Weaponizing the Gospel

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 10, 2019, we met yet another new group of men who had banded together in an attempt to entrap Jesus – the Sadducees.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:17-29.  Our epistle reading was, much to the discomfort of the adolescent boys in attendance, Romans 2:17-29 (the text of which mentions the word “circumcision” at least half a dozen times!). 

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

 

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this or not, but about five years ago CNN and other news outlets covered the story of a bus driver in Dayton, OH, who was shot twice in the chest at close range. As it happened, Rickey Waggoner survived because he was carrying a Bible in his breast pocket, and the Bible absorbed the bullets.

That reminds me of the gentleman who was strolling down a Manhattan street and noticed a bullet laying on the ground.  He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and continued on his way.  A block or two later, he passed by a home that seemed to be the scene of a horrific argument – there was yelling and screaming and as he stopped to take it in, he felt a burning sensation in his chest and lost consciousness.  A few moments later he awoke, and realized that he was essentially unharmed.  He pieced together what had happened: in the midst of the fracas inside, someone had thrown a Bible with such force that it shattered the living room window and came right for him.  His body suffered the full impact.  Fingering his chest, he found the bullet he’d picked up earlier and discovered that it was now grossly misshapen.  “Wow,” he said to himself.  “If it hadn’t have been for this bullet, the Word of God might have entered my heart…”

I’d like to invite you to think for a few moments this morning on the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book… what it’s for, and how we use it and are shaped by it.  We’ll be guided by our old friend, Mark, as well as Paul’s words to his friends in Rome.

The Pharisees and Sadducees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894).

For several weeks we’ve been looking at some of the incidents that took place in the last week of Jesus’ life.  On the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into town and was greeted by the crowds.  On Monday, there was a confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes as he cleansed the Temple, and on Tuesday we’ve overheard those same folks challenge Jesus on the nature of his authority.  Last week we considered the conflict he had, also on Tuesday, with the Pharisees and Herodians as to the payment of the poll tax.  Today we learn of yet another group who sent someone forward to challenge Jesus: the Sadducees.

Well, who are these people?  The author of Mark tells us that they are a group who does not believe in the resurrection. And you might think that’s the source of their name: they have no hope for eternal life, and that is why they are so sad, you see…  While that may be true, we also know that this was a group of very conservative men within the Jewish culture.  In fact, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, the Sadducees did not accept the writings of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or literature like the Psalms or Proverbs, to be the word of God.  As far as the Sadducees were concerned, the only Bible was the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And even though they didn’t get along with either the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the Essenes, the Sadducees were similarly committed to stopping Jesus. So when the other groups fail in their attempts to silence the new teacher, these men give it a try.  They, too, come in an attempt to discredit Jesus, and they attack him using theology and Biblical interpretation as a cover.

Jesus calls them on it even faster than he challenged the other parties. Twice in the span of four short verses, he says, “You are wrong.”  In fact, he concludes by saying, “you are badly mistaken.”  The reason that they are wrong, according to the Savior, is that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.

The accusation that they didn’t know scripture must have stuck in their craw a little bit.  Like Jesus, the Sadducees were critical of the Pharisees and their willingness to contort Scripture.

The Pharisees had gotten to the point where they had taken the Bible and boiled it down to a rule book.  Then they looked at those rules and added layers of meaning and interpretation so as to make sure that they could be the ones to announce exactly who was pleasing to God and who wasn’t.

If you’re a football fan, you know that the NFL has done this in some very frustrating ways.  When I grew up, if you threw me a pass, I either caught it or I didn’t.  Now, according to NFL rule 8, section 1, article 3,

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”
    BUT

“If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds”

And that’s why the games are four hours long…

The Pharisees did the same thing to the Scripture. Do you remember the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy…”  Well, the Pharisees added 39 laws to the fourth commandment so as to ensure that one could, in fact, keep the Sabbath perfectly and, just as important, know who was NOT keeping Sabbath.

Now, while the Sadducees and Jesus both rejected this kind of scriptural tomfoolery by the Pharisees, they did so for different reasons.

The Sadducees said, “God has given us a word, and that word is in the Law of Moses. As long as we know that, keep that, and use only the specific written and sometimes even archaic language of those five books, we are in good shape.  We can master that word and know exactly what to do in any situation.”

Jesus said, “Listen, you cannot divorce the word of God from the power and movement of God.  Scripture is a living, breathing attempt to convey the meaning that is at the heart of God, and is never to be used as a personal proof text to build up what you like and tear down what annoys you.  What was intended to be a vehicle to give humans a glimpse into the beauty of the Divine intent ought never to be used as an implement of death or disfigurement.

The recent film Boy Erased tells the story of a young man who is sent to Conversion Therapy after having been outed as gay to his fundamentalist parents.  There is one particularly horrific scene where one young man is surrounded by his peers who are then instructed to literally beat the sin out of him with their bibles.

The Apostle Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, said that those who claim to be somehow better than others because of some external attribute, or practice, or custom, and hide behind scripture while doing it are in fact guiltier than those that they attack.

In some ways, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were guilty of what might be called “bibliolatry” – taking the words in the Bible more seriously than we take the One who gave us the Bible in the first place.  Bibliolatry is what happens when we worry more about making sure that the person sitting across the table from me has the exact same understanding of the Bible as I do than about whether I am living into the heart and meaning of the One to whom the Bible points.

You’ve seen this.  In our own day, how common is it to approach a dilemma, a question, or an issue and then think, “Hmmm… what do I think about this thing?” and then go to the Bible for statements that appear to back up whatever I want to be true?

In discussions on issues ranging from human sexuality to child rearing to immigration to the environment, we find it easy to pick and choose the verses that remind us about how right we are.

And when we do this, we fall into the trap of separating the Word of God from the Power or Presence of God.  When we weaponize the Gospel – when we take words, phrases, chapters, and verses and throw them at each other, hit our neighbors over the head, or wave them at other in a menacing fashion, then we repeat the errors of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And you say, “But Dave, we read the Bible all the time.  We acknowledge the scriptures.  In fact, in order to be elected as an officer around here we have to say that we ‘accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word’ to us. Just how are we supposed to read the Bible, to rely on the Bible, to use the Bible, but not to be guilty of weaponizing it or of worshiping it?”

A number of us spent some time recently immersed in a book entitled A New Kind Of Christianity,[1]in which author Brian McLaren makes a compelling case that we might rightly view the writings of the Bible as a God-given community library.  Instead of presenting a single narrative or undisputed set of facts, his readers are encouraged to view the sacred texts as a record of actions, conversations, and interpretations that are vital, informative, authoritative, and yet not divorced from our own experience.

This idea is pursued further in Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?[2], wherein he encourages readers of scripture notto ask “Why did God say such and such?” Instead, Bell argues, some of the prime questions we bring to the scriptures ought to be, “Why did people write this down?  Why did they tell it to their children?”  To that I would add my own interpretation, which is namely, “How is it that God has allowed this story to be preserved for us in this way?  What is there to be gained from reading it in our own day?”

Mark told his first readers, and they recorded it for us, that Jesus said “God is the God of the living.”  If that is the case then it is incumbent on us, the living, to engage with the scripture as we have received it.  We must seek to uncover, recover, or discover the Divine intent to the end that every part of our lives and every aspect of our behavior puts us closer to the place where we can honor God.  We do not read it in order to satisfy some sort of self-approving checklist; and we dare not read it in order to cast judgment on our neighbor, or with the intention of bringing shame on another.

I think that what is happening in this story is that Jesus is inviting the Sadducees, his disciples, and us to the difficult task of attending to each other and participating in the life of the world around us that recognizes our rightful places as those who have been created in the image of God.  We are called to live in such a way as to point to a reality beyond where we are now: a reality in which love, life, grace, hope, and indeed resurrection are normative.

I know, I know – it’s tempting to take it easy and fall back on the bumper stickers, the memes, the ball caps, and the slogans… but the reality is that none of those things are sufficient as we seek to identify as Christians who have been given an appreciation for the living, powerful Word of God.

May God protect us from using the Bible to harm others, or to devalue ourselves, or to diminish life.  May God instead grant us courage of conviction, freedom of trust, and a willingness to engage each other, the Scripture, and our neighbor in a quest to live authentically under the reign and rule of the living God.  Amen.

[1]A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith(HarperOne, 2010).

[2]What is the Bible? (HarperOne, 2017)

Tradition!

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On May 27, we considered an encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with some of the leading religious scholars of their day.  On the surface, it was a discussion about some ceremonial cleaning laws – but my sense is that the real conflict is about something deeper. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:1-23

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

I remember the first time I ever paid a dry-cleaning bill.  I was student at Hanby Jr. High School and the time, and my introduction to the world of professional cleaning services came as a result of an incident that occurred at lunch the previous week. I had liberally doused a school-issued “tater tot” with ketchup and thrown it across the cafeteria, where it made an astonishingly vivid imprint on the brand-new purple dress being worn by my classmate Tricia.

Food fights. We’ve all seen them.  Some of us have started them.  When we got down to the Principal’s office following a cafeteria altercation, all of us probably had the same conversation:
“Why did you do that, young man?  What possessed you to throw processed potato product at the girls’ table?”
[Shrug].  “I dunno.”

Of course, most of the time, we doknow what starts food fights. They are almost always a diversion – an attempt to draw someone’s attention from one thing to another thing.
– I can’t say that I have a crush on that person, so I’ll launch an attack of candy corn and veggie sticks.
– I’m not ready for the test that’s coming up next period, so I’ll try to get sent to the office instead.
– Something scary is about to occur, so I’ll create an alternative scenario that will attract more adults into the room and prevent that other thing from happening…

Mark takes only 16 chapters to tell the entire story of Jesus’ ministry, and yet he devotes at least half a chapter to describing a first-century food fight.  Out of all the stories he could have told about Jesus, why does he tell this one?

Sadducees and Pharisees, James Tissot, c. 1890

It would appear as though the story we’ve heard this morning is here to help readers in the first century – as well as the rest of us – to consider the ways that Jesus understood the core responsibilities of those who would walk with God.

We’re told of a confrontation between the disciples of Jesus and a group of Pharisees and Scribes. In this corner, we have the men and women to whom Jesus has dedicated the best and last years of his earthly life as he sought to equip and train them to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom and the Gospel message.  In the other corner, there are the big guns – the theological heavyweights of the day, including at least a few who have been sent up to Galilee by the religious headquarters in Jerusalem.

The apparent conflict is over a small detail of tradition: why don’t Jesus’ followers wash their hands the way that we’ve always been taught to wash our hands?

I should point out here that nobody, including the boys from Jerusalem, is implying that the disciples are eating with dirty hands.  No, the bone of contention is that the followers of Jesus had not participated in the ceremonial cleansing that had become the practice of the day. It’s not a concern about hygiene – rather, it’s a complaint about orthodoxy, authority, and tradition.

The real question is, “Jesus, why don’t you teach your followers to act like us?  Why don’t you tell them to live the way that we live?” The Pharisees and the Scribes are relying on their position of privilege, looking at the followers of Jesus as though they are some sort of backwater hicks – deplorables, if you will.  They are dismissive of the disciples and of Jesus, and they couch their derision and criticism in an appeal to tradition and to the Bible.

Pharisees, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1912)

Jesus, as you’ve heard, responds by pointing out that one can do all sorts of horrible things (like neglecting one’s parents, for instance) while claiming to be doing other, wonderful things (like paying for a new roof for the temple while getting a nice fat tax write-off at the same time, for instance).

In the conversation that ensues, Jesus apparently dismisses large sections of the Hebrew Bible (such as the dietary regulations) while pointing to the reality that a key aspect and indeed responsibility of living in the Kingdom is seeking to grow more deeply in our concern for and attentiveness to the things that are of ultimate importance.

The early Christian community heard the story of this food fight and assumed that it meant that none of the Old Testament laws concerning keeping a kosher kitchen had any relevance in the new understanding of faith.  We know that this is what they thought because the author of Mark, speaking for the community, says so right there in verse 19: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And for centuries, those who would follow Jesus have found this to be a very serviceable, helpful interpretation.  It flows nicely from the text; it makes sense; and I get to eat all the bacon I want. Talk about your win-win situations!

But is that allthat this text means?  I would propose that such a reading is incomplete, and in fact suggest that in the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus engages the Pharisees, the Scribes, the disciples, the first Christians, and us in a discussion on the role and authority of scripture in our lives.

Hands holding Bible on a wooden desk background.

Think about it: is the purpose of the Bible to control what you do? That is, is the primary concern that lies behind the giving of God’s word that of making sure that you don’t eat shrimp, always tell the truth, and don’t forget to give your money to God?

Or is the Bible more concerned with seeking to engage us as to what kind of people we should be?  That is, helping us to realize the call to be generous, respectful, and loving?

For a number of weeks, a small group of us have been meeting in a Faithbuilders group to consider some thinking by a church leader named Brian McLaren, who in his book A New Kind of Christianitypoints out that those who saw themselves as Jesus’ opponents on that day were treating the Bible and the traditions of God’s people as a constitution of sorts.  That is, a collection of sayings and laws that are given to us to help us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is permissible and what is not.  In this view – which is at least as prevalent today as it was 2000 years ago, the Bible is an unchanging document designed to establish who’s in and who’s out.  Oh, and spoiler alert: we’re on top.  We’re God’s favorites.

Jesus brings to the discussion the notion that the purpose of Scripture is rather to point toward the heart of God even while revealing the strengths and weaknesses of those whom God has used to help craft, record, and preserve the scriptures. He goes on to accuse the religious leaders of his (and, I’d submit, subsequent) day of hiding behind a particular Bible verse or two in order to defend their own positions, preserve their own power, or get their own way.  Isn’t it convenient when I am free to interpret the Bible in such a way as to indicate that God is actually commanding me to do something that I was already planning to do anyway?

What if the purpose of the Bible is not to provide us with a seamless set of codes of conduct for every situation, or a litmus test for religious or theological purity, or recipes for how to be happy and wealthy because we always do exactly what God tells us to do?

Rather, what if scripture is a record of a people who engage (or are engaged by) the presence of the Divine in such a way as to stimulate their own faith, to enhance their abilities to walk with Jesus more faithfully, and to respond to the world around them as if God cared for, created, and was in fact active in that world?

To put it a different way, what if the Bible is not so much a rulebook listing for you and me every eventuality that we are to face in life and offering us instructions as to exactly what to do or think in that situation, but is instead more like a diary or a blog written by people who had caught glimpses of God at work in their lives or in the world and offering us clues as to how we might be better equipped to be God’s people in the world right now?

I’d like you to try something.  I’m going to be quiet for 15 seconds.  In that time, I’d like for you to think of an instance where your mind or awareness has substantively changed on a particular issue in the last 10 or 15 years.  I’m not looking for reflections like, “You know, I always thought that beets were disgusting, but then I tried that recipe I saw on The Chewand WOW!  Delicious!”

I’m talking about something real and important in some way.  Maybe your thinking about homosexuality and the faith, or issues about race, or thoughts about the environment or our economy.

In the next 15 seconds, ask yourselves, “Where has my mind changed?”

When you think of something, then ask, “What role, if any, has scripture played in that shift?

Here’s what I think: if we see the Bible or the interpretation of that Bible that we’ve received as being more like a rule book or a constitution, then any change from that is a mistake.  If the Bible is an unchanging code of conduct that tells us what is up and what is down, what is black and what is white, and what is right and what is wrong… then if our understanding of those rules has changed, we are questioning the very basics of the faith.  In a system where the Word is the Word, where God said it and I believe it and that settles it – then if my thinking on, say, divorce and remarriage has changed, well, I must be getting soft on scripture and its authority in my life.  I know this because I can think of half a dozen places where my own thinking has changed, and I could name scores of people who would be happy to tell you that I am devaluing the unchanging and inerrant word of God and departing from the truth in some way.

But if we see the Bible as a living, breathing document with which I am called to interact so that I might grow in my ability to really walk with Jesus, then perhaps at least some changes could be understood to be fruit – and therefore, not something to be feared, but rather something to be explored or cultivated.

The call for this day is for us to look for ways in which we can engage with, or be engaged by scripture, each other, and the world as a means to grow deeper in our appreciation for and investment in the things that matter to God.  I think that means that we will have to reject the temptation to treat specific Bible verses or ancient teachings of the community as creative or convenient means by which we can sidestep or avoid the intentions of God.

It’s easy to get sidetracked and not even know it.  For instance, I experience an inner pang of revulsion and distaste when I hear someone referring to immigrants or refugees as animals, or using terms that make those people less than human.  Such conversation does not resonate with any of my experience, my understanding of scripture, or even my political leanings.

However, when that language is used, and someone else refers to the speaker by saying, “Oh, for crying out loud! Thatguy? What a pig!”… am I equally offended?  That is to say, am I as troubled by the dehumanization of the one with whom I disagree as I am by the dehumanization of the one for whom I have some affinity? If not, then I think I have some growing to do.

The fellas from the head office came up to Galilee that day and told Jesus that they were going to keep an eye on him – that they wanted to see how he and his disciples were “walking” and “living.”  He gave them an earful – but so far as I can tell, he didn’t do anything to discourage them from sticking around.  My hope and my prayer is that you and I might be smart enough to stick close to Jesus, to learn to walk as he walked so that we might live as he lived.  I know that means that I’ve got some growing to do, and I suspect that the same is true for you as well.  Thanks be to God for the gift of this community that enables us to engage in this practice together.  Amen.

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.

(In)Significance

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  Our series began with this message, and the texts included I Samuel 16:1-13 and I Corinthians 1:26-31.

OK, so you’re sitting around with someone you love, and you’ve got nothing better to do, so you decide to pop on down to the Redbox and get a movie. There have been all kinds of new releases lately, and it’ll be a great way to spend some time together.

Until you find yourself standing in front of the machine, looking at row after row of titles, saying, “Nope… nope… nope… Um – wait, who’s in that one? Oh, right. Nope… nope…” It’s horrible, isn’t it? How hard can it be to pick a film?

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Believe it or not, that’s the image I have as the old prophet Samuel meets with Jesse’s family. God has told him that there’s a new king to be anointed, so here is Samuel, watching each of the boys pass before him, shaking his head over and over again, “nope… Uh-uh… Nope…”

For much of this year, we’re going to be looking at the life and times of the one who is eventually chosen by God, the man we’ve come to know as King David. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time for us to consider issues of power, leadership, integrity, perspective, and God’s working in history.

First, an introduction. Most of content at which we’ll be looking in the months to come is found in the Old Testament books of Samuel. Although your Bible might refer to these as among the “historical” books, it’s important to note that they are not “history” in the way that most of us understand that word. What I mean by that is that this is not an ordered account whereby we are given a strict chronology of events, complete with footnotes and cross-references. What we have before us is more of a series of family remembrances – stories that are told from a particular perspective that aim to remind us of certain core truths again and again.

In the books of Samuel, we see a significant transition in the life of Israel. What we heard about in Judges and Ruth was a loose confederation of insignificant tribes that really had no cohesion as a functioning nation, but in the span of a few short pages, we see the emergence of a centralized nation-state that is moving into some prominence on the world stage. There are three key figures in this narrative. Samuel is the last “Judge” of Israel, and he is called by God to establish a monarchy. Samuel has incredible religious fervor and great depth of character, but he is not really a great leader and has absolutely no patience when it comes to working with other people. He is led to anoint Saul as king. Saul is an amazingly motivational leader who really knows how to work the room – whichever room he happens to be in. He has a commanding presence. Unfortunately, however, Saul is also spiritually bankrupt and mentally unstable.

Samuel and Saul are really the set-up men for the main event, however: David, the one who no less an authority than the Apostle Paul described as “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22). David is the instrument by which God transforms this motley group of clans and warlords into a functioning nation, and today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to this remarkable person.

Our reading opens with a reminder of Saul’s inability to be king and the declaration that it’s time for something new. When God sends Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king, he is understandably frightened. After all, Saul still thinks that he is the king; if he discovers that Samuel is out there looking for a new king, well, there’s going to be trouble. After all, the job isn’t really vacant.

The Lord gives Samuel a cover story about going to make a sacrifice (which reminds me of the time that God told Moses to take the people out of Egypt: “Tell Pharaoh that you need to take a long weekend to offer a sacrifice…” That seems to be one of God’s ways of announcing regime change…). So Samuel goes into Judah and is met by a quaking group of elders from the town of Bethlehem, who are troubled by the presence of the old Judge in their town. If Samuel is there because Saul sent him, then they are afraid that Saul’s about to inflict some new round of taxation or plunder. If Samuel is there to incite rebellion against Saul, however, the elders will be held responsible and punished accordingly.

Samuel manages to quiet everyone down by saying it’s time for worship, and then he asks to have Jesse’s family invited. Well, again, this is awkward. I mean, if you’re going to have a sacrifice and worship as God’s people, why invite Jesse? His grandmother, Ruth, was from Moab. According to Deuteronomy (23:3), Moabite families – down to the tenth generation – are excluded from the assembly of God’s people. And yet, here (at God’s urging), Samuel is insisting that the worship service can’t go on until Jesse and his boys show up.

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

That leads us to the parade of sons with which we began this message: Jesse marches his oldest boy in and Samuel is immediately struck by the notion that this is one amazing young man. But the Lord says, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Son after son comes in until there are seven fellows standing in the “rejected” line and no others visible. Now it’s Samuel’s turn to be perplexed, and he says as much to God as to Jesse, “Wait – isn’t there anyone else?”

“Oh, well, there’s the youngest, but he’s out with the sheep.”

Samuel and our narrator heighten the drama by bringing things to a grinding halt until this nameless afterthought could be found and brought to worship. Eventually, the young man is brought in and, even though Samuel was warned against judging anyone from the outside, he is quick to notice that this boy is special in all kinds of ways. What matters most, however, is the fact that the Lord grabbed hold of Samuel and said, “Now! This is the one!”

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

God reaches into an insignificant family in a forgotten corner of a developing nation and says, “Yes! This is the one who has a heart like me. This is the one with which I will shape the history of my people!” David is chosen, not for any quality of which he or anyone else is aware, but because God has decided to take something of apparent insignificance and use it for eternal purposes.

While young David may be striking in his appearance, what is important for us to remember this morning is that at this point, he is one of the marginal people. You’ve seen a thousand faces like his this week, as you’ve read or seen stories of Native Americans protesting a pipeline, or Syrian refugees struggling to find safety, or anonymous first responders showing up on doorsteps where who knows what is inside, or kids from this neighborhood waiting for the bus to come and take them to school. The point is that David has no credentials, no social standing, and no reason to attract the attention of the local military recruiter or scholarship officer, let alone the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, that attention is given, even to David – even to the one who was marginalized.

Illustration may not be to scale...

Illustration may not be to scale…

In the late 1970’s, Douglas Adams produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a remarkable work of science fiction and imagination. In it, we are introduced to a device called “the Total Perspective Vortex”, which is allegedly the most horrific means of torture a sentient being can endure. Adams writes, “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.’” The idea behind this torture is that the victim is forced to realize just how insignificant, how worthless, how small he or she is, and such knowledge is totally debilitating. When you see yourself in comparison to everyone and everything that ever was, is, or shall be, the logical response is “Who am I?”, and a logical consequence is having your entire sense of self obliterated. Interestingly enough, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have experienced something like this, called the “Overview Effect”. When we realize just how small we are in comparison to everything else there is, well, it redefines us…

So this anointing of David, the great-grandson of a foreign-born refugee, the lastborn son of a sheepherder from a little town fourteen miles from nowhere, the marginalized and uncredentialed and unschooled and unworthy one – this anointing could have been the moment when David realized that he was nothing and nobody; it could have, and perhaps should have, blown his mind.

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea...

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea…

But it didn’t. It didn’t because David chose not to compare himself to everyone and everything else. Instead of seeing himself in contrast to all that surrounded him, David saw himself encompassed by God’s care and God’s call. Instead of seeing himself alone in a world filled with people who were more competent, more powerful, wiser, smarter, or more important than he was, David chose to see himself as wrapped in the intentions and heart of God.

The anointing takes place in silence, and at the end of the day, David is still everyone’s little brother, given the grunt work to do by the family and village that do not understand what’s happened. Saul is still the king. Samuel is on his way to Ramah. The key change is unseen: the Spirit has come upon David in a new and powerful way. The anointing has received no press coverage, and its secrecy will last for years. Yet history has been changed, and the Spirit is at work. The old order, whether Saul knows it or not, has ended. The next big thing is under way as God’s Spirit works on and in and through the young boy who has been called to change the world.

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

In 1809, if you asked anyone in Europe, Western Asia, or Northern Africa, what was going on, all you’d hear about was the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor of France was gobbling up territories and people in London and Rome and Moscow and Tunis and Madrid went to bed wondering what the world was coming to. The war was horrible, and in fact spilled over into North America in the form of the War of 1812.

And while Napoleon was getting all of the media attention in 1809, other things were happening. Babies were being born, for instance. A family in Coupvray, France, welcomed a young son named Louis. In Boston, two young actors named their son Edgar. A family in Shrewsbury England welcomed young Charles, and deep in the woods of Kentucky an impoverished family named their second child Abraham. Nobody cared about these children in 1809. Everyone cared about battles.

And yet today, nobody but a few historians know who fought in the Fifth War of the Coalition in 1809, or which side prevailed in the epic Walcherin Expedition. But ask people about the ways that the work of Louis Braille opens up the world for them, Edgar Allan Poe shapes imagination, or Charles Darwin engages sense of wonder at the natural world, or the impact that Abraham Lincoln has had on this nation and the world, and you’ll see that some of the seemingly insignificant events of 1809 wound up as being far more important than anything that was in the headlines.

I don’t know what the headlines of your life are right now. I don’t know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, as compared with all the other people and places and things in God’s great creation. You may well go to bed tonight thinking that you are, by many measures, insignificant. You may walk home today with a heavy heart as you know that you are surrounded by some sort of a battle that makes the Battle of Aspern-Essling look like children fighting in the sandbox. And you may be right, if that’s the way that you choose to measure those kinds of things. But if you and I can let go of that system of self-evaluation and instead think about the fact that the same Spirit that was at work in David is available to us, then we can grasp the truth of which Paul spoke in his letter to the Corinthians. We are where we are, we are who we are, by the grace of God. If we bring ourselves to God in humility and with joy, it may seem insignificant, but I’m telling you that such discipleship is wrapped in significance.

Samuel had no idea what he was doing as he followed the Spirit into Bethlehem that day. I am here to tell you that the smallest acts of obedience and faithfulness and generosity can bear amazing fruit in the hands of God. Today, this week, this year, as the headline-grabbing battles rage throughout your own life – ask God for the gift of being able to see yourself in God’s heart, that you might care for the things about which God cares, in the hopes that you will be the agent of God’s presence and provision to those who need them. Your story, our story, His story, is still being written. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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

Why Are People Good?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 14, we read the beginning of that work (Job 1:1-11) and wondered about what it means to be good, do good, and work for good.  

 

StarWarsA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

You know that story, right – at least some of it? So let me ask you: is it true? All that stuff about the rebels and the Empire and Luke and Leia and Yoda… Is it true?

Well, I guess that depends on what we mean by “true”, right? Am I asking, “Did it really happen?” Or am I asking, “Does it ever happen?”

Think about the message and content of the Star Wars saga:

  • Humans exist in a world in which good and evil are at war, and often it appears as though evil holds the upper hand.
  • There is a Force, and it is with you.
  • The old masters have a way of life and faith to which young followers are called
  • There is life beyond that which we can see

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes there is more to “truth” than simple history. I’m pretty sure that George Lucas made up the story about Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. But I’m equally certain that it’s true.

Which brings me to the scriptural text for this morning, the opening verses of the book of Job. In spite of the fact that it’s closer to the middle of the Old Testament, most scholars believe that this is the oldest book in the Bible. It is among the most ancient pieces of writing on the planet, in fact. We know this because of the style of the Hebrew in which the book is written. You know that all languages change and develop. If old William Shakespeare were writing in 2016 instead of 1592, he would not have Juliet say, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Instead, the troubled lover would say something like “O, Romeo! Why do you have to be called Romeo?” When you read Shakespeare, you know that you are reading something from an earlier age, right? It’s the same with Job. The language and expressions are all in a kind of writing we call “paleo-Hebrew”. This story of an amazingly good and upright man who is beset by all kinds of problems is very, very old.

But did the events described in this story actually happen? I don’t have a clue.

Do these things happen? Every single day.

It’s hard to imagine a person alive who is not familiar with the questions raised by Job – questions that we’ll consider throughout this Lenten season.

  • Is God really in charge?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • What do I do when someone I love is in pain?
  • Is it OK to question God?

In fact, if there is anyone here who has NOT wrestled with these questions, please speak to me immediately following the service, because I have some questions for you!

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

For now, let’s dive in to this ancient text and say hello to Job.

The first thing we learn about Job is that he is, by all accounts, an incredible guy. “The greatest man among all the people in the East,” in fact. How do we know that? What is the criteria for “greatness”?

For starters, Job is loaded. I mean, he is clearly the Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his age. Did you hear about all those camels and sheep and all the other stuff he’s got?

Moreover, he’s got ten children. Seven boys and three girls represent the Hebrew numbers of completeness. “Everybody knows” that children are a blessing from the Lord, and look at Job’s family! It’s perfect.

In addition to these tangible signs of wealth and blessedness, take a look at how Job conducts himself as a father. Right after the narrator tells us that Job is the greatest guy around, we learn that this Mr. Wonderful spends his time praying for his children. Dads, take note of this as you ascribe to greatness: pray for your children!

Job is such a great person, in fact, that he is the topic of conversation at the staff meeting between God and the angels in heaven. God points him out, and says, “Wow! What a wonderful human being! That Job is one of the best!”

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

And Satan hears God say this –

– Wait a second? Why is Satan at the board meeting in heaven? Great question. We’ll get to that one in two weeks.

– So Satan interrupts God and asks the first difficult question in the book of Job: Why is Job good? Satan does not argue with God as to whether or not Job is actually good, but rather he wants to know why this great man is so good.

Have you ever wondered that? Most of us, especially those of us who were raised in the church and who grew up believing in “the American Dream” have been taught that being “good” is important. But why?

What’s the purpose of being a good person? Why does Job – or any one of us – aspire to goodness? What’s in it for us?

Satan says to God, “Of course Job is good. You reward him for being good. Job is as good as he is because he knows that you will like him better because of it. And not only is he a little brown-noser who is just trying to impress you, you make it worse because you’ve built a wall around him. Don’t go trotting out Job’s goodness, God, as if it is something special, because it’s obvious to anyone that you’ve put him in a little box where nothing bad can happen to him.”

Well, that’s an interesting charge, Satan. Let’s take a look. Has God put a wall around Job?

The fact of the matter is, yes. Yes God has done that.

To be fair though, that’s what God does. Listen to this reading from the first (but not oldest) book in our Bible: Genesis 1:6-9 reads,

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.

There’s a word that shows up there a couple of times: “firmament”. In other translations it’s “dome” or “vault”. Here, in a description of who God is and what God does when God first starts out being God in our experience, we see that God spends God’s time bringing order out of chaos. It’s in other places throughout the Bible as well: Psalm 104:9 talks about the fact that God has set boundaries or borders for the chaos that is the sea; Isaiah 5:1-7 describes a hedge or protective border that God established around his people.

So, Satan, are you saying that God is a wall-building, hedge-planting, boundary-establishing God? That God intends protection and order and justice? You are right. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

And who is Job? Let’s look at Genesis again:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Job, like Adam and Eve, like you and me, is created in the divine image. That is to say, Job is created to be like God. As are you. As am I.

And if taking care of things, ensuring justice, shielding the vulnerable, and bringing order out of chaos is what God does, then perhaps those of us who are made to be like God are called to do them as well.

I am here to suggest that, contrary to Satan’s claim, Job does not do good in order to get God to like him any better. There is a wall around Job because it is in God’s nature to build walls around that which he loves. Nothing that Job does is going to get that wall to be any taller or thicker. And Job is good because that’s how he was made. In God’s image. We are designed for goodness; moreover, later on in the book when we hear more about Job’s goodness, one of the things that is mentioned is that he builds walls of protection around those who are poor, suffering, or vulnerable.

But wait – if God is so good, and if Job is so good, then why do really bad things happen to Job?

– Great question. We’ll get to that one in three weeks.

For today, let us hold to this truth – in some important way, Satan is correct. He says, “Does Job honor God for nothing? You’ve built a wall around him!” He’s right. Job does not fear God for no reason.

Job fears and honors God, not because he is afraid of what God will do to him if he messes up, but because of who God is and because of what God has done in the world. In other words, Job is good, not to try to get God to like him better, but because Job appreciates who God is. Job is thankful for the world God has made. Job’s goodness is a response to God’s goodness, not an attempt to appease God or to prevent God from being less than good in the future.

The oldest book in the Bible begins with a list of blessings: Job has received money, children, respect.

What are your blessings this day? In what ways has chaos been held at bay in your life? Where is the wall that is around you? Where has that wall been strong? How have you known God’s goodness and God’s protection in your life?

Can you think of ways in which God’s light has shone on your path?

Now – think very, very carefully about the answer to this next question: what did you do to deserve that blessing, that wall, that order, that protection, that light, this life? These are all gifts, and you have received them in different ways and at different times.

I would suggest that Lent is a time for us to think less about what I do or do not do to somehow deserve the love of God and more about how I choose to respond to the blessings and kindnesses and generosity that I have received.

Are there important questions ahead of us? You bet there are. But today, let us begin our Lenten walk in gratitude for what is and what has been; in thanksgiving for who God is and who God has made us to be; and in hope for the days that are to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

It’s Downright Scary…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On October 18 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:27-30, while also reading Paul’s words to his friends in I Thessalonians 4:1-8.  

 

There were two things that happened on Monday of this week that would have caused my sixteen-year-old self great alarm.

PlayboyBunnyFirst, Playboy announced that it will no longer publish photos of naked women. What? Is the Pope not Catholic? Will Mobil get out of the oil business? No nudies at Playboy? How can this be?

I speak with 100% certainty that I am not the only man in this room for whom Playboy and its companion publications fueled a fascination, if not a preoccupation, with certain aspects of the female anatomy – a fascination which, I am sure, left some scars and welts on my psyche… Which leads me to the second thing that arrested me on Monday:

monty_python_godI discovered that if I was going to be faithful to my commitment to walk through the Sermon on the Mount this year, I had to stand in front of a room full of people and talk about Matthew 5:27-30. Now, let’s be honest – there are a lot of things in the bible that are not necessarily favorites of 16 year-old-boys, but this is the passage that did the most to scare the bejabbers out of me in the 1970’s.

This passage scared me because it made me think that Jesus wasn’t only down on the occasional pornographic magazine that I was able to acquire, but that it was (from my perspective) a lot worse than that. Just as he did with murder and anger in verses 21 – 26, Jesus seems to be upping the ante here – quite a bit. And my sixteen year old self would stare at that copy of Playboy I’d stashed away, consider all the beauty with which I was surrounded, and then read this passage and think, “Well, looks like I’ll be spending eternity in a warm place, because I am just done. There is no hope for me.”

Let’s take a look.

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission.  More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://laurajamesart.com

 

The common prohibition was simple. “Thou shalt not commit adultery”. The seventh commandment. If it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for the Pharisees, they thought, and so the traditional interpretation went something like this: “As long as you don’t have sexual relations with a person to whom you’re not married, you’re pretty much in the clear.”

That’s a good rule of thumb, no doubt. It’s convenient, straight-line thinking: Your spouse: a good idea. Anyone else’s spouse: a bad idea. That’s a narrow definition, but it’s pretty clear. And, frankly, that’s a rule that an unmarried 16 year-old boy can live with. No spouse, no problem.

And then Jesus says, “Yeah, but that’s not exactly the point. It’s not deep enough. I’m not saying that Moses was wrong – I’m saying that there’s more to it than this simple, straight-line, yes/no answer stuff. Your sexuality is more intricate and involved than that.”

Oh, for crying out loud, Jesus, why do you have to make everything so difficult??? Come on, do you really mean that if I happen to notice that pretty girl over there, and then spend fifteen or twenty seconds contemplating that beauty, and if perchance I start to daydream a little bit, that I’m headed for hell? Wow. How do I avoid that, Jesus? I’m toast.

If we read the Sermon on the Mount in this way, one that presents Jesus as teaching an impossible ideal, then we have to say that Jesus’ intent was not to change us, but to shame us. I mean, who can refuse to see beauty? Who has not at some point or another looked at someone and felt a spark of attraction – as fleeting or as long as it might be – and then moved on with their day? If we presume that Jesus’ goal here was to tell us that anyone who ever entertained a lustful thought was no different than a serial adulterer, then what’s the point? Nobody can measure up.

Yet shame is, it seems to me, the antithesis of what Jesus was about. So what is he getting at in this teaching about the look, the heart, and the other?

First, let’s make sure that we are understanding the actual text correctly. The sense of the Greek that Matthew uses is actually this: “Anyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” While that is not a free pass to anyone, it does differentiate the casual noticing of the attractive person you bump into in the produce aisle from the full-blown leering that sidetracks you for moments or hours…

Jesus condemns a pattern of behavior that begins with the noticing of beauty or an attraction but then escalates into a fantasy wherein we imagine ourselves with this other person in all sorts of ways that are essentially divorced from the personhood of the other. The lust that Jesus condemns is a type of “relationship” wherein all I care about is what feels good to me, what gratifies me, or what would make me feel strong, desirable, powerful, young, attractive, or sexy. Lust, and the behavior that Jesus condemns in the Sermon, is all about me.

In this teaching, Jesus affirms the Old Testament intent to place sexual activity within a covenantal perspective. We are made in the image of God, and we are created for community, for lives that are integrated in terms of body, mind, and spirit, and we are shaped to live in covenant relationship with other people.

The problem with both lust and adultery is that they focus on the self, and on using another human being for the purposes of making the self feel better. So much of what we think of as sexual sin is rooted in the ways that we commodify other people and we treat those who are made in the image of God as things or tools that can give me fleeting pleasure. And so “making love” becomes “having sex” becomes “doing it.” This outlook reduces another child of God to serving as a functionary tool for my own self-pleasure or self-medication.

Jesus points to the truth that relationships – and particularly the marriage relationship – are intended to be a blessing not only to those who are directly involved (that is, the couple themselves), but to the greater community – any children the marriage might produce as well as neighbors and the more-vulnerable in our world. The traditional understanding of the marriage vow in both Jesus’ world and in ours is that two people are brought together to share intimately in order that we might become stronger, healthier people in order that we are better able to fulfill our baptismal vows and be of service to Christ and the world for which he died.   Adultery and lust certainly diminish our ability to live into those kinds of relationships – and so we need some ways to get past adultery and lust and towards God’s best for us.

And just as he did with anger and violence, Jesus offers here a way to transform the situation – a practice, or a set of practices, that will allow us to move past that which will diminish the power of God’s image in us and into a place from which we can more easily dwell in God’s will.

Here’s the practice: If you eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

Ooooooh, Jesus, that is harsh. Not to mention gross.

Is Jesus seriously advocating self-mutilation as a path to discipleship? At first glance, it would appear to be the case. And throughout history, several well-known spiritual leaders have followed that path. Perhaps the most notable was Origen, a man who was an influential theologian about two hundred years after Jesus. He was so concerned about being pure in the Lord’s eyes that he allegedly castrated himself so as to make it easier to follow Christ. Yet history, and the church, have repudiated this strategy. Dallas Willard was a Professor in the Philosophy department at USC, and he wrote

Of course being acceptable to God is so important that, if cutting bodily parts off could achieve it, one would be wise to cut them off… But so far from suggesting that any advantage before God could actually be gained in this way, Jesus’ teaching in this passage is exactly the opposite. The mutilated stump could still have a wicked heart. The deeper question always concerns who you are, not what you did, do, or can do. What would you do if you could? Eliminating bodily parts will not change that.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount invites us to consider this question: how can we grow into people who are shaped by a desire not to own, grab, possess, control another person, but rather the desire instead to be attentive to another child of God who is actually present with us in all of his or her beauty, woundedness, attraction and scars? How do we participate in life and relationships that are covenant-affirming and full of integrity?

It does make sense, thank you very much Jesus, to pay attention where we direct our eyes. We live in a sexually-charged culture. The reason that Playboy is not publishing nudity any more is because it’s irrelevant. Naked bodies are everywhere – and no longer shocking. Pornography is ever-present in our society, and it is affecting the ways that we think about relationships, sexuality, and each other. One way that we can train ourselves to be those who desire God’s best for our lives is to choose to disassociate from those images that push us towards seeing someone else as an object created for my personal use or gratification. Are you offended when Jesus says, “If you eye causes you to sin, cut it out”? What about when Pastor Dave says, “If your iPad causes you to sin, unplug it”?

We have to be careful, however, that we don’t become so narrow and restrictive in our definition of “sin” that we wind up as prisoners of fear. We train ourselves to be able to participate in relationships that are not characterized by manipulation, selfishness, or permissiveness. I have a colleague, for instance, who is so concerned about the impact of lust or sexual brokenness in this world that he categorically refuses to be alone with a woman (other than his wife) anywhere, any time. He won’t drive alone with another woman, he won’t meet her in a public place – he simply refuses to be with women. That model seems very faulty to me, as it appears to be rooted in the expectation that proximity to a potentially attractive person will lead to lust and that will lead to sin. Yes, he is not in a position to sin in that way; however, the result is the same: his world is characterized by alienation and a loss of community.

On the other hand, I have another friend for whom sexuality appears to be a purely physical exercise. There is nothing spiritual about his gymnastics with other people. He would say that it’s just an expression of his physical being, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with his spirit. In holding to this belief, I fear, he has diluted the Creator’s intent that we see ourselves and each other as essential unities of body, mind, and spirit.

Maturity in Christ is learning to engage for and with the other. Those who are formed as Christ’s disciples are people who neither hide from other people nor seek to manipulate them. Instead, the faithful follower of Jesus will be able to engage other people. Isn’t this what the Apostle Paul is getting to in Thessalonians? We are to avoid exploiting or misusing another person, and we seek instead to honor and serve them.

Is there beauty? Then give thanks to God for the existence of that beauty. And present yourself, as a servant of God, to all those who cross your path as one who is motivated by the opportunity to move more deeply into community, service, and love. In some ways, that’s a lot scarier to the 55 year-old me than Matthew 5 was to 16 year-old me. But it’s not scary because it’s a threat: it’s scary because it’s a huge and wonder-filled invitation, and I am wondering whether I am worthy to follow Jesus like that into a world that is not filled with narrow interpretations, but rather faithful, covenant-affirming, life-giving interactions with each person I meet.

The Pharisees wanted easy answers and straight-line thinking.

Jesus, however, seems intent on challenging them – and me – to negotiate nuance, to be aware of the power of both sin and hope, and to keep my eyes fixed firmly on him. In my experience, that can be messy sometimes – because I don’t always get it right. But I think it’s the invitation we’ve received in the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll be a better Christian if you hold me to that – like I’m trying to do for you.

[1] The Divine Conspiracy (Harper and Row, 1998, p. 167), italics original.