Packing Light

My wife and I were raised in the faith community of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  As a part of their sixtieth anniversary this congregation invited me to preach the sermon on October 29, 2017.  Coincidentally, this was the room in which I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on October 28, 1990.  Perhaps NOT coincidentally, the worship service at Trinity on 10/29/17 began with the commissioning of a “Disaster Response Team” (ostensibly for relief in parts of West Virginia, but I have my suspicions that this had something to do with my ordination…).  The scriptures for the day, included in the audio portion, were Matthew 22:34-46 and Colossians 3:12-17.

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

In her profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a fiery evangelical Baptist who leaves the hills of Georgia in 1959 in order to take his wife and his four young daughters to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. The book opens with young Leah describing how the family packed for what they imagined would be a year in the heart of “the dark continent”. Her mother had spent weeks laying out what she thought of as “the bare minimum” in the spare room: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Underwood Deviled Ham, a dozen number two pencils, and so on. However, they encountered a challenge:

Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s—luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small—we were sixty-one pounds over…
We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.[1]

Having led more than one planeload of would-be missionaries to Africa, I laughed when I read about the strategy of the Price family – because I know that it’s true. At the heart of that narrative is a question with which anyone who’s ever left home has struggled: How will we be able to survive in this new and foreign place without the things that we are sure we’ll need?

In fact, as I stand here thinking about that family and their struggle to enter a new place, I cannot help but reflect on the events that took place in this very room on October 28, 1990. Some very wise, thoughtful people representing both this congregation and the Church of Jesus Christ stood in front of the body that had assembled and testified that you, and they, had done everything possible to prepare me for a vocation in the pastorate. And they weren’t lying, I can tell you.

In 1990 – myself with my daughter, my father, and my wife.

I’d somehow managed to cram a three-year graduate degree into 8 years of study. I’d been to four seminaries, worked in three Presbyteries, and had already been employed by two different denominations. I had boxes and boxes of books that were filled with underlining and highlighting, a plethora of wall hangings, and files and files of paper. I belonged to caucuses within the church and had served on committees; I had stood up for issues and made sure that people knew my positions on the important matters of the day.

And when I stood in this chancel on that day, I felt like I had a lot to carry with me into this new land of ministry. It was a wonderful day in so many ways. My good friend Kate Killebrew Salmon preached a whale of a sermon, and then I knelt on the slate floor here and people like Stu Wysham and Barbara Price Martin put their hands on me and prayed and I felt the weight of all I’d been given and everything I’d carried with me, and it seemed as if my knees would be ground right into the floor.

But that day was not just about me – it was about this church sending one of its children into the world. And I think that for the church, it was a good day.

You came by it honestly, of course. Just a few decades before, you’d been started on a journey yourselves by the good and wise people of New Castle Presbytery. You found yourselves plopped down on a few acres in a growing area, and held the worship services in the old farmhouse.

Brandywine Hundred was up and coming in those days. There were plenty of new families moving into the community, and a number of them ended up here… and so the Venables and the Tills met folks like the McCoys and the Carvers and the Chubbs and the Smrz’s. There was a great opportunity for growth, and the church had to get crack-a-lackin if it was going to claim northern Delaware for Christendom and Presbyterianism.

You started in a farmhouse, but you had an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas. Soon enough, we had the Naaman’s wing. There was space for worship, a giant tree under which we could enjoy lemonade in the warm weather, and the remnants of an orchard where I could pick cherries or pears or apples while I waited for my parents to quit talking and get me home to play.

Growth and fruitfulness were the order of the day, in fact. The sanctuary was added, and later on the “new building”, or the Darley wing, which contained all sorts of spiffy new rooms in which you trusted the likes of a teenaged Dave Carver to teach your second-graders their Sunday school lessons. It was a good place to be, and a fine place to grow up.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, like thousands of other congregations scattered across North America, functioned as a vendor of religious services to a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian. The hope, I believe, was to produce fine citizens and servant-leaders who had a heart for Jesus. I learned something about life and ministry and went to college where I continued to work with children and youth – although I will confess that a good bit of the time my early work with young people seemed to be about keeping “our” kids chaste and sober until they came to their senses and embraced the “faith of our fathers…”

Trinity Presbyterian, Dave Carver, and the entire North American church, by and large, did this because we were pretty convinced that the future would closely resemble the past. We built ministries around the culture and the landscapes that we knew. We filled our days and hours making sure that we were orthodox – that we had the right ideas and beliefs about the world, because we knew that having the correct answers mattered – it mattered a lot.

And then… the world changed. It didn’t happen overnight, necessarily, but it sure changed quickly and dramatically.

This church, and a thousand like it, was built in the expectation that people who had been faithful somewhere else would move into this neighborhood and continue to practice the orthodoxy they’d learned in some other place. We’d have kids, of course, and reach out to the few people who didn’t have a place to worship regularly (without being pushy, of course). Mostly, though, we’d keep doing what we’d always done, teaching the answers that had always worked so well for us.

Except it didn’t really work out that way, did it? I mean, when I stand at the corner of “Real Life” Avenue and “21st Century America” Street with my collection of diplomas, books, orthodox ideas and doctrinally correct positions, I am regarded with as much suspicion by the natives as was the Price family when they arrived in the Belgian Congo laden with Betty Crocker mixes, pinking shears, and Absorbine Jr.

And we – the church of Jesus Christ – have had to learn (again) that what matters most is not what we carry, but rather staying in touch with the One who sent us – to Brandywine Hundred, to Pittsburgh, and to 2017.

The Pharisees and Saducees who encountered Jesus on that day in temple were not bad people. Heck, if any one of them walked through the door this morning they’d probably be approached by the nominating committee in the hopes that they’d be willing to serve as an officer here. They were wise, seasoned believers who were trying desperately to keep the faith that they’d received from their ancestors. The problem, of course, was that the “faith” had been confused with a lot of other things, and by the time that Jesus entered the Temple, these decent men and women were holding on to all kinds of things that they did not need.

Matthew 21, 22, and 23 describe a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to see his diploma, check his orthodoxy, and make sure that he’d read all the right books. And in return, Jesus looked at them and said, “You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be. You know this stuff, for crying out loud. Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. And love your neighbor.”

Which isn’t so scary, really, in a world where my neighbor looks like me, believes like me, and votes like me.

And today, two thousand years later, there are decent women and men of faith who look at Jesus and say, “I hear what you’re saying, Lord, but to tell you the truth, my neighbor is a Muslim. My neighbor has three kids to three different fathers. My neighbor is an addict, or is homophobic, and I’m pretty sure that my neighbor voted for that person.”

We look at Jesus and we say those things as if we somehow expected Jesus to stop and say, “What? For real? Well, gee whiz, I never thought of that! Of course, if you’re going to love God, you can’t possibly be expected to tolerate people like that in your life…”

And some of us are so surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t take us off the hook that we simply pretend that he says all that stuff anyway.

But of course, he leaves us on the hook. He tells us to travel light. He keeps on asking us to trust him more than we trust the books that line the walls of my study… to trust him more than we trust our own ideas or inclinations.

Jesus Sends Out the 72, by James Tissot

And we remember that when Jesus sent anyone anywhere, he never said, “Hey, make sure you take an extra suitcase of good stuff, because you never know what kind of knuckleheads you’re going to run into out there…” He told us to pack lightly, and to trust that the One who was sending us would make a way for us when the time was right.

Listening to and following Jesus can be way scarier than anything you’ve got planned for Halloween. But I think that the only way to stay rooted in the Divine intention is to practice that kind of faithfulness.

When I take a group to Africa, I tease them about the 17 bottles of sunscreen, or the rolls of Duct tape, or the boxes of granola that they cram into their suitcases. I tell them about the Price family and The Poisonwood Bible.

But as I consider how Leah Price and her sisters layered up before they got on the airplane, I remember the words of Paul that invite us to take small suitcases but to wear lots of layers. “Put on”, says the old saint, “layer upon layer of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. Don’t pack these away – wear them every day. And at all times, keep yourself wrapped in love for God and neighbor.”

There’s one thing that I have carried ever since October 28, 1990. So far as I know, it’s never gone out of style and it never will. It’s a tiny communion kit that was handed to me by Carson Herr as a gift from this congregation. It’s gotten beaten up. It’s tarnished and dented. The felt inside the case is getting threadbare, and the outside is held together by Duct tape and replacement hinges. The original plastic bottle wore out and sprung a leak about a decade ago.

But whenever I use it, or see it, I remember the words I learned here. Do this. Do this – offer yourself in love to the people who need what you have because you remember how God, in Christ, has offered God’s self to you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I can’t find my diplomas. I lost a lot of books when my study flooded in 2010. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. But this? Well, I think it’s all I need.

And, thanks be to God, you have one too. May God bless you in the next sixty years of doing, remembering, and loving. And don’t forget to layer up when you go out there. Amen.

 

[1] The Poisonwood Bible (Harper paperback, 2003, pp. 16-18).

Rain and the House-Eating Troll

I have a delightful granddaughter who carries the moniker “Rain” as her middle name.  She is amazingly creative, whimsical, and at times – a little nervous.  On the night that her baby sister Violet was born, she was very wound up.  She asked me to tell her a story, and I told her that when her mama was a little girl, I used to ask her mama to give me some things that we needed to put into the story that I’d tell.  My granddaughter suggested that the story ought to include a House-Eating Troll, a garden, and the word “frightened”.  I started talking, and fifteen minutes later, she said, “That’s a good story, Grampy.”

I was taken aback the next night, when she said, “Tell me the Rain story again, Grampy”.  I struggled to remember, and it was a good thing – because I probably told that story a dozen times in the week we spent together.  

My hope in sharing it with you is not that you might spend much energy thinking about whether I am or am not a good teller of stories (I already have my most important fan!), but rather that you might consider how your words, presence, and encouragement can help a child in your world grow in her or his ability to see strengths in him or herself as well as beauty and grace in the world.  Alert hearers will detect that Rain is resourceful and brave, and Grampy is wise and lovable. If you think that’s a little self-serving, well, make up your own story.  You can read mine, or listen to it by clicking the audio link below (you’ll have to find your own lap, though…).

This is the story of a brave, kind, funny, loving girl named Rain, and how she saved her home and her neighbors from the House Eating Trolls.

Rain lived with her little sister, Violet, in a beautiful home on Johnson Street. There were seven houses on Johnson Street, and every single one of them was beautiful. Rain’s house, in particular, was beautiful because of the bright colors that she painted it. Her favorite colors were pink and purple, and she loved them both so much that she couldn’t decide which color to paint her house! One day, she painted her roof pink and her walls purple, but not too long after that, she would switch and paint the roof purple and the walls pink. Either way, it was beautiful and she, and everyone who saw it, thought it was amazing.

All of the neighbors on Johnson Street had gardens, but Rain’s garden was by far the most beautiful. She grew everything from apples to zucchini! Rain’s garden had beans and beets, raspberries and rhubarb, lingonberries and lemons; she grew kiwi and cucumbers and apples and, of course, watermelon.

In fact, the story for today has something to do with watermelon. There was going to be a big festival in her town, and Rain had been saving an especially large and pretty watermelon to share with her friends there. She decided that the day had come to pick the watermelon, and so early one morning she went outside to get the fruit.

Imagine how surprised she was when she got to the garden and she saw that the watermelon was gone! She looked all through the garden, and in the woods, and all through her yard, but it wasn’t there. She went back to the garden to think, and then she realized something.

Her toes were wet. But not just her toes – both feet were wet – all the way up to her ankles! Rain was standing in a puddle! And then she realized something else: she was not standing in an ordinary puddle – she was standing in a puddle of something PINK! She looked down, and she saw that her amazingly beautiful, tasty watermelon had been stomped on and squished! And then she noticed something else that made her a little bit frightened: it was not a normal puddle – she was standing in a footprint!

Now, this was not a normal footprint. It was not a footprint the size of baby Violet. It was not even a footprint the size of Rain’s foot. It was even bigger than Rain’s Grampy’s footprint. In fact, it was as big as a TRAMPOLINE!

Well, Rain decided that the best thing to do would be to call her Grampy. She pulled out her phone and called him.

“Grampy,” she said, “Someone has squished my watermelon!” And she almost cried, because she liked the watermelon a lot.

“Oh, no!”, he said. “I’m sorry about that. Who do you think it was? Was it baby Violet?”

“No, Grampy, it is a huge foot! Bigger than Violet’s, bigger than mine, and bigger than yours! In fact, I’m standing in the footprint right now. It’s as big as a TRAMPOLINE!”

Grampy, who was very wise and loved Rain more than just about anything, said, “Turn the phone around and let me see this big footprint.”

And she did that, and then Grampy said, “Oh, no! Rain, I am not sure about this because the connection isn’t very good, but it looks to me like that is a special footprint. Will you count the toes in that footprint for me?”

Rain began to count the toes. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Grampy, there are eight toes in this footprint.”

And then it was Grampy’s turn to sound a little bit frightened. “Rain,” he said, “That can only mean one thing. You have been visited by a House-Eating Troll! They are big, mean creatures that eat houses up. When I was seven years old, my family’s house was eaten by a troll and we had to move to a different neighborhood.”

“Oh, no, Grampy!”, Rain said. “I love my house. I love living on Johnson Street! I don’t want anyone to eat my house!”

“Well,” said Grampy, “I don’t know if there is any way to kill a House-Eating Troll. I will see what I can find out. In the meantime, be careful! I have to go now. I love you, Rain!”

“I love you too, Grampy!”, she replied.

The next thing that Rain did was very brave. She climbed right up on top of her house and yelled as loudly as she could, “HEY, TROLL! LISTEN, BUDDY, I LOVE MY HOUSE! I LOVE MY SISTER! I DON’T WANT ANYONE EATING ANY PART OF MY HOUSE OR SCARING ME AND MY SISTER, SO YOU JUST BETTER STAY AWAY!”

And then she climbed down and went inside.

A couple of nights later, she was helping Violet get ready for bed, and she heard some noises. The first ones sounded like, SLURP, SLURP, SLURP. Then she heard two noises that sounded like CRUNCH, CRUNCH. And on the second CRUNCH, she thought that her house shook a little bit! She was so scared that she decided to sleep with Violet that night.

In the morning, she went outside and looked around. She saw that half of her apples were gone! Someone had eaten them. Then she saw that there were more eight-toed footprints in her garden. Just then, she saw her neighbor, Mrs. McGillicutty walking her dog, Buttons.

“Excuse me, Rain,” said her neighbor. “Have you seen my garage?”

“Your garage? Isn’t it connected to your house?”

“Yes, dear,” said Mrs. McGillicutty, “that’s what I thought too. But when I got up this morning, I looked where I thought my garage should be and all that was there was a small pile of sticks, my gardening tools, and the lawnmower!”

Rain looked, and sure enough, the garage was missing!

Just then, Mrs. McGillicutty said, “Oh, my, dear! Look at your beautiful home!”

And they looked, and there on the side of the house, it looked as if someone with very bad teeth had taken a large bite out of the corner of Rain’s pink and purple home.

“Mrs. McGillicutty, no one took your garage! We have been visited by a House-Eating Troll! I have to call my Grampy right away.”

Mrs. McGillicutty and Buttons walked away, and Rain called Grampy. She showed him the footprints, and the place where the garage had been, and the bite in her house. “I’m scared, Grampy,” she said. “What can I do?”

Grampy, who knew a lot of things, said, “Rain, I’m not quite sure what to do. As I told you before, there is no way to kill a House-Eating Troll. The only thing I do know about these monsters is that they are really allergic to beets and sauerkraut. I’m not sure how that helps, but that’s what I know.”

Rain said “thank you” to her Grampy, and she told him she loved him, and then she sat down to think. And then she got an idea. It was a crazy idea – but it just might work.

The first thing she did was go and pick a lot of cabbage in her garden. She took it inside and chopped it up and started to make some sauerkraut. Then she went back out to the garden and picked a whole bunch of beets. She took the beets inside and started to boil them.

Do you know what color the water in the pot turned when she boiled the beets? PURPLE!

After the beets boiled a long time, Rain and Violet mashed them down. Then Rain mixed some of the sauerkraut in with the beet juice and it was a thick, lumpy, purple mixture. Rain put all of that into a bucket and took it outside. She painted her whole house with the purple beet/sauerkraut paint. It took her almost all day, but when she was done, her house was still purple – but it was BEET and SAUERKRAUT purple.

Then, she went up on the roof again and shouted out, “HEY, TROLL! LISTEN, BUDDY, I WARNED YOU TO STAY AWAY FROM MY HOUSE. I’M NOT KIDDING AROUND. IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU, GET LOST, BUDDY!”

Well, it didn’t take long for that House-Eating Troll to come back! Two nights later, Rain and Violet were in the house reading and they heard noises outside. The first noises sounded like SLURP, SLURP, SLURP! Then there was a little CRUNCH, and the house shook just a little bit. Next, they heard a loud, long, licking noise. That was followed by three HUGE sneezes and then a ROWF, ROWF, ROWF sound. Finally, there was the sound of big feet with eight toes running away from the house. Then it was quiet.

In the morning, Rain went outside and she wasn’t sure what she’d find. She looked, and there were more apples gone from the tree. There was a small bite taken out of the corner of her house, and then a long stripe where it looked like a House-Eating Troll’s tongue had licked all the paint off one part of the house. Right next to her lingonberry patch was a big pile of Troll boogers where it looked like something really big and ugly had sneezed a lot. And there were eight-toed footprints running away from her house!

Rain knew right away what had happened. The House-Eating Troll had come back, all right. He ate a little of her house, and he licked the paint – and because he was allergic to the beets and sauerkraut she had used for paint, he got sick and scared, and so he ran away.

Because Rain is so kind and generous, she told all her neighbors how she had defeated the House-Eating Troll. And so now, every Thursday night, all the neighbors on Johnson Street sprinkle sauerkraut on their gardens. That is just enough to remind any House-Eating Trolls to STAY AWAY from their homes and just leave them alone. And ever since that time, no one on Johnson Street has ever seen or even heard of a House-Eating Troll again. They were all glad that Rain was so brave and creative, and her Grampy wrote her a special letter telling her how proud he was of Rain. And, of course, he told her that he loved her all the way to the moon and back. Because he does.

The End.

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/

Why?

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.  Our scripture on August 27 included Luke 20:9-19 and Romans 8:28-39

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

 

You’ve heard them before. You’ve probably said them yourself a time or two. You might even believe them. I’m talking about those pithy sayings which, when uttered with just the right inflection and tone, have the sound of righteousness and wisdom. They sound like the kind of common sense that “everybody knows”.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.
God works in mysterious ways.
God helps those who help themselves.
Love the sinner, hate the sin.

You’ve probably even heard them in church.

The thing is, though, is that they are not in the Bible. I understand that they are often used by well-meaning Christians to try to communicate some sort of comfort or challenge; they may also seek to provide some rationale or basis for behavior. But most of them are just not quite right.

Author Adam Hamilton calls them “half truths”[1]. They sound spiritual, and are certainly a good fit for the 21st century American ethos. However, as theologian Miroslav Wolf says, “the nuggets of wisdom we often let guide our lives may contain some serious levels of contaminants.”[2] Because they are common sentiments, if not common sense, we’ll be taking a look at a few of these sayings in the weeks to come.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t remember the first time you heard any of these. They are so enmeshed in our culture and identity that it’s tough to recall. I do, however, remember the first time that one of these really got under my skin.

My freshman roommate at Geneva College was a young man from Coraopolis named Tim. He and I were born on the same day in the same year – we had a lot in common. I vividly remember sitting in the student union building on campus and being told by another friend, “Well, Tim died. It was his heart.”

What? In my world, 18 year olds don’t have heart attacks, thank you very much. But Tim did.

Four years later, all our finals were done and the papers had been turned in. There was a smaller group of us on campus celebrating “Senior Week”. We were packing our belongings, saying our goodbyes, and preparing for graduation, jobs, marriages, and so on. I got a call: “You better get on down to the softball field. Steve has collapsed. I think he’s dead.” And like that, another young friend who we all thought had “his whole life in front of him” died of a heart attack. At age 22.

I will never forget roaming the halls at Geneva College, sitting on a bench overlooking the Beaver River, and yelling skyward, “Why? Where are you now, God?”

And on each of those occasions – and a thousand others since, someone who loved me very much came and put arms around me and said, “Well, Dave, you’ll get through this. Don’t forget… everything happens for a reason.” And some of my more spiritual friends even backed that up with a quote pried away from its scriptural context, “all things work together for good”, right?

My first response to that phrase was one of relief and release. “Oh, good,” I thought. “The world may appear to be a red hot mess right now, but I can relax, because God is still in charge. There’s no need for me to be sad or to worry, because God is going to sort things out. Tim and Steve – they are in a better place. I’m OK. It’s all good, right?”

But the more I thought about things, the closer I got to my second reaction, which was “Are you kidding me???? Everything happens for a reason? What reason could there possibly be for apparently healthy young men dropping dead? What about babies dying? Cancer? Lynchings or slavery? Starvation? Child abuse? I mean, if everything happens for a reason, someone’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

There’s a deep theological question here. If everything happens for a reason, then we can say with integrity that everything that happens, happens because it’s a part of God’s plan. If everything that happens happens because God has planned it, then the choices and decisions that you and I make, as well as the actions we take or fail to take, have absolutely no bearing. Why bother wearing a seatbelt, saving money for the future, or voting in elections if everything is a part of God’s eternal plan? “Let go and let God,” right (also not in the Bible, along with “Jesus take the wheel”)?

Do we really want to say that all the horrible stuff in our world is divinely planned? That God’s eternal providence mandates the drowning of toddlers, the devastation of atomic bombs, the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, or the senselessness of 20 years of futility for the Pittsburgh Pirates? Are you going to pin all of that on God? Because that’s what you’re doing when you say, slowly and compassionately, “everything happens for a reason.” You are essentially saying that God is, well, a real jerk.

The Bible’s answer to the question, “Who’s in charge around here?” is, not surprisingly, fairly complex and at times bafflingly incomplete.

God, obviously, is in charge. But some Christians – often Presbyterian Christians – have taken that view to the extreme and espoused a doctrine known as “determinism”. The line of thinking goes like this: God is all-powerful. As such, then, anything that happens happens because God made it happen. God planned – or determined – that it would happen. People who hold to this view of a micro-managing God would be logically compelled to recognize that the Divine plan for this day included your choice of socks for today, the President’s latest tweet, and the price of tea in China. If God is power and God is strength, then God is power and strength everywhere, and his control is absolute.

And in our zeal to rebel against that sort of controlling, despotic, notion of the Diety, we say, “Well, yes, of course God is all powerful – but God’s goodness is no less complete than God’s power. God does not visit destruction and chaos on the universe or the world he loves. God doesn’t cause drunk driving or bridge failures or adulterous marriages…” So some people swing to the other extreme and say that the only thing for which we can account is the impact of personal responsibility. It’s all up to me. I can’t depend on God, if there is one, because he is unable or unwilling to intervene in the operation of the created order. If he could, he would; but since he’s all good, and wouldn’t want any of that bad stuff to happen, he must be unable to prevent it, and so it’s up to me.

Fortunately, a rigorous reading of scripture preserves us from either of those two alternatives. God is both all-powerful and all-loving. God cares for the creation enough to invest it with some measure of freedom. For us, that means that we make choices and our choices matter – but that nothing we do can ultimately thwart God’s ultimate intentions for his universe. Those intentions – clearly outlined in Romans 8 – are for the good of the creation. It is impossible, it says, for anyone to act in such a way that isolates one’s self from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There are just some places that are too far for us to go, and pretending that we can live outside of God’s love and care and compassion does not make that possible.

That being said, the parable in Luke points out that human decisions have very real and direct consequences. What is simply remarkable in the story that Jesus tells is that God appears willing to take some of the pain and grief that are the results of our decisions upon himself.

Luke 20 contains the account of Jesus telling a story to a group of religious leaders a few days before he would be killed, in large measure, because of choices that those same religious leaders would make. In his parable, Jesus describes God as a man who entrusts what is dear to him to a group of other people, even though those people continue to prove themselves to be wholly undeserving of such trust. In spite of this, the man continues to allow those people the opportunity to make different choices, and ultimately he becomes vulnerable to the point of intense personal pain and loss.

You know, I’m not really sure that I can fit this into a 17 minute sermon, much less a sympathy card or an internet meme, but here’s what I think that scripture says in regard to my “Why?” questions…

God is the source of all that there is and ever will be.

The heart of God is love.

God does not cause tragedy, but often reveals himself in or through it.

God gives you and me the freedom to make choices – even spectacularly poor ones – and promises to walk with us through the blessings, joy, chaos, or carnage that result from those choices that we and others make.

There are times, apparently, where God is willing to intervene in some sort of supernatural ways. More often God tends to work in and through people like me and you.

At the end of the day it is not my responsibility – nor is it even within my capability – to understand and explain God, or God’s actions or inactions. I must confess that God is God and I am not.

At the end of the day it is my responsibility to claim the fact that God is with me in joy and in pain, and to do my best to live as Jesus did. I do this when I do all I can to stand beside those who struggle, to stand in front of those who would do evil, and to stand behind the Jesus who promises that no mistake I make or tragedy I suffer is beyond the power of his resurrection love.

You could say it’s not fair. I asked “WHY?”, and God said, “you’ll get through this.” That’s not a direct answer, but it is, in my view, the answer from scripture.

Not everything happens for a reason. I get that. But there is nothing that happens in such a way that isolates us from the presence and power of God’s ability to bring healing, hope, and resurrection. I don’t know why some of these horrible things happened, nor can I predict where and when and why they will happen again. But I can tell you that you and I have the opportunity and responsibility to choose how we will respond to the tragedies that fill our world. May God bless you in your suffering, your choices, and your participation in God’s intentions for the world. Thanks be to God for those intentions. Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Hamilton for the idea for this entire sermon series, which was inspired by his book of the same name (Abingdon Press, 2016).

[2] Wolf’s quote is on the back cover of Hamilton’s book.