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Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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Filed under Discipleship, Gospels, Life in the Spirit, New Testament, Old Testament

How Not To Die. Matthew 14:26-27

The gospel of Matthew tells the story of how once the disciples found themselves caught in a terrible storm on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had stayed behind to pray. When evening came they were alone the boat—though anything but alone, as it turned out.  But they thought they were. And their boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. They struggled against the storm all through the night, then as the dawn was breaking, they caught sight of Jesus coming toward them walking on the sea. The disciples were, of course, terrified, thinking what they saw was a ghost. They cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”

One of the benefits of subscribing to the New York Times is that thereby you are informed of the deaths of famous people. Most of those famous folks you’ve never heard tell of, but no matter, some of them have indeed led the very interesting lives, which make fascinating reading.  Back in January the Times reported the death of Madeline Arakawa Gins, “a poet-turned-painter-turned-architect who publicly forswore mortality—and whose buildings, by her own account, were designed to pre-empt death for those living in them.” She was 72, which doesn’t really seem like a very advanced age—especially for someone who had “publicly forswore death”–but there you are. Madeline Arakawa Gins is dead.

Ms. Gins and her husband, a Japanese-born artist who was known simply as Awakawa, wanted not only to show the world how to live better but how to live forever. Their philosophy was summed up in their 1997 joint exhibition entitled, “Reversible Destiny: We Have Decided Not to Die.”  You could avoid dying, the couple believed, through an “architecture of instability,” in which no surface was level, no wall was plumb, no corner true. Following their principles a block of apartment buildings was actually constructed in a Tokyo suburb in 2005. Newsweek described the project thus: “Each apartment features a dining room with a grainy, surfaced floor that slopes erratically, a sunken kitchen and study with a concave floor. Electric switches are in unexpected places on the walls so you have to feel around for the right one. A glass door to the veranda is so small you have to bend to crawl out. You constantly lose balance and gather yourself up, grab a column and occasionally trip and fall.”  

The rigors of living in these funhouse environments, so the couple believed, would sharpen the wits and strengthen the bodies of the residents. By abandoning ordinary comforts in favor of a nightmare existence of wildly clashing colors and midnight tumbles on the way to the toilet, the residents would stave off the mental and physical brittleness of old age and keep death at bay.

It seems important to note that Madeline Arakawa Gins did not spend her last years in one of her own topsy-turvy environments, but rather in Manhattan, where she had been a longtime resident. (Living in New York certainly has its own rigors, but at least you always can get a really a really good bagel.)  Neither she nor her husband realized their shared ambition–to reverse “the downhill course of human life.” Arakawa died back in 2010 and also in Manhattan. “This mortality thing is bad news,” Ms. Gins said at the time. “It’s immoral that people have to die.”     

Well, immoral or not, we do. We may forswear death, but death does not forswear us. It embraces us all. For once, every one of us make the team. And in another sense it’s rather nice because when the time comes death takes care of everything. We don’t need to worry about how to do it.  We didn’t learn to be born, beloved. And when the time comes for us to die, nature will teach us how to do that too. So although there is no point worrying about how to die there seems to me to be great benefit in considering how not to. So if Madeline Arakawa Gins can venture to tell the world how not to die, so can I.

The first way not to die is with things that should be said left unspoken.

It’s true that all of us have at times have said way too much. But our real moral failures were the occasions when we knew we should say something and—out of weakness or cowardice—we didn’t. I have myself have countless times failed on this score countless times, but my worst failure was with my father. It happened like this. After my mother died, he used to call me every Saturday night. I knew he was lonely–he was living alone out on the ranch in western North Dakota–but our conversations never touched on his isolation or our shared grief. There had always been a distance between us which had widened with the passing years. So when he called, we chatted about Paul and Elisabeth, who were little at the time, and the North Dakota weather.

Then one Saturday night when we ran out of things to say to each other an odd thing happened. A voice in my head said, “Say, I love you.” It was as clear as any command I have ever been given, but I did not obey it. My relationship to my father had never been like that, openly emotional. Those words were simply not in our shared vocabulary. So I didn’t say anything, and neither did he. And then the voice said again, “Say, I love you.” Maybe he heard that command, I don’t know, but in any case neither of us heeded it. Our feelings for each other were too deeply buried beneath layers of formality. Then for a third time and with a tone of greater urgency the voice inside me said, “Say, I love you. Say it. Say it now.” I opened my mouth, but I just I could not bring myself to do it. It would have cost neither of us anything, and it would have been worth the world. But instead what I said was, “Good night, Dad. I’ll talk to you next week.” We hung up, and then came the silence. The next morning my brother called to say that when he had gone out to the ranch to help with the chores, he had found my father dead in his chair.

And from that experience I learned something I have never entirely forgotten–say what needs saying and say it now. Now is the most precious possession we have, but what little value we place upon upon it. Now—this moment–is the chalice that holds the very blood of Christ, but we throw it away like a used Styrofoam cup. We all have something that needs saying. The question isn’t–Is it embarrassing? Is it the appropriate time? Will I sound foolish? The only question that matters is—Does it need saying? And if I fail to say it now, might it remain unsaid until the world’s ending?  

The second way not to die is with things undone we might have done.

We can’t do everything—we learn that early on—but out of its rich and various assortment God’s world is always offering us another wine we have never tasted. “Life must be filled up,” Samuel Johnson said, and every day offers us fresh and joyful ways how to fill its emptiness. Our choices are countless–but not infinite. Sooner or later they will run out, and whatever pleasures the next world offers us, our options there will not be the same.  So we should not die with anything undone that we can do. It seems an odd to say in this Lenten context, but the imperative to embrace life in this world to fullest degree possible is as important as any we have been given. The pursuit of happiness, beloved, is more than just a right—it is our duty.

 We had that lesson driven home some twenty-five years ago when my wife Penny was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In your thirties you really don’t give death much thought—you are too busy with other matters. The kids were little. We had just moved to Florida. Then suddenly we ran head on into mortality.

Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward way had been lost.

That’s how Dante in his Divine Comedy begins his narrative of his descent into hell. That’s where we found ourselves—“within a forest dark”—lost and with no helpful poet to guide us through the circles.  Actually, we didn’t get much human help at all during that period, which was probably because didn’t ask for much. Penny and I are pretty independent people. But suddenly we found ourselves that one terrible step beyond independence. We were alone.

 The Lord helped us then and later, when we had another cancer scare. But it was still a terrible year—especially for Penny, of course. She faced it as she faces everything—with bravery and practicality. She had chemotherapy every three weeks and after she had each treatment she was very sick to her stomach and unable to do much of anything for days but sleep. Each treatment was a little stronger than the last. And each time by the time she was really feeling better it was time for another round. Once in a while, however, she had a good day, and when she had one we got out and we did things. We were limited, of course. As I said, the kids were little. Our resources were limited on many levels. We didn’t have much money. We were often tired. It would have been easier to stay home. But whenever we could we went out and had fun.

It was a terrible year for everyone, I have to say that again, but it was one when we learned a lesson we have never entirely forgotten. Life asks—life begs to be filled up. And we betray the gift we have been given when we live less fully and vividly than we are able. At times comfort is nice, heaven knows, but experience is always more blessed. And adventures shared with those we love—even the smallest adventures–are more important than the safety of our reclining chair. We do all kinds of things to excuse ourselves from living, beloved—we cite our age, we list our aches and pains, we cry poor.  And we are indeed limited, beloved. We are, after all, mortal. But there is no excuse for not doing what we can do.

The horizons of eternity stretch out limitlessly on either side of this present moment, but all we really have is this one day to plan and to enjoy. So we should seek out what is really important and do that, and not get so enmeshed–what a perfect word for it—not get so tangled up in the web of excuses that ultimately don’t amount to a hill of beans. Yes, every choice we make contains some element of risk. Every adventure costs us something in time, in effort, or in money. Is it too difficult? we ask ourselves. Is it too expensive? Is it too dangerous for little me? But the only question that matters is whether or not we will listen the insistent voice in our heads—which is certainly the Holy Spirit—saying—“Don’t be afraid, Do it. Do it now.”    

          And that is the third way not to die–in fear.

In the Gospel of Matthew we are told a story of how one evening the disciples left Jesus behind and got caught in a tempest. Apparently sudden storms are common on the Sea of Galilee and, I am told, quite deadly. The disciples were in real peril. The evangelist tells us that their “boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.” Older translations say “the wind was contrary,” which I rather like. The disciples were struggling for their very lives against a “contrary” wind, and that is a situation we recognize as our own. We too our struggling against what our friend Madeline Arakawa Gins called “the downhill course of human life.” It is a struggle we will not win, certainly not by ourselves, beloved. But we are not alone–anything but alone, as it turns out.            

          “Early in the morning” the disciples saw Jesus coming toward them, walking on the water, and they are terrified. They thought they were seeing a ghost, and started screaming like troupe of frightened Girl Scouts. But over the voice of the storm Jesus called out to them– “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Take courage. Man up—a rather sexist expression, but an eloquent one. But that is what the Spirit of Jesus is saying to you and me–Act like adult human beings, not something less. Your peril is real enough, but I am here, and I am more real than anything that can happen to you. So master your childish fears of the darkness and consider your actual situation.

I look back at my life and I can see the work of the Spirit in every twist and turn of it. In every time of peril and change, the Lord has been with me. The fear of death comes naturally to us. I suppose I am not so afraid of death as I am of dying—that’s maybe too fine a point. But I know someone else made me–I did not make myself. And the one who had the power to make me, can remake me in any form He wishes. I have only to wait to see what he will do with me.

In the meantime, Jesus says: Do not be afraid, not because there is nothing to be afraid of—the storm around them was real enough–but because I am with you. I have always been with you.  I will always be with you. Our courage in the face of death is based not based upon our own strength—if it were we would have good reason to be afraid—but upon the Lord’s faithfulness, and upon the creative power of his Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us also to a new kind of existence, different from this one, but not unlike it. Therefore, beloved, do not be afraid.

That command is the refrain of the gospels. It surround the story of Jesus. When he is born the angel says to the shepherds—“Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10). And when the risen Christ appears to his disciples and again they think they are seeing a ghost–he asks them, “Why are you frightened?” (Luke 24:38). It seems a rather naïve question. They had never met a person who had died before, and they were unnerved by the experience. But it was just another human experience, like any other. In this world just about anything can happen, and usually does. And that’s the whole point, beloved. There is nothing that comes up—no matter how strange and unnerving—that should frighten us. Christ is risen, after all, and we are not alone—anything but, as it turns out.

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