A Room Full of Friends: Eugene Peterson
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 6, 2021
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:34-35; 1 Samuel 16:1-13
If you read the June letter, “From the Pastor’s Desk,” you know that some time ago, I decided to read several books written by one of my favorite Presbyterian pastors, scholars, writers, poets: Eugene Peterson. I re-read The Contemplative Pastor. I read Run with the Horses, A Long Obedience, and several others. Along the way, I happened upon an old, used copy of Take & Read. It is an annotated list of some of Eugene Peterson’s favorite authors. While the book and its list were of some interest to me, what really caught my attention was some advice he offered in the introduction: “Not all of my books will become your books…Start with my list, but then gradually remake it your own. You have to start somewhere. Develop your own list, which over the years will become not a “list” at all, but a room full of friends with whom you have sweet converse.”
A room full of friends! My bookshelves are home to a host of writers. Eugene Peterson is there, of course. Then there’s Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendell Berry, Howard Thurman, Fred Craddock, and many others. Over the years, as Peterson suggests, they have become my friends. And they are friends I want to introduce to you over the summer, via a sermon series entitled, “A Room Full of Friends.” And since it was Peterson who inspired the series, it is only fitting to start with him.
Eugene Peterson grew up in Montana. He attended Seattle Pacific University and New York Theological Seminary, and acquired a Master’s Degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University. In 1962, Peterson was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for 29 years before retiring in 1991. But it was never Peterson’s intent to become a pastor. He planned to work in the academic world as a seminary professor.
Peterson grew up in a Christian home and was familiar from an early age with the Bible. Although he read it, memorized it, and argued it with his adolescent friends, he wasn’t fond of it. He knew it was important, but he had seen it used badly too many times. But after just three of four weeks in seminary, under the teaching of one professor, things began to change. What was once a holy book to be used as a textbook with information about God, as a handbook to lead people to salvation, as a weapon to defeat the devil and all his angels, as an antidepressant—became instead, a place for holy conversation. Peterson found himself listening carefully to skilled writers, poets, and storytellers who were artists of language. Isaiah and David were poets. Matthew and Luke were masters of the art of the narrative. Words were not just words. Words were holy.
When Peterson learned that students were required to do field work, he was thrilled to get the opportunity to coach the basketball team at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He was thrilled because it gave him a chance to work in church without going to church. However, he decided to go to worship the first week of his employment just to get a lay of the land. Growing up in the Pentecostal movement, Peterson didn’t know any Presbyterians. But the preacher, Dr. George Buttrick, had a reputation for being one of the great preachers in America. Almost from the start, Peterson was captivated by something he had never seen in the pulpit—a storyteller and a poet.
Every Sunday evening Dr. Buttrick invited the seminarians to his penthouse manse on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park for conversation about vocation, theology, and the church. The more Peterson saw of his mentor, the more he appreciated his way of being a pastor to his flock. Soon, Peterson began to have second thoughts about his vocation. It dawned on him that there’s little ambiguity to Greek and Hebrew. It’s just right or wrong. But the church was much more interesting. There life was happening all the time—death, birth, divorces, children gone astray. Soon Peterson left his dissertation behind to become a storyteller, a poet, a shepherd to God’s people.
It is to another shepherd that we now turn through the story of David. The Bible is a book of stories. Oh, there are other literary forms—sermons, genealogies, prayers, letters, poems, and proverbs—but story carries them all and holds them together. Moses tells stories. Jesus tells stories. The four gospel writers present their good news in the form of stories. And when it comes to stories of the Bible, David’s story is the most extensively narrated. In truth, we know more about David than any other individual in Scripture. In Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall (from which I am liberally sharing to give you a sense of his writing style), he takes up the story of David, particularly how David prefigures Jesus the Christ and how David’s life serves as a map for spirituality for every person for all time.
The prophet Samuel is out looking for a replacement for King Saul. Having located Jesse and his sons, Samuel proceeds to interview and examine each of them. Jesse brings his sons before Samuel one at a time, like prize farm animals. The grandstand is packed with spectators. Eliab, the eldest is first. His mountainous size and rough-hewn looks command attention. Samuel is impressed. Clearly here is a man who can get things done. Samuel, like everyone else in the community is taken in by his appearance. But God whispers in Samuel’s ear, “Don’t be fooled by outward appearance. Down deep, there’s not much to write home about.” Next comes Abinadab. Then Shammah. After the third son, the Bible quits naming. As each in turn is rejected, tension builds up. Yet none are chosen. The show is over. Jesse is disappointed. The seven sons are humiliated.
The grandstand and bleacher crowds are starting to get restless, some of them feel gypped and want their money back. Samuel is confused. “This is Bethlehem? I am in the right town? You are Jesse?” Well, there must be another son. And as it turns out, as the whole world now knows, there is another son—David. The baby brother, the youngest, the runt of the family. Because David is out of the way, tending the sheep, nobody has thought to invite him to the party. Yet it is David who is chosen. Chosen and anointed. Chosen not for what anybody sees in him—not his father, his brothers, not even Samuel—but because of what God sees in him.
The story of David is the story of a person who is chosen by God and who, over time, comes alive before God. In truth, every event in David’s life is a confrontation with God. He becomes aware of God. He responds to God. We are never more alive than when we’re dealing with God, and David certainly deals with God. When we look at the whole narrative of David’s life—from his anointing to his dying breath—as a specimen of humanity, David isn’t much. He has little wisdom to pass on to us on how to live successfully. He is an unsuccessful parent and an unfaithful husband. From a purely historical point of view, he is a barbaric chieftain with a talent for poetry. But David’s importance isn’t in his morality or military expertise—it’s in his experience as a human being and a witness of God.
The truth of the matter is we can’t be human without God. That’s what Christians believe. All of us are aware of something we need or lack most of the time. We’re not complete. This sense of being unfinished is pervasive and accounts for a lot of the trouble we get ourselves into. Feeling inadequate, we attempt to bolster ourselves by getting more education, more money, traveling to another place, buying different clothes, searching out new experiences. The Christian gospel tells us that in and under and around all of these incompletions is God: God is who we need; the God-hunger, the God-thirst is the most powerful drive in us. It’s far stronger than all the drives of sex, power, security, and fame put together. And David displays the most complete rendering of the common life that God can use and shape into his glory—into the likeness of his Son, Jesus.
Oh, David is far from perfect. David fighting, praying, loving, sinning. David with his eight wives. David angry. David devious. David generous. David dancing. If the life of David that comprises prayer and adultery and murder can be written and told as a gospel story, no one should be written off. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing that God can’t and doesn’t use to work God’s salvation and holiness into our lives. If we examine the story of David’s life carefully, we see blemishes and imperfections aplenty, and yet, we witness the love of God that will not let us go.
God’s love is greater than any obstacle we might face in life—David’s Goliath is no match for God. And God is partial to making the impossible possible—for transforming that which we have long abandoned. God makes blessing out of brokenness. God turns shattered dreams into visions of a new tomorrow. Through his Son, Jesus, God comes to us in the simplest of things—bread and wine. Through the Holy Spirit, God comes to us as our Comforter and Guide. And God comes to us through witnesses like Eugene Peterson, who by their preaching, teaching, and writing, inspire us in our faith-walk. The world is filled with people who need inspiration, who need encouragement, guidance, and hope, who need to hear the story of God’s great love. Each day, in new and creative ways, may we be both willing and eager to tell it!