What Difference Does It Make?

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 30, we witnessed the dancing of King David as the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem… and considered how dangerous worship can be..  Our text was II Samuel 6:12-22 and we also listened to Colossians 3:15-17

To listen to the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below.

 

Well, good morning! How are you feeling? Have you checked your vital signs lately? Heart rate? Blood pressure? Cholesterol?

I’m asking because of an article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers followed a group of nearly 75,000 people for twenty years, and found that women who went to church more than once a week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the study period than those who never went. These people had higher rates of social support and optimism, lower rates of depression, and were less likely to engage in some key self-destructive behaviors. See? You mother was right. Going to church is good for you. And if this study is right, judging by how often I see you, some of you are going to live forever.[1]

One might conclude from this study that worship is a fundamentally safe place and involves little risk. I’d like to challenge that assumption.

Worship is – or ought to be – dangerous. It was in the days of King David. The beginning of chapter six, which was not included in our reading for today, describes how the Israelites organized a great big religious festival in order to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Things were going along more or less as choreographed when all of a sudden one of the oxen pulling the wagon stumbled a bit, and the lay reader for that day, a man named Uzzah, reached out to grab the Ark. No one is exactly sure what happened here, but the result was that Uzzah was struck dead by the hand of God. Apparently, he thought that it was his place to “manage” God, or that God needed his help in order to stay on track, and God didn’t appreciate that.

Well, nothing takes the wind out of the sails of your church service like having the hand of God smite one of the lay readers, so folks scattered and they tucked the Ark into the garage of a local non-Israelite until someone came up with a better idea.

King David was so scared that he didn’t do anything about it for three months, because that was the day he realized that worship could kill you.

And we read that in 2017 and say, “Wow, I mean, I thought I was going to die of boredom a few times, but nothing like that has ever happened around here…”

That may be because we’re more comfortable with the worship that Uzzah was liable to lead. I’m not here to speak ill of the dead, but we all prefer to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and how much it’s going to cost. We like worship to be energizing, but even moreso we want God to be predictable and well-managed.

If that’s how we treat our relationship with God, then we’re doing it wrong. The act of worship and the life of the disciple is a wild ride that is fully engaging and utterly transformative. It will change us.

One of the best letters I have ever received came to me from a 12th grade student who had joined me on a short-term mission pilgrimage to the developing world the year before. It was about ten pages, hand written, and in it she dropped the “F— bomb” more than you might typically think necessary in a letter to one’s pastor. The first four or five pages were angry accusations that our trip to visit the world’s poor had totally screwed up her life and her plans for her senior year. She wrote, “When I returned from that trip I discovered that all of my friends were shallow, self-centered, and materialistic. Worse, I saw that I was all of those things, too. Of course, we were all like that last year, but I didn’t know it. Now, thanks to you and that stupid trip, I know who I am and I know the world I live in and I know some of what God expects of me. All I wanted was to be dumb and happy and enjoy my senior year, but now I keep having big thoughts about how screwed up everyone’s priorities are. And it’s lonely here.”

By the time she got to page ten, she was thanking me for giving her an opportunity to take this trip, but it was a fascinating bit of self-revelation for a young woman to share… God is dangerous and unpredictable, and if we think that showing up in worship is a nice little way to pass the time and maybe impress your boyfriend’s parents, well, we’ve got another thing coming.

David and Michal in the windows of St. Therese Church in Vasperviller, France

Part of why worship is dangerous is the fact that it reveals to us and to the world who and what we love. In the reading from II Samuel, for instance, David’s wife Michal isn’t participating in worship – she’s watching, from a distance. She was in a prominent place where she’d be noticed, but not expected to actually do anything. And she comes down hard on her husband for behaving in a way that she thought compromised his position. She screams at him, “Is this any way for a king to act?”

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the Hebrew word for “king” is melek. The melek is the one who has unbridled authority and does what kings do: grab, take, seize, rule… all in their own power.

When Michal challenges David, however, he says, “Yes, I am called to this office… as nagid – “prince”. When David was anointed, he was called the nagid of YHWH – extending the power and benefits of God’s realm in submission to the God who had called him to service and sacrifice on behalf of God’s people. YWHW is the King; David is the nagid who serves at the King’s pleasure.

David realized that the act of worship is a means by which we discover and announce to the world the things that are most important to us.

We say things like this all the time at church, of course. But I’m not sure that we really mean them. You all love that old hymn by Isaac Watts that goes, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” I know you do. We sing several versions of that here.

Whole Note = “certain terms and conditions may apply. Not valid every Sunday.

You know that hymn ends with what musicians call a “whole” note, right? That is, it’s an extended period where we sing the same note and the same word… Unless we’re honest, and we admit that’s where we slide in all of our terms and conditions…

Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all…unless it’s opening day of trout season…or my kid is in a Sunday soccer league…or I had a date last night that was really fantastic but it just got too late and…” You see? That “whole” note allows us the time to tell God what we really mean.

The act of worship is important and defining. In choosing who and what to worship, we allow those things to shape our priorities and practices. Our worship forms our identity.

In 1957 the New York Giants baseball club uprooted itself and moved to San Francisco. The team was losing fans and revenue and the West Coast beckoned alluringly. Reporters asked the team’s owner how he felt about leaving the kids of Manhattan, and he replied, “I feel badly about the kids, but I haven’t seen many of their fathers at games lately.”[2] In other words, it’s easy to say “Oh, I’m a big fan”, but unless we’re showing up at the ball park, nothing will change.

So, the choices we make about worship are fraught with meaning and reveal a great deal about not only who we worship, but who we are. The final point I’d like to make about worship this morning is that proper worship makes the world a better place, even for those who do not believe.

Detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th c.). The caption for this image in Latin reads, “How, having completed the sacrifices, David blesses the people, distributing bread and other foods among them.”

When David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, he offers sacrifices of meat and grain. The reading describes how everyone in Israel got a square meal that day. In and through his worship, David blessed both the people of Israel and those in his own home. The things that happened between David and God leaked out of David into the world around him, and that world became a better place because David had been in worship.

There is a great deal of American Christianity that is unsettling to me because we come to worship as consumers. We are feeling a little sad, or wonder about our purpose in life might be, or are afraid of our own mortality, and we think, “You know what? I’m going to get myself to church. That will make me feel better.” And it does. We come out, we sit with our friends and we sing some perky songs; the pastor gives us a nice little pep talk and I feel better about my life. Worship is a refuge. A sanctuary. An escape.

We all need that from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling at home with or encouraged by worship. But the main goal in worship is not to make you happy. Some years ago a fellow pastor told me that as he was greeting people after worship, folks were walking by exchanging the usual niceties. One woman, though, took him by the arm and said, “Pastor, that was a very moving service. I must say, however, that I did not care for the second hymn – not one little bit.” The pastor replied, “Well, then, how fortunate for everyone that we didn’t come here this morning to worship you.” That man knew the truth: the main aim of worship is to point to God and to seek to shape ourselves to become more and more the people God intends us to be for the good of the created order.

When we give our hearts and minds to God, our lives will reflect the things of God. To put it another way, your neighbor’s life should be better because you are here worshiping this morning. If the things that we do and the ways that we do them on Sunday mornings do not lead to this neighborhood knowing more of God’s love and grace and blessing, then we ought to pack up and go home and try something else.

When David worshiped God, the people around him were blessed. Does that happen in your home? On your street? In your workplace? At your school? What difference does any of this make to the people who have never been here?

If we do this right, more children will be coached and mentored and loved because we’ve been here. The lonely will be visited, the poor will be fed, and those who would abuse their power or authority will be challenged.

This story about David and his dancing before the Lord is not here to impress on us what a great guy David was. It’s here to demonstrate how powerful and awesome David thought God was – and how far-reaching the implications of that were for David and for those who surrounded him.

Frederick Buechner describes this well in his brief essay on David:

With trumpets blaring and drums beating, it was Camelot all over again, and for once that royal young redhead didn’t have to talk up the bright future and the high hopes, because he was himself the future at its brightest and there were no hopes higher than the ones his people had in him. And for once he didn’t have to drag God in for politics’ sake either, because it was obvious to everybody that this time God was there on his own. How they cut loose together, David and Yahweh, whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame of such magnificence that not even the dressing-down David got from Michal afterward could dim the glory of it.

He had feet of clay like the rest of us, if not more so – self-serving and deceitful, lustful and vain – but on the basis of that dance alone, you can see why it was David more than anybody else that Israel lost its heart to and why, when Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem on his flea-bitten mule a thousand years later, it was as the Son of David that they hailed him.[3]

I hope and pray that your participation in worship this morning, this month, this year, does more for you than lower your blood pressure and pep you up. My prayer is that this practice of worship would ignite in you a holy fire so that you, and we together, might be a blessing to the world because of all that God has done in and for the likes of people such as we. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/16/health/religion-lifespan-health/

[2] http://www.sbnation.com/2012/10/29/3570908/san-francisco-giants-new-york-giants-franchise-moved

[3] Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 23-24).

The Baptism of Hope

On June 5, 2016 God’s people at the Crafton Heights Church were privileged to celebrate the baptism of three delightful young children, and to know that the embrace of God includes, enfolds, and changes us.  Prior to sprinkling my young friends, we read about our brother John the Baptist’s ministry as recorded in Mark 1:1-8.  Then I spun what I hope was an imaginative yarn about the power of baptism and the place of hope in our lives.

 

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

St. John the Baptist, El Greco (c. 1600)

Do you remember that day, so many years ago? Do you remember the time that the angry young preacher came around? He was so . . . so different. He was so . .. . so appealing and repulsive at the same time. While most of the preachers we had ever known dressed in fine clothes and stayed in the city, the one they called John wore rags and lived in the desert. The ones that we were used to were polite to a fault, and called us “Sir” and “Ma’am” and acted like they appreciated the offerings we put in the basket, but John yelled at us. Everybody knew that people who had been in the church all their lives needed to be ceremonially washed every now and then, and only the pagans needed to be baptized, but John claimed that everyone needed to repent, and everyone needed to be forgiven. Why, it was just unheard of.

I know that you know a lot about that day that John stood by the banks of the Jordan and hollered about baptism. But here is something that you may not have known.

In the crowd on this particular day was a widow woman, whose name was Susanna. She had come to hear the preacher because her life was hard, and she was hoping for something to make it easier. In fact, she forced her three sons to come with her, even though none of these teenagers would have gone along if the choice were theirs to make. Today, I’ll tell you the story of what happened to Susanna and her sons as a result of meeting John they call “the baptizer”.

As I have said, Susanna was curious. Nothing more, really. She was just wondering if maybe there could be some real hope and substance in a religion. She had tried to believe, but it seemed so unreal. But what she saw and heard that day touched her in a way that nothing else had, and so Susanna waded into the murky waters of the Jordan and asked John to bring her to the “one who was to come”.

Her oldest son, Simon, was appalled to see his mother associating with such a religious lunatic, and he made no secret of his shame and scorn. Oh, she was his mother, and he continued to treat her with some measure of respect, but it was a respect of the hands and feet, not of the heart. Weeks and even months after they returned to the village, he was filled with disgust at the notion of his mother falling for such hucksterism. As soon as he could, he left the village and moved to the city of Antioch, where he became a cloth merchant. Because he was her son, and because she was his mother, she continued to receive packages from him, and twice he went to visit her — twice, in the course of the 27 years until she died — twice, he took her money and tolerated her religion . . . but he could never really accept her again.

 

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I'd appreciate knowing.

I was unable to find any citation for this image. If you know where it came from, I’d appreciate knowing.

Now, the middle boy, whose name was Jacob, that was a different story altogether. Although he was only 17 the day that he was dragged out into the wilderness, you could tell that it was a day he would never forget. Jacob had been running with a group of young men who were enraged by the presence of a Roman army in the Promised Land. While their parents and grandparents seemed to be happy waiting for some miraculous deliverance, Jacob and his friends knew that nothing would happen unless the faithful took charge.

So when he heard John preaching about someone to come, someone who would be great and who would deliver the power of the Holy Spirit, well, Jacob just about ran into that water. He glared at John and practically demanded baptism, and as he came out of the water, he raised both hands high in the air and gave a shout – I’m not sure even now if it was a shout of joy or a prayer, but it was a shout that matched the determination on his face.

It was only a week or two after the baptism that Jacob and his friends formed an alliance with a group known as the Zealots – a political party that urged radical steps to overthrow the Roman government. They looked and waited for an opportunity to shake off the yoke of oppression – and always Jacob was looking for this powerful deliverer. There was a teacher who came to town, a man they called Yshua, or Jesus, who was really quite captivating to Susanna and to Jacob’s younger brother, Nathaniel. But Jacob thought that he was soft on the Romans and could not be the Promised One.

About two years after meeting John, Jacob and several of his friends were caught trying to cut the bridge out from under a Roman Garrison passing through the gorge. They were executed on the spot and their bodies left for the vultures and the jackals. It was three weeks before Susanna knew what had happened.

 

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

John the Baptist Preaching, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

And the youngest son, whose name was Nathaniel, he was the most thoughtful one. When their mother ran into the water for baptism, he was not ashamed, like Simon. Neither was he eager to follow, as had Jacob. Nathaniel just watched. And, unbeknownst to his mother, he went back the next day, and the next. Something about what the preacher was saying had him hooked – but he wasn’t sure what.

Finally, about three weeks after he had first seen John, Nathaniel asked to be baptized. And when he left, he went straight home and asked his mother to be released from his duties at home so that he might follow John and learn from him. Although Susanna was afraid, she knew that Nathaniel would do what Nathaniel would do, and so she gave him her blessing and off he went.

He had been gone for a few months when he returned home to report that John had been killed by Herod, but that he was now following a new rabbi, a teacher named Yshua – Jesus. He was the one, Nathaniel said. Jesus was the salvation of which John had spoken. He was sure of it.

After that, Susanna met with Nathaniel a few times, and even hosted Jesus and his friends once or twice. And, like her boy, she came to admire and even love the carpenter’s son. But after a few years, Jesus was killed, and instead of returning home, Nathaniel became more convinced than ever of his faith. He claimed to have eaten and spoken with Jesus after he had died. He left the country altogether, and was never heard from again. There were rumors that he was killed by a tribal council in Greece, but nobody knows. He just disappeared.

And so years later, in the twilight of her life, Susanna runs into an old man she thinks she recognizes. His name is Simon, called Peter. And he was a friend of Nathaniel’s. He was a friend of Jesus’. He was, in fact the leader of the group that was now called “The Way”.

And this old lady pours her heart out to the preacher. “What do I do now?” she asked. “How can I believe? What is there left for me to hope for, really? This baptism, this faith, this Jesus — it has alienated me from one son and killed my other sons. When will the promise come true? How many more sons will disappear?”

 

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1631)

And Peter, grizzled, hot-tempered, smelly, old Peter responded to this woman. One translator words his statement this way:

God isn’t late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn’t want anyone lost. He’s giving everyone space and time to change . . . since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down on that day, but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promise . . . So my dear friends, since this is what you have to look forward to, do your very best to be found living at your best, in purity and peace. Interpret our Master’s patient restraint for what it is: salvation.[1]

At the end of the day, the old preacher said, really, all we can do is hope. And we’ve got to act like we have hope. He didn’t answer the old woman’s question, exactly. He just tried to encourage her, he tried to help her to see that she doesn’t see the whole picture, but that soon she will. “Hang on and keep trying” is what he essentially said.

Now why in the world would I spin this yarn for you on this baptism Sunday, the first Sunday in June, in the year of our Lord 2016? Because there’s a new preacher on the block who rants and raves? Because I suspect that there’s someone here who’s ready to join the rebellion?

No, that’s not it. I’m telling you what might have happened because I think that the world in which we live is a lot like the one in which Susanna and her sons lived. It’s a world that has lost hope. We live in a culture that can’t imagine what real health and healing and wholeness might look like, and so we spin our wheels. We are unsure about the future – we look at the coming election and we shake our heads; we think about terror attacks and gun violence and refugee crises and healthcare costs and… well, many of us don’t like to think of what will happen. It seems pretty out of control sometimes.

When we get lost in our fear about the future, we lose hope. And because we lose hope, we don’t have any reason for big changes in our lives. “Rather than make big moves, we relax, settle into present arrangements, old habits, circular movements. We cling tightly to what is rather than dare to dream about what we ought to be.”[2]

 

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

John the Baptist, detail from The Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Now listen to me, beloved. I am not John the Baptist. I am not the voice crying in the desert, eating locusts, wearing camel’s hair.

I am Dave Carver. I am a pastor. I tell stories. I walk with God’s people in Crafton Heights, and in Malawi, and in a few places in between. I am more apt to be eating wings and wearing khakis.

But today, today, let me play the part of John the Baptist. Let’s make this a grand production, and let me be the person who will yell about the One who is far greater than I! Let me tell you about the One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie. Let me be the one to spread the waters of baptism on unsuspecting little girls this day…

And in a sense, let me even pretend that I am more than John the Baptist, because John could only look forward, dimly, to a time when a man would come and assume his ministry and lead the people forward. But where John had the sands of the Jordan river for his platform, I have the rough-hewn rock door of an empty tomb as mine; where John promised that God was coming, I can tell you that God has come — that Immanuel – that God is with us. John had words to say, and I have words to say, but Jesus of Nazareth is the Word of life, the message of love and hope from God the Father.

You see, that’s worth hoping about. That’s worth getting excited about. Because just as my made-up friend Susanna was not forgotten by God in the length of her days, neither have you nor I been forgotten by God in the stories that we have lived. We are not beyond him. We are not too far away. We have reason for hope.

 

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980's

The Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s

In 1987, I had the privilege to go to Germany. While there, I spent hours driving through East Germany to the city of West Berlin. Some of you may know that in those days, there were two Germanies: the free and democratic West and the poor and communist East. Two governments, two nations – separated by an ugly cement structure called the Berlin Wall. And I drove and walked along the Berlin wall. I saw “Checkpoint Charlie”, where visitors could gain access from one side to the other — if the guards felt like it. I saw markers indicating the spot where children had been shot trying to make it from one side of the wall to the other. I saw mile after mile of razor wire, I saw tanks and guns and ugliness. And I saw what hatred looked like.

And not 500 yards from the wall, in West Berlin, I saw several brand new office buildings going up. And I asked my German friend, “Why in the world would you want to build those things so close to this wall? Is it to show the people in the East that you are succeeding and that your way of life is better than theirs?”

She was quick to reply. “No, that’s not it at all. We are building these here now because when the wall comes down and we are once again a single country, then the office buildings will be in the middle of town.”

wall-1I saw years of hatred and razor wire and people being shot. She saw a nation healed. I laughed at her idealism. She had a party about two years later when the Berlin wall was removed. And now, how many Germanies are there? And what’s the capital of Germany?

Where are the walls in your life? Where is hope held hostage? People of God, beloved, will you let me play John the Baptist today? Will you let me rant and rave a little bit, as long as you feel the water of hope splashing on you?

Our God has not forgotten . Our God is gracious, and waiting even for me and for you. So hope. And act like you have hope. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message 2 Peter 3:8 ff.

[2] Will Willimon, Proclamation 5, Series B 1993, p. 21

Going Over the Ground Rules

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On September 13 we celebrated two baptisms as we considered the words of the Beatitudes as found in Matthew 5:1-12.  The other reading was I Corinthians 1:18-25.  

“Uncle Phil, tell me about the day I was born.”

“Um, sure. It was a snowy day, and I think that the power was out for a while, but we weren’t worried because we knew that your mom and dad would keep you safe.”

“Uncle Paul, will you tell me about the day I was born?”

“You bet! Your mom and dad had been praying for a long time that you would make it out safely, and when that storm picked up, well, I was glad that you stayed inside for a couple of hours longer. When you finally did decide to make an appearance, the storm was over and everything was so quiet. We just sat in the room and held you while the candles burned. It was a wonderful day.”

Two authorities, each telling the same truth, right? And yet, in the telling, we see and hear meaning that is slightly different. The information may be largely the same, but the added details and inflection really communicate meaning, don’t they?

Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-82

Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli, 1481-82

Last week, I announced my intention to try to preach through the Sermon on the Mount, which is considered by many, including myself, to be the greatest example of ethical teaching ever written. And when we started, we considered Luke’s introduction to the sermon, which he calls “the Sermon on the Plain”. That makes sense for Luke’s audience, which has just read about Jesus’ descent from the mountaintop following a night of prayer and the naming of the twelve apostles. Now, says Luke, it’s time to learn.

When Matthew frames the story, however, he’s not only thinking about the participants in the story, but those who are reading his account. And so he agrees with Luke that the sermon took place above sea level, but since Matthew is writing to a crowd that is primarily of Jewish origin, he knows that when a man of faith goes up a mountain and reveals truth, well, it imparts a little different message. In the scripture you just heard, Jesus and his followers climb the mountain, and then Jesus sits. The disciples and the crowd gather around him, and then he speaks. From the mountain. The symbolism is powerful: Jesus is the new Moses, and here we are about to receive the definitive interpretation of the Law of God. Just as Moses led the people to the mountain in Sinai, and they gathered around it waiting to hear the commandments, now Jesus leads the people up the mountain and reveals to them what it means to live those commandments out.

He further reinforces this by his introduction to the sermon itself. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” he begins. The word that begins the sermon is makarioi, and in general Greek writing of the day, it meant “happy” or “lucky”. Although the Gospel of Matthew is written in Greek, Jesus, though, was probably speaking Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament). When he started a sermon by saying “Blessed are the ones”, I am certain that the Jewish hearers of that message would have recognized the beginning of Psalm 1, which we heard as our Call to Worship: “Blessed is the one who…”

BlessedIn this beginning, Jesus is clearly introducing a new understanding of what it means to be makarioi or ashré in Hebrew. But what does it mean to us? In our language? Today?

I stayed in Africa for a month with my friend Dan and his family. They had a gardener and watchman, whose name was Mikhael. I interacted with this man a dozen times a day, and I was entranced by his use of the word “congratulations”. I would come home from the market and smile and say, “Mikhael, these eggs were half price today!”, and he would say, “Congratulations!” Ariel would come in and announce that we were having chicken for dinner, and Mikhael would beam, “Congratulations!” Dan would mention that he was expecting a visitor soon and ask Mikhael to please be on the lookout, and the Malawian would salute and smile and offer a very crisp, “Congratulations, sir!”

I came to understand that when Mikhael used the word “congratulations”, he was essentially saying, “good for you”, or “that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be”; that’s what should be happening now.

I think that is the essence of what Jesus is saying when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” “Congratulations to those who are…” or “Good for you when you are…” Like Psalm 1, the meaning is not one of “happiness” or being overjoyed, but rather being found in the exact right spot at the right time, following Jesus and walking with God.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with these descriptions of what right living looks like as Jesus pronounces his blessing on those who are his first followers. As he does so, he gives them a sense of what is to come and where this path of discipleship will lead them.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on the beatitudes, he noticed that there is a progression here – that they flow from one to the next.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, says Jesus. When you have left your vocation, your family, and your identity behind to follow a new rabbi, you are, in fact, poor.

Blessed are those who mourn… And wouldn’t mourning be a logical response? We grieve what is lost – and when we lose the core of who we have been as we walk towards that which we are becoming, it would seem as though mourning is a typical reaction.

Blessed are the meek… that is to say, when we have left all that we know and said goodbye to who we have been, then meekness is a logical result because we will tread very carefully in uncharted waters.

When a person has emptied him or herself of many of the core elements of their identity, and through a time of grief has begun to learn an entirely new way of life, there must be a yearning to fill up what is empty. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right” is a way of saying that those who are faithful will desire to be filled with the stuff that truly makes for life.

When the followers of Christ come together in a community, they will find it to be one shaped by mercy. As each disciple realizes that she or he is learning an entirely new way of being, she or he will be bound to extend grace to her or his fellow-learners and to take on the pain of others.

Furthermore, these people will be pure-hearted, as with single-minded devotion they pursue the best that God offers, and will not be distracted by that which is less than Godly.

As they do this, the followers of Christ will discover that they have in fact become partners with Jesus in offering themselves for the world. Our English translation says “blessed are the peace-makers”, but there is a richness to the original that suggests someone who not only makes for peace, but who cultivates and enjoys and spreads peace.

After the followers of Jesus have experienced these eight steps of identity formation, they will discover that they have taken part in a new community. Verses 3 – 10 all refer to “those who” are found in these places. When we get to verses 11 and 12, however, there is a shift. Verse 11 begins by saying something like, “Congratulations when you find that you are persecuted and maligned…”

Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “…they who renounce possessions, fortune, rights, righteousness, honor, and force for the sake of following Christ, will be distinguished from the world. The world will be offended at them, and so the disciples will be persecuted for righteousness’ sake…It is important to note that Jesus gives his blessing not merely to suffering incurred directly for the confession of his name, but to suffering in any just cause.”[1] When people who follow Jesus and are shaped by Jesus wind up living like Jesus, they should not be surprised that the first fellowship that they share is the fellowship of the cross. The blessing that Jesus attains is the blessing that he offers to his followers.

In a nutshell, that’s how the Sermon on the Mount begins: the beatitudes announce God’s good words in the lives of those who follow the call and journey into the unknown with Jesus. And I have two comments to make in response to these beatitudes.

First, we have to be realistic and admit that by most objective measures, this is sheer nonsense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent with a young person offering counsel as to how to respond to a certain situation in a way that would please God only to have a parent step in and say, “Well, no offense, Rev., but Jr., pay absolutely no attention to what Pastor Dave is saying here. That man is full of pie in the sky.” And I would add, frankly, that this applies to the two young boys we’ll be baptizing this morning. Sure, we all smile and nod as the scripture is being read, but are you really going to invest yourselves in the next decade or decade and a half teaching Colton or Liam to renounce themselves, to be hungry for only that which Jesus can provide, and to seek the paths of mercy and peace?

You’ve got to be crazy, Dave! I know. I’m an idiot so much of the time. The kind of life to which the beatitudes call us is contrary to our experience, counter-cultural, and, to be honest, un-American.

It is, however, the only way of life to which Jesus calls us. And note with me, please, that these statements are not advice. There are no imperatives here. Jesus is not saying, “Try to be a little more poor in spirit. Work on being a peace-maker.” These are simple statements of truth: if, because you have left something less in order to hold onto Christ, and find yourself to be poor in spirit, grieving, merciful, and so on, then you are to be congratulated or blessed. You have it right, and are walking in a place that is consistent with God’s purposes for the universe.

In a way, the beatitudes are like ground rules. That is, they reflect what is, not what ought to be or what could me. Take a look, for instance, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. A key feature of that baseball stadium is the ivy-covered outfield wall that is separated from the bleachers by a wire screen. If you want to play ball at Wrigley, you need to know these things:20110918g-wrigleyIvyWall20

  • When a baseball hits top or face of screen in front of bleacher wall and bounces back on playing field, that ball is considered in play.
  • Yet if the same baseball hits top of screen and drops between screen and wall OR bounces into the bleachers, then it’s a home run.
  • When a baseball sticks in screen in front of bleachers, or gets stuck in the vines on the bleacher wall, the batter is awarded a two-base hit.
  • But if the baseball hits the vines and then comes out of them, it’s in play and nothing is assumed.

As arbitrary as they might be considered on certain days, those are the ground rules at Wrigley Field. It’s the Cubs’ ballpark, and they establish the rules by which both teams play. You might have a different idea as to what should happen if a ball gets stuck in the mesh or lost in the vines, but it’s not your call to make.

The Beatitudes by James Tissot, c. 1890

The Beatitudes by James Tissot, c. 1890

In the same way, these conditions that Jesus outlines for faithful living: being poor in spirit, humble, hungry for what is right, and so on – they are not really up for discussion. Jesus of Nazareth, the pre-existing Son of God who created the cosmos and everything in it, gets to set the ground rules. He’s not asking me to be merciful. He’s simply saying that people who show mercy will receive it. He’s not talking me into being a person who honors peace; he’s simply saying that a condition of life in the universe is ultimately consistent with peace.

But Jesus, we say, how do we live into that reality? How do we become people who follow you into these places? The instructions for living into that reality are contained in the passages that we’ll read in the weeks to come. For today, let us simply accept his declaration as true. The starting point – the ground rules – indicate that everything we know about blessedness or happiness comes from God, and that the most popular ways of achieving what the world calls “happiness” or “fulfillment” are not the best. Let us acknowledge that we are called to trust Christ and to point others – even little guys like Colton and Liam – in a Christ-ward direction so that they, and we, can sit at his feet as he explains, and demonstrates, and asks us to live like him.

Thanks be to God for that set of ground rules. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (McMillan Paperback 1961), p. 127

On Flags and Faith

We gathered on July 5 to consider the Word of God in relationship to our nation’s Independence Day celebrations.  We took our cue from the Apostle Paul in Acts 16:25-40 and Galatians 3:26-28

 

LifeguardI saw something pretty cool at the beach last week. No, I’m not talking about the 8-foot hammerhead shark that came within ten feet of my boat (although that was awesome!). I’m talking about a display that the line of “Surf Rescue Technicians” (that’s the new name for ‘lifeguard’, by the way) put on as they began their day. All up and down the beach, they stood on their platforms and held out small flags, waving them in such a fashion as to communicate via semaphore the fact that the beach was now officially open for business.

That, in turn, got me to thinking about flags. Did you know that people have been using flags for more than 4,000 years? Pretty much as far back as anyone can tell, folks have been taking little bits of cloth or some other material and holding it up in order to communicate information to someone else.

In the middle ages, for instance, all the knights looked alike when they wore their armor, so the flags helped them know who was fighting whom. Flags have been used to instill fear in people, to assert dominance over someone or something, and to rally folks in times of crisis. Flags are wonderful and powerful symbols.

The South Carolina and American flags flying at half-staff behind the Confederate flag erected in front of the State Congress building in Columbia, South Carolina on June 19, 2015. Police captured the white suspect in a gun massacre at one of the oldest black churches in Charleston in the United States, the latest deadly assault to feed simmering racial tensions. Police detained 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shown wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in pictures taken from social media, after nine churchgoers were shot dead during bible study on Wednesday. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

And, as you know, flags have been in the news lately. A lot. Whether we’re talking about the battle flag of the Confederacy, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay and lesbian pride, the stark black and white banner of the Islamic State, the “white-power” insignia of the KKK, or even the old stars and stripes of the United States – the display of flags and the way that we treat them reveals a great deal about the things that we believe, respect, fear, and hope.

Perhaps the most powerful conversation I’ve ever had about a flag was with a friend who has since passed away. We were talking about the appropriate manner in which the US flag should be displayed, and he told me through angry tears of his three friends on Clairtonica Street, “boys who went into the South Pacific and onto the beach at Normandy and who gave their lives for that flag!”

Literally, of course, that was not true. Those men did not sacrifice themselves for a piece of fabric – they died because they believed that the things that flag represented in their lives and in their world – justice, freedom, hope, independence – were worth dying for. The flag about which my friend and I talked was a symbol for those things, right?

All of this leads me to ask you on this Fourth of July weekend, “what is the relationship between flags and faith?” As we consider that question, I’d like to turn to our brother, Paul, and the way in which he lived his life.

In the reading we have from Galatians, we see that Paul – a man, who, by the way, took his various identities quite seriously – emphasized the fact that when it comes to children of God, our history, tradition, ideology, political views, ethnicity, or gender identity is not the most important thing about us. “Some of you are all of these things,” he says, “but that’s not the core of your self. You are BAPTIZED. You belong to Jesus. You are his. After that, you might be slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek. But all of those things are secondary to your identity in Christ and all that entails.”

Many of you know my friend Saleem, who described for me a worship service to which he had been invited in another city. He said that the congregation was friendly and the Scripture was proclaimed in a language the people could understand. The singing was fine, and the sanctuary was beautiful. At the front of the sanctuary was a large cross – Saleem said that it was clearly the focal point of the architecture in the room – all eyes were directed towards the empty cross – the symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new life we’ve been given in his name.

Near the end of the service, the organ started playing a patriotic tune, and as the people rose to sing the song of their country, that nation’s flag was slowly unfurled from the rafters of the church. It was, Saleem said, a beautiful flag. And it was huge. And it filled the front of the sanctuary. The problem, however, was that the flag blocked Saleem’s view of the cross. Here, in a service of Christian worship, the national flag obscured the view of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Beloved in the Lord, when any flag, from any nation or any interest group ever gets in the way of you being able to see Jesus – that flag is simply flying too high. Any flag that impedes our ability to see Christ is a flag that is in the wrong place.

But we love our flags, don’t we? Oh, we don’t all love the same one, but we all love some of them. And yet the Gospel calls us to love Jesus more.

Here’s a little experiment I devised. Check out these two images – one of a US flag being desecrated and disrespected, the other of an African-American church that has been torched. Ask yourself: which image provokes a more visceral reaction for you? Are you more disgusted by the sight of someone burning the stars and stripes, or by the thought of a person hatefully destroying the house of God?

Flag Burning

church-burning

Oh, they’re both merely symbols, we know that. One of them is a piece of colored cloth. The other is a building used for meetings – meetings which many of you have freely described to me as “boring”. But oh, the power of those symbols! If Paul is right about our identity in Christ, we ought to be more angered by the desecration of a church than by the desecration of a national symbol. My primary loyalty, says Paul, is not to a government, a history, or a piece of land – but to the One who empowers governments, who directs history, and who created all lands. That’s not to say that it’s ok to burn a US flag, or to cheapen its symbolism – rather, I’m trying to emphasize the fact that as strongly as we feel about that symbol, our connection to the people of God is deeper and more powerful – or at least it should be.

So be careful, beloved, as you wave your flags. Send your messages. Communicate. But be sure that you don’t love that flag – any flag – more than you love the One who invented meaning and purpose and, in fact, you.

photo-us-flag1Having said that, the fact remains that we live here. Many of you, like me, are people who left home today and had your US flag flying. It’s Independence Day. We want to celebrate the fact that this is our home. Most, if not all of us in the room today are citizens of the richest, most powerful civilization to ever populate the earth. What does it mean to be a Christian and an American? Does our citizenship impact our discipleship, or vice-versa?

Again, I’d like to take a glance at Paul’s life. Although he wasn’t an American, his passport was the gold standard in his day. He was born as a citizen of the Roman Empire, which bestowed upon him great privilege around the world at that time. In addition, he was raised as a Jew, and understood the practice of his faith to be central to his identity. He became a scholar’s scholar – multilingual, well-traveled, widely-respected…and then he met Jesus.

In that weekend, Paul’s whole life and sense of self changed. His view of the world, the lens through which he saw everything – was adjusted because of his faith in Jesus. Instead of seeing his citizenship as a right to be grasped or a privilege to be exploited, he sought to use his place in the Roman Empire to further the cause of reconciliation in Christ Jesus.

Our reading from Acts, for instance, describes how Paul showed up in Philippi and began moving among the people talking about Jesus. He was attacked and beaten – and, apparently, said not a word. They imprisoned him, and he spent the night in the jail singing and praying.

PaulSilas

Paul and Silas in Prison by  Gerard Hoet (1728)

And then the earthquake hit, and Paul and the other prisoners were free. The first thing that he did was to save the jailer’s life. The jailer took Paul and Silas to his own home, where he first washed their wounds, and then they shared with him the cleansing waters of baptism.

I want you to note that to this point in the story, even though Paul is a natural-born citizen of the Roman Empire who is traveling through and then experiencing significant pain in one of the leading colonies of that empire, he has not said anything about his nationality. It is only when they ask him to leave that he brings this up. Why? Why do it then?

Well, look at what he does: he approaches the Roman Magistrate and says, “I’m a citizen of the Roman Empire who has been publicly beaten and jailed without a trial – and now you want me just to slink out of town?” The magistrates had broken the law when they treated Paul in this manner, and he had them over a barrel. He demanded that he be escorted publicly to the edge of town.

Paul Asserts His Citizenship (artist unknown)

Paul Asserts His Citizenship (artist unknown)

Only that’s not where they go – at least at first – is it? No. They stop at Lydia’s place and greet the church that is there. A church that is not comprised of citizens of the Empire. A church that has watched followers of Jesus be beaten to within an inch of their lives. And now Paul and Silas say to the police in that town, “Look, we’re leaving, and we’re not going to make trouble for you even though you beat us. But these people? They are our friends. And we’re going to be watching you. We care for them…nothing should happen to them.”

Paul used his Roman Citizenship all right – but not as a badge of honor or a status symbol, rather as a blessing to other people and a means to stand with the marginalized.

When I read of Paul’s visit to Lydia in the sight of those who bore great power to hurt and destroy, I had a flashback to my recent visit to South Sudan, a nation torn by civil war and atrocity and violence and every manner of evil.

I had gone with my team to a restaurant on the Nile River in Juba. It was to have been a day off, and we were dressed casually, laughing and joking. An armored vehicle drove up, and a huge man bristling with weaponry and accompanied by six or eight soldiers strode to an adjacent table. He was a fascinating man…and as I stared, I realized that I recognized him from somewhere…but where?

I asked one of my South Sudanese hosts who he was, and he sat up and said, “Him? Oh – that is ___________.” Of course it was. This man is a butcher – he has led in the burning of towns, the raping of women, the abduction of child soldiers, the destruction of property… by all accounts, he is a horrible person. As I reflected on what it meant to be sharing space with that man, I could see the wheels turning in my friend’s head, and he turned to me suddenly. “Will you take a photo with him? You and the team?”

I was flabbergasted. Before I knew what was happening, my host was at this man’s table, saying something like, “Sir, we have a group of friends from the United States who care about us and they have come to make sure we’re all right. They’ve heard about our troubles here and have just made a visit to emphasize peace. Would you take a photo with them?” And that’s how I wound up posing for a photo with a man who could, and perhaps should be on trial for war crimes some day.

Do you see? It’s not about him being a celebrity. I have come to understand that in some way, this was an invitation to use whatever influence, authority, or status we have as citizens of the world’s most powerful nation to help shield our friends in South Sudan. Because now in addition to me having a photo with this man, he has a photo of me, given to him by a pastor who said, “These people are from the USA, and they are watching us. They care for us. They will notice if something happens to us…”

It wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t plan it, but if my small effort to stand publicly with someone in harm’s way may wind up protecting that person or his family, it may be the single best thing I’ve ever done as a citizen of the United States of America. I was in a position to respond to an invitation to use any status or rank that I have on behalf of someone who has neither status nor rank. And, thankfully, I did, just as our brother Paul did when he took the soldiers to Lydia’s place.

It’s the Fourth of July. Watch the fireworks. Have a hot dog. Yippee. Celebrate your independence and your rights. Have a blast.

But what are you doing with that gift? How do you understand the power that your citizenship carries as you seek to love your neighbor in Jesus Christ?

Will you take the time to be informed about issues and then communicate with your elected officials, advocating for those on the fringes? Will you care about the neighborhood in which you live, and seek to treat all who are there as Christ has treated you? Can you be bothered to cast your vote in various elections, remembering that the people who win elections write the budgets, and the people who write the budgets determine the priorities of the nation?

Many of my friends approach this most patriotic of holidays as a Holy Day of sorts, in which they are eager to name all of the rights that they have inherited as citizens of the United States: we can own all the guns we want, we can fly whatever flag we choose, we get cheap gasoline, we can worship where and when and how we choose, and my internet better work when I want it to.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point.

US-PassportcoverThis is my passport – stamped with the seal and flag of the United States of America. It is an incredible tool, and, frankly, I’m pretty proud of it. It guarantees me some freedom. And it gives me great power.

 

Baptism

And this is the font that holds the water in which I was baptized. It is at this font that I learn who I am and who I will be, and how I am called to use every gift, all my powers, all I am or hope to be – for the service of Christ and the love of my neighbors.

Please, beloved, don’t let me ever, ever, get these two confused. If I start to think that my baptism is a tool that gets me into a club that carries certain privileges and gives me great benefit, and that my passport is the place where I learn my true identity and who I really am, bad things will happen. Thanks be to the God who calls us – from all flags and all places – to wade in the waters of baptism and celebrate the power of Christ. Amen.

Models and Mentors Matter

As we continue our exploration of some of the “call” stories in scripture, we also celebrated the baptisms of two children in worship on April 26.  With that in mind, it seemed wise to be attentive to the ways in which God’s call became apparent in the lives of Samuel and Timothy.  Scripture readings for the day included I Samuel 3:1-11 and II Timothy 1:1-7.

If you’ve been around church enough – at least, a certain kind of church – you’ve heard this question: when did you get saved? Some believers find it easy to put a date and time stamp on their spiritual awakening. “When did I get saved? Oh, well, let me tell you – I was twenty-two, and it was in the springtime. My life was a mess, and I was really heading in a bad direction. All of a sudden, I had this amazing encounter, and BOOM! – my life changed forever. I once was lost, but now I’m found. It’s amazing!”

monty_python_godWhen someone with a testimony like that hears a series of sermons on calls to faith, the accounts of the Apostle Paul, who was knocked onto his keister on the Damascus Road, or maybe Moses, who was stopped short by the burning bush, come to mind. Some of our favorite stories – whether in the movies or in real life – are experienced when a “bad” person comes clean and turns over a new leaf. There is powerful drama, to be sure, and also an encouragement for the people who love those who are in a hard way right now. The good news that comes from stories like that is that our God is an interrupting God. Nothing is finished – we see lives that are in progress, but always interruptible.

As we come into worship this morning, however, we are met with readings about Samuel and Timothy. In addition, we join the church of the ages in the practice of infant baptism. As we do these things, we point to the fact that while sometimes our calling from the Lord is sudden and dramatic, at other times it is gentle and continuing. Before we engage Makayla and Isaiah in the sacrament of baptism, let’s talk for a few moments about the scriptures that we’ve heard and the things that they teach us about God’s call and our role in it.

Samuel relating to Eli the Judgments upon Eli's House  John Singleton Copley (1780)

Samuel relating to Eli the Judgments upon Eli’s House
John Singleton Copley (1780)

I’d like to point out that there is an intentional, loving, non-biological connection between both Samuel and Eli and Timothy and Paul. In each of these cases, the mentors are brought into a young person’s life and choose to remain there. The earlier chapters of First Samuel describe the remarkable circumstances surrounding Samuel’s birth and how his mother, Hannah, brought him to the Temple as a child in the hopes that he would be instructed in the ways of the Lord. Timothy was a lot older when he first met Paul, although their initial meeting in Acts 16 makes it plain that Timothy was clearly the “Junior Partner” in this relationship.

In both narratives, however, it’s plain that the more mature believer makes it a priority to give some of his best time, energy, and wisdom to the younger. Undoubtedly, some of this was formal instruction. Perhaps more importantly, however, was the fact that both Samuel and Timothy spent time simply being with these older people. Sure, they sat and looked at the scrolls together, but I bet they spent more time cleaning the Temple or walking on the road or engaging their communities together. In Mark 3 we read that Jesus “appointed twelve that they might be with him…” The best and most important thing that Eli and Paul did for Samuel and Timothy was to invite these younger men to simply be with them in the daily exercise of their faith in life.

I’m sure it wasn’t always convenient or efficient to operate in this way, and you know from your own experience that most of the time if you want it done right the first time, you better do it yourself…but much of what is truly important in life is transmitted while we are paying attention to other things. Who do you ask to be with you as you live the life that God has given you? Who comes alongside of you in your daily walk? I think that’s the most important question we can ask someone who says that they want to share the faith with the next generation: not, “who are you teaching, and what are you teaching them?”, but “to whom have you extended the invitation to come alongside you in a journey of faith?”

Another key aspect of mentoring that emerges from our readings is seen in the coaching that Eli gives to Samuel. Samuel’s hearing is fine – he’s not in need of any assistance in that department – but he needs Eli to train him to be a listener. Part of a mentoring relationship is helping another person to process information and experiences that are unfamiliar.

I love the fact that in this passage, Eli does not attempt to explain God to Samuel. Eli does not presume to know what God might say to the boy, and go ahead and save everybody a little time and effort. Instead, Eli shows Samuel how to put himself in a position so that when the Lord does choose to speak, Samuel can listen and respond to that call.

Effective mentors and role models know the joy of open-ended questions. I love to sit with someone and say, “Well, do you see anywhere in this situation where God might be moving?” One of the coolest parts of being a spiritual friend to someone is that you get to ask questions to which you don’t already know the answers.

Both Eli and Paul realize that God’s call and movement through history is linear. That is to say, God is not static. God does not call to everyone in the same way, asking them to be in the same place doing the same thing. Eli and Paul had received callings from God in the past, and they honored those calls. Now, they are charged with helping Timothy and Samuel discover meaning and purpose in their own callings.

In Eli’s case, it turned out that a part of Samuel’s call was to deliver difficult news about Eli’s own family. In Paul’s case, it turns out that Timothy was being formed to do something that Paul could not have done – whereas Paul’s life was spent on the road, wandering from one community to the next, Timothy became anchored to the church in Ephesus and apparently spent several decades leading that community. Like the best parents and friends, effective mentors and role models allow learners to become who they are called to be, rather than seeking to shape them into mere copies of themselves.

When we think about the ways in which generations interact in our world, one image that comes to mind is this: the parent or leader standing with an arm around the child or subordinate as they survey the home, the farm, the business, and saying, “Some day, all of this will be yours…” And when it comes to running the family business or keeping the family farm, there is a certain romantic appeal, or even nobility in that thought. But God forbid that the church raise up a generation of people who are nothing more than curators of the museum or custodians of the present. The task of the church is not to pass on the existence that we now have, but rather to equip God’s children for the future in which God is already at work.

We dare not spend our time and energy seeking to mentor young people who are so intent on preserving a memory that they spend their lives looking backward. Our call is not to leave a legacy of an unchanged church – but to raise up disciples who are able to be faithful in the days that are to come. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be…” is a sentence that refers to the unchanging goodness and presence of God, not a strategy for church structure and administration!

Timothy and His Grandmother, Rembrandt (1648)

Timothy and His Grandmother, Rembrandt (1648)

We are here today to say to Makayla and Isaiah, “Listen: there is a life ahead of you that is vastly different from the one in which we grew up. We would like to prepare you for this world that does not yet exist, and in doing so, we promise to do all that we can to teach you how to trust God, to trust yourself, and to trust God’s people so then when God speaks, you will be able to listen and to act.”

How do we do that? By being mentors and role models for them. By looking after them and looking out for them. There are a lot of things that these children need now and in the days to come, but I’d like to mention just three of them.

First, children need to be safe. When they are in our care, we have got to promise that we will do all that we can to ensure that no harm will come to them as a result of our negligence, passivity, or failure to create adequate supervision and protection. More than that, however, it means that we will do what we can to ensure that the children whom the church is willing to baptize are children who are fed, and bathed, and clothed, and housed with some dignity. It means that we will work as citizens of this community, this nation, and this world to see that justice is not merely a concept to which we pay lip service, but a reality in the lives of the children in this room, in this neighborhood, and indeed around the world.

In the context of that safety, it will one day become appropriate for us to make sure that these children are stretched. One of the most important thing that a spiritual friend or adult guide can say to a young learner is, “OK, now you do it.” Whether it’s running the power saw on a mission trip, learning to drive stick shift, praying out loud with a friend, or leading a devotion for the group, we let our children down if we continue to do everything for them, or if we expect that they will be interested in doing everything exactly the same way that we have done.

When children are safe and have been stretched, then we begin to think about the day when we will teach them to see themselves as sent. I do not mean to suggest that everyone will be called to a different geography, but it is important to understand, and to help them understand, that every time we get up from these pews and cross that threshold, we are being sent into the world that Christ is redeeming. The Church of Jesus Christ is not a voluntary assembly of those who are content to wander from fashion to scandal to amusement, but rather we are a company of saints who are invited to participate in the ongoing mission of God in Christ in the world.

If you’ve been around church very long, you know that there are a lot of programs designed to keep kids safe, to challenge them to be stretched, and to encourage them to think of themselves as sent. Some are produced out by insurance companies, others by curriculum publishers, and still others by great missional enterprises.

Wonderful.

But none of those programs means a rat’s patootie unless the safety, stretching, and sending of our children is anchored in relationships with real-life Elis and Pauls and mentors and role models who will help them to hear when God is speaking and to understand what that means.

SInkholeEarlier this week, the morning news featured a story describing a ravine that has opened up along the Delaware River in New Jersey. Apparently, a storm sewer drain beneath this property has been leaking for years, weakening the hillside until this week’s collapse. It sure looked like a sudden event, but it has been happening for years.

grand-canyon-colorado-riverAcross the country, there’s a little stream called the Colorado River. It’s been so dammed up and diverted for other purposes that it doesn’t even reach the ocean any more, but over the years, that water opened a stretch of the planet that we know as the Grand Canyon. In contrast to the sinkhole in New Jersey, the Canyon has been very visibly developing, very gradually for thousands of years. The same thing has happened in both New Jersey and in Arizona – water has eaten away at soil and rock and left a hole. It has happened in different ways, but it has happened.

In the same way, sometimes the call from God is experienced in a sudden and dramatic fashion, and other times it seems to be the result of an ongoing process. The root cause in either case is the same – we respond to the grace of God that is always at work in our lives and in the lives of those we love – even when it is not always easily apprehensible. We can’t control that call – how, or where, or when it comes. But we can promise to our children, ourselves, and each other that we will do all we can to teach our young people a thirst for the Holy so that when the call is heard, they will be in a position to respond to it to the glory of God and for the benefit of their neighbors. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Samuel

A God Who Is Baptized

The message from our worship on The Baptism of our Lord Sunday, January 11.  Scriptures included Psalm 29 and Mark 1:4-11.

Is Jesus God?

I have to tell you, this is one of those trick questions that you should not really answer out loud in church. How we answer that question depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is context and definition of terms.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp (unknown artist)

The Martyrdom of Polycarp (unknown artist)

For instance, in about 160 AD, a man named Polycarp, a leader of the church in Asia Minor, and the man who was thought to be the last person who knew one of the twelve apostles personally (he was a student of John), was brought before the governor in the stadium in the Turkish town of Smyrna. “Say it,” the governor said. “Caesar is Lord.” Polycarp, who was then about a hundred years old, said, “No. Jesus is Lord.” The Governor pressed him, threatening him with ferocious beasts and fire and death, but the old man said, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” And so Bishop Polycarp became one of the most celebrated of the Christian martyrs, a man who would rather die than refuse to say that Jesus is Lord.

1900 years later, a young man by the name of Mansfield Kaseman caused quite a stir in the Presbyterian Church when he was asked during his ordination trials, “Is Jesus God?” Kaseman said, “No. Jesus is Jesus. God is God.” Oh, you should have been there that day! People quit the church, and there was generally great weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But here’s the thing: I think that in some very important way, the mystery of our faith is that both Polycarp and Kaseman were correct. Jesus, the Son, is fully divine. But he is not God the Father or God the Spirit. And Jesus, the messiah, is fully human. But he is not me and he is not you. One of the things that the Bible seems pretty emphatic about is that Jesus is one being, and that he is at once entirely human and entirely divine. I’m not sure that makes sense. But I’m sure that it’s true.

In the stories that we normally read around Christmas, Matthew and Luke point us to the events leading up to and around the stable in Bethlehem. These gospels attest to the amazing circumstances of Jesus’ identity, and establish his credibility as the Son of God, and therefore fully divine.

When Mark wants to tell the story of Jesus, he introduces him to us as a full-grown adult. There are no stories of his nativity. He is an itinerant Rabbi who goes, like hundreds if not thousands of others, out to the wilderness to be baptized by another Rabbi, named John, who just happens to be his cousin.

Matthew takes half of two chapters to tell us who Jesus is: There are genealogies and stories of his birth and infancy that help cement the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.

Luke goes into even more detail, using almost two entire chapters to give us the same attestations.

Mark, however, gives us three verses at the beginning of his Gospel that help us understand the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit, and us. Listen:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11, NRSV)

In only three short verses, we learn some amazing things. For instance…

We are told that God the Father is awesome and powerful. The phrase “he saw the heavens torn apart” is there to remind us of the reading we shared from the Old Testament this morning, Psalm 29, that describes God’s power, God’s holiness, and God’s ‘otherness’.

We see that God the Holy Spirit is present, and doing what we expect the Holy Spirit to be doing in any age and any time – pointing to the truth in ways that God’s people can see and accept.

We are told in those phrases that Jesus is the Son – just like Matthew and Luke have been telling us. In the person and being of the Son, the Father is well-pleased. Whoever or Whatever God is, Jesus is part of that. And Whoever or Whatever Jesus is, God is filling Him.

And, of course, Mark uses these three verses to tell us something that didn’t happen to the baby Jesus in the manger: he was baptized.

Why? Why would Jesus be baptized?

I mean, when most of you have brought your children to me and asked me to help facilitate their baptisms, I have asked you why you want to share this sacrament with those children. And almost always, you mumble something about sin and forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus is clearly accepted by God. And we hold to the truth that Jesus did not sin and therefore does not require forgiveness.

So why baptism? If Jesus is God – or even Godly, or God-like – why should he be baptized?

The Christmas stories are told so that we might know that God came here. The virgin birth, the worship of the wise men, the fulfillment of prophecy – they all tell us that Jesus is God for us. In a very personal and immediate way, God demonstrates that God is not removed from us and not isolated from us. God came down at Christmas. God is here.

The Baptism of Jesus is here to tell us that the baby born in Bethlehem who grew up as the carpenter’s son and went on to become a Rabbi is really a human being. We learn at Christmas that God is here. We learn today that Jesus is one of us.

That’s kind of hard to get your head around, isn’t it? How can one being be 100% one thing and 100% another thing? Jesus is God. Jesus is human.

Some of the folks who were leading the early Christian Movement shared a belief that has come to be called “Docetism”. The people who taught this were convinced that Jesus was fully God – and because he was so fully God, he could not really be human. The Greek word  dokéo means “to seem”, and those who held this belief swore up and down that there was no way that Jesus could have been human. It only looked like a real body. Jesus was not a man, he was God wearing a man-suit. As God, Jesus was entirely Spirit, and timeless, and existed only as an aura. So Jesus could not have really been born. And he could not truly suffer. And surely, God cannot die. So Jesus, as much as he looked like the real deal, was not really a human.

The baptismal story of Mark, though, is the Gospel’s way of telling us that whatever else he may have been, Jesus was one of us. In presenting us with a messiah who goes through the process of baptism, the Gospel tells us that in Jesus, God himself entered fully into the human condition. Jesus, the Son of God, bore the effects and marks of sin.

“But wait!” you say. “Jesus didn’t sin!”

No, he didn’t. But he took on all the freight of sin and bore its consequences. Even though he didn’t do it, he paid for it.

You know what that looks like. Think of the woman who has never had a drop of alcohol in her life. She is a real tee-totaler. Driving home from work, she gets plowed into by a fellow who’s three sheets to the wind and she, who never drank, winds up in a rehab facility for three months, learning how to walk again. She, who abstained, bears the effects of alcoholism.

Or you, who are, presumably, either a man or a woman. And let’s say that you’ve never in your life had an impure thought about the opposite sex. You have always thought of people with grace and kindness and goodness in your heart. But still, when you are with others, you must be aware of the fact that not everyone is like that. The sins of gender conflict, sexism, and sexual violence affect everyone in some way or another.

Jesus’ willingness to go to John for baptism is an indicator that he was fully aware of the effects of sin in the world and that he was entirely prepared to live with those effects – even when he himself was not a sinner.

Those effects included having to put up with the denseness of his friends and followers and the limitations of their ability to process his message.

His motives and purposes were questioned at every turn. Almost everything he said or did was misread or misinterpreted by people who thought that they had power.

Jesus bore the weight of sin when he was forced to watch people that he loved, people that he cared about, people that he created – go through great pain, suffering, and death.

Even though he himself did not sin, Jesus was forced to undergo violent treatment and torture and endure the distortion of his own, sinless, flesh. And, of course Jesus died. He really died. He didn’t seem to die, pretend to die, or look like he died. He died.

Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was really a human being. He was really baptized. He really died. He was really resurrected from the dead.

And because Jesus, the son of Mary, the Son of God, was fully human, that means that I can be fully human, too.

There is no part of my life that I need to hide from God. There is nothing about me that makes God scratch God’s head (or whatever it is that God does when and if God wonders) and think, “Hmmm. Well, that little bit of humanity is just too much for me. I’ll never figure those little rascals out.” Because Jesus is human, Jesus “gets” me. Thanks be to God, Jesus knows who I am, what I’m about, where I’m stained, how I’m bent, and what kinds of pathetic behavior I’ve thought about or done…and he loves me anyway.

Is Jesus God? Yes, yes he is, in the sense that he is an eternal, creative, loving presence that participates in all that is, and has been, and will be. That is indeed Good News.

The Gospel reading for today gives us even better news: that Jesus is human. In the person of Jesus, I am presented with a model, a hope, a reality that declares that my earthly existence matters. By entering fully into humanity, God has declared that this life matters, too.

When I was in High School, I was in the marching band. During the football games, we would go out onto the field and move around in shapes and patterns while we played. The one thing that we all had to learn to do was “Mark time”. If you were in the marching band, your feet were supposed to be moving – even if you weren’t going anywhere. So I played a lot of trombone while I was pretending to march.

Listen: we are not just marking time in this life. We are not sent to this earth to simply wait for heaven, where we get in on the “real” action. Jesus is human.

Your body is good. The creation is good. What we do with these bodies and in this world – it matters.

Because God in Christ honored the body by having one of his own, I am compelled to love myself, and others, and the world the way that I would love Jesus were he here beside me. Because God in Christ has honored the body by having one, we can dwell with the encouragement that is offered by Psalm 29. The same Psalm that describes the amazing strength and power of God concludes with this blessing:

May the Lord give strength to his people!

May the Lord bless his people with peace! (Psalm 29:11, NRSV)

In Jesus Christ, that’s exactly what God has done. The power that shakes mountains and breaks cedars and flashes fire and strips the forest bare and thunders over the waters is with us…and on us…and in us…and for us.

I want to live as if I believe that that is true. For me, for you, and for those that I continue to think of as “them.”

Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, has come to enter fully into our reality. Thanks be to God for the promises that brings. Now, may we have the strength and the courage to enter fully the reality into which we are sent. Amen.

Desire

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on June 29 with readings from Exodus 16:1-15 and Psalm 37:1-6.

There are, as many of you know, a number of reasons to love my friend David. He is a wonderful human being. I was struck by Dave’s thoughtful and reflective nature earlier this week, when a large group of people had gathered to watch a World Cup Soccer game. The cameras focused in on Cristiano Ronaldo who is the most highly-paid, and by most accounts, the best soccer player in the world.

David looked at the screen and said something like, “Look, I don’t care what kind a person you are or how you are wired, you have to admit that man is an attractive person. It doesn’t have to do with being gay, but he is just gorgeous.”

What a risky thing to say in a room full of people! Because almost always, when a man says, “that person is beautiful”, the presumption is that is a statement of desire, and if there is desire, the presumption is that the speaker would love to move towards a physical relationship.

As David (who gave me permission to share this story) pointed out, that’s not what he was saying. He was naming the truth: Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, OIH has been blessed with an astounding set of chromosomes. Thanks be to God.

That conversation with Dave got me to thinking about the business of desire. Desire is defined as “a strong sense of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” You could say that Clint Hurdle desires a pennant for Pittsburgh, or that the 1956 Thunderbird was Larry’s heart’s desire.

Desire is key in our lives. As a grown-up person in America, I am astounded at how many times I am involved in conversations where the biggest question is, “What do you want?” Sometimes that’s because I’m down at Hanlon’s and the server is inquiring about my menu choice, but I have asked that question of a couple in a struggling marriage, a woman seeking to overcome decades of addiction, or a child throwing a temper tantrum. “What do you want? What do you wish would happen?”

Billy Graham Preaching, Bible RaisedWhen I was a teenager, my mother was a big, big Billy Graham fan. She somehow obtained a written copy of a sermon he preached in 1972 entitled “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” and compelled me to read it. I’m not sure what Billy Graham was actually saying, but this is what I took from that message: desire is a simple matter. You can want what God wants you to want, or you can go the other way. I spent most of my teen years desiring all the “wrong” stuff, and was therefore convinced that I was headed the way of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Just about everything I wanted was pretty darn worldly, and I knew I would burn eternally because of that. It was pretty black and white to me.

For 400 years, the people of Israel languished in slavery. Generation after generation of Jewish children grew up and grew old and died as captives in Egypt. I don’t suppose that old Pharaoh was much for protest marches, but if they had them, I would imagine that the chant could have gone like this: “What do you want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do you want it?” “NOW!” These folks wanted to get out of Egypt. They wanted to live as God’s people. That’s pretty black and white, I think.

DesertSooooo, six weeks after they get that for which they’ve been longing for 400 years, how’s that march coming? “What do you want? “The Fleshpots of Egypt!” “When do you want them?” “NOW!”

Seriously? Six weeks? Six weeks of wandering in the desert, and they begin to long for the bread and the stew that they “enjoyed” while living in slavery?

This story gets told twice in the Old Testament. In the Exodus reading we’ve just shared, God’s response to their complaining is to send them bread and meat. There’s manna to be found every morning, and in the evening, the quail come blowing in and pile up in heaps. “You want meat? No problem, I’ll give you meat,” says the God of Exodus.

The common quail is a simple and easily domesticated bird. Although it can fly, it prefers to walk and scavenge along the ground, and will usually only take to the air as a means of avoiding a predator. Even quail that migrate, such as those mentioned in Exodus, are such weak fliers that if they have to go very far (like across a desert or an ocean), they will wait for a strong wind that’s going in that direction to help blow them along.

The Common Quail

The Common Quail

The first time I saw a quail, I marveled. I admired its plumage, I wondered at its ability to camouflage itself in its surroundings, and I chuckled at the way that it ran amidst the desert grasses. In following Jesus’ command, I considered the quail.

The Israelites of Exodus, though, had no such time for appreciation or consideration. They were hungry, they told God they wanted meat, and the evening breeze brought them a vast ocean of quail – not to wonder at, not to consider, but to eat.

The first time we read about these birds, in Exodus, the implication is that God is lavishly providing for his people. They long for the meat of their slavery, and he gives them the meat of freedom in abundance!

In the book of Numbers, however, the story is told from a slightly different perspective, and for many, the quail become a “last supper”. We’re told that God promises that they’ll eat the meat that they so desire – and in fact, that they will eat it until it “comes out of their nostrils”. Many die after gorging themselves on this quail that has literally been a “windfall”. Traditionally, we’ve understood this to be the biblical way of saying that God is punishing his people for having the wrong desires, as if God is saying, “Look, you miss the meat of your slavery? Fine. Here. BOOM! That’ll fix your wagons.”

OK, I’m pretty sure God never threatened to fix anyone’s wagon, but sometimes, in my head, God sounds a lot like my mom. My point is that we have often read the bit about the quail and the people dying as God’s way of getting even with us for wanting the wrong thing.

And if that’s not confusing enough, a couple of hundred pages later we get to the scripture from the Psalms, which promises that “God will give you the desires of your heart.”

DelightNow, put yourself in the place of a young Dave Carver, who is pretty sure that there are “good desires” and there are “bad desires”, and if you choose poorly, well, that’s an eternal bummer for you… And then the minister comes in and says, “Remember what it says in the Good Book: ‘God will give you the desires of your heart…’”

My response was “Noooooo! That would kill me!”

How often have you thought, “Thank God I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back there!” How often have you been willing to choose the thing that would kill you if you let it?

Think about that: what if you ate everything that you wanted to eat? What if you watched or surfed every show or site that attracted you? What if you actually said everything you ever wanted to say?

Do you see? It might be alcohol, it might be driving like a maniac, it might be doing mean things to your spouse with a stick – but there are times when we really, really desire and crave and want things that will just crush us. We long for things that will cause us and those around us great damage…and we want them anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just Israelites who long to be Pharaoh’s slaves.

So how are we to understand the promise that God will give us “the desires of our hearts”?

Let’s remember the whole passage. It starts with some commands: “Trust in the Lord!”. “Live right!”. “Live where God sends you.” “Do what the Lord wants you to do.”

Too often, we wake up in a world where we are taught to believe that our desires and our wants are the most important thing – or at least the first thing. We think about what we want, and then plan our day after satisfying that on our own terms.

But the scriptural approach seems to be the opposite: we wake up and we decide that we’ll let God order the universe and our lives. We’ll seek to be attuned to the things that God has or will do, and then, when we’re in that kind of rhythm, God will give us the desires of our hearts.

Listen: the world is filled with people who are as beautiful as Cristiano Ronaldo or George Clooney or Taylor Swift or Scarlett Johannsen. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing! Can we praise God for beautiful creatures?

And the world is filled with delicious foods, and tasty beverages and shiny objects and gorgeous art. Again, wonderful! It is right and good to notice, to admire, and to appreciate beauty where you encounter it without presuming to manipulate that beauty or to allow your noticing of that beauty to lead you to an unhealthy wish to own, control, or use that beauty in a way that diminishes the creatureliness of either you or the other.

What do you want? And how will you get it?

Here’s a young mother who is stressed by the demands of her full-time at-home job and her part-time gig at the grocery store. The boss was yelling before she left work, the kids are crying now, she’s got a headache to beat the band, and she passes by the liquor cabinet. She wants a drink so bad that she can already taste it. Why?

Because she’s so tired of hurting and feeling inadequate and incomplete. What do you want, mom? I want to feel like I can do it. I want to know I matter. I want to experience life without thinking that someone is squeezing it out of me.

Those are huge wants, and deep desires. You know that a couple of shots of Tequila aren’t going to satisfy them, right?

Here’s a man who finds himself sitting at a meeting next to a stunning woman. She is beautiful, and his thoughts begin to drift towards all the ways that he might use or enjoy that beauty. He imagines a conversation – and more – that is based on how badly he “wants” her. Why?

Because he’s stressed. He’s a man, after all. He has needs.

And he does. He needs to know that he is not unlovable. He wants someone to tell him that he is not old or fat or ugly, and if someone that attractive would want to be with him, well, then he would, in fact, be attractive, beautiful, or worthwhile himself.

And when he stops to think about what he really needs, as opposed to what his first impulse is, he might realize that that’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman to whom he’s never even spoken before.

What would happen if either of these people would look to God and ask God to help them understand who they are as his children? What would happen if you or I were to look to the Creator, not a creature, to offer self-worth and validation?

In her excellent book that inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue points out that in the Bible, quails are signs of both God’s extravagant provision and the fact that our desiring and wanting need to be transformed and renewed.[1]

Today, in our celebration of and remembrance of baptism, we acknowledge the truth that we don’t always know what we want. Too often, we look in the wrong places, or we use a beautiful creature in the wrong way. As we baptize these infants, we name the truth that God’s grace is here, and that it has been since well before you or I knew to ask for it. As we baptize them, we indicate to them, and we remind ourselves, that there is a new way of living – there is a way to trust that God will give us what we need.

Beloved, the God who created and called and claimed you knows who you are, and he knows what you need. Bring God the things that you want. Ask God about what you want. And ask God to help you to identify the need that is behind that want. God in his grace is already there, helping you to transform the desire and appreciate the beauty that is present. Move toward and into that grace. Relax in that grace. Grow in that grace.   Name and celebrate all the beautiful things you see in your world, and ask God to give you the ones that you need. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013).