Tuesday, February 07, 2006

February 5, 2006 - A Sermon on Samson

The Sunday worship service goes pretty well today. It’s the first time most church members have seen me without my hair or beard. Many people tell me, afterwards, they didn’t recognize me until they heard my voice. The other thing I hear, over and over again, is that without hair or beard, I look "ten years younger." ( I wonder... does that mean I was looking like I was 59 and now am back to looking my age – or does it mean I did look my age, and now I’m a spry 39-year old?)

When I go back to the choir room to lead the choir in a pre-worship prayer, as I often do, Bill, our choir director, gives me one of his typical greetings. Bill’s proud of his German heritage, and often throws German words and phrases around in a jocular manner. It’s part of what he would call his "schtick." This time he hails me by saying, "Greetings, Mein Herr" – but then he realizes what that sounds like in English (mine hair), and he and the choir crack up. It’s good to know we can laugh about all this.

Just for the fun of it, I’ve decided to depart from the lectionary (the list of recommended scripture passages for each Sunday) and preach on the story of Samson. I figured the congregation would all be staring at me and thinking about my hair loss, anyway, so I might as well get some homiletical mileage out of it.

Many people think they know the story of Samson, but the only thing most really know about this biblical strongman is the way Delilah cuts his hair while he sleeps, then hands him over to the Philistines in a weakened condition. Yet there’s a good deal more to the story than that – and, when we look at the tale in its entirety, it turns out Samson is anything but a positive role-model. That’s probably the reason the lectionary editors decided to omit his story from their list – as much as the fifth-grade Sunday School boys may enjoy all the murder and mayhem, Samson does a lot of things that would make Dana Carvey’s "Church Lady" blanch – not the least of which is spending a night in a "house of ill repute" (check it out if you don’t believe me: Judges 16:1).

Preaching on this story is a challenge. It’s a bit of a puzzle why, in the Bible, God continues to back this prideful, hot-tempered, violent character, who seems as much interested in brawling and chasing women as he is in practicing holiness. I understand there are a few Christian motorcycle clubs out there – groups of people who dress and talk like the Hell’s Angels, but who are actually very sincere about witnessing to their faith. I expect ol’ Samson would fit right in with that crowd.

I present his story as a tall tale – and Samson as sort of like a biblical version of a comic-book hero. He’s a larger-than-life figure, to be sure – although what’s truly larger-than-life about his story is God’s dogged determination to stick to the terms of the covenant, no matter how undeserving its current human representative may happen to be.

It’s just another example of how the Bible speaks to us from a very different culture, and how the only way to truly understand its meaning is to somehow get inside that foreign culture.

I feel pretty much back to normal now – just in time for my chemo treatment on Wednesday, which will send me back to square one. There’s something Sisyphean about the cycles of chemotherapy: with great labor we cancer survivors push the stone up to the top of the hill, only to see it roll back down again. We can only trust that there’s progress, silently going on deep inside us as the tumors shrink and wholeness is gradually restored.

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