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Recognizing Our Anxiety for What It Is

Recognizing Our Anxiety for What It Is
II Sam. 5:1-5, 9-10
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
20 August 2006

I want to back up. Instead of this moment of triumph when David is crowned king of all Israel after seven years of civil war with the surviving members of the House of Saul, let’s go back to the end of the Book of I Samuel.

For years David has been hiding in the wilderness, pursued by Saul, in a series of marvelous narratives that are a literary achievement.

Eventually, David realizes that Saul will sooner or later succeed in finding him., so David allies himself with the Philistines. King Achish gives David control over the city of Ziklag, where all of David’s followers and their families come to live. David now works for the Philistines and raids various tribes and towns all the way to Egypt. The Philistines think he is raiding Israelite towns, but David is raiding the towns of other tribes. In each one he slaughters the entire population so that no one will return to the Philistines and tell his secret.

The Philistines then muster for one final invasion of Israel. Saul prepares his forces. Saul is no longer receiving the guidance of the Lord, because God has removed God’s Spirit and Samuel has died. Saul, who had expelled all the sorcerers and mediums from Israel goes in secret to the Medium of Endor. She is afraid when she discovers it is Saul who has come to her, but after he swears his protection, she calls the ghost of Samuel. Samuel is angry at Saul for awakening his spirit and announces to Saul that he and his sons will be dead tomorrow. Saul flings himself to the ground in terror. Saul is finally a completely broken man.

David marches out with the Philistine army, planning to participate in the invasion of Israel, but the Philistine lords are afraid of David’s armies switching sides in the battle, so King Achish sends David home to Ziklag. When David and his men get back to Ziklag, it has been attacked by the Amalekites who have taken all their wives and children and burned the city. David and his men weep uncontrollably. They pursued the Amalekites, freed the captive women and children, and gained great spoils of war. Immediately when he returns, David sends the spoils to the elders of Judah -- clearly David is currying favor.

The Philistines attack the armies of Saul and defeat them. Saul and his sons, including Jonathan, die on the battlefield on Mount Gilboa. Thus ends the Book of I Samuel.

There is a confusion and ambivalence that runs throughout this wonderful book. There are competing claims to priesthood, arguments over whether or not to crown a king, competing contenders for the throne, and war between the Israelites and the Philistines. It is a literary marvel, rich in meaning.

When the book ends, we are at a cliffhanger. The Philistines have conquered Israel and are in control. The king and some of his sons have been killed. David, the rebel, has allied himself with the Philistine conquerors, though he has also taken steps to curry favor with the tribe of Judah. God has abandoned Saul to die in battle. God seems to have stepped away from history, allowing events to take their own course.

Nothing has gone as planned. Back in the opening story of this book, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, had prayed for God to fulfill her desires and give her a son whom she would turn over to God as God’s instrument. When God gives her a son, she sings a great song:

My heart exults in the Lord;
I have triumphed through the Lord.
I gloat over my enemies;
I rejoice in Your deliverance.

The final stanza is full of promise:

The foes of the Lord shall be shattered;
He will thunder against them in the heavens.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
He will give power to His king,
And triumph to His anointed one.

This book that began in promise, ends in defeat. There is no king. The anointed one is not on the throne. Israel’s enemies have conquered the country. Where is God?

I Samuel speaks to those times of confusion and ambiguity. This is written for those times when promises seem unfilled. It is for those times when all your plans have failed. Eli was plan A, but he and his sons failed to lead. Samuel was plan B, but the people rejected Samuel’s leadership and crowned Saul. Saul was plan C, but he has turned bitter and angry and is guilty of horrendous violence. David was plan D, but right now David, who held so much promise and potential, is wondering around out in the wilderness, allied with the enemy, guilty of brutal murders himself. It doesn’t look like plan D is going to work either.

The more I thought about these stories, the more I realized that they wouldn’t fit how I had planned to use them in this sermon series. That happens, you know, the Bible breaks out of the boxes we try to put it in.

Sure David achieves success after many years and is crowned king, but at what cost? How many people have died so that David can ascend the throne? How many people have been cast aside? And how many more will live with the threat of danger in order to keep David on the throne? They may have achieved success, but the Book of Samuel reminds us of the danger that always surrounds power and the drive to succeed.

So, I want to speak directly about violence and the dangerous world in which we live. The more I read these stories in I and II Samuel, the more I felt at home in them, that they described a time very similar to our own – a time of fear, confusion, anxiety, danger, and violence.

When I was in high school, the Cold War came to an end. I remember the excitement and hope at that time that we were entering a new world order where democracy, the rule of law, and peace would be ascendant. And there were positive signs – the reunification of Germany, the democracies of Eastern Europe, the swift, unified action of the international coalition in Kuwait, the worldwide economic prosperity of the nineties. Sure, there were signs that there were still serious troubles in the world – the chaos in Somalia, the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans, the AIDS pandemic, the war in central Africa that had a larger theatre of operations than World War I did in Europe (though most people don’t even realize a war that big occurred in the nineties). And then there were those bombings of embassies and the USS Cole, but despite all these signs, we entered the new millennium with a great deal of optimism and hope for the future.

9/11 and the subsequent events changed all that. We have spent five years in Afghanistan pursuing the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This August we commemorate sixteen years of being militarily involved in the affairs of Iraq. Though some experts dispute the conventional wisdom, most of the people I read and hear on tv believe that the situation in Iraq is getting worse and worse after years of mistakes on our part.

One year ago this next week, the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and we observed a nightmare we never thought we’d see in this country. This was less than a year after the Indian Ocean tsunami, probably the most horrible single event in my lifetime.

In recent weeks North Korea has tested new missiles, Iran has become the dominant power in the Middle East and will likely be a nuclear power soon, and Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in Lebanon, a country who had just begun to emerge from decades of civil war, occupation, and ruin.

The last fives years, there have been terrorists attacks in Indonesia, Spain, India, Russia, and Great Britain. Last week we learned that our authorities and those in Britain and Pakistan thwarted what would have been a horrific attack on trans-Atlantic travelers.

As a result of all these things, our lives have changed. We go through security checks. We wonder what we’ll be able to take on planes. Gas prices are so high that they are affecting our financial well-being.

Folks, I want to name it. I think that we are collectively suffering from anxiety. And with this anxiety has come all of its partner emotions – grief, anger, fear, cynicism, and depression. We already had a pretty pronounced culture of fear in this country before all these events, but I believe it has gotten worse. And it has now lasted so long that we are experiencing an added fatigue that comes from dealing with these complex emotions for so many years.

I see it all the time. Friends gather and the conversation veers off to world or national events and everyone gets a little downcast and the mood changes. Sometimes people end up getting angry at each other about world events over which we have little control.

I’ve had many conversations with fellow ministers this summer about how this summer in particular everyone’s moods seem so different. Some of it is probably the heat, but more people seem to be depressed or in funks. Uncertainty has led to declines in philanthropic giving. People seem to make decisions out of anxiety and fear instead of from places of hope. There is greater confusion and tension.

Maybe you don’t perceive this, but I do. Last week in our Council on Ministry meeting, Paula talked about how she thinks we need to rant. That we need to allow people a chance to get together and vent all their griefs and frustrations. I think that would be a wonderfully cathartic exercise and plan on us putting such an event together in the near future.

This week as I read these stories about a time of confusion, danger, uncertainty, and anxiety in ancient Israel, I realized we live in such a similar time. What can we do? I think that the first thing we need to do is to simply name it. In our orders of worship, I have passed out blank pieces of paper. I want you to take those out and grab a pen or pencil. Tom is going to come play an instrumental piece for us. While he plays, I want you to take the time to consider what in this world or in your life is a cause of anxiety, fear, grief, anger, frustration, disappointment, confusion, cynicism, or depression. Then write these things down -- some of us might have longer lists than others. Or maybe you can draw something that represents these things for you. Work on this while Tom plays. Then, when you come forward to receive communion, I invite you to lay these pieces of paper in the bowl that will be here at the altar as a sign that you are presenting these burdens to God, asking for God’s help. I will then take these papers this week and offer them in prayer to God. They will be anonymous and confidential unless you request otherwise.


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