My Neighbor is a Sinner

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


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

OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.

Alive and Active?

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 17 included Matthew 5:17-20 and II Peter 3:14-18. 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

The first car to which I had access on a regular basis was my dad’s 1972 Super Beetle. I called her “Bess”, and I loved that car. I did all the things that people did with our Beetles back in the day… I decorated her for parades, we participated in contests like “how many people can you fit inside a VW”, and I laughed at my friends when I told them to put something in the trunk and they lifted the rear hatch to discover the engine.

It was not really “my” car, but I sought to make it mine – and that means that I glued little figurines to the dashboard and I adorned the bumper with profound theological statements that read “God Squad Car” and “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”.

As we continue in our examinations of some of the statements that people think are in the Bible, but are actually not scriptural, this represents a subtle change from last week. When I say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “Everything happens for a reason”, you could make a case that I’m sharing some pithy bit of wisdom in order to make you feel better. As I’ve indicated previously, I think that these statements are erroneous and not helpful, but they are conceived, at least, in some spirit of kindness and care directed at another person.

However, when I proclaimed “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”, I was giving voice to a statement that was, at its heart, designed to make me feel better about myself. I was simply justifying my own beliefs and prejudices.

On the other hand, as aphorisms go, this one is wonderfully multi-purpose and can work for just about anyone. Liberals, conservatives, folks from any culture or walk of life can find this saying to be wonderfully helpful and self-affirming.

For instance, here’s a guy who feels so strongly that we need to follow the commands from Leviticus literally that he has had one verse dealing with human sexuality tattooed on his bicep. I wonder how surprised he was when, after having Lev. 18:22 inked on his arm, he got to Lev. 19:28 which, oddly enough, says that inking things on your arm is a horrible sin for which God will hold you accountable. Ooops.

Or the person who chooses another verse from Leviticus as a statement on immigration policy, without bothering to consider how and why that verse became significant to the original hearers.

You see, that’s the great thing about bumper-sticker theology: I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, as long as I can prop it up with a verse of scripture that I’ve cherry-picked for myself. And if you get offended by my tattoo or billboard… well, hey, suck it up, snowflake… you’ll have to talk with the Man upstairs. I mean, God said it, not me… Deal with it.

So, Pastor Dave, are you actually saying that the Bible doesn’t matter if all I’m doing with it is propping up my own world view?

Yes. That is pretty much exactly what I’m saying – if the only reason you read the Bible is to find support for the stuff that you already believe and you are simply looking for ammunition with which to whack the rest of us on the head – then yes, please stop reading your Bibles. Don’t share stuff like that. It’s not helpful.

As anyone over the age of three has noticed, the sermon is the longest part of most worship services in the Christian tradition. The reason for that is simple: we believe that we are called to focus on the centrality and authority of God’s Word and to provide help in interpreting that Word for our own day.

When I pontificate that “God said it, I believe it…”, I’m turning the Word of God into some bit of wisdom or teaching is that is enshrined in a display case somewhere for us to come and admire. Or, worse, I’m turning the gift of God’s Word into a quiver full of arrows with which I can attack, judge, or belittle another.

When the church charges its clergy to preach a sermon, however, the church is asking those preachers to a) remind us of the importance of scripture in its own time and in ours and b) help us learn how to read it in ways that bring life. We have to read it, but we have to know how to read it.

For instance, let’s look at a text I got from my wife recently. It reads, “We need bread.” Three little words. Ridiculously easy to read, right?

When I read that, I can respond in at least two ways. I could say, “Well, of course we need bread, Dr. Carver. What – do you think I’m some sort of an idiot? I know that the average American consumes 132.5 pounds of wheat in a year. Of course we need bread!” I could say that.

Or I could read that text and say, “Sure. I’ll pick some up on the way home.”

Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be a loving and faithful husband and partner in our household? How I read a message, and what I decide to do with it, reveals a great deal about who I am and who I would like to be.

The literary term for this is hermeneutic. The hermeneutic you employ is the method or theory you use to interpret a message. The hermeneutic you utilize – whether you’re reading the Ten Commandments or your shopping list – will determine the effect that the act of reading has on your greater life.

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

In Jesus’ day, there were men called Scribes and Pharisees who were charged by their faith tradition to be the “teachers of the Law”. They recognized, rightly, that the scripture was a gift of God for the community, and that those who sought to be faithful to God needed to apply that word to their lives. So these groups made it their business to know, study, and share the Scriptures they had received. They came up with extra documents and commentaries that gave shape to specific laws and practices – regulations that were probably, at least initially, designed to increase the ability of God’s people to hear and respond to the Word of God.

Yet over time, these Scribes and Pharisees came to see themselves as curators in the Museum of God’s Word. The religious leaders themselves spoke to what was and what was not allowed. Some of them even put themselves in the place of God as they spoke on behalf of the Divine.

On more than one occasion, Jesus pointed to these folks and said, “Look: these guys are right. The Word of God is vitally important. But don’t treat that Word, like they do, as a commodity to be managed. Instead, allow the Word to enter you, to engage you, to inform you, and to come to life inside of you.”

That’s what Jesus’ friend, Peter, is getting at in his letter to the young church. He says that the wisdom from scripture is not a chisel with which we are called to shape other people. Instead, it is a blessing and a gift given so that disciples may “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Jesus, Peter, and the Scribes and Pharisees all agreed that the Bible is important and authoritative – and that is why our worship is centered around preparing for, receiving, and responding to the Word of God.

But in order for the Bible to be authoritative, we have got to allow it to shape us, rather than the other way around. When I was starting my theological education, I attended a lecture by the man who was then President of Pittsburgh Seminary, Sam Calian. I literally seethed when he said something like, “Many people are afraid to explore and examine their faith. They come to seminary and they hold their faith tightly, as in a clenched fist. They know what they know, and they believe what they believe, and they’ll be darned if some liberal seminary professor is going to talk them out of it. But we believe that we are called to unclench our fists and open up our faith. We are called to examine that which we believe and the reasons that we believe it – and we do so by holding those things in an open hand, where the light and the wind of the Spirit can help us consider who we’ve been and who we are becoming.”

I’m not going to lie, when he said that, I thought, “Who is this liberal old man, and why is he trying to destroy my faith?” But I have come to see the wisdom in what Sam was saying. After all, if we are growing in any way, then we are changing in some way. Change is not bad – and we are called to embrace it within the context of our ongoing relationship with Scripture as God’s Word.

For example, for centuries some of the leading minds in Christianity used scripture to defend slavery and to support a culture built on racism. If you know how to do an internet search, you can go home and find a hundred sermons by respected churchmen who saw it as their moral duty to prop up the slave-trading industry in Europe or the Americas.

And yet, over the course of time, more and more people began to sense that there was a deeper witness within scripture that was contrary to this. Rather than enforcing servitude and abuse, they began to call the church to see a community that was based on liberty and equality.

In fact, in 1861 the tensions grew so great in our own family that a large faction of people left the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and formed their own church – one that was based, in part, on the supposed moral rectitude of chattel slavery in the United States. They went to the Bible and chose verses that they claimed commanded God’s people to enslave others, permitted the establishment of the Jim Crow culture, and mandated the submission of non-whites as “inferior” races.

It was not until 1983 – more than a hundred and twenty years – that the denomination was reunited. And I would suggest that in every single one of those hundred and twenty years, hundreds if not thousands of Christians changed their minds about slavery, race, justice, and reconciliation.

It is important to note that, so far as anyone is aware, the Bible did not change between 1861 and 1983. However, the way that people read it and came to see it as authoritative in their own lives – in short, the hermeneutic people used – meant that we, as a people, were changed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the practice, understanding, and theology of the church in regards to issues surrounding race is probably better now than it was a hundred and sixty years ago. Are we where we need to be? Of course not. But have we grown? I think we must answer “yes.” And we must continue to grow in our ability to interpret, understand, and apply the living Word of God in our lives.

We are called to allow the Word of God to impact us, affect us, shape us, and help us grow in every single area of our lives. We are not fixed images, carved into a rock. Instead, we are living and breathing reflections of the Divine image. We are called to grow – and thereby to change – each day into people who are more adequately reflective of God’s purposes and presence. I can think of a dozen areas where my thinking has changed substantially over the past thirty years. I don’t think that’s because my commitment to the scripture has lessened at all. On the contrary, I think that the Word has infected me and changed me from the inside out.

To that end, you may have noticed that I don’t sport that bumper sticker on my car anymore. In fact, I want to encourage you to resist saying something like “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” because that’s an invitation to put the Bible back on the shelf and ignore it. Instead, can we view the Word of God as an invitation to know the heart, mind, and purposes of God more intimately to the end that we can understand, live and reflect those purposes more adequately in a world that is starving for truth?

Hebrews 4:12 teaches us that “the Word of God is alive and active”. It is. Are you? And is your faith?

Thanks be to God for the word that brings life and change. Amen.

Return To Sender

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 10 I Corinthians 10:11-13 and Isaiah 43:1-7.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

In 1962 Elvis Presley made a fairly forgettable movie entitled Girls, Girls, Girls in which he sang one of his best-selling songs, Return to Sender. I bet that many of you have heard this little ditty, which presupposes a reality wherein one party attempts to give another a message or letter, but the second party refuses, saying that she wants nothing to do with either the message or the one who sent it.

That song and phrase came to my mind as I was considering the theme of this week’s message. I don’t know about the stuff that you have to worry about when you go into work. I suppose that it’s an occupational hazard for construction workers to have debris fall on them, or for a fisherman to fall overboard, or for a nurse to get accidentally stuck by a needle. One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you have to smile blandly through all kinds of terrible theology.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking with someone through a situation that is simply horrible – a devastating medical diagnosis, the sudden death of one who was greatly loved, the loss of a job… and some well-meaning person comes alongside and says, “Well, just remember… God won’t give you more than you can handle…”

And maybe it’s because it’s September and football season is upon us, but when I hear that I want to get out my little yellow bandanna and yell, “Flag on the play! That right there is a theology foul. You’re not allowed to say anything else for fifteen minutes!” Have you heard that one before? In keeping with our September theme of “Half Truths”, there is something that is vaguely spiritual and maybe even true-ish about this, but really, there are just so many reasons why this phrase is wrong…

Before we get to the theological foul, though, let’s consider where it might come from. Why do people say it, and how might they think that it’s connected to the Bible?

Romans During the Decadence, Thomas Couture (1847)

When God called the Apostle Paul to share the good news of Christ’s love in Europe, one of the places that Paul went was the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was an important center of shipping and commerce, and a real “melting pot” of the Roman Empire. There were all sorts of people with all kinds of ideas from all over the world who had gathered there. In many ways, Corinth was a “Navy Town” – a lot of sailors in and out, many of them looking to have a good time while they were ashore. In fact, in 50 AD if you were to say that someone was “living like a Corinthian”, you meant to imply that they were drunk and promiscuous.

In this context, Paul tries to launch a little church. He writes to those who had come to believe that they are to live lives centered in the holiness of God and the love of Christ. They respond, apparently, by saying, “Um, Paul, do you remember what it’s like here? How in the world can we stay faithful in a place like this? There’s no way we can be the kinds of people God wants us to be when we are surrounded by this kind of decadence and decay.”

Paul reminds them that it is possible to say “no”, and that, in fact, “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” In other words, the Apostle is saying, when you are going about your daily business, you can always do what is right. God will not place you in a position where it is impossible for you to be a disciple.

And somehow, “God won’t send you to a place where it is impossible to be faithful” has shifted to “Anything that happens to you is from God and he will pull you through it.” That is, essentially, what we are saying when we say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, right? If you wake up one morning and you have this huge ball of ugliness staring you in the face, this is the “truth” to which many would have you turn: You have to get through this… after all, God won’t give you more than you can handle, right?

Just think about that for a moment, and then think about this week’s news, or your life. That hurricane that just wiped out your town… That unspeakable event that occurred when you were nine…and eleven…and thirteen… Those cancer cells that are tearing apart your loved one’s brain… Are they “gifts” from God? Did God send them to people? Did God give them?

If we say that “God won’t give me more than I can handle”, then we’re saying that any and all pain and struggle and dis-ease I might experience is, in fact, a gift from God.

And if hurricanes, abuse, and cancer are sent… do we have the option of simply refusing delivery and saying, “Return to sender….”? Can we say, “That is not acceptable. I want a different life, please…”

I suspect that some of you have tried that strategy. In the words of the famous theologian, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Here’s the truth: I often turn to I Corinthians 10 when I am faced with a moral choice, or when I want to give up in the face of adversity. These verses are really helpful to me – as they were intended to be to the original recipients – when I am trying to chart a course of moral behavior in the midst of confusing times. This message from Paul is a great reminder that you and I have the power to choose how we might respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

But when I need to make sense of a situation in which some part of my world is apparently going to hell in a handbasket, I find that Isaiah 43 is more useful. Here, the prophet is speaking to a group who have witnessed and lived through the unspeakable. They are returning from an exile in a foreign land, and they see the devastation of their homes. They have to be asking themselves and each other, “What’s going on here? Is YHWH really in charge? Or are the gods of Babylon and Assyria more powerful? What has happened? What are we going to do?”

Isaiah begins by anchoring his message in who God is – God is sovereign and mighty. God is the force behind all that is – God is the creator. More than that, YHWH is a God of power. He calls us by name – we do not have to invent ourselves, God tells us who we are. And then, after we understand who God is and who we are, the prophet tells us where God is. God is with us, it says in verse 3. Do you remember the phrase that Isaiah used earlier to describe the presence of God? Immanuel. God with us.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and our God – is not a deity who sits on a lofty throne, scoffing at the creation, occasionally tossing lightning bolts at people when they get out of line. Far from it.

In fact, Isaiah names the fears that these vulnerable people have: the rising flood waters, the burning flames – elements that will consume us in a heartbeat – and says, “When (not IF) these things happen, I am with you.

Why? Why would YHWH, why would our God, act this way? The answer to that comes at the very center of today’s reading, verse 4: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I want to show you a graphic that I made up while I was studying this passage. I know that it’s a lot of words, and it’s a little nerdy, but remember that I was an English Major in college, and that you love me. I want to show you how the shape of Isaiah 43 reinforces the meaning.

This passage appears to be written in the form of a chiasm – that is, a literary style where there is a key point that is surrounded by a series of mirrored phrases or themes. If I’m right about this, then the core message of Isaiah 43:1-7 is that you are loved and cared for by God – the God who promises to be with you, who calls to you, and who has in fact created you. This passage starts and ends with the power of God in creation, but is centered on the notion that wherever you are, God is right there with you.

If that’s true, then, the promise is not that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, but rather “Whatever mess you find yourself in right now, you can get through, because you are not alone.” You can have strength for the battles you fight every day; you can have endurance and stamina for the daily grind; and you can have hope for the days and situations that you cannot yet see.

I began this message by citing Elvis Presley, and suggesting that there might be times where we wish we could take some portion of our life and mark it “return to sender – no such number…” Perhaps the message of this morning needs to be a reminder that it is, in fact, we who are being “returned to sender”. Could that be what is being said in the last few verses of our reading from Isaiah? That God will call all that he has made, everything that bears his name, and that he will give an ultimate place, context, and home to the creation?

Hear me, people of God – I do not want to get all “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” on you. I do not want to say, “Oh, come on, you can make it – I mean, it won’t matter that you’re suffering now because heaven is going to be so great.” That is not what I’m saying here.

However, we must realize that there is always more to our lives, the workings of the world, and the movement of the creation, than we can see. We confess that our perspective is limited and finite, but that God’s is neither. I think that means that we come to worship trusting in the ultimate and eternal intentions of our creator even as we do our best to face the challenges of any particular day.

So to those of you who are feeling as though you are stuck in a place of unspeakability right now – those of you who find that it is difficult to see much of anything in terms of God’s eternal purpose and design… let me simply encourage you to hold God to his promise. Here’s a prayer you can use: “God, you said that you love me. You said that you’d be with me. How are you with me? Where is your love?” Ask God those questions.

And to those of you are are not stuck right now, but live in a world that is filled with horrible places, let me encourage you to ask God how you might be an answer to the prayers that his children are calling into the darkness. If you have the presence and love of God, you can share that love and presence. And when you’re in the grip of terror or pain, sometimes just being with someone who can bear witness to the presence and love is enough. So please, beloved, ask God where you need to show up in the days to come.

God doesn’t “give” hurricanes, or drunk drivers, or abuse. And yet our lives are interrupted by those things in ways that seem horrible. Thanks be to God that God does give us each other. And thanks be to God that God does promise his love and his presence. May we share those things in abundance as we encounter the trials of this day, this week, and this year. Amen.

Help Yourself!

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 3 included Luke 1:46-55 and selected verses from Psalm 40.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below. Please note that because I’m an idiot with all things technological, there are approximately 20 seconds of silence before the recording starts.  Don’t get your hopes up, people.  I actually do preach a whole sermon here…

I have a friend – a preaching colleague of mine, actually – who stood up in front of a huge crowd and told an amazingly powerful story. He shared a narrative that was filled with emotion and drama, and was a perfect illustration for the scriptural point he was trying to make. It had its intended effect, and at the end of his message, people were crying, signing up for profound commitments, and more. It was a great story.

We were chatting afterward, and his son – who had been mentioned in the story – cleared his throat and said, “Um, dad? That story you ended with? Can I say something?”

“Of course!” was his father’s quick reply.

“Well, it was a good story, only… well, it didn’t happen that way.” And the son went on to recount the incident as he remembered it. When he was finished, his father looked at him and said, “Hmph. So, it didn’t happen the way I said it did, huh?” His son shook his head. The father paused for a moment and said. “Hmph. Well, it should have.”

I’m sure that all of you have forgotten things that have happened. How many of us remember things that didn’t happen? Who knows something that isn’t true?

I have a question for you, but I do not want you to raise your hands. It is a trick question. How many of you remember reading the Bible verse that says, “God helps those who help themselves?”

Now, how many of you know someone who believes that phrase is found in the Bible? Everyone needs to raise your hands now, because a recent survey indicated that an astounding 82% of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.

And you might smile to yourself and say, “Well, of course, if we’re talking about all Americans here. Real believers know better. And you’re right. Only 81% of people who identify themselves as “born again Christians” think that’s a verse from the Bible.[1]

Four out of five people think that this phrase is scriptural! I’m here to tell you that you won’t find it in the Bible. If you look, you can find it in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Ben probably borrowed it from Aesop’s Fables, wherein we find something very similar.

But… but… it just sounds so true, doesn’t it? It sounds really Bible-ish. You might be looking at me and saying, “Seriously, Dave, I swear I read something like that in the Bible…”

And you’re close. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” That verse was used a couple of years ago by a member of Congress who was looking to cut food stamp benefits to hungry families. The context in Thessalonians, however, is more complex. There were people in that community who were so convinced of the imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world that they had stopped participating in the responsibilities of daily life. They quit their jobs, they stopped caring for their gardens, and more. After all, if Jesus is coming back on Tuesday, why bother going to work today? Let’s just enjoy this moment!

In fact, the larger context of Paul’s letter is actually a rebuke to the people in Thessalonica to start acting more like Jesus would in terms of caring for each other and the world around them.

When someone says, “God helps those who help themselves,” it’s almost always from the perspective of one who is in a position of being able to help, but who chooses not to. You drive across the bridge and you see a panhandler. You turn on the news and are irritated by the fact that someone is using your tax dollars to pay for groceries or utilities. I find myself getting angry at those who are lazy, freeloading, good-for-nothings, and then I say, “After all, God helps those who help themselves…” It is a justification for me not to act, because in my refusal to help, I am being like God.

As such, then, “God helps those who help themselves” is a statement that is rooted in privilege. Think about all the aspects of your existence right now that are rooted in some sort of a privilege or advantage that you enjoy. Many of us are beneficiaries of what is called “white privilege”. Among other things, I can walk through a Family Dollar without being shadowed, or pull over with absolute confidence when I’m stopped by the police in any municipality in the USA. I enjoy “male” privilege, and I see this when I’m visiting in a hospital room and the Dr. speaks directly to me about the patient’s condition, rather than to the mother, wife, or daughter of the patient. I know that I am economically privileged, because if you told me this morning that the price of gasoline was going up a dollar a gallon because of hurricane Harvey, I’d still hop in the car and drive to visit my granddaughter this afternoon.

Can you read? Were you greeted by a friend today? Did you grow up in a community of faith? Did you wake up this morning in a residence that had both working electricity and running water? If any of those things are true, then you join me in having access to privileges that much, if not most, of the world can only dream about. If we start to think about those things as something we have “earned” or “deserved”, we run the risk of becoming blind to the many gifts that we have received.

Can we please realize how rooted in privilege the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is? It’s ludicrous.

Who looks at those people in Texas, hanging onto rooftops, seeking shelter anywhere they can find it, and shrugs, “Well, that stinks. They better get crack-a-lackin, because, you know, God helps those who help themselves…”?

Who walks past a woman using a walker at the Giant Eagle who is struggling to reach that can on the top shelf and thinks, “Well, if you just tried a little harder, lady…”?

Journalist George Monbiot points out the fallacy of this line of thinking by saying simply, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”[2]

When we say “God helps those who help themselves”, it sounds much like a disavowal of the other. “You – you’re in a jam? Hey, help yourself. Get a job. Be more like me.” That kind of language is insulating, divisive, and cancerous.

I’m suggesting that we redeem some of that same language, but we do so that it might be an invitation rather than a dismissal.

Every person in this room has been, I hope, in a situation where there is some bounty – a feast, a garden, a craft table, a clothes closet – where the opportunity is extended: “Do you see this? Help yourself! This is for you. Take what you need, or want, or can use…”

Do you see what I mean? They are the same words – but instead of help yourself coming across as a selfish statement of isolation or derision, it conveys an invitation to participate in a deeper, more generous relationship.

When we say “help yourself” in this way, we are in fact behaving more like God. The scriptures all point to the glorious truth that God, in fact, helps those who cannot help themselves.

The Psalmist testifies that he was in a pit, lower than low, when God reached out to help. It was slippery, and every single place he tried to find a foothold, he wound up sinking deeper and deeper… And then, by the grace of God, he found a place to stand! He gives witness to the truth that we are poor and needy, and God is the deliverer.

When Mary discovers the identity of the Christ child within her, her spirit soars as she belts out the song we have come to call “The Magnificat”. “God lifts up the humble! God fills the hungry with good things!”

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Every page of the Bible is filled with the affirmation that God does what God can do, but does not have to do. We learn over and over that it is in God’s nature to be giving, forgiving, filling, satisfying, and empowering to those who find themselves to be in need, or distress, or marginalized. The theological term for this attribute and behavior of God is “grace”.

Grace is God’s decision to meet us where we are and help us to get to where we need to be, or could be, or should be. In grace, God sets God’s self before us and says, “Help yourself. Dive in. This is who I am…”

And if that is true, then by implication we are called to be people who consider the generosity and graciousness of God in our lives and seek to share that with others. And that means that there are strategies that we can employ in our own lives.

When you are in charge of the buffet, what do you do? Don’t you set out what you hope will be more than enough of everything? You might reserve some of the things that you absolutely need for yourself, but by and large, you want to make sure that you’re offering what is needed and appreciated, right? You don’t offer the things that are likely to embarrass you – the burnt edges, the moldy fruit, or the sour milk. You offer as much as you can as well as you can.

What if we sought to do that, not just when it’s our turn to host the thanksgiving meal, but every day? In some ways, that might turn our discipleship – and our lives – upside down.

For instance, in the area of personal finance, we often come to church thinking, “Well, what can I afford to donate today? What is the amount I should give? I don’t want to cramp my style or be racked with guilt. What is the least I can do and still feel good about myself?”

What if we approached our lives from the other end: what do I need in order to be me, and how can I make the rest of it available for God’s purposes? When I was a 17 year old high school student, I committed myself to doing my best to tithe any income I received. When we got married, I said, “Honey, the first 10% belongs to God…” And we did that. But then we figured out that, actually, all 100% belongs to God. And we didn’t need 90% to live on. So for many years now, Sharon and I have been privileged to make more than 10% of our income available for the Lord’s work.

It’s the same when we come to think about the time that we have. You have been given an amazing gift of a life… how are you spending it? Are you looking for ways to share yourself freely and deeply as you seek to grow in your ability to serve and be in relationship with others? Or are you bored and restless? You know, I’ve done a lot of funerals, and I’ve sat with a lot of folks who were dying. No one has ever said to me, “You know what, Dave? I wish I’d have had the chance to watch more pre-season football…” Nobody’s ever said, “You know, my house was spotless while those kids were growing up, and they were proud of that, you betcha…” But so often, those are the things that seem so important in the moment. How do you anticipate investing the hours you’ve been given today, this week, and this year? Can you do so in ways that bring life and hope and joy?

Last week, when I introduced this series of messages, I said that phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “God helps those who help themselves” are half-true, or true-ish.

The reality is that this phrase is anchored in something that is eternally true. It’s just that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is, perhaps like this sermon, simply too long.

God helps.

That is true. It always has been, and always will be.

So this week, can we look at the world around us, and act like God? God helps, and so will we, to the extent that we are empowered and privileged to do so. Thanks be to God!   Amen.

[1] Statistics from the Barna Research Group, quoted at http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/

[2] “The Self-Attribution Fallacy”, http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/