George Washington looks out toward us from the far eastern end of Commonwealth Avenue. He surveys the mall. He rides unfettered now by time and unbounded by space. Ride on, ride on, thou lasting image of patient restraint.
Much of religion today, including Christianity, emphasizes moments of breakthrough. Their view, this view, emphasizes the gloominess of existence, apart from an occasional sunburst, an occasional feeling, an occasional point of purpose, an occasional touch of eternity. Once in awhile, so goes this version of life, the sun momentarily shines. Breakthrough religion.
Yet, that is not what is found in the Bible. Not breakthrough, but shot through religion is found in Scripture. A rising radiance of resurrection is shot through all experience, shot through all culture, shot through all life, according to the Bible. The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Your true commonwealth, citizenship, homeland, and mother tongue—heaven—is shot through earth, just as the faith of gospel is shot through the common ways and Commonwealth avenues of life. The kingdom of heaven is in your midst.
We are tracing Paul’s announcement of resurrection radiance shot through life, found in his finest epistle, Philippians. If Commonwealth Avenue is the loveliest street in the land, Philippians is the loveliest letter in the land of Pauline epistles. Everywhere, everywhere, SURSUM CORDA!, cries Paul from prison, everywhere there is a resurrection radiance. Learn its verses by heart:
Let all men know your forbearance.
If you were to be known by just one virtue, one trait, what would it be?
In fact, we do tend to think of groups, and even individuals, in terms of one quintessential grace.
Monday’s child is full of woe. Tuesday’s child has far to go…
If you were to aspire to live your live so as to define one form of goodness, what would it be?
For Tillich, it was courage. For Niehbuhr, responsibility. For Barth, resistance. For Lincoln, humility. For Churchill, resolve. For Teresa, trust. For Luther, faith. For Franklin, industry– and frugality. For you?
Paul’s intimate letter to the Philippians ends in the fourth chapter with a crashing crescendo of rejoicing, of joy, of thanksgiving, of expectation and of hope. Yet Paul here also inserts his answer to our question.
What one virtue, ‘at the end of the day’ (as the wise of this world now say though I truly do not know the meaning of this phrase), what one would he wish for his loved ones?
Before you look down at the bulletin, cast your imagination upon Paul as you know him, and try to guess.
Obedience? Paul stresses obedience with the Romans.
Preparedness? Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to be on guard, on the qui vive.
Magnanimity? Paul gives Philemon a thought or two about giving.
Love? Who could argue against love? Paul sings a hymn of love to the sometimes lovely Corinthians.
Freedom? Stand fast, you Galatians, Paul urges.
Yet to none of these earlier (assuming for the moment that Philippians is Paul’s latest letter) foci does Paul return here at the rhetorical summit of his work.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, he acclaims, and then he selects his cardinal virtue.
You will be surprised at the choice he makes.
For Paul is himself irascible, polemical, argumentative, tempermental, anger prone, blunt to a fault. Yet, in his cardinal virtue, selected for the Philippians, he turns in another direction.
They are to be known, he hopes, by their…
Forbearance, epiekes, means what is fitting, right, equitable. It refers to a person of balance, of equable temperament. It refers to you, as you are moderate, gentle, kind, and gracious, and it refers to Christ Jesus, in whom we are saved. Radiance, resurrection radiance is shot through life. Forbearance tells us so. Your faith produces in you a saving gentleness, an earthly counterpart of heavenly glory, glorious sunshine from your heavenly commonwealth, gilding and guiding your steps from Arlington to Mass. Ave.
Look hard, next time, at a piece of work you admire. A building, perhaps a beautiful sanctuary like this one. An institution or company, perhaps a great university. A marriage, perhaps that one marriage you have secretly admired over time. A program, perhaps a school or chorus or ball team. A finely crafted painting, poem, song, sermon, or story. Maybe the radiant, glorious opera, La Cenerentola, magnificently performed, by our choral scholars and others, right here at Marsh Chapel last night. (Shot through, shot through, not breakthrough…) Look very hard, deeply inspect some fine work you admire, I say, and I guarantee you a discovery. Even a mildly surprising discovery. What you so admire was brought out of the mud of nothingness, was created, with forbearance. Forbearance. Take a deep, broad high look at something good and I tell you, you are going to find that this Good, whatever it is, is made out of forbearance. This is a great power for doing Good.
Which brings us, straightway, to Obededom. God love him. Love his name! I do not need to tell you that for millennia Christian preaching has scoured the Hebrew Scripture for illustrations. Obededom personifies forbearance. Long I have loved his story, his encounter with David.
David was a builder. He made music with lute and lyre. He made war upon the Philistines. He made a nation out of warring tribes. More than all that, in the Psalms he made a language of religious longing and discovery that is without parallel. David was a builder. And the Lord loved him for it. And we do too.
To crown his other achievements, David decided upon a risky project. In order to weld together the northern and southern kingdoms into one unmistakable union, David planned to move the “ark of God” out of the north country, and down into Jerusalem. It was a brilliant symbolic decision, daring and deadly, like most of David’s moves. David gathered 30,000 soldiers and went up to where the ark was hidden, in the house of Abinadab.
For all his accomplishments and talent, David was a profoundly fearful man, as the Psalms show us. So, when the ark, a holy and sacred object, was finally on the road, David was relieved, and casting off all restraint, had one wild party. 30,000 men singing, dancing, shouting, along the old Jerusalem road! Suddenly, one of the oxen drawing the ark slipped, and a poor bloke named Uzzah reached out to steady the wagon, and somehow fell down dead. The party ended abruptly. David’s great-hearted fears returned and he found himself quaking in the road, dying the thousand deaths of a confirmed coward.
Did God reach out and touch Uzzah and kill him? I do not believe it. I do not believe for a moment that such breakthrough capricious destruction fits the Bible picture of God, the one to whom Jesus prayed. Such a God is not the one of Scripture, and is not the object of our worship. Who would worship such a beastly God? Would you? No. Yet, it appears, in the depths of his fear, David did believe that God had killed Uzzah.
David, that is, let his fear get the best of him and his thought about God became, what yours also can become, a mirror of our worst fears: a projection of our anxieties, our worries, our hatreds, our worst selves. Talk about God has long carried this danger. David, we know, was a guilty ridden person, and someti
mes, because of his sense of guilt, his thought about God became fearful. God became David’s worst nightmare.
In this fear David stood frozen. Mark my words, this same fear is freezing people today, too. David could not go forward, and could not go backward, and so he entered the lists of leaders, secular and religious, who, in a pinch, solve a problem by making the problem someone else’s problem. That is, he passed the buck. He went up the road a little bit and knocked at the door of an unsuspecting fellow, a poor guy named Obededom. I can hear David, kingly and cowardly, addressing the humble Gittite.
“Yes, Obededom, my friend, do you mind if I call you Obed, or Obie? How about Obs? Listen, we have out here, what you might call a situation, a situation for which your own many talents, Obs, are sorely needed. Now, you see that little box over there. I want to leave that box over in your back yard for a while, and if, well, if nothing extraordinary happens for a while (That is, if you, Obededom the Gittite, do not get lit up fried and scorched), then I will come back and get it.”
Perhaps you have never had the Obededic experience of having someone in authority over you dump a problem in your backyard. Somehow, though, I think most of us know the experience. And I even wager that right now, out in the back lawns of the lives represented here today, and across our listening congregation, there are some little David gifts, some holy arks, bucks passed and dumped and left out of fear. David passed the buck and went home. Night fell on the village of Gath, and the ark lay there, ominous, dangerous, foreboding like all unknown things, especially like your future and mine.
Now the Bible gives us a remarkable, beautiful gift. It says nothing more about Obededom. The story of Obededom ends here. Obededom does…nothing. In the face of David’s bureaucratic haughtiness, all too human fearfulness, treacherous carelessness, in the face of these unpleasantries and dangers Obededom does…nothing. Obededom forbears, practices a little forbearance. He lives somehow with a sense of radiance shot through life. Without his forbearance, the great city of Jerusalem would never finally have been built. Without his forbearance David would never have regained his courage, the ark would have stayed north, the kingdom would have been divided still, the great project of the Old Testament would lay in ruins. Obededom, the Gittite. Endured, tolerated, kept himself in check, controlled himself under provocation. Obededom taught David and teaches us forbearance, the power of patient restraint.
Oh, I admire Obededom, the poor guy. My natural reaction, in such perverse situation, call it life as we know it, is the contrary, not to forbear but to yell, to scream, to reject, to retaliate, to point out the injustice, to militate against the Powers that Be. All of which would have done no good, for David was not, shall we say, in the mood, to change his mind. No, Obededom could see what we so often miss, that something good, something good for God needs forbearance in its making. This is nearly without exception.
Look hard, next time, at something well done. It was made out of Obededic forbearance. That sanctuary you find so lovely got approved mainly because someone bit his tongue so hard it bled. That university you admire was started with the aid of someone’s heartfelt forbearance. That president you so admire who with a keen mind and cool hand practiced forbearance in October of 1962, and so averted a nuclear disaster. That marriage you think so much of is based on a decision, down in the deep reaches of human communication, a decision to forbear a weakness, forgive a fault. That choir you love to hear came out of the ground on the shoulders of someone’s patient restraint. That work of art you admire was produced by a modern Obededom, willing to tolerate and endure the sacrifices required of any true artist. That school you support was created with lots of people forbearing one another. That opera last night that was world class magnificence would not have been presented without some serious forbearance in rearranging rehearsal spots at the last minute, at the drop of a hat. Hardly a decent thing ever gets done without the power of forbearance, patient restraint, the willingness to keep oneself in check, to refrain from retaliation. Look hard, look deep. If it is good, it was made with forbearance. Forbearance is prevenient forgiveness, the presupposition shot through today’s gospel, and the radiance of the resurrection gospel shot through life.
I overhear your question. No, forbearance is not appeasement. Appeasement in personal or in global relations is pure illness. There does come a time when restraint no longer works, but let us admit that usually the time comes far later than our impatient, impetuous, imperious selves would think. David, and we so much like him, are not naturally forbearing. With David we love to prance, to twirl wildly in the loin cloth. With David we are all spit and fury, all energy, all readiness to build–until our fears overtake us.
When you think about it, this is also the message of the cross and the hope of the church. We can admire Obededom because we know that his forbearance, more than David’s fear, fairly reflects God. We worship a God who has shown God’s own forbearance toward us, and shows it still, shot through every day, not breaking through at whim and will. God’s patient restraint, God’s power made manifest in weakness, is the power of the cross. Shakespeare had it near to right, “Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all.” God forbears to become the God of David’s fears. God forbears to treat us the way we treat each other. Here too is a strange word: God even forbears to protect God’s self, God’s Christ, God’s Love from us. God’s forbearance is the foundation of the world and of the church. It is the forbearance of God, at the heart of the universe, which gives life, makes life worth living, and saves us from our ravenous selves.
Perhaps this week, recalling the cross, and remembering the example of Obededom the Gittite, we can practice a little forbearance. Sisters and Brothers in Christ, let us promise to forbear one another in love!