The Sting of Death

or much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 12, we sat with him as he lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan singing “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1 (included below).   Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in II Corinthians 4:7-12

 

When we left off last week, Achish and his Philistine army were preparing to attack the Israelites and King Saul, while David and his men had been sent home to their place in Philistia, Ziklag. You might remember that David and his militia discover that the place had been ransacked and all of their relatives kidnapped, and David cried out for help from God. I Samuel ends with an account of David’s pursuit of the Amalekite raiders and the story of how families were reunited and David’s reputation was continuing to increase.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

The Battle of Gilboa from The Winchester Bible, 12th c. illustrated manuscript in Winchester, England.

There is, however, a dramatic development recorded at both the end of I Samuel and the beginning of II Samuel: we learn the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. A young man shows up in Ziklag carrying the crown and the royal bracelet: proof that King Saul of Israel is dead. This messenger is eager to demonstrate his loyalty to David, and even goes so far as to say that when he first encountered Saul, the king had been gravely wounded, but was still alive; at the king’s request, the young man ended Saul’s life.

When he first hears the news, David is overcome with grief and emotion. He weeps and fasts, as do the other members in his community.

The next day, he calls the messenger and asks for the story to be repeated. After the young man runs through it, David has him executed.

This is the same David who chose not to kill Saul when he had the chance, even though for years Saul had been trying to kill him… the same David who chose not to kill Nabal, even when Nabal had treated him with contempt. David has shown restraint… until someone dares to raise a hand to the Lord’s anointed. Now he orders the execution of this man who celebrates the death of the one who God had called.

And then, David sings. The song that he writes and performs is called “The Song of the Bow”, and it is a public statement of grief on the occasion of the deaths of Saul and his son, Jonathan. Not only does David compose and sing this tune, he also commands that the entire nation learn it. Listen to “The Song of the Bow” as found in II Samuel 1:17-27:

David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.

How the mighty have fallen!

“Tell it not in Gath,

proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,

"The Song of the Bow", Marc Chagall (1967).

“The Song of the Bow”, Marc Chagall (1967).

lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

“Mountains of Gilboa,

may you have neither dew nor rain,

may no showers fall on your terraced fields.

For there the shield of the mighty was despised,

the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.

“From the blood of the slain,

from the flesh of the mighty,

the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,

the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

Saul and Jonathan—

in life they were loved and admired,

and in death they were not parted.

They were swifter than eagles,

they were stronger than lions.

“Daughters of Israel,

weep for Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet and finery,

who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

you were very dear to me.

Your love for me was wonderful,

more wonderful than that of women.

“How the mighty have fallen!

The weapons of war have perished!”

This is a remarkable example of a public lamentation over the intrusiveness of death in our lives. This morning, I’d like us to take a long look at what David is doing in composing and teaching this song to the people of God.

He names what has been lost. Four times in those eleven verses he mentions Saul by name; three times he mentions Jonathan. David, whose very name means “beloved of God”, cries out at the loss of the one he names “beloved”. He laments not just the death of his friend and his surrogate father, but the loss of any number of possible futures. This is a tremendous outpouring of grief not just from an individual, but from and on behalf of a nation.

Have you ever known this kind of grief? I, who probably spend more time with dead and dying people than most of you, have been surprised by it several times. Most dramatically, I remember a trip I was pleased to take through the nation of Egypt. We saw a lot of old things – and, by implication, a lot of death. Tombs and pyramids and catacombs…all kinds of death.

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

Commonwealth War Graves in El Alamein, Egypt

But one day we visited the military museum and cemetery at El Alamein. This battle was the culmination of a series of conflicts that were fought across Northern Africa for the second half of 1942.  It was a decisive event for the Allies as it denied Hitler and Mussolini access to the Suez Canal. The thing that took my breath away was row upon row of headstones – each with a name and an age.  Boys who came from Auckland, New Zealand, or Pretoria, South Africa, or Cardiff in Wales or Calcutta, India, or Ontario, Canada…and died at 21 or 23 or 32 in the deserts of North Africa.  There were so many graves… J. V. Griffiths, J. W. McNeely, A. F. Martin, J. Alastair Seabrook, and too many “soldiers known but to God.”

I wept on that day. I wept for these young men, and their families, and the sweethearts or children they may have left… and I wept because we are still building war cemeteries. And here is the truth: I was embarrassed by my tears. In fact, I made the rest of my group wait out in the parking lot because I didn’t want to get in the vehicle while I was crying.

That’s what we do, we Americans. Especially we male Americans. We deny the reality of death. We hold it in. We hide it from ourselves and each other. We refuse to make our grief public, and we don’t know how to enter into someone else’s sadness. Even those of us who claim faith, who talk of eternity and the promise we’ve been given… we don’t know what to say and so we flee death.

death800x800There’s an ancient fable from Iraq that teaches us about the inevitability of death and our fear of it. It seems as though a certain man asked his most trusted servant to go to the market in Bagdad and buy only the finest of food and wine to share with his friends. The servant set out for this task, but returned home in a matter of moments, looking very alarmed and frightened.

“Master, just now in the market I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Please – let me take your horse so I can get away from here. I’ll go to hide at my cousin’s home in Samarra and Death won’t find me there.”

The master thought that was a fine plan, and so sent the servant off on his horse. Later, he went into Bagdad himself, and saw Death at the market. Angrily, he went over and said, “Why did you make such a threatening gesture to my servant?”

Death said, “I didn’t threaten him at all – I was merely surprised to see him here in Bagdad. After all, I have an appointment to meet him in Samarra tonight.”

Grieving Man - Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Grieving Man – Face in Hands, by Clive Barker (2000). Used by permission; more at http://www.clivebarker.info

Don’t we know how that servant felt? Aren’t so many of us unwilling to consider any kind of death, whether it’s our own or someone else’s or some other form of loss or decay?

We avoid pain at all costs, don’t we? There’s an ache, a strain, a sadness, a sting… and we want to take a pill, have a drink, get a shot – anything in order to numb ourselves and avoid the suffering of the moment.

So much of the time, we can’t even acknowledge the impact of the loss, the horror, or the grief that shows up in our lives. Think of all the times we are tempted to gloss over or make light of significant pain and real loss, simply because we don’t know what to say or how to acknowledge the intrusiveness of death or suffering.

A friend’s divorce is finalized… and we say, “OK, wow! Glad that’s over… now, tiger, it’s time to get back out there and make yourself happy!”

That young woman down the street suffers through the death of her child through miscarriage or infant death… and we say, “Hey, that’s too bad… but at least you’re young, and you’ll have another…I have two friends who’ve been given ‘rainbow’ babies…”

The soldier comes back from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he has seen and done the unspeakable (often in our name)… and we pat him on the back, give him a free meal at Applebee’s on Veteran’s Day, and fly really big flags at the Super Bowl…

Your mother, sister, husband, or son dies, and four days after the funeral, people look at you and say, “Hey, how’s it going, huh? Things coming back to normal, I bet?”

No. No, it’s not normal. None of these things is normal, and none of them are easily dismissed. Please, for the love of God, don’t pretend that this kind of loss or death is insignificant.

Here is the truth, beloved: our pretending that we’re going to live forever and that death can’t touch us and that there’s no loss that is deeply interruptive… well, that kind of charade is simply killing us.

isolationThe United States of America is by many measures the most highly developed, materially-blessed, economically advanced places in the world. And yet every year, 3.5% of American adults are diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 9% of Americans will suffer from that at some point in their lives.

In the rest of the world, those numbers are between .5% and 1%.[1]

How can this be? Why are we experiencing this kind of anxiety disorder at a rate that is seven to ten times higher than the rest of the world? Are we dying more? Do we face more trauma than do people in other countries?

That’s hard to imagine. By and large, I would suggest that we do not suffer the ways that many in the rest of the world do. So what’s happening?

Could it be that we are victims of our own propensity to deny the reality of pain and death? When grief finds its way into our lives, we shove it deep inside. We hide it. We make it our own – our private possession, deeply personal. We hang onto it, but we are unable to share it, and so it becomes in some ways like Gollum’s ring – it twists and contorts us, and us alone, driving us further from community, further from reality. The ultimate result is that 40 million Americans now meet the clinical criteria for addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and a staggering 80 million more are termed “risky substance abusers”.[2] More than 30% of adults in the United States suffer from some form of depression – the second-highest rate in the world.[3]

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

David Mourns for Saul, Guyart des Moulins (1357)

And in contrast to all of this come the words of II Samuel and II Corinthians. Each of our texts for today speak of the importance of naming the reality of the fragility of our lives, of claiming grief as a public reality, of identifying the intrusiveness of loss in our lives, and of trusting God to see us through even when our own vision is failing us.

I know that worshiping together and seeking to act in a way that emphasizes the community we share are not cures for depression or addiction or PTSD.

But I would suggest that learning how to lament – how to come together and name the grief that affects us all at one time or another – is one way of seeking to prevent those afflictions in our lives and communities. We speak to the frustrations and rejections and devastations that we have experienced, and together we neither gloss over the losses we’ve suffered nor allow them to become the things that define us. You are not “the kid whose father died” or “the lady that lost her son” or “the man whose wife left him,” but those things did happen and surely cost you something. They are there, but they are not all that is there. There is more to it than that.

We are, all of us, mortal. And we all, each of us, have an appointment with death (mortis).[4] We dare not deny the power or sting of death – but God forbid that we insist that’s all there is. The gesture of lamentation in community – of sharing grief and loss – helps us to see the bigger picture that God is writing through history, and how our own stories are wrapped up in the bigger drama of God’s working in the world. Each of our losses and all of our pain is in many ways ours alone, but it is ours to share in the presence and gift of community – a community that reminds us of hope and life and healing. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

[2] http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/policy-dose/2015/06/01/america-is-neglecting-its-addiction-problem

[3] http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/statistics-infographic

[4] Thanks to Eugene Peterson (Leap Over A Wall, HarperCollins 1997) for this bit of insight!

How Do You Know You’re In Love?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 10:12-19 and I John 4:7-12.  

 

A couple of months ago I set up the preaching schedule for the year decided to key in on the stories surrounding David, the shepherd who killed Goliath, became the greatest King of Israel, and fell hard for Bathsheba. It seemed wise to me to set aside a couple of breaks from that soap opera and all of its violence, intrigue, and general seaminess.

So we’ll get back to all of that after the first of the year, but for now, we’re going to consider some of the great Advent themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. These seem better suited to our preparation for Christmas than some of that other material; the words themselves conjure up muted pastel shades of nativity paintings, silent nights, and warm candlelight. That’s what we want right now. That’s what we need.

sweetbabooAnd when I knew I’d be away for the first Sunday of Advent, I thought, “When I come back, I’ll take ‘love’.” I mean, I’m coming in from a family vacation, we’ll have been spending time with a community’s wedding celebrations – heck, there’s no better theme for me this week than that of love.

To be honest, it’s not an uncommon topic for me – especially as I am in relationship with young people or others considering attachments of the heart. “Dave, how will I know when I’m in love?” is a question I’ve heard many times. Generally, the information being sought is essentially, “how do I know when I have found the right person?” The question is usually framed in the context of romantic love, accompanied by tenderness, affection, and an overwhelming feeling of bliss or joy.

There’s nothing wrong with romance, but Advent is a good time to remember that romantic love is only a small sliver of the full expression of love in which God’s people may walk.

Advent is a time for love.

In his letter to the earliest believers, the church leader named John says that love is the true mark of every Christian. The old apostle realizes that in many ways, “God” can be an idea, or a construct, or a theory. After all, he says, nobody can see God. Nobody’s met him. How do we know who or what God is?

Well, we can look at what God did. God showed himself by love. God showed the love in which he holds the creation and each of us by sending his son to be present with and for us. In the person of Jesus, says John, we came to understand who and what God is and the love that God bears for us. This kind of love is not a feeling or an emotion – it’s a verb. Love – and God – is a “doing” thing, not just a “thinking” or “feeling” thing.

In his letter, John is building on one of the most important pieces of the only Bible that the first Christians had: the Old Testament. Here, he echoes a passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Most of the earliest Christians would know that the book of Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon, or a collection of sermons, in which Moses speaks to the Israelites about what has come before and what lies ahead of them. He speaks to a community that has been living for generations in slavery and fear as captives in Egypt and yet has been granted the privilege of release and redemption as they journey to the land of the promise; they are increasingly free to follow God’s intentions for themselves and to demonstrate those intentions to others. And the reading that we’ve heard today is essentially a summary of the first 1/3 of Deuteronomy.

Moses pauses in his sermon and he says, “OK, folks, because of all that God has done in us and with us and for us, what is our response to be? What should we do?”

He talks, not surprisingly, about loving and serving God. He reminds his hearers that God moved toward them in love a long time before they were even aware of God. And he offers them a very tender and insightful description of the ways that God has behaved: in verse 15 he says, “Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them…” The words that are used there are fascinating to me. God “set his affection on” them – the Hebrew is chaw-shaq, and it can be translated as “to delight in”, or “to cling to” or even “to join”. And next, God “loved” them; the word is ‘aheb, and can mean “to have affection for”, or “to like”. It carries with it the idea of acting like a friend to the other. There are echoes of tenderness and vulnerability here.

What is happening in this verse, then, is that Moses is describing the love of God in the lives of the Israelites as One who moves toward the other in friendship, affection, and sincerity. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

Given that, says Moses; since this is true… then there are two imperatives for the rest of us.

The first command sounds a little odd in our ears. “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” When we read that, we think, “Well, first of all, that’s kind of gross, and second of all, it’s just impossible.” Physically speaking, that’s true. But let’s consider what the act of circumcision was about for those people. Generations before, in a covenant with Abraham, God had instructed the males of Israel to bear the physical sign of circumcision on their bodies as a reminder of the fact that they were a people who had been called out for service and to bless the rest of the world. This outward sign was, in many ways, a reminder of the fact that they were to be purified to and dedicated to God. It was intended to be an identity-forming act that gave shape and meaning to the lives of the people who were called to serve God.

The danger with any outward sign, of course, is that it can become separated from the inward reality that it’s supposed to signify. Think of the person who steps forward for baptism because he wants to keep his parents happy, but has no real intent to live as a Christ-follower; or maybe the person who puts on a wedding ring to symbolize eternal love and faithfulness but who pockets that ring when traveling out of town on business… We know that it’s possible for the sign to become just a show – a hollow act that does not really reflect the inward reality of one’s heart.

Moses warned against that, and said “don’t let the circumcision be only an outward symbol. Quit insisting on your own way all the time, and don’t be so stubborn. Live into that reality by acting like God does.”

OK, great. So how does God act? He “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing…” To make it crystal clear, Moses goes on to give the second imperative: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

In this context, it’s plain to see that loving the stranger is not a plea to cultivate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but rather a command to turn our hearts, minds, attention, and even our wallets in the direction of those who we perceive to be “other”. Alien. Stranger.

In short, Moses says that because God is God, and because God chose to act in love towards us, the only correct response is to return that love to God and to pass it on to the strangers and neighbors around us.

Which means, I think, that the test of our Christmas spirit is not how many gifts we give or receive; it’s not how elaborate our displays are or how many nativity sets we put out for our friends to see in our home.

The test of Christmas is this: are we engaged in actively displaying the incarnate presence of God on earth right now by living with circumcised hearts and walking in love for the stranger? Are those around us surrounded by love? Do they know that they are “in love” – by which I mean to say, do they sense that there is a palpable reality of care and concern surrounding them? And do they know that it comes through us?

img_5751Look. This is Lucia. She is my granddaughter. I may have mentioned her once or twice or a thousand times. She is the light of my world these days. She melts my heart. News flash: I love her.

aleppoAnd this is Aleppo. It is a place to which I’ve never been, but I understand that it is remote and dangerous right now, surrounded by death and filled with people who would give anything to be anywhere else at this very moment.

pittsburgh-skyline-through-the-trees-on-the-west-end-overlookAnd this is Pittsburgh, the geography in which I am most often to be found, the place where I live and move and shop and vote and play and worship.

If God is expecting me to feel the same way about people in Aleppo or Pittsburgh as I feel about my grand-daughter, well, then, God’s looking for the impossible. I can’t see how that is going to happen. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what God expects or demands.

I believe that the message of Advent is that while I feel crazy in love towards this three year old from Ohio, God is crazy in love towards not only this beautiful child but her dad and her grandfather. And not only that, but towards the people of Pittsburgh and Aleppo. And while I can’t possibly feel all of the feels for all of those people, I am called to show these people, to the best of my ability, the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

maryandjesusAnd I should point out, as obvious as it may be, that while my world may appear to revolve around a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired child living in a stable home in a free country, that’s not how Jesus chose to show up when he came to bring us the fullness of the embodied love of God. Jesus of Nazareth was an impoverished member of a religious and ethnic minority in a culture that was controlled by a militaristic empire. He began his life as a refugee, seeking shelter in a foreign land; an unwanted stranger who most likely could not even speak the language. Which means if my love is enacted only, or even preferentially, towards blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned people, it will more than likely miss the Son of God.

You know the truth: it is definitely God’s will for me to love my little girl. Yet I am a man with an uncircumcised heart and a stubborn will if I only love my granddaughter. My job and your job is simply – and excruciatingly difficultly – this: to show the love of God in Christ to the people whom God loves.

Even the ones who do things I don’t understand.

Even the ones whose practices I find abhorrent.

Even the ones who treat me poorly.

Even the ones who do not accept the love in which I am sent.

The challenge of Advent is NOT to “get ready for Christmas” by sending the right cards and making sure I’ve bought all the right gifts. The challenge of Advent is to make sure that the people who see me have every opportunity to know that they are, right now, in the love of God.

Dorothy Day was a journalist who lived an pretty dissolute lifestyle until she became convinced of the love of God in her own life. She converted to the Christian faith and launched a movement of non-violence and social justice. She wrote,

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child’s life. For they brought gold, the king’s emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe, and he was wounded from head to foot and no one bathed his wounds. The women at the foot of the Cross did it too, making up for the crowd who stood by and sneered.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. [1]

This week, let us go forward and seek to immerse the people to whom God sends us in the love that has been present from the beginning of time. Let us show them the truth of the God we worship by the way that we treat them. And may God have mercy on us and patience with us as we do so. Amen.

[1] On Pilgrimage, Dorothy Day and Peter Day (A & C Black, 1999), p. 35.

Which Story Will You Choose?

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.  On November 13, 2016 we considered the place of gratitude and thanksgiving as appropriate responses to a climate of fear.  Our texts included I Samuel 23:1-12 (contained within the text of this message) as well as  I Samuel 22:6-23 as well as II Corinthians 9:6-11.  

 

In case you missed it, there was an election in the United States earlier this week. It was in all of the papers and some of the television networks even mentioned it.

I don’t know if you were glued to the returns or lost on Netflix on Tuesday evening, but I was fascinated by one thing. There were rows of desks full of people who were talking about what was happening, and then someone like George Stephanopoulos or Lester Holt would turn to a colleague and say, “Tell us about what’s happening in Wautaga County, North Carolina, Bill…”, or “Let’s take a quick look at Macomb County, Michigan.” And the analyst would throw a map of wautagathis obscure (to me, at any rate) county on the board and we’d be bombarded with information about how many left-handed, college-educated, men in that area played lawn tennis and changed their own oil. Well, maybe not exactly, but we’d hear demographics about these counties and we were told that these were “bellwether communities”. That is, these regions were supposed to be able to help the entire nation contextualize a larger question, or help us see how this particular group of “real Americans” address one of the issues of our day. The whole map seemed too daunting, but a glimpse into one of these towns helped us to process what was or wasn’t happening.

This morning, we’ll leave the election behind but I will invite you to visit another bellwether community. Let’s take a look at the citadel of Keilah, a small fortress in the lowlands of Judah. This community was on the fringes of the nation of Israel, at the base of the mountains that led upward to Jerusalem.

005-david-saul-caveDavid and his men – about six hundred of them – are pretty well-occupied with fleeing King Saul. The murderous and troubled monarch has just finished wiping out all the priests (and indeed the entire town) in Nob, and he is hot for David’s blood. David and his army, along with the one surviving priest, Abiathar, are holed up in the wilderness. All of a sudden, they get a distress call. Listen for the Word of the Lord in I Samuel:

When David was told, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors”

This is bad news. These are Israelites – children of God – who are being attacked by the Philistines, or “sea people”. This is a particularly vicious attack because they are targeting the threshing floors. That means the Philistines are not only bringing violence to the city, they are stealing the food that the community will need from now until the next harvest. This is already a problem, and if help doesn’t come soon, it’ll be a disaster.

David’s response is interesting. Remember, he has a priest with him now, and so he makes use of that resource:

… he inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?”

The Lord answered him, “Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.”

In previous stories about David, we’ve heard of his faith in God and his trust in God to protect him; now we overhear this conversation which reveals David to be a man who is totally at ease with God and reliant on God for direction. And it’s pretty plain to David – God says, “go!”

But David’s men are not so sure:

But David’s men said to him, “Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!”

They’re incredulous. “You’ve gotta be kidding us, Boss! Saul’s already trying to kill us – and now you want to antagonize the Philistines, too?”

David returns to the Lord and is reassured:

Once again David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him, “Go down to Keilah, for I am going to give the Philistines into your hand.”  So David and his men went to Keilah, fought the Philistines and carried off their livestock. He inflicted heavy losses on the Philistines and saved the people of Keilah. (Now Abiathar son of Ahimelek had brought the ephod down with him when he fled to David at Keilah.)

This is good news on several fronts, isn’t it? David, even while he is running for his life from an irrational King Saul, does what real kings ought to do. He seeks the Lord; he puts himself on the line in service of those who are weak or vulnerable; and he defeats the enemy.

But that’s not to say that everything is honky-dory. Even though the Philistines are, at least for the moment, taken care of, Saul is still breathing murderous threats against David.

Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah, and he said, “God has delivered him into my hands, for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars.” And Saul called up all his forces for battle, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men.

David and his men had been on the run in the wide-open desert. When they responded to the cry of the Keilahites, that placed them in a much more vulnerable, contained position. They are essentially sitting ducks in a small town that is surrounded by walls and gates. Once more, David turns to the Lord:

When David learned that Saul was plotting against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod.” David said, “Lord, God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me. Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? Lord, God of Israel, tell your servant.”

And the Lord said, “He will.”

Yes, this is not necessarily good news for our hero. However, it gets worse in a hurry:

Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?”

And the Lord said, “They will.”

Even though David and his men had just come and saved their bacon (although I suppose that being Jewish, there wasn’t much actual bacon to be found), the Lord tells David that the inhabitants of Keilah will hand him over to Saul in a heartbeat.

Doesn’t that just take the frosting right off your flakes? Let that sink in a bit… David is minding his own business, trying to protect himself and his men in the desert. The town council sends out the Bat-signal and, at great risk to themselves, David and the boys show up in the nick of time and rescue the children, save the women, and preserve the harvest. The town is saved – yay!

And how does Keilah repay David? By throwing him under the bus…or the chariot…or the camel…or whatever. They’re preparing to turn him over to King Saul.

Fortunately, David is warned of this plan by God, and he gets out of town as quickly as he can and goes to hide in the wilderness near the town of Ziph. He’s not even unpacked there when the Council of that town sends a message to Saul that David and his men are there, ripe for the picking.

Seriously? Who does that? Obviously, people who are afraid. Saul, so far as anyone knows, is still the King. Saul runs the army. He’s the Commander in Chief. Saul could really hurt us – we don’t want to mess with Saul. I mean, don’t get me wrong – we really appreciate what David and the fellas did for us, but… let’s be real. We’ve got to think practically here.

The inhabitants of Keilah and Ziph probably feel at least some level of discomfort about what they’re doing to David, but the reality is that their fear of Saul was stronger than their gratitude to David. They had the opportunity here to choose their own story and to write themselves in their own narrative. What if they had said, “Yo, Saul… don’t bother. David is our guy. David saved us”?

We’ll never know, of course, because in this instance fear won the day. Fear and insecurity are powerful forces in our world.

So let me ask you: Is Keilah a bellwether? Is that little community an accurate predictor of what is or should be? Do you think that fear is stronger than gratitude?

And don’t tell me you don’t know anything about this kind of fear. This has been a long week for everyone in the USA. Some of us were paralyzed prior to Tuesday night, and others afterwards. Change is on the horizon, and it appears to be a significant change. You can feel the anxiety in the air in lots of places. Tension is everywhere. Families are arguing, friendships are being challenged, allegiances are being tested, and everywhere we go, uncertainty seems to raise its head.

And in the midst of that, you got a letter from the church saying that it’s time for us to think about our giving for 2017.

How in the world are we supposed to think clearly about that right now? The markets are all volatile and economies are unsteady. Is now the time we want to talk about money in the church?

Well, now is the time I’d like to talk with you about what kind of people you would like to be; or, to put it another way: now is the time for you to decide who you’re going to be – which story you will choose to write as you enter the next chapter of your life.

Keilah and Ziph had a choice: will we live into our fears, or will we respond to the anxiety in our lives with gratitude and hope?

As we turn the page toward Advent and Christmas and even 2017, which story will you choose? Will we allow fear and uncertainty to reign in us, or will we act like people who trust in the Lord of all creation, the maker of all that is, seen and unseen?

Things were pretty rocky when Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth and challenged them to be people of generosity in a time of famine. When the region around them was faced with uncertainty and lack of resources, he reminded them that kindness and encouragement and generosity are the things for which we are created. He invited them to live into a narrative that brought out those things in their character.

What’s going to happen?

I don’t know what happened to Keilah – the Bible doesn’t really say anything else about after David saved it and they thanked him by throwing him out. But David turned out all right, didn’t he?

I know that the Corinthians heeded Paul’s advice and the church of Jesus Christ went from being a loose affiliation of a couple of dozen scattered faith communities to being the visible expression of Christ around the world.

What’s going to happen in our homes? In our neighborhood and world in the year to come?

I don’t know the answer to any of that. I sure can’t control most of it.

But this is what I do know: on Tuesday evening I’ll be getting on a plane and flying to South America, where I’ll be preaching at the wedding of a young woman who was here for a year and changed for a lifetime because people in this community invested in her. While I’m in South America, I’ll be taking my granddaughter to visit a community of indigenous people in Chile so that she can learn something about appreciating a culture that is really different than the one in which she’s being raised.

On Christmas, I’ll be taking a group of amazing and courageous young adults to one of the hardest, most difficult places on the planet because they want to go there. They have sensed God’s call on their lives to grow in service and hope and love.

And sometime in between these trips, Sharon and I will fill out our “estimate of giving” card. I’m telling you now that in this time of uncertainty and fear, I’ll be doing my level best to write a larger number in there than I did last year.

In the year to come, I hope to learn how to be more generous with my time and resources and love. I want to give blood. To love my neighbors – the ones who are like me and the ones who are unlike me; the ones with whom I agree and the ones with whom I disagree. To look for birds. To pray for my country. To work to protect the environment. To treasure life – every life – all life.

In short, in 2017 I want to choose to be closer to God’s purposes of generosity and gratitude than I am now, and I’m going to use this little card as a tool to help me get there. I’m going to choose to enter into the story that has main characters named “Gratitude” and “Generosity”, and I will try to reject the ones named “Fear” and “Selfishness.”

I trust that I will not be alone. Thanks be to God, we are never alone. Amen.

When The Fog Clears

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.  On November 6, 2016 we encountered the horrific day when Israel’s King slaughtered Israel’s priests, and we wondered how in the world we got to that place.  Our texts included I Samuel 22:6-23 as well as Colossians 1:15-20.

On December 31, 1988, Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles traveled to Soldier Field in Chicago to take on Mike Ditka’s Bears in a divisional playoff game. The first half was sunny and clear, but then the fog rolled in from Lake Michigan and visibility was reduced to a matter of feet. Bears linebacker Mike Singletary said, “When I think about the last plague when Moses told the people the Death Angel was going to come in, it was like that.” Terry Bradshaw, who was in the booth for CBS that day, said it was the most frustrating game of which he had ever been a part. The crowd could not see the game and in fact the players could not even see across the field. Referee Jim Tunney ended up announcing the down and distance for each play on his wireless microphone.

The Bears try to keep track of the Eagles during “the Fog Bowl.”

Some of the Eagles argued that the game should have been suspended because of the difficulty seeing the ball, but the NFL had no rules about fog-related play, and the so-called “Fog Bowl” was played to completion even though most of the people participating in it were severely limited in their ability to play the game.

You know what that’s like. That’s what fog does to us, isn’t it? Whether it’s on the playing field or on the highway, fog brings uncertainty and unpredictability. In fact, we use that word as a metaphor to describe what it’s like when a person is not in a position to think clearly or fully appreciate their the current reality. When we’re not sure exactly what someone means, we say things like “well, her judgment is clouded” or “ever since his wife died he’s been in a real fog.”

Saul Commands Doeg to Slay the Priests, James Tissot (1836-1902).

Saul Commands Doeg to Slay the Priests, James Tissot (1836-1902).

This is clearly the case in ancient Israel. For several months now, we’ve been walking through the stories that relate to David, the shepherd boy who slew Goliath and grew up to become the greatest king that Israel ever knew. We’ve walked with David through both triumphant and difficult situations, and you’ve just heard the horrific account of the day that King Saul slaughtered 85 priests in the town of Nob because one of them had helped David and his men. In fact, Saul was so irate that after he finished with the priests, he ordered the extermination of every inhabitant of the entire town – men, women, and children – as well as all of the animals. Saul, and all of Israel, really, was lost in a fog that day. He could not see what mattered; he did not appreciate what was true… It was simply horrible.

How did we get to this place?

Well, years previously, the people of Israel had no king. They asked God to give them a King, and God said, “I’d prefer not to.” They asked the prophet Samuel to give them a king, and Samuel said, “That’s really not such a good idea. You don’t want a king.”

But Israel replied, “The heck we don’t! Give us a king!”

And Saul was chosen as the king, primarily because he’s the tall, good-looking kid that everyone knows has some really great future…

And, to be honest, it’s not all bad at first, but by and by Saul begins to believe his own press releases. He falls in love with the trappings of that office and the seemingly limitless power that kings have. Saul and Samuel are increasingly irritated with each other.

Everything comes to a head the day that the Lord sent Saul out to fight the Amalekites. These were people who had opposed the Israelites as they left Egypt and had generally made life miserable for God’s people, so God commanded Saul to take his army and cleanse the land of anything Amalekite-related. Saul sets out to do that, but when he gets rid of most of the enemy soldiers, he discovers that they’ve got some really, really nice stuff… and it seemed like such a waste to get rid of all of it… and Saul felt really big and strong when he was parading the Amalekite king around… Saul became lost in the fog of his own power and acquisitiveness that day.

Saul Spares Agag and the Fattest Animals, detail from the Maciejowski Bible (1266)

Saul Spares Agag and the Fattest Animals, detail from the Maciejowski Bible (1266)

The day that Saul slaughtered the Amalekites was an equally horrible day to the one that you just heard about in terms of the dead bodies strewn across the landscape, but the reality is that Saul defied an order from God so that he might satisfy his own greed and pride and on that day, he was told, “You’re finished, Saul. Someone else will take your place as king. It won’t be today, and it won’t be tomorrow, but your days are numbered.”

And for years, Saul continues acting as Israel’s king. He lives in the palace, he signs all the paychecks… but every day, he’s looking, wondering, who will it be?

Meanwhile, David is secretly anointed as king and in an odd twist, is called by Saul to be a servant in the royal household.

Saul knows that something is coming, but not when, not who, not where… It is a recipe for madness, for paranoia, for distrust. Eventually, he sees the success that David is having and assumes that David is out to get him, and so he acts preemptively by seeking to kill David.

Saul Orders Ahimelech Beheaded While Abiathar Flees to David, Utrecht History Bible (1430)

Saul Orders Ahimelech Beheaded While Abiathar Flees to David, Utrecht History Bible (1430)

He gets so wrapped up in his hatred for David that, as we have heard, he issues a direct order to murder the priest that helped David. And to murder all the other priests. And to murder every man, woman, and child in that village. And to kill all the animals and destroy the entire community.

The person who was unwilling to carry out a death sentence on the enemies of God now, in a fit of rage, exterminates the people who are actually serving God.

It is horrible.

So much death.

Everyone… everyone except… except Abiathar. A young man from the priestly family somehow escapes and runs to David for protection. On one level, it’s an account of how one frightened young man saves another in a time of horror and conflict.

However, on a deeper level, this becomes the narrative for a fundamental shift in the fabric of the nation of Israel. Never again would the priests help Saul to “inquire of the Lord”. Saul is completely and utterly on his own from here on out, as the power of the priesthood and the priestly endorsement passes to young David… or, to be even more accurate, the priests, in the person of Abiathar, have finally caught up to what God has been doing for years.

And you may be saying to yourself, “But self, why does any of this matter to me? These are stories from halfway around the world that describe events that took place three millennia ago!”

These are horrible stories. And they are especially horrible on Preschool Sunday. Come on, Carver, were you even thinking? These people aren’t here to listen to the slaughter of the inhabitants of Nob; they hoped to see their children have a good time with their school friends at church. What can we possibly learn from this?

We learn that God does not leave his promises vacant. In our narrative for today, if Saul had somehow managed to destroy the priesthood or silence God, then faith would be dead. Yet what we have is a description of the way that a remnant is preserved. Abiathar survives to serve the Lord even on this unholiest of days.

We learn that God does not need Saul in order to do God’s business. In the days to come, we’ll be reminded that God doesn’t need David, either.

We learn that God chooses to use those who are seeking the best and who are willing to make themselves available to God.

Now, maybe I’m the only one in the room who feels this way, but it sure seems to me that our culture is shrouded in a fog right now. We can’t see clearly enough that every life has meaning and purpose in God’s eyes; we can’t accept our own responsibility for systemic racism or a news cycle that drips with violence or environmental disaster that is at odds with the Creator’s intent. And then there’s the election…

To put it simply, we have a theological problem. Too many of us are saying, “If so and so does not win (or, equally stridently, ‘if this other person does win’), then that’s it. The world will collapse.”

No, it won’t.

Now don’t get me wrong – I have some pretty strong ideas about who I’d like to see on the “ins” and who I’d prefer to be on the “outs”. I have some deep fears about what might happen if the candidate I prefer should lose on Tuesday.

But that’s just me, walking through the fog, talking two days before a close election. The truth that resounds through the ages is plain and simple: God does not need Trump or Clinton or Stein or Johnson in order to be God.

God is God today, and God will be God a week from today.

On Wednesday, in all probability, we’ll wake up and discover that someone has been elected to serve as the 45th President of these United States. And, in all probability, there will be fear. There may be lawsuits. There will be planning and plotting and anger and sadness. There will be winners and losers.

And in the midst of all that, at 7:15 on Wednesday morning Treva will come and open the Clairhaven Street doors (unless someone leaves them unlocked on Tuesday night – we’ve really got to step up our “locking the door” game, people) and we’ll get ready for another day here. Mrs. Mack and the rest of the Preschool team will arrive and set up the classrooms. Families will come and drop off their children – you should see that street between 9:20 and 9:40 – a sea of vehicles, each bearing an assortment of car seats and bumper stickers and dings and dents… Children will come in and learn about squirrels and turkeys, and their teachers will talk with them about what it means to be thankful.

Jason, Brad, and another group of folks will make sure that the after school program is ready to roll. Students will come in and do their homework, be challenged and stimulated by experiments and activities, and engaged by supportive relationships as we do our best to equip them to be and do their best.

The Deacons will continue to plan and prepare for a new food ministry that will take shape next month. An amazing team of young adults will take the next steps in laying the groundwork for their life-changing trip to Malawi, Africa. The work of the church will continue in every single way come Wednesday morning.

And outside the church? You’ll go over to Shop N Save to get milk, we’ll say hello to friends who are in hospitals, and a few of you will decide it’s finally time to put up the storm windows at home.

In short, we will continue to live as though God, not any human being, is in control. The election will have occurred, and it will have consequences, but the fabric of reality will remain unchanged.

Our task, come Wednesday, will be difficult. No matter which side prevails in the election, the people of God will continue to have before us the work of reconciliation. Did you hear what Maddy read about Jesus earlier? “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” That was true when Abiathar was hightailing it out of Nob; it was true when the fine citizens of Colossae were doing their level best to ride Paul out of town on a rail, and it’s true today. And it’ll be true on Wednesday.

And if we assume that it has been and is and will be true, then we move on to the next phrases, which lay out the work of the Christ – the work that Jesus began when he was on earth and which the church has continued as we are now the expression of his body in this place and at this time: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven…”

I’m telling you right now that it is not just a good idea, it is God’s command for you to be working on this ministry of reconciliation with your neighbors – even the ones who support the candidate you can’t abide, or who give voice to opinions you find detestable, or who hold values different than you do. You who wear the name of Christ are not free to dismiss anyone; you do not have the option of name-calling or bullying. Instead, we are called to live out Christ’s intention of justice and peace for all and in all and over all and through all.

Some of you have some nerve-wracking and anxiety-filled days ahead of you. But I’m here to tell you that the fog will clear, and the sun will rise.

In fact, he already has. Thanks be to God, the Son has already risen, and that is the only thing that can drive away the fog. Amen.

Paying the Price

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.  On October 30, 2016 we considered the implications of Jonathan’s embrace of what God was doing in David’s life, and wondered how we could cultivate that spirit of humility, service, and discipleship in our own lives.  Our texts included I Samuel 20:24-42 and Luke 14:25-27.

This was an endorsement that not many people saw coming. I’m not talking about Angelina Jolie’s decision to become a spokesperson for Louis Vuitton or any of the celebrities that are lining up behind one of the contenders for political office in 2016. We could see most of those coming, and frankly, we’re a little tired of all the commercials.

But the one we just heard about – now that was a shocker. Who saw this coming? Jonathan… that would be Prince Jonathan, the son of King Saul of Israel, comes to the man that his father hates more than anyone else, David the son of Jesse, and says, “Look… No matter what happens, I’m with you.” In fact, a couple of verses prior to the beginning of our reading for the day, we hear him say, “‘May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.’ And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.” (I Samuel 20:16-17).

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

Wow! The son of the king – the man who was next in line for the throne – says, “David, I want you to succeed. God is clearly with you, and you’ve got to do this thing.” Who saw that coming?

Of course, Jonathan wasn’t the first one in his family to sense David’s ascendancy. Last week we read about his sister, Michal… Princess Michal, who warned David as her father tried to have him killed, thus keeping him alive so that he’d be free to live into the promised future that God had laid out for him. Today’s reading is simply a description of another child of Saul moving toward David.

But note how he does this. This is not a public endorsement intended for the newspapers or television camera. Instead, it is a deeply personal and private conversation in which Jonathan seeks to confirm for David all of the things that old Samuel had told the boy so many years before… before the Philistine wars… before the battle with Goliath… before all the conflicts with Saul, and before the wedding to Saul’s daughter… On this moonlight night at the shooting range, Jonathan pulls David aside and says, “Look, David, you have got to see this through.”

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

Without Jonathan, David was at risk of either abandoning his vocation and returning to the simple life of tending sheep or developing a murderous spirit of retaliation to get even with the man who despising the best that was within him. He did nether. He accepted Jonathan’s friendship and in receiving it received confirmation of Samuel’s earlier anointing to kingwork and the God-dominated imagination that made it possible to live in and by God’s Spirit in song and story.[1]

In short, for the second week in a row, we have a child of King Saul saving the life of the man who would replace him – knowing that in the eyes of the world, Jonathan is acting against his own best interests. There is something deeply admirable about Jonathan’s behavior and principles here. I wonder how Jonathan got to be this kind of a human being – the kind of man who is able to look not only to his own interests, but to the greater good; a man who is eager to sense how and where and when God is moving and to share in that, even if it brings him to a place of disruption or personal pain. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be a person like that.

But how? How do I grow into having that kind of persona?

I think it starts with learning how to say “no”, and perhaps more precisely, knowing what to say “no” to.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that Jonathan’s enthusiastic embrace of David is due, at least in part, to something amazingly wonderful and captivating about David. This is a special, special kid, and you’d have to be willfully ignorant to miss that.

But Jonathan’s actions here are more than merely looking at David’s amazing gifts and affirming them. He invests himself deeply in David’s life, and the only way that is possible is because Jonathan is willing to train himself to say “no” to some parts of this world that have a deep attraction for him. In the space that those denials provide him, he is able to add his emphatic “yes” to God’s future in the life of his friend David.

Our reading for this morning offers us a glimpse into a conversion of sorts. At the beginning of chapter 20, Jonathan is trying hard to be both a dutiful son and a good friend. Saul’s behavior – including the attempted murder of this dutiful son in a fit of rage – drives Jonathan to the place where he expresses his desire to follow David, not Saul, into an uncertain future. As Jonathan expresses his loyalty to David, he is living into the words of Jesus in Luke 14: ““If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

In our culture, we often think of the word “hate” as the opposite of the word “love”. When we say “I love NCIS but I sure do hate Jeopardy”, we are saying that we have an attraction toward police drama and are repulsed by quiz shows. In the Semitic world, however, the meaning was a little bit different. To “hate” someone or something was to turn away from it or to detach oneself from it. When Jesus called his followers, he was inviting them to turn away from any allegiances that would stand in the way of their full-time discipleship and to love him more than anyone or anything else.

As Jonathan came to see what was going on in his own household, including the mad ambition, the spiritual depravity, and the murderous jealousy of his father, he had to “hate” that. He had to turn himself away from those things and detach himself from that kind of a heritage. And because he turned his back on those things, he was able to embrace the thing that God was doing in David. Jonathan confirmed God’s call on David’s life and he pledged himself to helping David realize the totality of that call.

And 700 years or so later, Jesus, the Son of David, finds himself marching toward Jerusalem in the last months of his life. He knows that he is walking towards his death, the great sacrifice for the sake of the world. Jesus has challenged the status quo, he has stood up to religious charlatans who were eager to jump into bed with the Empire, and he has sought to proclaim the outrageous love and grace of God. Jesus knows exactly where he is heading, and he knows exactly what will happen to him when he gets there. And as he keeps marching, he turns around and seems surprised that there is a crowd behind him.

He speaks: “Are you all sure about this? Do you know where this trip ends? Don’t come with me unless you know where we’re headed. Following me means turning away from what you have held most dear. Saying ‘Yes’ to the movement of God and the rule of the Spirit means saying ‘No’ to unhealthy habits, long-cherished notions, and a life centered on pleasing yourself.”

And those words of the Savior are not only for that crowd 2000 years ago. They are for us. How do we learn from Jonathan? How do we follow the Savior? Where do we need to say “no” so that our “yes” will mean something?

Some of us need to unplug. That is to say, we need to dial back on the devices that are seeking to control us or are having an unhealthy impact on us. That could mean cutting down on your investment in social media. We are so transfixed by what happens in this little alternate reality that we become unable to function in the real plane of our existence. We check our feeds, we wait for our followers to react, and we have alerts sent to remind us when someone we love or loathe does something to bless or irritate us. As a result, we find that we are more antagonistic, our blood pressure rises, we’re more irritable, and we are so concerned with the virtual world that we find it hard to be attentive to the actual world that is in front of our noses. I have friends who have deactivated Facebook because it’s taken them to places they don’t want to go; there are those who find that the anonymity and immediacy of Twitter means that it’s far too easy to become vile and hateful; and still others among us are so tethered to our email that we have to check it six or eight times an hour. And maybe you scoff at all of these technologies but at the same time can’t wait to turn on the talk radio or get to your favorite cable news station…which, in fact, do the same things to you. Some of us need to unplug.

And speaking of plugging, there are those among us who might actually be helped by getting a little better connected. That is to say it may be that the current cesspool of cyberspace in which you’re trapped may be online pornography or gambling. If that’s the case, then let me encourage you to upgrade to Snapchat or Pinterest as possible alternatives to the fantasy world in which you are immersing yourself. As I’ve already noted, these platforms are not without their flaws, but at least they’d be a step closer to real relationships with real people.

In addition to unplugging, perhaps we all need to just simmer down a little bit. That’s what my grandmother would say to me when she thought I was getting a little too high on my horse. Actually, I’m not at all sure what she meant by me being on my high horse, but “simmer down” was grandma’s way of saying “chill.” Is it me, or do so many people seem to be so angry so much of the time? Every time you turn around, someone is about to bite your head off… Anger comes from fear: Psychologists tell us that when we are threatened, our natural instincts are to fight or to flee. Anger is half of that equation. I fall in love with my ideas, and when I discover that your ideas are different, I want to argue with you about it. I’m afraid of loss of identity or purpose or integrity; I’m afraid of some threat to my way of life, and rather than acknowledging all of that, I simply call you an idiot, get angry at you, and walk away.

You don’t have to watch too many political ads to see this at work in our lives today, do you? And it’s even worse when we see that getting played out in the church. I have some friends on the left who take some interesting ideas about social justice and fairness and equality and give them a quick baptism and proclaim that Jesus is here, and only here.

On the other hand, I have some friends on the right who start with some deeply held beliefs about God and country and patriotism, and frame those with an appeal to the founding of our so-called “Christian nation” and America as the promised land and pretty soon opposing any of those ideas is the same thing as turning one’s back on God.

And yet to all of my friends I would say, “Relax. Simmer down. Jesus isn’t running for President. And he wasn’t in the primaries, either.” You have your ideas. Great. Vote, of course. Express your opinions – but do all of that thinking, voting, and expressing after you’ve spent time on your knees, waiting in prayer, asking God where God is already moving in the world.

And with the energy and equilibrium that we gain when we unplug and simmer down, perhaps then we will find ourselves in a position to dive in somewhere and make a promise to someone. Eugene Peterson calls us to be Jonathans in the lives of people around us. Listen:

     Each of us has contact with hundreds of people…who take one look at us, make a snap judgment, and then slot us into a category so that they won’t have to deal with us as persons. They treat us as something less than we are; and if we’re in constant association with them, we become less.
And then someone enters our life who isn’t looking for someone to use, is leisurely enough to find out what’s really going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what’s deepest within us. A friend. It’s a great thing to be a Jonathan.[2]

He’s right, of course. But the only way that we are able to be strong enough to do that is when we detach ourselves from our anger, our fears, or our unhealthy addictions to people, substances, or attitudes.

Or make a promise in a different way: demonstrate your intention to walk in a new path by making a profound promise to commit to giving more of your money to the Lord’s work in the year to come. Too many of us “lowball” it when we come around to thinking about what we’d like to give. We think about what might be a comfortable gift, and then we back off that a little bit and make our promise. What if we led with our best and deepest hopes and then spent the year trying to live into that?

Or maybe your deal isn’t really money: it’s time. Maybe you can make a promise to really endorse someone by simply showing up… again and again. Come in in for the After School program… or be a mentor… or volunteer at The Table.

I realize that none of these things – not service hours, not financial donations, not presence with others – none of these things are the goal. Yet each of them are concrete, active ways to move toward the goal: following Jesus. Letting go of the things that hold us back and detaching ourselves from unhealthy patterns free us to pick up new practices that enable us to grow into the kinds of people who can walk with Jesus on the path to self-sacrifice, humility, and ultimately, resurrection.

I really, really wanted this sermon to be about the virtues of friendship and what an admirable and all-around nice guy Jonathan was. But the text doesn’t lead us there. Instead, it challenges us to consider whether we are willing to let go of anything – whether it’s anger or politics or bitterness or pornography or popularity or public esteem – that would encumber us on our walk with Jesus. We pray that we might be released to see the new hope and purpose that comes in the power of God in person of Jesus. Jonathan saw God at work and let go of some of his deeply held dreams and beliefs. The first followers of Jesus discerned the movement of God’s spirit among them and let go of some long-held allegiances in order to move with the Lord. What in us needs to change if we are to become more faithful disciples? Help us to see that, Lord, and then help us to do it. Amen.

[1] Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, HarperCollins 1997, p. 54-55.

[2] Leap Over A Wall, p. 54.

Some ‘Splainin to Do

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.  On October 23, 2016 we looked at the problems that developed as neither Saul nor David was able to treat Michal as a person in her own right… and we wondered how much of what we “know” is really true.  Our scriptures included I Samuel 19:8-17 and Luke 13:10-17.

 

It is a fixture of my childhood. I remember sitting on the sofa with my grandma watching reruns of I Love Lucy. If you remember Lucille Ball, you’ll remember her character as the good-hearted but clueless woman whose antics often put her and her friends into awkward situations. And do you remember her husband calling on the phone or stepping into the apartment, discovering her shenanigans, and then calling out, “Luuuuuucy! You got some ‘splainin to do” in his rich Cuban accent?

lucyIt was funny – really funny. Her character is clearly a ditzy woman who is hopelessly inept who cannot help but leap out of the frying pan and into the fire in episode after episode. Fortunately for her, she has a husband who can come in and sort things out, help her cover over her mistakes, and make things right again. Do you remember that? I Love Lucy was the most-watched show in the 1950’s, and really shaped American culture for years.

As we continue our exploration of the life of the biblical hero David, we find ourselves in the midst of a story where a woman is being called on the carpet by a man who has power and authority over her. In today’s reading, we meet a young woman named Michal.

At the end of chapter 18, we learn that the daughter of King Saul had fallen for young David in a big way, and that gave Saul an idea as to how to get rid of his rival. Saul lays out a trap for the young lovers: he tells David that he’s willing to “give” his daughter to David because, after all, there’s no way that a poor shepherd boy could afford the marriage price that was customary for a royal wedding. The only thing that David has to do is go out and single-handedly slay 100 Philistines, the sworn enemies of Israel. Saul has got to be thinking, “Oh, wow, this is too easy! After all, nobody kills a hundred Philistines! They will wipe the floor with him and I’ll be rid of him forever!”

David confounds the plan, however by slaying not merely the requisite 100 enemy soldiers, but by overcoming 200 of them. He wins the girl and Saul’s hatred and fear of David only increases.

Today’s reading takes place after the wedding, and if you think you’ve got problems with the in-laws, well, just be glad you’re not David. Michal was there to save David’s life, and if you read the text just right, you can hear Saul calling Michal into the house, yelling, “Michal, you got some ‘splainin to do!”

Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.

Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.

Michal’s answer is a little puzzling at first. In verse 11, she’s warning David to get out of Dodge as fast as he can, and yet in verse 17 she looks her father in the eye and says, “What could I do, daddy? That mean man threatened to kill me!” That only makes sense if the backdrop to this story is a culture wherein women are essentially powerless to stand up to the men in their world. What else could she say? He was the King, he was her father, and he was a he. Her hands were tied.

One important thing that this part of the David story reveals to us is that Michal loves David so much that she saves his life. Michal keeps David alive so that he is able to live into the promises that God has for him. What would have happened, do you think, to Israel if David had not been warned and therefore was murdered that night? How would the Bible and the story of God’s people be different if, instead of showing up in all the Psalms as well as the books of Samuel and Chronicles, David was just a three paragraph mention – a potential rival who was quickly dismissed?

What if Jesus was not the Son of David? How would history be different?

Michal’s bravery and quick thinking led her to take action that averted such an alternate history. She kept David alive and therefore kept the promise alive. And for that, people of faith should offer thanks.

Allow me to pause for a moment and invite you to reflect on this. My sense is that nobody in this room has had your life saved by a spouse who stood between you and a murderous father-in-law, then helped you climb out the window, and then made up a pretend you and hid it in the bed. This part of the story has little in common with our experience.

However, I would suggest that each of you knows someone who has believed in you when you didn’t or couldn’t believe in yourself. You know someone who has kept the promise of hope alive in your life when you couldn’t see it for yourself. There is someone who has stuck their neck out for you, challenged you, loved you, saved you, and in fact has kept you so that you were free to become a better person. Am I right?

Who is that person in your life? Take a moment to give thanks to God for those who have carried us, believed in us, held us up when all we were able to do was sink down.

And you think, “Yes, Dave, that’s nice. I do have those people in my life, but you’re still getting off track here. This Bible passage is whack. Saul and David have no right to shuttle Michal around like she’s yesterday’s double coupon deal at the Giant Eagle. This is a horrible way to treat someone.”

It is. And it seems even worse when we are immersed in a culture like our own, where women are subjected to abuse or unwanted contact with all manner of television personalities and athletes and politicians and business leaders. We read the newspapers and we cringe; we open the Bible and we see the same behaviors, and it’s just hard to take.

It is. Because Michal was treated wrongly. There is no justification for treating another human being like a piece of property or a pawn in a chess game.

One of the reasons that I know it’s so wrong is because I can compare the way that Michal was treated by the men in her life with the way that Jesus treated the women in his. Our reading from Luke contains the story of a woman who had suffered horribly for 18 years. The day that she met Jesus, she was set free by an act of miraculous healing. When this occurs, she does the exact right thing: she praises God for the movement of the Spirit and celebrates her restoration to the fullness of her own life. It is a beautiful thing, and everyone there agrees…

Jesus Heals The Woman With a Disabling Spirit, From the so-called "Two Brothers Sarcophagus", mid-4th century.

Jesus Heals The Woman With a Disabling Spirit, From the so-called “Two Brothers Sarcophagus”, mid-4th century.

Everyone, that is, except the men who are in charge. Their reaction is the exact opposite. The leader of the synagogue immediately begins to shame the woman for being healed. Instead of celebrating her restoration to a vibrant life, he calls her out in front of the community and attempts to publicly humiliate her for having the nerve to be healed on the wrong day. He does everything in his power to remind her that she is nothing, she is no one, she is insignificant.

But Jesus… oh, sweet Jesus… Jesus shut that man up and put an end to the man-splaining of the day. He named the gifts of relief, release, and healing, and proclaimed that these things were always in order, and therefore not to be bound by any human regulation or timing. And, then, best of all, he turned to the woman and he called her out.

And did you hear what Jesus called her?

“Daughter of Abraham”, he said. In the presence of these men who puffed and preened and as Pharisees and Sadducees and Doctors of the Law were so proud to call themselves “Sons of Abraham”, he called her a “daughter of Abraham”. For the first time in the entire Bible, a Jewish man (Jesus) looks at a Jewish woman and says, “You are a daughter of Abraham. You belong. You matter. This is your place, too.” The phrase “Son of Abraham” shows up in many places in scripture, but this is the only place in the entire Bible where that phrase is used – and that is incredibly significant.

And note, too, that Jesus did not call this woman “the” daughter of Abraham. No, she is “a” daughter. Because there are others, don’t you know?

It is a statement that is incredibly empowering to that woman. It is equally infuriating to the men who think that it is their job to control and corral the women. And it is liberating for the crowd of onlookers who have been raised to think that there is such a thing as a first class follower of God and a second class follower of God; all their lives they’ve been led to believe that there is a hierarchy within the faithful, and men are on top and women are not. And here, Jesus says, “no. That’s not it at all.” Jesus repudiates the culture of Saul that would treat women as objects to be owned, trinkets to be adorned, or vessels for male pleasure or satisfaction.

You, woman in the synagogue: you are a daughter of Abraham. And you, Michal, daughter of Saul and wife of David: you are a daughter of Abraham. And you, every female child to come forward during the children’s sermon: you are a daughter of Abraham.

The Good News of the Gospel today is that God’s promises are for all of us. The covenant includes us equally. That’s the truth. That’s always been the truth.

I opened this message by reminding you of that famous phrase from the I Love Lucy show: “Luuuuuuucy! You got some ‘splainin to do!” I’m just curious: how many people in the room, like me, remember Ricky Ricardo calling out to his wife like that? I didn’t see you sitting on the sofa with my grandma, but do you remember that?

No, you don’t.

You can’t remember that, because he never said it. You can comb through all the episodes of I Love Lucy and you will never hear Desi Arnaz’ voice uttering those words. It’s just like people who “remember” Darth Vader saying “Luke, I am your father”, or Rick Blaine saying to the piano player in Casablanca, “Play it again, Sam.” Some psychologists call this the Mandela Effect, and it refers to a large number of people who share the same false memory. None of those things ever happened, even if you are sure you “remember” them from the movie.

And it struck me this week that if I can “remember” something that didn’t happen, then it can only follow that some of what I “know” is wrong. And therefore, perhaps, some of what “everybody knows” is also wrong.

Let that roll around in your brain for a few moments. How much of what you “know” is not true? Because we are shaped by a culture, because we are children of an age and inhabitants of a particular world-view, it is very probable that we think we “know” things that never happened and are not true.

For instance, as you were growing up, what were you taught about other races, or other nationalities, or other religions? What did you “know” about Latinos or Asians or Irishmen or Muslims? And in the circles in which you walk and spend your time, what does “everybody know” about those groups, or about Jews or elderly people or feminists or homosexuals or Presbyterians?

You see, in David’s day and in Jesus’ day, some of what “everybody knew” was flat-out wrong. Women are not subservient or second-class. There is not a “pecking order” or hierarchy when it comes to participating in the grace of God.

This week, ask God to help you see what is really true: what is eternally true; what is God-honoring, neighbor-loving, sin-defeating, wall-destroying, prejudice-dashing, scapegoat-freeing, life-giving truth. And may God correct us in our mis-remembering and bring us to a deep awareness of and appreciation for the other; may God give us the willingness and the strength to stand up for and stand alongside of those who have been wrongly silenced or marginalized. May all our remembering point us toward the One who called himself the way, the truth, and the life. Thanks be to God, Amen.

The Problem With Keeping Score

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.  On October 16, 2016 we considered the difficulties that arose when Saul’s jealousy overpowered his ability to stay centered in God’s Spirit.  Our texts included I Samuel 18:1-16 and James 4:1-10

 

Wally Pipp's 1923-24 Baseball Card

Wally Pipp’s 1923-24 Baseball Card

In 1924, a gentleman named Wally Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees. In the previous five seasons, he had recorded a .301 average, with season averages of 29 doubles, 94 runs scored, and 97 runs batted in per season. He had led the league in home runs several times. Pipp was a star. However, on June 2 of 1924, Pipp showed up at Yankee Stadium that day with a severe headache, and asked the team’s trainer for two aspirin. The Yankees’ manager noticed this, and said “Wally, take the day off. We’ll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow.” “That kid” played well and became the Yankees’ new starting first baseman. Lou Gehrig became known as the “Iron Man” and played for the next sixteen years – an astounding 2,130 games in a row, and Wally Pipp went from being a star on the league champs to being the answer to a trivia question. Pipp said later, “I took the two most expensive aspirin in history.”

I came across an article recently that was entitled “What To Do If You’re Smarter Than Your Boss”. It explored the reality that many times, we find ourselves being overshadowed by someone that we perceive to be “beneath” us in some way. When the Sophomore gets to start while the Senior sits, for instance; or when you’ve been preparing for this job for eight years and all of a sudden the guy who showed up last year steps right in to “your” promotion. It just doesn’t feel right, does it? There’s a sense of anger and frustration and even injustice. It’s easy to get steamed when your little brother is outdoing you in some way or another…

Saul is the recognized King of Israel. He lives in the palace, his face is on the money; he’s the “status quo”. His army has just defeated their perennial enemy, the Philistines. His stock ought to be on the rise.

Except that young David, the insignificant shepherd boy and part-time lyre player, seems to be grabbing all the headlines for doing the kinds of things that kings ought to be doing (such as leading the army in the defeat of the Philistines).

Saul Attacking David, Guercino (1646)

Saul Attacking David, Guercino (1646)

In our reading for today, we see David once more taking up residence at the palace, where he quickly becomes everyone’s darling. Chapter 18 tells us that two of Saul’s own children are smitten with David, and truth be told, Saul himself is crazy about this kid. That is the odd conundrum that has become Saul’s personal reality: when he sees David succeeding, it sends him catapulting to the edge of madness; the only thing that can bring him back from that edge is spending time in David’s presence.

Yet as the headlines pour in, and as the feeds come through the social media, it’s clear that the Junior Staff Person is getting more publicity than the boss here. Saul is increasingly resentful of David, and the chants of the women outside the palace reveal the score: Saul has gained victory over thousands (yay!), but David has triumphed over tens of thousands (YAY!!!).

Saul, who wants more than anything to be king, is keeping score. He’s paying attention to who gets credit for what. He’s asking to be measured by these particular statistics, and he’s got to make sure that he comes out on top.

Compared to Saul, Wally Pipp’s problem was minor. He eventually signed on with the Cincinnatti Reds, and after he left the big leagues he was one of the first writers for Sports Illustrated before settling into a career in manufacturing. It could have been worse.

And it was worse, for Saul. He had given up wanting to be measured in terms of his faithfulness to God, and instead wanted to be known for his own power and his own strength. The Lord was willing to let Saul be evaluated by whatever measure he chose, and as a result Saul is behaving as though it is all up to him. In fact, we’re told that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul.

David, whose position was precarious to say the least, responds to the situation by diving more deeply into God’s care for him. He trusts the Spirit of God that Saul had rejected, and as a result finds that he has the fruit of humility growing in his life. Like anyone else in Israel, David can see that he is serving a man who is less honorable, less noble, and less able than he is. And yet he continues to trust in God to sort everything out.

In fact, there’s a word that appears three times in chapter 18 that is very telling. We’re told in verses 5, 14, and 30 that David had “great success”. The Hebrew word there, sawkal, means literally “to behave wisely”. Our translators evidently are combining the end result (David succeeded) with the reason for that (because he kept his head down and his nose clean). The bottom line, however, is apparent: David was humble in the face of his successes, while Saul was increasingly torn apart as his influence and power appeared to be waning. Do you remember last week, when we talked about how David spent his time kneeling in the creekbed between the two giants – Saul and Goliath? That is an example of sawkal – acting wisely

St. James the Apostle

St. James the Apostle

The first-century Christians to whom the Apostle James was writing seemed to face a situation that would have resonated with that of Saul and David. There is a cancer spreading throughout this community that claimed to be following Jesus. There are those in their midst who are acting with pride and supposing that they alone know all the answers. Increasingly, they are unwilling to listen to each other, unable to hear each other and reluctant to work together. The result, of course, is that there is bitterness and rivalry in the church. Jealousy and pettiness. James is appalled. “This is the church, for crying out loud,” the old Apostle bellows. “How can this be?” He accentuates his displeasure by comparing their behavior to murder and adultery. The solution, says James, is to cultivate the virtue of humility.

Now, think about that for a moment. How, exactly, does one preach about humility? Since I do not have the authority of Scripture and the assurance of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind all of my words… what can I say about humility? How do you know if I’m humble? How do I know if I’m humble?

What if I were to say, “trust me, I’m humble. In fact, I’m twice as humble as I was a year ago. Yep, my mama raised me right…”

Or even more alarming, “You know, you ought to take a page out of my notebook. You need to be humble, my friend. I mean, seriously, have you ever stopped to think? Be like me. Quit being such a jerk and get humble… you know, like me…”

Humility is a virtue, but how do we assess it? How do we cultivate it in our lives? Can we seek it out? Can we actively work on learning how to be humble?

Fortunately for us, in addition to the example left by young David, there are some imperatives in the letter from James that will help us to become more humble, and therefore more Christ-like, in the days and weeks and months to come.

It begins with taking stock of yourself and your situation. James says, “Submit yourself to God” and “draw near to God.” Place yourself in perspective, and ask God for the self-awareness to see yourself realistically.

That’s really, really hard to do! So often, we are so acquainted with the way that we do things or the reasoning inside our own heads that we have no idea what is really true. This lack of self-awareness leads us to believing things about ourselves or others that are simply not true.

For instance, I once found myself in a group that was about half African and half American. We were rehearsing a traditional African folk song that we would perform at some event when our director (a white American), stopped the rehearsal and began to scold us. He said, “Come on, people, I know these words are difficult, but we’ve got to pronounce them properly.” He then went on to tell us how we were to say the words. The Africans in the room, for whom this was their first language, raised a hand to correct him. One brave soul ventured, “Um, excuse me, sir but that’s not how we say that phrase…” African heads nodded. But the director, his nose stuck in his notes, simply said, “You’re not doing it right. Say it this way…” This man had no sense of even the possibility that he might have been mistaken, or that he was in the presence of those who were far more versed than he in the subtleties of their own language.

Yet how often do we do that? I walk into a room and I want to take charge, I want my ideas to succeed, I want the way we’ve always done things to become the way we will also do things that I can’t imagine that there might be a better leader, a stronger idea, a more effective practice. I need to ask God to show me who and where I am in relationship to the situation at hand. I need to ask God to give me a solid sense of self-awareness and perspective.

In my case, and in the passage at hand, we see that when that prayer is answered, the next step is confession. When I realize who I actually am compared to the One who created me and the things for which I have been created, the next step is to acknowledge that things are not as they ought to be, and often I am not who I ought to be.

Every month, the elders of the congregation gather for our monthly meeting – it is the time where the business of the church is conducted and all the affairs of the congregation are explored. Before we meet for business, however, we gather for worship. And each month, the elders of this church offer this prayer prior to the meeting:

Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
I confess to almighty God,
 and to you, my brothers and sisters,
 that I have sinned through my own fault, 
in my thoughts and in my words, 
in what I have done, 
and in what I have failed to do;
 and I ask you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

I want to tell you that this is an empowering prayer. Before we even think about doing or saying anything in the name of Christ or of his church, we admit to ourselves and to each other that we are imperfect vessels who have to approach the work we’ve been given in a spirit of humility and mutual support and encouragement.

So we begin with an honest assessment of ourselves, and that leads us to confession, which in turn brings us to the place wherein we can be deeply aware of the position we hold in God’s heart. When we strip away all pretense and self-aggrandizement, we can accept the fact that in spite of all our imperfections and sin, in spite of the ways that the world is so often not what it should be, God chooses to love us, and chooses to work through us, and chooses to use us in the world – not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

You may remember Greg Louganis, an Olympic diver in the 1980’s.

      In the 1988 games, during the springboard event he missed one dive and hit the board with his head. Physicians stitched his cut, and he went on to win. In the platform diving he won the gold on his final performance with an incredibly difficult dive called a reverse three-and-a-half somersault tuck. It was a breathtaking finish that brought Americans to their feet.

When reporters hounded him in Los Angeles he gave them a very unusual response. They asked, “What were you thinking about as you prepared for your final dive?” Maybe they were referring to the pressure, or to the fact that that dive is extremely dangerous and killed a Russian athlete just a year before. Louganis’ simple answer was, “I was thinking that no matter what happens, my mother will still love me.

When Greg was just eleven, he became very frustrated at his diving performance in an early and important meet. Frances Louganis took her son aside and said, “I do not come to see you win. I come to see you dive. Just do your best. I will love you no matter what.” That unconditional love carried her son to forty-three national diving titles, six Pan-American gold medals, five world championships, one Olympic silver medal, and four Olympic gold medals.[1]

When we seek to learn who we are in God’s presence, and confess the ways that we have fallen short, we can find ourselves holding on to the unconditional love in which and for which God has created us. We can trust in the gifts that God has given us and seek to grow in service to God and our neighbor.

One writer phrased it this way:

Humility is not a false rejection of God’s gifts. To exaggerate the gifts we have by denying them may be as close to narcissism as we can get in this life. No, humility is the admission of God’s gifts to me and the acknowledgment that I have been given them for others. Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.[2]

Saul looked at David’s gifts and then at his own, and was envious and angry. David looked at the ways in which he had been blessed and chose to act wisely. And when he acted wisely, good things happened. May we have the grace to do the same: acknowledge who we are and what we have received and seek to offer those gifts for the life of the world and the glory of God. Amen.

[1] Reader’s Digest, June 1988, p. 163-170, quoted at http://www.sermonnotebook.org/old%20testament/1%20Sam%2018_1-4.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (HarperCollins, 1990 p. 65)