The Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
2 Samuel 23:13-17 Song of Songs 8:5-7
2 Corinthians 7:2-4 John 13:1-5, 12-17
If the COVID pandemic has shown us anything, it provides compelling evidence that there is a vast body of men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day to serve their fellow citizens when they fall ill of the virus. And they regularly show up for duty—sometimes at great cost to themselves and their families—despite the fact that many of the people they are caring for have not shown them the same respect by refusing to be vaccinated or to wear a mask or to avoid crowds. There is an ugly asymmetry to this pandemic that we need to call out. It goes like this: You cannot force me to do what public health experts say has to be done to combat the spread of COVID, but you have to take care of me when I get sick. I maintain my right to say no, but you don’t have any say.
That kind of thinking will never fly in a world shaped by the Bible. The Bible puts a fence of community around the freedom of the ego. Let me show you what I mean by that story you heard today about David and his mighty men.
This is one of a number of stories coming from the period of David’s life when he was fleeing for his life from the jealous King Saul. But being trapped by Saul was not David’s only problem. He found himself also trapped by Israel’s hated enemies, the Philistines. They have insulted David’s sense of family honor by invading and occupying his hometown of Bethlehem.
Pressed on all sides, David has just about exhausted his capital of spiritual and emotional strength. In an unguarded moment of public distress, he expresses his fervent desire to taste the water from the well in the center of Bethlehem. That night, under the cover of darkness, a small party of his devoted warriors sneak into town while the enemy is sleeping and pull off the daring caper of filching a bucket of water from under the noses of the snoring Philistine troops.
When they present this prize to their commander, he is overcome with emotion. To the astonishment of his troops, however, instead of drinking the precious water, he pours the water on the ground where it is instantly soaked up. “Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives? The Lord forbid that I should do this,” he says. What is the meaning of this gesture? It comes out of putting a fence around your ego.
Those men took on almost certain death if they botched their mission. In risking their lives for David, they made the fate of David very personal to themselves. The water from the well became a symbol of the blood of those who were ready to die for David that he might live on. When David saw their demonstration of solidarity, it made such an impact on him that he was lifted out of his depression without having tasted a drop.
But David realized that as they had renewed his spirit, he had to renew theirs too. His ego was governed by his sense of community. So he poured the water on the ground to release its life-giving power to be shared by all his troops. His loyalty to his community put a fence around his ego.
Surely this is a lived out example of what Paul meant, many centuries later, when he vowed to the Corinthians, “You are in our hearts to die together and to live together.” That puts a fine point to what David’s mighty men did for him. They loved him so much that they rushed into almost certain death, the same fate that David saw coming at him. Out of that solidarity of sharing the same fate, new life surged up. Because they pledged themselves to die together, they made a way to live on strong.
I want to be sure you understand that the Bible’s order is first to die, and second to live. Jesus himself said, “There is no greater love than this; that someone lays down life for a friend.” Just before his crucifixion, he made himself into a slave and washed his disciples’ feet. The gospel writer draws out the point by saying, “He loved them to perfection.”
This is the core of the Christian message. As we began our worship today we spoke words supplied by Paul that nail it: “we are convinced that Christ has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who died and was raised for them.” First the death, that life may happen.
When I think about Paul saying, “You are in our hearts to die together and to live together.” I always reach out for a poem by e e cummings. Listen to a portion of it:
i carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear); and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling.
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world (for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
That comes very close to what you heard the choir chanting today from the Song of Songs: “Set me as seal upon your heart…for love is strong as death…its flashes are flashes of fire; the very flame of God. Many waters [of disappointment] cannot quench love, neither can [the] floods [of adversity] drown it.”
When you and your significant other work and pray together to put your lives as a couple ahead of what either of you singly wants to do, you are dying together, but you know the exceeding joy of growing a new life together. When parents can put the needs of their children ahead of what they as a couple want to do, they are dying together, but they are knowing the surpassing joy of helping a new life emerge. When a physician shares his or her personal vulnerability with a dying patient and promises not to abandon that patient, there is profound dying together and a tender living together. And when a church composed of diverse groups can die to the competing claims of “I’m right, and you are wrong” for the sake of enjoying a wealth of insights in life together under the Lordship of Christ, they have each other in their hearts to die together and to live together.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) knows how to do heart-talk really well. That might surprise you for all our emphasis on order and structure. But hear me out. It’s not that we are particularly gushy or touchy-feely. No, our heart-talk comes from our being honest and humble with each other and from our making commitments that stick. The congregation you are worshipping with today is shaped as much by a theology of the heart, of personal relationship with God and of sacrificial love for each other, as it is shaped by saying clearly what we believe and how we go about making decisions. That image you have on the front of your order of worship, the heart in uplifted hand, goes back to the founding of our church. “My heart I offer to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.” Heart-talk is at the center of our Church. It is the only reason we continue to exist.
We are a church that does not run from the hard requirements of commitment. Sometimes that requires sacrifice and suffering. And I am thinking at this moment of Ukraine surrounded on three sides by Russian troops and the threat this is to a free world. How do we show our commitment to Ukrainians and our solidarity with NATO troops, our troops? We plunge ourselves into study and prayer. We take into our hearts the uncertainty, the fear, the dread of the moment, and we take into our hearts the resolve, the courage, the prowess of the defenders. We carry in our hearts the prayer that whatever it is that is driving Russian leaders to provoke this crisis—their fear, their bravado, their pride and more—may be taken from them. We are constant in prayer that this crisis will be averted.
And if it is not, we do not falter in our commitment, our sacrifice, our suffering; for victims, for Europe, and for our country. Can we do it? Look!
We are people who have already given our hearts to Jesus. His heart continues to beat strong even as he continues to live with the memories of all the hell he went through. Because he has our hearts in his hand, he makes our overburdened hearts beat in time with his.
Listen! With Jesus, you can have stamina and more. You can have the wonder of dying together and living together, and yes, you can know that a community of love is there for you in a pretty grim world, because he carries all of us, scarred as we are, in his heart. This is what I think the good news is for you on the eve of this Valentine’s Day.