'Who then is this?'
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
4th Sunday After Pentecost, June 20, 2021
1 Sam 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49;
2 Cor. 6:1-13; Mk 4:35-41
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the fourth Sunday After the Feast of Pentecost. Our readings this morning present quite an array, including a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and two iconic stories—David and Goliath and Jesus stilling a storm. On the surface, none of these have anything obvious to do with one another – and indeed, they are not organized in the lectionary because they do. Yet as I sat with them this week, I noticed common threads. There is the presence of miraculous, or at least very surprising, intervention. But more fundamentally, I noticed what happened around the miraculous or unexpected: a combination of misperception and of awe. I saw a series of reflections on how we are called to open ourselves to the newness that God is doing in, and drawing out of, our midst.
Our first reading this morning is perhaps the most familiar among our readings, the story of how David came to fell the Philistine warrior Goliath. We have previously met David, the youngest of the sons of Jesse the Bethlahemite, the shepherd youth whom Samuel surprisingly anointed (1 Sam 16:1-13). Yet we are reintroduced to him now in this iconic story. The army of King Saul is in a face-off with the Philistine army. Saul and the Israelites stand on one mountain, while the Philistine army stands on an opposite one, with a valley between them (17:3). This makes the emergence of Goliath, the Philistine of Gath, especially visible and intimidating. We hear that he stood six cubits and a span, nearly ten feet tall, though other sources have him at about six foot five—an imposing foe, in any case (17:4). He taunts the Israelites and their God, and offers to fight any of them— an individual victory would resolve this impasse. This goes on for the forty days—the proverbial very long time. No one was willing to answer (or maybe fall for?) the challenge. Finally one day young David emerges from his shepherding, hears the routine insults at the threshold of the battlefield, and takes deep offense. Among the Israelite army, he asks, “‘What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? (17:26)
In an intriguing interlude not included in our passage, David’s older brother Eliab becomes incensed with him, asking him whom he had left to guard the sheep while he pretended bravery. David’s reply, “what have I done now? It was only a question” (17:29) gestures toward sibling rivalries and other family dynamics we can only guess at. Eliab clearly perceived his younger brother as presumptuous, a pretender eager to project himself out of the confines of his shepherding life. This rebuke does not prevent David from bringing his questions to Saul, who also perceives David as comically underqualified: “for you are just a boy” (17:33). David’s reply, comparing the task of felling the Philistine to the defense of his flock from wild animals, wins the king over, however. The comedic misperception continues as Saul tries to don David with massively misfitting armor. And even after David stepped forward to Goliath in his own garb, the stones in his pouch, the giant laughingly observed that the shepherd looked like he was ready to throw sticks to his dog. The commend couldn’t help but plant an image in my mind of Upper Douglas Dog Park as various people fling balls and other toys to their eager canine friends. Of course, we know what went on to happen in this story: after trading insults with his opponent, David steps forward and quickly fells him with an expertly thrown rock. We are told in unmistakable terms that with God all manner of things are possible, using the varied gifts we bring into the arena. We are not to discount the underdog. And underdogs should not discount themselves either.
Our passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians also highlights the chasm of misperception, and the call to overcome it, collaborating with the new life God is bringing into the world. Paul speaks of obstacles, saying that he and his comrades are going out of there way not to put any before the community in Corinth as it grows into fuller stature. And in fact, Paul and his fellow leaders are experiencing all manner of obstacles reflecting imperial Roman oppression: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). Their ministry seeks to endure, to break through the barriers their world placed before them again and again. In this letter, Paul is trying to break through a further barrier of misunderstanding between himself and the nascent Corinthian community—to invite that community to grow and flourish across the miles. Do not add insult to injury, Paul is saying. Already “we are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive” (6:8-9). We are alive. We rejoice, even though we have sorrowed. We are not killed, even though we have been wounded. We seem to have nothing, yet in fact we possess everything. Do not misperceive us, or yourselves, he proclaims across the miles. Now is the acceptable time, now is the day in which the salvation of God grasps us, transforms us, plants us anew, urges us to grow. But the conclusion of our passage is what strikes me the most: “our heart is wide open to you…. open wide your hearts also” (6:13). Paul is speaking, writing, without holding back. His prayer, his call, is for the Corinthians to leave their misunderstandings behind, to remove the barriers between them, to open wide their hearts.
This is also the call and challenge at the heart of our gospel passage this morning. It is an iconic story of Jesus and the disciples caught up in a raging storm. Jesus has just finished teaching a series of parables at the shoreline, if you recall our passage from last week. And now he is in a boat among several others, out on the sea. Like Jonah, he has fallen asleep as a storm emerges. In our Wednesday evening formation series this week, Elaina invited us imagine how we might have felt as fellow disciples observing their sleeping teacher. With what tone did they ask the question, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38) I imagine them asking this question with incredulity or even anger. Whether they thought he could do anything about the storm, the thought that they all might die with Jesus sleeping through and into it was not bearable—at least help us bale out, however futile this might be! Are you in this with us or not? Unlike Jonah, Jesus does not need to leap into the water to calm the storm. He simply utters the powerful phrase, “peace! Be still!”(4:39) Again, we were invited to ponder how we heard a question, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40) I find myself wondering, what if we hear Jesus’ words not as a rebuke but as an honest question—to examine fear, to ask where it comes from. What if the faith Jesus invites us into more deeply can enable us to examine our fear, to see where fear exceeds the natural importance of assessing danger and goes much further, closing down our sense of possibility, serving as an engine of misperception? What if faith can help us break through the oppressive strictures of fear and opens us to new life, life that far exceeds what the rational, logical world observes as possible? The disciples seem to be changed by Jesus’ questions. “They were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” (4:41)
Who then is this? This is a crucial question. The key question. It reveals a misperception—it reveals that they did not know who this Jesus was, and that they recognized their own misperception. The asking of this question is crucial. And they needed to keep asking it. What was it that enabled them to break through to that question? Awe. Again, the text reported, “they were filled with great awe and [then] said to one another, ‘who is this…?’” The creative intervention of the one who had made and enclosed the very sea on which they were tossed broke through to them and opened them to awe. And they took the hint—they collaboratively allowed awe to do its work on them. This would not be a one-time thing. Their hearts would need to be opened wide again and again. And building on that opening, they would need to apply their open-ended questions, “who then is this?” We have reflected together before upon the crucial role of awe in what the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann called the Prophetic Imagination, how awe brings us into the practice of doxology, glorfying the God who made all things and leads us into transformation, the God who makes all things new. And so I wonder this morning, how might awe assist us in breaking through the misperceptions of our lives, the barriers of our world? How might we allow awe to disarm the kind of fear that takes over and distorts, that shuts down possibility? How might awe open us up to hope and to re-creative joy?
I felt privileged to be in the presence that kind of joy born of awe yesterday in the celebration of Juneteenth. This week, Juneteenth – the day when word of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived in Galveston Texas on June 19, 1865 – two years after it had originally been signed – became a federal holiday. Yesterday it was a privilege to spend time at the Bayview Opera House in a neighborhood celebration of the day, feeling the exuberant celebration of freedom, the joy and pride in Black culture that is characteristic of the day. It was inspiring to then go to Grace Cathedral, my first time in that soaring space since the start of the pandemic, to be present for our diocese’ first celebration of Juneteenth as a Feast Day, as hopefully it will become across the Episcopal Church. This joyful celebration of freedom, expressed in a variety of ways in each context, evoked for me, the call to awe to which our gospel passage points. And amid certainty that we have so much more work to do in our country to eradicate racism, the declaration of this holiday, or indeed this Feast Day, is in no way a substitute for that work but a part of it, an invitation further into that work, the transformation of the world into the justice and peace of God’s own dream. Awe clears the way for the removing of barriers, the dispelling of misperceptions, the felling of injustice—it opens our hearts to collaboration with the One who made us and all things, who draws us into God’s own heart, and sets us free to live with one another in the light of divine love. And so this day, may we be inspired to see and ask questions we may not have even known we needed to ask, to say to one another and to our God, who then is this, and to rejoice in the answers that begin to unfold. May our hearts be opened in awe, and our lives, our world, be transformed.
 David Jensen, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 111. Jensen indicates that the Septuagint version of this story labeled Goliath four cubits and a span, about 6’5”.  William C. Placher, Mark: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 77-78.  Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1978, 2018).  https://www.npr.org/2021/06/18/1008095439/juneteenth-is-a-federal-holiday-now-but-what-that-means-for-workers-varies-widel  In October, 2020 the 171st Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of California proposed that Juneteeth be officially adopted as a Feast of the Episcopal Church, and in the meantime it is now being observed in our diocese. https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2021/06/14/diocese-of-california-creates-juneteenth-feast-day-amid-push-to-add-holiday-to-churchwide-calendar/