Hot Potato (a Blatantly Political Blog)

Friends: this is a political post.  In it, I am attempting to discuss real issues and to share a portion of my heart.  It may be that we disagree on some of these things.  If you don’t want to disagree with me, then don’t read it.  If you’re nervous about a political conversation, then stop reading.  If, however, you would like to engage in some conversation about what it means to seek to be a faithful Christian living in the USA in 2012, then here’s some of what I think.  And then you can let me know some of what you think.  And maybe we’ll help each other see some truth in a new light.  Or maybe we’ll disagree.  I hope that if that’s the case, we’re disagreeing on different ways of seeing things through the eyes of faith, rather than disagreeing on each other’s worth as human beings.  I do not take the opportunity to write lightly, and am honored that you think enough of me to want to take a look – even if you wind up thinking that I am wrong.

I should note that unlike most posts this is NOT a sermon that I preached.  These are thoughts that I had whilst sitting in my easy chair.   If you were here, maybe we could talk them through.  But I’m not preaching.

The other day at our church retreat, they put me in charge of the “mixers”.  Games!  I love to play games, and I love to get folks laughing and just enjoying time together.  It was a great event.  Mostly.

I thought it would be funny if I had games that were mildly politically inspired (soooo mad that I didn’t think of “Barack, Paper, Scissors”).  One of the games involved “community organizing”, while the other required participants to wear “mitts”.  Yep, I asked the folks to play “Hot Potato”.  And, in an effort to get really old school, I actually baked the potatoes prior to the game.  That way, they’d really be hot.  Get it? 

That game started out really, really fun – until one of the participants got a little overzealous and flung the toasty spud towards folk across the circle at a rather high rate of speed.  Rather than step forward and corral the errant projectile, the three people in range all stepped back as if to say, “I know you didn’t mean that for me!”  Without anyone to catch it, the potato landed on the floor – and because it was warm and soft and mushy, turned into a mashed potato.  Not nearly as much fun, for the purposes of this game.

So you see what happened – those who were playing the game ended up doing so with such ferocity that the very object necessary for the game (the hot potato itself) was destroyed.

For some reason, I thought about that when I saw that Billy Graham, or more likely, some bright chap at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Inc., bought full-page newspaper ads  urging Americans to “vote for biblical values on November 6”.  Among those values the BGEA would like us to support with our ballots are the sanctity of life, the “biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman”, and support for the nation of Israel.

I intend to vote with a particular eye towards the sanctity of life.  And, at the risk of making this a hot potato that could result in a lot of scalding goop all over me, I’m going to share that with any who are still reading.

A recent study at Washington University in St. Louis demonstrated that access to quality insurance, including long-acting birth control methods that are often deemed “too expensive” for the poor, reduced the rate of unplanned pregnancies by a huge margin.  In fact, the abortion rate amongst study participants was 62% – 78% lower than the national average.  Yet many candidates who proudly call themselves “pro-life” are opposed to providing this sort of coverage – even when it shows incredible promise in the area of reducing abortions.

Another area where the sanctity of life is almost never mentioned is in any discussion about the proliferation of firearms in the US.  Since 1933, when we started keeping records of gun deaths, more than 1.7 million Americans have been killed by gunshots.  Between 1979 and 1997, more Americans died as a result of gunfire than were killed in battle in all the wars we’ve fought in since the Revolution (more than 650,000).  The gun lobby has convinced us that having guns makes us safe – yet that illusion of safety has created a thirst for power and control that has become idolatrous.  Former NRA Executive Warren Cassidy did his best to give the idols of power and deadly force what they most need, a claim of divine status. He said “you would get a far better understanding of the NRA if you approached us as if you are approaching one of the great religions of the world” (see America And Its Guns: A Theological Expose).  Yet not many candidates have any meaningful ideas about how to reduce the number of people who die so tragically.

This has nothing to do with “the right to bear arms”.  It has everything to do with a cadre of people who have convinced us that we live in a terror-filled world and the only way to deal with that is to buy more and better guns.  In fact, the Obama presidency has been a cash windfall for the gun industry – sales are up from 40% – 86% for gun manufacturers, and the NRA has more cash on hand than at any time since 2004.  As a person committed to the Prince of Peace, the thirst for firearms and the power that they promise makes me very, very sad.    In an average year, 3285 American children are killed by guns.  If they were being targeted by terrorists, or by a foreign power, or by some religious group – we’d be up in arms (pun intended).  Yet we refuse to make meaningful progress in eliminating the trafficking of illegal guns.

Another issue that has a deep connection with the “sanctity of life” is the US budget.  Do the candidates you support seek to craft budgets that are sensitive to those who are most at risk from poverty, hunger, and lack of medical care?  Or are they more interested in promising an increasingly large piece of the pie to those who are already secure?  Are they in favor of budgets that recognize the challenges facing the millions at risk for malnutrition, or poor education, or inadequate housing or infrastructure?  Or do the budgets that your candidates intend to craft favor increasing the proportion spent on weaponry and defense (even though the US spends more money for military purposes  than do the next thirteen countries in the world combined!)?

And speaking of the military, are Christians in the US likely to support the candidate(s) who are more, or less, likely to involve us in another foreign war?  Do we really want to be a part of an Empire that rains death from faceless drones in the sky and sacrifices its brightest and best young people to the idol of cheap oil, to say nothing of the climate of rage and terror that these behaviors so often inspire in the nations upon which we wage war?  Do we want to take our gifted and intelligent youth and put them in situations where we train them to kill in lands far from home?

I am well aware that people of faith will disagree on many of these issues.  That’s fine.  But please, please, please, Billy Graham – do not suppose that there is only one vote that could be considered “biblical.”  I am not sure we’ll vote the same way – but as I consider the One whom we both have pledged to serve, I can do no other than to think that my ballot is an opportunity to challenge the idols of our time (power, money, security, nationalism).  I remember the path of the One who was willing to walk through, rather than around, Samaria.

It’s a hot potato, all right.  Let’s hope that as we throw these issues around, we don’t wind up smearing scalding goop all over each other while losing sight of the main thing: living as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, and trusting his call to serve the last, the lost, the least, and the little.

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

a-MAIZE-ing Grace

Her Excellency Joyce Banda, President of the Republic of Malawi. I don’t know who that other joker is.

On September 21, 2012, I had the privilege of meeting Her Excellency Joyce Banda, the President of the Republic of Malawi.  She had come to the USA in order to attend the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and she invited me to come to Manhattan to brief her on issues of partnership between Pittsburgh Presbytery and the Synod of Blantyre.  It was a rare honor, and I was deeply humbled to have been afforded that opportunity.  You can read about that visit in the Malawian press by clicking here. During our hour together, we spoke of many things.  The comment that most grabbed my attention, however, was when President Banda said, “The ‘hungry season’ will be starting early this year.  We are facing a food crisis in Malawi.  We need help.  I am asking you to help me save the lives of the children in my country.”

A child from the village of Samalani with the distended belly associated with malnutrition.

My mind flashed back to the last time I heard someone say that the ‘hungry season’ was starting early. In October of 2001, I received an email from my friend and colleague Daniel Gunya, who was then the General Secretary of the CCAP Blantyre Synod.  Daniel said that their churches were already experiencing widespread food shortages and it would only get worse.  We tried to help, as best we could, but mostly we kicked that request up the denominational ladder to our associates at the offices of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  We felt as though there was very little we could do on a local level.

In the village of Balamanja, Chingale region, 2003

I’m pleased to say that in April and May of 2003, the PDA asked me to lead a group of about a dozen folks from all around the USA to see the Famine Relief program that had been developed in the Chingale region.  We visited many feeding stations and saw how an amazing program had come together, apparently with great success.

I know that it was a success because I took a long walk with pastor Dennis Mulele, and I asked him if the program was working.  “Oh, yes, Abusa Dave, it is working fine!”

“How do you know that it’s working?” I pressed.

“Because,” he said, “Six months or a year ago, I was doing eight, or nine, or ten funerals a week, and many were for children.  These days, I am only doing two or three a week, and most of them are for elderly people.  I am not burying many children now.”

And when President Banda told me that the hungry season had already started, the thing that flashed through my mind was that I could not, and I would not, ever look pastor Dennis in the eyes and have him tell me that he was doing ten funerals a week while we were waiting 18 months to come up with a gangbuster Famine Relief plan.  I told the people in the PDA about what was going on, and I know that they are working on something, but we here in Pittsburgh are going to start now.

My friend from Samalani holds a 5 kg bag of Lakuni Phalli, a corn meal mixed with soy protein that is a special supplement for children at risk for malnutrition.

It’s personal for me.  In 1998, I was sent by Pittsburgh Presbytery on the first-ever Pastor Exchange Program to Malawi.  In that context I baptized scores of babies.  When I returned in 2003, I was at a feeding station in the village of Samalani and the woman pictured in the green dress came and started to speak to me, weeping as she did so.  She held the hand of a small girl, obviously malnourished, as she spoke.  “You were here before!”, she said.  “You came with Rev. M’nensa, and you baptized my granddaughter!”

She lifted the girl towards me and said, “And now, today, you are saving her life again.  Her mother died last year in the famine, but she will be saved because of this food.  Thank you, Abusa. Thank you.”

Each of these sacks of maize is 50 KG (a bit more than 100 pounds). A feeding site in the village of Balamanja, Chingale.

The staple food in Malawi is maize (corn).  On average, a 50 kg (100 pounds) sack can supplement the diet of a family for a month.  As of September 21, the date of the President’s request, you could buy such a sack in the market in Malawi for about $17.  Through the a-MAIZE-ing Grace famine relief plan unveiled at Pittsburgh Presbytery on October 18, 2012, individuals in the USA can buy a sack of grain for $25 and have it given to a needy family in the Mwanza region of southern Malawi by our partners in the CCAP Blantyre Synod, who are working with a consortium of relief agencies to address the critical needs there.

The way that we will do that is by selling little tokens (modeled after the large grain sacks) that are appropriate for holiday gifts or tree decorations.  Each token sold for $25 represents one family being sustained for one month during the hungry season, which will last until at least Easter 2013.

In the village of Mbukwite there is a lot to smile about!

Our goal is modest: we’d like to sell 3000 of these tokens.  In the face of 2.1 million people facing food insecurity, that’s not a lot.  But it’s not nothing, either.

I am pleading with you to visit the a-MAIZE-ing Grace page on the Malawi Partnership website and download your very own kit.  You can find step-by-step instructions  as to how to make the ornaments, an informative brochure in pdf format, and more.  Then, get your youth group, your college fellowship, your Sunday School, and your neighbors to join you in saving a life or eight or ten.  If you don’t like the logo that I’ve designed – then change it.  I don’t really care.  Sell these tokens, and help me send food to Malawi.

Some of you might simply want to send a check and be done with it.  I’ll take that, too.  You can make your payment to “Pittsburgh Presbytery” and indicate “Malawi Famine Relief” in the memo line.  You can then mail it to Pittsburgh Presbytery/Famine, 901 Allegheny Avenue, Pittsburgh PA  15233.

Please share this post.  Put it on Facebook.  Tweet it.  Forward the email to your friends, and ask them to give you corn for Christmas.  I am begging you to do whatever you can to help me do everything necessary to ensure that the children of Malawi have every opportunity to live to a ripe old age, rather than die young of hunger.

Children from Masoula, Chingale, who deserve to grow up and die of old age.

Zikomo kwambiri (thank you very much).

Mulungu akudalitseni (God bless you).

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).