The Long and Winding Road

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 23, we watched as David (now almost 40 years old) was anointed as king by the elders of Israel… decades after Samuel had made a similar anointing.  Our texts included II Samuel 5:1-5 and Philippians 1:3-6.  To listen to the audio version of this sermon, please use the player below.

One afternoon in 1968, a 25 year-old man paused to take stock of his life. For a decade, he had been climbing to the top of the world. Since he was 15, he and his friends had played in a band that had gained some real success, but now their worlds were crashing in around them. Tensions between the lads were high, and what had once seemed effortless and carefree was now a morass of conflict and miscommunication.

That day, young Paul sat down at his farm in Scotland and plinked out a melody on his piano. He later said, “I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.”[1] The result of that afternoon’s labor was a ballad entitled “The Long and Winding Road”, which was released a month after Paul’s band, The Beatles, broke up. It sold 1.2 million copies in the first two days of its release, and was the last #1 hit The Beatles ever had.

My hunch is that you know this tune, but to refresh your memory, here is a portion of the lyrics:

The wild and windy night

That the rain washed away

Has left a pool of tears

Crying for the day

Why leave me standing here

Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone

And many times I’ve cried

Any way you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

Paul recorded a demo version of the song, and was unhappy with it, and left it. Later, John Lennon gave that recording to a producer, who added strings, horns, and a female choir. Paul was so incensed by these changes to his work that when the hearing over the dissolution of The Beatles took place, he listed the treatment of this song as one of his chief grievances. It’s a sad, sad song.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

If you didn’t know better, you might imagine King David singing this song at some point in his life. The reading we’ve had for today from II Samuel announces a significant change in David’s life. Here, at age 37 or so, he is crowned as the King of all Israel. Prior to this, he’d spent seven and a half years as king of the tribe of Judah in the village of Hebron. That was preceded by two years running a band of 600 guerrillas out of Ziklag. For eight years before that, he’d been hiding out as a fugitive from Saul and the army of Israel. That was preceded by time serving on Saul’s staff as a royal musician and part-time Philistine fighter. He had risen to prominence as a teenager when he killed the giant, Goliath, but he first attracted our notice when he was called in from tending the flocks of his father’s sheep in Bethlehem and anointed, as a boy, by the prophet Samuel.[2]

If anyone had a right to sing sad songs about long roads that go nowhere and friends who say one thing but do another, it would be David. For virtually his entire life, he was bounced around and searching for some way to live into the call that had been extended to him. More than once, I’m sure it must have been tempting for David to think of life as a twisted, directionless trek that left him alone and powerless against the world.

This is not, however, the song that David chose to sing. Instead of seeing himself as the victim of an unfeeling universe, David opted to see himself as one who had been invited to cooperate with YHWH and to participate in joyful and energetic response to the ways that God had been moving in the world around him.

We have noted several times that David was a mere boy when the prophet Samuel pulled him aside and told him that God would establish him as the king. For the better part of three decades, young David continued to act upon that promise even when he couldn’t see how it was coming to fruition. God had appointed him to lead, and so he sought to do that as best he could. Even the staunch traditionalists in Israel offer testimony to the same thing on this, the day of his coronation.

In verse 2 of our reading, these men come to David and say, “In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns.” This is a tacit affirmation of the fact that even while Saul was wearing the crown, it was David who as acting as a King should act. The further Saul descended into his own madness, the more David took it upon himself to do the work of the king – keeping the people safe from their enemies, working for justice, and so on. The people of Israel are able to see in David’s actions that which had only been promised, and now they ask him to step into that role.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

In doing so, we see that there is a beautiful symmetry to David’s life. Here, at his coronation, the elders remind David that YHWH has called him to be their shepherd. The one who as the eighth-born son of a poor farmer was out tending to the flocks in the field has now become the leader of all of Israel. In choosing this vocabulary, they are reminding David to take advantage of the lessons he’s already learned about caring for the weak and vulnerable and to apply them in his office as King.

The other bit of vocabulary that jumps out of this verse is the next term that the elders use to describe David: he is called to be not only the “shepherd” of Israel, but their “ruler.” The Hebrew word here is nagid. The statesmen could have said, “David, be our melek, or “king”. But that’s the kind of ruler Saul had been. David is charged to be nagid, which can mean “ruler” but is often translated as “prince”.

Think, for a moment, of the implications of coming into office as the “shepherd” and “prince” of Israel. Although the word is often attached to him, this passage makes it clear that David is not to be “king” in the same way that Saul had been king. A prince is someone who rules in collaboration with a greater authority. YHWH is the King; David is a prince. He has come to realize that true strength will often come through submission, sacrifice, and service – attributes with which Saul appears to have been unfamiliar.

There is no reason to suspect that Paul was thinking about David’s willingness to hold on to the promises of God even when outward circumstances seemed to argue against it, but this story would have made sense to the people who formed the church of Philippi.

Philippi was on a busy highway, the via Egnatia, between two important towns. It was officially a “colony” of the Roman Empire, meaning that life here was to reflect as closely as possible the circumstances of those in Rome. This includes, presumably, worship of any number of Roman gods, participation in an economy that is driven by a multitude of slaves, peasants, and service-providers all of whom were there to cater to the whims of the Roman soldiers and former soldiers who ran the place. The church in Philippi had not gotten off to a promising start – there were very few Jews in town, and so the Christian community appears to have been formed by a rag-tag group of marginalized folks. When confronted with the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Empire, I suspect that there were days that the members of First Church, Philippi, looked around and thought, “Am I really able to believe in the call of God to this place?”

Paul says in no uncertain terms, YES! “I am confident of this: that the One who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ comes.” Paul encourages the struggling congregation not to give up on that which they’ve received, but instead to hold fast to the promise of God.

He reminds them of the ways that God has been moving in the past, and encourages them to look for God’s hand at work in the present. Furthermore, Paul says that this group of careworn believers can march confidently into an uncertain future knowing of God’s purposes for the Creation.

It was good enough for David. It was Paul’s advice to the folk in Philippi. How’s it working out for you? Are you able to live into, or to lean on the promises of God’s presence and power in your day-to-day life?

I know you well enough to know that many, if not most, of you have had at least one occasion to throw your hands up in the air and say, “Seriously? Are you for real, God? You expect me to believe that you are moving in and through this circumstance? Where are you, God?” How well do you see God’s movement in the world around you? How confident are you that God will see the work in YOU through to completion? And how can you get better at those things?

For generations, God’s people have made use of a spiritual discipline known as examen. Quite simply, this is the practice of setting aside some time – ideally each day – to unplug from the what do I have to do next and when is it supposed to be done by rhythm of life and spend some time reflecting about who and how and where you have been in the day and how and where God might have been present in your day or the moments of your day.

Now, here’s the deal when it comes to examen. The goal is to think objectively enough to see the whole picture, and not to simply obsess about the best or worst five moments of the day. I learned this week about a tool that the National Football League uses that is not available to the ordinary fan. Each game is recorded using a system of cameras called the “All-22”. These films allow the coaches to see the entire field of play for the duration of the game. When you and I watch the Steelers play we are forced by the good people at CBS Sports to see how tightly the quarterback grips the laces or how many fingers of the defensive lineman’s right hand are jammed into the facemask of the running back. On the other hand, the All-22 is designed to show the coach how the entire system functions during each play. That way, the coach can see how the guys who don’t have the ball are behaving away from the play. They have a much broader view of the ebb and flow of the entire contest.

Too often when I stop to think about my day, it’s either to beat myself up for that incredibly stupid thing I did right in front of everyone at 11:27 a.m. and how I’m such a moron for doing it OR to think about the fact that I didn’t get a speeding ticket when I blew through the speed trap so it was a great day after all.

A better approach would be to try to give some thought to the movement of the entire day and see where things went well and where I struggled. Sometimes I’ll ask my wife or a friend to check me on something – I’ll say, “This is how I experienced that… what was your sense?” While I don’t usually have an “All-22” view of myself, it’s helpful to listen to someone I trust and make sure that I’m not being either too hard or too easy on either myself or God.

Of course, another way to make sure that I’m attentive to the presence of God in the world around me is to train my eyes and ears to pick up on that. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to spend time reading the Bible and being present to God in prayer – because if I can see what it looked like when God was moving in the lives of people like David or Paul, maybe I’ll be better equipped to catch a glimpse of him in mine.

It’s not unlike bird-watching, to be honest. That is to say, I’m working with my granddaughter so that she knows that just about every red bird she sees at my house is a cardinal. The yellow ones are goldfinches. As she gets older, we’ll get a little deeper and talk about the differences between juncos and titmice, and if she really goes crazy, she’ll learn about the 35 varieties of sparrow that can be found in North America. The more she looks, the easier it will be for her to discern what she’s really seeing.

In the same way, I can train myself, through prayer and scripture, to be better able to spot God in action. When I catch a glimpse – even if it’s only momentary – it’s easier to remember and live into the promise.

I began this sermon with a love song about looking for company on a road fraught with difficulty, and I’ll close it with another. This one wasn’t written by a kid from England, but rather one from the Middle East. It’s a song about walking in trust with God towards a future that is almost always unknown but is never uncertain, and it describes the fact that security is possible, even in the midst of the storms.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, image from the 4th century catacombs in Rome

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One of the things that allowed David to enter into the role of shepherd and prince of Israel is the fact that he never, ever forgot – not while he was afraid as the rapids of life threatened to inundate him; not while he was unsure as to where the path was leading him; not while he was forced to spend time in the valley of the shadow of death; not while he was surrounded by his enemies – he never forgot that he himself had a shepherd and a King. As do I. As do you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (MacMillan, 1998, p. 539)

[2] This chronology is summarized in Leap Over a Wall (Eugene Peterson, Harper-Collins, 1997) p. 137.

Practicing Hallelujah

 

 The saints at the Crafton Heights Church celebrated Easter on April 16 as we concluded our Lenten study of the Bible passages used to frame Handel’s Messiah.  Our readings for the morning came from John 20:19-23 and Revelation 19:4-8.  An audio link to the sermon is immediately below this text.

I was raised in a home that, while wonderful in many, many respects, did not have a great deal of disposable income. There were times when our family struggled financially. That might explain why I have such vivid memories of the “gifts” that my dad would sometimes bring home from work. He’d show up with a paperboard drum from the plant and say that now we had a brand new container for our baseball bats. I remember how happy I was to get a pile of stickers from his work – sure, they all said things like “fragile” or “load this end” or “packing list enclosed” – but you know what? They were stickers, and they were mine, and it was awesome.

But there was one thing he brought that gave me, the middle child, a queasy feeling. It was a motivational poster that warned, “If you a not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!” I know his intentions were good, but why would you give that sort of thing to a nine year old?

My nine-year-old self read that and was terrified. I mean, money was tight, which led to parents arguing, which led to fear and uncertainty that only a middle child who desperately wants everything to work out and nothing to be his fault can understand. I didn’t want problems. And I most certainly did not want to BE a problem. No sir. Not me.

There is, believe it or not, a theological application to this. Hear me out.

In certain circles of American Christianity, there is a school of thought that might be summed up by saying, “You! You are a sinner. You are dirty, evil, and destined for ruin. On your own, you are nothing and nobody. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. But, thanks be to God, Jesus is a problem-fixer. He can clean you up, and make you acceptable, and is even willing to save your soul so that you can make it to heaven when you die.” To be honest, some of our best-loved hymns carry this line of thought.

Look, I don’t want to deny the reality of sin and brokenness. And yes, there are some really terrible things that you’ve done (me too.). But a theology that has as its deepest affirmation something along the lines of, “Wow, I was horrible and then Jesus said, ‘Hey, man, relax. I’ve got this’, so now I’m just chilling over here waiting for heaven…” is a horrible, insufficient theology. For one thing, it’s a gospel of shame; and for another thing, you can’t simply say that Jesus’ main goal was to keep your sorry butt out of Hell.

And when I put it like that, you, being the kind, sophisticated and genteel people that you are, would say, “Oh, heavens, no! Of course, Dave! That’s not the kind of theology we’re interested in.”

Um, well, not so much.

A kinder, gentler version of this line of thinking is that you are not necessarily the problem, but let’s be honest, you do have a problem. A big, ugly problem. I’m fundamentally a good person, but I just need a little help taking care of this one thing over here… there is some sin in my life – an addiction, or greed, or lust, or whatever – but when Jesus comes and stands next to me it’s all good. Everybody knows that nobody really wants to be a jerk, but sometimes it happens. We accept the forgiveness that we have in Christ and it’s all good.

The difficulty I have with those variations of theology is that neither one of them is really adequately supported in scripture.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

I mean, let’s take a look at how Jesus behaved in what John said was the first face to face meeting that took place between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. You heard that in the Gospel lesson a few moments ago. The disciples are all hiding out, afraid that they’re going to get what Jesus got from the religious leaders and the Romans. They’re sure that they’ve let Jesus down, they’re not sure what they can do, and are pretty much paralyzed. And then, into that room walks their resurrected Rabbi.

If the most important message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was that you are a horrible person who needs to be filled with shame about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and the only way to make anything better would be for you to come groveling back and then go over there and stand in that line of people waiting to get into heaven, well, this would be the ideal time for Jesus to lay that one on them.

Clearly, the disciples had disappointed Jesus. The past few days had been filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial, and cowardice.

But what does Jesus say to this group of losers?

“Peace. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

What? No dressing down? No 37 Choruses of “O! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know: nothing but the blood of Jesus”?

Nope. Not here. He settles them down (because they think they’ve seen a ghost) and then he tells them that he’s sending them out.

And how is he sending them out? In the power of the Holy Spirit, as he himself was sent. As practitioners of forgiveness. In this, the first concrete example of what life in the kingdom of the resurrected Son of God will look like, we discover that the hallmark of the early Christian community is forgiveness – forgiveness that is modeled and shared and lived.

Jesus looks at the disciples – and, by implication, at you and me – and says, “You – you are not the problem. And, while you may have problems, it’s not really all about you and your problems. The reality is that the entire cosmos has a problem. It’s why I came. And it’s why I’m sending you out in the way that I was sent, so that you can continue the work of resurrection in the places you go.”

The first thing that the resurrected Jesus told his followers was that they were agents of and ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is my point: that the resurrection is not a little agreement between you and God wherein the Lord looked at you and said, “Wow! That’s ugly! That’s a problem. Look, here’s a way out of that mess.”

No, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the next step in the expression of God’s intentions to reconcile not just those disciples, or you, or me to himself, but rather to reconcile all of creation to itself and its Creator.

And there in that dimly lit upper room, the disciples are given the task of modeling, sharing, and living forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Of course, there is a profound brokenness in my life and in yours. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s bigger than us!

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation cries out for restoration. John writes in Revelation that he can see a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. In the commission of Christ to his disciples, we participate in that restoration as we take seriously our call to be stewards of the planet. The Church of Jesus Christ does not need “Earth Day” to motivate us. We proclaim reconciliation and we live resurrection whenever we act as though we care about the devastation of strip mining, or overfishing, or toxins leaching into our water table. God created humanity to live as caretakers of the garden, and that task is still ours! The way we treat the earth is a statement about what we think God is like and expects from us.

The Golden Rule (Norman Rockwell, 1961)

The early Christians embarked on a pattern of behavior and relationships that meant that the church was never intended to be a haven for one particular kind of people. Instead, the book of Acts describes how wall after wall of exclusion and intimidation was destroyed leading to a vision of a church that was truly reflective of the vast diversity of humanity. John writes in Revelation of people from every tribe and language singing around the throne… that’s what the restored Kingdom looks like.

We participate in that reality as we are willing to risk leaving the safety of our own desires or cultures or homes in order to learn how to be fully present to someone else. We find a way to greet them in a language that makes sense to them; we open our homes to those who are unlike us, and we work to ease the suffering of refugees or victims of war and famine. Why? Because conflict and hunger are not a part of God’s intentions. We have been sent to announce that reconciliation is the goal – and to do what we can to effect that.

The resurrection can and should have great meaning for you and for me personally – but not simply because it means that we’ve got a great fire insurance policy that kicks in when we die.

The resurrection gives us our marching orders as we prepare for and practice living in such a way that the great Hallelujah of which John writes in Revelation makes sense. We are called to walk in, to live in, and to share freely the reconciling work of God in Christ to the end that all creation will echo with the joy for which God intends.

Listen: in a few moments, a dozen or so of us are going to come up here and do our level best to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. We’ve been practicing it for a month. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and I don’t want to disrespect my fellow singers, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be the best version of this piece that you’ve ever heard.

On the other hand, I’m almost certain that it will be the best version that any of you have ever heard in this room. I bet that you’ll be singing along and tapping your toes. Great.

But here’s the deal: when we finish that song, it’s up to you to go out and be the best version of the Hallelujah Chorus that the folks in your house, on your bus, in your home room, and at your office have heard on that day. We are called to go out and practice Hallelujah so that the world might know that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.

Well, we did sing the Hallelujah Chorus, but unfortunately we didn’t video it.  You’ll have to be satisfied with this version from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and trust that the 14 singers from Crafton Heights sounded about like this…

Who’s Laughing Now?

 

 Palm Sunday 2017 brought the folks at the Crafton Heights Church together in celebration of Palm Sunday worship.  Our texts included Psalm 2 and Luke 19:28-44.

For your convenience, an audio recording of this sermon as preached on 04/09/17 is available by clicking on the arrow to the left, below.

I’d like to start this message by showing you one of my favorite photos that includes some of my favorite people standing in one of my favorite places in the world. This is the team that has recently returned from an amazing mission to Malawi, Central Africa. That large rock face behind us is known as the Mulanje Massif, and we’re about halfway into a hike that will take us to a delightful little waterfall. There are three things I’d like to tell you about this photo.

I love this bend in the trail because when you come close to the edge, you can see very, very clearly all sorts of places where you’ve already been. When you look back, you can see the path up which we’ve come. Look down into the valley, and the stream and the camp and the road are visible.

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him, Pietro Lorenzetti 1320


As we enter Holy Week, and as we continue our Lenten journey, and as we live into what it means to be Christians alive in the USA in the 21st century, we, too, can look back. If we look back far enough, we can catch a glimpse of the Triumphal Entry – Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Wow, that was a day to remember! The waving of the palms, the enthusiasm of the children, the singing – heck, even the protest was kind of fun. Who could forget the so-called “religious leaders” who were so appalled by the things that Jesus said and did? I mean, here was Jesus, receiving and enjoying the praise of the people even as he carried their hopes on his own back, getting ready to enter into the most desolate time of his life.

There’s so much that happened on Palm Sunday, and yet from our vantage point, it’s easy to see that one of the central lessons of this day is simply that God, and not another, is in control. As we hear the echoes of the Hosannas, we can know that nothing – not even the events of that horrible week that was to come – is able to separate this creation from God’s intentions for it.

And yet, if we stand here long enough, we might also be able to hear Jesus weeping on that first Palm Sunday. We overhear his lament at the fact that we too often choose to act in ways that are contrary to the purposes of God, and we follow paths of isolation, estrangement, or violence… and Jesus weeps.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

If we stand here this morning and look a little further back, we might just be able to make out something very far off… Do you see in the events of Palm Sunday a shadow of Psalm 2? This song was written for a worship service in which a king would be crowned. It begins with a nod to the realities of its own day: there is political intrigue and conflict, and some are seeking to harm the Lord’s anointed one. The world, even then, is full of those who would thwart God’s intentions – the old translations say that “the nations rage”.

As we listen to Psalm 2, it’s instructive to note that this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where God’s messiah, King, and Son are mentioned in the same breath. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the early disciples remembered this Psalm as they talked about Jesus in Acts chapter 4. Jesus really became the son, king, and messiah of which the Psalm spoke, and they were able to look back and see that.

And in joining the disciples in reflecting on this Psalm, we can hear a sound that is even more distinct than the weeping of Jesus on Palm Sunday: the laughter of God. The Psalmist pictures the Lord considering the threat of the nations and finding it, well, amusing. As if the nations and their rage could threaten the eternal purposes of God. Please… The encouraging, comforting laughter of YHWH tells us that the universe is all right and that’s God’s care has not and will not fail.

So like those hikers in Africa, we can stand on the path and look back… and it’s good.

But let me tell you something about this photo. When this image was captured, I was about dead. The day was almost unbearably hot. I was irritated at carrying a backpack that seemed to have four people’s stuff in it. And, as much as it pains me to say it, I was out of gas. Every muscle in my body hurt and I was tired and achy and miserable. We took that photo because if we hadn’t stopped, the “Abusa with the big hat” wouldn’t have made it. I was overwhelmed, and so I suggested that we stop and take a moment to look around.

On Palm Sunday, 2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights will do well to pause and look around. Does anyone else feel as though you’re having a hard time? Have you felt this week or last week or sometime recently like it’s been really tough sledding? And I’m not just talking about your kidney stones or your sister-in-law’s job, I’m talking about the big picture. 3000 years ago, the Psalmist said that the nations were raging. 2000 years ago, Jesus walked right into a plot led by the religious leaders.

And this week, scores of innocent people were killed in a gas attack in Syria. Already this month, 43 Ethiopian children have been abducted from their villages by armed gunmen who killed 28 adults in the process. There are senior citizens in our own country who lack basic health care. Children in our neighborhood are going to bed hungry. Relationships are strained or broken. Many of us feel as though we are dwelling in uninterrupted pain or grief or depression. You think that maybe you heard Jesus weeping on Palm Sunday but in reality it was the not-so-stifled cries of the people around you. The nations have not stopped their raging.

We stop now, as we hide out here in worship, because we have to. We are threatened by the magnitude of the evil that we see on a daily basis. We come in and we talk about the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, but so many times that runs counter to our experience. It hurts. People are horrible to each other. If we can possibly hear the laughter of God, we’re not always experiencing it as comfort…there are days when it sounds as though even the Divine One is making a mockery of our very existence. We cry out in the midst of our pain and alienation, “Where are you now, God?”

Oh, we don’t always show it. I mean, look at that photo. I’m hiding behind the group. You can’t hear my wheezing. I look happy enough, but don’t believe it for a moment. Too often the rest of you do the exact same thing… you waltz in here and you’re dying on the inside but you won’t show it for a moment. The nations rage, and we feel it on the inside, even if we can’t show it…

OK, there’s one more thing you need to know about this photo and the place where it was taken: from where we are standing on the mountainside, we can’t see where we are going next. The path at this point disappears into some pretty heavy growth and winds around the side of the mountain. Oh, sure, the people who have been here before will tell you all about the waterfall that lies ahead, but you can’t see it or hear it from here. If you’ve never been there before, you can’t even begin to imagine the beauty of the spot to which we’re headed, or the way that those icy waters will refresh and invigorate even the weariest of muscles. Yet every single person in this photo turned to their right and marched into the forest, even though only three of us had ever been there before.

And truth be told, that’s a good metaphor for a lot of us in church now. We may be here because we’ve always come, or we may have a vague hope that somehow things will work out all right for us. Maybe we trust in the one who invited us into this part of the journey, or we believe that the path wouldn’t have led this far just to stop – I mean, it’s got to lead somewhere, right?

And so we keep walking. We hold on to the hope that Psalm 2 is true. We rely on the fact that the events of Palm Sunday are, in fact, a foretaste of what is to come.

Listen: I wish that I could stand here and tell you how you will experience the laughter of God in your own life. I long to give you the absolute assurance that you will receive healing in your own life; that your child will grow into a healthy, happy, and energetic adulthood; that your job will not be erased in the next sequence of downsizing. I wish I could say all of that for you, and you, and you…

But to be honest, I can’t see that far ahead on the path for you or for me; and, unlike that mountain in Africa, I’ve never been here before.

But what I can say is this: that I am confident of the path, and that I believe the one who called us to walk on it with him. I trust that in a cosmic sense, we are going to arrive at the truth that seems so far off right now.

The people frozen in that photo are in the in-between. They’re not where they started, but they can’t yet imagine how they’ll finish. Similarly, Palm Sunday is between the glory of the incarnation with all of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the astounding news of the resurrection… but with the pain of Holy Week on the immediate horizon.

Likewise, the death and resurrection of Jesus itself is between the unspoiled beauty of creation as described in Genesis and the ultimate healing that is put forward in the resurrection of the body and recreation of the world of which we spoke last week.

So, too, are we, right now, pausing to catch our breath, knowing that we are on our way. And since we don’t know what’s ahead, specifically, for any one of us, then for God’s sake let’s do our best to make the journey better for each of us.

Right before this photo was taken, I had set that heavy pack down. After our break, Joe picked up the pack and carried it for me. Our friend Keith walked with the team, and talked in a way that was encouraging and inspiring. Rachael saw that a couple of folks had emptied their water bottles, and she shared from her own.

I know. You’re not going to Malawi – at least not any time soon. But you can do all that stuff, you know. You have it in you to pick up someone else’s load for a while, even if he didn’t ask you to. You can stand next to your friend and tell her that you’re tired, or scared, or unsure. You can share what you have, even when you’re not sure that it will be enough. And you can keep on walking – walk right through the pain and betrayal of the upper room, into the darkness of Good Friday and the cold deadness of Holy Saturday. You can keep walking until you get a glimpse of the sunrise of the resurrection.

Maybe you can’t hear the laughter of God right now. But it’s coming. I promise you, it’s coming. And it is for you. Thanks be to God, it is for you, and for the innocents of Syria and the children of Ethiopia; it is for the One who rode a donkey into Jerusalem and for those who waited with him at his execution. In a real and final sense, the laughter of God is for the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead. God laughs. And it’s good. Amen.

Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered in worship to consider the mystery of the resurrection of the body that is so central to the Christian faith.  Our texts included Job 19:23-27 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  You can read the manuscript, and you can also click on the arrow on the left of the bar just below this paragraph to hear the sermon as recorded in worship on April 2, 2017. 

If you are unable to hear the sermon by clicking on the bar above, please visit https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/sermon04-02-17.mp3  Ignore the rather confused older man speaking in the beginning of the recording.  I’m sure he means well.  He’s a nice guy, and mostly harmless.

I have a confession to make.

For a minister, I don’t talk about heaven very much. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable.

There are a few reasons for that. For starters, I’m really wary of what might be termed a “transactional faith”, in which I try to boil the entire message of the scripture to a simple exchange wherein I insist that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that I could get my sorry butt into heaven when I die. I know, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but the truth is that’s what a lot of us believe and you can visit any Christian bookstore in the world and find volumes and volumes written from that particular perspective. Jesus came to save my soul from the fires of hell. Amen. I think that there has to be more to it than that.

Another reason I don’t like to talk about heaven too much is that I find myself agreeing with famed American author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who once complained that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” You know people like that – they are so set on getting pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye that they can’t be trusted to do the shopping or clean up from the youth group meeting…

And lastly, I think I don’t often bring up heaven because I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand it all that well. Is heaven a real place? What happens to us when we die? Our bodies decompose and fade away… but what happens to the “us” that is “us”? I mean, you can send out a tweet that makes heaven sound pretty good, but the more you think about it, the more questions we face…

Detail from School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1511)

When I was a child, there was an old lithograph that hung above the sofa in the living room. We weren’t usually allowed to spend much time in that room – it was for the grownups – but I’ll always remember this image of “The School of Athens.” In it, we see Plato and his star pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle is gesturing outward, indicating his belief that what truly matters is that which is tangible and can be empirically experienced. Plato, on the other hand, points to the heavens as he indicates that ultimate reality is always and only spiritual – the things that we think we see or experience here on earth are only shadowy forms of something more real or more true in the spiritual realm.

I’m not sure why my mother chose to hang that print there. It may be that there was a give-away at the grocery store and she had a blank spot on the wall. It may be that she had a soft spot for ancient philosophy of which I was unaware. But that image captures what was the dominant western mindset at the time the Bible was written: that to be human means that we possess a body and a soul. When we die, our body rots away, but our soul is freed for eternity. The soul is limited by the reality that the physical body imposes, and once death arrives our soul is finally able to achieve the state for which it was intended.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly parting with Life, William Blake (1813)

For too many Christians, that view has received a quick baptism and has become our dominant belief. We are born into this vale of tears and suffering, and for a while we do our best. But eventually, these bodies fail us and our spirits are freed to go to heaven where the troubles of the physical existence will be forgotten.

When we think about humans as having an immortal soul, we get into trouble. For one thing, that diminishes the significance of the bodies we’ve been given. If there is no value to the human form, then why bother to help those who are suffering through famine or natural disaster? I mean, if this life is so horrible, then why not rejoice when you get to leave it and go straight to heaven? And if this physical existence is not significant, then why should I care about climate change or pollution or the health of the planet?

If my immortal soul is the only thing that matters, then who gives a hoot about what I do with my body or to yours?

But you would say, I hope, that those things do matter. That the ways we interact with each other, the things we do with and to our bodies, and the ways we relate to the cosmos that surrounds us – they all matter.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c.1512)

That is, I hope, because you’ve come to embrace the biblical truth that the notion of an immortal soul trapped in a decaying and virtueless body is simply a lie. When the Bible talks about how life came into being, we’re told that God scooped up some of the dust – which he’d already made and pronounced as “good” – and breathed into it the breath of life. When the breath of God met the dust of earth, the man was given nephesh – a life force. Neither the breath of God nor the dust of the earth is the totality of this experience of true life… our existence is the product of both these things.

Scripture is pretty clear about the value of our physical selves. Leaf through just about any book of the Bible and you’ll find laws about what God’s people should or should not eat, or wear, or do with their bodies. More than that, there are expectations as to how we treat each other and animals, too. We are even instructed to care for the earth.

All of this points to a value of the tangible, physical, corporeal self. The truth of scripture is that whatever makes you who you are is some combination of your body, your mind, and your heart.

That is to say, there is not some essential “Daveness” that can be isolated merely from the things that I think or feel. I am a white male human who has taken 56 trips around the sun. I have a lot of hair, high cholesterol, and a body mass index that is way too high according to that scary chart my doctor has hanging in his exam room. All of those things contribute to me knowing who I am. I am not, nor have I ever been, and nor will I ever be a “real” Dave that is tethered to an irrelevant bag of bones that my soul just has to cart around until I die.

The Bible teaches that the creation of all that is, seen and unseen, was beautiful and right and true… until somehow, it was not. That which was perfect became sullied and imperfect; things that were designed for life began to suffer death. But the Creator, not wanting to see the universe so twisted, began to talk of making things right. The means of this making things right is resurrection.

There is a current reality, which you and I are experiencing right now. You are aware of the hardness of your seat, the temperature of this room, and the effectiveness of your morning coffee. When this current reality has run its course, it will be replaced by a new reality that not only contains the essence of that which we know now, but fully matches the intentions of the Creator. The prophets all talked about the “new heavens and the new earth.”

Job pointed to this in the passage you heard a few moments ago. He was in the midst of pain and alienation and estrangement, and yet declared that somehow, in all of his Job-ness, he would encounter the Divine. He saw his flesh heading to destruction, but he trusted that such was not the end. There would be, in some fashion, a re-making.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, lays out a careful theology of resurrection. In chapter 15, he points to the resurrected Jesus as the indicator of that which is to come in all of creation. Using the analogy of a garden, he compares our current physical selves with seeds that undergo several transformational steps, and yet retain their full integrity at every stage.

For instance, I could show you a seed, a tree, a blossom, a piece of fruit, and a pie. If I were to ask, “What kind is this?”, the answer in every shape and form would be “apple.” The appearance and in fact the cell structure, aroma, sound – all would be different in each of these expressions of that which we call “apple”, but each of these is, undeniably, “apple.”

As a gardener and baker, I seek to be attentive to “apple” in whatever form I find it – treating each iteration of “apple” with attentiveness and respect even as I do what I can to appreciate what it is, what it has been, and what it might become. I can only be faithful with what I have in front of me at the moment and seek to create a future in which that which is now only potential might, in fact, be realized.

You and I, along with the entire created order, are, I believe, headed toward a reality in which beauty, grace, integrity, love, relationship, truth, worship, and God are all central. Those are things that matter forever. Our task, therefore, at this particular juncture of space and time, is to be attentive to those things in such a way that prepares us to experience eternal reality. We are called to practice those things in whatever way we can right now even while we wait for a fuller and richer understanding and experience of them in the future that God has prepared.

Listen: when I was in high school, I was hired to teach a young man named Billy how to play the trombone. Each week, I was given $7 to sit next to him on the piano bench in his living room. I showed him the positions of the slide, talked with him about his embouchure, and noted the importance of emptying the spit valve in appropriate places. I was a fair trombonist at the time, and the band in which I played won some renown.

That was forty years ago. I’m not sure I could find my trombone these days – but I know that it’s dusty and unused. I couldn’t tell you how spell embouchure to save my life. Yet if you were to Google my former student, you’d find that he’s a professional trombonist who has performed in many, many venues and led great musical ensembles.

Why?

Because he did what I stopped doing: he practiced. In 1977, I was a waaaaaaay better trombonist than Billy was. And yet today, he’s wearing tuxedos and blowing his horn in ways that he would not have believed then and I can only dream about now. Because he practiced.

“The trombone will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (I Cor. 15:53) I know, your translations say “trumpet”, but I’m convinced that there’s been an error in the Greek manuscripts…

The resurrection of the dead is not just some amazingly complicated mystery that preachers fall all over themselves to explain. It is where we are headed. And since it’s our future, I’d suggest that we practice resurrection living right now.

I know… we’re not very good at it all the time. We fail, and we try again. We fall, and we get back up. We sleep, and we are jolted awake. We suffer, and we look toward healing. Each of these is a mini-resurrection that is in some way preparing us for that which is to come.

In his amazingly profound book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

We are God’s people, called to practice God’s way of resurrection life. We do this all in the context of the relationships we have, using the bodies we’ve been given in the knowledge that one day our understanding and experience and our selves will be complete.

How does it work? I’m not sure, exactly.

But I want to keep practicing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

The King of Glory

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered on Sunday March 26 to consider the truth that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We spent some time on the boat with the disciples in the midst of the storm (as recorded in Mark 4:35-41) and remembered the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24.

It’s 1000 BC in the ancient city of Joppa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Canaanite children are being tucked into bed, and as they are, they hear stories of the gods of their people.

They may listen to scary stories, such as those having to do with the deity named Moloch. Moloch, they say, demands that the lives of children – particularly first-born children – be offered to him. Those who take their children to be passed through the fire, as it is called, are promised large families and financial security.

Or maybe tonight they’ll hear the story about the battle between Baal, who is said to be the god of the storm, and wind, and rain, and Yamm, the god of the sea and the rivers. Yamm wanted more power, and so he challenged Baal; when he lost, he was cast into the deeps and forced to limit his trouble-making powers there.

Transportation of the Ark of the Covenant Containing the Tablets of the Law, Luigi Ademollo, 1816

About 30 miles away, there are some Israelite children being sung to sleep by their mothers in Jerusalem. Perhaps they are singing one of the Psalms that they’ve sung in worship at the Temple Mount – songs that talk about their God, YHWH.

These kids have heard the stories about Moloch and Baal and Yamm, but they don’t need to be frightened because they know the truth about YHWH. They know that these local deities are no match for the God who has called to them, and in fact compared to YHWH these other so-called gods are nothing. It’s all in the song that their mothers are singing to them tonight: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world and all those who live in it…

That’s a statement of ownership. If YHWH is the rightful owner of all, then nobody else can be the owner. If God is in control, then anyone else who claims to be is simply lying. Moreover, the song goes on to declare that when YHWH built the world, he built it on top of the waters. YHWH, not Yamm, rules the sea. The power of YHWH, not Baal, is in the heart of the storm.

The song of the faithful that those children may have heard that night three thousand years ago and you surely heard five moments ago goes on to say that YHWH invites all to come and worship – and to come with clean hands and pure hearts (which is to say, having done right by our neighbor and been humble before God). Those who come to the Temple to worship will receive not a spirit of fear, but rather a blessing and deep comfort. And the song ends with an entrance liturgy that declares YHWH as the source of all power and might in the world – YHWH, and no one else, is “The King of Glory.”

Christ and the Storm
Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Now, a thousand years later, we find twelve men who had grown up singing Psalm 24 all their lives sitting in a fishing boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They’ve been following a Rabbi who has indicated the rather curious intention to go across the Sea to where “they” live – the non-faithful, the ones who are not like us. It’s odd, because this Rabbi and his followers have been attracting large crowds; apparently, though, the teacher from Nazareth wants to leave the throngs behind and venture into the unknown. I’m not so sure that this man’s followers are totally sold on the idea.

To make things worse, they find themselves in the midst of a terrible storm. In fact the word that Mark uses for it, lialaps, is the same word that is used for the “whirlwind” in the Book of Job. These are not gentle showers…

In a panic, these men turn towards the Rabbi – one of the few, incidentally, who is not a professional fisherman – and find him asleep in the boat. They shake him awake, and then he calms the storm before their very eyes.

Now, pay attention to what you’ve heard, and note this: that these men were surprised that Jesus was able to speak into the intensity of the storm. The wind and the waves obey him! Who knew?

Because Jesus calms the storm and then challenges the disciples’ apparent lack of faith, I’m tempted to read this passage as if the disciples are upset with Jesus for not saving them from the storm. That’s not the case.

The disciples never ask Jesus to save them. The reason that they are frustrated is not because he’s not saving them – there is no indication from anyone that they think that’s even a possibility. Listen: are you mad at me because the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl last year? Of course not. How could you be angry with me because the Steelers didn’t make it to the big game? I had nothing to do with that – that was totally beyond my control.

In the same way, I think, we can’t presume that the disciples are irritated with Jesus for not stopping the storm. There’s no evidence to support the idea that they think Jesus could even come close to stopping the storm.

But it’s clear that they’re agitated. Why?

What’s the question that they ask? “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

The disciples are angry with Jesus because he is not as afraid as they are. They are running around the boat screaming, “Arrrrrrgh! We’re going to die! We’re all going to die!”, and they are irritated because Jesus is not running around the boat screaming. “What’s wrong with you, Jesus? Can’t you see this?????”

“Of course,” he may have answered. “Of course I see it. And I remember a song that my mom used to sing to me when I was little. She sang a song she learned at the Temple about the One who made the whole earth and established it on the waters; my mother sang about the One to whom every storm is accountable.”

Jesus calms the sea and quiets the storm and in that very moment the disciples are reminded of the truths of Psalm 24. In the same instant, they are brought face to face with the reality that all of the power, majesty, and authority of YHWH is present in and available to Jesus of Nazareth.

We have the advantage of 2000 years of history, as well as the fact that we are sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a balmy day. It might be fairly easy for us to look back at our older brothers, the apostles, and think, “Wow, you guys really missed that one, didn’t you? I mean, sure – Jesus acts with the authority of YHWH. Come on, everybody knows that! Relax. He’s got this.”

But what about when we’re not sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a spring day? What about when we find ourselves in the middle of the whirlwind? I find it hard to believe that there’s a person in this room who hasn’t at one time or another looked heavenward and asked, “Hey! Jesus! Do you see this? Don’t you care that this thing is happening over here?”

And if for some reason you have not yet asked this question, I predict that you will.

Does Jesus care about the particular whirlwind in which you find yourself lost today? I guess it depends on where you think Jesus is. I’ve already noted that think it’s premature to ask the disciples if they believe Jesus can do anything to fix the situation – they do not appear to believe that he even gives a darn. Because, after all, he’s sleeping. He’s not freaking out, the way a “normal” person might.

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (1913 – 2010)

But pay attention to one thing.

Where is Jesus?

During this whole story, where do we find Jesus?

He’s in the boat, isn’t he?

He may be silent – but do not ever mistake the silence of God for the absence of God.

It’s the same for you and me, you know. I’m telling you friends, Jesus is in your boat. And I don’t care whether it’s been smooth sailing since day one or if you’re currently dealing with an “All hands on deck!” kind of moment. Jesus has not left the boat.

Do not ever, ever presume that simply because Jesus does not share your anxiety about the current circumstances that he does not care about you, or your pain or your fear.

And some will say, “I hear your words, Dave, but I can’t swallow them. I mean, after all. That person’s storm was stilled. Her baby lived. His job was not lost. Their marriage was saved. They made it through the storm, Dave. But didn’t God care about my child, or my job, or my marriage? What’s that Dave? I can’t hear your answer because the storm is too fierce. Are you trying to tell me that God cares about this mess?”

The short answer is, “Yes. Yes he does.”

Why is it that YHWH is not acting in the way that you desire? I do not know. Why does it seem as though Jesus is sawing logs right next to you while your world is being turned upside down? I cannot say for sure. And that breaks my heart.

But this thing I know: He is the King of Glory. The earth belongs to him. And while he may be silent, he is sitting right next to you.

The best and wisest thing that your pastor can tell you in this situation is that if you find yourself in the midst of a storm and Jesus seems to be sleeping right through it, reach out and hang on to him for all you’re worth until he calms the storm.

It’s who he is. It’s what he does.  Thanks be to God!

Staying Alive

The people at the Crafton Heights church have been spending this Lent listening to the words of scripture – in particular, the scriptures set to music in the context of Handel’s Messiah.  Many of these ideas are explored in great depth in the excellent Kerygma resource, Hallelujah: The Bible and Handel’s Messiah.  On March 19, our scripture text was The 22nd Psalm.  

 

I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the power of music in your life. How does what you hear shape who you are, what you feel, and how you look at things? I would suggest that for most of us, there are some songs that mean so much to us that when we hear even a snippet of them, we are reminded of something that is much larger, much more important than the few bars of music we encounter.

And, at the risk of losing you for the entire sermon, I’d like to show you what I mean.  Click here and listen to the song…  It’s OK.  I’ll wait…

If you know and like these movies, I bet that right now you are aware of the truth that there are no odds that are insurmountable; you know that you have to stay strong even in defeat; and that you can push yourself – you are reminded of these things simply because you heard a couple of lines of music.

Let’s try it again.  Try this one…

Again, some of you are transported to a place where things are not always as they seem, and where innocence matters, and where self-sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the universe… And the rest of you? You’re just Muggles, that’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.

We could go on, but you know where I’m heading… I can tell a lot about you simply by looking at your playlists or seeing your music collection.

Why does this matter today?

Because we are in the season of Lent – a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation that leads us to Holy Week, where we commemorate the suffering, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. And as we approach that week, we do well to note that both Matthew and Mark go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was thinking about a particular song when he died. In fact, each of these Gospels indicates that the last intelligible thing Jesus uttered prior to his death was “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”. Those words form the Aramaic translation of the beginning of Psalm 22, which you heard (in English) a few moments ago.

It was customary in Jesus’ time, as in our own, to use a few phrases from a song or scripture text to bring the entire passage to mind. Because Jesus died singing Psalm 22, we often look at that scripture and say, “Wow – that song really is all about Jesus: it talks about his death, and his rejection, and the ways that his clothes were divided…”

And when we do that, it’s unfortunate because if we make Psalm 22 some sort of a magic incantation that predicts specific details of Jesus’ life and death a thousand years into the future, we will lose sight of some important truths in both the Psalm and in Jesus’ life.

Psalm 22 is not about Jesus. Jesus was about Psalm 22. The fact that this prayer, this song, was present to him as he endured such torment and that he chose to make that song present to those who waited with and watched him die makes that song important to us this Lent as well.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist – more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Like many other Psalms, this particular scripture is a song of lament. There is a structure. For instance, if you remember anything about poetry, you’ll remember that a Haiku consists of seventeen syllables arranged in lines of five, seven, and five. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter. The structure of these poems informs the meaning, and vice-versa.

A typical lament has five parts: there is an invocation, a complaint, a statement of trust, a request for God to act, and a brief expression of praise. When you sing a lament, you are right to expect these things in this order.

Psalm 22 is remarkable among the Psalms of lament because there is really no overt expression of trust in God’s power or presence in the moment. The psalmist, going through one of the most difficult times of his life, knows all of the “right answers” that he learned in Sunday school… but he was still afraid that maybe God was not paying attention to him, or worse –that God didn’t want to pay attention to him. He knows that others have trusted God; he knows that he should trust God, but he finds that such trust is exceedingly difficult to come by at this moment.

Crucifixion (2008) by Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Could that have been why Jesus was thinking about these words as he hung on the cross? Could it be that maybe he was having a very, very difficult time trusting his Father to see this thing through to completion?

Or was it perhaps that he brought this Psalm to mind for the sake of those whom he loved who were watching him die? In raising this particular lament, was he acknowledging to them that faith and trust and hope are sometimes incredibly difficult to come by?

Do you ever feel that way? You want to trust, you want to believe, but WOW is it hard on some days… If I’m right about some of this, then your struggles to always have faith don’t necessarily take you away from Jesus – they may make you more like Jesus.

The other thing that is remarkable about Psalm 22 as a song of lament is the fact that the praise and thanksgiving section is five or ten times longer than in most of the other Psalms of lamentation.

Moreover, the praises here are not limited only to the singer. This Psalm begins with a deeply personal cry for help but it ends with the declaration that praise is due God from not only all of Israel, but those from every nation, and the ends of the earth, and even those who have already died or who are yet to be born.

What starts off as an individual’s heartfelt cry of pain and isolation (“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”) is somehow transformed in the life of the Psalmist to a song of praise that stretches not only across the entire globe but through eternity as well. In mentioning the dead who will praise God, this Psalm offers us a quick glimpse of resurrection hope.

Could it be that Jesus, in calling this psalm to mind at the moment of his own greatest anguish and pain, held out hope to himself and for his followers that pain, suffering, darkness, and crucifixion are not all that there is? Could it be that as he hung on the cross he needed to know – and he needed us to know – that there is more to the song – but we can only experience that “more” after we come through the suffering or the isolation or the grief?

Many churches, including Crafton Heights, have adopted the practice of “burying the alleluias” during Lent. You may have noticed that we’re not singing, say, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, or any other song that includes the word “Alleluia”. “Alleluia”, of course, is an expression of praise or thanksgiving that is the Hebrew word meaning “praise God”. For many Christians, the word is a spontaneous expression of joy or thanks because of some great blessing that has been received. Churches often “hide” the Alleluia during Lent as a means of saying that there are times of great joy and there are times when our greatest hopes are realized, but there are also times when those things seem so far away. During our Lenten time of reflection and repentance, we practice a “fast” from the Alleluias not because they are not true, but because it’s not time for them right now…

Each of us, at some point in our lives, walks through a season of darkness and pain. We know the horror of betrayal or the anguish of a bad prognosis or the sapping power of doubt and uncertainty… and when we experience these things, the last thing in the world we want to see is some chipper, happy-clappy friend come bounding into the room telling us to get over it, to “turn that frown upside down”, to get busy or distracted and just feel better, gosh darn it…

In each of our lives, there are times when it is all we can do to simply sit in the dark and experience the grief or the shock or the pain. Often, during those times, it’s better if a friend is there to sit with us – not because that person is able to take away the grief or the shock or the pain, but somehow their presence validates our experience of it and offers some sort of mute testimony to the fact that this, too, can be endured.

Psalm 22 is a cry from a dark and painful place that somehow points to a deep hope that, while even though it appears to be hidden or buried, has always been there and will always be there.

Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I mentioned on Wednesday night that a number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem with my daughter. One of the most moving experiences came to me in a place of which I’d never heard: The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Most of the church is dedicated to the memory of Peter’s denial of Jesus (“gallicantu” means “cock’s crowing” in Latin). The church was built on what is believed to have been the site of the High Priest’s palace. I found it to be a fascinating place…

The upper levels were interesting enough, but it was the basement that got me.  Down below was a dungeon that dated from the first century.  The signs were clear: We have no way of knowing this, but since this dungeon is fairly close to what was the High Priests’ residence at the time of Jesus, there’s a chance that this is where Jesus, and later the Apostles, would have been imprisoned by the authorities.  In a very subdued manner, the signs explained the way that the dungeon was laid out.  And there, at the darkest, lowest, point of the dungeon was a simple stand with the text of Psalm 88 – like Psalm 22, a Psalm of complaint and lament.

Lower Level, St. Peter Gallicantu

In the dungeon, St. Peter in Gallicantu.

 

The basement of St. Peter’s in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I’d been to the so-called “Upper Room”; I’d visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane; and I’d seen at least two places that claimed to be the empty tomb of the resurrection, but I am here to tell you that it was not until I cried out to God in weakness, in darkness, and in isolation did I have some sense that those deep and hidden places are not the end of the story.

Jesus wanted us to sing the song of despair because he knows that the despair is real and true and has power in our lives. It was thus for the Psalmist in 1000 BC. It was brought to life by Jesus on the day that he died. And I suspect that it is true for you, too – at least some of the time. And on those days when it feels as though the pain will overwhelm you and when the alleluias seem buried forever, then please, beloved know this:

It’s ok to be there.

It’s ok to wonder where God is and how things work.

But know this, too: that the song is not over. You have heard the song – but only a part of it. Lent is not forever. Remember that nothing that is buried – not Jesus, not alleluias, not your or me – nothing stays buried forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

St. John the Baptist, El Greco, c. 1600

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.