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.

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

We Have A Problem

The church in Crafton Heights began our Fall 2015 worship series with an introduction to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.  Our scriptures for the day included Luke 6:12-19 and Isaiah 30:8-11.  

 

Hungry?

Hungry?

Do you like Olive Garden? Lots and lots of people do. This chain boasts more than 800 restaurants, 96,000 employees, and nearly $4 billion in annual sales.[1] I bet that you have been there more than once. In corporate publications, the restaurant’s mission is clear: “Olive Garden remains committed to its purpose of Hospitaliano! – providing 100% guest delight through a genuine Italian dining experience.” And the leadership of the corporation has gone to great lengths to achieve that mission: they send their chefs on tours of Italy and have even begun a series of building improvements to ensure that the restaurants resemble an authentic Tuscan farmhouse.

pastaThere’s only one problem with all of this: the people who eat at Olive Garden don’t actually like genuine Italian food. For instance, when the menu introduced gnocchi, a pasta staple in Italy since the Roman Empire, American customers wouldn’t touch the stuff until it was rechristened “Italian Dumplings” and hidden in chicken soup. From what I understand, most Italians enjoy their pasta with a very firm, al dente texture. Olive Garden, on the other hand, finds that it sells much more pasta when it is cooked much longer and ends up very soft. Chefs from the restaurant headquarters took a tour of Northern Italy and fell in love with a torn pasta dish with olive oil, garlic, and herbs, but every time they tested their creation in the USA, it was deemed “not cravable”.[2] People don’t order pesto because it is too green and too oily.

People don’t go to Olive Garden because it’s authentic. In fact, the President of the corporation said in an interview with Wall Street Journal, “We don’t use the word ‘authentic’” to describe the dining experience. They prefer to say it is “Italian inspired.” One diner simply said, “It’s always the same every time and it always tastes good.”

Fair enough. But I wouldn’t take any Italian friends there for a little taste of home.

AmericanGraceI bring this up because a few years ago I read a book that really challenged the way that I see the church. In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a team of sociologists demonstrated that how more often than not, churches, synagogues, and mosques are shaped by the preconceived political and social views of those who attend, rather than the dictates of the scriptures on which those faiths are based. In other words, more and more people are attending worship, not to be strengthened, corrected, or advised, but rather to have their own opinions and ideologies confirmed or blessed by the religious establishment.

Earlier this week Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, KY, was jailed because she refused to issue marriage licenses. If you don’t know anything about this, well, congratulations. You’ll have to tell me how you avoided hearing about this. At any rate, Ms. Davis could not do fulfill the terms of her employment and distribute these licenses, she said, because her Christian faith prevented her from doing anything to acknowledge gay marriage. She has been criticized by some on the left who have said, “For a person who has been divorced three times and married four times, she appears to be rather selective in terms of which of Jesus’ teachings she feels obliged to take literally.” And I have wondered wondered how those who support her on this particular issue might feel if she were to deny people gun or hunting licenses if she were a Quaker and her religious beliefs made her a pacifist.

Time after time, the church has proven Isaiah right: we come in here saying that we want to hear a word from the Lord, but in actuality, we’d just as soon God kept his opinions to himself more of the time. “Don’t tell us what we need to hear…tell us what we want to hear.”

We have a problem – an Olive Garden problem. Don’t give us Italian food – give us food that we like. Don’t give us Jesus – give us something Jesus-ish.

Jesus Chooses the Twelve, by James Tissot

Jesus Chooses the Twelve, by James Tissot

The Gospel reading for this morning comes at a pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry. Luke has recorded the miraculous birth and wondrous childhood of Jesus. We have watched as he heard the call of God during his baptism and went through a time of discernment in the wilderness. After that, he developed as an itinerant Rabbi, teacher, and wonder-working healer. He has engaged crowds and invited people to join him, and he has had conflict with the religious establishment, but he is to this point essentially a lone voice calling people back to God.

In the passage we’ve just heard, Jesus spends the entire night in prayer and then comes down from the mountain with an apparently new game plan: he calls twelve of his followers to himself and charges them to become not only disciples (“followers”), but apostles (“those who are sent”). In doing so, he names his intent not only to come and work wonders himself, but to invest himself in a group of people so that they might not only follow him, but launch a movement and grow the church.

And look with me, please, at the first thing that Jesus does after his time in prayer leads him to name Simon, whom he called Peter, Andrew, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot as his apostles: Jesus marches these twelve men down from the top of the mountain and begins to teach them how to be like him.

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://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

We have here in Luke the beginning of what we traditionally call “The Sermon on the Mount.” This teaching of Jesus, especially as we find it in the gospel of Matthew, is often called the single greatest compendium of ethical instruction ever offered.

Thomas Jefferson, who was at best a marginal believer, said that the Sermon on the Mount is the “most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.”

For centuries, people have loved the Sermon on the Mount. We quote snippets of it from time to time to remember who we are and who we are supposed to be… “Judge not, that ye be not judged…”, or “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden”, or “turn the other cheek…” You know this stuff, right? We love the Sermon on the Mount.

Like many sermons, however, we just don’t pay attention to it. Contemporary theologian John Stott has put it this way: “The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known part of the teaching of Jesus, though arguably it is the least understood, and certainly it is the least obeyed.”[3]

It seems as though the church has an Olive Garden problem. That is to say, we really love the idea of Jesus. We like to sing to him and sing about him. We want to tell our children about him, and love to demonstrate to others how much Jesus likes us and we like him – check out our bumper stickers, our tattoos, our bookshelves, or our jewelry. Jesus is great!

It’s just that we are a little bit happier when Jesus stays in the manger, or own the bookshelf, or on that really beautiful painting we picked up down at Family Christian Bookstore.

We don’t want Jesus going through our browser history, do we? Are we excited about the idea of Jesus looking through the apps on our phones, or listening to the ways that we talk to or about our spouses? And who wants Jesus tagging along on those trips to the Mall or Amazon.com? We don’t need him pawing through our checkbooks or bank statements, do we?

Yet aren’t those that the kinds of thing that Jesus seems to insist on doing, especially in the Sermon on the Mount?

Here’s what I would like to do: I would like to commit a good part of the coming year to reading through the Sermon on the Mount slowly and deliberately during our worship time. Although I started this morning using the text from Luke, from here on out, we’ll go with the longer, more familiar, version as it is found in Matthew. I hope that I am courageous enough to allow the words of Jesus to intrude into my life as I do this. I hope that you are committed enough – to Jesus and to me – to keep me honest as we try to listen to Christ – the what he actually said, not to what we hoped he would say.

Last week, we talked about the fact that we are called to have a vital connection with Christ – I used the image that is often found in scripture that he is the head and we are the body. If that is true, then we are obliged to take this vast section of his teachings seriously.

In the weeks to come we will seek to listen to words that were first spoken by a first-century Palestinian Rabbi to a barely-literate assembly of fishermen, farmers, shop-keepers, tax collectors and shady characters, many of whom suffered from physical or mental illness. And as we listen to those words spoken by that man, we will ask God to allow us to hear them as people who are ourselves called by that man in the tradition of the apostles. May we come and hear not merely our own thoughts and opinions, but the gift of God’s word for this time, this place, and these people.

[1] http://www.olivegarden.com/about-us/news-and-media

[2] http://www.eater.com/2011/12/21/6628039/the-olive-garden-has-no-choice-but-to-overcook-pasta

[3] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP, 1973) p. 15.