In the Face of Fear,​ We Persist

This sermon was prepped for Wesley United Church, Montreal’s Sunday morning service on June 24th, (Pentecost 5), based on 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49.

David and Goliath, what a fantastic story! An ancient Hebrew legend, that reminds me of the stories my parents used to read to me before bed.

It has everything that makes for a great bedtime story! A young peasant boy whose destiny is greater than his father’s sheep pastures… A horrible monster not even the strongest man in the army can defeat… Jealous brothers… A king to impress who will shower our young hero with unimaginable gifts….

It is also a dramatic introduction to the man, who would be king, as David is anointed secretly just verses before the story we read today.

Human beings love legends and myths because they touch on our greatest hopes—to be chosen, to be brave, to do good and great things.

Is it any wonder that this story, beloved by folks of all ages, was preserved in the collection of ancient texts we call The Bible?

Yet, in our daily lives, there is little epic adventure like we read here… We don’t live in the world of legends and fairytales. Stories like this, that once may have captured our imaginations, become difficult to put our hope into….

Because, the Goliaths we come across in our lives can’t be defeated with a small rock.

Every day proverbial monsters come out on the battlefield and heckle us—they remind us of our failures, of the situations we can’t control, the regrets we carry with us, and the burdens that wear us down.

As we get older, we laugh at stories like this one.  Believing them would make us naïve. We smile and shake our heads because we know better.

… We know better? Or is it that we know our own fear all too well?

***

God doesn’t ask David to go and do the impossible out of nowhere.

David tells Saul how he has been protecting his father’s sheep against wild animals. And, though this challenger appears more intimidating—with taunts and bravado—David can recognize Goliath for what he truly is: a bully. And, David has faced bullies before.

1 Samuel tells us that David grew up as an insignificant nobody in a large family; when Samuel went to visit them and asked to meet all of Jessie’s sons they didn’t even remember the runt out in the pasture with the sheep. David has been fighting wild animals, and cruelty from his loved ones, his whole life—out with the sheep and God to keep him company, he has been building resilience.

Bravery is a tricky thing; a muscle we have to train. It is a reality of the human condition that this growth is a result of pain and suffering. We fall down and learn that despite how much it might hurt, it doesn’t break us. And, so we get up and begin again.

We start with small acts, small risks, and we start to learn our limits and our strengths. We don’t go after Goliath all at once, and certainly not without backup.

***

A friend recently commented that he was surprised by how much I travel because I get really anxious when I travel. It’s stressful, and it can be challenging for me enjoy myself in the moment—but I still do it. Because anxiety doesn’t get to bully me into living a half-life.

We all have bullies in our lives, proverbial or real, and stories like these tell us that this challenge has been a part of the human experience for millennia. It is an exaggerated story to point us to a very real truth: human resilience and courage are integral to our story, and to God’s.

Madeline L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, once said that:

“We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are.”

Isn’t that the driving plot of the Bible? Unqualified but courageous people called to do so much more than their families, communities, and countries thought they could?

***

Last time I was with you, I used a quote from the movie Evan Almighty, where God says to another character:

“Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous?”

The Older Testament stories for the lectionary this summer speak of just that—young people called by God to do amazing but hard things. Our Bible stories tell us of men and women who take risks in their stories…

In the face of fear, David persisted against Goliath.

In the face of rejection, Samuel persisted in delivering the message God gave him.

In the face of poverty, Ruth persisted to care for her mother-in-law.

In the face of death, Esther persisted to save her people from genocide.

In the face of an enemy army, Deborah persisted in leading the Israelites to victory.

Though we might not be called to lead an army into battle, the Spirit invites us, too, to courageous acts both big and small. Our daily lives are filled with opportunities to step up, despite that knot in our stomach…

Have you ever stopped to help someone in need, who was being hassled by someone else?

Spoken up when a comment was going to be let go, even though it was hurtful and wrong?

Taken a stance for equality, even if it meant being the unpopular person in the room?

These are our moments, where we’re called to be brave, to do good and great things!

And, like David, we don’t do this alone. For some, it’s the overconfident certainty of youth that helps them march out onto the battlefield. For others, it’s being part of a community who’s committed to their work. For some of us, it’s a nagging belief that there is something good and true out there beyond us, that desires a world filled with justice.

***

The stories we read together in this place, these ancient stories, inspire us and point us towards hope… Hope is the thing that makes the risk worthwhile. It is a belief that the seemingly impossible task can be accomplished.

But, we don’t get there all at once—trust, just like bravery, is a muscle we learn to flex and strengthen. So we gather in this place and share stories, old and new, about goodness, about failures and triumphs; strengthening one another for the challenges ahead.

We add our own stories to this faithful collection.

So, may the Spirit grow within you this week… a courageous heart ready to persist in the face of fear, and return you to us next week with plenty of stories to share. Amen.

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From the Mouth of Babes

This sermon was prepped for Wesley United Church, Montreal’s Sunday morning service on June 3rd, (Pentecost 2), based on 1 Samuel 3:1–20, and Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18.

In those days the word of the LORD was rare, and there were not many visions.

Eli, the High Priest in charge at the Temple of the LORD, his eyes were growing weak.

One night Eli, whose eyes had become so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place in the Temple. There were shadows cast onto the stone walls because the lamp of God had not yet gone out. Samuel, Eli’s young helper, was lying down in the house of the LORD, where the ark of God—the presence of the LORD, was. Then… the LORD called to Samuel.

Though our text doesn’t tell us so, it becomes clear that Eli has grown both blind and deaf to God’s word. “Samuel” the voice calls, stirring the boy awake. But, Eli can’t hear the voice—and Samuel has never heard it before—so both are confused.

Eli, the one whose job it is to intercede on behalf of Israel with God, as the High Priest, can no longer do his work properly. He no longer sees visions. He no longer hears the voice of God.

This is both about vocation—about young Samuel’s call—but it is also a story about Eli. It is a story about the changing of the guard.

The second portion of the reading today, verses 11-20 are optional. We can choose to just end at verse 10, with the declaration:

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

But if we stopped there, we’d never heard what God has to say.

So, we forge on to the hard stuff. We hear God say, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.”

Samuel sees and hears God—he responds when he is called to, even though he’s confused. And, then God tells him that God is breaking open a new period in Israel’s history. The visions are coming back and the people will once again hear—so much so that their ears will tingle!

I tried to see if there was some deep theological meaning to ear tingling but alas not many biblical scholars have staked their academic claim there….

Then God tells Samuel about how the established powers, that have grown corrupt, will be dismantled. God speaks of culpability that is both active and passive.

Eli’s sons have boldly disregarded the Law and sinned against God; Eli did nothing to stop them. All parties are guilty.

This is a difficult message to hear, but an even harder one to deliver. You see, Samuel was raised in the Temple by Eli and the other priests. His mother, Hannah, dedicated her only son to God after a long struggle with infertility—so though his biological family visited him at the Temple annually, it was Eli who parented him.

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the LORD. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

The work of justice can be incredibly hard. … I’m reminded of a good quote from a silly movie:

In “Evan Almighty” God is talking to a character about prayer and says, “Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous?”

God gives Samuel the opportunity to be courageous, and share the message he was given. God gives Eli the opportunity to be gracious, and upon hearing it Eli replies, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

Samuel was called to do a hard job—a risky job for a young man. He could have been rejected by his parent, thrown out of the only home he’d really known, lose his place in the Temple—his social standing and connection. But, he risked rejection and spoke.

The prophet Joel tells us of a time when God will pour out Spirit on all people. That our sons and daughters will prophesy, our old men will dream dreams, our young men will see visions. (Joel 2:28)

This is the same text the Apostle Peter cites in his sermon on the streets of Jerusalem after receiving the Spirit in the Book of Acts. And, as we are still in the Season of Pentecost it is on the forefront of our minds.

But, that is not a far-off time for us—because God is speaking through God’s children now. God is calling young people today just like he called Samuel then.

I think of the young people who survived incidents of mass shootings, of domestic terrorism, in the United States, who are speaking out for better gun regulation. People like … Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, Sam Zeif, Julia Cordover, Cameron Kasky, Jaclyn Corin, Kyle Kashuv, Ariana Klein, Alfonso Calderon, Lorenzo Prado, and Lane Murdock.

I also think of young women like Malala Yousafzai who advocated for girl’s education in Pakistan despite being targeted by violence.

But we also have brave young people speaking out here at home.

There’s Tina Yeonju Oh, a Climate change activist from Sackville, N.B.

Or, Sarah Jama, the Ontario director for the National Association of Disabled Students and an anti-racism Community Organizer from Hamilton.

Or, 13-yearold Autumn Peltier, an indigenous activist from Wikwemikong First Nation whose fighting for water protection and conversation.

Young people across Canada are also making their voices heard concerning the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, demanding the government begin investing now in renewable energies instead of propping up old systems.

God is calling young people across Canada, and our world to speak and they responding saying, “Here I am”!

From the mouth of babes, God will speak.

What a risky phrase: “Here I am”. Because God doesn’t tell Samuel what the plan is before God calls him.

And what does God ask him to do? God asks him to have a personal conversation with someone he loves, someone he respects. That can often be the riskiest thing we’re called to—the hardest piece of justice work.

And, it is the first step on a long path for Samuel—who will become a prophet who speaks to crowds, who anoints and condemns kings.

I often hear people quote the Apostle Paul out of context saying, “God will never give you more than you can handle!”

But, God gives us really hard things—hard opportunities.

1 Corinthians 10:13 reads: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Samuel’s call teaches us that we are all called—to both big and small acts of justice. We’re given people to help us discern our calls like Eli does with Samuel. And, we’re given challenging but achievable tasks. But sometimes, it takes community to achieve them, sometimes it takes the Spirit, we cannot always rely on our own strength.

In our prayers today we will reflect on the God of the Sabbath, who tells us the work of justice cannot be done without rest.

So, breathe deeply, friends, and gather your courage, because a risky but good God is calling you—yes even you!—to courageous acts.

More Guilt? Yes, Please! How Our Church Has Co-Opted Shame and Disguised It as Guilt

Written by Selina Mullin, a version of this article first appeared on Unfundamentalist.com on May 21, 2018

Have you ever heard the phrase “near-enemy” used before? No? Well, a near-enemy is when two things look very similar but are intrinsically different. I first read the phrase in a Louise Penny book, where she wrote about a woman who appeared compassionate and caring, but in fact wanted others to be totally helpless so they would need her. The woman seemed to have good intentions, but she was, in fact, hurting others so that she could receive gratitude from them. A near-enemy appears to be one thing while in reality it is another; it masquerades as a more noble version of itself.

Shame, in my opinion, is the near-enemy of guilt. Shame is a debilitating sense of humiliation or sadness; it immobilizes us and disintegrates our confidence. Guilt, on the other hand, is a pro-social reaction to how our actions affect others. Guilt helps us make our way through the world — it is the internal compass of our decision making.

Our churches have co-opted shame and parade it as guilt.

Here is an example. When I was little, I was told that to have a sexual thought in my mind was just as bad as if I committed the act (see Purity Culture). That’s an idea with a biblical basis (see Matt. 5:28). So, every time I had an even remotely sexual thought, I felt ashamed of myself. I was ashamed of my body, of my mind, and genuinely believed I was a bad person because of it.

Logically, this idea is absolutely ridiculous! Natural responses to stimuli from the world around us shouldn’t be morally policed. I developed depression as an adolescent and I believe this type of thinking played a large part in that, because it extended into so many areas of my life. No matter how hard I tried, I saw myself as a “bad person,” because all I could do was fail the impossible standards the church set for me. I was trapped in a body that, I felt, kept betraying me. I could never achieve the behaviour that I thought God wanted from me; which, apparently, was a totally sexless, emotionally unaffected, and endlessly generous saint — a goal I’ve since given up.

No wonder I was depressed! I’m lucky to have had some amazing counselors and fellow people of faith who’ve been able to speak into my life and start to put an end to that horrible way of thinking. I know I still have so much damage to undo, and more shame to deconstruct and put to rest.

Shame is a self-destructive cycle; guilt is a pro-social feeling.

Shame is a feeling of humiliation, of hopelessness, that can become chronic. It can poison us and erode any sense of our own goodness. Guilt, however, helps us to learn from our mistakes; it invites us to reflect on how we treat others, their feelings and needs (hence it is “pro-social”). Guilt also motivates us to apologize, and experiencing it allows us to forgive more easily. When we understand what it means to be on the offending side, to experience guilt, we also come to understand what it means to be repentant.

Let’s return to our example. If I had been sexually active at the time, the questions I should have asked include: How do my actions affect others? What are my intentions? Am I honouring myself and my sexual partner? Am I respecting them, their body, and their autonomy? Do I see them as a whole person or just a sexual object?

If I had indeed been harming others with my actions, then my concern would have been warranted. But that wasn’t the case, instead I was immobilized by shame, which prevented me from honouring myself the way God made me — a sexual being.

There is no repentance without guilt.

Nowadays, we see folks leaving the churches of their childhood, saying, “I can’t stand the guilt.” A church in Calgary even has a sign outside it that says “We don’t do guilt!” Theoretically, I love that, but I wish I could cross out the word “guilt” and pencil overtop the word “shame.”

I hope I’ve convinced you that guilt isn’t a bad thing. It’s a big part of living in community and doing justice work. In both instances, we invite people to reflect on their actions, and, if necessary, repent. We can never be truly repentant if we don’t have guilt. If we repent because we’re terrified of an eternity of pain, then we’re only paying lip service to a God who controls us with fear. Guilt is about wanting to be in good relation with the world around us — our neighbours, our God, the earth — making amends, and choosing a better path.

So, let’s put the guilt back in church!

I want to hear folks shouting like the biblical prophets at people who put their greed over the lives of their human family. I want to see folks feeling convicted (i.e. guilty) because they’ve helped to propagate white supremacy, which harms racialized people in countless ways. I want men to feel the pang of guilt when they realize the ways they’ve contributed to misogyny in their lives. Then, I want all of us to do something about it. Shame festers and immobilizes, whereas guilt calls us to new ways of life and relationship. Honestly, that sounds a lot like the Gospel.