Utility Failure

In the course of nine months in 2016-2017, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights had an adventure in listening to the stories of David and trying to draw wisdom or encouragement from them in our own lives.  On July 23, we heard the last of these messages, which considered the death of the King and led us to exploring some thoughts as to how we encounter death in our own worlds.  Texts for the day included I Kings 1 and II Timothy 4.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the audio player below

I was among the 24,401 who were counted at the major league baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday night. After the Pirates tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, the Brewers brought in former Pirate Jared Hughes to pitch the tenth. As Josh Harrison danced off of second base, Hughes stopped several times and bluffed a throw. Twenty thousand umpires screamed that it was a balk, and Hughes should be penalized. As Pirate broadcaster Bob Walk pointed out, “Not a single one of those fans thought that move was a balk when Hughes was wearing a Pirate jersey.”

He’s right, of course. What you see, and hear, and experience – all of it comes through a filter, does it not? Where we sit and what we’ve experienced affects the ways that we hear the stories of scripture and our lives. I was reminded of that this week as I consider the many lenses through which I’ve encountered the story of Abishag the Shunammite, the bulk of which you’ve just heard.

David’s Promise to Bathsheba, Frederick Goodall (1822-1904)

When I was a young man, I heard this part of the story and I thought, “Wait, what? David got old and they looked for who? And told her to do what? Seriously? That happened?” It seemed to me, at that point in my life, that this was a prime example of the old Mel Brooks line, “It’s good to be the king!” When I read these verses, I did so with a good bit of snickering and a little bit of the old “wink-wink nudge-nudge know what I mean?” I was a leerer and an ogler.

King David and Abishag, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Then, thanks be to God, I grew and matured. Some might say I got old. For whatever reason, it seemed to me, I came to see the story through Abishag’s eyes. Immediately this then became a text of terror. This woman – really, only a teenaged girl – is taken from her home about 50 miles north of Jerusalem and thrust into the King’s bedroom. Can you imagine the fear she must have felt, to say nothing of the powerlessness and perhaps even disgust? “What, what? I have to do that? With whom?” When I see the story through her eyes, I am haunted by the words of Frederick Buechner, who writes, “This sad story makes it clear that in peace as in war there’s no tragic folly you can’t talk a nation’s youth into simply by calling it patriotic duty.”[1]

Last summer, when I came up with the plan to preach through the stories of King David, I was pretty sure that I wanted to end the sermons with the one you heard last week. David names Solomon as his successor and the one who would build the temple to YHWH and then rides off into the sunset in a blaze of glorious faithfulness amidst the accolades of his people. Yay!

Oh, I remembered the story of Abishag and David’s final days, all right, I just had no intention of touching this particular part of the bible with a ten-cubit pole – not in public worship, thank you very much. I’m not going to go there.

And yet in recent weeks, it kept coming to mind. If we are preaching about the life of David, I thought, why not preach about his death, too? Why not finish the story?

And you can’t talk about the death of David without talking about Abishag the Shunammite. So here we are…

As the reading for today begins, David is an old man, by biblical standards. He is failing in all kinds of ways, and soon, he’ll be dead. Evidently, for loads of people, David is a bothersome problem. And what do we do with problems? We manage them, right? We handle them.

A few of you are old enough to remember the old Batman television show. Do you remember when the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder were really up against something, they’d reach down to their waists and pluck something from the old “Utility Belt” – it might be a batarang, or a grappling hook, or even a piece of kryptonite… but somehow Batman could always be counted on to find just the right tool to manipulate the situation so that the problem would be solved.

Bathsheba Makes an Appeal to David (detail), Arent de Gelder (1645 – 1727)

As David lay dying he is increasingly problematic. The various people who surrounded him would define the problem differently.

For the palace staff, the insiders who were his servants and advisors, these were tough days indeed. Their jobs, income, security, and in some cases, their lives depended on David being a) alive and b) king. So they reach into their utility belts and grab whatever tools they can: bring on the blankets. When they don’t work, then find another tool to apply to the situation. Abishag? Sure, why not? Throw her in there and see what she can do…

Not only are neither of these approaches successful, what we really are forced to witness here is a dehumanization of both Abishag and David. They’re not really people any more – they are simply tools utilized in the hopes that a problem can be solved.

For his son Adonijah, David’s death is a different problem. Adonijah wants to be king so badly that he can taste it, and he’s not going to let a little thing such as knowing that his dad had already declared Solomon as, the next ruler affect his chances. Adonijah was nothing if not determined, and so he just pretended that his father was already dead. He threw a party and declared himself to be king.

Meanwhile, back in the palace, the Prophet Nathan and David’s wife Bathsheba are hatching a plan to ensure that Solomon, not Adonijah, will be the next ruler. These folks have bet everything on Solomon, and now it looks as if their plan is in danger of failing. So what do they do? They cook up a plot wherein they “bump into each other” in David’s presence, and casually remind him that he better keep his promises (and fulfill his obligations) before he dies.

I want to stop here for a moment and consider where these people are at this point in the story.

Adonijah is just south of town in the community of Siloam, where he’s gathered most of his remaining brothers, members of the clergy, and key officials in the army. He’s mapping out a parade route and planning his inauguration…

Nathan, the prophet who has walked with David though thick and thin in the previous decades, and Bathsheba, his wife and the mother of Solomon are both holed up in a coffee shop somewhere scheming as to how to get the old geezer to carry through on his promises…

And David – well, to quote Monty Python, “He’s not dead yet…” But in some lonely corner of the royal residence, the one who is called “the man after God’s own heart”, or “the lamp of all Israel”, or “the glory of the nation” is dying, and he’s all alone…

But wait – no! He’s not alone. Abishag is there.

Why? Didn’t she fail? She had one job, and it didn’t get done! Why is she still hanging around?

In I Kings 1:15 we read that when Bathsheba and Nathan got around to meeting up in the King’s bedroom, Abishag is there “attending” to David.

Who is Abishag that she should be the one doing this? Where are his children? Where is his wife? What about his friends?

The reality is, so far as we can see, that at this point each of these people is focused on themselves and trying to secure some benefit to themselves out of David’s living or dying. And because of that, at the hour of his death, the only person who is present to the greatest king that Israel ever knew is a teenaged girl who is probably scared out of her mind.

She’s not fixing any problems. She’s not solving any crises. She is just watching and waiting with an old man as the hour of his death draws near. There is no indication that there is anything in either his living or dying for her. She is simply, generously, kindly there for David.

And if this was the way that King David died, it would be sad for that reason alone. The real tragedy, though, is that this happens again and again and again.

So much of the time, death is so darned inconvenient. I needed you to do _____ for me, and you were dead. If she dies, how will I ever______? Who will make sure that ______ happens now?

Too often we view ourselves and each other through a utilitarian lens. You exist only in relationship to what you can or cannot do to help me. For Adonijah, Bathsheba, Joab, Shimei, Nathan, and the rest of the gang, David had ceased to be of any value. He was no longer in a position, frankly, to do anything for them. With his usefulness gone, it would be easier for all of them if he just died already. David was at this point in his life a utility failure. He was, at best, an inconvenience.

As we have done in recent weeks, let’s take a moment and compare the life of David with that of Paul. Our reading from Timothy finds him similarly nearing the end of his life. The things that defined him – vigorous travel, eloquent speeches to crowds in places like Athens, Jerusalem, or Antioch – they are all in the past. Now Paul is an old man, cold and lonely.

In this intimate letter to his dear friend, he claims that he wants his books and a favorite sweater, but the aging apostle is being more than a little disingenuous here. What he really wants is his friends. Some of those who were with him have run away; others are busily engaged. He’s got his old friend, Dr. Luke with him. And he says to Timothy, “Please, get Mark. And you. Come. Come before winter.”

Paul doesn’t want to die alone.  I don’t think anyone wants to die alone.

I don’t know about any of you, but I sure have learned a lot about David in the past nine months. More importantly, because of David, I believe that I have some deeper insight into my own life. And now, I find that as we conclude this series of sermons about David, I wonder what there is for me to learn about the ending of my own story, or the stories of the people that we love.

I understand that for many, if not most, of the people in our lives, the relationship is somewhat utility-based. We hear of a death and we say, “Oh, he was my barber…that was my neighbor…She was the one who taught the dance classes to my children…” One of the implications is that we’ll have to find another barber, meet some new neighbors, and engage a replacement dance teacher. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are, in some ways, inextricably linked to the kinds of things that we do. When we die, there are some people that will miss the things that we do more than they will miss us.

But some folks are more than that in our lives – much, much more. Some people are measured for who they are, not for what they do.

This morning, I’d like to ask you to close your eyes – just for a few seconds, mind you. I’m not talking about a nap, I just want you to think about some of the people in your life whom you simply like or even love. People that you want to be with because being with them is good in and of itself, and not for any tangible benefit you might receive. Just close your eyes and think for a few moments.

Do you have in mind some people that you enjoy simply being with? People that you value because they are themselves, and not because they give you rides when you need them or do such a great job with the laundry…

Here’s some good news: a lot of the people that you’re thinking about are not dead. Most of them are not, so far as we know, close to death. So take time to celebrate those people today, and in the days to come. Enjoy them, and let them know that you do!

Sooner or later, however, one of those people – or you yourself – will be dying. This is the time to get ready for that.

Twelve years ago today I stood in this spot and preached a funeral for a young victim of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease). This young woman and I spent a lot of time together in the months prior to her death, and I shall always be grateful for the lessons that she taught be about living and dying.

One of the most horrid aspects of ALS is the constant diminishment and erosion of one’s body. Sooner or later, you – and you are still very much your you – can’t do a blessed thing. The patient lies in an unresponsive body waiting for someone to come and blow her nose or comb his hair. And wonders, “What is the point? I mean, who am I if I am not useful to anyone for anything?”

And on the day that my young friend died, I spent hours trying to remind her of that which I tried to tell many of you on the day that you were born: you are a child of God. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are not what you do, what you save, what you give, who you sleep with, or the places you go. Simply by virtue of being made in the image of God, you are worthy of love and friendship.

When those we love develop an awareness of the fact that they may be dying, may we have the grace to do what Paul asked Timothy to do, and to give to others what Abishag gave to David: may we have the grace to simply be with this person who matters.

And when we develop an awareness of our own impending mortality, may we be blessed with those who remember us – and who help us to remember ourselves.

And finally, as the church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ present on earth, may we take it as our sacred honor and ministry to bring this reminder to whose whom no one loves.

More than 450 years ago, as much of Europe was rising from the ashes of the Black Death, the plague, incessant war, and famine, a group of believers met together in the town of Heidelberg to write a statement of faith that would help their children embrace the truths they held. The Heidelberg Catechism begins with the simple question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, and the reply is beautiful: “That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

As we conclude our exploration of the life of David, may we see here in his death, with the help of Abishag the Shunammite, the truth that this beautiful and reckless man of God embraced day after day after day: that we, too, belong to God body and soul, in life and death, because of the work that he, and not we, have done. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, p. 3)

Giving More Than You Get

In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 16, we jumped to a new book as a source for these stories: I Chronicles 29 served as our primary source, and we also sought to be attentive to selected verses from Romans 12.  Thoughts on facing challenges, responding to persecution, and leaving a legacy in this week’s message.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please click on the player below:

So, how do you want to be remembered when you’re gone? And, in a related question, how do you want to go? What’s the last story you want people to tell, or hear, about you?

Jim Heseldon, the inventor of the Segway, died when he accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff. The first man to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel died fifteen years later after complications resulting from a fall when he slipped on an orange peel. Then there was the lawyer in Toronto who was so fascinated by the safety ratings of the windows in his skyscraper that he used to hurl himself against them, demonstrating to anyone who cared that the glass was unbreakable. In July of 1993 he threw himself at the window in his 24th story office and, sure enough, the glass did not break. The frame, however, popped out and the man fell to his death.

You and I can think of a million ways that we’d NOT want to die, and we hope that if we get caught in some embarrassing situation, that’s not the last story that gets told.

“Study of King David”, 1866 photograph by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron

Last week, we read the last story about David that gets told in the books of Samuel. I’m not sure that David – or the rest of Israel – wanted people to remember his pride and the ill-conceived census he ordered as his final achievement, though. For that reason, we move today to the book of I Chronicles. I and II Chronicles contain many of the same stories that we find in the books of Samuel and Kings. They are written by a different author, and to a slightly different purpose. The name that these books have in the Greek translation of the Old Testament may give us some insight into that purpose: they are called paraleipomena, which means “the things that were left out” or more literally, “the leftovers.” It’s as if the authors are saying, “Look, don’t forget that this happened, too!”

For almost a year, we’ve walked through David’s life. Here, I’d suggest that even his “golden years” are behind him and he is making plans for his own death. Of utmost importance to him, as it is to many kings and politicians, is the line of succession. Who will replace him? In no small part because of his own sinfulness and failures as a parent, the normal process of naming the first-born as king is not available to this family. Adonijah and his brother Absalom have already been killed in family warfare. It will be one of his sons, but it won’t be the “leading candidates.”

Furthermore, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his own brokenness and sinfulness, David is increasingly concerned about providing the nation with a legacy of faith and worship. He wants to build a grand and glorious temple as the site for worship of YHWH.

“King David Presenting the Sceptre to Solomon” (detail) by Cornelus de Vos (17th c.)

The authors of Chronicles tell us in chapter 21 that David had a vision wherein he was told, firstly, that the Lord would not permit him to build the temple himself because he had too much blood on his hands, and secondly, that his son Solomon should succeed him as king. Solomon, not David, would build the temple that would glorify the Lord.

And so in the reading you’ve heard from today, David addresses these two issues publicly. He names Solomon as the one who will replace him and he charges Solomon to build the temple to the Lord. He further states that he’s providing Solomon with the financial and material support necessary for such an undertaking.

Where did this come from? I mean, where did David learn this kind of stuff? His life had been so messed up in so many ways for so long… plucked from the fields as a mere boy and anointed as king in a secret ceremony; resented by his older brothers; mocked by his peers and his adversaries; threatened, persecuted, and then hunted down by Saul, his predecessor as king…

And his own ascendance to the kingship was simply horrible! After Saul and Jonathan were killed, most of Israel looked at David and said, “Him? No thanks…” It took another seven years for the nation to unite under David’s leadership.

This man, now seventy years old, who has been raised in uncertainty and surrounded by those who question his authenticity is doing anything he can to seek to save Solomon and the kingdom from all the grief that he himself went through. In publicly declaring Solomon’s ascendancy and praying for his rule and providing him with the resources necessary to gather the people together in worship of YHWH, David is clearly giving to his son and to his people far more than he ever got from those who preceded him.

In some ways, this is not surprising. You saw how David sought to provide the vulnerable with protection and security even while he himself was on the run. You know how he sought out Mephibosheth and honored him for his father’s sake. So on the one hand, you might have seen this coming.

But on the other hand, the notion of going above and beyond, of giving more than you got, goes against the norms of David’s day and ours own.

We are much more likely to live by creeds such as “You get what you pay for” or “You get what’s coming to you…” We say things like, “Well, what did you expect? After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” What about, “You can only play the cards that you’ve been dealt, right?”

Now listen: there is a nugget of truth in all of these old adages. I’ve said them all, for crying out loud. But they are NOT, thanks be to God, the Word of the Lord.

David, for some reason, got more than he paid for. He was an apple that fell a long way from the tree. And he demonstrates here that on at least some occasions, he was able to play way better cards than he was ever dealt.

How is this possible? Because of an even greater wisdom and greater truth that we know simply as grace. David knew that the world would love to operate in a simple math problem: garbage in, garbage out. An eye for an eye. That’s all neat and tidy.

And deadly. It’s an equation nobody can live with. As a man who has sinned so frequently and so publicly, David realizes that he has not gotten what he deserved, and that he will therefore seek to give to others better than what they’ve earned.

St Paul the Apostle. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

In the first century, a follower of Jesus named Paul wrote to a small group of Christians in the city at the heart of the Roman Empire. These women and men, who met in secret for fear of persecution and betrayal, were told in no uncertain terms that the life of faith means following the example of both Jesus and David in giving more than you get.

I want to point out the fact that Paul was writing to a group of people who were persecuted because that is a sentiment shared by an improbably increasing number of Christians in the USA. In a recent survey, 57% of white evangelical Christians said that they sense discrimination against Christians in America. Only 44% of those same people feel as though Muslims are discriminated against. And an amazing 75% of whites who call themselves evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians is as great or greater than that which is leveled at blacks or other racial minorities.[1]

If those statistics are accurate, then I would have to assume that there are those in the room who identify with that – who feel threatened or persecuted. And if that’s the case, then the words of Paul and the context in which he uttered them are of great significance to the church in the USA. Do you think you face discrimination because of your faith? Are you feeling worried about the negative repercussions that could arise should someone discover that you’re a Christian? Then let’s listen to the man who writes to people who are facing the reality of being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, or public floggings in the square. Let’s pay attention to the man who would himself be beheaded because of his faith in Jesus Christ. What does Paul say?

Live graciously.

Give better than you get.

I’d like to suggest that there are three concrete ways in which everyone in this room can respond to the charge of Paul in light of the example of King David.

We can do this financially. What do you have? What can you anticipate? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Too often we think of our spending and consuming as aspects of life that are just not going to go away. I have to make this car payment; I need the new smartphone; I can’t stand to stay home and cook again tonight… And yet we think of the gifts we bring to the Lord as afterthoughts. We look in the wallet when the plate is being passed and hope that we’ve got something small to toss in. It’s a little embarrassing, after all, to try to make change from the offering plate when it’s going past…

David gave his wealth for the building of the temple; he set aside a significant portion of his material well-being so that the people of God would have a place in which to encounter God’s truth.

Do you have a will? Does it include provision for the Work of the Lord? I can tell you that I have a will and then when it’s my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, there’s something in it for this church. I should also warn you that there’s probably not enough in it to warrant anyone tampering with my brakes this week, though…

How does your discipleship determine your spending? If the answer to that is “Um, I don’t know…” or “It doesn’t”, let me encourage you to take some time this week thinking about what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus as a citizen of the wealthiest society this planet has ever known.

Another area in which we can easily give more than we’ve gotten is that of investing ourselves in future generations. In a few moments, we’ll be baptizing little Karalynn. You’re going to like it. I’ll probably cry. Her parents are going to make a few promises, and then it’ll be your turn. You’ll be asked whether you intend to live a life of faith on which she can model her own. You’ll be asked whether you intend to make available to her resources that will allow her to grow as a follower of Jesus. We’ll ask you all of these questions in the context of the baptism of Karalynn.

But here’s the deal: this particular little screecher lives in Akron, Ohio. So when you’re asked these questions, you might be tempted to think, “Sweet! There’s no way I’ll be asked to really follow through on these. She’s not my problem!”

Except, of course, that you’re not only speaking for yourself in these moments. You’re speaking as an agent of The Church of Jesus Christ. Her parents are promising to put her in a place where The Church can see her. You, on behalf of The Church, are promising that there are believers who are interested in and concerned for the lives of babies who have been baptized elsewhere – or not at all.

You are saying that a part of being a Christian means that we take an active role in the spiritual nurture of other people’s children. And, to be honest, with the ministry of the Preschool and the Open Door, this congregation does this better than most… but what is your investment in this practice? How are you blessing the next generation as it seeks to learn what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God?

And finally, each of us can give more than we’ve gotten as we seek to live lives of grace and gratitude. In our every day decisions about how to invest our energy, what to get excited about, where to put our worries… can we just be thankful? David thought about his death, and then turned around and thanked God for life. Paul saw the conflict and fear that faced early Christians throughout the Roman Empire, and said, “Well, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”

You, beloved – you can do this. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When the yahoos cut you off in traffic, let them in. Buy someone else’s lunch. That little thing that your spouse does that just gets under your skin? Let it go. Turn off the social media and the talk radio and news every now and then. That horrible thing that happened to you? Don’t make that the most important part of who you are.

About fifteen years ago, modern American poet Scott Cairns penned this brief verse entitled “Imperative”, and I keep it in my Bible to remind me of the call to live a life of grace. Listen:

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television. All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean. The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need. Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.[2]

Beloved, we’re getting close to the end of David’s story. We may be close to the end of mine or yours. At any rate, let us commit ourselves to being people who give freely what we cannot keep forever in the hopes that in so doing, we’ll learn how to hold on to that which we cannot lose. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/perceptions-discrimination-muslims-christians/519135/

[2] From philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns. Used by permission of the author.

David’s Greatest Sin

In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 9, we considered what some have called David’s greatest failure: his census of Israel.  Our texts included II Samuel 24 as well as Philippians 4:1-13. Thoughts on counting, pride, and forgiveness in this week’s message.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the player below:

What do you know about Alphonse “Scarface” Capone? That he was a gangster and the leader of the Chicago mob that was responsible for the “St. Valentines’ Day Massacre” in 1929? A bootlegger, murderous thug, and career criminal? Do you know the crime of which he was found guilty and sentenced to prison? Tax evasion.

I bet that a lot of you remember Jack Lambert, who at 6’4”, 220 lbs. was one of the fiercest men to ever wear the uniform of an NFL team. He was renowned for his ferocious hits on opposing ball carriers, but he was driven from the game he loved by an injury: turf toe.

King David, Adam Tadolini (Rome, 19th cent.)

I bring up these big men who were taken down by seemingly small opponents because we’ve come to a part of the David narrative with which many of us are unfamiliar. This is the twenty-second sermon I’ve preached about David in the last year, and if I were to ask you what was the one thing that threatened David’s reign and legacy the most, how would you answer? The adulterous, murderous episode that led to Bathsheba becoming his wife? His suspected collusion with the Philistines? The instructions he gave to Ahimelech, the high priest, that ended with the deaths of all the residents of the town of Nob? His failure as a father?

Nope. The closest David came to blowing it, big time, was when he issued an executive order mandating a census throughout Israel.

Seriously? A census? How does counting the population rise to a level of offense commensurate with the other tawdry episodes in David’s past? Well, this is no ordinary counting: it is a preliminary act for the institution of a military draft and a massive taxation. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “This census is much like that of Caesar Augustus. It is not a benign act of counting but an act of bureaucratic terrorism…The purpose is to mobilize military power. David has yielded to the seduction of state power.”[1] David’s greatest sin is not about the math… it’s about the pride that threatened to undo him in a way that nothing else had.

King David’s Census, Illustration from Treasures of the Bible, Henry Davenport Northrop (1894).

He’s nearing the end of his life. He’s survived several attempted coups and assassinations; he’s weathered a lot of storms, and, frankly, he’s starting to roll the credits. II Samuel 22 contains an amazingly beautiful song of praise to God. II Samuel 23 allows the monarch to recount the list of “David’s Mighty Men” – several dozen soldiers whose amazing exploits and feats of strength and bravery were simply astounding.

Perhaps the old monarch simply got caught up in the moment. As he considers all of his oldest and most trusted companions, it would be tempting for him to say, “You know, we were pretty darned tough. I mean, we did some serious business back in the day… But what about now? What else is there for me to do? Who else can I conquer? What if there are bigger things in store for me or for this nation?”

In short, David begins an exploration of nationalism and exceptionalism that nearly costs him – and his people – everything.

We’re told in the beginning of the passage that “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel…” Why? Well, it doesn’t say, but I have an idea. Do you remember the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.” Do you remember the first sin in the Garden of Eden? The humans refusing to accept the authority of God. It is God who establishes, God who reigns, God who rules… and in our reading from II Samuel, as well as these prior incidents, the humans (David in this case) reject God’s primacy and put themselves on top.

It’s interesting to note that this same exact story is written down in I Chronicles 21 – with a significant difference. In the reading for today, we’re told that God incited David’s heart; in I Chronicles, the idea for the act is credited to Satan. In either case, the result is the same: David chose to order this census. Nobody made him do anything he didn’t already want to do. He calls up Joab, his loyal general, and tells him to get the thing up and running. And even Joab, the traditional strongman for King David, says, “Um, look, your majesty, are you sure about this? I don’t this this is your best idea ever. Maybe you want to sleep on it…”

David flat-out ignores his advisor and the census begins. It takes ten long months to come up with an answer; when the numbers finally come in, David realizes what he’s done. He gets the answer for which he’s been looking, and then he grasps the implications of the questions he’s asked… and he cries out for forgiveness. The David in verse 2 is strong, purposeful, resolute, and full of pride. The one who speaks in verses 10 and 14 is as broken as he’s ever been. David realizes the depth of his willful arrogance and rebellion. He sees his pride for what it is and falls on God’s mercy.

The extent of David’s repentance can be seen in the curious conversation that he has with the prophet when Gad brings him news of God’s judgment. The Lord offers David a choice: what kind of punishment does he want to receive? Three years of famine across the whole nation? Three months of intense attack from his enemies? Or three days of pestilence and plague on the nation?

When David is at his best, he fears God. When David is at his most faithful, he trusts God. Here, in this dark, dark hour, he cries out asking for God, not humans, to deal with him. He knows that if there is any mercy, any relief, any hope to be found, it will come from the hand of the Lord.

In the next three days, seventy thousand people die in Israel. To put that in perspective just a bit, that is more than the total number of US military deaths in the combined six decades of our involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. David sees the weight of this carnage and cries out, “Enough! Look, God, if you want to kill someone, kill me. Leave these people out of it! I am the sinner here!”

The prophet then commands David to go and worship by building a worship site on a threshing floor belonging to a man named Aruanah. There are a few observations I’d make about this worship.

First, the king treats this farmer fairly. The David of verse 2 would have walked into town and declared “eminent domain” on this poor man’s property. He might have said something like, “I need this for the good of the nation. Step aside, citizen…” But the David who shows up in verse 24 pays a full and fair price for this land, knowing that he has the ability and the responsibility to do so

This comes, of course, from the David’s awareness that he, and all he has, belongs to God. David will not “thank” God with other people’s money.

A threshing place in modern Santorini, Greece

And the last thing I’d like to point out about the location of this reconciliation is that it is on a threshing floor. You probably don’t have one of these at your house… or in your city, but it was a site of tremendous importance to this pre-industrial agrarian culture. The threshing floor was an elevated, hard, level surface where the crop would be placed and beaten or trod upon so that the edible grain would be separated from the worthless chaff. The threshing floor was the place in which that which gives life is separated from that which is useless. David puts himself in this place and says, “Lord, make me… make us pure and useful…”

This is the last story in the books of Samuel. The narrative which contains the selection of a young child to be the king, the defeat of a mighty giant, military campaigns, palace intrigue, significant defeat, and astounding victory… ends with the old monarch on his knees in a strange place, crying out for forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. There’s more than enough smiting, fighting, sleeping around, and even the occasional happy episode thrown in. What’s the point? Why does the narrator of Israel’s history choose to end the book of Samuel with David’s prideful attempt to count his fighting men and implement a tax plan?

Well, for starters, I’d think an important lesson we can take away from this passage is the fact that it’s foolish to spend too much time and energy reading or believing your own press clippings. One of the worst things that David did was to insulate himself to the point where he was unable to see how his bureaucratic power grab was an affront to the Lord. When you and I rely too heavily on our own feelings, or on the perception that we’d like to cultivate in others, we are similarly unable to perceive the truth. When you are “up” and doing well, remember that you are in danger of falling. And when you are broken, do not forget that you are made in the image of God. You might not feel like a child of the Most High, but that doesn’t change your reality.

In a few moments, we’ll sing Forgiveness by Matthew West. Some of the lyrics we’ll proclaim are “Show me how to love the unlovable/ Show me how to reach the unreachable/ Help me now to do the impossible/ Forgiveness.”

It may be that you’re at a place in your life where the greatest challenge in your walk will be to look at other people as you sing that song. You mentally picture the one who has wounded you so deeply or regarded you so callously, and you pray for the grace to be humble and Christlike toward her or him. But it’s just as likely that you need to remember those lyrics the next time you look in a mirror. You’ll remember the thing you said to your child or your parent; the lies you told to avoid embarrassment; the way you compromised your integrity in order to feel “liked.” In those cases, then, perhaps the “unlovable” and the “unreachable” is not someone else… you may think it’s you. And you are, of course, wrong.

Ask the Lord to give you a good vision of yourself, and others, and God. Pray for a realistic view of what is, and what can be, and how you fit into it.

The Philippians passage that we read this morning contains perhaps one of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible, at least in the context of American Christianity. Whether we’re talking about winning the Super Bowl, finding a parking spot, or getting a date to the prom, millions of us find ourselves chanting “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” We use that verse as though it is some sort of mantra that guarantees our success, and makes Jesus our lucky charm.

St Paul the Apostle. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

Paul’s life was as complicated and erratic as David’s in its own way. He had grown up as a member of the educated elite, and he’d made a career as a renowned teacher and scholar. In his younger days, Paul was the one you hoped might be called in as a guest lecturer; he had all the right contacts and influence. Yet at the time of this writing, he’s been beaten and imprisoned. He’s stayed at the Hilton and in Medium Security… traveled first class and been shipwrecked… and here he shares the fact that the only meaning and purpose he’s ever found in his life comes through his ability to be content in the knowledge that he is never alone because of the work of God in Jesus Christ.

Being a person of faith doesn’t mean that you can get the job you want, or run a marathon without training, or pass your test without studying. That’s not the “all things” Paul is talking about in this passage. What he is saying is that through the grace of God, you and I can find the ability to be content, to know peace, to find an inward centeredness that is not dependent on our outward circumstances. We can do that through Christ who gives us strength.

My hope and prayer for you this morning is that today and each day you might join your brother David on the threshing floor of your life. That today, you might sit in the presence of God, resting on a firm and solid foundation, knowing that within your life right now are the elements necessary for significant fruit. Ask God to help you blow away the chaff and the things that distract you, and seek to find your center in Jesus Christ. Whether you are on the cusp of a significant opportunity or on the brink of an incredible challenge, look for the contentment and peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. If we can start the days like that, we will find, I trust, that we can get through anything in the power of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Interpretation Commentary on First and Second Samuel (John Knox Press, 1990), p. 352

Getting Ready to Run

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 2, we considered a “bit part” in that saga, that of Ahimaaz, the messenger who didn’t have a message.  Our texts included II Samuel 18:19-33 as well as Luke 12:35-40.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the player below:

My hunch is that to most of you, the name “Ahimaaz, son of Zadok” doesn’t mean a whole lot. Have any of you ever heard or read about Ahimaaz? I didn’t think so. He’s a bit player in scripture. Stands off to the side, although he had a shot at something bigger, perhaps.

From the Maciejowski Bible, 12th c.

Ahimaaz’s story comes to us as a sidebar to the year-long study of David in which we’ve been engaged. Do you remember Absalom, David’s son? Last week, we talked about Absalom’s revolt against his father wherein he captured the capital city of Jerusalem while King David was forced to flee. Ahimaaz was the son of Zadok, one of the priests that was loyal David. When Absalom took over the city, David arranged for a few spies to remain behind. Ahimaaz was the runner who would get the information from the spies and then deliver it to David. There are several episodes in chapters 16 & 17 where this young man acted heroically in the service of his King. In fact, it was Ahimaaz who eventually delivered the information that resulted in Absalom’s defeat.

When we left the story last week, the conflict had ended and the victorious David was heading back to Jerusalem. At this point, David was aware of the outcome of the battle, but knew nothing of Absalom’s fate. Late in the day, Absalom was fleeing and was discovered by a group of David’s men. When they reported this to David’s general, Joab. Joab immediately killed Absalom and in the aftermath, David’s troops gathered round.

One of the young men we see crowding up to the front of the scene is Ahimaaz. You heard this a few moments ago, and you know that even though Ahimaaz has been a trusted messenger during this civil war, Joab sends a stranger to report Absalom’s death, because he knows that David has a habit of killing messengers who bring bad news. Ahimaaz wants to run. He wants to deliver the news that the battle is over. Joab says, “Look, son, run another day. You weren’t here, you didn’t see everything. Just leave it.” And, as you heard, Joab dispatches a foreigner to carry the news to the king. But the more he thinks about it, the more Ahimaaz pesters Joab. Finally, perhaps because the Cushite had had a head start, Joab releases Ahimaaz. Listen:

Ahimaaz son of Zadok again said to Joab, “Come what may, please let me run behind the Cushite.”

But Joab replied, “My son, why do you want to go? You don’t have any news that will bring you a reward.”

He said, “Come what may, I want to run.”

So Joab said, “Run!” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain and outran the Cushite.

While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone. The watchman called out to the king and reported it.

The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.

Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!”

The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”

The watchman said, “It seems to me that the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”

“He’s a good man,” the king said. “He comes with good news.”

Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, “All is well!” He bowed down before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise be to the Lord your God! He has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my lord the king.”

The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.”

The king said, “Stand aside and wait here.” So he stepped aside and stood there.

Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”

The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”

    Ahimaaz is so intent on bringing the news that he outpaces the foreigner. He appears, first in the distance, then up close. He finally arrives, breathless, and David asks him what’s happened. Ahimaaz reveals the truth about the outcome of the battle. David say, “What about the boy? How is my son?” And here, Ahimaaz loses his composure. “Ahhhhhh, yes your majesty, there was a crowd, you see. Lot of people . . ..” David implores him for news, and Ahimaaz hems and haws and stammers around until David finally pushes him aside and tells him to shut up. The Cushite runner appears and tells David the good news that is really bad news to this father’s heart, and the last glimpse we have in scripture of Ahimaaz is of a breathless, confused messenger who doesn’t really know what the message is. The one who was so anxious to be involved in the situation becomes irrelevant and powerless. It happens around him, or to him. He is powerless to affect the situation any more.

You might not know who Ahimaaz is, but I bet you know how it feels to be him. It may be that a friend comes to you and says, “I know I’ve blown it. My marriage is in a shambles, and I don’t know where to start. What do you think I should do?” and you find yourself thinking, “Ohhhhhhh, yeah, I know that the Bible says something about relationships. What was the pastor saying that one time?…” Or it may be that you’ve received a call from your local auto repair shop asking you to sign off on a repair order that’s higher than you think it ought to be, but knowing that he’s going to submit it to insurance anyway. You don’t want to offend him, but you’re not sure it’s right…

We know how it feels to be Ahimaaz, I think. It is all too common a situation to find ourselves standing by the wreckage of some situation over which we might have had some control, feeling powerless, not sure of what we should say or do, feeling irrelevant. “I wish I’d known… I couldn’t… Who would have thought that… Isn’t there something…”

 

Image from theartofmanliness.com
Yes, there is a site by that name…

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, seeking to prepare them for a life of ministry and service in a world that is not always excited about ministry and service, and he tells them to be ready. “Let your loins be girded – be dressed ready for service” he says. Do you remember seeing pictures or movies from Bible times? All the men wearing these loose robe-like things? Now, imagine trying to run a race wearing one of them, or fight a battle, or chase after a wayward child. Couldn’t do it, could you? Neither could they. When someone in scripture talks about “girding his loins” he means, wrapping the robe up a little higher and tighter, allowing more freedom of movement. If your loins are girded already, it means you’re ready to respond in an instant – no delay at all.

Jesus then says that they should let their lamps be burning. Again, this is a signal for action. Finding light in those days was not as easy as flicking a switch, or even striking a match. It took some measure of work and preparation to ensure that you could light your lamp. Jesus says to be ready. Be prepared. You don’t know when you’re going to need it, so have it lit.

         He tells a parable to explain what he’s talking about. The owner of the house is away at a wedding feast. His servants are home, waiting for him, ready to spring to action the moment they hear his keys in the door. Their great fortune is that he is coming home in a fantastic mood, still singing and dancing. He’s got an extra bottle of bubbly in his coat and two sacks full of groceries in his hands. He doesn’t talk about where they’ve failed or how they’ve fallen; he sits them down and cooks up the best: bacon, eggs, Belgian waffles, strawberries, home fries — and serves them all breakfast. He is coming home from a party that he doesn’t want to leave – so he brings the party with him.

If you’ve ever baby-sat, I bet you know a little about this. It’s getting later and later, and they said you could fall asleep, but you don’t want to. Finally, almost 3 in the morning, and here they come. They’ve got a sack of goodies from the party for you to eat, they overpay you, and take you home with the radio blasting. You are rewarded for your faithfulness by being included in the celebration.

Here’s the deal. It’s a typical summer Sunday in Crafton Heights. You’re relieved that we don’t have a super long service planned, you’re irritated by the lack of air conditioning or padding in the pews, and you’re glad to see that the Cross Trainers camp is going pretty well so far. So far, so good. We may have sung your favorite song, or maybe we missed it. It doesn’t really matter… the question is, when we leave here in half an hour or so, what difference will any of this make? What are you going to do — what are you, my parents, my children, my brothers and sisters in the faith — what are you going to do so that the Crafton Heights Church does not end up like Ahimaaz — so that at a time when you or your community most need to know the truth, when you are in the greatest need of being ably to rely upon the message, you are not standing off on the sidelines, out of breath, tired, and irrelevant?

You can be awake. You can have your lamps lit, be aware and on the look-out. And that is no easy task, especially in matters of the spirit. In his memoir, Living Faith, President Jimmy Carter talks of visiting an Amish community. As they gathered for worship, he asked his host who would be delivering the message, and was told “We don’t know”. The host went on to explain that on the table in the front of the room was a stack of hymnals; at the beginning of worship each man would go up and select a book. Whoever got the book with the red ribbon in it was the preacher for the day. Carter said, “Well, how do you know when to be ready?” His host replied, “In my experience, it is always a good idea to be prepared!”

We have a tendency to think that things are “good enough”, and so we leave them be. We get comfortable in our own little lives. A part of being awake, I would suggest, is to try new edges in your life. Where is your faith old and comfortable and maybe even a little bit boring? And what could you do to shake that up a bit? Is it time for you to step forward and participate in a new ministry? To join with some friends in a prayer circle, or volunteer at the Open Door, or ask a friend to recommend a book or a mission experience that could be transformative?

When Christ calls us to be awake, to be alert, I think that it means to avoid becoming so well-rested, so satisfied with where we are that we aren’t able to grow any more. I’m not saying that everything new is great — but will you open yourself up in one way or another to keep growing?

The second thing that Christ mentions is to be ready for action. To have our collective loins girded up.

As a congregation, that’s not so hard. Are our programs ready to nurture and disciple children and young people? Are the Deacons in place and trained to respond to the needs of the congregation and tuned in to the opportunities in Allegheny County and around the world? If I am is doing my job, this church ought to be ready, or moving towards readiness — at least in the way we run our programs.

But what about our private lives?

Are you ready? Do you know the truth for your life that is contained in scripture? Are you studying the Bible in public – with a class or small group — and in private – on your own at home? Because if you don’t know it, you can’t share it. You can’t love it. You can’t teach it. You can’t lean on it. I’m not suggesting that you need to be a Seminary professor. But I am suggesting that a part of readiness includes knowing what the Master wants us to be like.

Are you able to “be real” with another person? Is there a place in your world for you to be honest in your hopes and dreams, in your doubts and fears? That’s a part of being ready too – being able to address the uncomfortable areas in our life.

When I read through this parable in Luke, I found myself cheering for you, rooting you on. I saw you — I want to see you — in the faces of the watchful servants who are awake and ready when the master comes.

Partly, I want this for your sake. I want to see the joy on your faces when you share in the celebration that the master brings home with him. I want you to celebrate the kingdom the way that your Creator has invited you to.

But mostly, I want this for the sake of the people who aren’t in the room right now. People who don’t know the Lord yet, but who, as a result of the ministry that we are sharing, will come to know the Lord. People who form the community around the church. I don’t know most of those folks at all. Yet I know that these people are people with questions. People want to know what’s important. What is worth dying for? What is life about? Who can I trust? What should I do? What do I need to do to be loved?

And you will be here. And too often, do you know what the Christian church looks like? Too many churches in Allegheny County have stood here like Ahimaaz — panting, confused, and irrelevant. And the people in this community – children and adults – who have questions about love, life, values, and priorities will get the answers from someone. At some point, at least some of them will cross paths with you. If you help them find answers, they will be blessed. And if they don’t, they’ll wander away.

You ought to know that I love being your pastor. This is a great place to be, beloved. But let us never forget that we are not called to be here simply to enjoy each other’s company on pleasant Sunday mornings… we are entrusted with a message of hope and reconciliation and power and joy… a message that is ours, not to keep, but to share – again and again and again. When the time for sharing it comes, may we be found to be alert and prepared! Thanks be to God, Amen.