Johnny came running up to his mother after Sunday School proclaiming: “Mommy, mommy! I know what the Bible means now!”
“Oh,” she said, “what does it mean?”
“Basic Instructions before leaving earth!!!”
Now, while I might be prone to say the Bible is our basic instructions for living on earth but that doesn’t make for a good acronym, according to author Lillian Daniels, the Bible does provide a good model for – friendship!! And she cites our reading from Mark. She argues that the whole exchange between Peter and Jesus could only happen within the bounds of deep, close friendship. Only good, close friends care enough to rebuke on another! Only close friends care enough to call each other out!!
We know the story. Peter has just listened to Jesus talk about how he has to suffer and die. All that negative stuff really gets to Peter. He gets mad, pulls Jesus aside and basically says: “Hey! Quit it! No one want to hear that! It’s bad for you and it’s bad for us! Stop!” Jesus, in turn,
“rebukes” Peter with that famous line: “Get behind me, Satan!” Or in other words: “Zip it! You’ve totally missed the point!!” That interchange is a mark of a good friendship.
But it goes against the gist of our reading from James. He’s quite certain we should watch what we say. Our tongues can hurt, lead people off course. It goes against what I was taught too. I remember my mother wagging her finger at me and saying: “Watch your tongue!” It was usually right when I was on the verge of saying something I impertinent or when I was on the verge of talking back. “Watch your tongue!”
“Watch your tongue” went hand in glove with the other family rule: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!” So, I got the distinct impression that being a good person and in turn a good friend meant: “keep you mouth shut,” “be nice and always agree!” To argue was bad! So, I that’s what I did. I was nice. I was kind. I supported by agreeing. Then one day, a friend who had been very good to me in when I needed it came to me asking for my input. Some friends of hers told her that she was a bully and always had to be right. “Typical retired school teacher.” She wanted to know from me if that was what she was truly like. I don’t know about the retired school teacher part but I do know – her friends were right. She could be a lot of nice things but she could also be tenacious, stubborn and insistent that she was right! My family knew it. They avoided her like the plague. Now, she could also be kind, generous and caring but that didn’t take away from the fact her other friends had told her the truth. Now, it was my turn. But I skirted the issue. I reminded her of all her good qualities and totally avoided telling her the truth. And I’ve regretted it ever since. A good friend would have told the truth and given her the chance to change, mend friendships. But I was “nice.”
I suspect you have heard people say something like: “She is such a good friend. I can tell her anything and she will still accept me.” That’s a good friend, right? But really, is that enough? It doesn’t take much to sit back and listen to whatever your friends says and say nothing. Well, it takes a lot for me to stay quiet but sometimes that’s more because I want to talk about me not listen to them! But, to just sit and listen and say nothing – that’s not that demanding. You don’t even have to really engage at all or register what they’re saying because you are needed to reply. All you have to do is offer unconditional – what? – unconditional “love?”
Is it really “love” if you let your friend prattle on and on without saying something? Without asking some question, without making some judgment and offering some feedback? It may well be unconditional listening but it isn’t unconditional love!
I’ve also heard people say: “I can tell my friend anything. We never disagree. We never argue! They never judge.” If my mother hadn’t trained me so well to “watch my tongue” I would be prone to say “Bull*#$%%! Believe me, honey, she’s judging.” She/he is making assesments, questioning, evaluating what you say against what they know, against what the think. They’re just not saying it.” If they don’t what’s the point? If we never care enough to make a judgment, an assessment and then share what we think. If we never care enough to call one another out, how are we ever going to learn anything? How are we ever going to change?
Peter pulls Jesus aside because he thinks Jesus is wrong. Messiahs aren’t about suffering and death – even if there’s that resurrection think added in. Being a messiah means political liberation, spiritual renewal, the arrival of a just society at the hands of a conquering hero. It is not about death and self-sacrifice. Everybody knows that ask the other disciples. While Peter tries to straighten Jesus out, Jesus pushes back. “No, Peter, you’ve got it wrong. That’s the human perspective. I’m talking about God’s!” They butt heads, they argue. But eventually, Peter begins to see, a little, of what Jesus is saying. I suspect he doesn’t quite “get” it but after their interchange he was willing to listen and say: “Oh … Okay … Let’s give it a shot!” He grew. He changed. And who knows, maybe Jesus found defending his position helped him clarify for himself what he believed. That is what often happens with me.
This ability between friends to “rebuke,” to argue is actually very biblical and it not only happens between friends but also between the human and the divine. Take for example the interchange between Moses and God. After the whole golden calf thing, God was done with the Israelites. God was going to wash God’s hands of them if not destroy them. Moses intervenes. He argues with God and convinces God to change God’s mind!!
The Psalms are full of rants at God: “how long, O Lord!” “Why have you forsaken me!” “I’m not really thrilled with this, God! Change it!” They can do that because they know that the Holy listens and on occasion changes. And on occasion rebukes in return! Even Jesus called God out: “Why have you forsaken me?” The Holy and the human are close enough that they can call each other out – and stay friends.
We’ve all heard the expression: “you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.” That’s true up to a point. You can’t choose where you’re born and who the members of your family will be. But as we grow up, we do get to choose which family members we’ll hang with. We choose to invite Aunt Helen but never invite Uncle Max. We choose to keep in touch with some siblings while others only get a generic card at Christmas.
We don’t really get to choose our friends either. So much of how they get to be friends is happenstance: they happen to live in the neighbourhood, the same street or go to the same school. Your parents are friends with their parents so – you become friends. You serve on the same committee at church. Or your kids are in the same class. You both have similar Degrees. You work in the same place. We might choose who amongst all those people you come in contact with will become friends but the pool of possible candidates is circumstantial, beyond our control.
As Jesus learned whomever you choose, sure as shooting, once they are friends you’ll find you will see the world differently. Jesus learned from experience that friendship isn’t always easy. But Jesus didn’t want “yes men,” people who would blindly follow without question. He wanted friends beside him. He wanted people like Peter – a good and intimate friend.
I like the fact that Jesus didn’t choose from a pool of perfect people. His friends were far from perfect. Imperfect Peter denied his friendship with Jesus three times. And in the lonely moments that followed, I imagine, he rebuked himself more than once for his behaviour. At the same time, Peter went on to become “the rock” of the church. As Lillian Daniels says: he was a “rock” prepared and shaped by his friendship with Jesus.
I suspect one of the most undervalued treasures in life is a rich friendship. Friendship between those who care enough to argue and once in awhile rebuke each other.
In my “friendship” with the Holy and with grace and mercy – sometimes it is the occasional rebuke that most reminds me I am loved!
Thanks be to God. Amen
It is not too difficult to tell that this story is all about David! David’s name is mentioned 13 times in 13 verses. It is David who leads the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. It is David who leads the worship, the sacrificing, the singing the dancing. He’s the host of this grand celebration of the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, into the heart of Jerusalem. And it is David who ecstatically rejoices as he dances half-naked before them all.
I have always liked this passage because David and his friends were able to sing and dance and worship with abandon. It’s so full of joy. And I like to hold this passage up to those who think worship must be sober and somber and say “See, if David can sing and dance in the presence of the Divine why can’t we at least clap?!!”
I also confess, that I am a bit envious of them – that ability to let loose, to worship with their whole being, with abandon, without worrying about what other people think - because I can’t do that. I can’t quite shake my upbringing which drilled into me that one should not display emotions in public! But I wish I could.
Well, maybe not the dance stuff. My scariest experience in worship was when my church’s youth group attended an evangelical Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The worship was good. So was the music. But at one point got up and started dancing in the aisle. I got uncomfortable. But then, they started drawing people from the pews to join them. They started with the people on the end of the pew. And, I was sitting at the end of the pew! I can tell you I was not worshipping with joy at that point. I was quacking in my boots!
But in theory I’m all for joy in my worship! And why shouldn’t they be joyous? It’s not every day that you bring the ark of the covenant into town! “It’s a pitiful thing when we’ve gotten too prim, too proper, too stuffy to make merry before God when something wonderful happens.” writes J. Daniel Day
So, I have found myself in awe of David and looking down on his wife Michal – who in turn is looking down her nose at David! I’ve tended to think of her as the ultimate wet blanket, a party pooper. The epitome of all those folks who rebel when asked to show a hint of joy in worship. She’s not even just a little bit miffed at David. According to scripture she “despises him in her heart!” What a killjoy!
But, as often happens in Scripture, things aren’t exactly as they seem. When you dig into the back story, things are a lot more complicated. And I have come to a deep appreciation and compassion for Michal.
She is one of King Saul’s daughters. As a young woman she saw David and fell madly in love with him. He is, after all, best buds with her brother Jonathan so she probably saw him around often. She was besotted. So much so that her father noticed and thought how he could turn this to his advantage. As you may know, kings are constantly aware of people trying to overthrow them. From Saul’s perspective, David is on of those. But if he marries David to his daughter that should minimize the threat. Bring him into the family and Saul will be safe. It was one of those “keep your friends close and your enemy’s closer” kind of things.
Apparently for David, the marriage is just as politically convenient. Scripture never says that he loved Michal, but becoming the king’s son-in-law, well that’s quite the perk. And quite a step on his road towards his becoming king himself! So, the marriage is arranged.
Things are good for a while but then Saul provokes an assault on David who barely manages to escape thanks to his devoted wife Michal. At great risk to herself, she sneaks him out of the castle so he can get to safety. She clearly chooses David over her dad. How romantic!
Unfortunately, David flees and never looks back! He leaves her – this woman who loves him deeply, who risked her life for him, once he’s gone he’s gone! Her father, then, marries her off to another man who fortunately loves her dearly even if she doesn’t love him. Again, David seems not to care. He does nothing to reclaim her not even after he gets back in Saul’s good books. She’s cast aside. Until David becomes king, and like his father-in-law, wants to secure his power by building bridges with Saul’s people. Then and only then does he seek Michal out. He sends a minion to bring her home. But he doesn’t even bother to do it himself. When she returns, he ignores her. David plays with and bears children with all his other wives but Michal remains unvisited and childless.
Do you get the picture? Micah is perpetually left on the margins. David, this golden boy, the love of her life never cared about her! He just used her to get what he wanted then cast her aside..
Can you imagine how she must have felt? I think I would have despised him too! Maybe you would too. Have any of you felt like a perpetual outsider always stuck on the outside looking in? Stuck on the sidelines while everyone else gets to have all the fun? To be the kid standing against the gym wall at a school dance watching everyone and wishing someone might just reach out and invite you? But no one does. Constantly left on the margins close enough to see but not join in? I suspect David didn’t even invite her to join this great national celebration!
By now, Michal has been around long enough to know this dancing and partying is not all about rejoicing in God’s presence. David has to have a personal angle! He’s dancing, he’s excited because the person who possesses the ark receives great blessings. He’s whirling around with delight because now the political and the religious power in concentrated in Jerusalem, his city, the nation’s capitol! No one can beat him now!! Michal sees right through him.
My mother used to say: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” In this case, that someone is Michal. She is cast aside, ignored by David. Fortunately the Scripture writers don’t forget her. With one small reference to her story, her voice won’t be forgotten.
It is pretty clear that David is meant to be the centre of the story. He gets his name plastered all over the scene. But, we don’t really get the full story unless you stop to listen to Michal.
Maybe that’s the lesson for us as well. Think of all the stories our history has tried to silence, the women, the people of colour, the indigenous children. The story is not truly complete until everyone’s voice, the voice of those cast aside to the margins, are told.
May it be so. Amen.
There once was a great chief who was very proud.
One day he was walking through his village boasting to any one passing by: “I am truly great. There is no one greater than me!”
A wise old woman came up to the chief and said: “I know one who is truly great.”
The great chief was surprised and then very angry. “What? Who is this great one? There is no one greater than me!”
The wise old woman said, “Come to my house tomorrow when the sun is at the highest point in the sky and I will introduce you to this great.”
The chief said: “Very well. I will be there and we shall see who is the greatest.”
And the chief went about his business. But at the end of the day, he decided he should prepare for the next day’s encounter just as he would for any potential battle. So, he went to bed early to gain strength. Because he was very confident of his skills and his position he slept like a baby and woke up alert and refreshed. Ready for whatever the day would bring.
In the morning he prepared himself carefully and put on his finest clothing. As he did, he reminded himself of all the great things that he could do. At the appointed time he headed off to the old woman’s tent. As he walked, he repeated over and over to himself: “There is no one greater than me! There is no one greater than me!”
When he reached the woman’s house he called out: “Old woman, I am here. It is time. Show me this other chief!”
“Come in, come in,” the woman said.
When the chief entered the old woman’s house, he saw her sitting against the wall, with a baby crawling around on the floor beside her. He was confused. He looked around but there was no one else there!
“Where is the great chieftain you told me about yesterday? The one who is greater than me?” he asked. The old woman motioned toward the baby on the floor and said, “This is the great one I told you about.”
The great chief was not amused. He huffed and he puffed and then pointed his finger at the woman he yelled: “What do you mean? Don’t try and trick me. This is just a baby!”
But his loud voice and the sudden noise startled the baby and it began to cry. The chief stopped yelling but the child continued to cry. The chief became flustered. He didn’t mean to make the baby cry.
Forgetting about his anger he got down on his hands and knees and tried to comfort the child but the child kept on crying. So, the chief pulled his eagle and hawk feathers from his hair and tickled the baby’s cheeks with them. The baby continued to cry.
He pulled off his medicine bags and held them under the baby’s nose. The crying softened but the child still cried.
Soo, he pulled off his necklaces and jingled them in the baby’s ears. Gradually the baby stopped crying, curled up by the great chieftain and the two played together on the floor.
The old woman smiled and said, “You see, even you, the great chief, had to stop talking to take care of the baby. In any home, in any village, the baby is truly the greatest because even the greatest and most powerful chief, like you, must become the baby’s servant. This is how the creator planned it. The creator did not make you great so that you could boast about your greatness. The Creator made you great so that you could help others who are not as strong as you.”
And from that day on no one ever heard the chief boast again.
By the time we meet David in our scriptures today, he is already on his way to becoming a great king – the best king that Israel would ever have. He had expanded the nation. He had reunited the Northern and Southern tribes into one nation. Israel was doing well. As we see in our reading, David had been appointed king by God but he was also chosen by the people. Together they made a covenant stating that.
It is however, good to remember that the Holy never wanted Israel to be ruled by kings. They had the Holy, that should have been enough. However, the people saw that all the nations around them had kings. They wanted to have what their neighbours had! So, the Holy conceded to their request.
But it is interesting, the king whom the Holy chose would be a different kind of king. David was a shepherd. He would be a shepherd king. Shepherds walk with their folk, tend them, ensure they have food and shelter and that they are kept healthy. The ideal Jewish king is a servant king. This is quite a difference from the neighbouring kings who rely on their people to pay them taxes, feed them, fight for them – basically serve them! This is basically the same model that Jesus lives by. He too leads by serving the people not being served by them.
To paraphrase Hubert Humphrey, the moral test of the government lies in how well they treat the least: the children, the elderly, the needy and people with disabilities. Or as novelist Pearl Buck wrote: “… the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”
We have just celebrated our countries birth. For the first time in my memory, we have had to struggle with the idea of whether we should celebrate given our treatment of the Indigenous peoples of this land, particularly their children. As we struggle with our history, both good and bad, we must decide how we wish to move into our future. It is my hope that we learn the true secret of great leadership from the Great Chief – those of us with power are to use it in the service of the children!