Sunday, June 2, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "Saul's Spears"

1 Samuel 18:6-11

6 After David came back from killing the Philistine, and as the troops returned home, women from all of Israel’s towns came out to meet King Saul[d] with singing and dancing, with tambourines, rejoicing, and musical instruments. 7 The women sang in celebration: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands!” 8 Saul burned with anger. This song annoyed him. “They’ve credited David with tens of thousands,” he said, “but only credit me with thousands. What’s next for him—the kingdom itself?” 9 So Saul kept a close eye on David from that point on. 10 The next day an evil spirit from God came over Saul,[e] and he acted like he was in a prophetic frenzy in his house. So David played the lyre as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand, 11 and he threw it, thinking, I’ll pin David to the wall. But David escaped from him two different times. (CEB)

“Behold a New Thing: The Tribal Church,” Week One

The soccer legend’s face was a mask of grief.  Tears rolled down his cheeks as he haltingly explained to his club’s legions of fans that he would not be back for next season.  It isn’t something you usually expect from athletes whom we associate more with big contracts and mercurial spirits.  But it was a humbling sight to behold because of everything that has happened to him in the last three or so years: one of the world’s very best at this sport was let go by his massive club, FC Barcelona, after making a successful comeback to the game after undergoing a liver transplant as part of treating a malignant tumor that had threatened his life and livelihood.  The presser where the move was announced was wrought with understandable emotion—this great player was openly weeping at the thought of leaving this club that had stood by him for so long during his many treatments and operations, and as he left, he hugged and kissed on the cheek every single member of the team, the coaching staff, and the medical staff.  Every person.

The kicker, though, is that he probably wasn’t let go because of his medical history.  He had already come back—was playing in games and everything.  No, he was getting too old.  At 34 years of age, he had become too old.  And, as a player at least, he was being shown the door.

I know I make fun of all y’all Mariners and Seahawks fans—and Sonic fans if, you know, Washington still had a basketball team (zing!), but when it comes to one particular phenomena—the treatment and viewing of people based on their age—I think sports perfectly emulates the same fear we secretly have in church, that there is a sweet spot for how old or how young you must be to flourish, to be desirable.  There is enormous pressure for churches, like sports teams, to fit a particular perfect age demographic, lest they be overrun by newer, younger alternatives.

But such pressure is largely our own doing.  We tell ourselves churches must look a certain way and beat ourselves up when they don’t.  But the church is what I imagine a child must be like—as Tina Fey puts it, yes, you can teach a child manners and dress her up in embarrassing little sailor outfits, but at some point, that child is going to be whatever she is going to be...much like the divine name itself: "I AM WHAT I AM."

And that’s kind of what it is like for us, you know?  Lots of people would say they know what we should look like—they want to tell us which little sailor outfits to dress up in—but at some point, this church is going to be whatever this church is.  And after being here as your pastor for nearly two years, I have found the closest thing possible to describing what this church is, and what we can become: a so-called tribal church, ministering to a missing generation of believers.

This term comes from a 2007 book of the same name by Carol Howard Merritt, a Generation X evangelically-raised Presbyterian pastor and author.  And we will be basing this new six-week sermon series on this book, as we look at what exactly a tribal church is, and what it can truly do.  And this first installment of our series, then, matches up to one of the first chapters of her book, entitled, “Fostering Intergenerational Relationships.”  Carol writes this in Tribal Church’s intro:

My husband, Brian Merritt, is a thirty-seven-year-old pastor…at a recent seminar, he referred to the book “Death of the Church,” which identified adults in their twenties and thirties as “Survivors.”  He introduced the term, took a deep breath, and braced himself as if he were driving into a predicted storm.  Sure enough, the sky began to thunder as the familiar outrage began, “Survivors?  Did you say ‘Survivors?’  What have they had to survive?”

“They didn’t have World War II or Vietnam.”
“They didn’t go through the civil rights movement.”
“They’re recipients of unprecedented wealth!”
“I open up the real estate ads, and I can’t believe how much people will pay for a house!”
“They are so materialistic.”
“You know, my nephew is still living with his parents.  He’s twenty-five years old.”

Brian typically (stays quiet) during these long rants.  When the storm subsides, he gently explains, “We’re called Survivors because we’ve had to survive years of being treated like this.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 am on a Sunday morning, he was referring primarily to race.  But churches get segregated on the basis of age as well.  And some of it is intentional—many church planters are trained to do basically what Rick Warren did with his Saddleback Church in the Los Angeles area: to go all-in to try to serve the needs of just one demographic—in the case of Saddleback, they even created a composite target congregant they wanted, and nicknamed him “Saddleback Sam.”  And if others outside that demographic show up, great, but you’re not going to bend over backwards for them.

And all of that is pretty antithetical to the entire basis of the existence of the Disciples of Christ, where our founders once referred to our unity as Christians as “our polar star.”  But unintentionally, the Disciples has made itself a church that younger people like myself haven’t been coming to anymore.  Believe me when I say it isn’t just here in Longview, it’s everywhere.  It has been a long time in the making, and it has a number of causes—Carol writes about how:

Newspapers and magazines often dressed young adults up as greedy slackers, ever-sponging off our parents never assuming responsible roles in society…even in their most noble struggles, younger generations were portrayed as a bunch of na├»ve youth who did not really know what they were protesting against…How could the church understand young adults if it continually looked at them through the tinted spectacles of older adults?

And that, I think, is the fundamental dynamic at play in today’s Scripture passage. (Yes…it took me this long to actually get to the passage I’m preaching on.  Carol’s book is that good.)  Saul is jealous of David—Samuel will go on to tell us that God is with David and not with Saul—but David also represents a threat to Saul because he is gaining popularity while Saul isn’t: when the people are chanting about David having killed his tens of thousands, they are, in so many words, saying: “our with the old, in with the new.”  They’re that giant sports team that shows their recovered-from-a-liver-tumor veteran the door, albeit much less gently, and with more fanfare. 

But there’s an added dynamic to Saul’s jealousy.  Saul is of another, older generation who looks at this young David, this boy shepherd-turned-soldier who has the hots for his daughter Michal and who sits in his court to play music—you can just imagine Saul getting all Clint Eastwood and growling, “Damn kids!  Get off my lawn!”  Seriously—that is what I see in this story, is that kind of dynamic: David is composing his own music—new and relevant and contemporary—and you can almost see Saul thinking to himself, “Kids these days and their noise!”

Yet instead of shaking his fist and moving on—Saul is still king, and in an absolute monarchy, the king can do pretty much whatever he wants—he tries to kill David by impaling him with a hurled spear.  Twice.  He is trying to cut off the source of youthful change in Israel at its roots.

And what Saul’s spears were to him, there are a myriad of things like that to the modern church—tools to cut off the influx of youth at its source.

At a Disciples church I visited once a number of years ago, the far older congregants fawned over me for being on my way to seminary—such a good boy, right?  My girlfriend at the time just sort of stood there until one of them turned and asked her—with what I am sure was the best intentions—“So, now, what do you do, besides take care of him?”

We never went back to that church.

It’s another way of dismissing young people, of dismissing our vitality and vibrancy, when we are put into situations like that.  We know when we are welcome on a deeper level than just, “Yay, new blood!”  You know who else gets excited about fresh meat?  Me, at Burgerville.

No, welcome and acceptance must go far deeper than that.  Acknowledgement, acceptance, and understanding of how young people interact, and how we have relationships with one another, are profoundly necessary because a church—and a tribal church at that—must be relational.

It makes sense, because it is fundamentally a part of Christianity itself--Christianity is a relational religion, built upon our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  But it is still sometimes tough.

Saul, in what he does here, shows that he clearly has no interest in a relationship with David.  And I have to think that this is largely borne out of fear—fear that like a sporting legend, he will be shoved out the door by his own people when his time is up.

And I am here to tell you this fear need not be a part of our religious life.  Indeed, it cannot—fear of one another does not lead to vibrant church life.  Christianity is built on love, not on fear, and certainly not upon fear of one another.  Being in Christ means that we need not fear one another.

For once that fear is gone, the real ministry can take place.  Incredible relationships can be formed across generations in a church that otherwise would not be formed.  I have found surrogate parents and grandparents here, grandmothers whom I relate to in ways I never have since both of my grandmothers died over a decade ago.  Those are the kind of voids in our lives that an intergenerational, tribal church that cares for one another can fill.  And those are the kind of voids in our lives that God longs to rush into as soon as we say “Yes!” to Him and to Christ and to the church and to one another!

That is what a tribal church is, and can be: a church that cares for its own by filling the voids that our usual circles and ways cannot.  It is what David and Saul miss out on.  But it is, I have to believe, what each of them long for, but could not find.  Let us find it in their stead.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 2, 2013

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