David’s Lament

2 Samuel 1

Today’s scriptures give us a fascinating glimpse into the heart of one of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, King David.  Perhaps you know some of his story. David begins life in relative obscurity as a shepherd. But the Prophet Samuel is moved by God to anoint this very handsome young man as the new King of Israel.  There’s a problem, however: Israel already has a King, its first King, a man named Saul.

King Saul is at first unaware that he has a rival for the throne. He comes to know and love David as a musician, and even invites David to become part of his royal household. But everything changes when David defeats Goliath, champion of the Philistines. David earns great popularity with the people, who sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Even Saul’s eldest son and heir Jonathan is smitten with the beautiful young man. Scripture says: “the soul of (Saul’s son) Johnathan loved (David) as his own soul.”

The acclaim and affection that David receives makes King Saul very jealous. The relationships between Saul, David, and Jonathan, get more and more complicated as the story continues. Saul tries to kill David; Jonathan defies Saul and helps David to escape; and David bests Saul and spares Saul’s life, twice.

You wouldn’t have any idea how complicated it all was, though, listening to David’s song of lament after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. David sings:

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
Who put ornaments of God on your apparel…
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me;
Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

Memorializing his greatest enemy, David says only good things. He praises Saul’s valor in battle; he claims Saul was close to his son Jonathan; he celebrates the wealth Saul brought to the country.

Something more honest, and more personal, is evident when David speaks of Jonathan: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful.” Scholars debate whether David and Jonathan’s relationship was what we could consider a romance today. It’s probably an unanswerable question. We know without a doubt that they loved one another profoundly.

Why is this story in our bible? It’s part of Israelite history, certainly. But it could have been told in so many different ways. Why is there so much time spent on this moment in David’s life? What does his grief tell us about our relationship with God?

David makes no mention of God in his song. But I witness God in this story in many ways.  God is in the love between David and Jonathan; all human love is a gift from God.  God is in the gratitude David has for Jonathan’s life; each human life is a gift from God. God is in the grief of David and his companions, too, in the tearing of clothes, and the weeping. I even find God in the pause in the action of the text: the time between the terrible news of battle casualties and the crowning of the new king.  There is something important, something holy, that happens when we take the time to grieve.

Yesterday we held a memorial service here at the church.  Some might have said it wasn’t a very proper funeral. Everyone wore really nice clothes, we gathered in our beautiful sanctuary, but what happened wasn’t very formal, or solemn.  Those who shared memories of the person who died included all kinds of stories, including funny ones, and colorful language.  There was lots of laughter in our church yesterday.

It may not have been formal, but it was holy.  There was holiness in the laughter as well as the tears. Holiness, in the honest outpourings of words, as well as in the silences into which no words were spoken. There was holiness, too, in the way people interrupted their lives, and flew in from around the country to be together.  There was holiness, in all the folks from our congregation who baked treats and set up tables, arranged flowers, opened doors, welcomed strangers, served food, and cleaned it all up: how this congregation showed up to honor someone they had never met, to offer up love for her daughter and her family in a difficult time.

Grief often makes us feel alone. But it is an experience all of us have. All of us are grieving. We have old griefs, and new ones. We grieve people who have died. We also grieve the deaths of dreams, and abilities, and illusions, and relationships. Some of us have more practice in grieving than others. There are those among us who are intimately acquainted with grief.

Whatever our losses have been, we are not alone in grief. We are surrounded by other grievers.  And among these grievers are those who make up our church.  This is an imperfect place to come when we are grieving. Folks sometimes say or do too much, or not enough, or not the right thing.  Still, here we try to allow one another to be broken, and honest, without cleaning it up too much. Here we practice showing up, one griever for another, to make visible, and tangible, the love of God.

Please pray with me. God, thank you for the gift of human companions, and for the gift of love. Bless us in our experiences of grieving, and bless us as we accompany one another in grief. Help us to recognize this work as necessary, important, inevitable, imperfect, and holy. Give us courage to be honest with ourselves, and with you, and with one another. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Song of Deborah

Judges 4&5

So far in our series on biblical songs, we have heard the longest song and the most popular one. Both were songs of praise. Today we hear another song of praise, most often known as the song of Deborah.

Who, you may ask, is Deborah? You may never have heard of her, but Deborah was both a judge and a prophet in ancient Israel.  Deborah sits in the shade of a palm tree in the hill country, settling disputes between the people. She serves as a military leader. She receives messages from God for the people. What’s more, Deborah does all of these things so well that she is known as a Mother in Israel, a mother of the people. If Deborah got her due, we would all know her name.

Over and over again in Israelite history, the same story repeats. The people Israel abandon God; God allows foreign leaders to oppress them; the Israelites cry out to God; and God raises up a leader to guide them to freedom and peace. In our story this morning, that leader is Deborah.

This time, when the Israelites do what is evil in the sight of God, they become enslaved by King Jabin of Canaan, whose military commander is named Sisera. Deborah summons an Israelite named Barak and gives him a command from God: “Go to Mt. Tabor with ten thousand troops. I will draw out Sisera, and I will give him into your hand.”

Barak is not so sure that this is a good idea. After all, Sisera has nine hundred chariots of iron. Who would want to go up against that? Barak says to Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  In other words, put your money where your mouth is. Deborah promises to go with Barak. However, she warns him that his victory in battle will not lead to his glory; Sisera will be killed by the hand of a woman.

As the story continues, everything happens as Deborah has predicted. The army of Sisera is routed. Sisera flees, only to be killed by a woman named Jael. Soon, the Israelites are free of King Jabin.  Then there is a long song, praising God as well as many people for the victory. The song of Deborah: “ Lord, when you marched, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured… the mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, the God of Israel.” And the land had rest for forty years.

I have to admit that I have profoundly mixed feelings about this story, and this song.  On the one hand, it is deeply refreshing to see a woman in leadership in the bible. Plus, Deborah’s not just any leader.  She does it all: adjudicate, strategize, command, and prophesy.  She does it all, and she does it all well.

On the other hand, I simply don’t believe that God operates in the way that the text describes. I don’t believe God enslaved the Israelites because of their mistakes. I don’t believe God slaughtered the Canaanites to free the Israelites.  The God in whom I place my trust does not cause suffering or violence. So, if we turn to the bible to help us learn who God is, and what God does, what are we supposed to learn from this passage?

It may help, here, to know that the song of Deborah is among the most ancient songs in our bible.  It comes from a time and place where each people, each tribe, had their own god. When the people clashed against each other in the quest for land and power, they saw their gods at work in whatever outcome emerged. As the Israelites, a very small nation in a vast sea of empires, saw their independence overtaken again and again, they explained their fortunes through the lens of divine retribution and compassion.

This theology is problematic in any time period, and certainly when applied to modern Christianity. We see it often here in our own context, as all too many people have come to believe that a Christian God has chosen the white people of the United States of America as his chosen people today. They imagine that those of us who fit that description are being oppressed, just as the Israelites (and early Christians) were. This fantasy of oppression allows folks to ignore the very real privilege and power of white Christians in America, and in the world. All too many folks see God at work in new forms of social, political, and military dominance.

I hope we can take a different lesson from the text this morning.

This story was probably recorded later, while the Israelites were in exile, under the power of the Babylonian empire.  From that moment in their national story, the Israelites turned to their history to ask critical questions: Did God forsake us? Has God forgotten us?

Retelling the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael, and celebrating the people’s release from slavery at the hand of the Canaanites, is a way for Israelites in the Babylonian period to reassure themselves that God does not hold herself apart from their history. Instead, God accompanies them through it.

What do we do when times get tough? What do we do when we see our people suffering? That is not the time to forget God, to give up on God, to despair. Instead, it is a time to remember God’s love, past and present. It is a time to cry out for help. It is a time to recognize the leaders God is raising for a new age. It is a time to support those leaders, and one another

This week has been a devastating one in the news for many of us who consider immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and laborers, to be kin to us.  It is natural to grieve for what has happened, and to fear what may yet come.

However, this is not the time to forget God, to give up on God, to despair. To be honest, I am sometimes ashamed of my own lack of courage, when I witness the determination and hope of those whose lives are much more immediately impacted by our country’s failures of justice and compassion.

What did the Israelites do in exile in Babylonia? They remembered another time of suffering. A time when they cried out to God, and God was still with them. A time when God raised up new leaders; surprising leaders, faithful leaders, skillful leaders; women, among them.  They remembered that story, and sang their old song of victory. “March on, my soul, with might!” as the song goes.

Beloved, have courage; we can go on. God is still with us; we have our stories of liberation, ancient and new; and we have one another. Thanks be to God.

Steadfast Love

1 Chronicles 16
Psalm 136

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Last week we started with Psalm 119, the longest song in the bible. Today we turn our attention to the shortest song in the bible – which also happens to be what we might call the bible’s #1 hit: the song most often sung over the course of the text.

If you read the bible from front to back, this song first makes an appearance in Chronicles (which is one book in the Hebrew, and has been divided into two in Christian translations). The ark of the covenant, the wisdom that Moses received from God, is being brought to Jerusalem, where the new King David is establishing a tent of worship.

King David is known as a great musician, and music is important in both the procession and in the installation of the ark. Along the way to its new home, the ark is accompanied by the sound of horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and by loud music on harps and lyres.

After the ark has been brought into the tent, and offerings have been made, a song of praise is sung. Newly appointed praise leaders sing: “O give thanks to the Lord… Sing to God, sing praises, tell of all God’s wonderful works.” Then, towards the end of the singing, we hear these words: “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

This short refrain shows up again in a later part of the book of Chronicles. Solomon, David’s son, has succeeded him in kingship and has built a great temple for worship in Jerusalem. It takes chapters of text to describe this temple: sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, one hundred and twenty cubits tall. The inside is filled with elaborately carved cypress wood, overlaid with gold, and set with precious stones. Within the temple is a most holy place, separated from the rest of the temple with a curtain made of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen.

Once it is all finished, Solomon calls the elders of the people together to bring the ark of the covenant to the temple. They bring the ark into the most holy place of the temple, underneath the wings of great carved cherubim. And the same lineage of singers that David called to the work of musical praise come in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. They stand to the east of the altar with one hundred and twenty trumpeting priests. They raise up the song: “God is God, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” And the new temple is filled with a great cloud, and with the glory of the Lord.

“God is good, God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  All in all, this song is sung at least 12 times in the bible. In addition to Chronicles, we hear it when the prophet Jeremiah tells a desolate people that this song will be sung again in a rebuilt Jerusalem. We hear it when the temple is rebuilt, in the book of Ezra. This song is sung in preparation for battle, and in celebration of a military victory. It is featured in at least 5 psalms, including psalm 136, which we heard this morning.

Why was this song so meaningful to our ancestors in faith?

At the heart of this song is the Hebrew word, chesed, translated here as “steadfast love.” Chesed is difficult to capture in translation. In addition to “steadfast love” it is sometimes translated as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” or even “loyalty.” The love of chesed is not the kindness of strangers, but the love of two parties who are profoundly tied together. The love of chesed is not a brief expression, but a dedicated ongoing practice.  Chesed is a description of the sure, intimate, long-lasting, foundational love that God gives to God’s people. The closest word in our Greek scriptures, in the Second Testament, is Charis, or “grace.”

If our song for today is popular at 12 mentions in the biblical text, chesed by itself is off the charts: it’s used 248 times in the Hebrew scriptures.

It’s fascinating that this song is sung at the dedication of a new worship space at least three times in the life of the ancient Israelites. It’s as if this song answers a crucial question: why are we doing this? What is worship about?  Why all the people, the instruments, the songs, and the rituals?

This is why, the song reminds us: God is good, and God’s chesed endures forever. Those in our lineage of faith traditions gather around this truth when we worship. Indeed, the purpose of worship is for us to practice centering our lives around this truth.  We practice putting our ultimate trust in the presence of that good God, and in her steadfast, loyal, merciful, eternal, unbreakable loving-kindness.

Psalm 119, the bible’s longest song, focuses on God’s way.  This shortest and most popular song in the bible focuses on God’s self.

So let’s take a moment to to try to let this really sink in, this old news which is still good news: God is good, her chesed endures forever. I invite you to get comfortable in your body, close your eyes if that works for you, take a deep breath or two or three.

  • Perhaps you have a few things swirling around in your mind and heart this morning; anxieties, things to do, personal griefs and gratitudes; greet them with kindness.
  • Become aware, too, of concerns that may lie beyond your immediate circles of care; there are so many: needs for reunification of families; for clean water and air; for freedom from poverty; for healing of body and soul; for release from racism; for a radical realignment and redistribution of power.
  • It is almost too much to bear, if we allow ourselves to consider it. Breathe.
  • Now, in the midst of what has come into your mind and heart, make some space. Allow an awareness of a foundational love to arise. A love so ancient that it began before all time; a love as deep as a sea floor; a love as steady as a mountain. A love that formed you, and knows you, and loves you without limit. A love that fills your emptiness. A love that blesses your tender places with care. A love that wraps its arms around you whenever you feel shame, and when you have made a terrible mistake, and when you feel most alone, saying: y ou are my beloved child.

Let us pray. God, train our hearts to know you, to open up and to be filled by you, to grow and to be fueled by you. For, truly, you are good; and your amazing enormous unbreakable love endures forever. Trusting in that changes everything. Amen.

Celebrating Youth Group

  • June 20, 2018

Check out a video slideshow of our youth events this year!

Your Promise Gives Me Life

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Among them are songs of triumph and songs of lamentation; personal songs and political songs; long songs and short songs. We begin today with the longest song: Psalm 119.

Perhaps you have forgotten that we have a hymn book as part of the library that is our bible.  Unfortunately, the music was not supplied, but we do have the words. The psalms were an important part of the worship life of ancient Jewish communities, and they have continued to be central to Jewish and Christian worship since then.

If you are paging through the book of Psalms, Psalm 119 sticks out.  It is the longest Psalm by far. In fact, it’s the longest chapter in the entire bible. Psalm 119 is also remarkable because of its form. This psalm has one stanza for each consonant in the Hebrew Alphabet.  A whole stanza of lines starting with aleph, then a whole stanza of lines starting with beit, and continuing on through the whole alphabet.  I can only imagine how hard that was for the writer.

No matter where it is in the alphabet, the psalm is focused on one theme: God’s word.  God’s word is mentioned so often that the psalm uses seven synonyms for it, often all in the same stanza: Torah, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, promises, and statues.

If you try to take in the whole psalm all at once, it’s a little dizzying.  The lines are organized, alphabetically, but the sense of the lines circles around and around, using the same words and ideas again and again in new variations.  We only listened to 6 of the 22 stanzas; that was my guess about how many we could handle in one sitting.

So, I wonder: Why? Why write such a long song? Why write it in this way? And why on this topic – not the most thrilling one could have chosen: God’s instruction, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, words, promises, and statues?

One important thing to note is that the psalm doesn’t actually contain the contents of God’s instruction. This psalm doesn’t include the 10 commandments, for instance; it doesn’t mention any commandments or ordinances at all. Instead, the psalm proclaims the importance of a way of life we find through immersing ourselves in the totality of God’s guidance.

Another thing to note: although we might find ordinances a dry topic, this writer definitely doesn’t. There is passion in their tone. “I treasure your word…my hope is in your ordinances… I delight in your way as much as in all riches… I will not forget your word.” And even, “My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times…I cling to your decrees…your promise gives me life.”

God has a beautiful way, the psalmist tells us. All of God’s instructions guide us towards life at its very best: a life worth living.

I’ve never heard anyone say their favorite psalm is 119.  But I wonder if this passionate longing that the psalmist describes lives, at least a little bit, in each of our hearts.  The psalmist writes of God: “You are good and do good.”  We long to live closer to good, closer to God.  At least some part of us longs to be good and to do good ourselves.

This longing that so many of us have, faces challenges from both within and from without. Inwardly, our longing for God and God’s ways competes with all of our other desires, many of them much less admirable: wealth, power, safety, attention, approval.  “Put false ways far from me,” asks the psalmist. “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”

External forces of evil are also threaten us. There are so many who desire to lead us far from God’s ways in order to increase their own power and wealth. Environmental devastation; racial persecution; economic oppression; LGBTQ discrimination; inhumane treatment of immigrants — these are all are carried out and justified in the name of profit, privilege, or even in the name of our God – which is, by the way, blasphemy, a breaking of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

“Redeem me from human oppression,” writes the psalmist; “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word”

Maybe we need every letter of the alphabet; every possible synonym for God’s Torah; 22 stanzas and 176 verses to call us back towards God and God’s ways. In the rule of Benedict, the guiding document for Benedictine spiritual practice, psalm 119 is read in portions daily, so practitioners read the whole thing every week.  22 stanzas of course correction.  176 verses of redirection. Each piece a reminder of other, truer, more beautiful ways that God opens up for us.

The psalmist tells us that the outcome of continually surrendering to God’s way is happiness. As the first stanza says, “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole hearts.” Happy may not be the best translation here. Better, perhaps, to say blessed; or content.

God’s way is a gift. We as humans so often get it very, very wrong about what we need, what kind of living will make us happy, and how we should be treating one another.  And that leads to unbelievable suffering: in our own hearts, and in the hearts and bodies and lives of others. There is another way, God tells us. There are so many better paths. Travel with me; open your heart to me and to each other. This is how you were meant to live; this is who I created you to be: to be good, and to do good. On the ways that I open for you, you will find contentment, integrity, peace, rest for your soul. Thanks be to God.

 

How to change the world!

  • June 6, 2018

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

In preparation for Children and Youth Sunday, all three of our Sunday school classes have been focusing on this scripture passage from Matthew for the past month, talking about what it means to be a light of God in this world. We learned about Harriet Tubman, a conductor of the Underground Railroad and one they called “Moses”, who helped slaves escape from the south. We learned about Austin (he calls himself President Austin) who is a five-year-old in Birmingham, Alabama who feeds the homeless with chicken sandwiches he purchases from his allowance and says “Don’t forget to spread the love!” every time he hands one out. We learned about Marley Dias, a 12-year-old girl on a mission to collect and donate 1000 books to schools and libraries featuring black girls as the main character (she’s collected 9000 so far!). And we learned that you do not need to be rich or powerful or famous or a genius or be super loud or be an adult to be a light in this world and make a difference. God gave us all gifts and passions that we can use as our “flashlight batteries” to shine light in the darkness. Here are just some of the ways our children decided they could spread God’s light:

• Share stuff! Like money and toys. Donate to people who don’t have enough

• Be generous and kind as a role model for others

• Give love to everybody! Even people who don’t share your language or skin color

• Pick up trash

• Clean up the environmental to reduce global warming

• Remember our own mistakes. Work on forgiveness and wholeness instead of punishment and judgment

• Make kindness rocks to encourage others

• Increase beauty in the world with murals, art, and gardening

• You could bake a ton of cookies and send them to friends

• Make a card with lots of smiles and put it in the mailbox and send it to someone who is sad

• Make a box in the shape of a heart and give it to your dad!

• Fill yourself up with love and spread it around so it is like a wave of love smothering the whole world!

Look for the darkness, discover your own batteries of passion, and shine the light of God as bright as a city on a hill. Start with some of our ideas, and you can light up the world!

Bless the Space Between Us: Summer comes to Walden

  • June 5, 2018

With signs of summer everywhere, the WCUC Walden Prayer walkers enjoyed their final walk together for this season.  Consider joining us next fall and in the meantime, continue to breath deeply, pray fervently and walk with intention.  May God bless you with many grace filled moments this summer!

“For Equilibrium, a Blessing:

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,

May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,

May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,

May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,

So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,

May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,

May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough

to hear in the depths the laughter of god.”

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

Let’s Play Ball!

  • June 2, 2018

The youth group had a great afternoon volunteering as “buddies” for athletes who participate in the Miracle League Baseball program.

From the website:  http://www.miracleleagueofma.com …

“The Miracle League of Massachusetts is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to helping children with physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral disabilities to develop and achieve their full potential: mentally, socially and physically. We accomplish this through America’s favorite pastime – baseball – providing an opportunity for children with disabilities to play baseball as part of a team in an organized, non-competitive league.

But it’s really so much more…

The benefits of participating in the Miracle League extend beyond the baseball field and impact everyone involved – players, parents, sponsors, buddies, volunteers and fans.”

Sometimes pictures are better than words….