July 4, 2021
In our School of Christian Living this spring, the Reverend Maybelle Bennett from the Covenant Christian Community and Marjory Bankson facilitated an exploration of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical, Hamilton. The class had about equal numbers of Seekers and Covenant members, and about equal numbers of Blacks and Whites. Because Hamilton had been cast with people of color in almost all its roles, it helped us see the founding of our nation with a new perspective. I found the discussions to be enlightening.
One of its themes is sung by George Washington, who had learned that “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” At the end he sings this again, and then is joined by the entire company to ask, “Will they tell your story? Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” On our nation’s 245th birthday, we are struggling with whose story it is and isn’t and therefore what our national story is and isn’t, who is and who isn’t allowed to tell it from their perspective, and even how and to whom it shall and shall not be told. Suffice it to say that the story of America I was taught is NOT our nation’s entire story; nor is our entire nation’s story. It was and is primarily White Christian men’s story.
The issue of whether we get the whole story applies to our faith as well. We use the Revised Common Lectionary, which gives only parts of the biblical story over a three-year cycle. I am not one of the lectionary’s fans. I agree that we can be spared large portions of Leviticus, Numbers, and Chronicles. But the lectionary skips other large chunks of the Bible, so that our selections are taken out of context, thus distorting their meaning. We should ask ourselves: what is the story we aren’t hearing and whose story was left out? And how is the story affected?
Take the selections from I and II Samuel over the last few weeks, the story of the rise to the kingship of Saul and then David. What the lectionary passages gave us started with Saul already king, Samuel anointing David to succeed Saul, David killing the Philistine giant Goliath, David being informed of the death of Saul and the crown prince, Jonathan, and David mourning over their deaths. This week, it describes the leaders of the northern kingdom under Saul’s fourth son asking David to be their king, and David making Jerusalem his capital.
What the lectionary didn’t give us is why Samuel anointed David rather than Jonathan, David worming himself into Saul’s court and becoming besties with Jonathan, and any mention of Jonathan’s three younger brothers who were also in line to succeed Saul. It left us with no reasons for Saul’s growing jealousy of David or why he attempted to kill David, nothing about David’s flight and becoming leader of a band of mercenaries who sometimes fought for the Philistines, the enemy of both Saul’s kingdom of northern tribes and of Judah, David’s tribe. We heard nothing of Saul’s disobedience to God’s command so that God abandoned Saul, that Philistine soldiers had killed Saul, Jonathan, and two of Saul’s other sons, or that the Philistine commanders’ distrust of David kept him from joining their fight against Saul, leaving him to fight the Amalekites, the common enemy of both Saul and the Philistines. We didn’t learn of David’s becoming king of Judah, ruling from Hebron in Judah, or of Saul’s general Abner crowning Ishbosheth, Saul’s sole surviving son, as king of Israel. It left out the warfare between Ishbosheth’s army and David’s. It skipped over the growing strength of David’s power and the decline of Ishbosheth’s power, of Ishbosheth accusing Abner of sleeping with his dead father’s concubine, so that Abner deserted Ishbosheth for David and engineered it so that David would become ruler of both kingdoms. We missed how David’s general, Joab murdered Abner in revenge for Abner’s killing of his brother, and David’s public mourning of Abner’s death, a signal to Ishbosheth and the leaders of both Israel and Judah that he (David) had nothing to do with Abner’s murder. It left out Ishbosheth’s murder by two of his subjects, and David having both men executed and having Ishbosheth’s head buried in Abner’s tomb, which signaled the leaders of both kingdoms that David had nothing to do with this murder either. Today’s passage skipped the verses relating how David attacked the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe who built Jerusalem and who hadn’t fought any Jewish tribe. It was a natural fortress between the northern and southern Jewish tribes. By making it his capital David showed his independence from both northern and southern tribes’ control.
The writers of the books of Samuel gave us the whole story, complete with the flaws of both Saul and David. But what the lectionary gave us was the simplistic heroic tale of the sweet shepherd boy who made good –the biblical all-American success story, like Horatio Alger. I’m sure David would have liked how the lectionary passages told his story so far; but without the entire story, we miss how shrewd an opportunist and skilled manipulator he was. What would the story be if it had been told by Saul’s friends in the northern tribes? Or had been told by the Jebusites? David might have come off like Aaron Burr in Miranda’s Hamilton.
Today’s epistle has also skipped chapters 9 through 11 in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. Paul faced opposition from other apostles who contradicted his gospel and boasted that they had spiritual power superior to Paul’s, validated by their mystical experiences. Paul responded by discussing how real spiritual power is demonstrated through weakness. But we didn’t hear this. Today’s passage has Paul reciting his own mystical experience – his “I know someone…” was a common technique of first century rabbis to refer to themselves – to equal the spiritual credentials of his opponents. The lectionary passages have given us a distorted view of what Paul was boasting about and why. Paul would have been furious; the lectionary doesn’t tell his story.
Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel has also been isolated from its larger context: Jesus had been preaching around the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It skips his boat ride to the Gentile (read “unclean”) side, where the demonic spirits possessing a man proclaimed him as the Son of God. He performed the double miracle of casting out the unclean spirits from an unclean man and putting them into a herd of pigs, unclean animals, who plunged to their deaths. The cured Gentile now wanted to become a disciple, but Jesus told him to return home and tell others what God had done for him, which he did, but the Gentile was given no spiritual power. The message: Although Jesus had come to the Jews, even unclean spirits recognized his divinity and power, and unclean people — Gentiles – believed in him. In last week’s passage, Jesus had returned to the Jewish side of the lake and performed stupendous miracles: the healing of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years by her mere touch of his garment, and the raising back to life of the twelve-year old daughter of the synagogue leader. But this time he instructed the family to tell no one. In today’s passage Jesus came to Nazareth, his hometown. When he began to teach in the synagogue, the locals were amazed at his authority, but they doubted it because they knew him when – or thought they knew him when. They didn’t recognize his divinity. In contrast to the faith of the Gentile, the bleeding woman, and the synagogue leader, their lack of faith prevented him from performing any major miracles. Instead, Jesus gave his disciples the spiritual power to cast out unclean spirits and heal the sick among his fellow Jews and he sent them out by twos. They were successful. Mark’s complete narrative would have shown the breadth and the limits of Jesus’ power more definitively. Once again, the lectionary failed to tell the whole story.
The committees that selected the Revised Common lectionary did not intend to distort or oversimplify the Bible in their process. But good intentions don’t always produce good results. When Jews and Muslims, or indigenous peoples, tell our Christian story, it sounds different from the way we tell it because our story of Christianity ignores Christianity’s role in supporting colonization and in promoting violence against non-Europeans and people of other faiths. Until recently our Christian story also suppressed the role its leaders have played in protecting clergy, members of religious orders, and lay leaders who sexually assaulted, harassed, and physically and emotionally abused people in their congregations.
In 2014 Marjory Bankson published Stalking the Spirit in a do-It-Yourself Church. It’s the story of Seekers Church and most, maybe all, of us who remember those events agree that it is a faithful account. But seven years later, is it still our story? Would we change it, and if so, in what ways? Does it need updating to include how we’ve responded to national political events? To the crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and to the “Black Lives Matter” and the “Defund the Police” movements? When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted our worship and community life, videoconference technology allowed us to meet and worship, although differently, but it also supported changes in our behavior that disrupt our worship – those are significant parts in our story. The energy our new members have brought, the new conflicts and how we have addressed them, they’ve affected our story. What is our Seekers story now and who gets to tell it?
We worship here today because of a story: something happened after Jesus was executed on Good Friday. Some of his women followers told their story: they’d gone to the tomb where his body had been taken, and the large stone that sealed it had been rolled away! Inside, a young man dressed in white told them that Jesus had risen from the dead, and he instructed them to tell the disciples and Peter to go to Galilee where Jesus would meet them. The women admitted that at first they were too frightened to tell anyone. But then they did tell the story to the disciples and Peter, who all did go back to Galilee and did see Jesus. Some of the women remembered it differently and told a slightly different story. Other disciples told yet another variation. But their stories all ended the same way: Jesus had risen from the dead. These disciples, men and women, told many more people, who in turn told the story to many more people. And so, the Church was born, and for more than two thousand years millions of people have told others the story: Jesus has risen from the dead.
We have no control over who lives, who dies, who tells our story. But we can tell God’s unchanging story: God’s unending love for all creation. And when we eat this bread and drink this cup, God’s story becomes our story, and we have the right, we have the obligation, and, fortunately, we have the joy, to tell this story too.