He Was Surprised
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 48; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
July 8, 2018 – Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
O, what powerful words we read today! O, what humble thoughts dwell in them! There is a Ying and Yang to it all, and all of them – David and Jesus and Paul – were surprised by them.
David, ruler of the southern kingdom of Judah, is surprised by the appearance of delegations from the northern kingdom of Israel. Israel and Judah have been divided since the death of Saul, but the delegates from the north come not to dispute with him, but to ask him to rule over them, too, now that their rulers have died.
Jesus comes to his own village, Nazareth, to proclaim the Word to the people who have raised him. He speaks in words of faith and hope and he speaks with great power, but his own village – surprised by the power and eloquence of his words - reject him.
And Paul speaks of a transcendent moment in his life, when he is taken up into heaven. He is powerless to resist it, but he receives power in it. “If Christ keeps giving me this power,” he writes to us today, “I will gladly brag about how weak I am.”
We are so often surprised, both ways, about how power comes to us and leaves us. Power is the first cousin of humility: the moment you think you have it, it abandons you.
If I boast about how humble I am…I am no longer humble. If I even feel the need to boast about how powerful I am…if I have to explain to you what power I have…then my words testify to my own weakness.
This is one of the wonderful things about the life of faith. We are what we are, not what we say we are. To receive power, we must surrender to it. To claim humility, we must confess our arrogance.
Finally, we must come to understand that we do not have power. It is power that has us…if we are to have any power at all.
So it was that Saint Francis taught us to pray, “It is in forgiving that we are forgiven. It is in pardoning that we ourselves are pardoned. And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Or, as our fellow Montanan wrote to us, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” We are Ying and Yang, Hope and Despair, Contrition and Salvation, Life and Death.
Washington and Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt all understood this deep in their soul. At the close of our Revolutionary War, many thought Washington was the one man who could rule over the rowdy bunch of colonials who had revolted against the arrogance of their worldly King George III of England.
But he had seen where kingship had led other people and people who knew him knew he would not entertain the notion that he would not accept a throne since he had just rebelled against one.
Any country ruled by a strong man is weak. But the country ruled by an eternal truth cannot be defeated. King George III heard Washington was likely to be offered the crown and as likely to decline it.
He understood power as well as any mortal of his day. The sun never set upon his empire. He exclaimed, perhaps without even reflecting upon it, “If he does that, it will make him the greatest man in the world!”
Lincoln is regarded by many, including myself, as our greatest President. But he had to earn that lofty position by presiding through a time when the United States were divided.
The only power he had was a deep understanding of the meaning of the American Experiment in representative democracy, which began with the audacious proclamation to all the world that “all men are created equal.”
He so transformed and deepened our understanding of that uniquely American scripture that he would finally give his life to prove it. Now, we see that all people…not just all men…are created equal.
And Teddy Roosevelt’s rise to power was so obvious to a couple of journalists for the New York Times that Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis they confronted him about his destiny.
He became the President of the Police Commission of New York and he invited Steffens and Riis to go with him in the middle of the night as he walked the streets finding police officers who were asleep on duty or idling away their shift in all-night saloons…and firing them.
They began to refer to him as ‘Mr. President’ and one day they entered his office to ask him if he was one day going to become the President of the United States.
Steffens described TR’s reaction: “Don’t you dare ask me that! Don’t you put such ideas into my head. No friend of mine would ever say such a thing.
“…you must never either of you remind a man at work on a political job that he may be President. It almost always kills him politically. He loses his nerve; he can’t do his work; he gives up the very traits that are making him a possibility…”
David learned how to be a good king by learning first how to be a good shepherd…not entirely unlike the man we have come to worship as our Good Shepherd. To be great is to be humble…to make the welfare sheep the defining mark of your success.
Now Paul enters our meditation. He knows that his boast is an outlandish one, particularly to a congregation so worldly and diverse as the one at Corinth.
His second letter to this faith community is written to respond to ideas that have been presented to that church since he had planted it in about 51 AD and moved on to Ephesus.
The situation at Corinth was fraught with disputes from the outset. He tried to reconcile all God’s servants there in his first letter as he stated, inter alia, that while he planted and Apollos watered, it was God and God alone who produced the growth in their faith.
He visited the Corinthian church again in about 54 AD and found that his claim to be an apostle has been attacked, and the message he shared with them in the 18 months he labored with them has been under attack.
This was a ‘painful visit’, Paul writes in the second chapter of this second letter. Paul was as surprised by his shaky authority among the people of Corinth whom he loves…just as David was surprised by the invitation to become the king of Israel as well as Judah…just as Jesus was to be rejected in his own home town.
Paul takes a risk in relating to the people that he was ‘taken up’ into the third heaven and cannot explain satisfactorily what that must mean. I have told you before about being mugged in D.C. when I was attending law school there.
I was walking a girl back to her car so she wouldn’t be mugged…when we were mugged. I was hit over the head, knocked into the street and run over by a pickup truck that happened to be passing by. We were all surprised.
But the most surprising thing was that as I lay there in the street, while I was the only one who knew I was not going to die and everyone else was scurrying around me, I felt something.
There was something there with me…and us. I felt a presence I had to surrender to whatever happened next.
I was going to live or I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. I thought that at the time.
I laid my burdens down. No more worrying about my last semester finals. No more worry about how one thing or another was going to turn out. I was just present, lying there in the street while others decided what hospital to take me to.
There was a peace. All things merged into one. A river ran through it. And it was all good.
Maybe that is something like what Paul is trying to convey here.When he is taken up into heaven, he feels nothing but the reality of life and truth…and the love that brings God’s kingdom to earth.
That must have been surprising to him. And it must have been surprising to be so blessed by God and so scorned thereafter by his friends at Corinth. To experience the power of that moment fully, he must lose all power before and after.
He does not hold any power. Power holds him. He relates this by saying that he has been tormented by a thorn in his side which he has asked God… three times…to remove from him, but God just tells him No, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Charles Page, the director of the Jerusalem Center for many years, told United Methodist pastors gathered in Great Falls many years ago, that he thinks the way of the Cross was a surprise to Christ. It was Plan B, as he put it.
Yet, if his plan was not God’s plan, then God’s plan becomes his plan. In the short run, we can get by… maybe even get a little bit ahead… by cutting corners or demanding our own way.
But in the long run we will pay, as so many people have found out so many times and in so many ways…and as David will one day come to learn, too, when he does what is not right in the sight of the Lord.
Ten days ago, the Trembaths and the Julians and I hiked to the lookout on Huckleberry Mountain. It was supposed to rain and the lightening was supposed to start about noon. But we went anyway.
The little joke we had is that I – as pastor – am responsible for providing good weather. I keep telling them,“I am in Sales, not Management. Please hold while I connect you to that department.”
But that day a patch of sunshine followed us up the mountain. It was overcast around us but sunny along the path.
We slipped through the notch on the trail and the sun dogged our footsteps.
So when we got to the summit and my friends were pointing out that I really did have the power I had disowned for so long, I accepted it, but only in jest.
We had all been surprised, and that is the wonderful thing about life… the surprises. We are called to accept them and move on. What else are you going to do about it?
God’s grace alone is sufficient for us. When we humble ourselves to that grace we transcend our lot and become connected to the greatest love, the greatest truth, and the eternal power that is the gift of life itself.
May we come with open minds… and go with open hearts…through the open doors of faith…into the world that awaits us this day. Amen.