Baptisms of Ken Anderson and Riley Bentley
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
The Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Happy Father’s Day! What a great day for a baptism!….as the living water falls like grace from the heavens this joyously water-logged morning. It’s an even better day for two baptisms!….and maybe the very greatest day for two baptisms when one is a father and the other is a daughter. And to further recommend this day for your baptisms, Ken and Riley, we have two readings that speak to the both the grace and the challenge that is inherent in the vows that Ken and Riley (Riley’s parents and godparent) are about to make. Both the Hebrew Bible reading from the first book of Samuel and the passage from Mark’s Gospel speak to us about our agency as children of a living God….our capacity to be agents of God in this world and our responsibility to employ that capacity. Readings that seem tailor made for our baptismal vows.
They are also excellent readings with which to reflect and hold prayerfully the tragic shooting that took place in Charleston South Carolina this past week. It was an unfathomable event that will linger at the forefront of our prayer, hopefully, for some time to come.
Both of today’s readings speak to us about faith….about trust….about our ability and willingness to act courageously when we are called to do so, and then to put the overarching, overwhelming struggles of our lives in the hands of the living God, with whom all things are possible. These passages tell us that there is nothing that cannot be accomplished with the help of God….there is nothing we cannot do….Ken and Riley, there is nothing that can keep you from changing the world for the good if you only have the……..well, the commentaries say faith, but my reading of these passages says courage. Because all of the gifts of the spirit are worth nothing if we have not the courage to use them when they are really, really needed. The courage to stand firm in the face of a seemingly insurmountable opposition to peace and harmony; to remain vigilant, but calm in the face of a raging storm.
And not for nothing, but I think courage is in large part, the purpose of Jesus’ own baptism. Or rather his en-couragement; the granting of courage. Our baptismal ceremony is fairly long compared to Jesus’. In a few minutes I am going to ask you to sign up to a whole litany of things such as renouncing evil and living into the full stature of Christ, among several others. But Jesus’ baptism had no such litany. It consisted only of the descent of the Holy Spirit, which spoke to our brother in clear and concise terms. The voice from the heavens said to Jesus: you are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. And that was it. All of it. God assured our brother from Nazareth that he was supremely loved and pleasing to God no matter what he did. It was divine en-couragement. The only armor, the only weapon Jesus ever needed to live a life of pure love was the knowledge that he was completely worthy of God’s love just as he was. And today, Ken and Riley, you will be gifted with the very same security and freedom.
Likewise, today we read the story of the young Israelite shepherd boy, David, who steps into the ring with the giant Philistine warrior Goliath of Gath. David is the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, and Jesse is the grandson of Ruth, whom we will read about later in the year. (One of the great things about the Hebrew Bible is that everyone is related!) In last week’s reading, God laments the choice of Saul as Israel’s first king. And looking over the field of possible replacements for the king, God chooses David, the youngest, the smallest, the most insignificant (as the scripture literally says) of Jesse’s eight sons. David is a good looking, harp-playing young shepherd with fair eyes and a ruddy complexion. But there is nothing in his appearance to recommend him to the stature of future king, let alone opponent of the winning warrior Goliath. David is not, to the naked eye….at least the naked human eye, even close to a good choice as the successor to King Saul.
Nevertheless, although three of David’s older brothers are soldiers in King Saul’s army, it is David the mild mannered shepherd boy who steps up to the plate in today’s reading. When the tension between the Israelites and the Philistines has reached a climax, young David – twice referred to as a “mere boy” in this morning’s reading- is the only Israelite who steps forward; a lad too small to wear the King’s armour, as he heads down the mountain to face the giant Goliath – 9 feet 9 inches tall by some translations’ – the fiercest warrior that the Philistines have to offer.
This is a winner-take-all event. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao had nothing on this one. Today’s reading from 1 Samuel tells the story of the title match of all time. According to the custom, there is much more on the line than mere bragging rights, or even land acquisition. For the loser’s people, all of them, will be enslaved by the winner’s. These are the stakes. This is what hangs in the balance as the most insignificant of Jesse’s sons faces the most feared of the Philistine invaders.
And so Goliath, confident in his size and stature and strength, waits for his puny opponent to show up; Goliath in his bronze helmet with his armoured chaps and breast plate and shield-bearer. Invulnerable. His javelin and sword at the ready. And then down the hillside comes David. The shepherd boy. I can picture him in his rope-soled sandals and his shepherd’s tan. No armor (as I said, he is too small to wear the military armor), no sword, nothing to protect or defend him except his trusty slingshot and a rock he has scooped from the riverbed, and, of course, let us not forget…..let us never forget, the hand of God. This passage may be the poster passage for our frequent promise: I will with God’s help. HBO would have drooled to film such a story – the setting, the stakes, and of course the surprise ending, because never before has there been such a stunningly unexpected outcome.
For this is the story of how God chooses to work through the least of us, through the likes of the marginalized, through the shepherd boy David who became the greatest king of all of Israel, and the teenaged girl Mary, who bore the Saviour of the world. It’s the story of how the underdog can beat all of the odds and come out on top – every time……with God’s help, or course. For young David marches right up in the grill, in the face of the Philistine war hero, courageously loads his little slingshot, fearlessly takes aim, and fires….thwack! David hits the behemoth warrior right in the middle of his forehead – seemingly the only unprotected piece of his whole humongous body. And the giant Philistine falls to the ground like a rocket slamming back down to earth. Bam! Flat out, stone cold dead. It’s a shocking turn of events. Who would have expected David to defeat Goliath? Not even Rocky Balboa was such an underdog.
And yet, as it happens, this is not the most shockingly unexpected part of the ending. This defeat of the behemoth warrior armoured to the teeth, by the shepherd boy wielding a mere slingshot is not the most surprising part of this story, at least for me. No, the most surprising part of the ending is the part that is left out of this morning’s reading. For the story does not exactly end where the reading ends. There are, in fact, a few more verses in the middle of this reading. But they are left out of our lectionary, and for understandable reasons. They are left out because they are……truly shocking, maybe more shocking even than a shepherd boy defeating a seasoned warrior with a slingshot. Shocking and thoroughly uncomfortable, in fact, down right outrageously discommodious. Shocking maybe even on the scale of this week’s tragedy in Charleston.
They are the verses that tell what David does after he defeats Goliath. For we might expect this mild-mannered hero of God’s choosing and endorsement to return peacefully to his people to declare the end of the Philistine threat, thanks be to God. But instead, David marches up to Goliath’s dead body, he draws Goliath’s own sword, and he cuts off Goliath’s head. Summarily decapitates the fallen hope of the Philistines. And David takes the severed head to Jerusalem, and the implication is that he parades it like a trophy, like a wide receiver showboating in the end zone. He puts goliath’s armor in his tent, but he flaunts the head like a superbowl ring. I understand why these verses are left out of our reading. They are an appalling aftershock to our tidy little story of the underdog who, with God’s help, wins the biggest battle of all time to preserve peace for God’s people. These are not exactly the sort of verses that we want to teach in our Parish School. These decidedly gratuitously violent, messy, boastful verses.
But I think they need to be acknowledged if we are going to grapple with our scripture in any sort of an honest and fruitful way, even with our kids, especially with our kids. Because I think that these places of extreme discomfort and tension are the places in our scripture, as in our lives, where we find the teaching pots of gold, as paradoxical as that may seem. And, I think that this tension between the good and courageous young David and his alter ego, the violent pride-filled conqueror that is also young David, this is not unrelated to the way we live our own lives, or the sort of living that we are called to repent in our baptismal vows.
How do we reconcile this boy, chosen by God, empowered by God, protected by God, requested by God to defend his beloved people in God’s name? How do we reconcile that with the self-serving violence that follows David’s seemingly selfless act of unmitigated courage? What was David thinking? He follows up his act of outrageous faith and fortitude with a grossly cruel and indecent act of prehistoric horn blowing. Was this swagger part of God’s instruction? Was this gratuitous violence part of God’s plan? Is this self-aggrandizing puffery how God works in the world? And if this is the reaction of God’s chosen one, what about the rest of us? And what those kids who do not so explicitly have God’s hand on their shoulder as they walk through the dangers and oppressions and challenges of this hard life? If this is how David acts, what is a reasonable expectation for the rest of us?
And I almost didn’t bring it up this fine morning. After all, the lectionary writers, in their wisdom, left this unsavory, unsettling, unbelievably uncool part out; the part that make our hero David, and even to some extent our God, difficult to champion in this instance. But the problem with ignoring this last part of the story is that someday one of you (speaking to the kids) might pick up a Bible, God forbid, and read this story on your own…unedited, just as it is. And when you get to those last few lines, the lines left out of today’s reading, you might just be as surprised as I was when I read them for the first time. And then you will have to deal with that disbelief and confusion on your own. And you will probably wonder, at that point, if you can trust anything else you have learned about the Bible in church. What else has been left out of your biblical education and understanding? What else is the church keeping from you? And, does this proof texting mean we can skip over the hard truths in life as we do in our reading of scripture? Are we to protect the reputations of our victors, like David, at all costs? And I think this is part of how domestic violence and corporate crime and unabashed racism and violence of all sorts have found such an agreeable home in our culture. Because I think sometimes we only tell each other the easier part of the story.
We leave out the part about how the gun used in the massacre was a birthday gift to the troubled kid from his father. We leave out the part about how the flag flown at the statehouse in South Carolina, the seat of government, the standard of all civility, is the confederate flag….a blatant symbol of white supremacy and embedded racism. We leave out the part about how we turn a shocked but blind eye to the dozens of similarly deadly shootings and innocent losses of life that happen every day in the streets of Dorchester and Mattapan for which we do not hold special vigils and prayer services. We leave out the part about the violence that oozes from our own hearts and hands and lips and lives every day.
Because the stone cold truth is that each one of us is capable of both unfathomable power to do good with nothing more than our slingshots AND inexplicable error….maybe even to the point of evil. No matter how powerful or powerless we think we are, we are capable of doing a level of both good and not-so-good that surpass all understanding. None of us is exempt. So if we are not paying close attention to ourselves, if we are not holding our own feet to the same fire as our adversaries or the ones we deem monsters among us, if we are not vigilant, vigilant in our commitment to the way of love over the well trodden path of fear, then we should not be surprised if we find ourselves very far south of our own moral compass; we should not be surprised if we find ourselves sporting the same reprehensible behavior that we have railed against in our better selves; we should not be surprised if we find ourselves holding the head of our own Goliath as a trophy for the world’s approval and adoration.
But this morning’s story also tells us that all things are possible with God’s help. And when we gather around the baptismal font for Ken and Riley’s baptisms, we will pass around a basket from which I hope you will take a stone. Let a small but mighty stone from the basket choose your hand, and take and keep that stone as a reminder that the Goliaths in our lives and in our communities and in our culture are in God’s hands.
And this day, let us put our prayers for this seemingly insurmountable epidemic of evil, of systemic racism and unchecked violence into these stones. Let your stone bear the weight of your grief and fear and sorrow. Let this small stone remind us that there is no invader too overwhelming for God…there is no threat too large to be overcome, if we take courage, if we are willing to stand in the face of the giant…to renounce the evil with our own small but divinely enhanced slingshot. If we remember the source of our greatest power, as Ken and Riley will accept this day, that absolute assurance that we are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased. And with that, we are free to change the world!
Are we ready? And the people said……..Amen!
© June, 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw