“It’s Earlier than We Think”

June 28, 2015


II Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Romans 5:1-5


I still remember reading Hamlet in high school and coming to the end of the play with all of its violence and death. It was a tragedy, and I should have been expecting as much. But it seemed a portrait of devastation, despair, and futility.

That is what we encounter in the lesson from Second Samuel this morning.

We’ve started reading through First and Second Samuel on recent Sundays. Last week we read the story of David and Goliath in chapter 17 of First Samuel. This week we skip over fourteen chapters and come to the opening of Second Samuel. Now, that seems like a large chunk of scripture to avoid.

What’s going on?

The quick answer is that the ecumenical committee that developed the Revised Common Lectionary nearly twenty-five years ago chose to omit all those chapters in selecting readings for Sunday worship. But you know, of course, that we are not bound by the lectionary and I could have chosen any text from the end of First Samuel for the sermon this morning. Indeed, I read through those fourteen chapters and found nothing that seemed promising.

Here’s what you missed:

After killing Goliath—a story that, as I suggested last week, is not really appropriate for children even though childhood is the last time most of us heard or considered it—after killing Goliath, David pledges himself to King Saul and binds himself in deep friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan. Saul quickly becomes jealous of David’s fame, however, as the people sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, but David his ten thousands.” In a burst of anger he throws his spear at David—and the relationship goes downhill after that.

The ensuing chapters tell of Saul seeking to take the life of David, of Saul’s anger toward his son because of Jonathan’s friendship with David, of further battles with the Philistines, and the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, with the Philistines, as scripture tells us, carrying “the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people.

In short, we missed the devastation, despair, and futility of war.

If you were here last Sunday you might recall one of the children of the church, as I tried to talk with them about David and Goliath, about the Israelites and the Philistines, asking: “Why were they fighting in the first place?”

Why indeed?

It is a question for which most of the time we can’t give a very good answer.

We know the long history of warfare—as well as its present reality—and we often don’t know why people were or are fighting in the first place.

The story of David and Saul and Jonathan doesn’t help us with answering that question.

And David’s lament only heightens the sense of the devastation, despair, and futility of war.

There is a way beyond all of this. There is a way beyond all the devastation, despair, and futility that we encounter in life, in this world.

It is the way of forgiveness.

Listen to David’s lament alongside the cry of Psalm 130 that we also read this morning:

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;

If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss,

O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you;

therefore you shall be feared.

You know that the “fear or God” in the Bible has more to with a sense of awe, a feeling of wonder than with being frightened, and in the face of forgiveness—divine or human—we do stand in awe.

As individuals and as a nation, we are still amazed by the most recent display of forgiveness.

Alana Simmons, whose grandfather was killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was in the Charleston courtroom for the bond hearing, but she was not prepared to stand up and talk. Then she heard Nadine Collier, in what has been called “a startling moment of anguish and grace,” speak to the man accused of shooting nine church members. “I forgive you and have mercy on your soul,” said Ms. Collier, whose mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the victims.

At that moment, Ms. Simmons said, her own path became clear, and she joined other relatives of the dead in expressing both their pain and forgiveness to the man charged with causing such despair. “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions,” Ms. Simmons said. “And that is what we want to get out to the world.”

Of course there are moments of rage and heartbreak. And forgiveness is in no way acceptance.

But as one person said: “We have been taught forgiveness.” They are determined, as their new movement puts it, that “Hate Won’t Win.”

Many of us who have also been “taught forgiveness” listen and look in awe and wonder at such statements and actions.

But forgiveness is the only way through, the only way beyond. As is so often the case, times when it is most difficult to live out our Christian faith are just when it is most necessary that we do so. And we can only give thanks when people find a way to do that. We can only give thanks and follow.

So hear the honest and hope-filled words of Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop who knew firsthand the abuse and oppression of apartheid in South Africa. He tells us: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”

Hope begins to emerge when the devastation, destruction, and futilty are met with forgiveness.

Hope begins to emerge when the devastation, destruction, and futility of racial violence are met with forgiveness.

Hope begins to emerge when the devastation, destruction, and futility of homophobia are met with forgiveness.

Hope begins to emerge from forgiveness.

Hope is the attitude that “It’s earlier than we think,” to borrow the phrase that the 20th century computer pioneer Vannever Bush coined when he was 77.

I like that. It’s earlier than we think.

There’s still time.

There is still time for the world to exhibit more of God’s desire for life for all creation.

There is still time for our individual lives to reflect something of the image of Christ.

There is still time for us to discover an “open heart,” what President Obama on Friday, using the words of Marilynne Robinson called, “that reservoir of goodness.” 

In all the chaos and upheaval and turmoil in our individual lives, in our national life, and in the lives of the nations, hope is always a possibility for our lives.

When developing hope in our lives, we begin in the present.

Hope asks the question: “What kind of future are we building for ourselves?”[i] In other words, hope is not about positive thinking or wishing hard that something might happen. Hope asks about what we are doing.

In difficult times we ask a lot of questions. I once read a list of what were called the “four worst best questions.” These questions are:

What are my problems?

What are my needs?

What are my concerns?

What are my weaknesses and shortcomings?

Start by asking these questions, and you’ll end with a bountiful harvest of despair, depression, and despondency.[ii]

When looking for a way through those times and events that weigh you down, I invite you to start instead with your strengths, with what you have, with your opportunities. In difficult times, these are the things you most need to know. With them in mind you can ask the question of hope: “Where am I headed?”

Hope has a destination, an end result toward which we build.

What kind of future are you building? What action can you take—today—to bring you closer to your desire?

What garden are you planting?

“Hope does not disappoint us,” Paul writes. He doesn’t say: “Our hopes are not disappointed.” He knows, as you know, that they can be and often are. Quite often, in the quest for peace, in the search for equality, in the work toward justice we are disappointed. Genuine hope, even if it is crushed, does not disappoint, however, because it is grows from the conviction that we have what we need—that we are at all times held in the love of God.[iii]

We are invited to live in hope—to live with the conviction that there is a future to build; with the conviction that we are going somewhere.

Hope begins in the present.

Hope sets our sights on the future.

When the present is filled with shadows, we look into the distance.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman tells the story of a man who had a rare form of cancer and needed surgery. The survival rate for the surgery was twenty percent. The patient said that he wanted to be part of the twenty percent. He proceeded with the surgery without prior consultation with family or friends. He was back at work in a month.

Friedman asked the man if he had ever heard about the USS Cruiser Indianapolis. He hadn’t. Maybe you have. After delivering the atom bomb, the cruiser sank in the Pacific. Suddenly struck by enemy fire, the ship went under, sending 800 sailors into the ocean. Before long, sharks encircled them. Every so often a sailor would swim toward the sharks and give himself up.

How, Friedman asked, could the man explain why some survived. “Those guys who swam away,” the man replied, “They didn’t have a future.”[iv]

When the waves and the sharks are fierce, hope gives us a horizon on which to set our sights. When we seem to have nothing at all, hope gives us the future with its limitless possibilities and opportunities. Hope is the bird, the saying goes, hope is the bird that feels the light and sings while the dawn is still dark.

Hope sets our sights on the future.

Hope reminds us of the power beyond ourselves.

Arlo Guthrie talked about this in Studs Terkel’s book, Hope Dies Last. The gray sixties icon said: “The older I get, the more I realize that most of the people I know are already dead. My dad, my mom, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, even some siblings are gone now. And most of my friends.

“My great hope,” Guthrie says, “is that this isn’t it.”

“When we live life at our best, we are Easter people. We know our hope is not only in what we are building or what the future might bring. Our hope is in God.”

Because we have this hope, all the great and noble things that we would dare to do are worth doing. What we do today and in this life—showing compassion, acting with courage in the face of fear—what we do today and in this life matters and matters eternally. Resurrection tells us that what we do to the glory of God is important both now and into the future.

When hope arises in the midst of tragedy, there we see what is truly an act of God.

There are times, such as last Friday when the Supreme Court affirmed the right to marry to all people—a right we have been exercising and supporting for years in this place—there are times when hope is fulfilled, when our work is vindicated.

We need times like that. We rejoice in times like that.

But even when such occasions seem few and far between, we can choose to be people of hope and continue to build the future that we want—a future of love and respect, a future that seeks to make God’s love real in the world, a future of abundance and generosity, a future of joy. We can gather up our strengths, our resources, and our opportunities and move toward the future God desires for us.

It’s earlier than we think.

We can still build lives of hope.

And hope does not disappoint.

[i] Page: 1
Kennon Callahan, ‘Hope, ” in Twelve Keys for Living

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Page: 1
Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion

[iv] Page: 1
Peter Steinke, How Your Church Family Works