Carlos Wilton, July 8, 2012, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
“And David became greater and greater,
for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”
2 Samuel 5:10
“Can you help us get our freedom back?”
It was a blunt question, and it deserved an answer. I heard it spoken this week by a Christian pastor from overseas, as he addressed our church’s General Assembly in Pittsburgh. Freedom is something we want to encourage around the world, right? It’s our birthright as Americans. It’s the one export we hope we can make to every nation and people of the world.
But it’s not that simple. The pastor speaking was a Palestinian, from the occupied territories under Israeli control. The motion before the Assembly was to order the Presbyterian Foundation and ask the directors of our Pension Plan to sell millions of dollars worth of stock in three American companies: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard, all of whom sell equipment to Israel that’s used to maintain the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Caterpillar makes military bulldozers – an armored vehicle the Israelis use to destroy the homes of Palestinian farmers whom they’ve evicted from land they’ve lived on for generations, so they can build apartments for settlers. Motorola Solutions provides electronic surveillance equipment the Israelis use to keep tabs on the Palestinian people. Hewlett-Packard makes electronic body scanners for use at the checkpoints Palestinians workers pass through every day as they travel between their homes and their workplaces.
The Israelis claim they need to do these things to protect their nation from terrorists. The pastor who was addressing the General Assembly and the people of his church have nothing to do with such hostilities. Yet they, and a great many of their fellow citizens, must live with such reminders of their lack of freedom every day.
For years, an office of our church called Mission Responsibility Through Investment, or MRTI, has tried to negotiate with these companies, to try to get them to break off these business relationships, on ethical grounds. They’ve filed shareholder resolutions in annual meetings. They’ve tried to arrange face-to-face sit-downs with executives. They’ve been rebuffed on every front. Now, MRTI was asking the General Assembly to arrange for the sale of tens of millions of dollars in the church’s investments in these companies.
There was impassioned debate, on both sides. Ministers who have been to the Holy Land spoke of terrible things they’ve seen in the occupied territories. Other commissioners to the Assembly, from Great Rivers Presbytery in Illinois, where the Caterpillar company is based, spoke of what a wonderful company they are, testifying to all the good works they do in this country, and of how many of their neighbors are employed in Caterpillar factories. Other commissioners from the New York City area told of how a divestment decision would permanently damage their relationships with the Jewish rabbis and their congregations, who are their neighbors.
In the end, the General Assembly voted, by the smallest of majorities, not to sell the stock.
I tell you this not to advocate for one side or the other – for, in fact, I’m of a divided mind about it. I see truth on both sides.
There were other hotly-contested issues at the Assembly. There was a proposal to change the language in our constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, changing it to “two persons” – allowing pastors in the six states and the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal, who are so inclined, to conduct such ceremonies. That proposal, too, failed – again, by the tiniest of majorities. Most notably, 3 out of 4 Young Adult Advisory Delegates – young people aged 17 to 23, one from each presbytery, whose votes don’t count, but are merely advisory – voted to recommend allowing same-sex marriage. And these are the church kids – 3 out of 4 in favor! Pollsters like the Gallup Organization say that, among the total population of older teenagers and young adults in this country, so many are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage that it’s not even an issue. I’ll leave you to figure out where this is going in the church of the future, when the votes of today’s 17 to 23-year-olds actually count. (That is, if they stay with the church at all, by that time.)
This is not to say the General Assembly was all acrimonious debate. It wasn’t. There were thrilling and beautiful moments as well. There was the commissioning of dozens of missionaries to work overseas. A new design for college campus ministries was adopted, called UKirk Ministries. The Assembly took up a challenge that came from our Evangelism unit, to start 1,001 new worshiping communities over the next 10 years. These are not necessarily churches as we know them, but house churches, coffee-house ministries, informal worshiping communities – many of them to be planned and operated by the younger generations of Presbyterians, for their unchurched friends.
As for worship, it was glorious. A high point was the powerful opening sermon by our outgoing moderator, Elder Cindy Bolbach. She preached it from a wheelchair, for she’s been fighting a serious cancer in recent months, and in fact came to the Assembly right after receiving a chemotherapy treatment.
The new moderator is the Rev. Neal Presa, from right here in New Jersey, pastor of the church in Middlesex. He’s a second-generation Filipino-American, a graduate of Princeton Seminary, and one of a promising cohort of young pastors who will likely transform the church. It was a touching sight to hear one of his two elementary-school sons pray, during his installation, that God would “protect my Daddy” during his term as moderator.
Well, a sermon is about propounding scripture, so I’d like to look with you today at that line from 2 Samuel, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.”
A couple weeks ago, we looked at another episode from the life of David – how, looking that fearsome giant Goliath in the eye, the young shepherd boy found that still point within him. Moving forward with the full assurance that God was with him, he managed to keep his hand from shaking. With his sling he sent that stone flying straight and true, to win the decisive victory for his people.
Today’s passage, from a little later in the narrative, is a sort of summation of the early life of David. He became greater and greater, because God was with him.
After listening to all that debate at the General Assembly, those passionate advocates of one side or another who both quote scripture, and both feel they’re doing what God wants, it’s an interesting verse to reflect on. Whose side is the Lord on – the liberals or conservatives? Those who want the church to bless same-gender marriages, or those who think such a thing is the height of unfaithfulness? Those who see it as a matter of conscience to stand with the Palestinians, or those who are equally convinced that we American Christians ought to stand with the Israelis?
In parliamentary debate, as at the General Assembly, there are clear winners and losers. Even if the margin of victory is just 3 votes out of more than 700 – as it was on one of the key motions in the same-sex marriage debate – does this mean God is on the side of the majority, who will prosper? As for those on the losing side, does this mean they’d better duck, because there may be a well-aimed stone heading for their forehead?
How easily and how blithely we human beings invoke God to be on our side! The leader of one of the nations involved in the first Gulf War declared, on the eve of the allied invasion of Ira: “We are convinced that God is on our side.” The day before, he had told his people in a televised speech: “The world needs to tell the one with the big stick that the stick in your hand cannot destroy the house of God or the humanity of man.”
In case you think it was President George W. Bush who said that, or maybe Prime Minister Tony Blair of England, you’re wrong. It was Saddam Hussein.
One of our greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was a bit more philosophical on the subject. In his Second Inaugural Address, as his side was on the verge of winning the Civil War, Lincoln resisted the temptation to declare that the Almighty had engineered the Union victory. Rather than indulging in cheap sectarian theatrics, this greatest American President also showed that he was a pretty fine theologian as well. Here, Lincoln reflects on the curious fact that both the Union and the Confederacy saw their cause as holy:
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
So, if God was on King David’s side, causing him to become “greater and greater,” then whose side is God on, in the debates that divide our church and our nation? When divine blessings are being handed out, is it winner-take-all?
One man who faced this question in a very personal way was a German theologian by the name of Jürgen Moltmann. In the year 1944, at the age of 17, he had passed the entrance exam for university, but instead was drafted into the German Army. Moltmann was sent to the front lines in a forest on the Belgian border. Knowing his nation’s cause was hopeless, in his first encounter with the enemy, under cover of darkness, he surrendered to the first British soldier he met. He was to spend his next two years in POW camps.
On the wall of the spartan barracks of the camp in Belgium, there were photographs that had been nailed up by his captors. They portrayed the emaciated victims of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Like a great many Germans, up till that time Moltmann had little idea such horrors existed, nor that his own nation was responsible for them. Yet, as he looked at those photos day after day, he developed a strong sense of remorse, and repentance.
Moltmann had not been a religious person before then, but he fell in with a small group of Christians in the camp. He would later say that he did not so much find Christ, as Christ found him. An American chaplain gave him his first Bible.
After many months, he was transferred to a POW camp in Scotland, where he was sent out on work details, repairing damage from German bombing. He was impressed by the warmth and hospitality of the Scottish people, most of whom treated him not as a vanquished enemy, but as exactly what he was: a teenager who had been caught up in forces much greater than himself.
Next, Moltmann was sent to England, to a prison camp run by the YMCA. He listened to the teachings of chaplains there as well, and began to read books of theology. At the time of his release, he knew he wanted to go to divinity school – which he did eventually, back home in Germany.
Jürgen Moltmann became one of the greatest theologians of our time. His first book, which became a bestseller, was called Theology of Hope. There’s nothing of his own story in it – it’s an imposing work of academic theology, and pretty dense reading – but the theology cannot be separated from the man. Would Moltmann even have chosen to write on hope, had his faith not arisen out of an experience of defeat and hopelessness?
So, whose side is God on, in the close, divided votes of the General Assembly, or even the Congress – or in the cause of war, when nations take up arms against each other? The writer of 2 Samuel thought he could discern God’s blessing in the power and prosperity of the victorious King David. Yet, let us not forget that this same David would, in his maturity, sin mightily – sending one of his generals to certain death on the battlefield so he could force himself on the man’s beautiful young wife.
If God is on the side only of the victorious, then how can we explain how Christ warmed the heart of a young, dispirited German POW, who would then teach the Christian world what hope really means?
I think the author of 2 Samuel is a bit naive on that point. A more sophisticated view is expressed by the Apostle Paul, who in these famous words of 2 Corinthians testifies how it’s possible to grow greater and greater in maturity of faith even when life doesn’t go our way:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
[2 Cor. 4:8-10]
The truth is, in situations of human conflict, God is on neither side – and on both. Christ celebrates the victories of the victorious, but also consoles and uplifts the defeated in their failure. It is in fact in our situations of greatest grief and distress, when life seems to be taking out of us far more than we have to give, that we may discover the truth of the verse from Isaiah that was the theme of our General Assembly:
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” [Is. 40:31]
Our closing prayer is the one spoken by our outgoing General Assembly Moderator, Cynthia Bolbach – who, from her ongoing experience with chemotherapy, knows something about where true hope may be found:
you call us to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2012, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.