“A Cinderella Story” A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

“Are all your sons here?” – 1 Samuel 16: 11,12

We all know the story of Cinderella. She is mistreated by her stepmother and her stepsisters, but in the happy ending, it is she that is picked by the handsome prince. We use the phrase “A Cinderella story” to describe a victorious underdog, such as a sports team with no chance winning over a mighty favorite.

We have a Cinderella story today. You may recall last week we had the story of the Israelite’s clamoring for a king. God has the prophet Samuel warn them that having a king is not without its dangers, but God relents and Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel.

In this week’s story from 1st Samuel, God has lost faith in Saul, and is sorry he made Saul king over Israel.

God charges Samuel to pick and anoint the next king of Israel from among the sons of Jesse. 

So, starting with the oldest Samuel checks each of them out one by one, but the Spirit isn’t making any of them ring bells for him. Nope, nnot this one. Nope not this one.

Finally, in frustration Samel asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” It turns out there is one more, David, the baby of the family, out tending the flocks. David is sent for, and God tells Samuel, “This is the one!” 

We like big and powerful, but God chooses differently. The boy David goes into battle wearing Saul’s armor to fight the giant Goliath, but the armor is too big for him, so he takes it off. Goliath has full armor and a mighty sword, but David slays the giant with a slingshot he has used to protect his sheep from predators. 

No one thought this mere boy had a chance against the Philistine’s great champion, but prevail he did. And David grows up to be the greatest king Israel every had, and from his family line came Jesus of Nazareth. Because with God the small often accomplishes what the great cannot! 

The story of how God picks David to be king is a Cinderella story to be sure, but it is not the only one in Scripture. Jacob, who becomes Israel, is also a younger brother. Joseph, who saves his people during a famine, is the next to youngest of twelve brothers. In our meritocracy we can’t grasp how radical these stories must have seemed in a world where the oldest son got the property and privilege.

The lowborn, the insignificant in the eyes of the world, these are the ones God chooses to carry out the story and continue the Promise. 

Jesus himself refers to the small little mustard seed as a parable for the way God brings about his kingdom. He said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

These stories remind us that God’s ways are not our ways. Geriatric Abraham and Sarah receive the Promise. Young Mary, a poor peasant girl, is visited by an angel, and gives birth to Jesus. And Jesus himself, a carpenter’s son from a backwater town, becomes the Lord of Glory, but not before first dying on a cross, which was nobody’s expectation for the Messiah. 

How strange these stories must seem? How counter-cultural they still are in a world that worships power and prestige, where the well-born, the well-connected, and the well-paid seem to hold all the strings. 

Paul wrote, “Not many of you were wise by the world’s standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)

Where in our society can we see the rising up of the powerless to challenge the privilege and power of those who have run things for so long? Is it possible that God may be at work among them?  Where are the winds of God’s Spirit blowing in our time? In the struggle for racial justice and equity? In the fight to save our planet from environmental catastrophe? In the ongoing battle to secure voting rights for all our citizens? Who knows just where God, who chooses underdogs to bring low those with earthly power and entrenched privilege, will be manifest in our world? 

Remember Mary’s song, when she said, “God has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away.”

These are the topsy-turvy values of God’s kingdom, where the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled, where the first shall be last and the last first.

I hear folks say that the churches are dying, and lamenting our loss of influence and prestige in the larger culture. Could it be that seeking influence and prestige in the larger culture was never what God wanted, but rather what we wanted?

God’s always-surprising Cinderella story suggests a different way for us: that God isn’t done with us yet, and there will be many more unexpected but grace-filled chapters to come.  

Who will be the carriers of the ancient story and the divine promise? Stay tuned. God is full of surprises! Amen.

(I preached this sermon during virtual worship at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI, on June 13, 2021. To see the service on YouTube see below.)

“In God We Trust” A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

 

“In God We Trust”

1 Samuel 8: 4-11, 16-20

Mark 3: 20-35

 

“In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States. It was adopted by Congress in 1956, replacing E pluribus unum, which had been the de facto motto since 1776. “In God We Trust” appears on all our currency.

This motto may seem incongruous in our modern pluralistic nation, but it reminds us that until quite recently, America’s fortunes were understood in explicitly theistic, even Christian, language.

The doctrine of separation of church and state notwithstanding, our nation remains powerfully influenced by a variety of religious impulses. Those impulses can be for either good or ill, for religion is never a good force per se, as Reinhold Niebuhr once said “but merely the final conflict between human self-esteem and divine mercy, and one is as frequently victorious as the other.” Religion has produced as much fanaticism as contrition, and our country is in a fierce debate about the role of religion in our republic. 

We have, on one hand, those who believe that an America with room for a diversity of faiths is our best hope for the future, and others who believe that a Christian America is our best hope for the future.

Christian nationalism wants the country to be explicitly Christian, with all other faiths and views subordinate. This view is often accompanied by White Supremacy. We’ve seen a rise in openly expressed White Supremacy in recent years, much of it embraced by white Evangelical Christians. There are currently numerous attempts to limit or suppress voting by American citizens who are not white. This should be very concerning to all Americans and all Christians.

The support by a large number of Christians for anti-democratic policies and authoritarian practices call for some soul-searching by American Christians.

During the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s, James Waterman Wise, the son of a rabbi, predicted: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Many people, especially, young people, have decided that it is religion itself that is the problem, and have left it behind. Church membership has declined dramatically in the last several decades.

So, how should we as Christians respond to these troubling trends?

I suggest we accept that religious pluralism is here to stay, but I believe that communities of faith have important things to contribute to a proper understanding of our common life.

Let me suggest that our reading today from First Samuel sheds some light on how God’s people are to view their relationship with government.

Israel was never sure whether having the king was a good thing or a bad thing, and therefore the Old Testament has writings both for and against kingship. We are all acquainted with the highly idealized writings that surround David’s kingship, and the subsequent Davidic themes that figure so prominently in the hope for a Messiah, and the Christian claims about Jesus. But my guess is that most of you are less familiar with the strand of writing in the Old Testament that was very suspicious of Israel having a king, since only God was ruler over Israel.

Remember that the people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt, and therefore has no tradition of political organization. When they arrived in the Promised Land, they soon developed a system of leadership that relied on charismatic tribal chiefs, the judges.

They knew of kingship, of course, from the pharaohs in Egypt and from the Mesopotamian kings to their north and east.  And locally they saw the Philistines and other minor peoples with patterns of kingship. Beset from outside by these rival nations Israel looked to model themselves after them and have a king to better organize themselves.

In our reading for today God tell Samuel not to feel rejected by their clamor for a king, for it is really their God that they rejecting. Then God somewhat petulantly consents to their wishes and tells Samuel to warn them of some of the unforeseen consequences of having a king. Kings tend to become oppressive, to arrogate power and riches unto themselves, rather than being faithful shepherds of the people.

When Israel finally did have kings, they never understood them as having divine right, as their neighbors did. It was God who remained the true sovereign, and the earthly ruler was a subject anointed from among the people, accountable to God and to God’s representative, the prophets.

You may recall that Jesus met his death because he was accused of being a king, a claim that challenged Roman authority, for the Romans claimed that there could be a “no king but Caesar.” Jesus refused all attempts to make him king, saying that his kingdom is not of this world, and the kingdom of God which he proclaimed can never be identified with any earthly polity, no matter how good it may be.

We have never been a Christian nation, despite that claim by many people. The founders and framers knew of state-sponsored religion and they feared it. They turned instead to the writings of Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke and Charles Hobbes. The “consent of the governed” is in theory, the basis for political power in a modern democracy. The founders put in a place a government not run by Kings or Prelates, but a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” They were suspicious of any claims of absolute power.

But in the modern era we have seen totalitarian regimes of the left and the right make such absolute claims for their power. The German people turned to Adolf Hitler when their economy failed after that their defeat in the First World War. They gave him unfettered power over their fortunes and the fortunes of Europe. The D-Day commemorations of this week remind us of the cost of the world to dislodge such power.

Pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church he was part of in the 1930’s in Germany challenged and resisted Hitler on religious, not political, grounds. They said he claimed for himself authority which belongs to God alone. They said, if “Jesus is Lord” then Hitler could only be Fuhrer in a limited way.

“Jesus is Lord!” was the very first confession of the early church. It was their way of saying that Cesar wasn’t, and many Christians died for saying it.

What’s all this got to do with democratic America? Well, for one thing, the story from Samuel may be a cautionary tale for a democratic republic that has drifted toward an imperial presidency. And we have just had four years of a president who embraced authoritarian and anti-democratic measures. and refused the peaceful transfer of power from a legitimate election.

That refusal is unprecedented in our history, and is the basis for the unfounded claims of voter fraud and a “stolen election.” Many of the people who believe this unfounded conspiracy theory are Evangelical Christians. They are questioning the very basis of our democracy, government by the consent of the governed.

How are we to be a people going forward when we are so divided? In another time when our nation was bitterly divided, Abraham Lincoln quoted from our Gospel lesson for today. In a speech in 1858, at the brink of Civil War, he quoted Jesus: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3: 24-25.)

The divisions then were over slavery. The divisions today are over democracy itself and the rules by which we are governed. In my lifetime I have had presidents and governments I liked and ones I didn’t, but I always affirmed the rule that we abided by elections and honored the peaceful transfer of power. That isn’t true anymore. There is now a bitter struggle to hold on to power at any cost.

How are we to think about this? Politics is the art of exercising power. It is a necessary thing, for power must be exercised to accomplish any social goal. But in a democracy, there must be checks on power. What are those checks?

A free press is one check on power, exposing corruption, and informing the citizenry of how leaders are exercising their public trust. That is why it’s so disturbing that the former president called the press “the enemy of the people.”

And religious communities like ours are another check on the claims of unbridled power. The Christian is a citizen, but not an uncritical one. The people who remember that God is the rightful sovereign will be hesitant to put too much power in human hands unchecked and unchallenged.

Those of us who confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” will realize that the leaders of our land, good or bad, are not Lord. And those for whom the phrase “in God we trust” is more than a civil piety will not look to any ruler or government for salvation, for that role belongs to God alone. Amen.

(I preached this sermon virtually for the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island, on June 6, 2021. To see a video of the virtual go here for a YouTube link.)

“The Model Shepherd” A Sermon on John 10: 11-18

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said to them. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Later, after he was crucified, the disciples recalled his words and realized that he was the good shepherd, the one who loved and cared for the sheep, even at the cost of his own life. Continue reading

Rick’s Mediterranean Sheet Pan Roast Chicken

Since COVID has enlarged our family bubble, I have rediscovered ways of cooking for a crowd. The slow-cooker is my friend. And I have been having fun roasting things on sheet pans. Lo, and behold, the New York Times just had an article about this as a trend. When you think of trendy, I’m sure you think of me.

So, tonight I roasted some bone-in skin-on chicken thighs with some vaguely Mediterranean flavors and it came out pretty good.

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Rick’s Berkshire Jambalaya

For tonight’s Shrove Tuesday dinner my son requested that we have both pancakes and jambalaya, which is a thing their church in Alexandria does. “Dad, do you have a jambalaya in you?” he asked last week. It was in rotation during his childhood, but I seldom make it anymore because it is a pile of food, and until the pandemic, it was just the two of us.

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