A Left-Handed Compliment

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  This week we heard the story of the first real “Judge” or deliverer for Israel – a sly Benjamite named Ehud.  I know, I know, Othniel came first, but he didn’t have much of a story.  Our texts for the day include Judges 3:12-30 (included in the text below) and I Corinthians 1:20-25.

         Samson-Delilah-poster-1020458735This morning we are going to continue to read through the Book of Judges, a volume that is probably not familiar to many in the room.  Oh, I imagine we’ve seen stories of Samson and Delilah or Gideon in the children’s books, but as we’ll discover in a few weeks, those are pretty poor characters to be introducing to our kids.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Judges is, essentially, a collection of campfire stories, and this morning’s reading fits that description perfectly.  And if the accounts of Samson or Gideon are likely to be found in traditional children’s Bibles, then I’d suggest that today’s story is more likely to be found in books put out by The National Lampoon or The Onion.Deuteronomic Cycle 1

12 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 13 He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amal′ekites, and went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. 14 And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

Just about as soon as we can, we turn our backs on what is right and start looking for trouble.  And that winds up with King Eglon from Moab coming in and taking over a portion of Israel.  I should tell you that it seems as though “Eglon” is a made-up name.  It comes from the Hebrew word that means “bull” or “round”.  In the next paragraph, he is described as being “fat”.  “Eglon”, then, is here to represent the “round, fat bull”, the guy at the top of the food chain.  He’s a “fat cat”.  Eglon is, here, “the man”.

This is not Eglon.  But this is probably how most of the original hearers of Judges would have pictured him.

This is not Eglon. But this is probably how most of the original hearers of Judges would have pictured him.

So “the man” takes over a part of Israel, including “the City of Palms”.  Now, wait a minute!  “The City of Palms” – that’s what the Bible calls Jericho.  And didn’t Joshua destroy Jericho as a symbol of the powers that oppose God?  And didn’t Joshua say “Don’t anybody rebuild this city!  God’s curse is here!” (Yes, he did.  Joshua 26:6 if you don’t believe me)?  So what we learn in this introduction to the story is that Israel, in direct opposition to their leader, went ahead and ignored God’s best intentions for their lives and instead, chased after what they wanted.  Wow, what a strange concept…I wonder what it feels like to ignore God and do only what I want to do…Oh, yeah, that’s my struggle every day…

The story continues:

15 But when the people of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he girded it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man.

This is not Ehud.  But this is probably how the original hearers of the story would have pictured him.  If they had access to the mythology of the American West, that is.

This is not Ehud. But this is probably how the original hearers of the story would have pictured him. If they had access to the mythology of the American West, that is.

Here we meet the other main character, Ehud.  Like Eglon, this name has a meaning: it is related to the word for “one”.  Ehud is a loner.  He’s the Lone Ranger.  And, interestingly enough, he’s left-handed.  Why do we need to know that?

In ancient folklore, left-handed people were considered tricksters, outcasts, and misfits.  Ehud is no exception to that rule, and he makes himself a special blade that can be strapped to his inner right thigh where it would likely be missed by the TSA and the Border Patrol.  Most men, you see, wore swords and weapons on their left side.

Can you see where this story is going?  For Israel, at any rate, it’s a comedy.  In this corner, you have the solitary outcast.  And in that corner, we see “the man” – evil personified…the good guy wins, the bad guy dies, and it’s really funny to boot.

Ehud volunteers for the job that nobody wants – it’s time to deliver the “tribute” to Moab.  That is, it’s time for someone to take some of our hard-earned money, cross over the Jordan River, and hand it to our enemy in the hopes that he won’t get irritated and wipe us out.  That’s what needs to be done, and Ehud does it.

It starts out like a typical delivery, but then Ehud puts his plan into effect:

18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people that carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And Eglon commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him, as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly; 22 and the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber upon him, and locked them.

You see: after presenting the tribute to Eglon, Ehud evidently goes back as far as the statues to the Moabite god, Chemosh, and then he sends his friends back home, saying, “Oh, man!  I forgot something.  I’ll catch up…”

One depiction of a statue of Chemosh

One depiction of a statue of Chemosh

He rushes back to see the King – who knows that Ehud would be passing the Moabite god, and says, “Hey, your majesty…I have a message for you…”  Once again, the Hebrew translation is tricky.  The word for “message” is also the word for “thing”.  Eglon, perhaps hoping for a word from his god Chemosh, tells everyone to leave so he can get the news in private.  They go upstairs into the king’s private chambers, where Ehud does in fact give him the “thing” – the blade that goes all the way through.  In the part of the story that has appealed to adolescent males for 3,000 years, we’re informed that the blade is so effective and so sharp that it pierces Eglon’s bowels and “the dirt came out”.  Ehud has, quite literally, beaten the crap[1] out of Eglon and, leaving him to die in his own waste, he locks the door and beats a hasty retreat.

24 When he had gone, the servants came; and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were utterly at a loss; but when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them; and there lay their lord dead on the floor.

An anonymous woodcut from Martin Luther's Bible depicts Ehud's escape.

An anonymous woodcut from Martin Luther’s Bible depicts Ehud’s escape.

As he’s heading out, Ehud mentions to the staff that the King really enjoyed his lunch and that maybe they want to give him a minute.  Not long afterwards, they walk upstairs and they smell the bathroom, and say, “Hoo, boy, it’s not a good day to be King!  You better lay off the knishes, Eglon.”  And they wait some more (what is the appropriate amount of time to wait when someone else is in the bathroom?), and they finally go in and see that he’s been killed and they raise the alarm.

Meanwhile,

26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Se-i′rah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of E′phraim; and the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. 28 And he said to them, “Follow after me; for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed not a man to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

Ehud, the left-handed loner, crosses the border and recruits an army that whips the Moabites and drives them out of Israel.

ehudeglon1ceCan you imagine that for hundreds of years while they were getting beat up with some regularity by the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the…well, can you see that it was probably with some glee that God’s people told and retold the story of the loner, the misfit, the outcast, the trickster who walked right past those false gods and sacrificed a “fat bull” to YHWH?

Listen, the story of Ehud and Eglon is slapstick, but it points to a deeper truth.

How can it be that a single man – a left-hander, at that – defeated a king?  Everybody knows that in order to win, in order to be successful, in order to get ahead, you have to be strong and ruthless.  You have to be the man.  There is no place for weakness, no room for the underdog.

Except here, in Judges, we learn something about God.  We see his preference for the weak and the marginalized.  We understand that he is opposed to systematized repression and institutional violence.  And remember, my reading of this book is that it is not so much an historical account about who is wiping out whom, but rather an exploration of what happens when God invites his people to oppose the evil structures that surround them and create a new way of living.

And the hint of these things in this crazy story from Judges is stated explicitly in I Corinthians, where Paul talks about Jesus as “the foolishness of God”.  Jesus, who went to the heart of the religious and political treachery of his time, and stood up for the ones who were being beaten down.  Jesus, who opposed violence with suffering, disease with healing, death with resurrection.  None of it makes sense.  Except all of it does.

And we could stop now, and everybody could go home chuckling a little bit at the image of old “Lefty” sticking it to the man in the bathroom…and maybe even being glad for the ways that Jesus teaches us to see life a little differently…

Or we could go a little deeper and look for ourselves in the story.  If I am right, and this is a story about the intentions of God encountering the systems of this world, perhaps we need to ask ourselves in what ways we participate in those systems.

Look, I’m a Christian believer.  I am a member of the dominant religion and the majority race, a citizen of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 21st century.  Let’s be honest: if most people in our world are telling this story, they don’t look at people like you and me and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the underdog.  Those are the marginalized.” No.  We are not them.

But where is God in the story? With the underdog.  With the marginalized.

So I need to reflect: in what ways do I relate to systems of power and oppression?  In what ways to I relate to the bully and the one who is bullied?

Do I stand with those who suffer?

Do I stand on top of those who suffer?

Do I stand by while suffering occurs and do nothing?

Where is the Good News here?

Look, when I started this message, I was hoping for a few laughs at the fat guy’s expense.  This is bathroom humor – literally. But the more I read this story, the more I realize that on some days, in some ways, I am the fat guy.  Given half a chance, almost every one of us would choose to be the king, rather than the oppressed.  And we often instinctively look for ways to increase our advantage.

So today I want to simply pause and thank God for this story that reminds me that I can stand in the foolishness of God and walk with God’s children who are on the edges.  I am grateful that God continues to invite me away from the idols of our day and into the lives of those who are on the margins.  This week, I’d like to encourage you to look for people who are experiencing repression – maybe they are getting bullied at school, or mistreated at work; maybe they are the workers at the place where you’re doing business; maybe they’re protesting something down the street or half a world away…but look for them.  And then pray, “God, where are you in this situation?  Where are you acting? Where are your hopes being revealed and shared? Where are your intentions expressed?”  And then, when you get a sense of where God is, go to that place.

Here’s a hint: it probably won’t be easy.  It wasn’t for Jesus.  That’s ok.  Go there anyway.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] I am indebted to J. Clinton McCann’s treatment of this passage in many ways, particularly with this phrase borrowed from his Interpretation Commentary on Judges (Louisville: John Knox, 2002).

Where Are The Five?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  This week’s message provides the second introduction to the book as well as a challenge to care for our children well.  Scriptures include Judges 2:6-19 and I Peter 2:9-12.

         You know, I couldn’t tell you how many people have said to me already today, “Do you know what I would love to see, Pastor Dave?  I would love to see a simple, creative graphic that describes the Deuteronomic Cycle as we see it lived out in the book of Judges.”

Deuteronomic Cycle 1Yeah, well, OK, that’s a lie.  Because, quite frankly, no one, ever, has asked me to talk with them about the Deuteronomic cycle.  But maybe that’s just because while you have always wanted to see something like this, you never thought to bring it up in polite conversation.  So today is your lucky day, because here is a representation of the Deuteronomic Cycle, one that was given to me by our friend Tammy Weins Sorge.

The Deuteronomic Cycle is a term that is used to describe the theological history of God’s people during the time that the book of Judges was written.  It’s a way to interpret the narrative that we’ll be studying for the next few months.  You can see how the cycle works – essentially, the people start off all right, and then they blow it somehow.  God gets really angry and then zaps them.  The theological term for this is that “God’s wrath is unleashed.”  The people suffer because God is so mad, and then they cry out to God. God hears them and cuts them a break by sending them a leader, or a judge, who sets things straight… until they screw up again, when he gets angry again, and so on.

As I say, this is a time-honored way to understand the book of Judges.  And it is essentially correct – at least in the cyclical nature of things.  However, I’d suggest that we read the story this way because we’re the people.  We believe that God did something to us, when in reality, it may have more to do with our own choices than we’d like to admit.

Did you ever hear a student complain, “Can you believe it?  She gave me a “C” in that class?”  Or maybe a friend has said, “Well, I lost my job because the cops took my driver’s license.”  When you ask why the mean old policemen took his license, he says, “Well, they said that I had another DUI…”

Do you see?  We find it very, very easy to minimize the effects of our own choices some times.

I would suggest that in the book of Judges, we see a cycle all right – but instead of it being a cycle wherein God gets angry and punishes people for being so stupid, it’s a description of the truth that time and time again, humanity chooses poorly, and God allows us to experience the consequences of those choices.

Take a look at our reading from Judges for this morning.  Twice in the span of three verses, we read of a choice that God’s people made: in verses 12 and 14, we see that God’s people forsook – that is, they abandoned, they left, they walked away from, they made another choice – and they served the other gods.  And when they make that other choice, God gives them what they want: God “gave them over…”

Ba'al

Ba’al

In this case, and in many, many places in the Old Testament, the decision that God’s people make is to forget about worshiping God and instead choose to worship the Ba’al and the Asherah, the gods that the Canaanites worshiped before the Israelites show up in the land.  Ba’al is a fertility god, usually depicted as either a bull or a man with a lightning bolt in his hand. He is a propagating, inseminating, seed-spreading machine.  Asherah is his female counterpart, said to be the “Queen of Heaven”, and she was often worshiped at poles that were erected in her honor.  The “worship” of Ba’al and Asherah almost always involved some sort of sexual activity on the part of the priests and the worshipers.  It was, I must say, a very popular religion.  And time and time again, the people of God, the people who ought to know better, choose to be fascinated with the allure of the Ba’als and the Asherah rather than to serve the God who called them from slavery.

Asherah

Asherah

And here in Judges 2 we see a fascinating, horrible situation.  It’s a second introduction to the book of Judges, and we once again encounter Joshua giving the people their final instructions.  Under the leadership that Joshua shared with Moses, the people have left Egypt and trekked through the desert for a generation.  They’ve eaten manna, seen God at work time and time again, and crossed into the Promised Land.  And here, before Joshua and his peers are cold in their graves, the people of God choose to abandon God and live, act, and worship like Canaanites. In the space of a few years, they’ve gone from being followers of God to acting as his enemies.

Joshua addresses the people

Joshua addresses the people

How could this happen?  Why did they make this choice?

Last week, I mentioned what I thought was both the theme, and the saddest verse in the book of Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes…” (21:25)  We talked about the fact that it is easy for us to behave as if there is no God, no source of authority.

The second saddest verse in this book comes in this morning’s reading:

…and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the Lord or the work which he had done for Israel. (2:10b)

The people of Israel had done what God asked them to do: they entered the Land that he was giving to them…  But they forgot who God was. They forgot who they were, and they forgot why they were.

All those years coming into the Promised Land, and Joshua failed to mentor a leader who could replace him.  All those years walking across the desert, and the families of Israel forgot to do what Moses had told them in Deuteronomy 6:6-8

And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  Don’t forget!

Yet in less than a hundred years, the people of God did forget who they were.  Of course they made bonehead choices!  How could they choose wisely at all when they were operating out of a place of ignorance and mistaken identity?

Beloved, can you see that this is where the Church in North America is heading today?  In our own tradition, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the median age is 63.  That means that half of the worshipers are older than 63.  80% of Presbyterians are over the age of 45.  I came across a study of churches in England that sent chills down my spine.  In that country today, 39% of churches say that they have no worshipers under the age of 11.  None.  49% have no attenders between the ages of 11 and 14, and 59% report no participation at all by those between the ages of 15 and 19.[1]

ukstats2Here’s another way to look at the people who are (or who are not) church in the United Kingdom this morning.

And maybe the temptation is to see that skinny red line of participants who are under the age of 20 and then to look around this room and hear the beautiful noise of crying babies and say, “THANK GOD that’s not us.  Wow, that would be terrible.  Good thing we’re not in that situation.”

And that, my friends, would be a mistake.  Because we are the church.  And the church is losing her children.  We are creating a generation who does not know the power or presence of God.

How is this happening?  The folks at the Fuller Youth Institute suggest that one of the problems is that most churches today are giving their kids what they call “Red Bull experiences of the gospel.”  Red Bull, as you know, is a drink that contains significant amounts of sugar, caffeine and other substances that will, its ads say, “give you wings”.  That is, people who drink Red Bull find that they have a temporary burst of energy and effectiveness for study, driving, or whatever.  Of course, that’s often followed by a let-down. SONY DSC

A “Red Bull experience of the gospel” means that the church gives our kids an experience of faith that might be potent enough to help them make decisions at a high school party, but is not deep enough to foster long-term faith.[2]

This research hits me hard on a personal level.  Because for the last forty-one years of my life, I’ve gone down to church on Sunday evening for youth group meetings.  Thirty-five of these years, I’ve been a leader.  For a long, long time, I sought to connect with kids by making a splash, and by making Youth Group entertaining, relevant, and cool.  And, I’m ashamed to say, I could get away with that thirty years ago.  And I did.

But now, whenever I see entertaining, relevant, and cool, well, it’s in the rear-view mirror.  Any relationship I had with those qualities is in the past.

And yet…and yet…I love children and young people now more and better than I did in the 1980’s.

Beloved, here’s the thing that you need to know this morning:  studies have shown that teens who have had five or more adults from the church invest in them during the ages of 15 – 18 are far less likely to leave the church after High School.[3]

YouthRallyBack in the day, I tried to be it for the kids that I knew.  I played amazing games and was familiar with pop culture and tried so hard to make sure that every kid knew that I was there…  And many of those young people are not interested in faith any more… in part, I’m afraid, because I tried to do everything myself.

We need a culture wherein each of the young people whom we are called to love (which, I might remind you, includes all young people) are reminded of who they are according to the glorious truth of 1 Peter – that they, and we, like the first Israelites, are called into a place of blessing so that we can follow God in Christ so that the world might know God’s deep and rich love and blessing.

Each of the young people we are called to love needs to be coached on making decisions and experiencing consequences and living into truth.

What does that mean for us? Well, we have 27 children signed up in our Preschool program.  There are an additional 27 students enrolled in the after school program with 5 on our waiting list.  In the first two weeks, we’ve had 22 teenagers show up at our Sunday night youth program.  If you’re doing the math that adds up to 81 children…not counting all the babies you see here.

Where are the five for these young people about whom God is crazy and for whom Christ died?  Which five people are seeking to somehow encourage, nurture, love, and build up each of those 81 children…and the others we know?

Relax, people.  I’m not trying to sign you up as a Sunday School teacher, a youth advisor, or a volunteer at the Open Door.  Jessica and Jason might do that, and I think that some of you should, but that’s not my point.

And don’t worry, I’m not trying to say that because I’m no longer entertaining, relevant or cool, you need to be those things to attract kids to Jesus.

This is what I’m saying: I have come to understand that perhaps the most important thing I do in life is to try to confirm Christian identity in young people.  To help them claim their heritage as being fearfully and wonderfully made; chosen by God for a future of grace and love, witness and service.  I really believe that may be the most important thing I do.  And I think I can be pretty good at it.

Can we get off this thing now?

Can we get off this thing now?

But here’s the deal: like virtually everything else around this place, it doesn’t mean squat if only one person does it.  The only way that this matters is if in some way, each of us is one of the five for some of the 81.  Don’t come to youth group.  But pray for these children.  Don’t think you have to play dodgeball on Friday nights.  But sitting here being glad that we have kids among us isn’t good enough, either.  Can you engage, support, and encourage the young people you see, or at least the adults who are able to be in those relationships more actively?  Maybe you can buy a pizza for someone who is working with kids, or babysit for free?  How will you act and pray for the ability to see the children and youth in this community the way that Jesus does?  As far as I can see, that’s the only way to get off the Deuteronomic cycle in our own age – and in so doing, to raise a generation who is more faithful than we are.  God hear our prayer.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Here Comes The Judge

On Sunday, September 15, God’s people in Crafton Heights started an unusual journey – in the coming sermons, I’ll be looking at the Book of Judges and seeking to understand how those ancient and often harsh words and stories can speak truth into the lives of God’s  people in the 21st century.  Our scriptures for the day included Judges 1:1-7, 27-32 and John 17:14-18.  

         Have you ever found yourself in a situation where someone or something that you simply love has made an absolutely terrible first impression on someone else?  Maybe you’ve been talking about a restaurant that you’ve discovered and how amazing it is and you finally take your best friend there, only to have the trainee server spill hot coffee all over the table and the kitchen totally flub your dinner order.  Or you really liked a teacher you had in school last year, and so you tell all the new ninth graders to sign up for her class, but then she just freaks out on the first day of the semester and scares the heck out of everybody.  One time I invited some friends to see one of my all-time favorite musicals – we got great seats and settled in, only to discover that the sound system wasn’t working and the person who sung the lead role was sick and the understudy made some major mistakes…

Do you know what it’s like to rush into a conversation with some friends and say, “No, no, no…it’s not usually like this!  I don’t understand what happened here…It’s almost always better than that!”

If you do, then let me simply say, “Welcome to the book of Judges.”  If there is any part of the Bible that makes Christians want to avoid eye contact and feel the need to say, “Look, really, God is a cool guy.  I don’t know what happened – it’s like he flipped his lid for a couple of hundred years.”

Have you ever read this book?  It’s really, really hard to put a good spin on what is happening here.  Judges is a difficult book.  Let me ask you this: has anyone ever been talking to friends about faith and about the Bible and said, “You know, I think that the book of Judges really helps us get to the heart of who God is…”?  I doubt it.  This book is embarrassing – at least the way that we usually read it.  To be honest, God seems like kind of a jerk in these pages.

And yet, I’m here to tell you that I have sensed very strongly a calling to study these pages.  One particular verse from this book has been ringing in my head for months now, and so we’re going to spend some time looking at this difficult text.

You heard the way it begins.  Let me give you a little context for this reading.  Judges comes after the stories of Moses and Joshua.  The main narrative in the Bible so far has been that God’s people have been taken captive and enslaved for 400 years, and then are led to freedom.  Moses brings them to the edge of what has been called “the Promised Land”, and Joshua leads them into it.  And Judges comes before the next main story line in the Bible, where we see how Saul, and then David and Solomon and the rest of the boys become kings and lead the people.  Judges is after one important story and before the next…and the people are waiting, in a sense.

And what’s the first thing that happens in this new place for these people who have been freed from slavery, called according to God’s purposes?  Don’t you wonder, “How will they experience this new ‘land of milk and honey’ as they live into God’s best for them?”  Let’s see – Judges 1:5-7

They came upon Adoni-bezek at Bezek, and fought against him, and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. Adoni-bezek fled; but they pursued him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes. And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their great toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has requited me.” And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

toescutoffSeriously?  That’s what you’ve got?  For 400 years you were slaves, and then you spent a generation in the desert, following Moses and Joshua; you saw water burst from rocks in the desert, and you heard the voice of God at Sinai and your father walked across the Red Sea and you know people who remember the Passover…and your big dream of liberation and freedom leads you to cutting off this chowderhead’s big toes and thumbs?

Well, Dave, that’s what it says.  The man says that’s what he did to other people, so that’s what was done to him.  Thanks be to God.

Yeah…NO.  Because frankly, if God led God’s people all the way from the Egyptian enslavement through the wilderness across the Jordan into the Promised Land just so that they could go around pulling stunts like this, well, then, God is a jerk.

This is the kind of stuff that makes us want to avoid even reading the book of Judges.  We don’t get it – what’s with all the violence?  There is no good way to hear this story, if in fact it’s a story about smiting and genocide and wrath.  And if someone does ask us about the god of Judges, we say, “Oh, no, He’s not really like that anymore.  I mean, sure, God used to be pretty grumpy, but then he met Jesus and the Holy Spirit and they really lightened him up – seriously, God is OK now…”  We can laugh at that, but really – that’s the theology of a number of people who claim to be Christians – that God used to be mean and crabby but got a little softer over the millennia.

How do we read Judges?  Look, I believe that God caused this book to come together, and I believe that this book contains the word of God.  I am obliged to take it seriously.  So how do I make sense out of a people who go around telling other people that God wants them to cut off their enemies’ big toes and thumbs?

I don’t often do it the way that she does, but here, I’ll invite you to take a hint from my friend Barb.  For years, she has told me that when she reads a mystery, she reads the last couple of pages first – and then she starts at the beginning and lets the story unfold – after she knows where it’s going.

So look with me at the end of Judges – the very last verse in this unfortunate book – the verse that has been echoing in my consciousness for months now.

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

I would like to suggest that verse as the background music for the entire book of Judges.  And actually, I’m really not suggesting it – I’m just pointing it out, because it’s already there.  Judges 19:1, 18:1, and 17:6 all contain that same motif… “In those days there was no king in Israel…”  The story of Judges is the story of a group of people who ought to know better deciding to live as if nobody matters but themselves.

god-monty-pythonListen: my hunch is that Judges is not in the Bible to reveal to us the flawless character of a perfect God who happens to be incredibly ticked off at a group of miserable losers (called Hittites, or Jebusites, or Canaanites) who happened to get in the way of his personal favorite people of all time, the Israelites.

Instead, I propose that Judges is in the Bible to give us a picture of what it looks like when human beings attempt to live as though there is no God.  I am not so sure that the book of Judges is here to reveal anything to us about God – I think that it’s here to tell us something about ourselves!

If we read it this way, then Judges tells us about the contrast between two ways of living – one is characterized by the love, grace, and hope of a God who invites his people to a lifestyle of liberation, freedom and justice.  The other is characterized by violence, selfishness, and oppression.  Judges is not the story of two groups of people, one of whom is God’s favorite and the other of whom is God’s whipping boy.  No, Judges is the study of two opposing systems  – and our apparent willingness to choose the wrong one time after time after time.

Do you remember the main command from Joshua: Go in and take the land; live lives of faith.  Be God’s people in that place.

What happens?  Look at Judges 1:27-32:

Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.

And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer; but the Canaanites dwelt in Gezer among them.

Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; but the Canaanites dwelt among them, and became subject to forced labor.

Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; but the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.

breakingfree

Again, I have to ask, seriously?  You have just escaped from 400 years of slavery and the first thing you do when you move into a new place is capture the other people and make them your slaves?  Is this the work of a people who have been shaped by the fourth commandment, wherein God’s people are invited to have a healthy view of work and rest, of acquisition and trust?  It reminds me of that old saying, “slaves dream not of becoming free, but of becoming masters.”  What I am suggesting is that the sin of Israel is not so much that they didn’t wipe all the other people out, but that they caved in and lived their lives just like those other people.  They chose to live as Canaanites, rather than as Israelites.  They gave their allegiance to the wrong power structure.

God calls us from a place of slavery and servitude and humiliation and oppression and says, “Go to this new land and live as new people.  Transform the ways that you interact with people!” But what do they do?  We barge into Canaan and simply adopt all the old ways that hurt us for the last four centuries.

Beloved, we are going to hear a lot more from this book in the weeks to come, but as we start this study, let me encourage you to read it with fresh eyes and an open mind.  Don’t be embarrassed by what you think it says about God; instead, be instructed by what it says about us!  The book of Judges is a collection of campfire stories that are told and retold in order to establish the identity of a people – in this case, to remind us how easy it is to choose to live in fear, anger, and defensiveness.

When Jesus was praying for his friends (and for us), he said that he hoped that we were in the world, but not of the world.  That is, he knew that we’d be called to live and work and play and worship surrounded by other people, but he prayed that we’d have the strength to choose to live differently than all that surrounds us.  The people of God were in the land of Canaan, and they chose to be of the land of Canaan as well.  They adopted and supported and built up the same structures there that they had opposed while they were in Egypt.  God looked at his people while they were in Egypt and said, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be – live differently!”  But no sooner had they gotten to their new homes when they turned and embraced the sinful structures that had oppressed them for generations.

As we walk through this study, and as you walk through this week, I pray that you will look for ways to express the intentions of a graceful, creative, loving God in a world that will not always be receptive to grace, creativity, and love.  It doesn’t matter.  Be graceful, and create, and love anyway – because that’s who God made you to be.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

God Is Bigger…

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

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

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

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

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

Where is God when you are scared?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is God when you are scared?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

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

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes from Oscar Romero:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] Christ the King Sunday sermon, 1979.

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

Working 9 to 5…For What?

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. On Labor Day weekend, we heard the witness of Abraham Kuyper, a 19th-century Dutchman who helped us explore the meaning and purpose of our work.  Our scriptures included Psalm 90 and Mark 6:2-4

Given the fact that tomorrow is Labor Day, I’d like to start our time this morning listing some of the ways that popular American culture has referred to work.  Can you help me list some songs, TV shows, movies, or whatever that make a commentary on the work that we do and how we do it?  Do you remember Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It?”  Have you ever seen an episode of “The Office”?  Or read “Dilbert” in the comics?  Dire Straits and “Money for Nothing”?  You might think that we have a negative view of work…

To be fair, there are a lot of unpleasant jobs out there.

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Worst_jobs2

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worst_jobs4

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (detail), Michelangelo, 1509-1510

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (detail), Michelangelo, 1509-1510

Most of us have grown up with some bad theology – we’ve come to think of work as a curse.  Maybe because you sang “Dem Bones” at Cross Trainers, maybe for another reason – but a lot of folk believe that work is a punishment sent by God.  In this myth, people say that God placed humanity in a garden and everything was effortless…until Sin came along and changed the whole picture, and humans were compelled to work and toil…because we screwed up.

That’s a lie.  Genesis 2 clearly states that Adam had a job before the serpent ever showed up.  Genesis 1 tells us that God works, creating and laboring for 6 days and then resting on the 7th.

jm_200_NT1.pd-P7.tiffAnd we know, of course, that Jesus was a workingman.  When I ask you what his job was, you might say “carpenter”, because that’s how our bibles translate the Greek word tekton in Mark 6:3.  “Isn’t this man the carpenter?”  A better translation, though, might be “builder”.  Some of you know that a few years ago my daughter Ariel and I had the chance to visit the place where Jesus grew up.  We wandered through the ruins of the town of Capernaum, where he spent a lot of time, and we saw the homes that were there.  They were all made of stone.  It would follow, then, that if Jesus was a “builder”, then he probably spent most of his time fitting heavy stones into place.  He had rough hands and strong arms.  Like his heavenly Father, Jesus was a worker.

The ruins of Capernaum as seen on my Sabbatical in 2010.

The ruins of Capernaum as seen on my Sabbatical in 2010.

In fact, our reading from Mark points out that when Jesus started to sound so messianic, people couldn’t believe it.  “Jesus? The builder?  Him?  Oh, no, I doubt it could be him…” As if the Messiah wouldn’t have a job.

This morning we continue in a series of messages I’m calling “Faces at the Reunion”.  We’re meeting sisters and brothers from other places and times in the life of the church in the hopes that some of their story might be instructive to us.  This morning, I’d like to introduce you to one of the most important people you’ve probably heard of.

Abraham_Kuyper_-_GriffisAbraham Kuyper was born in 1837 in a remote fishing village in the Netherlands.  The son of a pastor, he grew up torn between two worlds.  The old way of thinking, characterized by the church in the Middle Ages, was that the Church was supreme in all things.  Whether you had a question about science or education or law or family life, the Church would give you the right answer.  But a new philosophy, developed during the time we call the Enlightenment, taught that human reason and logic was the ultimate measure.  The institution that was to rule over all else was the State, not the Church.  In fact, at this time we began to create a dividing line in the world, saying that some things were “sacred” and other things were “secular”.  Stuff that’s “sacred” is the stuff that God cares about, like church music and theology and the Bible; and the “secular” is everything else in our day to day life, such as what you ate for dinner last night, or how a business leader treats subordinates, or how much you paid for those shoes you have on.

Abraham Kuyper helped the church to see that there is no boundary between things God cares about and things that don’t really matter all that much to God.  He said,

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ [1]

God continually re-creates the universe through acts of grace. God’s acts are necessary to ensure the continued existence of creation. Without his direct activity creation would self-destruct.[2]

And Kuyper not only taught that God was active in and concerned about every aspect of our lives, he lived it out.  In his 57-year career, he was a journalist, a pastor, a Member of Parliament, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, a theologian, and an author.  He also helped to start a political party and a university.

SphereSovOne of his most important teachings, and the one I’d like to consider today, is that of Sphere Sovereignty.  By this, Kuyper meant that there are different aspects of our lives – family, business, church, community, and so on, and each of them have their own principles and core realities.  The family is not established like a business, for instance; the government is not run like the church. Each of these spheres has its own set of operating procedures and values. That is to say, no one of these spheres can rule over another one – the family cannot replace the church, nor can the business world tell the government how to run.  Each of these areas of life is distinct.

However, God claims each of these for himself.  God cares about the way that we govern, teach, live in community, and operate our businesses.  There are spiritual principles that are operative in each of these areas of life, and we as Christians need to think Christianly in every area of our lives, not just that part that we think of as “sacred”.

Here’s the deal: for many of us, Labor Day is a great day off, a chance to sneak in another little break at the end of the summer and maybe spend a little time complaining about the boss or the job that you have.  Great.  Take a day and enjoy it.

For others of us, Labor Day is an occasion to celebrate the progress of the workingman and woman, and to note that we have weekends and eight-hour days and child labor laws.  Great.  Make sure you are grateful for the fact that most days, your job won’t kill you.

But this year, I’d like to dare you to spend a portion of Labor Day reflecting on yourself, your faith, and the occupation you have right now.

I realize that our vocations are different.  Some of us are engaged in professions in which we get paid to teach, nurse, hang drywall, cook, or a hundred other things.  And others of us might describe ourselves in different ways: we are students, or retired.  We are caregivers for aging parents or ailing spouses or the world’s most incredible grandchildren – many of us work like crazy, but we’re not actually paid to do these labors.

It doesn’t matter.  Let me ask you, how can you do what you do Christianly?  You are a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker.  Wonderful.  Does God care what you do – or how you do it?  If Abraham Kuyper was right, and I’m pretty sure that he was – then yes!  God does care.

…there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ [3]

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (detail), 1511-12

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (detail), 1511-12

But when push comes to shove, those of us living in Pittsburgh in the 21st century might be tempted to believe that there is a part of our world that is sacred – a part that matters more to God than the rest of the world.  If you squeezed us as thin as a dime, many of us might be tempted to say that well, maybe God does care more about what Pastor Dave does than about what you do.

Nope.  That’s a lie.  Plain and simple.  God is present in every sphere of life, and it is possible for any one of us to delight God in the way that we do the work that is before us.  Can you work in that way?

Now listen: I’m not saying that God is going to like you better if you start leaving religious tracts on other people’s desks at work, or if you turn to people in the elevator or on the school bus and say, “I feel the need to pray for you right now…”

But I am reminding you that you, my friend, are the you that God has made.  Fearfully and wonderfully, in fact.  And God, the creator, God the worker, tells us in Ephesians that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (2:10).

So let me ask you again: how do you do what you do – no matter what that is – in light of God’s sovereignty over all of life?  How do you act Christianly in your profession?

I know a teacher who remembers to invite children into the awe and wonder of creation; who challenges young people to live into the fullness of the gifts they’ve received.

I know a man who makes his living using tools.  While he’s at work, he remembers that he is a part of something huge…his job is not just to get his specific aspect of the job done, but to remember that he is a part of something that will change the world.  He knows that he deserves a fair wage; he is willing to work hard; he treats his co-workers well and is respected and trusted for all these reasons.

I know a student who is more concerned with learning how the world works, and why it works that way than she is with guessing the answers to the next quiz.  She is willing to ask big questions, and to wonder.

I could go on and on, and eventually get to the ways that you spend your time every day, but let’s cut to the chase:  as we engage in a Labor Day holiday, can you pray Psalm 90:17 while you do what you do?

Maybe you learned this in the traditional language:  “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” (RSV)

Or maybe you’ve never heard it before, but it makes more sense in an updated translation: “let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us, confirming the work that we do. Oh, yes. Affirm the work that we do!” (The Message)

It doesn’t matter which translation you use or which job you have: can you pray that prayer while you work?

If you can’t, then maybe you are in the wrong place.  If you can’t pray God’s blessing on the ways that you are earning your money or spending your time, then maybe it’s time to change.  Each Labor Day I think of one of my heroes, a friend of mine who was a top-flight physicist.  In the early days of World War II, he was contacted by Robert Oppenheimer to do some top-secret work on what was called the Manhattan Project.  My friend was given research to do and problems to solve, but not told of the nature of the entire job.  Eventually, he figured out that his research was being used to create an atomic bomb.  He went to Oppenheimer and asked him what they were building.  Oppenheimer refused to answer the question.  My friend said, “You are making the worst weapon that has ever been devised!”  Oppenheimer said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”  The longer my friend worked on this, the harder it was for him to see the invention of the Atomic Bomb as consistent with him following the Prince of Peace, and so eventually he quit the job and was forced to leave the country to find work.  But he couldn’t pray Psalm 90 when he went to work every day building that bomb.

Can you pray Psalm 90 when you go to work on Tuesday?

The choice is before us.  Every day, most of us get up to do something.  Do you, in the words of the old Dolly Parton song, Tumble outta bed / And stumble to the kitchen Pour myself a cup of ambition…Workin’ 9 to 5 / What a way to make a livin’ / Barely gettin’ by / It’s all takin’ and no givin’”[5]?

Or can you see a world in which God’s ownership of every area is proclaimed and celebrated?  Do you see yourself as a person of faith, doing work that matters, in a way that delights your Lord and blesses your neighbor?

I believe you came to worship this morning because you want to take part in the amazing thing that God is doing in the world.  You are here because you want to offer your gifts, to praise, to listen, to encourage.  I dare you to get up on Tuesday morning and try the same thing, wherever you go.  The Spirit is there, too.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.


[1]   1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam

[2] Kuyper, Abraham (1998). “Sphere Sovereignty”. In Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 488

[3] 1880 Inaugural Lecture, Free University of Amsterdam

[4]  9 To 5, by Dolly Parton (1980), RCA Studios.

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The following was a handout made available to the congregation on Sunday:

Faces at the Reunion: Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920)

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

Have you ever heard of a theologian being so well known that his birthday was a national holiday? The 19th-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper had such a great impact in the Netherlands that the entire nation celebrated his 70th birthday in 1907.

Kuyper was a man of many hats: statesman, politician, educator, preacher, churchman, theologian, and philosopher. He was a modern-day Renaissance man who participated in the cultural conversation of his day.

While Kuyper’s influence has been felt throughout the 20th century in the Dutch Calvinist branch of the Reformed church, his influence has been expanding as scholars continue to mine his writings for resources to deal with the challenges of a public theology for the contemporary world. (from the blog of the Mars Hill Church)

Quotes from Abraham Kuyper:

“Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

“Whatever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand – in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science – he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of God. He is employed in the service of his God. He has strictly to obey his God. And above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.”

God built into the creation a variety of cultural spheres, such as the family, economics, politics, art, and intellectual inquiry. Each of these spheres has its own proper “business” and needs its own unique pattern of authority. When we confuse spheres, by violating the proper boundaries of church and state, for instance, or reducing the academic life to a business enterprise, we transgress the patterns that God has set.

“But as the gift of grace is freely bestowed by the sovereign God, so is also the gift of genius. When the people pray, let them not forget to ask the Lord to raise up among them men of talent, heroes of art and of office.

Where our Father in heaven wills with divine generosity that an abundance of food grows from the ground, we are without excuse if, through our fault, this rich bounty is divided so unequally that one is surfeited with bread while another goes with an empty stomach to his pallet, and sometimes must even go without a pallet.

For more information about Abraham Kuyper, read this excellent article.