One Nation Under God – Pastor Robert’s sermon for Sunday, July 8

Several years ago, I read the book, “1776” by David McCullough.  It’s a book that focuses on that very important year when our colonies were fighting for independence from Britain.

This book reminded me of just how divided we were in our cause for freedom.  Sure, there were many who were tired and angry over British rule, but there were also many people who remained loyal to the British cause. Even beyond this major division, there was a lot of diversity among the different colonies.  Each colony had its own identity, its own history, and its own needs and perspectives. It was quite a challenge for our founding fathers to bring us together as one united people.

When it was time for our new nation to select a permanent location for our capitol, they didn’t choose Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, or New York. Choosing any one of those cities would have been showing favoritism to one colony or region.  So they ended up creating a new city that would be a symbol of our new nation.  Washington D.C. became the wise political solution for promoting unity among so much diversity.

Like our country’s founders, the leaders of Israel faced the same challenge in trying to unify a people of so many diversities and backgrounds.  In our summer focus on the life of David, today’s scripture from II Samuel is the story of David becoming King of both the southern and the northern tribes of Israel.

David had been serving as king of the southern part of Israel but the northern part was being ruled by a different king.  And these two regions of Israel were at constant war with each other.  This was not the unified Israel that God had intended for his people.

And this was the Prophet Samuel’s greatest fear when the people of Israel had first approached him about wanting to be like the other nations and have their own king.  This is one of those, “I told you so” moments. Thankfully, there are a couple of heroes in our passage of scripture today who were brave enough to step out in faith for the sake of bringing unity to a divided nation.

The first hero was actually some of the leaders who belonged to the northern tribes of Israel.  They were somehow able to put aside their animosity with the southern tribes and make the journey into their territory to meet with David.

This was a very risky political move on the part of these northern leaders.  Their political approval ratings probably took a nose dive when this trip was first announced.  But they were more concerned with unity than they were with any political fall-out for doing such a thing.

When they arrived to Hebron, they gave David credit for leading the people following Saul’s death.  And for the sake of unity, these northern leaders anointed David to be the king for both the northern as well as the southern tribes.

So, the first hero was this group of leaders who risked everything to acknowledge David as King.

And the second hero in this story is David himself.  David could have continued his rule right there in the city of Hebron in the southern territory which would have been the easy thing for him to do. But instead of alienating the northern territory, he strategically chose a neutral city, a Washington D.C. type of city to be the new capitol for a unified people, a city that had neither southern nor northern connections.  And that city was Jerusalem.

But there was only one problem.  The city of Jerusalem was controlled by the Jebusites, which were a people that Israel had never been able to defeat.  Defeating the Jebusites and claiming Jerusalem as the new capitol of all of Israel would be a symbol of this new unity of Israel.  This is one of the reasons why David was such a great leader.  Not only was he a man after God’s own heart, he also had a heart for the unity of God’s people.

But David’s brave decision to conquer Jerusalem would not be easy.  The Jebusites were a very confident people and they boasted that the walls of the city were so strong that the city could even be defended by the blind and the lame.

David’s plan was to not enter by the walls but to out-smart them by entering through the water shaft which he and his privately paid soldiers ended up doing and they were successful.  And this is why the city of Jerusalem is also known as the City of David.

David, along with the leaders of the northern territory who put unity ahead of politics are the heroes of this story from II Samuel.  It was because of their heroic actions, that God’s people became a united people again.  They were now one nation under God.

Last month, I traveled to Pennsylvania to help lead a funeral service for my cousin’s wife. It was held in a beautiful Presbyterian Church where they have attended the past several years.

After the funeral, everyone was invited to the Fellowship Hall for lunch. I was at a table with my family who I hadn’t seen in a while.

While I was sitting there, a woman who attended the funeral came up to me and said, “I heard you say during the service that you are a United Methodist pastor. Is that right.”

I said, “Yes, that’s right.” She said, “Well, I’m not Presbyterian but I knew Joanne really well. I attend a United Methodist Church which is just down the block.”

Her jaws began to clench up as she continued. “So what do you think of this whole gay issue?”

Obviously, I knew that she was referring to our denomination’s special General Conference meeting that will be held February, 2019 to decide on the direction we will go as a denomination regarding same sex marriage and our stance on the issue of ordination as it relates to those who are gay and non-celibate.

My family overhearing this person’s question, all turned away and continued in their conversation. It was obvious I wasn’t going to get any help from them. I was on my own on this one.

I said a silent prayer in my heart for God to give me the words to respond to the awkward timing of her pointed question. I wanted to hear how Joanne was a blessing in her life, not enter into a discussion about the topic of human sexuality at the funeral of one of my family members.

I could tell by her look, she wanted to know my opinion and she wasn’t going to back away. By the grace of God, here is how I answered her.

“Well, we won’t know anything until the General Conference meets next February to vote on this, but here is what I do know. There are probably people in your church who have strong opinions about this. I have clergy friends who don’t agree on this issue. But here is what I have learned. We can still see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of our different theological viewpoints.”

And the last thing I told her was, “I have learned a lot about this issue just by listening to people who have a different opinion than my own. As a pastor, I want people to have an open mind and listen to different viewpoints. That’s what helps us to grow in our faith.”

I then asked her, “Did that help?” And she smiled, thanked me and walked away.

In that moment, it was like the Holy Spirit was reminding me that my opinion wasn’t the most important thing to share with her in that moment. And here’s why: We have it in our heads as United Methodists that if we can just get past this particular controversial issue, we will have arrived in the Promised Land. But we all know that there are many more issues over which we disagree.

No, what was needed in that moment was for me to encourage her and remind me in doing so that when we stop listening to each other, that’s the far greater threat to who we are as God’s people. I’d like to think that I channeled my “inner David” where unity was elevated over uniformity.

Several years ago, I served a church that faced a very difficult decision.  We were trying to discern if we should consider merging with another United Methodist congregation that was not that far from us.

Our two churches were about the same size and we thought that if we would bring our resources together and become one congregation that we would be more effective in our ministry and outreach.  Leaders from both churches served on a joint task force and after several meetings, research, and a lot of prayer, the recommendation was to merge.

So we had a joint congregational meeting to vote in which both churches were present.  Our District Superintendent presided at this meeting which was held in the sanctuary of the church I was serving.

After our joint task force made their presentation and their recommendation for our two churches to merge, we voted.  We decided that for the motion to pass, we should have both congregations vote separately.  Instead of a simple majority, we recommended approval to be 2/3 for each congregation.

I remember this like it was yesterday.  We distributed the ballots and the people voted with a simple, yes or no.  Since it would take a while to count the ballots, the District Superintendent led us in a time of singing.  I felt God’s presence as our two congregations sang together.

There was a spirit of unity.  The sanctuary was filled.  I remember thinking that this was why the task force was recommending the merger.  This was a taste of what our two congregations could do together as one united church.

When the counting of the ballots was completed, the District Superintendent invited the joint task force to face the congregation.  He thanked them for all their hard work, their long hours, and their many prayers.  Everyone applauded.  I was so excited.  God was about to do a new thing among our churches.

Finally, the District Superintendent was ready to announce the results of the vote.  He began with the other church and said that they voted 78% in approval of the merger, well above the 2/3 required.  There was some light applause but everyone knew that there was still one more church.

Everyone was on the edge of their pew waiting with anticipation.  The eyes of the task force members were turned toward where the District Superintendent was standing.  I think I saw a few crossed fingers in the group.  Finally he announced the results that my church had voted only 54% in favor, short of the needed 2/3 approval.

My heart sank.  And I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on the faces of those faithful task force members who had given so much of their time, energy, and hard work over the past several months.  These faithful church members who didn’t know each other very well before our meetings had started, were now close friends in the Lord.

Tears streamed down their faces as they sought to maintain their composure.  After the District Superintendent closed our time with prayer, the spirit of excitement that had filled the sanctuary just moments before had all of the sudden evaporated.  And many of us were left in heart ache.

That week, I remember feeling so bitter and angry toward my own congregation since we were the ones who voted it down.  I was thinking not so pleasant thoughts.  If there was any time that I would become a hell, fire, and brimstone preacher, that upcoming Sunday would have been it!  I remember feeling like I didn’t want to even be a pastor anymore and I’ve always loved being a pastor.  Politics got the best of me, I guess you could say.

And then this evil thought came to me during that week.  As pastor, I have a lot of power.  I get to stand up in front of people and say things.  I could shame them and tell them how we had just missed out on a golden opportunity to be a stronger church.  At the least, I could drop subtle hints in my sermon to let them know of my displeasure.

But here’s what really happened.  God softened my heart that week.  Slowly, but surely, God allowed me to be angry, but then reminded me to use my authority as a pastor for good.   In my prayer time that week, God was telling me that something really good was going to come out of this disappointment in my ministry.

And so, that Sunday morning during the welcome and announcement time of worship, I named the elephant in the room and I said how many of us had participated in the vote earlier that week and that the merger proposal had been defeated.  And I said how easy it will be to look at each other as a “yes” vote or as a “no” vote.  But I said, that’s not who we are.  We are one body in our one Lord.  We are not a “no” or a “yes” people.  We are so much more than that.  We are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

Now, I don’t always get it right. I have fallen into my share of unnecessary arguments where there are winners and losers. I’m not always a good listener who seeks to understand rather than be understood as the ancient St. Francis prayer reminds us. But by the grace of God, sometimes I do get it right.

Back to my church story about the vote…Do you know that it was only a couple of months after that church vote that things began to really happen in that church?  They let me put a video screen in the sanctuary.  They voted yes for a new contemporary worship service.  It was like they gave me a blank check and said, “Let’s do whatever it takes to grow the church right here, pastor.”  And we did.

We experienced significant growth from that point on.  But we did it together, not as a divided body of Christ but as a united body of Christ.  God was right.  Something good was going to come out of thee most disappointing time in all of my pastoral ministry.

And this is why David is a great man to follow in these summer months.  He’s my hero.  He, along with those leaders from the northern territory of Israel knew that unity was essential if they were to move forward as the people of God.

And isn’t it interesting that because of David’s desire for unity among God’s people, that the last verse from our scripture reading today says, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.” When you and I seek unity among God’s people, great things can happen.

One of my favorite quotes comes from St. Augustine which John Wesley, the founder of Methodism took to heart in his work and ministry.  It goes like this.  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

May it be so.

The Life of David: One Nation Under God

Small Group Questions

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

July 8, 2018

In this week’s summer long focus on the life of David, both the northern tribes of Israel and David who was from the southern tribes promote unity by reaching out to each other. David decides to make Jerusalem, a neutral sight, the new Capitol of Israel.

Share a time when you experienced two sides coming together to promote unity and compromise.

All of us have the opportunity to promote unity in any given situation. It’s been said that each person carries two buckets. One bucket is filled with water and the other bucket is filled with gasoline. We can either help put out a fire or make the fire larger.

What are some practical ways that we can use our bucket of water to help put out fires that threaten unity?

The last verse from our scripture reading today says, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.” This verse seems to suggest that good things happen when we seek unity.

Think of a practical way that you or your small group can do something intentional to promote unity where there is division and discord.