Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
When I was in seminary I made myself available to friends who were serving churches if they ever needed someone to preach on a Sunday morning. I wish I could say the offer was purely altruistic, but it was mostly born out of a desire to get some experience before serving my own church one day. It was always exciting to arrive on a Sunday morning, to a church full of strangers, and stand up to preach the Word.
But it usually went poorly.
On one occasion I forgot to take up an offering and the congregation was more than happy to not pass around the plates. I preached at one church that had no bathrooms and I was encouraged to “use a tree out back” so I bounced back and forth behind the pulpit until the end of the service and quickly drove to the nearest gas station. And there was one particular Sunday when I got lost on my way to the church, and by the time I arrived they had already gone through two hymns and I was told they figured someone would show up to preach eventually.
But perhaps the most indelible memory took place one Sunday after worship during which a man in a handsome business suit approached me in the narthex and declared, “That Paul sure was in a heap of trouble. It’s a good thing Jesus was there to set him straight!”
The conversion of Saul, the so-called Damascus Road Experience, has penetrated the thoughts and imaginations of Christians for centuries. It’s one thing to question Jesus’ decision to enlist the help of a bunch of (not even very good) fishermen to spread the Good News, it’s another thing entirely to consider the Lord choosing Saul, the persecutor of the faith, to become the chief evangelist for the faith.
I cherish that narthex comment about Paul because, up to that point, I always thought of Paul being good and fine until Jesus showed up to complicate his life. Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong. He had power and prestige, he even had a calling in his life, and then everything got flipped-turned upside down. It’s also true in our lives that things seem to be well and good until the Lord encounters us and we cannot remain the same.
But, as that man so wonderfully put it, Paul was in a heap of trouble until the Lord changed him. Things might have felt and looked good in life, but what kind of life is it to spend all of your time persecuting others? Jesus said, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Whatever Paul’s life was before Damascus, it could not compare at all to what it was after.
And so it is with us.
For some the Lord uses a bright wake up call to the life of faith. For others we know no other way because we’ve been part of the church for as long as we can remember. And for others it’s somewhere in between. But the Lord gets what the Lord wants. God is in the business of transformation. We, all of us, were in a heap of trouble until the Lord came to set us free. And now, like Paul, we live in the world turned upside down.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including seminary salutations, campus ministries, silent retreats, the call of Saul, humbling humility, praying the psalms, divine anger, hand motions, nooma, the eschaton, choral singing, good worship, and texts for tweenagers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Trading My Sorrows
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
“True terror is waking up one day and realizing your high school senior class is running the country.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut is known for books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, and other quotes quotes like, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” And yet, for a pastor to love the writing of Vonnegut is saying something, considering the fact that he was an outspoken agnostic humanist.
Or to put it a little more concretely, another one of his more famous quotes is: “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
I hope the joke was on Vonnegut though, and that he’s now rejoicing in the glory of the Lord, lapping up the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.
Anyway. When I was younger, I came across another quote of Vonnegut’s that, for obvious reasons, has really stuck with me: “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”
To me, this quote resonates right now particularly since we can’t actually go to church with the threat of the Coronavirus looming over public gatherings. The church is a people who gather together who cannot gather together right now. And still, the sentiment of the quote rings out whether we are meeting in-person or not. People don’t come to church to hear a preacher ramble on about a particular Biblical text, or offer up droning announcements, or even to say the prayers that they could say on their own whenever they want.
People come to church because they want to discover something about the Lord.
At times, this hoped-for-discovery is concrete – in the midst of uncertainty, people look for solid ground – in the midst of a diagnosis, people look for hope – in the midst of sorrow, people look to the Lord who will hold them when it feels like they can’t hold it together.
But at other times, it’s a little different.
Whether we would be able to articulate it or not, many of us gather as the people called church with one question on our minds: “What is God like?”
And, scripture does not disappoint.
This is, perhaps, why so many people flock to Jesus’ parables; they are all attempts at encapsulating the character of God in a story, such that upon hearing it we might catch a glimpse at the answer to our question.
In today’s passage, the choosing and anointing of David, we encounter the Lord who cares more about one’s heart than one’s outward appearance. If any line from this scripture is known by Christians it is that one. That particular line was even reappropriated famously by Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
God, strangely and rather bizarrely, chooses David as the next King of Israel. To bask in the audacity of such a call is difficult for us, because we know what will happen to this shepherd boy. We can’t hear about his calling without already conjuring up the defeat of Goliath, the dancing before the Ark, and the domination of the territories that would result in the power of Israel.
And, more often that not, when we hear this story (if we hear this story at all), the boys of Jesse are paraded before the prophet Samuel and it’s all about David, and why David was selected, and how he would become King.
But this isn’t a story about David.
It’s a story about God.
A God who see more than we could possibly ever see.
A God who delights in making something of our nothing.
A God who delights in choosing the people we wouldn’t, to change the world.
So, why are you tuning in to this livestream? Or, why are you listening to it later? Are you here to hear my preachments? Or are you here because you want to hear something about the Lord?
God still speaks all the time. God speaks to us through Word and through Sacrament. God is made manifest in the means of grace and the hope of glory. God is there in the waters of baptism, with us in the bread and the cup, and with us in our each and every breath.
But God is not like how we so often think.
I mean, imagine God in your minds for a moment… What do you see? Is it an old man with a long flowing beard resting on some puffy clouds?
That’s Hallmark, not the Bible.
God is, for lack of a better word, different.
God is foolish, according to the ways of the world, because God sees something in David, something that no one else could see, not even Samuel.
And that’s because God is different.
God is like someone stuck in between being a teenager and being a full adult. For those of us in the throws of adulthood, I know this can sound a little off-putting, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. God seems to make a whole bunch of mistakes, always trying out the wrong people for the wrong job, always seeing the world through a too glass-half-full attitude.
And yet we love to make God into our own image all the time, whether it’s in our art or in our words or in our preachments or prayers. Albert Schweitzer once said that every time we go looking for God, it’s like we’re peering down deep into the bottom of a well, and though we think we see something down there, what we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves.
But if you are brave enough to jump down into the well, down into the strange new world of the Bible, you will find a God who rebukes our desires to make God into our own image.
God is God, and we are not.
Think about it, God is like someone stuck in this never-ending youthful time of idealism even though everything in the world is screaming the contrary.
Who would be the best person to put in charge of the budding nation Israel? Surely a major modern general, or a lifelong diplomatic politician? “No,” God says, “I want that ruddy boy out wandering around with the sheep. The one who keeps whistling without a care in the world. I want the one who will throw it all away because of a rooftop peeping session. I want the one no one else wants.”
Are we sure we can even trust God?
On Pentecost, the beginning of this strange thing we call church, someone had too much to drink according to some people on the street. Furniture was tossed all around in the upper room, and there was the distinct smell of something burning wafting around in the air. People could barely understand this ragtag group of individuals who tumbled out into the busy streets with nothing to proclaim but the Good News of a free ticket of grace.
That was God’s idea of a good time.
One of the best stories Jesus ever told, a story squarely about God, is about two boys who were terrible to their father. The younger tells his Dad to drop dead and give him his inheritance and the older one resents his father for not throwing him a party even though he lived in his Dad’s basement. And the father, in the end, pulls out all the stops and throws the party to end all parties for the younger wayward son, and begs the older one to just relax and have a good time.
It’s no wonder so many of Jesus’ stories end with parties, often filled to the brim with the lame, maimed, and blind, people with whom many of us wouldn’t be caught dead.
God is all over the place, frenetic in disposition, and often rambling on about new ideas and is constantly inviting us to join the ride. Frankly, God invites everyone to jump on the crazy train that is careening out of the station toward a destination only God knows where.
And on this trip, God notices all the things that we’ve stopped noticing – blind beggars, and widow’s coins, and children willing to share their lunch. God screams for attention and keeps pointing out the mistakes of the pompous, the self-righteousness of the wealth, and the injustice of the powerful and the elite.
God even has the gall to proclaim that only kids get in to the kingdom, and that its virtually impossible for a rich person to get in. And, to make it even more confounding, God rounds that one out with the whole, “But nothing is impossible for God.”
I wonder why no one took the time to explain to God how the world really works. Surely, a disciple or a prophet or even a stranger could have informed the Lord how to behave properly and stay in line. Or, at the very least, God should’ve taken a good hard look in the mirror and decided to shape up.
But no. God just keeps bumbling around hanging out with the disreputable types, spending the morning with the sick and those of ill repute, lunch with the tax collectors, and then late night snacks with the questioning religious authorities.
God shows up with friends at a party uninvited, encourages everyone to drink the good wine, and then rubs hands together until the wine overflows, only to move on to the next venue where God is similarly uninvited.
And, because God behaves this way, people will often approach the Lord at these parties, words will be said, voices raised, and even faces smacked. But does God ever raise God’s voice, does God bring the smack down on those who lean toward violence? In short, does God act the way we would act?
God is like someone who wants to know us better and has plenty of opinions for how we should be living our lives. In fact, God wants to know us better than we want to know God. God never stops inviting us to the party and even though we reject the offer more often than not, the offer always stands.
Some of us have even said, “No,” to God as politely or as emphatically as we know how, and God keeps calling us the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
God is intense, passionate, unbalanced, unfair, and a little too honest. God is always pushing the envelope, testing the boundaries of what we might call “proper behavior.” God is the one who sees a vision of the world that even on our best days we could never properly imagine.
And we wonder, why can’t God just calm down about all this stuff? If God really wants to be the God of all people, wouldn’t it be better it God toed the line and stayed unbiased about the comings and goings of the world? When will God relax and start acting like the God we want?
But, again, the story of scripture is not a story about us. It’s about God.
The Lord saw David’s heart and choose him, even though David would mess it all up in the future. We would hope that God would make better choices than picking a murderous adulterer to be the king of the nation, but then again, God chose to dwell among us and to redeem us and to save us.
And, though it pains us to admit, even though God came to usher in a new vision of the world, even though God came to set us free from our bonds to sin and death, something about God’s attitude and disposition made us want him dead.
God is different. But that’s what makes the Good News good. Amen.
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that the Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in 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 in crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon you high places. 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. How the mighty have fallen, the weapons of war perished!
Funerals are strange, difficult, and at times, beautiful. I usually receive the phone call from someone in the family, or from a funeral home, that someone has died and they were hoping that I would preside over the service. No matter who the person is, I am immediately filled with sadness knowing that someone, anyone, is now gone. Regardless of my personal connection to the individual, there is a sense of loss that comes with death and not even I can avoid it.
But then I have to get to work. I have to take that grief and hold it for a moment while I help others properly grieve their loss. I have to balance the proper amount of mourning with hope, sadness with peace, and death with resurrection.
When I receive that first phone call I have to start taking care of the logistics: Where will the funeral take place and when? Do they want someone to play the organ? Are they hoping for a particular soloist? Does anyone from the family want to speak on behalf of the dead? And only after the plans are made can we begin talking about the person, making sure that I know everything I can in order to properly proclaim their life, death, and resurrection.
Most of the time funerals take place in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Friends and family have to take time off from work, or take their children out of school, in order to attend the service. Yet, funerals are not meant for immediate friends and family alone. The entire community of faith is called to witness to the life of those who have died so that we can continue to live out their witness regardless of how well we knew them, or not.
So, this morning, as I mentioned before, we are doing something a little different. A few weeks ago one of our church members named Dick Dickerson passed away. He had only been coming for a few years, but he was a staple in worship. He always sat in the back of the church on the right side, he flirted with every female that crossed his path, and he was incredibly sweet.
When I found out that his family would be having a private service in Kentucky at a later date I knew that we still needed to do something here in order to say goodbye. I knew that we needed to praise God for putting Dick in our lives. And I knew that we were going to have our own little funeral for him on a Sunday morning.
Dick Dickerson called me “honey.” I know that this might’ve bothered other young pastors, but to me it was endearing and precious. I would walk over to visit Dick next door at Brightview/Baldwin Park and the moment I entered his room he would always say something like “Come on honey and sit down with me.” For months I cherished this identification, it made me feel special that Dick felt so connected to me. It was only later that I learned he called most of the people in his life “honey”!
My wife Lindsey would stop by to say hello before a church service started and he would hug her while calling her “honey,” Grace Daughtrey would smile and politely nod her head as he greeted her with a “good morning honey,” and even Marshall Kirby would start to blush when Dick would refer to his Sunday driver as “honey.”
Dick Dickerson was a man of profound love, who deeply appreciated all that God had given him from the very beginning till the very end.
Dick grew up in Kentucky with a family in the midst of financial struggles. Living through the depression was, as he put it, one of the hardest things to witness. But at some point there was a family in the community who saw Dick’s potential, and they brought him under their wing and helped to provide for his education. He always maintained a connection with his biological family, but in his quasi-adoptive family he saw the Christian commitment to loving others, something that would affect the rest of his life.
Dick was a man of stories, stories that shaped his life and the lives of others. When he served as a quartermaster in Patton’s army during World War II he used to offer whisky to his fellow soldiers so long as they affirmed the beliefs of the Republican party. He told me that at the beginning of the war most of his friends were Democrats, but by the time they got home (and enjoyed the whisky) they had become staunch conservatives!
He, unlike others who served in World War 2, was ready and willing to share reflections on his experiences precisely because he did not want anyone to have to experience what he did. He often told a story about an evening that took place in the middle of the war on Christmas Eve when he found himself resting for the night in a bombed out church building. He could remember the wax dripping from the candles, the hole in the roof letting in the tiniest of snowflakes, and all the soldiers huddling together for warmth.
He asked a question of the men that night that he only later attributed to the Holy Spirit. He asked if the men wanted to pray for anything. One soldier prayed for his family back home, another prayed for warmer weather, but one of the youngest said something that would stay with Dick the rest of his life: “I seem to remember Jesus saying something about praying for our enemies, so tonight I would like to pray for the men we’re fighting against. I pray that God would be with them as He is with us.” Dick said that while other men might have grown angry or dismissed the prayer, all of the men joined together in that tiny church on Christmas eve, and prayed for their enemies.
Prayer was at the heart of Dick Dickerson’ life. He spent most of his free time going through a list of people that he lifted up to the Lord and regularly invited me to join him in his prayers. He once told me that prayer was the only thing that got him through the war, and that prayer was the only thing that kept him together once he returned home.
Dick lived a wonderful and blessed life. He married his sweetheart Mildred, had two children, and eventually began working for Madison College in Harrisonburg. Dr. Dickerson, as he was known to his students, made himself available to everyone all all times because he saw the value in other people. Whether in the classroom or at home, you knew that he would make time for you no matter what.
I spent a lot of time with Dick over the last two years, we talked about a great number of things, but the one thing we talked about the most was death. In fact during our very first and our very last conversations he said the same thing to me: “Honey, I’m ready to die.”
In the beginning of 2 Samuel we have a song that David wrote in memory of Saul and Jonathan. After giving their lives for the Lord and the people, David called the nation to weep for their loss: “O how the mighty have fallen.” In life David and Saul were seemingly opposed, but in the experience their death David wept and mourned.
Many of us take the people in our lives for granted. We grow so accustom to their presence and persistence, that we rarely think about what life would be like without them. It is only when someone is truly gone that we can really appreciate what they always meant to us. It happened to David after Saul died. It happened to the disciples during those three days before Jesus rose again. And it has happened to me with nearly every person that I have buried while I have served this church.
But friends, resurrection comes into its fullest meaning when we lose someone we love.
Can you imagine the exultation the disciples experienced when they saw their Lord again after he broke free from the chains of death? Can you picture the joy on their faces when they were able to sit again with their teacher and friend? Can you imagine how David would have felt if he knew that one day someone from his family tree would eventually hang in a tree for the sins of the world so that we could all rise again in the resurrection?
Dick Dickerson was ready to die because he trusted the Lord. His trust was evident in our many conversations, and in is interactions with others, but it was most present while he prayed at this altar.
Dick rarely missed a communion Sunday. Even while his bone cancer was spreading throughout his body, he would make the long and slow journey to the front of this sanctuary to pray on his knees to the Lord. After feasting on the body and the blood, Dick would lay all the worries of his life out for the Lord, he would pray for God’s forgiveness over his sins, and he would thank the Almighty for surrounding him at every moment throughout his blessed life.
Are we ready to die? Every death in this church community is a constant reminder that the bell will toll for us all, and that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Are we ready to die? What kind of faith would it take to be ready to give our lives over to the Lord?
Dick Dickerson certainly had that kind of faith, a faith born out of prayer, presence, and praise, a kind of faith shaped by World War 2, and a kind of faith made real through the witness of Christ’s church.
As we prepare to take steps toward this altar, to feast at Christ’s table, we do well to remember all who have gone before us to eat and pray. We remember Dick Dickerson and his willingness to lift us up. We remember the saints before us, in our midst, and those who will come after and discover God’s grace in a moment like this. And we remember that Jesus came to die so that we would all live, so that death would be defeated, so that the resurrection would be offered to us all.
So, thanks be to God for the great gift at this table and for the life of Dick Dickerson, a man who lived by faith, prayed with every fiber of his being, and was ready to die. Amen.