Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered in worship to consider the mystery of the resurrection of the body that is so central to the Christian faith.  Our texts included Job 19:23-27 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  You can read the manuscript, and you can also click on the arrow on the left of the bar just below this paragraph to hear the sermon as recorded in worship on April 2, 2017. 

If you are unable to hear the sermon by clicking on the bar above, please visit https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/sermon04-02-17.mp3  Ignore the rather confused older man speaking in the beginning of the recording.  I’m sure he means well.  He’s a nice guy, and mostly harmless.

I have a confession to make.

For a minister, I don’t talk about heaven very much. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable.

There are a few reasons for that. For starters, I’m really wary of what might be termed a “transactional faith”, in which I try to boil the entire message of the scripture to a simple exchange wherein I insist that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that I could get my sorry butt into heaven when I die. I know, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but the truth is that’s what a lot of us believe and you can visit any Christian bookstore in the world and find volumes and volumes written from that particular perspective. Jesus came to save my soul from the fires of hell. Amen. I think that there has to be more to it than that.

Another reason I don’t like to talk about heaven too much is that I find myself agreeing with famed American author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who once complained that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” You know people like that – they are so set on getting pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye that they can’t be trusted to do the shopping or clean up from the youth group meeting…

And lastly, I think I don’t often bring up heaven because I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand it all that well. Is heaven a real place? What happens to us when we die? Our bodies decompose and fade away… but what happens to the “us” that is “us”? I mean, you can send out a tweet that makes heaven sound pretty good, but the more you think about it, the more questions we face…

Detail from School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1511)

When I was a child, there was an old lithograph that hung above the sofa in the living room. We weren’t usually allowed to spend much time in that room – it was for the grownups – but I’ll always remember this image of “The School of Athens.” In it, we see Plato and his star pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle is gesturing outward, indicating his belief that what truly matters is that which is tangible and can be empirically experienced. Plato, on the other hand, points to the heavens as he indicates that ultimate reality is always and only spiritual – the things that we think we see or experience here on earth are only shadowy forms of something more real or more true in the spiritual realm.

I’m not sure why my mother chose to hang that print there. It may be that there was a give-away at the grocery store and she had a blank spot on the wall. It may be that she had a soft spot for ancient philosophy of which I was unaware. But that image captures what was the dominant western mindset at the time the Bible was written: that to be human means that we possess a body and a soul. When we die, our body rots away, but our soul is freed for eternity. The soul is limited by the reality that the physical body imposes, and once death arrives our soul is finally able to achieve the state for which it was intended.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly parting with Life, William Blake (1813)

For too many Christians, that view has received a quick baptism and has become our dominant belief. We are born into this vale of tears and suffering, and for a while we do our best. But eventually, these bodies fail us and our spirits are freed to go to heaven where the troubles of the physical existence will be forgotten.

When we think about humans as having an immortal soul, we get into trouble. For one thing, that diminishes the significance of the bodies we’ve been given. If there is no value to the human form, then why bother to help those who are suffering through famine or natural disaster? I mean, if this life is so horrible, then why not rejoice when you get to leave it and go straight to heaven? And if this physical existence is not significant, then why should I care about climate change or pollution or the health of the planet?

If my immortal soul is the only thing that matters, then who gives a hoot about what I do with my body or to yours?

But you would say, I hope, that those things do matter. That the ways we interact with each other, the things we do with and to our bodies, and the ways we relate to the cosmos that surrounds us – they all matter.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c.1512)

That is, I hope, because you’ve come to embrace the biblical truth that the notion of an immortal soul trapped in a decaying and virtueless body is simply a lie. When the Bible talks about how life came into being, we’re told that God scooped up some of the dust – which he’d already made and pronounced as “good” – and breathed into it the breath of life. When the breath of God met the dust of earth, the man was given nephesh – a life force. Neither the breath of God nor the dust of the earth is the totality of this experience of true life… our existence is the product of both these things.

Scripture is pretty clear about the value of our physical selves. Leaf through just about any book of the Bible and you’ll find laws about what God’s people should or should not eat, or wear, or do with their bodies. More than that, there are expectations as to how we treat each other and animals, too. We are even instructed to care for the earth.

All of this points to a value of the tangible, physical, corporeal self. The truth of scripture is that whatever makes you who you are is some combination of your body, your mind, and your heart.

That is to say, there is not some essential “Daveness” that can be isolated merely from the things that I think or feel. I am a white male human who has taken 56 trips around the sun. I have a lot of hair, high cholesterol, and a body mass index that is way too high according to that scary chart my doctor has hanging in his exam room. All of those things contribute to me knowing who I am. I am not, nor have I ever been, and nor will I ever be a “real” Dave that is tethered to an irrelevant bag of bones that my soul just has to cart around until I die.

The Bible teaches that the creation of all that is, seen and unseen, was beautiful and right and true… until somehow, it was not. That which was perfect became sullied and imperfect; things that were designed for life began to suffer death. But the Creator, not wanting to see the universe so twisted, began to talk of making things right. The means of this making things right is resurrection.

There is a current reality, which you and I are experiencing right now. You are aware of the hardness of your seat, the temperature of this room, and the effectiveness of your morning coffee. When this current reality has run its course, it will be replaced by a new reality that not only contains the essence of that which we know now, but fully matches the intentions of the Creator. The prophets all talked about the “new heavens and the new earth.”

Job pointed to this in the passage you heard a few moments ago. He was in the midst of pain and alienation and estrangement, and yet declared that somehow, in all of his Job-ness, he would encounter the Divine. He saw his flesh heading to destruction, but he trusted that such was not the end. There would be, in some fashion, a re-making.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, lays out a careful theology of resurrection. In chapter 15, he points to the resurrected Jesus as the indicator of that which is to come in all of creation. Using the analogy of a garden, he compares our current physical selves with seeds that undergo several transformational steps, and yet retain their full integrity at every stage.

For instance, I could show you a seed, a tree, a blossom, a piece of fruit, and a pie. If I were to ask, “What kind is this?”, the answer in every shape and form would be “apple.” The appearance and in fact the cell structure, aroma, sound – all would be different in each of these expressions of that which we call “apple”, but each of these is, undeniably, “apple.”

As a gardener and baker, I seek to be attentive to “apple” in whatever form I find it – treating each iteration of “apple” with attentiveness and respect even as I do what I can to appreciate what it is, what it has been, and what it might become. I can only be faithful with what I have in front of me at the moment and seek to create a future in which that which is now only potential might, in fact, be realized.

You and I, along with the entire created order, are, I believe, headed toward a reality in which beauty, grace, integrity, love, relationship, truth, worship, and God are all central. Those are things that matter forever. Our task, therefore, at this particular juncture of space and time, is to be attentive to those things in such a way that prepares us to experience eternal reality. We are called to practice those things in whatever way we can right now even while we wait for a fuller and richer understanding and experience of them in the future that God has prepared.

Listen: when I was in high school, I was hired to teach a young man named Billy how to play the trombone. Each week, I was given $7 to sit next to him on the piano bench in his living room. I showed him the positions of the slide, talked with him about his embouchure, and noted the importance of emptying the spit valve in appropriate places. I was a fair trombonist at the time, and the band in which I played won some renown.

That was forty years ago. I’m not sure I could find my trombone these days – but I know that it’s dusty and unused. I couldn’t tell you how spell embouchure to save my life. Yet if you were to Google my former student, you’d find that he’s a professional trombonist who has performed in many, many venues and led great musical ensembles.

Why?

Because he did what I stopped doing: he practiced. In 1977, I was a waaaaaaay better trombonist than Billy was. And yet today, he’s wearing tuxedos and blowing his horn in ways that he would not have believed then and I can only dream about now. Because he practiced.

“The trombone will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (I Cor. 15:53) I know, your translations say “trumpet”, but I’m convinced that there’s been an error in the Greek manuscripts…

The resurrection of the dead is not just some amazingly complicated mystery that preachers fall all over themselves to explain. It is where we are headed. And since it’s our future, I’d suggest that we practice resurrection living right now.

I know… we’re not very good at it all the time. We fail, and we try again. We fall, and we get back up. We sleep, and we are jolted awake. We suffer, and we look toward healing. Each of these is a mini-resurrection that is in some way preparing us for that which is to come.

In his amazingly profound book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

We are God’s people, called to practice God’s way of resurrection life. We do this all in the context of the relationships we have, using the bodies we’ve been given in the knowledge that one day our understanding and experience and our selves will be complete.

How does it work? I’m not sure, exactly.

But I want to keep practicing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

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

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Texas Mission 2017 #4

By the time we get to the third day of a mission trip, we’re really  about as much “on a roll” as we’re going to get.  Generally, folks have some idea what we’re doing and how to do it… Conversations have been deep and warm, and similarly, if I got on your nerves a little bit on Monday, by Wednesday afternoon I’m literally killing you.  If you like BBQ, you’re in heaven; if it’s not your favorite, you’re ready to change channels; the time together is charging up all of the extroverts and the introverts are simply craving some “me time”…

Today was a great day.  In terms of the work, we have almost finished the exterior painting and knocked out a lot of the interior.  When we left today, the toilet flushed (ending our thrice-daily invasion of the local “El Tigre” Exxon station), the tile was just about into the bathtub, and the doors had all been hung and several were even framed.

In terms of the “chemistry of the company”, well, it’s just wonderful.  We’ve enjoyed Joe K’s amazing cooking skills and laughed at some of Pastor Dave’s hilarious jokes.  Encouragement has been shared, stories told, and our Bible study has been deep and rich.

At the end of the day, we visited the home of a family we were privileged to serve two years ago.  I’ve been friends with Juani and her son Julio on Facebook since then, and it’s a tremendous joy to see that the house to which we contributed has really become a home that sustains a family.  We had a delightful visit, and at the end of the day Juani invited us to return tomorrow for dinner.  Needless to say, we are very, very excited!

Here are a few images to help you get a glimpse into our week…

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Joe doing the detail work of cutting in the edges of the closet.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Gabe, Kati, and Lauren looking a little too pleased with themselves at the ceramic saw.

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines.  One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory...

Joe K. and Bob (we found him!) installing the water lines. One of the advantages of this climate is that frozen pipes are just a bad memory…

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

Lindsay putting the paint on the door frames prior to their installation.

And now Tina trims them to fit!

And now Tina trims them to fit!

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Jon is a man who is simply out standing in his field.

Dave applying the trim - a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Dave applying the trim – a deep purple to accent the slate gray/blue siding.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

Enjoying a reunion with the Paz family, with whom these six individuals served in 2015.

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, "An army marches on its stomach.  There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days...

There is some debate as to whether it was Napoleon or Frederick the Great who said, “An army marches on its stomach. There is no dispute as to how Joe has equipped us for the challenges of our days…

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize...

A little game of Apples to Apples helps us to socialize…

...and meanwhile, back at "Introvert's Corner", a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

…and meanwhile, back at “Introvert’s Corner”, a few of the fellows recuperate from an intense day together.

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!

Save Me From Myself

On January 29, God’s people in Crafton Heights continued to walk through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  We heard the story of his encounter with Abigail (referenced in the text below) and compared it with a confrontation between Paul and Peter as described in Galatians 2:11-14.

 

The last time we saw David, he and his men had returned to their hideout in the wilderness. As you may recall, David refused to act violently against King Saul and was content to let God write the next chapters of that story. So he finds himself in the “hill country”, or the wilderness of Paran. There are about 600 men with him, and in our reading for today, we’ll see that hiding out from a delusional king is a) not a full-time job and b) doesn’t put food on the table.

The wilderness can be a dicey place. I’ve been in the area where David was on that day, and I’m here to tell you that that part of present-day Jordan is bleak indeed. Even now you can go for miles and miles without seeing much of anything, and there are plenty of cliffs and caves in which ne’er-do-wells and miscreants can hide. In fact, when Jesus told one of his most famous stories, he pointed to the danger of the wilderness. Do you remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan”? The man who was on his way to Jerusalem who was beaten to within an inch of his life by the bandits on the road in the wilderness?

Apparently, while David and his men were hiding in the wilderness, they set up shop as a sort of security force for the Israelites in that region. All winter long, David and his men are in and out, back and forth with the various shepherds, making sure that everything is well.

One man in the area seems to be particularly wealthy. Hebrew speakers can see where this is going, because the man’s name, “Nabal”, is the Hebrew word for “fool”, or one who is senseless.

At any rate, near the end of the sheep-shearing season, David sends a small group of about 10 men to Nabal’s estate. They ask for anything he has “on hand”, knowing full well that with four thousand head of livestock who’ve just been shorn (and are presumably just about to give birth), well, there are plenty of liquid assets around. David’s men remind Nabal that had they not been there to secure those assets, he’d have a lot less on hand.

Nabal, however, treats David’s men – and by extension, David – with contempt. “David? Never heard of him. He’s nothing. He’s nobody…”

And for some reason, something in David snapped when this happened. When his men report the treatment that they’ve received from this Fool, David gathers 400 soldiers and heads out to Carmel, where he intends to murder Nabal and his family.

This is the same David we saw last week, by the way: the one who was relying on God to avenge the wrongs that King Saul had brought into his life; the one who was content to wait on God’s justice; the one who expressed deep and abiding faith in God’s provision… Do you remember that David? That was a guy who was acting like we want a king to act.

And, unfortunately for Nabal, that David was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we see a hot-blooded, angry, calculating man bent on destruction, revenge, and murder… In other words, the David of I Samuel 25 is acting a great deal like King Saul has been acting.

La Prudente Abigail (Giordano Luca) 1696-97

La Prudente Abigail (Giordano Luca) 1696-97

There is, however, an interruption. Nabal’s shepherds do an end-around and go behind their boss’s back to his wife, a woman named Abigail. They tell her what David’s men did for them all winter, and they inform her of Nabal’s callous treatment of their protectors. Without her husband’s knowledge, Abigail prepares a feast for David and his men. She whips up a party platter that includes 200 loaves of bread, 5 roasted sheep, and piles of grain, raisins, figs, and wine. She rushes out to meet David, and when she does so, she apologizes for her husband’s foolishness. Then, she issues a word of prophecy about David. Listen for the Word of the Lord in 1 Samuel 25:

“Please forgive your servant’s presumption. The Lord your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the Lord’s battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the Lord has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the Lord your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant.”

Essentially, she says, “Look, David, you are a good man. You are called by God; wrapped in God’s plan, God’s love, and God’s purposes. You are doing what God wants you to do; God is protecting you already. If you visit this punishment on Nabal, you will do evil; you will depart from God’s best for you and disqualify yourself as a moral leader for the people of Israel.”

And, just like that, David snaps to his senses. He blurts out, “Wow, thanks! I really needed to hear that. You’ve saved me from myself, and I’m grateful.” And just as Abigail had said that God was acting in and through David’s life, now it’s David’s turn to recognize the hand of God in Abigail’s actions and words. Listen:

David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak.”

Then David accepted from her hand what she had brought him and said, “Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request.”

When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal and he died.

When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Praise be to the Lord, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept his servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal’s wrongdoing down on his own head.”

Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, “David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife.”

She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, “I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord’s servants.” Abigail quickly got on a donkey and, attended by her five female servants, went with David’s messengers and became his wife.

And, as you heard, Abigail went home and explained what she’s done to her husband. And whereas the truth enlivened David, it actually killed Nabal. Once more, David sees not just human history, but the hand of the Lord at work. He senses that it’s a good idea to have a truth-teller around, and so he marries Abigail, and she becomes a trusted confidante of the man who would be king. After all, she had prevented him from compromising his integrity and his very purpose in life. David was quick to recognize that Abigail had empowered him to be more faithful to his God, his calling, and his community than he might have chosen to be on his own.

Paul Rebukes Peter (Guido Reni), 1609

Paul Rebukes Peter (Guido Reni), 1609

Our New Testament reading contains much the same story. Peter had heard a clear word from God regarding the inclusion of Gentile believers in the community of the Church; he had supported the expansion of the body of Christ and had in fact acted toward these “outsiders” with grace and acceptance. He did all of that – until the pressure from the hard-line conservative Christians tempted him to act in a fearful and exclusionary fashion. He starts to treat them as second-class members until the Apostle Paul shows up and opposes him publicly. Paul’s aim here is not to shame Peter, nor to win an argument in which everyone comes to agree that Paul’s a better debater than Peter. Paul calls Peter out by saying, “Look, Peter, you are better than this. You know the truth, for crying out loud. Keep your integrity, and preserve the power of your witness.”

 

comfortablelie1There has been a lot in the news lately about the phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”. As you may know, this refers to “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.” (Wikipedia) If you want to see this in action, bring up “gun control” or “abortion” or “global warming” in any conversation, and watch how people filter reality – or in some cases create what we now call “alternative facts” – to demonstrate how any sane, right-minded person must obviously agree with them. Confirmation bias is simply our tendency to hear what we want to hear and to surround ourselves with people who are willing to tell us exactly what we want to hear.

Who saves you from that? Who does the opposite of that for you?

That is to say, do you have anyone in your life who is not content to simply tell you how wonderfully correct you are, but who instead calls you to be a better self than you currently are?

Now, pay attention to me. This is important. I am not sending around a sign-up sheet asking “Who wants to be an Abigail or a Paul, and go out telling people what’s wrong with their lives and where they need to improve?” I’m not encouraging any self-appointed prophets to go out and straighten out the political views, solve the personal problems, and rectify the incredibly poor financial decisions of the people around them.

I am asking, in some ways, the opposite question. Who will you trust enough to invite into your life so that you might know more of the truth about yourself? How are you designing relationships so that when you need to hear the truth, there is someone who is close enough to speak it to you?

Our natural tendency is to surround ourselves with sycophants – so-called “yes men” who tell us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves and the world.

The problem is that these people disappear when times get tough and leave you to wallow in your own mess. We need someone who will love us enough to tell us the truth. We need people in our lives with whom we can be honest so that our integrity – our moral compass – is protected.

Some of you know that every other Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. I sit with a group of seven other pastors in the room back there. You might think that all we do is drink coffee and laugh. Some days, you’d be right to think that. But on our best days, we allow ourselves to talk about the stuff that really matters. We give each other permission to ask difficult questions. We trust each other’s perceptions. We don’t all agree theologically, politically, or socially. But we love and trust each other, and rely on each other to be honest reflections of ourselves.

A few of you might say, “Hey, who needs a group like that? I’ve got a spouse who does that for me.” And if that’s how your life is, that’s great. Sharon and I have found that sometimes we are too close to each other or to the situation to be objective enough to tell the truth in this way.

In recent years, I’ve made a habit of spending regular time with a few people in a one-on-one context wherein I’ve been given permission to ask some important – and sometimes intrusive – questions. These are people who don’t want to stay where they are, and think that having someone like Pastor Dave interrupt their lives from time to time might be a good thing.

My point is this: David was an incredible man of God. For a long time, it was obvious that God was going to use him in some very significant ways. But in his life, as in mine, there were landmines and potholes. Every single day, David’s anger, pride, lust, or insecurity sought to get the best of him. Every single day presented David with choices that provided a tremendous opportunity either strengthen or undermine his witness; to enlarge or diminish his integrity; to accentuate or compromise his effectiveness for the greater good.

David needed to let someone into his life so that he might be protected from himself. And on that day, in the wilderness, that person was a woman named Abigail.

I need to let someone into my life so that I might be protected from myself.

So do you.

Your task for this week is simple: ask yourself if what I’ve said this morning about David is true. See if you think it might be true about me. And consider whether it applies to you.

And then?

Well, then you act. Who tells you the truth – even when the truth is the last thing that you want to hear? What, if anything, needs to change in your life so that you are more likely to be open to relationships like this? How can we help you get there?

Amen.

In light of the controversy surrounding the recent Presidential Order concerning immigration and refugees, I offered the following comments in the context of our morning prayer time:

I suspect that many of you were anticipating that I might say something in the sermon about the political firestorm that is brewing as a result of the fact that the President of the United States of America has issued an executive order that severely restricts immigration from seven war-torn, predominately Muslim nations, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Some of you may have been disappointed that I made it all the way through a sermon which seems to be focused on a person who is called to greatness and rooted in goodness who is tempted to act in a way that is beneath his faith and contrary to his God.

Others of you may have been relieved that I didn’t get all political in a message.

The bottom line is this: if you were waiting until today to hear me say something about the call of the church to advocate for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead; if you are still wondering what I think about the response that Christians ought to have to those who are running for their lives; if you’re not sure what I believe about what the Scriptures have to say about welcoming the stranger and caring for those who bear the image of God… then, well, I’ve been doing it wrong for 23 years.

This is not the hour for a political meeting or a policy strategy session. This is the time for us to stand in prayer and solidarity with those who are vulnerable; to ask God’s blessings of wisdom and discernment and prudence in the lives of those who have been tasked with leading our nation; and to ask God’s mercy on us as we, who have so much, must now choose what to do with it.

I have made available a statement made by the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, who is Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’ve met J. Herbert on several occasions, the first of which was in the city of Juba, South Sudan, on a day in which I had been tasked to be the preacher in a United Nations “Protection of Civilians” camp housing 35,000 internally displaced people. It was overwhelming… mile after mile of people who had been driven from their homes by ethnic or political terror – clutching to what remained of their lives in structures made from plastic tarps and bamboo sticks. J. Herbert was on his way to the camp that I just left – and I cannot imagine a place on earth that is closer to the despair of hell than that camp. I would encourage you to read that letter.

I would encourage you to read Matthew 25, about the care for “the least of these”; and Leviticus 19, about our charge to deal well with the poor, the foreigner, and the refugee; and Luke 10, about knowing who is your neighbor and how to treat that neighbor.

I’m not here to drive you to any particular action or political strategy. You, as a congregation, pay me to encourage you to read and respond to the Word of God. So I’m doing what you asked me to do – pushing you, encouraging you, inviting you to take the words of Jesus seriously. This stuff about loving neighbor, exposing ourselves to risk, walking with the most vulnerable – I’m telling you, it’s not my idea. I learned it from Jesus. Pay attention to him! May God have mercy on us because we do so – or fail to do so – at our own peril.

Was Jesus Happy?

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 Psalm 47 and John 15:9-17.

 

Are you familiar with the game known as “Would You Rather?” It’s a conversation-starter featuring questions in which players are asked to choose between one of two options. You can’t say “both” and you can’t say “neither”. Some are simple matters of preference: “Would you rather be a firefighter or an astronaut?” Others seem irrelevant to me: “Would you rather eat the same meal every day for the rest of your life or give up Instagram?” And some are downright cruel: “Would you rather listen to Nickelback every day for the rest of your life or read the entire 56 page iTunes terms and conditions every day for the rest of your life?”

Here’s one for Advent: Would you rather be happy or joyful?

Maybe that’s a trick question, so let me ask you to ponder this for a moment: is there a difference between joy and happiness? On the one hand, we tend to use those words differently. On the other hand, the dictionary uses those words to define each other:

Happiness (noun)

  1. the quality or state of being happy;
  2. good fortune; pleasure; contentment; joy.

Joy (noun)

  1. the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation…

Maybe me asking if you’d rather feel happy or joyful is akin to me asking whether you prefer rain or snow. Is there a difference between water and ice? On the one hand, there is no difference at all. Ice is water. Water becomes ice. In either case, we’re looking at two atoms of hydrogen for every atom of oxygen. But on the other hand, we surely experience rain and snow differently, don’t we?

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, once wrote “The fact is always obvious much too late, but the most singular difference between happiness and joy is that happiness is a solid and joy a liquid.” (from Nine Stories, De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”)I like that.

Joy is a form of happiness to be sure, but it is not exactly the same. It’s the kind of happiness that comes to us in surprising ways, that runs over us, or that seeps into us even when we’re not quite sure what we’re looking for.

Happiness, in my mind, can be very fleeting and tends to be related to some sort of outward circumstance: “I won the lottery!”, or “He went to Jared’s”, or “That was the best steak I’ve ever eaten in my life.” Joy, however, tends to be longer-lasting and is related to something that is more inwardly-focused: “My life is so much better since I stopped worrying about money!”, or “I am loved!”, or “Everybody seemed to really enjoy themselves at dinner tonight…”

Maybe another way to think about it is this: we are often happy because of some physical sensation or material object (“Have you seen my new car?”); we tend to experience joy as a result of a spiritual awakening or a burst of gratitude (“It is so wonderful not to have to wait at the bus stop every morning!”).

gaudeteI bring all of this up, of course, because this month we are looking at the traditional Advent emphases of the church. As such, I note that on this, the third Sunday of Advent, we celebrate what the church has called Gaudete Sunday – the Sunday of Joy. The name comes from the beginning of the liturgy that the early Christians used in Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (Rejoice in the Lord always: again I say, rejoice). You may not have noticed, but in addition to lighting our first two Advent candles – purple to symbolize the reflection and repentance appropriate to the season – this morning we lit the one pink candle. Many churches use the pink candle to remember and proclaim that even as the days become longer and darker, there is a sense that joy is on the horizon. You may not be happy about the fact that it’s freezing outside and it will get dark at 4:30 and our boiler is struggling to keep up with the draft in here… but we can celebrate the truth that none of these things matter in comparison to the gift of the Christ child.

This kind of thought is especially meaningful to me this year as one of the most important part of my Advent disciplines is preparing the team of five young leaders from Crafton Heights for a visit to our sister church in Malawi.

It has been my great honor and deep joy to worship with the church in many, many places around the world: from Malawi to South Sudan to the Soviet Union or Mexico or Haiti or Korea or South America… I am thrilled to have been present in so many different kinds of worship. Yet one thing strikes me, and frankly, annoys me. When I am with a group of Americans at worship in the developing world, the almost universal reaction is this: “Wow, Dave, did you see that? I mean, these people are so poor! Their lives are so difficult! And yet they are so happy!”

smilesI want to tell you, nothing chaps my hide as quickly as having some well-meaning person look at an economically challenged community and say, “Sure, they’re poor, but look how happy they are. I could never be happy like that.”

The reality is that reasoning comes from a false equivalence. We fall into that line of thinking when we assume that our happiness is dependent on our outward situation. People aren’t happy being poor or facing difficulty. Yet they can be filled with joy even in those circumstances as they hold to a higher truth. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”[1]

That rings true in our Gospel reading for today. I don’t think that many people would consider the events of Maundy Thursday and call Jesus “happy”. We have read from John’s description of the Last Supper. He is on his way to what scholars have called “the agony in the garden,” where Luke tells us that he experienced such stress that he was sweating blood. He spent the night preparing for his own suffering and death – this was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “good day”.

And yet, here he is, however improbably, telling his best friends (all of whom would scatter in the moments to come) about the joy that he has, and about his longing for them to experience the same joy in their own lives.

You know the truth: viewed through any lens but that of faith, this is a nonsensical proposition. There is simply no call for Jesus to be happy about his impending pain, suffering and death. Of course. And I cannot believe that he is happy about those things.

But what if Jesus is not, in fact, happy about his impending torture and the agony of the crucifixion, but rather is filled with some sort of joy as a result of participating in God’s plan of redemption, healing, and hope? What if the thought of other people, such as his disciples or even us, sharing in that mission was enough to give Jesus the ability to look past the anticipated pain and torment of the days ahead and into a reality where human hearts were shaped according to God’s design?

And what if our friends in Malawi or elsewhere in the developing world are not happy because they are privileged to live in some of the harshest places on the planet in terms of infant mortality, HIV/AIDS infection, or access to clean water… but rather, they are filled with joy at the prospect of being able to participate in the body of Christ at work around the world? What if, instead of wondering why someone can be so happy while they are so poor, we committed ourselves to sharing in the transformative work of Christ in a way that focuses less on what we have and more on who we are?

I know I’ve been quoting a lot of theologians this morning, but here’s one more. This is from the late Theodor Geisel, who considered this very mystery in one of his more celebrated works:grinch

And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, “How could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.”

And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more.”[2]

What if the point of life is not to be happy, but rather to share joy? If that’s the case, then we can seek to spread the joy of Advent each day no matter what our current situation. Pope Francis, preaching on Gaudete Sunday in 2014, said “Many people in the rush toward Christmas fret about all they still haven’t done for holiday preparations,…Think of all the good things life has given you.”[3]

Can we do that? Can we, gathered here in this place, make today a day of joy?

Here’s what I want you to do. When you get home, don’t worry about the fact that you’ve got that list of cards to send or gifts to wrap. Instead, take a breath and make a phone call or write a letter to one person and express gratitude for that person and his or her place in your life.

And now some of you are saying, “Great, Dave. Thanks for that. You should know that the person I’d most like to share that with has died, and this is my first Christmas without her or him.” If that’s the case, then go home, take a breath, and remember that person. Give yourself permission to weep for your loss, if need be. Grieve over what has been taken… but – and this is a very big but – rejoice that you had that time with that person. Give thanks for what you have received.

Today, I want you to remember that while we sometimes think of happiness as being fleeting, joy is a kind of happiness that comes from a deep, deep place – it is a gift that is received.

To put it quite simply, spiritual experience, whether it be of faith, hope (or expectancy), or love, is something we cannot manufacture, but which we can only receive. If we direct our lives to seeking it for ourselves we shall lose it, but if we lose our lives by living out the daily way of Christ we shall find it.[4]

The joy of the Christian life comes as a result of a process. When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he talked about his desire that their joy may be made “complete”.

This gift of joy is one that comes over time, and it is cumulative. In John 16, or James 1, or Psalm 16, or I John 4, or John 17, or Philippians 2, or II John 12, of dozens of other places, some biblical writer talks about having a joy that is some how “made complete”. Today, ask God to help you view your reality and your gifts and your opportunities in such a way as to be able to take a step closer to that kind of completion.

Today, let us join with Jesus and the shepherds, with Mary and Joseph, with the people of God in Malawi and South Sudan and a dozen other places around the world to spend less time looking for ways to make our lives easier, or more fun, or less mundane, and more time searching for opportunities to participate in the Big Thing that God is doing. The Big Thing might hurt. I’m guaranteeing that it’ll cost you. But the result, my friends, is joy. I promise. Better than that – God promises.

And wouldn’t you rather be joyful?

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] The Heart of Henri Nouwen, quoted at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/14116

[2] Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas (New York: Random House 1957)

[3] “Pope Francis: Enough Gloom, Try Joy Ahead of Christmas”, The Whittier Daily News 12/14/14, quoted http://www.whittierdailynews.com/social-affairs/20141214/pope-francis-enough-gloom-try-joy-ahead-of-christmas

[4] “Yielding to God”, Philip Britts in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Plough, 2001), entry for December 9.

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.