Third Sunday After Epiphany
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Grace Hackney
My husband and I do not normally worship at Duke Chapel, but after the events of the previous week, we felt compelled to go last Sunday. We needed a “word” following the cancellation of the Muslim call to worship scheduled for the previous Friday from the top of the Chapel’s tower. It had been a challenging week, with this news following on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and resultant reactions.
With security guards sprinkled throughout the Chapel, Dean Luke Powery began worship by reading a pastoral letter regarding the recent week’s drama to the congregation. He promised that “the Chapel would seek opportunities for constructive dialogue about these complex and important subjects as we all strive for deeper understanding and greater faithfulness to God.”
It was the second week after The Epiphany, the day preceding Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Powery artfully wove together God’s call to young Samuel with King’s call to pour out his heart to God”– both of which would result in prophetic action. As Lowery reminded us, “prayerful listening leads to prophetic proclaiming.”
Powery recalled the time, in January 1956, when Dr. King almost gave up the fight. Sitting at his kitchen table, he prayed as he had never prayed before, confessing his fear and lack of power while also acknowledging his role as a leader. He emptied himself completely before God, opening up a place to listen.
God responded by not only speaking, but by giving the young King an inner peace that allowed him to calmly respond three nights later when his home was bombed. The night-time kitchen table conversation with God was a defining moment for Dr. King. It gave him a new strength, as well as renewed trust in a very particular God who had proven over and over again that he would not leave his servants alone in his battle for justice.
Perhaps the Psalmist has also come to the end of his rope. We do not know exactly who the Psalmist is, but this week’s text gives us some clues. Because he speaks emphatically to the “people” (62:8) we can assume that the Psalmist is a leader. He has been beaten down. He is ready to throw in the towel, as he has been battered verbally for sure, and perhaps physically (v.3). While we do not know who his enemy is, we know it is someone in close proximity to the poet’s circle: they are seeking to bring him down, telling lies about him, blessing him with their mouths but inwardly cursing him. (v. 4).
The Psalmist’s trust in God has been birthed out of his deep lament of the “way things are”, and with the conviction that “this is not how God would have things to be.” His conclusion did not come suddenly, but through long, painful growth…growth that came through the battle between Who God Is and How Things Are.
The Psalmist has learned (perhaps the hard way) that he cannot trust extortion, oppression, theft, or money. Perhaps he is a wealthy man – he has learned that he cannot set his heart on riches, but only on God (v. 10). God wins, and the Psalmist cannot keep this revelation to himself. A leader’s devotion becomes proclamation to the community: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. ” (v. 8).
The Psalmist is clear in his message: Trust only God. The emphatic use of the Hebrew ‘ak, ‘adh, ‘al six times in thirteen verses carries a force that turns popular belief on its head: ONLY trust God, as if to say, “in spite of everything, it is ONLY in God that I can have the inner peace that will allow me to face the external call to justice. Not robbery, lies, money, other people, but ONLY in God can I remain calm in the midst of the storm. ONLY in God can I be confident and obedient to my vocation as leader. God is my rock, my refuge, my fortress, my salvation, my hope. Power belongs to God, and without God, I am completely powerless. God is God and we (as well as our enemies, or those with whom we disagree) are lighter than air. Put all of humanity on a giant scale and even a single breath is heavier” (v. 9).
In Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams guides the reader through Christian belief by systematically unpacking the historic creeds of the church. His method is based on one question: Who and what do you trust? The answer to this question is the foundation of Christian belief. Williams works from the starting point that it is only the Triune God as expressed in the creeds who is completely worthy of our trust.
As Christians living in the midst of terror, including, but not limited to global poverty, racism, hunger in the face of obesity, a 14 year old girl excitedly unwrapping an assault weapon for her birthday, young men (mostly) and women (increasingly) joining extremist groups such as Al Qaeda because they are “looking for meaning”, debates regarding the use and rights of (free) speech, climate change and its many ramifications (including the reality that humankind in general and the church in particular is to blame), we struggle, as the Psalmist did, to acknowledge our own misplaced trust.
We can expect personal and corporate growth from the hard work of lament, for we have dropped our nets to follow a completely trustworthy, hospitable, just, and loving God. Like Mark, as members of Christ’s church, we, too are called to see the Other and offer an alternative narrative, trusting in One God. After all, Jesus the Son trusted the Father completely, even to death, opening up for us a Way of Life that turns How Things Are on its head.
The gospel writer trusted God enough to put into words a story for the frustrated, discouraged first century Christians. New Testament scholar Joel Marcus argues that Mark’s purpose in writing was similar to George Orwell’s reason for writing:
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write because there is some lie I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. (Why I Write, 5).
Like the Psalmist, Mark trusted God enough to expose lies and to draw attention to the truth of the Kingdom; to get a hearing for the words God had inspired him to write. Like the Psalmist who gives his people an alternative, Mark gives the first century Christians an alternative: do not spend your time worrying that the church is on the brink of extinction, Mark may have thought. Instead, remember who you are: this is your story – cling to it. Just as Jesus saw something in ordinary fishermen, calling them to loosen their grip on their way of life, perhaps Mark sees something in his community that says the same: “Loosen your grip on fear – don’t you remember the story? Remember who you are following. Trust only this God.
Perhaps Dr. King’s dinner table prayer was a defining moment in his role as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. But before that night, Dr. King had experienced the defining moment of his baptism into Christ. The table, for Dr. King, became the font once again, as God’s Spirit descended upon him. Before Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him, the Spirit had descended upon him, and accompanied him into the wilderness. As he emerged, and in the face of his friend John’s arrest, Jesus proclaims: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s Kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust in the good news!” (Common English Bible)
The surprise is this: God trusts us, even before we are sure we can trust God. Trust in the incarnate, crucified, risen and ascended God will set us apart as a people who can face the challenges of the day with confidence, imagination, and a calm spirit in the risk-taking adventure of discipleship. Perhaps we begin by first listening to God and then to each other.