The Day Aziz Learned to See (A Christmas Story)

Every year I write a story to tell the congregation during the Christmas Eve Candlight service.  Often times, it’s an angsty, middle-agedy, reflective piece.  As we have so many children in worship, though, I wanted to try to help the kids see Christmas through new eyes.  So here is the 2014 Christmas story, featuring a talking dog who, coincidentally, is just a bit angsty and reflective (hey, as the great theologian Popeye once said, “I yam what I yam…”

“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

(Helen Keller)

GraydogIf you saw Aziz, you would not think that he was a beautiful dog. He was about three feet high and covered with shaggy grey fur that grew longer each winter. He was nervous, and his ears were always alert, listening for sounds of danger or for a chance to get a treat from the shepherd boys who worked with him. His eyes – well, it was hard to see his eyes because they were hidden behind a tuft of gray. And, really, it didn’t matter very much because Aziz couldn’t see anyway.

When he was a puppy, Aziz could see fine. He used to love running through the pastures with the other dogs and the sheep, leaping over rocks and playing in the streams.   But all of that changed on the day the darkness came.

It was a bright, sunny, day, and Aziz was watching his father try to bring a few wandering lambs back to the flock. Suddenly, they heard a cry of panic and they saw Rachel, a lamb that was about Aziz’s age, being carried off by a lion! While the other sheep ran, panicked, Aziz’s father went straight for the lion. It was terrible. There was a lot of barking and roaring and snarling and fighting. Aziz watched his father go after the lion again and again until the lion dropped Rachel. But when the lion released the lamb, it attacked the dog – and it held Aziz’s father by the throat!

Even though he was only a puppy, Aziz knew that he had to do something – and so he dove towards the lion, trying to help his father. The lion hit the puppy with a big paw – right in the head – and sent him flying. Everything got dark for Aziz right then.

All of the noise attracted the shepherds, who came and threw rocks at the lion and chased it until it went away. But when it was all over, Aziz’s father was dead and Rachel, the little lamb, was missing a leg. And when Aziz woke up, he couldn’t see anything at all.

For Aziz and for Rachel, it was the worst day of their lives. Aziz was lonely after his father died, and Rachel had to learn how to walk with only three legs. You might not be surprised to know that as they grew up together, Rachel the lamb and Aziz the dog turned out to be best friends. Everyone thought it was a good match – the three-legged sheep and the blind dog. The rest of the flock helped them, and the shepherds seemed to take extra care as well, making sure that both Rachel and Aziz were close by.

One day, they were just laying in the hot sun and Rachel was telling Aziz about the bird that she had just seen. It was beautiful, she said: the wings were striped black and white, and the head was a brownish color with a fancy kind of a crown on top. It had been flying through the field looking for bugs to eat.

Hoopoe“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” said Aziz. “I’m glad you told me about it, but I wish that I could have seen it.” He sighed heavily.

It was quiet for a while, and then Rachel asked, “Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Does ‘blind’ hurt? I mean, inside your head – does it hurt when you can’t see?”

Aziz thought about it for a while, and then he said, “I – I don’t think so… No, it doesn’t really hurt. Sometimes my face feels, well, tired, I guess. And sometimes I get scared when I hear something I can’t see. But it doesn’t hurt.”

Rachel nudged a little closer to her friend. He liked having her near. He felt that her face was getting really close to his. He could hear her gentle breathing.

She asked, “Are there marks? I mean, on your eyes?”

Aziz shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I really don’t remember anything at all after…after that day. I just remember that it got dark – very dark. And sad.”

Even though it was quite warm, the sheep climbed even closer to the dog, and Aziz could feel her breath on his nose. She was quiet for a moment, and then spoke again. “Can I look?”

The dog, without thinking about it, said, “Sure. But you have to promise to tell me what you see.”

So Rachel the sheep sat back and using her one good front leg, she pushed aside the hair that covered Aziz’s face. She looked intently for a while, and then she said, “OK, now open your eyes so I can see them.”

Aziz shook his head and said, “They are open.”

“No, they’re not!”

“YES, they are!”

Rachel put her foot back on the dog’s forehead and said, “You asked me to tell you what I see, and I’m telling you that your eyes are closed! Just open them!”

Aziz sounded really angry and he shouted, “I can’t open them! I can’t see anything!”

Rachel tried to use her front foot to open one of the dog’s eyes, but you know that sheep don’t really have very good fingers for that kind of thing. She couldn’t really do much to try to open the eye, but she tried. It looked like one of the eyelids moved a little bit.

For Aziz, there was one tiny pinprick of light. It was a burning, white, hot feeling inside of his head.

“AHHHHHH!” The dog yelped in pain. “Stop! It hurts! It hurts!”

Rachel moved away very quickly. For a while, Aziz just sat there, crying. Rachel said, “I am sorry for hurting you. I just want you to see what I see.”

Aziz sniffled and said, angrily, “Well, you know that I can’t see. Just stop.” But what Aziz did not say to Rachel was that he did see the bright light, but that when he saw the light, he also remembered the bright sun on the day that his father died. And so he didn’t say anything, because the hurt inside was too deep.

They didn’t say anything else that day, and for the next few weeks, everything was back to normal. The winter was coming and the days were shorter, but Rachel and Aziz did what they always did – Rachel would tell stories about what she saw, Aziz would tell jokes, and they would both stay pretty close to the shepherds.

One night, Aziz woke up to the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It was like he walked into a whole house that was made of sound. It was singing – beautiful, amazing, wonderful singing!

angels“Rachel! Rachel! RACHEL!” he said. “What’s happening? What is it?”

The sheep was whispering. “Oh, Aziz! They are angels, and they are beautiful. Look at them! Open your eyes and look!”

Aziz said quickly, “I can’t see. You know that.”

Rachel replied, “I think you won’t see. Open your eyes, quickly! They are leaving!”

Aziz said “Just tell me what they look like! I can’t see.”

But it was too late. Aziz knew it when the music stopped and he heard the shepherds talking excitedly. It sounded like they were getting ready for a trip.

And that’s what happened! The shepherds left one young boy to watch most of the sheep, but they gathered up Rachel and a few of the others, along with Aziz, and went down the road to the town of Bethlehem. Aziz and Rachel knew that it had something to do with the angels, but they were not sure exactly what.

When they got to Bethlehem, they came into a stable, and the shepherds began talking with a man and a woman. Aziz’s nose was working wonderfully, and he could smell that something important had just happened. He thought he smelled a new baby – right there in the stable!

Aziz nosed around and found the woman, who was sitting on a bed of straw. She was really tired. The men kept talking, but she fell asleep.

Aziz had never, ever, felt happier in his entire life. He lay there next to the woman and his heart was beating and his tail was thumping and he was warm and dry and safe and sound and he just felt wonderful laying in the hay next to Mary. And then, he heard the baby start to cry. The baby’s mother was so tired that she took her baby, wrapped in a blanket, and held him between herself and  Aziz’s soft furry coat, saying,  “Here, little one. This old dog is warm and happy. Maybe the way he wags his tail will rock us both to sleep.”

The next thing he knew, Aziz was touching the baby. And everything was so quiet. He really, really, wanted to know what the baby looked like – but Rachel was all the way across the stable, and it was so quiet. He thought to himself, “If only I could see! What would he look like?”

Then he thought, “What if I can see?” But he was afraid to try, because he thought it might hurt again. But he was so happy that he didn’t think that the hurt could touch him there.

So right then, in that stable, with a baby named Jesus leaning against him, Aziz opened one eye very carefully. And then he opened the other.

Do you know what he saw?

jesus-birth-nativity-star-outside-bethlehem-stableThe first thing that he saw was not the baby or his mother. The first thing that he saw was the brightness of the night – there was a star shining into the stable that was brighter than any star anyone had ever seen. And because the star was so bright, Aziz could see everything. He saw the baby. He saw the mother. He saw the shepherds. And across the stable, he saw a three-legged sheep that he knew was his friend, Rachel. In the light of that star, Aziz learned how to see again.

A couple of hours later, the shepherds and the man said good-bye to each other and the animals followed the shepherds back to the fields. Rachel came over to help Aziz, since she thought he was unable to see. The dog surprised his friend by running to her and licking her face again and again and again. “It’s me, Rachel. It’s Aziz! And I can see! I can see you! I saw the stable! I saw the baby! I saw the star!”

The two friends went with the shepherds back to the fields, and they stayed up all night talking and looking in the light from that star.

The next day, the black and white and brown bird flew past again, and Rachel began to tell Aziz about it but he interrupted her: “I know! I know! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Just then, Aziz’s keen ears heard a rustle in the grass a few feet away. He turned, and there in front of him was a lion! And it was heading right towards Rachel!

The first thing Aziz did was close his eyes and hide in the darkness. And then he heard his friend cry out, “Help!”

And so that day, Aziz opened his eyes and he ran right at the lion and he barked and barked and barked as loudly as he could. And because he wasn’t a puppy anymore, but he was big and fierce-looking, the lion stopped, and roared.

Aziz got closer and closer to the lion, barking as loudly as he could. The lion roared, and charged right at Aziz and Rachel – and then the lion fell over, dead. Aziz turned around and there was a shepherd boy, holding a slingshot. He had killed the lion and saved the sheep and the dog.

Aziz and Rachel lived a long, long time after that, but they never heard anything more powerful than the song of the angels, and they never saw anything more beautiful than the baby, laying in the manger in the starlight. And Aziz and Rachel told their children and their grandchildren about how they were part of the first Christmas ever.

Following are the comments I made after we lit our candles and sang “Silent Night”:

You know the light in which an object is viewed affects the way that we are able to see that thing. When I was young, all of my friends had “black lights” with special posters that looked one way most of the time, but really awesome when viewed with the special bulb. Walking on the beach by moonlight is different than going at noon. You know that about light.

And you know that light can be very attractive. When you’re out walking in the woods and you see a campfire, it attracts you. It calls you in, unless there is a six-year old holding a flashlight at the campfire, in which case, light that is on you becomes light that is at you, and you are driven away.  

You may know that looking at you in this light is the highlight of my year. I don’t necessarily mean the warmth of the candlelight, although there is something to be said for that. But what I’m really talking about is the light of Christ. We have just stood and as gently, as humbly, as meekly as possible, and said the truest thing any crowd has ever said: “Christ the savior is born”. Well, we didn’t actually say it. We sang it. We didn’t shout it: we proclaimed it.

There is a gentleness in the light of Christ that is always on you but never at you. For four or five minutes out of the year, we stand in this light and we look at each other in it. I wish I had a giant mirror so that you could see yourself in this light. More than that, I wish that I was better at seeing you in this light on Monday afternoons or Thursday evenings. I wish we could learn how to see ourselves in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those we love in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those with whom we disagree in this light. I wish we could learn how to see those we call “other” in this light.

One day, pray God, we will.

Until then, we gather here for reminders about how beautiful this light can be, and how much better we can see because of it. And we hope. And we worship. And we proclaim: Christ the savior is born. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Who Let THEM In?

In Advent of 2014 we looked at the shepherds who led us towards the stable: previous entries explore Abram, Moses, and David.  On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we take at look at the only shepherds who were actually there – the shepherds of Bethlehem mentioned in Luke 2.  Isaiah 56:3-8, although not specifically about shepherds, is instructive here as well.

There are a lot of times when I look at my life and think, “Holy smokes…I can’t believe I did that.” Sometimes, those are words of regret – I’m filled with remorse at doing something unthinkable. Other times, I’m in awe of some great privilege that was extended to me. And some times, I just can’t figure out how my parents let me do something that I’d never let my own child do.

CircusFor instance, when I was a teen, I spent several weekends a year working with the Shrine circus when they rolled into town. I was there, my parents thought, to put on my clown makeup and suit and assist wheelchair-bound children as they experienced the show. And I did that. But they let me sleep in a trailer with five or six other teens on the circus lot. We got there early, and watched as the carnies set up the big tops. Late at night, after the crowds went home, we’d wander up and down the lanes, where I saw more bad teeth, hip flasks, tattoos, and what I might politely call “adventurous behavior” than I thought possible. When my parents came to see the show, they saw the fresh-faced college kids who’d been hired to take the tickets and operate the side show bannerschildren’s rides. I liked watching the rough assortment of humanity charged with setting up the tents, clearing away the elephant dung, and running the sideshow. These weekends did more to enlarge my vocabulary, my understanding of human nature, and my appreciation for human anatomy than anything I ever saw in National Geographic, I can tell you that.

I thought a lot about carnies – the rough-edged men and women who travel with the circuses and shows – this week as Sharon and I set up our Christmas decorations. You may know that my bride collects nativity sets. We’ve got several dozen scattered around the house now, and more in the basement. All of them have at least Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. Some have the wise men. And most have a few shepherds and some sheep.

shepherds-angel-nativity-setMostly, when we think of the shepherds to whom the angels sang about the baby’s birth, we think of simple, gentle folk who must have enjoyed a tranquil, pastoral existence as they tended the little lambs under their care. I would imagine that many of us think about shepherding as a noble profession and an accepted vocation. I mean, “The Lord is my shepherd”… Abraham, Moses, and King David all spent time with the flocks. And look at the shepherds in our nativities – the strong, silent, types. It’s pretty easy to think about one of these fellows grabbing his son and pa-rum-pa-pa-pum-ing it all the way into the stable, right?

Those might be the shepherds that you see on my coffee table, but they are not the men invited to the stable on that first Christmas Eve. At the time of Christ, shepherds were people on the fringe of society – that’s what brought the carnies of my youth to mind as I decorated this week.

sheperd-300x204Shepherding was a despised and lowly occupation in first-century Palestine. Those who were hired to do this work were without rights or any stature in society. Jewish law forbade them from testifying in court, which means that if someone attacked you in broad daylight in front of a dozen shepherds, each of whom could identify your attacker and knew him by name, nothing would happen – because, by law, no one could believe what a shepherd says.

The Mishnah, which is the written record of the Jewish oral law, refers to shepherds as “incompetent”, and says that if you happen to encounter a shepherd who has fallen into a pit, you are under no particular obligation to help him out. In fact, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd because that would be equivalent to receiving stolen property.[1]

Shepherds were considered to be ritually unclean, which meant that they were not able to present themselves for worship in the Temple.

Whereas my mother would have been horrified to find her oldest son sitting at the feet of circus carnies like the contortionist woman or the elephant keeper, a good Jewish mama two thousand years ago would have done everything she could to make sure her son steered clear of low-lifes like shepherds and lepers.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

And yet, those who are, by definition and understanding, called “unclean” are invited to worship by the angels themselves. The ones who are prevented from entering into the Temple for worship are now called to the feet of the Lord himself. People who are not “good enough” to watch the priest make the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement are summoned to greet the One who represents God’s greatest, and most deeply self-sacrificial, gift.

Here in the second chapter of Luke, the illiterate bumpkins who are presumed to be untrustworthy and unreliable now find themselves in the position of telling other people in the village about the new thing that God is doing! Before any king gets word of the Messiah’s birth, it is these transients and oppressed, these “undesirables”, who are given a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. People who have been told for their entire lives that there is just no place for them in civilized society have a privilege and a responsibility with which none can compare.

If that’s true – that is to say, if in fact, shepherds were as despised and mistrusted and ill-treated as the literature suggests that they were; and if, in fact, those shepherds were actually called to the scene of the holy birth by an angelic choir in the manner that Luke records – then I have three questions for our consideration this morning.

Who are you to think that somehow you are not “good enough” for God to use in a meaningful way? I mean, sure, if all shepherds are to be held to the standard of Abraham, Moses, or David, then we have the right to be a little intimidated. But the angels didn’t invite any of those men to witness Jesus’ birth – just the group of outcasts who were pulling the night shift in Bethlehem that week. And if God decides that God can use people like that, then how dare you take it upon yourself to say that you, of all people, are just not up to God’s standards.

You’ve got baggage, I’ll give you that. The things that happened to you when you were little. That massive amount of debt that you’re sitting on right now. Your secret sin – that brokenness that you’ve managed to hide so well for so long. I get it. You’ve got baggage. Do you think that the people sitting in front of you don’t? Do you think that you alone are supremely unqualified to participate in that thing that God is doing in the world?

Look: if God can use first-century Palestinian shepherds, and God can use me, and God can use people like that guy just behind you…God can use you. Who are you to say otherwise?

And before you turn around to look at the person behind you, let me ask my second question: who am I to judge you? What gives me the right to think that because of the way that you look, or speak, or walk, that somehow the image of God is clearer and more pronounced in me than it is in you?

Now, listen to me: obviously, there are certain areas of life in which we expect there to be some qualifications present. I mean, there is a reason that the doctors hang all those diplomas on the wall. Certain tasks require specific expertise. I get that. But for me to look at another person and determine that someone like that is too far gone even for God to mess with? That kind of thinking has no place in the Christian walk. I have been incredibly blessed by the wisdom of dirty, barefoot men – men who didn’t look like much, but who walked with God. My spirit has been revived by the prayer of a smelly, clumsy, schizophrenic woman. Who am I to call “unclean” those whom God has called to himself?

And the final question that comes to me from the mute and rough faces of the shepherds in Bethlehem this morning is this: who are we to tolerate, or, even worse, to actively participate in systems that contribute to the tendency to render another faceless or voiceless?

When the people who wrote the Bible talked about Jesus’ birth, only one person mentioned the shepherds being present. Do you know why? Because no one else saw them. Not that they weren’t there – they were invisible. They were only shepherds, after all.

It seems to me that, increasingly, our way of life is built on rendering gifted, beautiful people of God into anonymous objects. We used to get the things that we needed from the people who were close to us. We made them, we borrowed them, or we bought them from the guy at the corner store. But increasingly, we turn on a machine, click a few buttons, and the things we want show up on our front porches. How? Who knows. Where did they come from? Who cares. Were the people treated well? Not my problem.

It used to be that we had real relationships with real people. Today, more people will use their computer to click on porn sites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Because the people on the porn sites are always beautiful, always available, and never demanding.

Who do you see when you go through your day? The people who wash your dishes? The ones who clean the bathrooms at work or school? The farmer who grew your food or the trucker who brought it to the store? Who do you see? And who sees you?

The miracle of Christmas is that God became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. He has a face. He tells his story, even to outcasts and those who other people think are invisible. But by this very act of becoming enfleshed and sharing that news with those on the margins requires us to honor all flesh-wearers and seek out especially those who have been marginalized.

Is Pastor Dave telling you it’s God’s will to send your kid on the road with the carnies, or that everybody is always good and there’s no reason to fear? Absolutely not.

What I am asking is this: who are you to be so quick to assume that God isn’t interested in using you? And who am I to presume that I’m better than those folks over there? And who are we to participate in systems that dehumanize and depersonalize those humans, those persons for whom Christ came at Bethlehem?

Today, let me ask you to embrace Christmas by standing for the dignity of those who have been given the gift of being made in the image of God. Start with respecting yourself. Remind me to respect the other people we know. Get yourself to that stable and offer who you are, right now, in worship. And don’t be surprised who else shows up right next to you. Amen.

[1] http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/#ixzz3MHA2M1Ab

There Will Be Giants

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the third Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother David and his battle with Goliath.  The scripture was from I Samuel 17 and Philippians 4:12-13.  

david-versus-goliath1Goliath was big and mean and, at least to Jewish eyes, ugly. Twice a day for forty days this behemoth came out to taunt the people of God, daring them to send someone up against him in battle. Earlier in chapter 17, we discover that he is either seven or nine feet tall, and that his armor alone weighed more than 126 pounds. The tip of his spear weighed at least fifteen pounds. He was, truly, larger than life. A giant.

saulSaul, the king of Israel, was no slouch. As we talked about on the youth retreat last month, he was chosen by the Israelites as their leader, at least in part, because of the fact that he stood “a head taller” than anyone else. Saul is the the biggest, baddest, giant-est guy that Israel knows. And he is scared to death of Goliath.

And David is a young man, the eighth-born son of an insignificant family. He’s not even shaving yet. He’s not a king, he’s not in the army – he’s a shepherd.

DavidtheShepherdBoyWe know he’s a shepherd because he tells that to Saul and anyone else who cares to listen. As he describes himself, we learn that he thinks that his experience as a shepherd might be an asset to him as he opposes Goliath.

You see, in his role as a shepherd, David had come to understand a few things. First off, he knew that he was not a sheep. I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine that they probably cover that in the first day of shepherd school – making sure that the prospective candidates are able to differentiate the herd, the value, the symbol of wealth and life itself – from the hired help.

And probably in the same lesson, David learned that he was not the master. He was a representative of someone greater than he who bore the ultimate responsibility to protect something valuable.

When he gives his resume to King Saul, he points out that in the course of his duties as a shepherd, he had come up against big, ugly, scary foes. In fact, he says, he “delivered” the flock from the beast. He goes on to elaborate, saying that the reason he was able to “deliver” those lambs from harm is that he himself had been “delivered” from the predators. It was, he says, God who delivered him. Here, in the thirty-seventh verse that tells us the story of Goliath’s taunting of the Israelites, someone finally gets around to naming YHWH, the God of Israel. And it is David, the shepherd boy.

ISamA

 

It seems as though the entire nation of Israel was focused on the fact that our tall guy wasn’t as tall as their tall guy, and therefore, we were doomed. The kid that nobody’d ever heard of shows up and reminds them that God is the one who delivers, and that the creator of height and strength is not always impressed by crude displays of them.

David prevails on Saul and wins the opportunity to oppose Goliath, who disdainfully boasts that he will make mincemeat out of this little kid.

David gives as good as he gets here, and says, “Look, there’s going to be a lot of mincemeat today, but it won’t be me!” He sounds an awful lot like Goliath in his boasting, with one extremely significant exception: in verse 45 he declares that he has come, not in his own strength, but in the name of YHWH, the God of Israel. In verse 46 he says that YHWH will “deliver” Goliath to David and that, as a result, “all the earth may know that there is a God…” Because of what YHWH will do.

ISamB

As we continue our Advent observations of some of the shepherds in our story, we are called today to consider the reality that the news in today’s scripture is not that there are giants afoot in the land: the core message is that God chooses to use people so that the whole world can see something of God’s intentions for life and health and wholeness.

David and Goliath, lithograph by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

David and Goliath, lithograph by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

God uses David to triumph over Goliath, not so that we will learn something about David – but rather, so that we might learn something about God. So this morning, we look at David – and we learn about God. And as we learn about God, we learn something about ourselves and our place in the world.

One of the things that has not changed is the truth that there will be giants. There are always giants that stand between us and God’s best for the world. Some of these brutes are incorporeal – that is to say, faceless and internal. I know that many of you have struggled against giants named depression, or fear, or anxiety – hideous monsters that sometimes only you can see. Other giants are more visible, but no less scary: many of us stare down beasts like a broken marriage, a child who is lost to us, or savage treatment by a trusted brother. We know that other people can see these villains, but it seems as though their malevolence is focused entirely on us.

And, of course, in addition to the deeply internalized or personal giants who threaten to tear us apart, there are demons like racism or environmental destruction that threaten not only us, but the entire community as well. Make no mistake, beloved – the world is as full of giants as it was on the day that David and Goliath stood against each other. There have always been giants.

David and Goliath, Arsen Kurbanov (Russian, b. 1969) Used by permission.  See more at http://academart.com/Kurbanov.htm

David and Goliath, Arsen Kurbanov (Russian, b. 1969)
Used by permission. See more at http://academart.com/Kurbanov.htm

And, at the risk of speaking something of which you are already aware, your pastor would remind you that you are no giant. And because you are not a giant, you have nothing to gain by pretending that you are, or can be, one.

In our scripture reading, for instance, even after Saul agreed to allow David to face Goliath, he tried to make this shepherd a little more gigantic. While Saul’s armor was not quite as good as Goliath’s, it was still pretty impressive. Saul ordered the boy to put on his bronze helmet and iron mail and everything else – only to discover that the kid could not even walk with them on. Saul’s mistake was in trying to turn David into a copy of Goliath, but at the end of that attempt all he could see was a shabby imitation of the Philistine warrior.

When we face the giants in our lives or our world, we have to remember that we cannot prevail against them on our own, or with the weapons that they have brought. When we are verbally abused, it is tempting to say, “Oh, she thinks she’s so funny? Wait until she hears this!” When someone smacks us hard we want to rear back and smack them harder, not realizing that, as Gandhi pointed out, the problem with ‘an eye for an eye’ is that sooner or later everyone is blind. We are here this Advent trusting in a God who sought to equip us to overcome the giants of our world, not by sending a huge military or angelic force to do a little butt-kicking, but by coming himself in the form of a powerless and vulnerable infant. We cannot defeat the giants in our midst by trying to out-giant them, lest we become them.

So to review, what I’m saying is that every single day for the rest of your life there will be giants that threaten you, us, and all you love. There are always more giants. Furthermore, it is at best unwise and probably impossible for you to stand against these giants using the same tactics with which they seek to destroy you.

If that’s true, then two things can happen. One, you may live to see the triumph of good over evil. Your marriage may survive, your child might come back home, your cause may be vindicated. Hallelujah for that!

Seriously – you may be given the opportunity, like David, to stand over an enemy that you have personally vanquished. Like David, you may find that God delivers you from the giant. Like Nelson Mandela, you may emerge from an unjust prison sentence and declare victory in ways that had seemed unimaginable a decade ago. Like the story line of so many great movies, you may find that you emerge from your battle with depression or fear or betrayal or grief or molestation or poverty and be able to say, “Thanks be to God, I’m still standing. Here I am, world. That giant is powerless over me now!”

I hope that is what happens. I hope that you emerge from this battle victorious and aware of the God who delivers in your time, in your life, in your circumstance. I know that God, and can point to some giants in my own life from which I have been spared.

But the reality is that you may go up against a giant in battle and die trying. Unlike David, the Apostle Paul, who wrote those incredibly encouraging words from our New Testament lesson, was himself beheaded by the giant that was the Roman Empire. In fact, only one of the original twelve followers of Jesus died a natural death. More than that, though, our world is full of people who have not been healed of their blindness, whose babies died even after we prayed, who are still threatened by others simply because of the way that they look or walk… Sometimes, it seems to me, Goliath wins.

There are some giants that I will not live to see defeated. Sooner or later, one of the giants in my world will probably get to me.

But thanks be to God, it’s not about me or you. Every one in this room will be dead within a hundred years, and most of us a lot sooner. Your life, no less than the shepherd David’s, is not intended to stand on its own – you and I are here to point to the exact same truth to which that young boy pointed twenty-five hundred years ago: that there is a God who claims this world and all of its people as his own. And that God has not only beautiful intentions and glorious hope, but overwhelming power to bring those intentions to fruition in his own time. In the mean time, the way that I live and the way that I die will point to the God who stands against giants and who promises, in the end, to disarm them all.

Let’s go back to the scripture reading one last time. What is the worst thing that could have happened that day when Goliath taunted the people of God and roused David into coming out for battle? What would be the absolute worst outcome of that day? Would it be the defeat of David?

I don’t think so. It’s possible that Goliath could have come through on his threats to make bird food out of David. But worse than the idea of David being killed is the thought of David going out there and wearing Saul’s armor. David trying to be Goliath, using Goliath’s tactics. Because as soon as we start trying to be the giant, we’ve lost sight of the One who came to subdue the giants forever.

We are in the in between – we know Christ has come and given shape and purpose to his people. And we confess that there are still too many giants on the loose, and so we point to his second Advent. Something is going to kill me in the next few days, years, or decades. I hope I die pointing to the truth that our brother Isaiah spoke about twenty-five hundred years ago:

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrong;

I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:8-11)

When I face the giants, I want to be wearing God’s equipment, not Saul’s. I want my life to be an arrow that points to how big God is, not the fact that I’m three inches taller than you or a foot shorter than him. I want to be a part of that garden that will bring forth righteousness and praise. That’s Advent. That’s courage. That’s being a shepherd. And, by God’s grace, that’s what we’re here to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Starting Over, Again

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the second Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Moses.  The scripture was from Exodus 3:1-10 and I Corinthians 9:19-23

reagan-Who-announcerDo you know this guy? He broadcast the Chicago Cubs games to the audiences at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, from 1933-1937. Later, he achieved a measure of celebrity status as an actor in such classics as “Bedtime for Bonzo”. He ended his career working for the government.Reagantigger-dance-10

You may recognize this character: Tigger appears in chapter 2 of House at Pooh paul_winchellCorner and, like Mr. Reagan, found a home in filmdom. This man, Paul Winchell, is not as recognizable – but if you heard him, you’d know him as the voice of Tigger. Interestingly enough, Paul Winchell is also the first person to patent an artificial heart designed to be implanted in the human body.

Charlie BatchThis profile is familiar to anyone who’s been a football fan in Pittsburgh in recent years. For two decades, Charlie Batch has been a football player – in fact, the only quarterback with a longer tenure on the Pittsburgh Steelers is Terry Bradshaw. IMG_0647But when we had dinner with him a few weeks ago, he told Carly and I that he was turning 40 this week and he was ready to discover what the rest of his life would hold. The old definition – quarterback – won’t work any more. He’s got to find a new identity.

As adaptable as all of these fellows are, I don’t think that they can hold a candle to Moses. He was raised as a prince of Egypt. He became a fugitive who eventually wound up as a hired man and then a shepherd. At the time of our reading this morning, he was already 80 years old and he receives his call to be a prophet. He would go on to add public speaker, community organizer, tour guide, and caterer to his resume.

Moses and the Burning Bush Byzantine mosaic at St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.

Moses and the Burning Bush
Byzantine mosaic at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.

When I was thinking about Moses earlier this week, the word “pliable” came to mind. The first definition of that word means, “able to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking.” He spent his entire life adapting to the situations in which he found himself and demonstrating the capacity to re-invent himself time and time again.

The second definition of the word “pliable” is “too easily influenced or controlled.” Interestingly enough, I don’t think that there are any situations where we might see this use of “pliable” as relevant to Moses’ life. Surely the Pharaoh and the people of Israel were not likely to describe him as “too easily influenced.”

What’s the difference between “able to bend without breaking” and “too easily influenced or controlled”? For Moses, I think, it was a willingness, if not always an eagerness, to put himself in a place where he could be used by God. The key phrase from this morning’s Old Testament reading is from verse 10: “I will send you.”

In Advent 2014, we are spending time with the shepherds. We will watch them as they watch their flocks in the hopes that we might learn something of importance. Last week, we talked about Abram, and the ways that this old shepherd found his way to establishing a covenant with God.

This morning, we’re taking a look at Moses. If I were to ask you to tell me something about Moses, I would imagine that very few of you would have used the word “shepherd” to describe him. Yet that is exactly what he was doing when he received the most important message of his entire life – God’s call through the burning bush.

Because Moses was watching the sheep, he saw the bush. And because he saw the bush, he explored the call. And because he explored the call, he listened to God. And because he listened to God, he led the people from slavery to freedom.

PaulGamalielOh, this kind of re-invention is not unique in the scripture. Our New Testament reading comes to us from the pen of a man who had been given the name Saul at birth, but who is better known to history as Paul. He was trained as a rabbi by Gamaliel, one of the most important teachers in the history of Judaism. Saul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee – a young man with a promise. And yet some years after this training was completed, he found himself in jail cells in places like Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome; he was shipwrecked and threatened with the death penalty six times (only one of them was successful!). I have to wonder how many times he woke up and asked himself, “Is this what I wanted to be when I grew up?”

Moses, Paul, Peter, Mary, Esther, Noah, Matthew, Ruth…you can’t name very many Bible characters who did not find themselves having to re-invent their identities in a new light, with new circumstances and new challenges. Our story is the story of a people who continually wake up in strange places and search for ways to use what God has given us to do what God calls us to do in that spot. Our identity is given: we belong to God. Our task is to understand what it means to belong to God in this place and at this time.

WaitingSendingWe are in the season of Advent. Much of the literature surrounding the season describes Advent as being a time of waiting and a time of anticipation. You’ve heard me say that a hundred times.

The problem is that when we think of “waiting”, we think of that as a very passive pursuit. People say that they hate waiting because “there’s nothing to do”.

But what if Advent is not passive?

What if Advent is our preparation for being sent somewhere or to someone?

What if we were further able to understand that we are being sent somewhere or to someone right now?

What if when we encountered that elderly person having difficulty in the grocery store, or that buffoon making racist comments in the office, or that kid being bulled at school, we thought of ourselves not as bystanders, not as witnesses, but as sent to that spot on a mission for a purpose?

What if the places you have been and the experiences you have had are preparing you for what is coming next?

What if the place where you live, or work, or go to school – the place where are are currently engaged in some advent waiting – is no accident?

 

Richard Halverson was one of the most influential pastors of the 20th century. He preached for nearly a quarter of that century in the Fourth Presbyterian Church outside of Washington DC. When Sharon and I were teenagers, we participated in the ministry of that congregation, and were deeply impacted by the discipleship ministries that came out of the Fourth Church. After preaching there, Halverson was the chaplain to the US Senate for another fifteen years.   He is most widely known now for what has become known as “the Halverson Benediction”. In fact, Halverson indicated that sharing this benediction was the most important thing he did in his ministerial vocation. Every week he would tell his people as they prepared to leave the room,

You go nowhere by accident.

Wherever you go, God is sending you there.

Wherever you are, God has put you there.

He has a purpose in your being there.

Christ, who indwells in you, has something He wants to do through you, wherever you are.
Believe this, and go in His grace, and love, and power. Amen!

I have to say that I wish I could stand here and say, “you know, I heard Halverson pronounce that benediction…” While that might not impress you too much, it would give me some great “pastor cred” in the theological world. “Wow – Pastor Dave was with Halverson.” But I can’t honestly say I remember hearing him say that to me.

 

And it doesn’t matter…because I know that my life was molded by people who believed that, and who taught me to believe that. The fact that I can’t remember Halverson ever saying that to me is irrelevant, because a community of God’s people helped me to see that God had something to do in me and through me. The important part was not who said it over me – but rather, who showed me how to live as if those words were true and could be lived in my own experience.

 

Dear people: the events of these past weeks show us that now, as much as any time in history, the world needs gifted, pliable people who are convinced that God can use them – and that God will use them – in the places to which they are sent – even if those places are surprising, like when a movie actor becomes President or when a cartoon voice invents life-saving technology. The world needs people – pliable people – like that here. And now.

 

The good news is that I know where to find people like that. I believe that they are sitting right in front of me.

 

And you say, “Oh, well, not so fast, Pastor. You see, there’s more to my story than you realize.”
Of course there is.

 

“I’ve got some issues that I need to work through. There are some doubts.”

 

Go on.

 

“Well, it’s just not that easy to jump in and be all, well, Christian right now.”

 

Yes, I don’t recall either Moses or Paul mentioning the easy part of the story, but then again, I haven’t read the whole thing lately…

 

Look, I’m not asking you to invent anything. And I’m certainly not expecting you, me, or anyone to be perfect. All I’m saying is that since the first Advent 2000 years ago, we confess that the person and spirit of the Living Christ is present on the earth. And what I am asking you to do is leave this place every week prepared to look for those places where the spirit of the Living Christ is active – look for the lives of the broken that he would mend, the mouths of the hungry that he would feed, the chains of the oppressed that he would break, and listen for the cries of the wounded to whom he would tend.

 

And when you see or hear those things, walk toward them. Because I promise you that you will find Christ there. And when you show up, it may be that those who cry out will discover the presence of Christ as well.

 

And here’s the deal: you’ll probably screw up. I mean, you won’t get it right every day. Big deal. Get up the next day and start over. Again. Because the world needs something, and God is sending you. Whatever room you find yourself in tomorrow, whatever situation you encounter next Wednesday, you didn’t get there by yourself, you know. And you won’t be alone. Just remember that you can bend. You are pliable. And faithful.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Outlandish Trust

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the first Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Abram.  The scripture was from Genesis 13:1-18.

My friend and neighbor Jessalyn would say that this is a “first-world problem”. But I’m here to tell you, it really chaps my hide.

Five spots.  Don't screw it up.

Five spots. Don’t screw it up.

The distance from the corner of Earlham Street to the fire hydrant in front of my house is about a hundred feet. If you do it right, there’s plenty of space for five vehicles. If you screw it up, you can park two there.

Nothing gets under my skin more than driving home after a long day and discovering that some idiot has ruined two or three parking spaces in front of my home because he couldn’t be bothered to learn how to parallel park. I’m driving up Cumberland Street, and I wonder – will there be enough space to park? I mean, come on, people, I pay my taxes, I take care of the place, and I don’t have any place to park my car?

And some kind person might say, “Well, Dave, why not park around back?” “What are you, crazy? I can’t park there! That’s where I keep the boat…” Oh, yeah. Rich people’s problems.

You see what’s happening here, right? This is a great illustration of a concept with which we’re all familiar, and on which too many of us base our lives: the concept of scarcity. All the economic systems of the world are based on the ideology of scarcity: communism, capitalism, it doesn’t matter – all of us are trained to see the world through the lenses of scarcity. We believe – we know – that there is not enough to go around, and so we need to figure out a way to get what we want. Now. If there were five parking spots and only two interested cars, you’d just take one and be done with it. But if there are more cars than spaces, and we all want to park as close to our homes as possible, who ends up with the prime location? You see? Scarcity. We know the ideology of scarcity.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham.  Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham. Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

Our reading this morning from Genesis points us towards an example of scarcity and its implications. Abram and his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, had been in Egypt where some rather unusual things had gone on (more about that in a moment). They are called from Egypt northwards – back to the land that had been promised to Abram and Sarai and their descendants. And as they show up near Bethel, the drama of scarcity plays itself out before our eyes.

Abram and Lot have each done pretty well for themselves in recent years. They’ve got sizeable herds and more than a few employees. It turns out that the “promised land” doesn’t have enough water or grass to keep everyone happy. Tempers are short. Conflict erupts. And here we see, according to theologian Walter Brueggeman, the tension between the ideology of scarcity and the power of the promise.[1] God has already promised this land to Abram and his descendants. Abram could say, “Well, Lot, it was good to be with you. Good luck with the herds and everything – I guess you’ll be needing to make your own way in the world now, so I can save all of these resources for my descendants. I hear that Lebanon is nice this time of year…”

But you know that’s not what happens! Instead, Abram opens up the land to Lot. “Go ahead, son, you choose.” How can he do that? Because Abram has a trust in the promise that trumps his fear of scarcity. As a septuagenarian who is depending on God to make a great nation out of his unborn children, Abram is saying to Lot, “Look, it doesn’t matter. If God can keep the promise of a great nation out of my withered old body, then he can do it on any land. Just pick, and let’s not fight.”

That attitude from Abram brought a question to my mind: where did he learn to believe like that? How did he trust so completely? Well, in chapter 12, God promised the land to Abram and Sarai . However, their first experience in that place is one of famine. Turns out the “promised land”, at least on first glance, wasn’t everything that these old folks thought it might be. So they leave the land, and, facing a scarcity of food and a time of insecurity, they come into Egypt. And there, in that climate of worry and doubt and fear, Abram responds by lying to Pharaoh. Pharaoh has a crush on Sarai, and Abram doesn’t do anything to discourage it. “Did I say she was my wife? Ohhhh, must have been a mistranslation…She’s my sister. My sister.” Fortunately for everyone, God intervenes in a remarkable way, but the lesson is learned. Even when Abram was careless with the promise (after all, how was Abram going to come by all these descendants apart from his wife?), God remains faithful. God’s promises do not depend on human situations – God is not a believer in the ideology of scarcity and God reunites Abram and Sarai and sends them back to the land he’s pledged to give to them and their children.

And, as you read, the result of Abram’s faith, trust, and generosity is that, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “Lot took over the rich bottom-land and Abram was left with the scrub country around Dead Man’s Gulch.”[2]

But that’s not all he’s left with. There in the desert of Canaan, God renews the promise. And whereas in Genesis twelve, God mentions “offspring” or “seed” only once, here we see that word three times in verses 15 and 16. Abram’s children will be countless, God says. You can’t see them yet. They’re not here yet. But there is seed. And then God calls Abram to get up and take a survey of the land; Abram builds altars to worship the Lord and continues to live in tents.

It’s interesting to note, too, what didn’t happen. When Abram gave Lot the good land, there wasn’t any great declaration of gratitude on Lot’s part. The children that God promised didn’t come immediately. There was no mass outcry from the local population for Abram to come and live with them. Abram and Sarai were not given the “keys to the city” anyplace in this promised land. Abram was, in the eyes of the world around him, pretty irrelevant and insignificant. Just a crazy, lonely old guy who trusted God and obeyed him. That’s how Genesis 13 ends.

So what is the word for us today? Where is the call of God in our lives from this passage? Allow me to suggest that this scripture invites us to explore the areas in our lives where there is a conflict between what is easy and what is right; between what is convenient and what is just; between what is good and what is best.

Think, for instance, about the fact that the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown. I was not on that grand jury, and so I can’t speak to whether they did the absolute right thing or whether they blew it big time. But I do know that many of my African American friends are experiencing this as a season of grief and fear, rather than of Thanksgiving. It is very easy for me, as a white adult male, to say, “Well, that’s too bad. I’d rather have seen that go the other way”, and then switch channels and hope that the Steelers can pull it out today. I do not fear for my safety. I do not believe that the system is rigged against me.

Some of the community who disagreed with the verdict reacted with rage and hate. You saw the images of the flames. That’s not good. It’s easy to understand, in a way, why that happened, but it’s not good.

Abram’s nephew Lot saw the easy money and he took it. I probably would have done the same thing.

Abram remembered the promise and lived it – even when it didn’t look all that strong at some points. He depended on God in the gray areas of his life, and he did not let his fear dictate his actions.

It seems to me that the life of faith looks at the situation in Ferguson and refuses to take the easy way that says, “well, those people are never going to change. You can’t make them ­­­_________! It’s no use.” I think that allegiance to the promise requires us to engage the reality of our day and to listen for the story – and the promise – as heard by the other.

Three weeks prior to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a crowd at the Grosse Point High School and talked about his concern for the prospect of racial unrest in the upcoming summer. He said,

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[3]

Is that true? Am I more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than I am with justice? If that’s the case, there’s something wrong.

And you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave! Brown men are shot by the police way too often in our country. That’s a problem.” And you’re right. And then you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave, there are way too many riots in our country.  That’s a problem.” And once again, you are one hundred percent on target.

I believe that the Christ who invited us to this communion feast fully intends for there to be enough – enough grace, enough justice, enough hope, enough joy, and, yes, even enough parking in the world. More than that, I believe that there is enough of all of that.

seedThe difficulty is that too much of it is still in the form of seeds. The difficulty of Advent is that too much of what God intends is waiting to germinate…and God seems to expect us, like the old shepherd Abram, to care for and nurture the seed into bearing fruit.

The call of Advent and the call of Christ is to not throw up your hands in despair, nor to give in to rage or helplessness. The call of the Gospel is to engage, to advocate, to speak for those whose voices are muted and to care for those who have lost their way. To trust that the Spirit continues to enter silently and secretly and to do all that you can to proclaim God’s intentions of enough for all.

When you hear the news, how do you pray? Are your prayers based on the presupposition of scarcity in which we’ve all been trained? Have you accepted as fact the notion that God can’t possibly be interested in keeping his promises of justice and love, so you’re better off simply looking out for yourself?

Or can you, like Abram, remember that you are a people of promise. God promised Abram that through him, the world would be blessed. God is calling you to be a part of the answer to that prayer – God is calling you to be a blessing in the life of someone else today. There is enough of you to be a blessing in someone else’s life today. And, thanks be to God, you can do that. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Genesis (John Knox, 1982), p. 131.

[2] Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979) p. 4

[3] “The Other America”, delivered at the Grosse Pointe High School (Michigan) on March 14, 1968.