God Is Bigger…

God’s people in Crafton Heights spent the Summer of 2013 talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  I called this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The last installment (at least for now) focused on Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Our Scripture readings were Psalm 27 and Ephesians 6:10-20.

When our daughter was a child, she was afraid of a lot of things.  The dark.  Noises outside the house.   That the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates would somehow become unhinged and have to endure 20 losing seasons.  You know, irrational fears.  And yet we wondered, how were we, as parents, going to be able to help calm those fears?

VeggieTalesFortunately for Sharon and me, in December of 1993 the folks at Big Idea released the first ever Veggie Tales episode, entitled “Where is God When I’m S-Scared?”  That episode featured a catchy little ditty that assured young viewers that “God is bigger than the Boogeyman – He’s bigger than Godzilla or the monsters on TV…and he’s watching out for you and me!”  What a gift that song was!

I thought about that as a friend and I discussed how easy it is for grown-ups to dismiss childish fears.  Kids are afraid of the vacuum cleaner, and monsters, and the dark.  Ha!  Isn’t that cute?

Until you grow up and discover that you, yourself, seem to be in a vacuum.  You’re alone, and facing a crumbling marriage or a mountain of debt.  Monsters like illness or death or violence surround you, and the darkness of depression or unemployment or hopelessness envelops you unexpectedly.  When you are in circumstances like that, singing “Silly Songs With Larry” the cucumber just isn’t going to cut it.

Where is God when you are scared?

This morning, we’ll conclude, at least for now, the series of sermons on “Faces at the Reunion”.  When I came up with the idea for these messages, one person that I was sure I wanted to introduce was Archbishop Oscar Romero from El Salvador.  And as I thought about him, here is the sermon that I wanted to preach:

I wanted to tell you that in 1977 Romero became Archbishop of the most densely populated nation in all of Central America.  At that time, a wealthy elite comprising perhaps 2% of the population owned 60% of the land.  I wanted to stand up here and thunder about social justice, and to remind you that God cares for the poor; I had hopes of preaching a powerful sermon that would invite you to a deeper participation in what God is doing with the people who are on the fringes.

And had I preached that sermon, you wouldn’t have been surprised.  You’ve heard that sermon, or one like it, before.

Yet this week as I contemplated the witness of Romero, that sermon wouldn’t come.  Instead, I sensed God’s leading to talk a little bit about fear.  I resisted that for a couple of days, until it occurred to me that Oscar Romero is a great person to encourage us in times of fear.

Romero headshotRomero was called to be the Archbishop, but he didn’t want the job.  The Latin American church was torn between the Liberation theologians, who identified with the political left, and the conservative leaders, who embraced the status quo.  Romero was a compromise candidate, described as a predictable, pious bookworm who could be counted on to criticize anyone who got too political.[1]  He didn’t want controversy – he wanted to be left alone.

Yet three weeks after his installation, one of his best friends, Father Rutilio Grande, was attacked in a machine gun ambush that also claimed the lives of a peasant farmer and a young boy.  Later that year, 200 Christians were massacred after watching Romero enter a church building.  In the 1970’s and 80’s, it’s estimated that 75,000 Salvadorans were killed by the government, paramilitary groups, and guerrillas.[2]   300,000 people were “disappeared”, a million fled the country, and another million were left homeless – in a nation with a population of only 5.5 million.[3]  Dead bodies clogged the streams, and torture victims were left at the dump every week.

Faced with this horror, the predictable and shy bookworm found his voice.  After viewing the bodies, he said, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I will have to walk the same path.’”[4]

The Sunday following the death of his priest, Romero cancelled all the masses in the local churches, and asked everyone to come to the Cathedral in San Salvador, where he preached to 100,000 people that it was time for the violence to stop.  He refused to attend any government function until the government investigated the killings.  They never did.  The man who never wanted to be Archbishop found himself at the forefront of a movement that was placing his life in greater danger all the time.  When asked about the possibility of his own death, he said, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”

Unlike any of the other subjects in this sermon series, Romero was alive during many of our own lifetimes.  Here is a 90 second clip from a BBC production that will give you a picture of this man and tell you what happened to him:

Do you think that every night when he lay down, Romero was scared?  Of course – he had to be!  The power of darkness is fierce!  He was in the eye of a storm beyond his own making, one he was powerless to stop.

TheLordIsMyLightWhat did Romero have?  He had the truth.  His years of study had revealed to him the simple truth that God’s intentions are not for poverty, enslavement, or repression.  Romero lived the truth of Psalm 27 – as long as he looked to God as his light, he didn’t have to fear the darkness that surrounded him.

That truth led him to develop courage to speak up for the voiceless and empower the powerless.  And the courage-inducing truth gave him the ability to voice, over against his fear, the knowledge that God’s purposes would prevail.  In his weekly radio address to the nation, Romero did not promise the people that they would survive as individuals; he assured them, however, of the eventual triumph of God’s Kingdom and the certainty of the resurrection of the Body of Christ.  He preached, “Let’s not be afraid to be left alone if it’s for the sake of the truth. Let’s be afraid to be demagogues, coveting the people’s sham flattery. If we don’t tell them the truth, we commit the worst sin: betraying the truth and betraying the people.”[5]

Yes, he was scared.  But yes, he was faithful.

Where is God when you are scared?

I will tell you the truth: when you are scared, God is where he has always been: on the side of justice; reaching, holding, calling, confronting, and doing a new thing.

Beloved, when you are scared – look for the truth.

My friend was struck with the ravages of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.  As her body betrayed her more every day, she was incapacitated with fear.  Until she came to claim the truth of the resurrection of the body and the realization that the grace of Jesus Christ is stronger than even the most hellish of deaths.  The darkness of fear left her in the light of that truth.

Another friend called after her husband had left the family.  He’d assured her that the affair was over and that they’d work things out, but then he just moved out.  She was sure that the children would be ruined and that her life was over…and then she came to believe that maybe God loved her daughters even more than she did.  She raised them to be strong and capable; to claim their gifts and to rely on the Source of their strength.  That truth held that family, and those children, for two decades, and they now shape the world for other kids.

My phone rang late at night.  The voice at the other end said, “Well, I just thought you’d like to know.  The police picked him up tonight.  Said he was selling heroin to kids.  They wanted to know if I wanted to try to bail him out, but I said, ‘No, let him stay.  I need the sleep.’”  And this parent faced the truth that his addict son needed more help than he could give, and embraced that truth, becoming an advocate for his son’s health.  Today, that addict is a father, a grandfather, and a man of faith and hope.

armour-editedPaul wrote to his friends in Ephesus from a Roman jail cell, where he was awaiting his own execution.  As he was giving them advice as to how to deal with the things that frightened and overwhelmed them, he seemed to say that sometimes, the best thing one can do is to simply “stand”.  Four times in this passage, he says, “Yes, take this armor, but then stand there.  Hang in there, holding on to truth.  The struggle is fierce, but you are not defenseless.”  And then notice that he did not ask those friends to pray for his release, or for a stay of execution.  Instead, he asked them to pray that he be bold and courageous.

Beloved, as you think about that question, “What scares you?”, know that I cannot stand here and tell you that no evil will befall you.  It will.

You have more funerals in your future.  Marriages about which you care greatly will end.  Jobs will change.  Disease will come.

Yet in the midst of this, you need not be afraid.  God is bigger than the boogeyman.  Or, to say it a bit more theologically, the One who calls you and equips you is more powerful than the thing that frightens you.  That’s what John said in his first epistle: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (I Jn. 4:4)

So friends, I know that I need not remind you that we live in a scary world.  But I do want to remind you that this is not all that there is.  I’d like to close with a meditation that is often attributed to Archbishop Romero, but was in fact penned by another Bishop, reflecting on the witness of our brother Oscar:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.[6]

Beloved, we need not fear the present nor the future, because God is already there.  God is doing a great work, and we are privileged to be part of it – even when we can’t see the whole thing.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


Each week, I try to provide the folk at Crafton Heights with a little background material on the person before us.  Here are the notes that were available on Romero.  I would particularly commend the feature-length film, free on Youtube.

Faces at the Reunion: Óscar Romero (1917-1980)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

In the middle of the 20th Century, the economy of El Salvador was increasingly manipulated so that the wealthy elite would benefit from the labors of the poor.  For many years, the church (and the rest of the world) either turned a blind eye to this, or accepted it as the cost of maintaining a “friendly” government during the Cold War.  In 1977, Oscar Romero assumed the position of Archbishop of El Salvador and was increasingly drawn to give voice to the plight of the poor.  In so doing, he exposed himself to increasing risk from the violent elements in that society.  On March 24, 1980, he was assassinated while raising the chalice during a celebration of the Eucharist.  This was one day after he called upon the members of the El Salvadoran armed forces to disobey orders to murder civilians.

Archbishop Oscar Romero promised history that life, not death, would have the last word. “I do not believe in death without resurrection,” he said. “If they kill me, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.”  Each year, on the anniversary of his death, people march through the streets carrying that promise printed on thousands of banners. Mothers will make pupusas (thick tortillas with beans) at 5 a.m., pack them, and prepare the children for a two-to-four hour ride or walk to the city to remember the gentle man they called Monseñor.

A 1989 film called simply Romero, starring Raoul Julia is available in its entirety on Youtube.  It’s about 100 minutes long, and features some violence that is not appropriate for young children.  I would encourage adults and teens to view it and be encouraged by the courage of our brother Oscar.  You can watch it on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hAdhmosepI).

Quotes from Oscar Romero:

“There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried”

On the importance of Christians standing with the poor:  “I offer you this by way of example. A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.”

After an attempt to blow up the radio station from which he broadcast his sermons: “If some day they take the radio station away from us, if they close down our newspaper, if they don’t let us speak, if they kill all the priests and the bishop too, and you are left, a people without priests, each one of you must be God’s microphone, each one of you must be a messenger, a prophet… God’s best microphone is Christ, and Christ’s best microphone is the church, and the church is all of you.  Let each one of you, in your own job, in your own vocation – nun, married person, bishop, priest, high school or university student, day laborer, wage earner, market woman – each one in your own place live the faith intensely and feel that in your surroundings you are a true microphone of God our Lord.”

From his book, “The Violence of Love”: “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”

From a letter sent in 1980 to US President Jimmy Carter “Because you are a Christian and because you have shown that you want to defend human rights, I venture to set forth for you my pastoral point of view in regard to this news and to make a specific request of you… I am very concerned by the news that the government of the United States is planning to further El Salvador’s arms race by sending military equipment and advisors to ‘train three Salvadoran battallions in logistics, communications, and intelligence.’ If this information from the papers is correct, instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights. . . .

From a radio broadcast March 23, 1980 – the day prior to his assassination: “I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

[1] “Oscar Romero: Bishop of the Poor”, http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/oscar-romero-bishop-poor

[2] The Center for Justice and Accountability, http://www.cja.org/article.php?list=type&type=199

[5] Christ the King Sunday sermon, 1979.

[6] This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

On May 26, 2013, we finished our exploration of the first letter of Paul to the believers in Thessalonica.  Our scripture readings were Matthew 7:9-12 and I Thessalonians 5:12-28.  

It was just after Easter when I said that we were going to spend some time taking a look at the oldest part of our New Testament: Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  We have spent two months walking through this little note that was penned in the middle of the first century, and we have seen some great spiritual truths:

-       our faith in the risen Savior enables us to stand firm in times of trouble or persecution

-       God’s call to us is rooted in unconditional, reconciling love

-       It is vitally important for each of us to have true friends to invest in as we share this journey of life

-       Every one of us exists in the community of body, mind, and spirit, and we are called to live this life centered in gratitude

-       Jesus has promised to come back, and because we know that, we can know that the world has a purpose and history is moving towards a goal.

Today, we consider the “so what” part of the letter.  If all of these great things are true, what does that matter to us?  What should we do?  Here at the end of the letter, Paul makes his “ask” – he gets to the part of the message where he says, “OK, look.  Here’s how to live out what I’m telling you…”  And he begins with something intensely practical:

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

Paul has spoken glowingly about the call of the community to live in fellowship with each other – about how the presence and call of Jesus brings us into new relationships with each other as brother and sister.  Recognizing that, he says, there is something important about valuing and appreciating the role that good leadership plays in the body of Christ.  It is important to recognize that at the time of this writing, there were no such things as official church officers – just men and women who were striving to be faithful to God by sharing the gifts they’d been given.  Here, Paul invites the larger community to simply appreciate the sacrifices that are made daily and quietly.

And we can do that, can’t we?  We can thank the people who serve this community by counting the money and writing the checks, who practice the music and who plan the activities that make us better able to function as a congregation.

Next, Paul brings out one more time his concern that the church pay attention to the people who are on the edges of this newly-forming community:

14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Don’t you love that?  Look at the people that Paul includes amongst the marginalized: the cranky, the faint-hearted, and the weak.  He knows that there are people in the community who have been lazy and complaining – it’s the church, after all!  We know that we can all be like that at times!  And the Apostle says, “do your best to help them see where they’ve fallen short and help them re-engage in ways that are positive.”

There’s a word that I’d like to highlight here.  It’s translated as “everyone”.  After imploring his friends to be especially diligent about caring for the people on the margins, Paul says to be patient with everyone…to do good, not just to each other, but to everyone.  The word for everyone, παντας, is a common word that reminds us that the intentions of God extend to all that we meet, not merely those whom we like.  These verses remind us of the portion of Matthew that contain what we call “the Golden Rule” – to treat others the way that we’d like to be treated. This kind of instruction points us towards the world with a posture of humility and grace.

“But Paul”, we might say, “How does that look?  What does it mean to say ‘be patient’ or ‘do good’?”

Now, if my mother was writing this letter to the church in Thessalonica, she might be tempted to tell them that this looks like “minding your p’s and q’s.”  I say that because among the mystifying comments I heard growing up was an exhortation, usually with a finger wagging, to “Listen here, young man, and listen well: you had better mind your p’s and q’s.”

What does that even mean?  And why would anyone say it to a seven year old?  Later in life, I learned that some folks say that expression came from 18th-century London, where bartenders wanted to make sure that they charged people the appropriate amount for the pints or quarts of beer they consumed.  Others suggest that it has more to do with 17th-century print-setters, who sometimes reversed the p’s and the q’s when they were setting up a line of type.  All I know is that my mother might as well have been speaking Greek to my elementary-school self by telling me to “mind my P’s and Q’s.”

But I thought of that when I looked at this passage from Thessalonians, because verses 16-22 contain a string of imperatives. Just like the word for “all” or “everyone”, παντας, each of these commands contain, and usually start with, the “P” sound.  Listen:

16 Rejoice always (παντοτε),

17 pray continually (προσευχεσθε),

18 give thanks in all (παντι) circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit (πνευμα).

20 Do not treat prophecies (προφητειας) with contempt

21 but test them all (παντα); hold on to what is good,

22 reject every kind (παντος) of evil.

I think that Paul is trying to help his community of friends remember and hold onto the fact that our lofty ideas about faith and resurrection and hope and joy are more than simply ideas – that when they are taken seriously they lead to a deep appreciation for and commitment to specific behavior that will promote the health and healing of the entire Body.   These are simple practices in which we can engage that will lead us to health: rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! Look for the Spirit! Pay attention! Turn from evil!

The point is that there are behaviors that faith drives us towards: our beliefs have to have “legs” to them: either they make us more Christ-like, more humble, more Spirit-filled every day, no matter who we’re with OR they are meaningless.  If are not able to point to ways that we treat others better because our theology teaches us to do so, then our theology isn’t worth much.

The “so what” of 1 Thessalonians is that we are called to follow Jesus not just in mind or in heart, but in action.  Here in his first letter, Paul is very concerned that we have the proper theology.  Great.  But he wants to make equally sure that our lives reflect that truth on a very mundane level.  Life in Thessalonica ought to be better, Paul says, because there is a church there.  It ought to be better not only for the church, but for everyone else, too.

Paul then closes his letter with what will become his traditional style: he offers a prayer for the recipients, encourages them to greet each other and to reflect on his comments together, and gives them a blessing.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26 Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. 27 I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

I want to underscore what is said in verse 27, wherein he charges the church to make sure that his letter is read in public. We live in a time and place where each one of us has the opportunity to think that communication is a private and personal affair.  If I want to say something, I have the option to “tweet” it to my mass of followers, or post it online; I also have the option to send you a private message or a text.  To be sure, there are times when conversations need to be personal and privileged; however, when it comes to important matters of faith and practice, we need to work these things out together.  As we talk with each other about the things that matter, the best ways to practice the faith in this particular context and this particular time will emerge.  Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “Don’t simply tell people that I wrote…tell them what I said.  Let them sort things out.  Let them seek God’s wisdom for their lives.”

That’s the “so what” to the Thessalonians.  What’s the “so what” to Crafton Heights? What would it mean if we were to mind our own P’s and Q’s?

Well, we’ve had a start: we’ve read this stuff out loud, and at least one of us has had something to say about it.

There’s a prayer page in your bulletin.  It’s got the names of some cranky, some faint-hearted, and some weak on it.  How will we relate to them in the days to come?

What about the people with whom we are tempted to disagree?  Will we treat them with kindness, respect, and patience?

How will we treat the children or the elderly amongst us?  As we seek to “treat others the way that we would wish to be treated”, can we take a look around at who is not here this morning?  Can we regard our neighbors as worthy of our care?

If we can spend some time centered in these questions, beloved, then we can say that we have not only heard, but listened to the Word of the Lord.  And that, my friends, would not only make Paul proud, it should make our fellowship healthier and our neighborhood better.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Left-Handed Living

The saints at the Crafton Heights U.P. Church are continuing to study Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica as we seek to understand how the earliest Christians responded to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  The text for April 14 was I Thessalonians 2:1-16. One of the key components of our worship was teh Children’s Sermon, which included viewing a rendition of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. You can view that link below.

This is not a news flash to anyone who has known me for more than fifteen minutes, but I love children.  Just about the best part of any day for me is when I have special time with a young person.

One day I was caring for a child and as a part of the day’s activities, I read her The Giving Tree.  At the close of our day together, when I reported to mom all the things we’d done, she scolded me when she heard about my literary selection.  The woman said, “I appreciate your willingness to care for and your love for my daughter, but I would be grateful if, from here on, you would not teach her to sacrifice herself or that it’s ok to bend herself to the whim of every other person who walks past.  If you teach my daughter anything, Dave, I would appreciate it if you would tell her to stand up for herself, to be proud, to change the world on her own terms.  Do not, please, teach her how to be a self-emptying, self-denying passive person.”

Wow.  To say “I didn’t see that coming” would be an understatement.  I was totally caught off guard by that comment – I’d never read that book that way at all.  I had (and have) always seen it as a story of love that gives itself in gentleness and tenderness.  I have seen the tree as Christ-like in her willingness to care for and shelter the beloved, even at cost to herself.

Paul Preaching to the GentilesMural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles   Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

I thought of that story this week as I continued our study of I Thessalonians.  In chapter 2, Paul reminds his friends about the way that they met – how he had come to them after being ridden out of town on a rail by the citizens of Philippi.  In spite of the beating and the jailing that Paul and his companions had received in that northern city, they were given the courage to speak the truth of God to the people of Thessalonica.

Did you notice how Paul rehearsed the story of their relationship?  He begins with a series of disarming statements – he lays out everything that was not happening when he arrived in Thessalonica to preach the Gospel.  He did not tell stories; there were no lies.  He and his colleagues were not there in order to be liked or to win the admiration of the locals, and he did not seek personal financial profit from the deal.  There were no demands from Paul or the others.

After explicitly stating the list of things that never occurred, Paul then goes on to say what did happen.

First, the team worked night and day. When they weren’t preaching or teaching, they were earning their own living so as not to further impoverish the people of Thessalonica.  And whereas in ancient times it was perfectly acceptable for a philosopher to charge his students a fee for the enlightenment he offered, Paul goes to great lengths to say that he and Timothy and Sylvanus gave the truth away to the people they met.  They treated the folks in Thessalonica right, and they gave not only the truth of the Gospel, but themselves.

That’s what they did.  Did you notice how they did it?  This chapter is soaked through with the language of relationships.  Last week I mentioned the frequency with which Paul referred to the Thessalonians as “brothers” (or “brothers and sisters”).  Perhaps you noticed that he used that expression three times in this reading.  But it’s more than that.  In verse 7, he says that he and his colleagues were “gentle”.  If you look at the footnotes in your bible, you’ll see that the oldest versions of the text indicate that the word Paul used was “infants”.  In the original Greek, there’s only one letter differentiating the word for “infant” from the word for “gentle”.

I prefer the older reading, and I prefer it because it fits in with the progression that Paul is establishing.  First, he says that they came to Thessalonica as “babes in the woods” – that is, as helpless, dependent, and inoffensive people.  Next, he says that they were as devoted as a nurse caring for her own children.  In Paul’s day, it was not uncommon for a parent to hire a woman to serve as a wet nurse for an infant.  And while there is, of course, a certain bond that exists between a woman and the child whom she nurses, the connection is far deeper, and far more intimate, between the woman and her own flesh and blood.

Then Paul interrupts himself to call them his brothers and sisters, and indicates that he behaved like a father to them – calling, nurturing, caring, and guiding the Thessalonians.  Later in this chapter, in verse 17, he indicates that when he was compelled to be absent from the Thessalonian Christians, he felt like an orphan.

Do you see the depth of relationship that he is trying to describe here?  Paul says that his connection with the believers in Thessalonica was intimate.  I want to explore this further by noting that all of these relationships are relationships which have some power component – but we need to see that in every case, that power is a power that is yielded, rather than seized.

An infant is powerless before its parents – totally dependent.  And while a nursing mother has power over her child, in this context, the mom is seen as giving up her self – giving her sleep, her calories, her substance – for her child.  The imagery of the father that Paul employs is that of one who urges and encourages and pleads.  This is not some “king of the castle” who comes in and lays down the law.

Martin Luther, one of the great teachers of the church, made a helpful distinction between “right-handed power” and “left-handed power”.  Right-handed power relies on enforcement of rules and imposition of one’s will.  The police officer who stops you from speeding, the fork you use to eat your spaghetti, the mother who drags her toddler by the hand across the busy street – these are all fine examples of the ways that straight-line, direct power is useful in allowing us to get things done in the world.

But right-handed power can never inspire or redeem or create.  At best, it limits injustice or abuse; at worst, it destroys.  When we want to respect, nurture, strengthen, and encourage, we need left-handed power.  When we want to inspire and motivate and love, we need power that gives itself.  Power that is made known in forgiving or in suffering.  Martin Luther King Jr. referenced this kind of power when he said to his tormentors, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…”[1]  Dr. King knew, and Martin Luther knew, and Paul knew, that the cross of Jesus Christ is the left hand of God’s power – and Paul wants to make sure that the people of Thessalonica know that he is unwilling to act as a typical religious leader and impose his will on them – he is among them as one who serves, who suffers, who gives, and who shares.[2]

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

What did Paul do?  He lived among the people of Thessalonica, working hard to impart the truth of Christ’s reconciling love.  How did he do it? By modeling that love in the midst of relationships based on vulnerability and trust.  And now, WHY did he do it? So that the people who God loved in Thessalonica would know the life-changing love of God in Christ, that they might be strengthened to make better choices in their own lives, and that they might become imitators of that love and grace in the lives of others.

Ask yourself, now: what are the implications of that kind of life, of those kinds of relationship, of that kind of reconciliation, for the 21st century?

Can we not see here that a significant part of what it means to live as a Christ-follower in 2013 is that we are called to be gentle and to be flexible and to be yielding and to be generous?

What would our families, our church, our community, and our city look like if we all adopted this manner of living – if we faced each other in humility and gentleness; if we sought to listen to, encourage, and forgive each other?

I’m pretty sure that there would be less talk radio.  Facebook would look different.  Sales of games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Grand Theft Auto would probably drop.  I think that we’d find the world to be a safer, less violent place.

And right now, I know that there are dozens of voices screaming in dozens of heads, “I can’t take this any more!  What a load of naïve, idealistic, simplistic hooey!”

Years ago I was accosted by a neighbor who knew that I was a follower of Jesus.  She came up to me and poked me in the chest and said, “I know you think that you’re a good person because you’re Christian.  You probably know that I think you’re foolish.  Do you know why?  I’ll tell you why.  What’s the main message of the New Testament?”  I stammered out something about loving God and loving our neighbor and she jabbed me again and said, “You are wrong.  The entire New Testament teaches one thing: if you are a good person, if you go around loving your neighbor and forgiving your enemies and giving yourself to others, well, then, don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

And she is right, of course.  Jesus, Paul, and all of the Christ-followers in the New Testament put themselves, with great regularity, in positions where other people could pound on them with seeming importunity.

Yet they also used the moral authority that their suffering gave to them as a means of inviting and calling others to walk more closely with God.

Listen to me: Pastor Dave is not telling you that if your life is miserable, you are supposed to roll over and take it.

If you are in a relationship where a man is laying his hands on you, God does not want you to let him go on beating you.

If your girlfriend or your daughter is using all your money to buy drugs, God does not want you to go out and get a second job so that there’s more money in the house.

If your son has wrecked three of your cars, God does not want you to feel guilty about giving that boy a bus pass.

Paul, and God through Paul, is inviting us to join him in urging and encouraging and pleading with others so that they will live a life worthy of God, who is calling them into his Kingdom (v. 12, my paraphrase).

I am saying that our calling is to show and live the grace of Jesus Christ, and that can mean that sometimes we place ourselves in positions where we can and will get hurt.  But you need to know that God is not calling you to live in a place where your humanity, your personhood is threatened by someone else, and where you are constantly used or misused as an object by someone else.  To put it another way, God wants you to live in relationships where you are free to give of yourself, not in bondage where other people are chiseling away at who you are.

So if I babysit your kids, I may read them The Giving Tree.  Because I love that story and even more, I love the story behind that story.  I love it the way that Shel Silverstein tells it, the way that Paul told it, the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela told it.  And I love it the way that I have heard it through my wife, and through my friends who have loved me when I have been at my worst; through so many in this community, and in the church here, and in the church in Malawi.

We have been blessed with an unconditional, generous, reconciling love.  What else can I do but seek to live that way in return?  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

[2] For a more thorough exploration of this, I heartily recommend Robert Capon’s The Parables of the Kingdom, which devotes an entire section to the paradox of power in the life of Christ.

Streams in the Desert

The folks at Crafton Heights completed a six-week exploration of The Lord’s Prayer on Sunday, October 21 as we considered “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Our texts included Matthew 4:1-11 and Psalm 42.

What do you think when you hear the word “temptation”?  Do you envision a person on a diet, craving that dessert?  You might hear “tempting” and think about a person struggling with loneliness and getting suggestive email from a porn site.  What is a “Temptation?”  If my friend Brian, a wiseacre musician were here, he’d say, “David Ruffin singing ‘My Girl.’”

What is temptation to you?

Would you agree that in our culture, we tend to see “temptation” as an individual’s struggle to stay on track, to stay pure, to stay clean.  Someone has resolved to stay on the straight and narrow, but something or someone is pulling him or her off course.  In this light, of course, a temptation is a bad thing – it’s a stumbling block that takes us where we don’t want to be.  A temptation is an opportunity to screw things up.

Today we conclude a six-week series on the Lord’s Prayer, and we hear Jesus’ words, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

What?  Why do I have to ask GOD not to put things in front of me?  Seriously!  It’s bad enough all the junk mail I get and the images that flash through my mind and all my knuckle-headed friends, and now I’ve got to be asking GOD to kindly refrain from messing up my life?  Is that what we are asking here?

No.  What we have is a rather unfortunate, yet persistent translation.  As you may know, the New Testament was originally written in Greek.  According to Matthew, Jesus said, “don’t bring us into peirasmon, but save us from evil.”  Let’s look at the ways that various Bibles have translated this verse from Matthew 6:

NIV, KJV: And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from the evil one.

NRSV: Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

TEV: Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil One.

Message: Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.
  You’re in charge!

The word in question, peirasmon, means “testing”.  It comes from a verb meaning “to attempt”, “to experience”, or “to examine”.  When the Pharisees “test” Jesus; when Jesus is “tempted” or “tested” in the wilderness, this is the word that is used.

In that sense, then, this sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is not really about “Lord, help me to stay on my diet”, or “God, you’ve got to keep me from going off on my neighbor, because she’s on my last nerve today…”

Instead, it’s more “Lord, keep me from the edge of ultimate testing; keep me from the Evil.  Spare me from the kind of testing, or temptation, or peirasmon, that Jesus faced in the wilderness.”

Follow Me – Satan (The Temptation of Jesus Christ), by Ilya Repin (1903)

When Jesus was beginning his public ministry, the first thing he did was go one-on-one with Satan.  He was, according to Matthew, face to face with ultimate evil.

Does this make sense to you?  Do you see how, once again, we are experiencing the Lord’s Prayer as bigger, as tougher, and as more meaningful than we thought that it was?

When we consider the temptation in the wilderness in this light, we see that it’s not really about the devil sneaking up to a man who has been fasting for six weeks and saying, “Wow, couldn’t you go for a sandwich right about now?”  The true temptation is not merely, “I bet you’re hungry – why not change those stones into bread…” but rather, “Who do you think you are, Jesus?  Who are you living for?  What sustains you in your life, now and forever?”  Do you see?  Much bigger questions than, “Wouldn’t you like to be famous?”

And every chance he had to reply to those temptations, tests, or trials, Jesus said, “No matter how hard it gets, I will remember and act as if God is the source of my life and my only hope.  God is the ultimate authority in my world and in this and every universe.”

You see, I can handle my diet.  Or not.  But my diet, by itself, is not really worth this kind of prayer.  When I’m standing with you before the Lord, I need help facing the wilderness of my life.

And I know that you have been in that wilderness.  Oh, you’ve probably not been without food for 40 days, or fasting, or wondered about being thrown down from the top of a mountain… But you know what it’s like to have your deepest assumptions tested and your deepest beliefs challenged.  You know how it is to have your deepest fears brought up in the middle of a sleepless night.  You may not ever have come face to face with Satan, but you know evil.

That’s why I like Psalm 42 so much.  When I hear the beginning of that passage, particularly when I sing it along to the tune that is familiar to many of us (“As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee…”), I am tempted to envision a pastoral scene of quiet solitude and beauty.  The majestic and powerful deer, calm and stately (a lot like me, in fact), pausing to sip from the beautiful stream.

However, that’s not what this Psalm envisions at all.  This is a deer that is crashing through the woods; it is pursued and harried; craving even a sip of water – but not daring to take the time to stop because the moment it stops it will surely be consumed.

Listen to the words of the Psalmist: my tears are my food…my soul is downcast…I am panting for relief…I am oppressed, suffering, and I wonder if God is even there for me.  This is not a Thomas Kincade painting; this is a “Wild Kingdom Predator and Prey”.  It’s the “Shark Week” of the Psalms!

And when we pray, “lead us not into temptation”, or “save us from a time of testing”, we are praying, “Lord, keep us from this!  Protect us from this kind of struggle! As the deer longs for a quick drink from a stream in the wilderness, a moment of refreshment, please, God, please, relieve us from the pressure of the chase.”

Here’s the thing: often we come in here and we start to repeat the Lord’s Prayer and we don’t process any of it…because we’ve ‘tamed’ it. But the truth is that this prayer is a fresh glimpse of reality for us each and every week. When we walk in here and pray this prayer, we are confessing that no one is innocent – no one is pure.  We are all, somehow, stained by things like racism, poverty, greed – we are all, somehow, broken in a sinful world.  And in and through this prayer, we pray for strength to face each day; we ask God to send his promised kingdom; we pray against those forces in the world that oppose God’s purposes.

But until those purposes are stopped and God’s will is done in earth as it is in heaven, then we continue to plead with the Creator to rescue us from a time of trial and to bring each of us and all of creation to His full intention for us and for it.  “Lead us not into temptation” is not our opportunity to ask the almighty to help us avoid that second Klondike bar – it’s much bigger than that.  It’s standing in front of the Lord of Life and saying that we are not sure that we can handle the kind of ultimate testing that we know can befall us and that would like to devour us.

In praying this prayer, we join the Psalmist in saying that we will hope in God, and we will yet praise God – in the midst of the struggle and in the moments of refreshment.

And as I close this message and this series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, I want to underscore one more time the corporate nature of this prayer.  This is not the prayer of a lone ranger who is struggling by himself or herself.  It is the prayer of all of God’s people.  You see, when we are think that we’re all alone, then it can seem terrifying to encounter the wild places and to brush up against our brokenness.  But if we remember that no one of us is ever truly alone – that we pray to “our” Father who feeds and forgives “us” and who promises to bring ”us” to his purposes, then we can believe that the times of trial and testing are not permanent.

If you are in the wilderness and caught up in the struggle today, then let me ask you to reach out to a brother or sister who can help you find your way back – someone who will help you remember to name and to know what is true, even if you can’t see it from where you are right now because you are running so fast.  And if you are enjoying a long moment of refreshment, then let me plead with you to remember that we pray this prayer together, and that in the strength of your wholeness you can offer someone the gift of hope.  Not because you are so great – but because the God who sustains us is so great.  Let us join together in confessing what we need and in sharing what we have to the end that this community and this world might know the heart of our Father a little better.  Thanks be to God, who does all this and more through Christ our Lord!  Amen.


[1] Follow Me, Satan (temptation of Jesus Christ) Artist: Ilya Repin1903

Sauce for the Goose…

We continue to look at The Lord’s Prayer during our worship times in Crafton Heights.  This week we considered “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  Careful what you pray for!  Our texts were Leviticus 25:8-17 and Matthew 18:21-35.

 

One of the hazards of my line of work is that you have to stand really close to people when they say things that ought to scare them to death, but who act like it’s no big deal. I most often think this while I’m conducting a marriage ceremony, and I ask people if they are really serious about following through with their plan to pledge their troth in all love, honor, duty, and tenderness to the person who is standing right next to them.  It’s an amazingly complex and utterly frightening question, when you think about it, but the typical response I see is a dreamy, “I do” like it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to them.

I thought about it when I was Moderator of Pittsburgh Presbytery, and stood by as men and women asked for and received the gift of ordination to the ministry, apparently without thought to the things that they were really saying “yes” to in the decades to come.  I’ve seen it when you all answer questions about baptism, or when someone says “yes” to an invitation to a mission trip to a developing country.  People – don’t you know that saying things like this can really get you into trouble and complicate your lives?  We ought to be scared more often by the things that we say!

But when we see something we want, or that we believe we ought to have, at any rate, it’s difficult to think of the consequences.  I get that.  In fact, I’m guilty several times a week.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Are you for real?  Do you seriously want God to use that standard to judge you by when it comes time for you to be considered for forgiveness?  You want God to treat you the way that you treat other people?

Here’s something that surprised me as I prepared for the sermon: when I was reading through the various commentaries and articles dealing with this petition, many, if not most, wanted to know whether it was better to say “debts” or “trespasses” or “sins” in this part of the prayer.

Seriously?  I mean, I get it.  Words are important.  But these nouns are not nearly so important as the clause that follows.

But, since I’m supposed to be paying attention to this stuff, I should look at it for a moment.

The word “trespass” comes from an old French word, trespas, which means to pass across or go against the law.  In this sense, a sin is an act that I commit that is contrary to God’s truth.

The word “debt” has, of course, financial implications.  Churches that prefer this translation follow the lead of John Calvin, who said that God “calls sins ‘debts’ because we owe penalty for them, and we could in no way satisfy it unless we were released by this forgiveness. This pardon comes of his free mercy, by which he himself generously wipes out these debts, exacting no payment from us but making satisfaction to himself by his own mercy in Christ, who once for all gave himself as a ransom.”[1]  The use of an economic term reminds us that our sinfulness and brokenness have implications in our daily lives, and that there is something that we owe to God because we fail to be obedient.

Some churches get around the “trespass” vs. “debt” debate by using the word “sin”.  That’s a fine word, and it’s accurate, but I have a hunch that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether other people “sin” against us.

My point here is that I’m not sure it really matters all that much which word we use in the request.  In fact, we could probably save a few syllables and simply say “forgive us as we forgive others.”

But do we really want to go there?  My mother was never at a loss for sayings that made me scratch my head.  Once, when I was trying to exact a penalty on my younger brother for some infraction that I myself had gotten away with, she smacked my bum with the wooden spoon and said, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

A sidelight: parents, don’t ever say that to a nine-year old.  What in the world was she trying to say?  As my knowledge of both vocabulary and animal husbandry expanded, I came to see that what she was trying to tell me was that what was good enough for me was good enough for my brother.  It was a lesson not immediately learned.

And it’s a point that I’m not exactly sure I’m eager to make in my theology, to tell you the truth. Do I really want to ask God to treat me the way that I treat other people?  Do you?

The reading from Matthew contains the story of a man who finds himself owing an inconceivable amount of money to another man.  The debt is simply wiped out.  But later, the one who had been released from his debt is trying to extract a much smaller sum of money from a colleague.  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that if a talent is worth, say, $1000, then a denarius is worth a twenty-five cents.  The point of the parable is that the king is amazingly and overwhelmingly generous in his forgiveness.  He is lavish.  He is prodigal.  He is ridiculously willing to forgive the one who has somehow managed to accrue this penalty.  And if God is like that to us, then perhaps we could be equally zealous to forgive each other.

But we are not.  Too often, we mimic the behavior of an old woman whose story is told in The Brothers Karamazov:

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘she once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her; ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’  As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.[2]

The author of that book, Dostoyevski, is making the point that it is really very difficult for us to pass along that which we have received so freely.  That’s why this phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is so frightening to me – because I know that I am not anywhere near as good a forgiver as God is, and it is terrifying to think that he might actually treat me the way that I treat other people.  Yet that is what I ask week after week.

Which means that I had better get serious about forgiveness.  Now please understand that I’m not saying that actions don’t, and shouldn’t have, consequences.  I’m not saying that it’s my job to simply accept all the sinfulness that my neighbor decides to throw on me, or that you’ve got to excuse the family member who keeps on stealing from you, or the alcoholic who continues to abuse you, or the child who continues to lie.  There is a difference between genuine forgiveness and simply excusing bad behavior because you don’t really expect that much from that person anyway.

But am I willing to extend to other people the kind of grace that God appears to be heart-set on offering to me?

And, equally important, do we remember that this petition, like the others in the prayer, is written not only for individuals, but for the community? That is, do we acknowledge that there is not only a personal dimension to forgiveness, but a social one too?  Isn’t that the core of the good news announced in God’s intention for Jubilee back in Leviticus?  That whatever your personal, private relationship with God was like, it had better have a societal and cultural implication?

Think about the headlines that the Amish Community in Nickel Mines, PA, made six years ago after their children were gunned down in school.  Before the day was over, members of that group were in the home of the gunmen, offering to pray with and assist his family with the grief that they themselves shared.  In reaching out to this family, no one was saying that the shooting was right, or that it didn’t matter.  What they were saying was that forgiving other people was the only human action that Jesus goes back to re-emphasize after he teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.  You can read it yourself – it’s right there in Matthew 6:  For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.[3]

In my life, and in our lives, can we seek to model what we know about forgiveness so that the way we treat each other envisions a new social order – one that is not based on any political construct, but rather that is inaugurated by the Fatherhood of a Holy God who provides all that we need; a God whose will is done and whose Kingdom is coming.  Thanks be to God for the gift of forgiveness.  Thanks be to God for the opportunity to share that.  Amen.


[1] The Institutes of the Christian Religion III.20.44

[2] Fyodor Dostoyevski, The Brothers Karamazov, p. 375.

[3] See “Why the Amish Forgive So Quickly” at http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1002/p09s02-coop.html

The Stuff We Don’t Really Mean

We are continuing to look at The Lord’s Prayer in worship, and so on Oct. 7 (World Communion Sunday) we thought about “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 8:1-10 and Mark 8:1-10.

I want you to think for a few moments this morning about how many times in a day you say things that you don’t really mean.  How often does that happen?

-       Hey, Larry!  Great to see you – let’s have lunch sometime soon!

-       I’m sorry I missed your call, but if you leave your name and number I’ll get right back to you…

-       Wow, Shirley, that was the best casserole I’ve had in years…

-       Give us this day our daily bread

Hey, no fair, Pastor Dave!  That last one is different.  That’s the Lord’s Prayer!  Of course I mean that!

Uh-huh.  So if I went to your home, I’d find enough food for today.  If I canvassed the refrigerator, the freezer, the pantry, and al the canned goods, there would be a one-day supply of food – because you are counting on God to show up tomorrow with more, right? Give us this day, our daily bread…

No, that’s not what I mean.  For crying out loud, Dave, you are always saying that we have to be careful about taking the Bible literally.  Of course I’m not saying that I have ONLY one day’s worth of food on hand…

Ahhh.  You see.  Do you mean it when you pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”?  And if so, what, exactly, do you mean?

The first three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer are mostly about God taking care of God’s business.  Keep your name holy, Lord.  Bring in your kingdom.  Do the things that are important to you – your will be done.

But the next three – our daily bread, forgive us, and lead us not into temptation – represent some sort of shift.  Now we are asking God to help us with the things that we need to continue our journey.

Someone told me about the time that they hosted a visitor from a developing country.  As the woman looked around at the amazing abundance of her host’s home, she said, “But you have everything you need!  What do you have to pray for?”

That’s the rub this morning.  How do we pray for “our daily bread” when it might appear as though we don’t really need it?  Most of us in the room this morning, to be honest, are OK with food.  A few of us could use a little help, but we have an idea where to get it.  And probably nobody in this room has had to watch a child starve to death because food was not available.  By and large, in our community and in our nation, we are more worried about how much is in our retirement plans than about how much there is in the pantry.  Could a nation that took this fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer seriously make a toaster like this?

You can’t make this stuff up. Seriously.

How do we pray asking God to give us what, apparently, we already have?

It’s what he thought would happen, you know.  You heard the reading from Deuteronomy a few moments ago.  God is speaking to the group that has left Egypt and wandered through the desert for 40 years.  They are on the brink of entering the Promised Land, and he tells them how amazingly awesome it will be.  Barley and fig trees and pomegranates and honey…Wow, are you in for an amazing ride!

And then there’s the zinger in verses 11-18.

11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. (NIV)

You will forget me, God says.  Once you get settled and start really enjoying all that the Promised Land has to offer – this time in the wilderness will fade from your memory.  You will forget how you relied on me to care for you.  The manna will become meaningless to you.

The lesson of Deuteronomy, of course, is that God does provide.  God is able to care for God’s people – whether we are in the desert or in the Promised Land, we need God’s provision.

From a woodcut in Martin Luther’s Bible

Years later, the Son of God was out in the desert, and he had the brightest and best of his followers on hand.  For an entire weekend, he was teaching a huge crowd of people – there were parables, miracles, and an amazing sense of the presence of the Holy.  After a few days, he turns to his followers and says, “These people need to eat…”

Oh, Jesus, don’t go there.  How can anyone provide bread for people in the desert?

Now I would not have blamed Jesus if he looked at the disciples and said, “Actually, my Dad is pretty good at that sort of thing…”, but he doesn’t go there.  Instead, he repeats the miracle of the manna in the wilderness.  Using the crowd that has gathered, he re-teaches the lesson that it all comes from God.  We do not, as the disciples have already said, have the ability to do it ourselves.  But God can.  And God does.

Hear me, church.  We cannot feed ourselves.  We depend on others to get us through.  Our lives are always and ultimately in the hands of God.  We need God.

-                     the Israelites in the desert

-                     the 4000 in the wilderness

-                     the single mom waiting in line at the food bank

-                     the overpaid celebrity or athlete

We need God.  We who are physically hungry and we who are dying on the inside; we who think we have it all, and we who know we are nothing.  The core of this petition in the Lord’s Prayer is the conviction that God, and God alone, is able to give us what we need.  And in this phrase, Jesus is teaching us that not only is God able to provide, but that God is willing to provide.

And let’s look a little more deeply into the passage from Mark.  As Jesus looked at the 4000 people in the wilderness, what did they need?  Bread.  As I said, it’s a re-enactment of the manna in the wilderness.  God’s people need bread, and Jesus does something about it.  What does he do?  He does not give the bread to the people that need it.  He gives bread – more bread than they could possibly use – to his followers.

The crowd needs bread.  And Jesus gives the bread that they need to someone else.  And those men, bless their hearts, they get it right.  They realize that they are a part of God’s strategy for accomplishing this miracle of daily bread, and they distribute that which Jesus gives to them.  The followers of Jesus are the means by which God’s people are given their daily bread.

I’ve seen people who needed bread – daily bread.  In 2003, I was privileged to help lead a group of Christians to Malawi.  In 2001, we had heard that a famine was brewing, and so we worked to develop a plan.  And I’m here to tell you that it was a great plan, and that the world was changed for thousands of people.

I know that, because one day in May, 2003, I took a walk with Pastor Dennis Mulele in the Chingale region of Malawi.  I asked Dennis about the famine program, and he said, “Oh, Dave, it is amazing.  Six months ago, or a year ago, I was preaching eight or nine or ten funerals every week.  But since the food has gotten here, I am only doing two or three funerals each week, and many of them are people who are already sick or elderly.  I am not burying so many children these days.”

Two weeks ago, I met with the President of Malawi.  She told me that famine is coming to Malawi this year. The rains have failed, and the crops are sparse.  That means that the “hungry season” will begin early.  More than 2 million people – many of them children – are at risk for food insecurity in the next few months.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Here’s the deal: a lot of those children don’t have time for us to come up with a sensational program that will take two years to develop.  I don’t want to see Dennis and have him tell me that he did ten funerals a week while someone put together a plan.

So I have an idea.  And it looks a lot like Mark 8.  I’m suggesting that some of us have some bread that we can share with those who are starving.  A 50 kg bag of corn can supplement a family’s diet for a month.  Right now, we can buy that corn in Malawi for about $20.

I would like to ask you to pray with me that we can launch a program I’m calling “a-MAIZE-ing Grace”.  The goal of this program is simple: we ask Christians in the USA to buy a bag of corn so that Christians in Malawi can give it to people who are hungry.  People here could purchase a little token that indicates the food is being shared, and we ship the money to our partners in Malawi, where they will buy the corn and feed the hungry.

The program isn’t ready yet.  And I’m not using my sermon time to sell you anything.  I am using it to explore this notion of God’s willingness and ability to provide for his people, and his apparent preference for using other people to meet those needs.  And the thing I want you to do today – this world communion Sunday – more than anything is to pray that famine will be averted and that funerals will be postponed until these children die of old age.

Give us this day our daily bread.  Give me what I need, God.  Give me the ability to see who “us” is and what “ours” is.  And show me how I fit in.

I mean it, God.  Seriously.  I really mean it.

Amen.

 Check back soon as to how YOU can get infolved with the Famine Relief/Avoidance plan.  It will be launched within a week!

Things I Can’t Do…

The good people (and the rest of us!) at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering The Lord’s Prayer.  This week, we turned our attention to “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Careful what you pray for!  The scriptures at hand were Leviticus 19:1-4; 9-18 and Matthew 5:17-20, 48

 

Have you ever seen those late night commercials where the lawyer, you know, the guy promises to “get money for you”, sits behind a desk in front of a huge wall of books?  Obviously, those books are intended to reassure us that he’s a smart fellow who’s not making this up and he knows the law.  Do you know what those books often are?  The Code of Laws of the United States of America is a compilation of all the permanent federal laws in the US.  It’s revised every six years, and it currently contains 51 titles and more than 200,000 pages.  It is impressive to see…but difficult to use, because the laws are arranged chronologically, rather than by subject.  But it looks good on TV, doesn’t it?

The portions of the Bible that we’ve heard today come from what are perhaps two of the greatest catalogues of ethical and moral teaching found anywhere.

Leviticus 17-26 is a unit of teaching that scholars call “the Holiness Code”.  It is a summary of the ordinances given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.  It is, for the people of Israel, what The Code of Laws of the United States of America is for us – or at least, for the lawyers.  If we were to read through that entire sequence of chapters, we’d find an amazing and surprising casserole of rules and regulations.  Leviticus contains guidelines for worship, economic relationships, personal hygiene, diet and nutrition, wardrobe, the blood of sacrificed animals, haircutting, dealing with wizards, sexual ethics, the religious calendar, agriculture, idolatry, the kind of oil that is acceptable in lamps, and so much more.  The Holiness Code is a comprehensive attempt to express in concrete and specific terms God’s will for human beings.[1]  The Divine purpose for you and for me.

The Holiness Code is a thorough attempt to outline incredibly specific behaviors that are pleasing to God – an assortment of the mundane and complex, the trivial and the essential, the specific and the general – a way of life that, if obeyed in its totality would be…a rulebook…a code outlining expectations for behavior and penalties for infractions.

The Sermon on the Mount by Laura James (2010). Used by permission of the artist. For more, see her website: http://laurajamesart.com

The Gospel lesson for today comes, of course, from the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 5-7 has been called the greatest moral teaching of all time.  Devout Christians have memorized it for two thousand years.  Very public non-believers, such as Ghandi, have referred to it in hushed tones.  It is a beautiful and eloquent statement of the Jesus Way.

In the Sermon, Jesus takes the Holiness Code and drives its implications more deeply into our hearts.  He brings the focus from external actions to internal motivations.  For instance, the Holiness Code tells us that it’s against God’s will for us to murder or to commit adultery.  Jesus says that’s true, of course, but that the heart of murder is anger and the heart of adultery is lust.  Jesus pushes us deeper into our own desires, and in that push we see how frequently we stand in opposition to the will of God.

The Holiness Code and the Sermon on the Mount have a number of elements in common.  Both of them assume that the Ten Commandments are the primary rule of life, and they assume that the hearer knows what those commandments are.  The Code and the Sermon each contain detailed ethical and religious instruction.  Perhaps most importantly, the Holiness Code and the Sermon on the Mount point to this amazing truth: there is no part of your life – none whatsoever – that falls outside of the care of God.  Every sphere of human existence matters to the Creator.  We need to understand that – that there is not one little box in our lives where we keep all the “religious” stuff, and the rest of our lives are just “normal”.  God’s will for humanity is not merely that we should “all get along” or that we should “lead pretty good lives.”  Leviticus puts it this way:  “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2).  And Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

God’s will for you and for me is total and all-encompassing.  Every facet of your being matters.  Every decision I make has a connection to the will of God.  All of human conduct, thought, reasoning – it is all grounded in and tied to the perfect and eternal will of God.  There is no part of your life, however mundane, that is of no concern to God.  It all matters.

Think about that for a minute.  When we come together and we say that we want to be God’s people and we want to live life God’s way, we don’t get to bring God a part of ourselves.  We don’t get to ask God to show up on our best day – and it doesn’t do any good for me to look at my calendar and say, “Great, Lord, so, I’ll see you on Sunday.  Does 11 work for you?  Maybe a little closer to 11:15?”

When my wife teaches a class at Carnegie Mellon University, she often uses a policy wherein students take a series of exams and write some papers throughout the semester.  At the end of the term, she tells them, “You know, it’s a long haul.  This is a tough course.  You can pick – one paper, one test, one piece of work in this class that I will simply ignore when evaluating you.  I’ll give you a ‘pass’ on something.  You tell me what it is, and I won’t even look at it.  It won’t count towards your grade.  It doesn’t matter.”

I mention this because I want to state publicly that in this instance, at least, Dr. Carver is less thorough than God.  The Holiness Code and the Sermon on the Mount both tell us that every single act, every thought, matters.  It all counts.  No area is insignificant.

And if you are like me, and you think about that for just a few minutes, a single thought enters your mind: “I’m doomed.”  Really: can you be holy?  Are you perfect?  Can you live up to the code or the sermon? Or are you, like me, aware of the fact that if everything counts, you are – to put it mildly – toast?

The Apostle Paul, who knew something about the Holiness Code and the Sermon on the Mount, put it this way: “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good…but I know that nothing good dwells within me…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war with the law of my mind…wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7, selected verses)

Do you know that feeling?  Do you know what it means to realize that even on your best day, you’re not going to measure up to Leviticus or Matthew? That is a hard truth, is it not?

God’s will is there for us.  It’s plain as day.  “Do this.  Be this.”

But I can’t, God.  I can’t do or be that.  Not all of it.

Or let’s put it this way: because of the scriptures, I can know God’s will.  And from time to time, I can even do God’s will, at least in part.  I can love my neighbor (except when her chickens wake me up at 5 am).  I can honor my parents.  I can give to the poor, look at another in purity, hold my tongue, and a lot more that I think is pleasing to God.  Sometimes.  But not always.

I can know God’s will.  And I can, on occasion, do God’s will.  But I cannot will God’s will.  That is, I cannot want God’s will all the time.  I cannot direct all of my energies towards the fulfillment of that will.  I cannot be perfect, and I am not, in myself, Holy.

And that’s when Jesus, right there in the middle of that Sermon on the Mount, teaches us to pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  When we pray that part of the Lord’s prayer, we are confessing that what is done on earth is so often not within God’s will.  And we are asking God to make this earth a little more like heaven.  To display a little more of God’s self and God’s intentions in this world.

And more than that, we are asking God to use us – as human and broken and weak and imperfect as we are – in the accomplishment of that will.  We know that we can’t do it.  But we are asking God to do it…and to do it through us.  Or to do it in spite of us.  When I pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, I am saying I know I can’t do it.  But you can.  Please, do it.  In me.  To me.  Through me.  Around me.

I know that my worship and my economic life and my sexual ethic and my hygiene and my wardrobe and my thought life and my time management and my treatment of my neighbor and my use of technology and my car and my gardening and my…and my…and my – all matter to you, God.  And I cannot do what you want me to do.  But I want to want what you want.

“Our Father, which art in heaven: hallowed be thy name.”  God, we come before you as your people, gathered as your family, asking you to help us remember how holy, how sacred, how set apart you are.  Help us to remember that we are not you, and that you are not us.  But help us to remember that you love us as a perfect father.

“Thy kingdom come.”  Bring to us the full expression of your reign and authority in our hearts, our minds, our lives.  Help us to empty ourselves of our own little kingdoms so that we can be ready to embrace that which you inaugurate.

“Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”  We need you to move us towards that which you desire for us, because we are incapable of moving there on our own.

Before I close this message, there’s something else to say about the will of God as reflected in the Holiness Code and the Sermon on the Mount.  John Purdy, in his excellent Kerygma study on the Lord’s Prayer, points out that when we consider scriptures like the Holiness Code or the Sermon on the Mount, we must make a distinction between rules, principles, and purposes.

Rules are very easy and very specific.  There is a rule against lying.  A principle is what lies behind the rule: we avoid lying because God created us to live openly and honestly with each other.  And that relationship of honesty is anchored in the purpose that God has for us: we are his children.  He is truth.  We cannot be fully his if we are willing to walk in lies and untruth.

The task that is before us as the people of God in the twenty-first century – and indeed in all times – is to look at the rules and regulations that are in the Word of God, and to seek to discern the principles and precepts that lie behind them.  When we sense the precept, we can look for the purpose or intention that is at the heart of God’s will.

Keeping the rules is not what ultimately matters.  Living the purposes is what it is all about.  Which is why, when we need a haircut, we don’t necessarily turn to Leviticus.

I can say, with a straight face, that I have not lied to you.  I have not broken the rule.  But have I been completely honest with you?  Have I held something back, or allowed you to believe something less than the truth?  If so, then I’ve walked away from the principle behind that commandment.  And if I’ve done that, then God’s intention – God’s will for our lives – is thwarted.  We cannot experience the full connection God intends for us if I am hiding something – even if I am keeping the rule perfectly.  I’m not lying.  But you don’t know the truth.

So when we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, let’s not focus on the rules as the most important part of our walk with the Lord.  Instead, let us consider the rules deeply and seriously, and in them, discover the principles for life that God has for us.  In that knowledge, then, we can grow into the purposes and intentions that God has for us and all his children, now and forever, on earth as it is in heaven. Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 


[1] Purdy, John C.  Lord, Teach us to Pray (A Kerygma elective Bible Study © 1992, Pittsburgh PA).