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Rulers and Servants

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A trio of 30-year olds – David, Ezekiel and Jesus – offer distinct ways of thinking about power, challenge and service. So does our place in the UCC. Here’s Sunday’s reflection.

Texts for July 5: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Mark 6:1-13


By Pastor Phil
By Pastor Phil

Those two readings we heard today – David being crowned in triumph as the king of Israel, Jesus being rejected by the folks in his hometown – form the bookends for us on this weekend when we celebrate the U.S. as a nation and consider our role as citizens.

They are not matching bookends.

Paul Raushenbush speaking to the UCC
Paul Raushenbush speaking to the UCC

One shimmers and shines, maybe even reflecting fireworks in the night sky.

The other has rough edges, nothing fancy about it, facing in the opposite direction from the first bookend, looking a bit more toward the future.

And in between are some challenging words from one of the great prophets of the Hebrew scriptures that are aimed at both those holding power and those trying to follow the ideals of God.

Let’s start with David, one of the dominant figures in the Hebrew Bible. He is held up as the model ruler, faithful to God, bringing together the various factions in the land we now call Israel, giving Israel a dominant position among the nations and tribes of that Mediterranean region.

“David was 30 years old when he became king,” the passage we heard today says. “He ruled for 40 years.”

So when you think about the trio of figures we are looking at today – David, Ezekiel, Jesus – David is clearly the ruler. He is held in high esteem.

The people of Israel then put their hopes in him and the people of Israel later – to this day – revere his accomplishments.

We do that with our heroes in the U.S. as well, be they George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy or Barack Obama. It’s a bipartisan list because at different times and in different places, we have different heroes. We are a pretty diverse nation, after all.

Yet our heroes are not without their flaws, just as David’s glory could cover over a ruthless and selfish side of his life. And sometimes, in telling David’s story, the ruthless side was even exalted.

The passage we heard today started with verses 1 through 5, then skipped ahead to verses 9 and 10. Do you wonder what came into between? They are verses that would make conquerors celebrate victory – and probably will make us squirm.

The king and his troops marched on Jerusalem against the Jebusites, who inhabited the territory. The Jebusites said to David, “You’ll never get us in here! Even the blind and the lame will beat you back!” “David will never enter here,” they said to each other.

But David did capture the fortress of Zion—which became David’s City. “On that day,” David said, “whoever attacks the Jebusites should strike the windpipe because David hates the lame and the blind.”

Even our heroes need to be held to account. And especially those with power need to be held to account. Enter Ezekiel.

We’re several hundred years away from the time of David now. There have been a series of kings, some good, some bad. The Israelites, as people are wont to do, are looking out for themselves more than for others. They often live in ways that do not honor the God they claim to worship.

Then the Babylonians arrive and take over the city of Jerusalem, that city of David. Ezekiel was a young priest in the temple and with many other religious and political leaders, he was taken off to exile in the land we now know as Iraq. He and others were disconnected from their religious moorings.

These were people in despair, their power and glory but a memory, their sense of God’s presence in their lives a huge question. Their God seemed to have abandoned them.

The book of Ezekiel opens with these words – “In the 30th year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.”

Another 30-year old, not one rising to power, but one being called to challenge his people and their leaders.

Let me read you just a little section from the beginning of the second chapter in the book of Ezekiel, one of the readings that was an option for today. It’s Ezekiel’s call to be a prophet, to go where he is needed, to assess what is happening, to speak a word of God in the midst of despair.

The voice said to me: Human one, stand on your feet, and I’ll speak to you. As he spoke to me, a wind came to me and stood me on my feet, and I heard someone addressing me.

He said to me: Human one, I’m sending you to the Israelites, a traitorous and rebellious people. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. I’m sending you to their hardheaded and hard-hearted descendants, and you will say to them: The Lord God proclaims.

Whether they listen or whether they refuse, since they are a household of rebels, they will know that a prophet has been among them.

Throughout history, people have emerged as prophets to try to call rulers to account, to try to move people onto a new path.

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, has often played that role in our nation. Although our particular form known as the UCC only came together in 1957, our predecessors were part the bid for freedom from England that we honor this weekend.

The midnight ride of Paul Revere ended at a Congregational pastor’s home in Lexington, Mass. – a home that still stands just down the street from where the pastor of Hancock UCC now lives.

Samuel Adams – he after whom a great beer was named but who in real life was one of our nation’s Founding Fathers – was an early member of Old South Church in Boston, still a towering presence for justice in the UCC. Members of that congregation through tea into the Boston Harbor and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Our Evangelical and Reformed ancestors helped hide the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia when the British occupied that city and planned to melt the bell down and turn it into cannons.

Our predecessors were part of the movement to abolish slavery, they opened new paths for blacks and women in ministry, they were part of the Social Gospel movement at the end of the 19th century, applying Christian thinking to issues like economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.

There is an interesting link between the Social Gospel movement and our own city and our current status as the UCC. I’ll talk about in a moment.

In more recent times, the UCC has been out front among Christian denominations on issues of civil rights, the rights of women, war and peace. And in the past decade, we have been strong advocates for marriage equality, for people treating fairly and for justice and peace in those lands of Israel and Palestine where David’s legacy has led to occupation and hardship for people living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Just this past week, the UCC at its General Synod – our national gathering that happens every two years – called for increasing economic pressure to end that occupation.

The Synod also took strong stands against sports teams using demeaning images of Native Americans for fun and profit. The Synod called on the nation to move away from fossil fuels in an effort to slow down global warming.

Our own Bonnie Van Overbeke and Karin Wells played roles at the Synod on those issues.

In other words, we still try to maintain the prophetic role of someone like Ezekiel.

Or the prophetic role of someone like Jesus.

He was another 30-year old bursting onto the scene.

For David at age 30, he had military conquests under his belt and was forming a new nation.

For Ezekiel at age 30, he was living in exile and despair and responded to God’s call to speak out at the failures he saw in his midst.

For Jesus at age 30, he was already getting a reputation as one who could heal the ills of the people he encountered, so when he went back home to Nazareth, the people he had grown up with were pretty interested in seeing his works of power. They were a lot less interested in hearing his words.

Seeing a miracle? That would be cool.

Listening to someone of questionable parentage who had a blue collar job and no degree in scripture study talk about changing their lives? Just who does he think he is?

Jesus did not linger in those feelings of rejection. As Mark said in his Gospel, “Jesus traveled through the surrounding villages teaching.”

And Jesus did not try to do this alone. He sent those 12 traveling with him out in pairs, not to conquer the people they encounter, but to serve them.

Travel lightly, he told them – no bread, no bags, no money. You’re going to have to rely on the hospitality of the people you meet along the way. And if they reject you, well, just move on to the next place. Don’t wallow in rejection, don’t waste your energy looking back.

Heal those who need your care, help people change their hearts and their lives.

We’ve gone from a story that glossed over the massacre of the blind and the lame on the way to power to a story of followers of Jesus going out to serve the world around them.

Let me go back to that brief reference to the Social Gospel movement that I made a few minutes ago.

A man named Washington Gladden was an early leader in that movement. He was a Congregational minister – one of our predecessors, a hymn writer and journalist who was the first religious figure to support unionization of the work force and was a strong voice against racial segregation, the author of a famous sermon in 1903 denouncing lynching, called “Murder as an Epidemic.”

While Gladden is the UCC’s strongest link to the Social Gospel movement, the name most often identified with it is that of Walter Raucshenbusch, an American pastor and theologian. His great grandson, Paul Raushenbush, grew up in Madison, is now the editor of the religion section of The Huffington Post and was one of the speakers at the UCC General Synod last Monday.

He lavished praise on the UCC for its prophetic role, for its welcoming stance. He talked about it on the most personal level, saying “I first came back to church as a gay, recovering alcoholic. My cousins invited me to a UCC/(American Baptist) church in the village in New York City, and by some miracle, I actually went. (The moral of that story, in case you missed it, is that it is OK to invite people to church.)”

Paul reminded the folks at General Synod that even though it is fashionable these days to say that church does not matter much any more, that, is his words, church can be “the absolutely last place anyone expects to encounter the living God is within the walls of a building with a steeple on top where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus,” that when people gather together in places like this, it does matter.

He pointed to Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., the scene of that awful massacre last month during a Bible study gathering. He said:

“Emanuel has been Church for thousands of lives over the years; people who individually and collectively lived out the Gospel. It is a community that provided the healing balm needed to mend bodies, minds and spirits bruised from a world rife with systematic racism and everyday challenges.

“Within that sanctuary, the living body of Christ praised God and strengthened their faith. The congregation also flirted, giggled, fell in love and got married…We saw the power of the Church when, just days after the shooting, the congregation reopened, held worship and refused to let sin and death have the final word.”

Gathering together in places like this does matter. But today’s readings remind us that we cannot simply revel in glory and power like David. We also need to be bold like Ezekiel who helped his people find ways to be a community even while in exile. And we need to heed the words of Jesus, sending us out to help make lives better for people.

We are rooted here. But our branches reach out. As Paul Raushenbush said in concluding his talk:

“God’s church will be known as really God’s church when it is out there on the streets demanding justice, as well as offering spiritual health within its walls using the spiritual resources of our faith.

“That’s the church. And we need to let people know it. Believe or not, there are people who never have met a Christian like you all. And I hope that they do and so I want to urge the UCC to get fired up and get out there, and show the world what the real church is all about.”

In that spirit, let’s sing Hymn #306, “The Church of Christ in Every Age.”