always, Jesus shows us a different way. Just like he knew the truth about the woman, God knows the truth about us, already. Just like Jesus had no illusions about her moral status in the eyes of her community, God has no illusions about our sin, either. And, what’s amazing is that none of it scares Jesus off. What’s amazing is, if anything, her sin – like our own – just gives Jesus a chance to reveal his tremendous capacity and desire to forgive.

One day, some time after that R-rated football game of my childhood, I couldn’t appease my brother any longer. I don’t remember the circumstances – if I was tired of trying or if my brother just got that mad about something – but he finally told my dad about the horrible thing I had said that day.

I remember that he warned me he was going to tell him. I remember him marching up to the kitchen while I listened in fear from the other room. And I remember, much to our surprise – and to my complete relief – that my dad said simply, “When your brother’s ready to talk to me about that, we will.”

And, in my little boy’s heart, I think I felt some measure of what that woman was feeling when she kissed the feet of Jesus. Surprise. Relief. Unburdened. Forgiveness. Grace.

I had a conversation with Rob Saler, our resident theologian, earlier this week, and he said something off-hand that caught me off-guard because it was surprisingly relevant to all of this for me. We were talking about the nature of sin and its impact on our lives and he said, “When you’re sick, you don’t get well again, just to please your doctor.”

“When you’re sick, you don’t get well again, just to please your doctor.”

If Sin is our sickness and God is our Great Physician, we don’t go about the work of repentance and forgiveness, of receiving God’s gift of grace, of changing our sinful ways, just to make God happy. We’re called to go about the work of repentance and forgiveness – of righteous, faithful living – because God knows our lives are blessed and better for doing so, as is the world around us.

God doesn’t demand our repentance, our obedience, our faithfulness or our love.  God isn’t keeping score of our sins and indiscretions any more than God is keeping score of our good works and our acts of faithfulness.

God wants us to be well, because God loves us; because God knows what the power of sin can do in and to and through our lives. God wants us to be well, not because our sins ruin God’s day or because God can’t handle the burden of our brokenness – Jesus’ death and resurrection have proven otherwise.

No. What God wants for us is to live – on this side of heaven – in freedom from fear; liberated from our shame; set loose in the world to love like Jesus did: openly, generously, widely, courageously, without limits. King David couldn’t seem to do what that sinful woman from the city managed – and that to which each of us is called: to live with gratitude for the abundant forgiveness of all of our sins – forgivness which has already come – until the truth of that grace releases us and inspires us and moves us to love ourselves and the world because of it.

Amen

Game of Thrones - Elijah: Playing with Fire

1 Kings 18:20-40

So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel. Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred and fifty. Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.’ All the people answered, ‘Well spoken!’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.

Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come closer to me’; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt-offering and on the wood.’ Then he said, ‘Do it a second time’; and they did it a second time. Again he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time, so that the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.’ Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there.

Mark 1:32-39

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all those who were sick or possessed by demons.  The whole city was gathered outside the house.  And he cured many who were sick and he cast out many demons.  He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place by himself, and there he prayed.  Simon and his companions were hunting for him and when they found him, they said to him, “everyone is searching for you.”  He answered, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I might proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.”  And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons.


I picked this morning’s story about Elijah – and called today’s sermon “playing with fire” – because it’s another story from Hebrew Scripture we don’t hear very often and because it’s very much like something you’d see in the “Game of Thrones” series. But I really want to talk about what happens after Elijah dukes it out – after he plays with fire – against the false prophets of the false god of Baal.

We heard a couple of weeks ago about how Moses duked it out with the false gods of Pharaoh, in Egypt, and today’s story seems similar. Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to start a fire, over a sacrificed bull, on an altar to their god and they fail. Despite all 450 of their prophets and their prayers and their limping and blood-letting around that altar, their god, Baal, fails to deliver the fire they long for to prove his power.

But for Elijah, just like God did for Moses – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob delivers. Even on an altar thrice-soaked with water and surrounded by a mote, the fire of God came and consumed the burnt-offering, the wood, the stones, the dust and all the rest. It even licked up the water-soaked seeds in the mote. And because of it, of course, and because Elijah has all 450 of those false prophets seized and killed, Elijah is soon to be on the run for his own life – hunted by Ahab’s Queen Jezebel.

And, on the run for his life, he finds himself alone and desperate and afraid, in the wilderness, asking for God – the same God who had saved him before, the same God who had established him as a prophet of the One True God, the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Elijah asks that he might just die. But after a dream and some conversations with angels, some solid meals, and 40 days and 40 nights of wilderness wandering, Elijah ends up at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God, wondering what in the world is next for him after all he’s done, all he’s run from and all he’s escaped in recent days.

Elijah is aching for, longing for, dying for God’s voice, God’s guidance, God’s presence to teach him or lead him or comfort him or show him something, anything about what could or should be next for him.

Haven’t we all felt something like Elijah at one time or another – in a wilderness of some kind; aching, longing, hungry; dying for guidance, for answers, for comfort, for direction? And haven’t we looked in all kinds of places for those answers, for that comfort, for some direction?

We look for insight in books, don’t we? The self-help section has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, I believe. And there’s some good stuff out there, don’t get me wrong. We ask advice from friends and family. We seek guidance from mentors and counselors and pastors, perhaps. And that can be great. I think God is present in and through the people who love us. And sometimes we seek comfort by way of food or drink or drugs or something else, which may seem to work for a minute, but never lasts or serves us well in the end.

Well, God promises Elijah up on that mountain, that he is about to get what he longed for in the midst of his wilderness wandering. Maybe Elijah was expecting a book – or at least some tablets to appear. That had been known to happen before. Maybe he was expecting a conversation or another meal or an angel, who knows? None of that happened. But there was a great wind, strong enough to split mountains and break rocks, but the answer wasn’t in the wind. The wind is followed by an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. And then there was a fire, (remember how much Elijah could do with some fire), but God wasn’t in the fire this time, either.

And after all of that, there is the sound of sheer silence. Utter noiselessness. Absolute stillness. Pure calm. Total tranquility. Complete quiet. The kind of nothing and silence you could touch… feel… hear, even, as bizarre as that seems. And when Elijah finally hears this sheer silence he finally finds what he was looking for: direction… guidance… answers… hope… and the presence of God.

And I’m inclined to think Jesus learned as much from Elijah’s story as we are called to learn from them both – that silence and stillness and time with ourselves, alone with God – are opportunities, not just to tell God what we need and want and long for, but opportunities to shut up, to be quiet, and to let God show us what God would have for us because of – or in spite of – all we think we need.

See, when we meet up with Jesus today, he’s been on a roll, much like Elijah, you might say. In the little bit of Mark’s Gospel leading up to this morning’s portion of the story Jesus has called his first disciples and they have accepted the invitation. He’s been preaching and teaching and healing – and people had apparently been listening and learning, and getting well. He has duked it out with a demon in the synagogue – and won. And just after leaving that synagogue, he cures Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever and then spends an entire evening curing all kinds of sickness and casting out all sorts of demons for the people in that little town of Capernaum.

And then, very early the next morning, after this marathon day and night of some pretty miraculous work, Jesus goes off, much like Elijah did, by himself to pray. He seems to have snuck out of the house, “while it was still dark,” as the story goes. And because of that, I can’t help but think God’s Spirit was on the move and stirring up something new and mighty in the heart of Jesus. He seems to have been moved up and out and away from the people and the crowds and his followers, to get some time to himself; some time with his God; some time to pray about what had happened; some time to listen for what was happening; some time to pray about what in the world was next for him.

Elijah and Jesus are examples of and inspiration for our need as believers for solitude, for prayer, for reflection, for conversation with God, for time away from the demands and distractions of life so that we can center ourselves faithfully on what God is calling us toward, as we make our way in the world. We are called to do more waiting than working every once in a while; to do more listening than talking on occasion; to be patient more and to push less.

And it seems we need more of that, these days. We need more time for this silence and this stillness because there is so much noise out there in the world. There are earthquakes and fires and a whole lot of hot air, for sure. There are threats of war and rumors of war. There are mass shootings and global warming and cancer and the beginning of another school year.

And we are consumed and distracted by so many ideas and opinions about all of it; so much heartache and heaviness; so many lies and so much division we need to separate ourselves – for enough time to be reminded of God’s presence, even in the midst of it; and to discern God’s will – not our own – precisely because of it.

This kind of silence and stillness, this listening and learning, can save our sanity and our lives and our souls on this side of heaven. And I’m not great at it, to be honest, but I’m learning, the longer I’m around – living and working and being in the world – that we’re playing with fire when we refuse to get still, when we neglect to be quiet, and when we resist being found by the silence of God’s grace.

Amen

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