Now, You Do It.

We met on Maundy Thursday (March 28, 2013) for a service of worship including communion.  As we did so, we considered John 13:1-17, John’s account of Jesus’ final meal with his followers.

For the last six weeks, we’ve come into this room and talked about various meals that have shaped the family of God.  Some of them have been huge feasts – such as the feeding of the 5000.  Others have been stories that we heard after the fact, like when the ravens fed the prophet Elijah.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci (1495-1498)

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci (1495-1498)

Tonight we gather around the Lord’s Table and we are here to talk about the meal that helps to define the Christian family.  The Last Supper.  The Eucharist. The meal that Jesus commanded us to share in his memory.

This meal, as you may have noticed, has a deep and vibrant connection with one of the other meals that we’ve considered – the Seder dinner that is eaten in conjunction with the remembrance of the time that the angel of death passed over God’s people and was the beginning of the deliverance from Egypt.  Like every faithful Jew of his day, Jesus would have observed the Passover Feast.  In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that the meal we know as the Last Supper was in fact the manner in which Jesus celebrated the Passover with the twelve.  John, on the other hand, says, “You know, the way that I remember it, we had that final meal with him on the night before the Passover – I remember it because the day he died was the day that the lambs were killed.”

This is not necessarily a contradiction in the Bible – instead, all four of the Gospels are saying that Jesus is the one to whom the Passover points.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke indicate that like the Passover, the communion meal is a means by which we receive the grace of redemption.  John says that Jesus is the lamb of God who is slain for the sins of the world.  In fact, because of the proximity of the Last Supper to the Passover, the form in which we will observe communion tonight is an echo of the Jewish Seder meal.

A couple of weeks ago I asked you, “What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?”  According to John, by the time that Passover came around, Jesus knew everything.  He knew what was in store for him.  He knew that the hour had come for him to return to his Father.  He knew about Judas’ betrayal.  In fact, John says, “all things” had been given into his hands.

Think about that for a moment. Jesus of Nazareth has received, this night, “all things.”  Power.  Glory.  Riches.  Friends.  Status.  He could have chosen anything.

That’s what that means, right?  If he has “all things”, that means that he can choose anything, doesn’t it?  “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands…”, now has to make a choice about what to put into those hands.

Did you hear what he chose?  He picked up a basin of water and a towel.  And then he chose to pick up the feet of the men whom he had called to be his followers.  The feet of laborers.  Rough feet.  Dirty feet. Feet.

Jesus Washing the Feet, by Calvin Carter. 21st century. Used by permission of the artist, www.calvincarterart.com

Jesus Washing the Feet, by Calvin Carter. 21st century. Used by permission of the artist, http://www.calvincarterart.com

He picked up the feet of John, who is often referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  You heard about his conversation with Peter, who wasn’t very happy the way the situation unfolded.  How do you think Nathaniel reacted when the one whom he had met as a miracle-working truth-teller wound up cleaning his feet?  And, of course, he took Judas’ feet into his hands.  Judas, who may very well have been fingering the 30 pieces of silver he’d already received for agreeing to betray Jesus.  What was Judas’ posture like?  How did it feel for him to have Jesus wash and dry his feet – feet that he would later use to lead the soldiers right to the Savior?

Do you remember those bracelets that were popular a couple of years ago that said “WWJD” – it stood for “what would Jesus do?”  What if I asked you to wear one that said “WWYDIYWJ?” – what would you do if you were Jesus?

If you had all things in your hands…would you choose to pick up feet?  And if you chose to pick up feet, would it be those feet that you picked up?

Think about that.  What would you do?

And you say, “That’s a silly question, Dave.  Everybody knows, I’m not Jesus.  Nobody gets me confused with that guy.”  Maybe, maybe not.

But it’s a fair question, and here’s why: because of what Jesus said to them after he washed their feet.  “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

jesus-washing-disciples-feet-by-taklaJesus said a lot of things.  And he did a lot of things.  But here is something that you may not have pieced together: so far as we know from the Gospels, this is the only time that Jesus ever looked at his disciples and said, “I did this as an example for you.”

Jesus did this with the intention and the expectation that you and I would follow suit.

Now, know this, beloved: I understand that you do not have “all things” in your hands – certainly not the way that Jesus did.  You do not even have “most things” in your hands.  But you, my friends, have “some things” in your hands.  And you, like Jesus…like me…have got to decide: what will you pick up?

Jesus touched their bodies – their physical, earthly, bodies – their bodies that needed to be cleansed and cared for – and he did so with respect and with tenderness and with love.

As he did this, he revealed to them, as Jean Vanier has put it,

“…that each one of them is beautiful, is chosen, and is loved. To continue this mission, which is his mission, to announce the good news to the poor, freedom to captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed, and to announce a year of grace and forgiveness…when Jesus is washing the feet of the disciples, he is cleansing their feet to show that he wants to cleanse their hearts. That is Jesus. He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t condemn; he cleanses. He just wants us to be people of the resurrection — people who stand up; people who believe in ourselves and in our gift; people who believe in the gift of Jesus — so that we can bring this gift to our broken world.”[1]

What would happen if in the conversations you had, the Facebook posts you made, the emails or texts you sent, you made it your business to follow the example of Jesus?

Jesus had received all things.  You have been given some.  Many of you have been given much: health, power, employment, intellect, strength, wisdom, courage…

And Jesus, having received all things, became smaller, not bigger.  He stripped down.  He bent down.  He looked down.  And he went down to his death…for those whom he loved and served.  Even Peter.  Even Judas.  Even me.  Even you.

So now, it seems to me, that my call is to join him in the smallness and in the going down.  Because it seems to me that following that weeping, broken, dying Jesus is the best way to follow his example and to maybe…just maybe… become a sign of his resurrection in this world.

The example has been set.  The choice is in your hands.

Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.  Amen.


[1] From a sermon preached at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, quoted at http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/jean-vanier-on-the-meaning-of-the-washing-of-feet

 

A Celebration Fit for a King

Palm Sunday (March 24 2013) found the folks at Crafton Heights continuing our Lenten journey in which we explore biblical meals that have shaped us.  In keeping with the festal nature of this day, we considered Luke 14:1-24 and the things that passage reveals about God’s character.

Suppose someone said to you, “Hey, I turned on the Penguins game the other night and as the cameras panned the crowd, I’m sure I saw Pastor Dave and Sharon there.”  You might respond, “Wow, good for them.  I know that Dave likes watching hockey.  Glad he got seats.”

But what if your friend said, “You won’t believe what I saw the other night!  I turned on the Pens game, and there in the crowd, I’m sure it was Pastor Dave and Sharon.  It was awesome!  He had painted his shirt off and his entire chest was black and gold and Sharon had her face painted to match.”  I have a hunch you might say, “Really?  That sure doesn’t sound like something Dave and Sharon are likely to do… I wonder if it was really them that you saw…”

Do you know the feeling when you hear something about someone else and it just doesn’t fit with what you know to be true about them?

I had that feeling when I was reading through Luke this week. I’ve read this passage a hundred times and not really thought twice about it, but this week, something stuck out for me.

grumpy_phariseeOh, it starts pretty predictably.  Jesus is on his way to a dinner party – this one hosted by a Pharisee.  In case you aren’t fluent in Bible-ese, the Pharisees were a group of religious leaders who had a good bit of control in Jerusalem at that time.  They were known to be eager to keep many of the significant portions of the Mosaic Law, and they stressed personal piety and purity whenever they had the chance.  By and large, the Pharisees did not like Jesus too well – many of them were afraid that he would upset the tenuous balance that they’d set up with the Romans and that things would get worse for the Jews.  The Pharisees were the group of religious people who were most responsible for the arrest and death of Jesus.

But as I was saying, Jesus goes out and just happens to be the guest of a prominent Pharisee for a Sabbath meal.  Nothing out of line there – it’s what we’ve come to expect from Jesus.  And Luke goes out of his way to tell us that the Pharisees are keeping an eye on Jesus – they are apparently waiting for him to fall into some sort of error or miscue.  Again, nothing surprising here.  They did that a lot.

An 18th-century print entitled "Jewish Men Eating At Table"

An 18th-century print entitled “Jewish Men Eating At Table”

Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me: Jesus is indoors, having dinner, and “behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.”  Now, on the one hand, it’s not uncommon for Jesus to be out and about and having folks with disfiguring diseases show up out of nowhere.  But here he is, in the home of a man who was by definition obsessed with purity and cleanliness, and all of a sudden he finds that across the table from him sits one who has dropsy.

Another name for dropsy is edema.  It’s a bloating or swelling of the limbs or other parts of the body caused by an inability to process fluids correctly.  People with this disease frequently display oozing from pores or bodily cavities.  It is not a pleasant affliction.  And whereas I wouldn’t put it past the Pharisees to dig up someone who was suffering some affliction and throw him or her in front of Jesus to see what Jesus would do about it, I find it hard to believe that a Pharisee would invite a person oozing bodily fluids – and therefore an unclean person – into his own home.  Add to that the fact that this sick man is sitting right smack dab in front of Jesus…

If you’re having dinner and you’re the guest of honor, who sits across from you? The host.

So here’s what I think: that the man who had this debilitating sickness was the host, or at least a prominent Pharisee.[1]  I don’t think that the sick man was a ringer brought in to test Jesus.  I think that he was one that was known to the people in the room.

And that theory is supported, in my mind, by the fact that when Jesus tried to engage the folks in the room on the topic of who could be healed, and when, he was met with silence.  I mean, nobody thinks we ought to be out there working on the Sabbath or anything, but we all know that old Bob has struggled with that oozing for a long time.  It was kind of gross.  We felt sorry for him.  And so if Jesus wants to talk about healing him, well, I’m not ­­going to say anything, are you?

And then look at what happens.  Jesus “took him”.  That languages expresses the fact that Jesus reached across the table and held onto the man who was sick.  And Jesus healed him.  And Jesus “let him go”.  Some of your translations might say that Jesus “sent him away”.  The word that is used there, apoluo, is often translated “sent away”.  But in Luke 13, Jesus heals a woman and says that she has been “set free” – and he uses the same word.

Here’s what I think happened: Jesus was the honored guest in this sick man’s home.  He saw the man struggling with the disease, and he restored the Pharisee to himself.  He set him free from that which was binding him.  And nobody said anything because unlike those strangers that they often brought to Jesus, this sick man was known to the other people at the table.  So they don’t say anything at all.

Next, Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees and he starts to watch them.  This is very interesting, because usually the shoe is on the other foot and they are watching him.  But he sees them jockeying for positions of honor at the table.  Which means that he hasn’t really irritated them yet, if they are all fighting to get a little closer to him. Which implies, at least to me, that it was good old Bob, and not some run-of-the-mill schmo, who got healed that day.

Given all that, since they are making nicey-nice with each other for a change, Jesus decides to give the Pharisees a little friendly advice about social situations that winds up bringing significant insight into the character of God.

You heard what he said: Meals are not a power trip, or a way to exercise authority over someone else.  The dinner cards are not primarily a strategy to see who is worthiest.  Be humble.  Accept yourself.  Maybe you will be recognized and honored.  Maybe you won’t be.  It doesn’t really matter.  The meal is a way to bring the community, including you, including me, including that one over there, together.  And then Jesus gets going and suggests that in fact, the nature of God’s love is such that we ought to seek to include those who are most likely to feel excluded.

Well, now he’s on a roll.  He’s got their attention; old Bob is sitting up and is the picture of health, and so Jesus spins them one of his patented parables.

“A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:16-24, RSV)

Now here’s what you need to know about the culture of that time: when you were planning a feast, there were at least two sets of invitations that went out. First, there was some sort of a vague “Save the date” notice that put the event on the social calendar.  You might say, “Look, I just want you folks to know that in about two months, we are going to go crazy!  I mean, we’re gonna have a real blow out.”  And then you get to work doing all those things that take time – making wine, making cheese, preparing animals, and so on.  You’ve let people know to be on the lookout, and now you are getting ready.

Then, when all the food and drink are prepared, you send out a second set of invitations – “Come and get it!,” you say.  “Dinner is served…”

It’s like this.  Let’s say that I said, “Look, I’m not sure exactly when this is going to happen, but some time during the month of April, Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis are going to be coming to worship at CHUP, and they are going to be giving away a few sets of Steeler season tickets for free to a few random worshipers.”  If I said that, and if you believed me, my hunch is that many of you would arrange your schedules so as to ensure that you’d be available on Sunday mornings during the month of April, right?  If you thought that something valuable was going to be given to you in that time window, you’d make arrangements to be ready to receive it.

In the parable, that’s not the case.  Even though the whole village has been notified that the feast is being prepared, some folks just can’t be bothered.  One guy is out there buying property.  Another chucklehead just bought a team of oxen.  And the third guy committed the worst offense when he got married and scheduled his wedding feast at the exact same time as yours.

Friends, listen: buying property, or oxen, or even getting married – all of these are good and noble things.  But each of them is schedulable.  Each of these conflicts could have been easily avoided.  What the property buyer, the oxen purchaser, and the groomsman are saying to the host is essentially, “Yeah, well, thanks and all.  Good luck with the party.  It sounds like an ok time; but to be honest, it’s not really my crowd.”

And yet a crowd is precisely what the host wants, for some reason. We aren’t sure why, but the main thing that Luke communicates here is that the host wants his house to be filled – and so the people who are out in the fields working, or begging; the poor and the lame – whoever!  – are compelled to come in.

Why?

The Poor are Invited to the Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287

The Poor are Invited to the Feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287

Because the host wants a full house.  And what ends up happening is that the people who knew about the party when the first set of invitations were sent out and yet excluded themselves anyway – they believed that they were not healthy enough, or not wealthy enough, or not good enough for some other reason suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves in a position where they are able to receive the hospitality of the host.  What happens to these poor creatures who are brought unprepared into the wedding feast is in that way very similar to the Pharisee who wound up being the center of a healing miracle on a Sabbath day.

There is a word of warning here to those who are sure that God is saving them a special seat right between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit at the heavenly banquet.  Jesus says, “Simmer down there, sailor.  Nobody is that good.  God is not particularly impressed with your religiosity, or your holiness, your giving or your merit badges.”

And there is a word of hope here to those who wonder what would happen if people found out what you were really like…Jesus says, “You know, I know everything about you – and you need to know that God is saving a spot for you!”

The healing of the man at dinner, the parable of the Wedding Feast, and the message of Palm Sunday are, in my mind, synonymous.  God is not looking to find a bunch of eligible, sin-free, pure people to honor.  Instead, God is out in the streets and the lanes, the highways and the hedges turning the place upside down looking for people who are willing to come to the party on God’s terms.

Here’s what breaks my heart about church: when my friends say, “You know, I’m embarrassed to go to church.  How can I show up there?”  As if God would have been a little more impressed with you before you had the affair or got high or went to prison or gossiped about your neighbor.

Here’s what you need to know about God: He wants you.  Why? Beats me.  I have no idea why he cares for you so much.  But for reasons best known to him, he loves you.  Seriously, he does.  And here, Jesus is saying, “Don’t make me come out there looking for you.  Come to the party, already.  Accept the grace that is offered to you.”

Can you join the man who had dropsy and be set free from whatever is holding you back?  I can guarantee you’re not going to get any better offers.  Know that.  Plan on that. And give thanks to the God who loves you like nobody’s business, and who is calling you to come to the party.  Now.  Just the way you are.

Thanks be to that God!  Amen.


[1] I am indebted to Dr. Ralph Wilson for asking the questions that led me to appreciate this insight: http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/14_1-14.htm

Catered? Who Knew?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are spending Lent 2013 looking at the ways in which the meals that God’s people have shared over the years have contributed to our understanding of who, and whose, we are.  On March 17, we read about the Feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14:13-21 (with a shout out to Genesis 12:2-3, the calling of Abram).

Here’s your theological brain-bender for the day: exactly what did Jesus know, and when did he know it?  You know, it’s really easy during the Children’s sermon to come up here and sit with a bunch of three year olds and tell them that Jesus knows them, that Jesus sees everything, and that Jesus is always with them.  And I’m not lying when I do that.  But when I talk with the kids, I’m talking, by and large, about the risen and ascended Christ.  The Jesus who has assumed his throne in the Kingdom.

JesusBut the Jesus who walked around on earth 2000 years ago…he Jesus who was born in a barn and made friends and ate fish and told jokes…what did he know?  And when did he know it?

Before you quickly reply, “Oh, he knew everything…”, let me ask you whether you think that the baby lying in the manger knew how to speak Chinese?  Did he know all of the digits of pi?  Because if he did know those things, then he wasn’t really a baby, was he?  He was just God, wearing a baby suit.

We say that we believe Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Typically we follow that up by saying that Jesus gave up some of what it meant to be God for a season in order to experience all that it meant to be a human.  In Jesus, the Divine entered human time and space.  In doing that, the omnipotent, omniscient God placed limits on himself.

And if that’s true (and I think it is…), then Jesus learned.  Jesus developed.

Early in his ministry, Jesus was a fantastically popular wonder-worker.  Wherever he went, he healed the sick.  He cast out demons.  His miracles were amazing.  More than that, he was a teacher who challenged the tired assumptions of the religious elite.  He spoke to the masses who yearned for freedom.  He made the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seem accessible and available in a way that traditional religion did not.  To put it in the vernacular, Jesus of Nazareth was a rock star.

And in Matthew 14, that Jesus learns something.  Our reading opens with “Now when Jesus heard this…”

The “this” that Jesus heard was the fate of his cousin, John the Baptist.  In Matthew 14, Jesus learns what the world does with wonder-working, truth-telling, establishment-challenging messengers from God.

Herod, the ruler of Judea, had John beheaded.

For years, John had been saying, “I am the first, but after me there will come another…” or “there is one who follows me…”  For years, Jesus had been saying, “First John came to you, and now, here I am…”

If John is beheaded by those to whom he spoke then truth, then who is next? What can Jesus expect?

Do you see what Jesus is learning here?

Matthew 14:12 tells us that John’s disciples found his body, buried it, and reported to Jesus.

And in Matthew 14:13, we see Jesus’ reaction: he wants to get out of Dodge for a while, so to speak.  He is looking for some space to think, to breathe, to pray, to wonder.  He is processing the implications of John’s life, ministry, and death… He has to be alone.

Except…except the crowds do not know, or do not care, about what happened to John.  I’ve often said that there are some big “buts” in Scripture, and this is surely one of them.  “But when the crowds heard it…”

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48287

So in the eyes of his public, no matter what happens to the other folks, the “Jesus AD 32 – teaching and healing in the Galilee” tour continues – even to a remote place.  The crowds swarm into the boonies and when Jesus sees their desperation and their suffering, he has compassion on them.  The word that is used there for “compassion” is a word that is only ever used of Jesus in the Gospels, and it means that Jesus was filled with the tenderness of God for those people in the wilderness.  And so all day, he spent himself on them.  Teaching, healing, curing…

Finally, the disciples urge him to seek some respite for himself, suggesting that he tell the crowds to get moving for their own good.

And in the first words that we hear him speak since John was murdered, Jesus says, “You do it.  You give them something to eat.  They can’t do it for themselves.  It’s up to you.”

And the resultant meal winds up being the only miracle, other than the resurrection of Jesus, that appears in all four of the Gospels.  The crowd of 5000 men, plus women and children, is fed.

Here is what I notice when I look at that day: I notice the verbs.

Jesus takes what the disciples have.

Jesus blesses and breaks what they offer to him.

Jesus gives the loaves back to his disciples, who use them to do exactly what he told them to do in the first place, which is give the crowd something to eat.

And because of the way that this story is told, and because of the things that happen next, I do not believe that the crowd knew that anything miraculous had happened – at least, not at first.  They simply did what they were told.  The really cool guy was talking and healing and driving out demons, and then they were told to sit down, and then here come the Disciples with a bunch of Happy Meals.  “This is awesome,” they must have thought.  “Who knew that this would be catered, too!”

The crowd, as massive as it is, has a complete trust in Jesus and the twelve.  Here, sit down.  Eat this.  Praise God.  Amen.

I believe that there WAS a miracle here.  But I do NOT think that the miracle was for the sake of the 5000 who were the most immediate beneficiaries of it.  If Jesus had intended to use that meal as a way to reach the masses, then there would be something else.  He’d have followed it with a parable or something.  He’d have fussed at someone, or driven out a few demons, or taken the chance to tell folks what he really thought about old Herod’s execution of John.

Except he didn’t do any of that.  As soon as they cleared up the leftovers, Jesus was out of there.  He wanted that alone time, and after he took care of the needs of the many, he tended to his own spirit. The meal that he offered to the 5000 was one that equipped them to return to their own lives – marked and changed by what he had taught them, healed of their diseases, and nourished for the road into the night.

Some scholars have looked at this amazing feast and said, “You know, this would have reminded the folks who heard about it of the time when Elisha was faced with the task of feeding a hundred soldiers with a handful of loaves.  Under the guidance of the Spirit, he fed them – and had leftovers.”  (2 Kings 4:42-44)

Other folks say that this experience of God’s providing bread in the wilderness would undoubtedly remind participants of the time when Moses instructed the people to gather the manna and thus survive. (Exodus 16)

Both of these things are true, of course.  We must remember that God provides, and know that events like these point to the Divinity – the Godliness – of Jesus.

But I think that there is something deeper at work here.  I think that in this miracle, Jesus is reaching past Elisha and past Moses all the way to the beginning of our story.  I think he’s going back to the day when God tapped a man named Abram on the shoulder and said, “Listen, I have an idea…”  In Genesis 12, God reveals his intention to call Abram and his descendants as his own people.  Did you hear that?  What is God’s intention for Abram?

God Calling Abram.  A woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860, by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld

God Calling Abram. A woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860, by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld

God says that he will bless Abram.  That he will use Abram to establish a great nation.

Wonderful.  Why in the world does God want to do that?

The answer is right in the text: God wants to bless Abram and his descendants so that in Abram’s family, all the families of the earth will be blessed.

That, beloved, is the reality of our core identity as God’s people.  That, beloved, is what I believe that Jesus is doing in Matthew 14 (or Mark 6, Luke 9, or John 6).  Jesus is using the ones who have been called and chosen by God to feed those who are hungry.  The disciples are the means by which this great blessing is administered and experienced.

To put it another way, look at what Jesus does NOT do.  Jesus does not look at the twelve and say, “Well, fellas, what’s your plan for coming up with a strategy and a timetable to feed these folks?”  Instead, Jesus looks at them and says, “You are the strategy by which this crowd will get fed.”

In the same way, the church does not have a strategy to represent Christ in the world – the church is the strategy by which God intends to let the world to know who Jesus is.  The church is Christ in the world.

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Mosaic from the St. Savior Church in Chora, Istanbul (14th Century)

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Mosaic from the St. Savior Church in Chora, Istanbul (14th Century)

So let’s get back to the verbs.  This week, I’d like to invite you to consider in what ways you have been taken by Christ.  Where has he grabbed you?  Where have you held back, or kept a part of your life hidden away?

How have you been blessed by Jesus?  In what ways are you stronger or more whole because of who he is in your life?

Where have you been broken?  What pain have you known that might be opening you up to serve someone, somewhere?

In what ways does Jesus long to give you to the world?  How can you be sent into the world as a blessing for others?

On that day in the Galilee 2000 years ago, still reeling from the death of this friend, mentor, cousin, and colleague John, did Jesus of Nazareth know that you would be sitting here, decked out in green and smelling potatoes?

My hunch is that although he might have had access to that information in some way, Jesus of Nazareth chose not to avail himself of that in order to be fully and completely present to the people in the Galilee.

But I am more confident than ever before that the risen Christ knows you –  and that he is still in the business of looking at his disciples and saying, “Friends, you do it.  Feed the hungry.  Comfort the afflicted.  Encourage the lost.  Believe in the hopeless.  Raise the dead.”

So here is the question: are you a blessing?  Is your world a better place because you worship the Lord?  Your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, your children…are they better off because you are here this morning?  Because if the point of worship is to critique how well or poorly I preach, or the musicians play, then we might as well pack it in because we are wasting our time.  But if somehow, something that happens when you worship equips you to be a blessing in the world each day, well, then, that’s a different story.  That’s what is supposed to happen.

So let’s get to it, shall we?

You are blessed.  Will you be a blessing?  Amen.

Not Just a Fad

As God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered for worship on Sunday March 10 2013, we continued to explore some significant meals that are recorded in Scripture and their impact on our life and walk of faith today. We read Daniel 1 and considered the ways that the meals eaten – and not eaten – there made a vivid statement of faith that informs us.

What better person to come up with a Biblical diet regimen than "Dr. Amen"?  I can't make this stuff up.

What better person to come up with a Biblical diet regimen than “Dr. Amen”? I can’t make this stuff up.

Have you heard about “The Daniel Plan”?  It is a weight-loss and nutrition plan developed by a pastor and several doctors, including TV’s “Dr. Oz”.  Several years ago, Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California wound up baptizing more than 800 new members in a single day.  As he did this, he got winded – he was close to 300 pounds himself, and many of his congregants were similarly large.  It dawned on him that there must be a way to be healthier.

Pastor Warren met with the physicians and psychologists and invited members of the church’s small groups to adhere to “The Daniel Plan” for meals and exercise.  The basic idea is that participants eat mostly vegetables, drink mostly water, avoid sweeteners, exercise, and hold each other accountable for their health.  Within a year, members of his congregation lost a total of 260,000 pounds.  Sort of gives you a new appreciation for the term “megachurch”, doesn’t it?

From what I can tell, it’s a great plan.  I have no quibble with anyone eating healthier and losing weight, that’s for sure.  My only concern is that somehow someone might hear that name, and then read the passage from Daniel 1, and think, “Wow.  So God gave Daniel 1 to his people so that we’d be able to fight flab and get fit.”

Beloved, that is not the purpose of Daniel 1.  As we continue our Lenten exploration of the meals in Scripture, let’s be clear about that – there are bigger fish to fry here, so to speak, than a weight loss program.

The book of Daniel opens with a description of the fall of Jerusalem.  Nebuchadnezzar’s military conquest means that the nation of Israel is, for all intents and purposes, no more.  The Promised Land is now in the hands of pagans and non-believers.  And if the Promised Land is defunct, then is it possible that the promise itself has failed?  Do you see?  This is a theological crisis: are the gods of the Babylonians superior to the God of Israel?  Has our God lost control and abandoned us?

The Destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuzar-adanWilliam B. Hole (1910)

The Destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuzar-adan
William B. Hole (1910)

The short answer to that question, which will be unpacked throughout the book of Daniel, is “no”.  God is not seeking to map out a geographical territory for himself.  God is calling a people to himself – wherever they are.  The book of Daniel is written, at least in part, to answer this question: will God’s promise – and will God’s people – survive?

If Nebuchadnezzar has anything to say about it, well, no.  It won’t.  The Babylonian king takes the brightest and best of the children of Israel and brings them to the capital in what is currently the nation of Iraq and sets about teaching them how to be good Babylonians.  They are compelled to learn the language, to hear the stories, to wear the clothes, and to immerse themselves in the history and tradition of their captors.  They are given new names: Daniel is told that he is now to be called Belteshazzar; Hananiah is now Shadrach; Mishael is Meshach, and Azariah is known as Abednego.

Do you see what old Nebuchadnezzar is up to here?  He is trying to give them new identities.  He wants these young Hebrews to understand themselves, their world, their faith, and their God in a different way.  A “new” way.  A “better” way.

One key component of this plan is to get the Jews to eat the royal rations.  To many of us, this would seem like a no-brainer.  Why not?  You’ve got your choice of the best foods, the best wines, and so on…go ahead!  It’s only food.

Except in that part of the world, it’s not only food.  There’s an ancient Middle Eastern proverb that says, “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.”  For the people in that place, what you eat and how you eat it is incredibly important.  Which hand you use, the order in which you eat, the place at the table – each of these things carries some huge cultural significance.

Daniel is offered the best that Nebuchadnezzar has to offer – and he says, “Thank you, no.”  It doesn’t say why he refused – that is, we aren’t sure if he was concerned about not eating kosher, or that he didn’t want to be seen as receiving favors from the king, or as cooperating with the enemy.  The bottom line is that he refuses.

His refusal is emphatic.  Last week, when we talked about the word hesed, I mentioned that it was noteworthy because it appeared so often in the Old Testament.  There’s a phrase here that is important for the opposite reason – because it shows up here, and only here, in the entire bible.  Verse 8 tells us that Daniel would not defile himself.  There are plenty of places in the Old Testament where the things that would cause a person to be defiled, or made unclean, can be found.  However, this passage is the only place where that word is used reflexively.  That is, it’s the only place in the Bible where a person is considering making himself or herself defiled.

I know, Hebrew grammar is the reason you get out of bed on Sunday mornings, but the point is made very, very powerfully: in Daniel’s mind, eating the king’s food would disqualify him for service to God.  And because he values service to God more than anything else, Daniel comes up with a plan to eat only vegetables and drink only water.  And lo and behold…it works!  In a statement that would make any mother, Jewish or otherwise proud, we’re told that Daniel and his friends are ten times smarter than any of the other children in their class.

Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar

Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar

Hear that, friends: Daniel and the others were wiser and more understanding than anyone else, and this fact is attributed to their refusal to act as though God was absent.

The pressure must have been intense.  Jerusalem had been under siege for months.  Famine was widespread.  Starvation was not uncommon.  And now they found themselves at the king’s table, surrounded by a bounty!  I can hear the voices now: “Take it while you can!” “Nebuchadnezzar owes this to you!” “Get back at the King by eating all his food!” or even “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die…”

Daniel and his friends behaved as if God was still in charge, and their lives were the richer for it.  They acted as if the Promise was still valid.  Do you see the difference between that fundamental theological assertion and the need for some of us to shed a few pounds?  The lesson of this meal in scripture is not that Daniel and his friends were a little flabby and could use a little toning.  The deep meaning of this passage, it seems to me, is that even though Daniel and the others were living in a place that was most assuredly NOT the fullness of the Kingdom of God, they understood themselves to be first and foremost children of the living God who were therefore bound to his purposes and anchored in his promise.

So here’s the deal, friends.  This week, I would like to invite you to be attentive to the ways in which you are invited to compromise your identity as a child of God.  No less than Daniel or his friends, I know that every day you walk into an environment that seeks to diminish or limit your understanding of what it means to be a child of God.  It may be that no one is offering you a plate at the king’s table (although if you’d like, I’ll take you up to King’s Family Restaurant for the breakfast special) – but I can promise you that you encounter situations that may pressure you to compromise God’s best for your life.

Tomorrow, at school, there will be a group of people who are in a hurry to tear down one of the other students.  Gossip will be flying.  Stories – lies – will be told…and believed.  Truth will be in short supply, and so will courage and friendship.  What will you do?

Not far from there, in an office that may look like your workplace, there will be a lot of rivalry over a project.  Someone will claim the credit for work that they did not actually do.  Meanwhile, down the hall, other folks will be taking supplies from the storeroom to use at home.  Where will you be?

And just down the street from this building, in a home here in Crafton Heights, there will be a significant family disagreement.  Vows will be compromised.  Oh, it’s nothing huge.  A spouse will mistake “telling the truth” for “not lying”, and in the zeal to avoid confronting an unfortunate truth, trust will be eroded and suspicion will interfere with joy.

I know – none of these are really dramatic situations.  But each of them is an invitation for you to claim your identity as a member of the Body of Christ.  Each will give you the chance to point to the truth of Scripture that unless we continually reach towards the best that Christ calls us to be, something less than the best will consume us.

I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about Alexander the Great.  Supposedly, the Emperor loved to go around to the various territories and sit in judgment as cases were brought forward.  One day he was presiding over the case of a young soldier – maybe seventeen – who had been charged with running away from a battle in fear.  The youth sat and wept, confessing his fear and promising his loyalty.  Alexander was moved with pity and issued him a pardon.  As the soldier was led away, Alexander cried out after him, “Son, what is your name?”

The young man replied, stuttering, “Alexander, sir.”

At this the ruler, who valued bravery and loyalty above all else, flew into a rage and grabbed the solder’s garment.  “I have pardoned you,” he said.  “You are free to go.  But from now on, change your conduct, or change your name…”

In other words – remember who you are, and act that way.

That’s a lesson that was not lost on Daniel, I can promise you that.  Here’s how to tell.  Look at verse 21.  According to that, someone remained in Babylon until the first year of King Cyrus.  This person arrived in Babylon in the third year of Jehoiakim of Judah.  The third year of Jehoiakim was in 605 BCE.  The first year of Cyrus was 539 BCE.  This person was in Babylon for sixty-six years.  Who are we talking about here?

Daniel.  The Hebrew word for “God is my judge.”

Really?  Because in verse 7 he’s called something else. The King says, “Your name isn’t ‘Daniel’ anymore.  From now on, we’ll call you ‘Belteshazzar.’”  “Bel” is the name of the local Babylonian diety and “shazzar” means “prince”.

Did you get that? His captors changed his name from one that testified to the power of YHWH over each of us to that of a local god.

For the better part of seven decades, people are trying to call him something he is not; trying to tell him he is not who he believes himself to be…and for that entire time, he knows who, and whose, he is.  “And DANIEL continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.”  May God give us that kind of strength and integrity as we move through the kingdoms of this world.  Amen.

Something Completely Different…

This Lent, the folks at Crafton Heights continue to examine the ways that meals have shaped the People of God.

Our texts for March 3 included 2 Samuel 9:1-13 and Luke 6:27-36

You may or may not have noticed, but we’ve just witnessed another grand tradition in our nation’s capital. No, I’m not talking about the sequestration, or the fiscal cliff, or the current “emergency” of the day.

On February 1, Hilary Clinton resigned as Secretary of State and was replaced by John Kerry. Clinton herself, of course, replaced Condoleeza Rice, who assumed that post when Colin Powell stepped down.

This is the Secretary of State. The person who is fourth in line for the US Presidency. This job carries with it a huge responsibility, an enormous staff, and a sizable budget. Of course, Secretary of State is not the job – neither John Kerry nor any of the other people I’ve mentioned are President of the USA. But still, it’s a significant post.

Yet very regularly, after every Presidential election – no matter who wins – the Secretary of State resigns and a new leader is chosen for the foreign policy team.

Why?

To remind us, and to remind the world, that it’s not Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice, but George Bush’s policy that counts. It’s not Hilary Clinton or John Kerry, but Barack Obama who calls the shots from the Oval Office.

It’s a time-honored practice – when a new leader takes over, or when a current leader is re-emphasizing his or her influence, that leader wants to ensure loyalty from the underlings. Our typical pattern looks like this: elevated to service > resign from public sector > become a consultant or a lobbyist > earn big bucks on the lecture circuit.

Say what you want about that system, but it’s a lot cleaner than some of the earlier practices. In the old days, the norm was to simply exterminate any of your rivals. If you were to become king or queen tomorrow, the first thing that you’d do would be to wipe out anyone else who might have a claim to the throne. One of the “poster children” for this line of thinking is our old friend Herod, who executed at least two of his wives and three of his sons when he saw them as a threat to his power. And when he did that – it probably didn’t even make the papers. That’s what kings do! They hold on to power and they eliminate anyone who poses a threat.

So it did make the paper when King David did not act in that way. That’s the meal that we consider in our reading for this morning.

David and Saul, Ernst Josephson (1878)

David and Saul, Ernst Josephson (1878)

Here’s the background: Saul was the king. And, to be honest, he was a bad king. He was a real schnook, and eventually, God said, “Saul, you’re not king any more. I’m going to anoint a new king.” And through the prophet Samuel, God chose a young boy named David to be the next king. Samuel anointed David and told him that he was king.

The problem was that Saul thought he was still king. Saul’s family thought that he was still king. The people of Israel thought that Saul was still king. For years, Saul acted like, and was treated like, the king – even though David had received the calling and the anointing of God.

Finally, Saul died. And I should note that he was NOT killed by David (even though Saul had been trying to kill David for years), but by the Philistines. And so David, justifiably so, thought, “OK, so now it’s my turn. I am the king.” And David sent out the press releases.

But Abner, who was Saul’s military chief, said, “NOPE! David is not king. Saul’s son, Ishbaal, is king.” And for several years, there is a split decision in Israel. Some of the folks treat David as king, while most of the country treats Ishbaal as king. Until one day when Ishbaal’s head gets split open by members of his own family, and finally, years after receiving the anointing from Samuel, years after being told by God that he was the king, David becomes king of all Israel.

David, by Michelangelo (1501-1504)

David, by Michelangelo (1501-1504)

And the first thing that he does, we’re told, is to start looking for any surviving members of Saul’s family.
Uh-oh. We know where this is going. When the new king starts looking for the old king’s relatives, heads are gonna roll. Literally.

Except not here. Not now, they’re not.

David’s first order of business in 2 Samuel 9 is to find someone in Saul’s family to whom he can show “kindness.” Do you see that there in verses 1, 3, and 7? Three times, he says he’s looking to show kindness.

This is one of those unfortunate situations where there is simply no good English word to convey the meat of the Hebrew text. The word that is translated here as “kindness” is hesed. In addition to being a word that is very fun to say, it is a very tremendously important word in the Old Testament. Hesed shows up 240 times, and it means strength + loyalty + love. Every time we see hesed, we have to remember each of those emphases. Love alone is too sentimental and sloppy. Strength alone is too hierarchical and power-centered. And loyalty alone makes it seem like too much of an obligation or a duty.hesed

Almost always when we read of God’s love in the Old Testament, the word that is used is hesed. Try these on for starters:
Exodus 34:7: The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin…

2 Chronicles 7:6: The priests took their positions…[and] gave thanks, saying, “His love endures forever.”

Ezra 9:9: Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia..

Nehemiah 9:32: Now therefore, our God, the great God, mighty and awesome, who keeps his covenant of love

Isaiah 16:5: In love a throne will be established;
 in faithfulness a man will sit on it—
one from the house of David—
one who in judging seeks justice
 and speeds the cause of righteousness…

Jeremiah 33:11: … the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord, saying, “Give thanks to the Lord Almighty,
 for the Lord is good;
 his love endures forever.”

Micah 7:18-20: You do not stay angry forever
 but delight to show mercy.
 You will again have compassion on us;
 you will tread our sins underfoot
 and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
 You will be faithful to Jacob,
 and show love to Abraham, 
as you pledged on oath to our ancestors
 in days long ago.

That’s eight instances. If you’d like, we can look for the other 232, or you can trust me. Hesed is a huge deal. It is the way that God treats us. With love, with strength, and with loyalty.

And here, in 2 Samuel 9, David uses his inaugural meal at the royal palace to show that for all the ways that he has and he will screw it up, he understands that the people of God are supposed to treat each other like this. We are not called to behave like everyone else – we are called to treat each other the ways that God has treated us. God moves towards us in hesed, and we move towards others in the exact same way.

agape350Jesus makes much the same point in his teaching in Luke. And just like we saw in the Old Testament reading, words matter. Four times in the span of a single verse (6:32), Jesus uses the word “love”. In Greek, that’s agape. And just like hesed, agape carries a lot of baggage with it. Agape is not a feeling; it’s not a desire or a craving or a sentimentalism; it’s surely not sexual. Agape is a behavior. It’s the closest word to hesed in the New Testament, for my money. Love your enemies. Decide to act towards them – and towards each other – in their own best interest and for their own good. Choose to treat one another as though each matters. Agape and hesed are two behaviors to which we, as those made in the image of God and bearing the name of Christ’s body, are called.

This week, I’d like to challenge you to do that. I am daring you to enact this kind of love in one specific way. What your pastor is asking you to do in the next seven days is to listen to someone else. To someone who is, in some way, “other” than you. Give your time, your energy, your attention to someone else.

“If you listen only to those who listen to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners listen to those who listen to them.”

OK, the parallelism isn’t exact – that’s talk radio, or the internet – but can you do that? Can you open your life up to someone else, and can you ask them to open their lives up to you?

That man who is sitting a couple of rows behind you – don’t look now – he has some very different beliefs about the nature of marriage than you do. That woman over there? She has ideas about homosexuality that might make your blood boil. And that guy? His views on gun control and the Second Amendment are soooo different than yours. And let’s not even look at that person whose views of the changing neighborhood are so off-base.

Can you engage this person? This person who, even though they may believe other than you, is loved by the Father and claimed by the Son and sought by the Spirit?

I was en route to Africa – I was flying by myself that time.  As we settled into the flight, the elderly woman sitting next to me mentioned that it was her first flight over water.  We chatted a bit, and then she asked my profession.  I replied that I was a pastor, and she said, “Oh…well, you see, I’m Jewish.”  As if that was all we could say to each other.  And she pretty much stopped talking with me for a while.  Some time later in the flight, as I was dozing, we ran into some real turbulence.  I awoke to find my seatmate grabbing my hand, squeezing it, and exclaiming, “Look, I know you don’t believe what I believe – but will you pray for me anyway?”

Can we do that?  Can we pray for someone who doesn’t believe what we believe?

Listen. And don’t just listen to the talking points so you’ll know where you agree and where this person is a complete idiot. Listen for the story. What has happened in that person’s life that makes that belief so important to them? I don’t care if you convince each other about any specific issue…but will you engage each other as valued and beloved?

Mephibosheth Kneels Before David.  Illustration from The Morgan Bible, French, 13th Century

Mephibosheth Kneels Before David. Illustration from The Morgan Bible, French, 13th Century

Here’s one more thing that I see in this meal from 2 Samuel. Two times, we are told that Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is handicapped. Verse three tells us that he is “crippled in both his feet”, while verse thirteen reminds us that Mephibosheth “was lame in both his feet.” Clearly, that is a part of his story.

Why? Why couldn’t he walk?

Because years earlier, when he was only five, his grandfather Saul and his father Jonathan were killed in battle. And the nurse, knowing what happened to male relatives of kings who died, was in a hurry to scoop this little kid up and get him to safety before someone else who wanted the throne could kill him. The nurse was trying to save Mephibosheth from David, really. The nurse assumed that David would kill the whole clan. And in her haste, she dropped the young boy, and broke both his feet, and he hadn’t walked a step in his life since then.

Now, in our reading today, David finally catches up to Mephibosheth, and proves the nurse wrong. Instead of seeking to kill him, he shows him hesed. Mephibosheth didn’t see that coming, I don’t think.
This week, how about we try that? Strength and loyalty and love to those who are so different from us…let’s see what that does.

Amen.