How? | TRANSITIONS WORSHIP SERIES
We come to the end of this series on transitions today, even as, for many United Methodist congregations in the United States, today may mark the end of the leadership of a pastor or deacon, and next week the beginning of ministry of a different pastor or deacon, among them. Maybe among you.
I grew up in a different denomination and under a different kind of clergy placement system-- a congregational call system. When a pastor would leave, it could be months, and more typically more than year, before a new pastor would be in place. In between, we’d have one or more interim pastors to preach, lead worship, and provide some pastoral care, plus some support from a regional denominational leader to help guide our search process for a new pastor, as well as work with the interims to address any internal business we needed to attend to get ready for the next pastor.
All clergy placement systems have their advantages and disadvantages. In the congregationalist-with-regional-support model I had known before, one advantage may have been we got considerable time to “get over” our ideas of what a pastor should be and do based on the previous pastor’s strengths and practices, so we might be just a little less likely unconsciously to transfer those ideas of what a pastor “should” be onto the new pastor we would call. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It certainly did to some degree. It just means it may have been somewhat less likely to happen, or that, if it did, we may have been more consciously aware of it and able to correct for any harmful effects that might come with it.
We get attached to those we love and who love us.
More than this, we get attached to how those we love love us. Indeed, we get attached to how they do every little thing they do.
And those attachments and the emotional bonds that come with them abide, even when the person to whom we had originally attached them is no longer among us or no longer functioning in the same capacity as she had in the past.
And when the person is gone or the role has changed, those attachments, down to how the other person did every little thing, have a way of shifting from attachments to unconscious expectations.
And the reality is, those expectations for how every little thing will be done hardly ever fit the new person.
So we enter the final service in this series, and we reach the final season of transition, the season of “How?” Though it’s a season in our churches marked by appointment, this can often be a season of disappointment, as we find the new person or situation doesn’t do every little thing the same way the previous one did. But, instead, it could be a season of re-enchantment, in which we discover how this new person can do these or other things, some different, some familiar. Most likely, it will be a mixture of both.
Today’s story from the Scriptures is full of possible angles. We could talk about the typical “underdog beats the big bad bully.” Or we could frame it as the Lord using the humble yet confident smaller to defeat the boisterous, braggadocious bigger. Or we could follow Malcolm Gladwell’s take that Goliath was doomed from the start because he had a vision disorder as part of his gigantism.
But today, we’re going to focus on just four verses: I Samuel 17:37-40. It’s a part of this story a lot of us may just pass over, maybe because the rest is so exciting, and this part just seems a little weird —maybe even humorous.
David has accepted the challenge to face the Philistine champion, the giant Goliath, one on one.
If you’re going to fight an army’s champion, you should look like your army’s champion, right? Isn’t that what everyone expects? After all, Goliath did. His very impressive armor is described in some detail in verses 5-7. It weighed upwards of 150 pounds. You’re going to need at least a sword, a bronze helmet, and a prodigious coat of mail. Because that’s what champion warriors wear. That’s HOW they dress. That’s HOW they do battle.
Trouble is, Saul’s battle gear doesn’t fit David, at all. It’s way, way too big, and it’s way, way too heavy. David can’t even walk in it. He tries. But no going.
It’s okay to laugh at the image of it. It’s ludicrous.
But the line at the very end of verse 39, and on into verse 40, isn’t funny. It’s maybe the most important thing that happens in this whole story, especially when we find ourselves in the season of “How?”
David took off the armor Saul placed on him. All of it.
Then he got the stuff he knew how to use-- a shepherd’s staff, his bag, some smooth stones from the wadi, and his sling.
The rest is legendary.
All because he took off the armor someone else put on him, and used the gifts, the tools, and the skills he knew how to use best.
And, King Saul let him.
In the season of “How?” we’re almost destined, or in our good United Methodist terms, appointed to transfer our expectations of how our current pastor or deacon, or a previously beloved pastor or deacon, did every little thing onto every new pastor or deacon we receive. The swiftness of our transition period in The United Methodist Church, essentially none, with no interim, makes this nearly inevitable. We will be like Saul clothing David with his armor.
Maybe the fit won’t be nearly as comically bad as Saul’s armor was for David. But the fit of our expectations for how our next leader will do every little thing will never, ever be perfect. If we try to play Saul at this point, when he’s putting that armor on, we’ll be disappointed. We won’t be able to help that.
But we have another option in this Season of “How?” We have the option Saul eventually took, the one of letting David do what he could do with the gifts, tools, and skills he had. This one we have to choose, consciously. Unconsciously, we’ll transfer our expectations every time. So we’ll experience some disappointment, every time. We may not even be aware that’s happening, or have a name for it. But it is happening, and this is what it is. Transference happens, especially when there’s someone new in a role occupied by someone we loved, admired, or respected. And so some disappointment happens, as well.
But if we choose to let our next leader use her own gifts, tools, and skills; if we consciously say to ourselves and one another, “I don’t know how this next person will do what she does, but I’m looking forward to discovering that,” we won’t get rid of all feelings of disappointment when she’s different from the one before, but we’ll set ourselves up for re-enchantment rather than disenchantment, and we’ll set her up to act confidently in her gifts, tools, and skills.
And who knows what Goliaths we’ll see fall when we do.
Today we may all be on the edge or in the middle of some sort of season of “How?”
And that’s why we’re reaffirming baptism today.
Because it’s in baptism that we remember what we’re all supposed to be about.
It’s in baptism that the Holy Spirit first starts pouring spiritual gifts into our lives.
It’s in this community, living this baptismal covenant together, that we’re learning how to use these gifts and to live as Christ’s representatives on mission with him in the world.
And it’s always in this Triune God, Source and End of all, that we move through every season of transition, from What, to Why, to Who, to How.
Sisters, brothers, siblings in Christ, lay down the burdens you don’t even realize you place on one another, and lay down every burden others have placed on you.
Then come to these waters, and walk, and run, and live free. Amen.