The First Ordination

In Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the second Sunday of Advent included Mark 1:9-13 and Isaiah 42:5-7. This was also the occasion of the baptism of one of our youngest saints, Lorelai.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

 

Perhaps you’ve seen Saving Private Ryan, the number one film from 1998 starring Tom Hanks as Captain Miller and Matt Damon as Private Ryan. Despite the movie’s title, Damon’s character doesn’t speak until page 131 of a 162 page script. Conversely, the 2012 hit The Hunger Games shows us Katniss Everdeen within the first minute of the film. Apparently, there is no “recipe” for character development in a Hollywood story.

Similarly, the authors of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John all take different approaches in introducing the main character of the Gospel accounts. Matthew and Luke give us a build-up in which we meet the parents, smell the shepherds, and greet the Wise Men. Heck, Luke even throws in a couple of blockbuster musical numbers in The Benedictus and The Magnificat.

Mark, on the other hand, brings us straight to the main event. There is a brief prologue, which we considered last week, wherein John the Baptist tells us something about the Messiah who is coming, and then – boom – we see the adult Jesus walk onto the scene. As we continue our study of Mark in the months to come, you’ll come to see that our narrator is always in a hurry, always moving from one point of action to another.

John is in the Judean wilderness, preaching up a storm. In fact, he starts a revival. People are crowding into the desert to catch a glimpse of this prophet – some, no doubt, because they want to see what the fuss is all about; others, perhaps, because they are genuinely hungry for God and they need to change their lives; and still others, presumably, because they are eager to protect the faith and make sure that this newcomer doesn’t mess things up.

About fifty miles to the north, in the town of Nazareth, a carpenter named Jesus sets down his tools and joins the pilgrimage into the wilds where he, too, will encounter John.

Although they are cousins, there is no glimmer of recognition from John as he baptizes the young workman. So far as John or anyone else who was there that day knows, Jesus is just another one of the dozens, or scores, or hundreds of people who heard the sermon and took the plunge.

Baptism of Christ, Dave Zalenka (2005)

And yet when the baptism is over, according to Mark, Jesus saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending. Moreover, Jesus heard the voice of the Lord pronouncing the Divine blessing and presence. In Mark, that vision and voice is reserved for an audience of one – Jesus himself. No one else, apparently, saw or heard anything.

Now, here’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for those of you who are with me for the long haul in our reading of the Gospel of Mark: the author is big on secrets – particularly, on keeping Jesus’ identity a secret. Time and time again, we’ll read of someone getting an inkling of who Jesus really is and what he’s here to do, only to have the Lord shush that person and swear her or him to secrecy. For now, this part of the story is Jesus’, and Jesus’ alone to know.

It begs the question: what did Jesus know and when did he know it? To what extent was Jesus subject to the limitations of his human form, and in what ways were those limitations transcended by his divine nature? When did Jesus know that HE was the Messiah, the savior of the world? On the night of his birth, laying in the manger – did his infant brain possess some kind of supernatural knowledge? When he was growing up, hearing the songs his mother sang, he knew that he was different, of course… but what did he know and when did he know it?

In Mark, the declaration comes right here. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased…” So far as we know from the Gospel of Mark, this is when Jesus discovers, or at least embraces, his identity.

And it happens during a baptism.

Which would suggest that baptism is, at least in part, about forming one’s identity. Jesus, presumably, grew up memorizing passages such as the one you heard earlier from Isaiah. He knows that he is set aside for God’s purposes… and yet it is here, in his own baptism, where Jesus is told who he is and prepared for what is to come.

And, in true Markan style, he doesn’t have to wait long for what happens next.

Do you remember those advertisements that often air at the end of football season? The ones where the cameraman catches up with the hero of the winning team and says, “Hines Ward! You and the Pittsburgh Steelers just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do next?” And the answer, of course, is “I’m going to Disneyland!”

In that narrative, one discovers who one is – a champion – and one is ushered into a magical place of beauty and wonder.

There are a lot of people in the Christian tradition who subscribe to that view theologically. “Hey, Sinner! You’ve just been baptized! You’ve been made right with God! What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to a life full of unicorns and rainbows, where there’s always enough money, never any problems, and healing for whatever ails me.”

The Temptations in the Desert, Michael O’Brien (see more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Interestingly, however, that is not what takes place in Mark. In our reading for today, the result of baptism is that Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness where he experiences difficulty and testing.

The “wilderness”, in biblical tradition, is a place that is home to forces that are hostile to God. In Mark, especially, we can see that it is, in some ways, the opposite of the Garden of Eden. Instead of a safe retreat filled with friendly animals and the presence of God, the locale to which Jesus is ushered is inhabited by wild beasts and in which he encounters the testing of Satan. The purpose of this testing, apparently, is to discern an answer to the question, “Is Jesus really who God has just said that Jesus is?” Again, the author of Mark handles this question with brevity, and there are not many details, but that seems to be the point of our reading from this morning. In his baptism, Jesus is told who he is, and in his temptation, that identity is immediately questioned.

So what?

I mean, really: all of this happened nearly two thousand years ago. What difference could it possibly make to Christians in 2017?

Well, the early church thought so much of this event that they made baptism normative for anyone who would call himself or herself a follower of Jesus. Within the first generation of its existence, the apostles had decided that pretty much anybody could get into the church. It didn’t matter if you were male or female, slave or free, Roman or Palestinian or Greek or Ethiopian; you could be a prostitute, a soldier, a politician, a fisherman, or a magician…as long as you got baptized. Baptism was a huge deal for the early church, and that emphasis continues up to this day. In fact, in our little corner of the church, we say that there are only two sacraments – two divine rites in which we share: communion and baptism.

What’s that about?

For starters, we embrace the idea that in our case, just as it was in Jesus’, baptism is about confirming your identity. Just as Jesus was told who he was when he rose up from the waters, so our own baptism informs our understanding of who and whose we are.

Those of you who have been around a while know that it’s my practice, as often as I can, to hightail it out to the hospital when a baby is born so that I can read Psalm 139 to our new sister or brother. And, when Lorelai was a day old, that’s what I did – I wrestled her out of her grandmother’s arms and started reading her the lyrics to a song that is 3000 years old.

Why do I do that? For the same reason that we baptize babies: because we need to be working each and every day to teach children who they are. The world would very much like to lay its own claims upon the children of humanity: we are taught that we are consumers, or warriors; we are told that we are defined by what we do or what we own; we are being sold the idea that the most important thing about us is our gender or our race or our nationality. And while the Church of Jesus Christ would surely say that some of those things matter a great deal, first and foremost, we are children of God who are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are baptized. That is the source of our prime identity.

In addition to being formative to this concept of the self, baptism is a preparation for that which is to come. Just as the vision and the voice from above at his own baptism prepared Jesus to engage in ministry with and for the world around him, so we are called to and prepared by our own baptisms to bear witness to the presence and authority of God in our world.

Jesus was sent – no, he was driven – into the wilderness. The language in the Gospel of Mark is strong and emphatic. There, in the place of desolation, he is tested by Satan and ministered to by angels.

And since that is the case, God’s people ought not to be surprised when we find ourselves in the midst of testing and trial. After all, like Jesus, we have been baptized.

And so, like Jesus, we are called to point to and work toward the Divine purposes in a world that is, more often than not, hostile to those purposes.

You and I, this week, are called to point to reconciliation even when there is a lot of money to be made by creating alienation and selling security. In the last month, there have been 19 people killed and 88 wounded in mass shootings in the United States.[1] And do you know what happens every time there’s a mass shooting? More guns, more ammunition is sold. We have been told that security and safety are to be bought from companies like Remington or Smith & Wesson. And that is a lie.

You and I, this week, are being called to point to trust, even where there are entire industries built on cultivating fear. We are called to point to love that is genuine and self-giving, even when our world tells us that love – and people – are commodities to be bought and sold.

You and I, this week, are called to continue to point to hope even when it seems so dim that we can scarcely see it ourselves. A couple of years ago, when the most recent horrifying violence was breaking out across South Sudan, I attended a conference of church and government leaders who were considering what we could do. The most poignant moment of that meeting was when my friend Michael looked out at the room after having been asked, “Well, what do we do?”, and he said, “I have to hope. I don’t have any good reason to have hope; and I don’t see much incentive to hope, but I have to hope, because hope may be all there is right now.”

In other words, we who are baptized are called to live and move and breathe in places where, oftentimes, the purposes of God are neither apparent nor valued.

After worship, we’ll have a really quick congregational meeting at which we’ll elect a few officers. In our tradition, elders and deacons are ordained – they are called to the side where they are prayed over and prepared for some special work. I was ordained as a Deacon when I was 16 years old, and I was ordained as a Pastor when I was 33. Neither of those occasions, however, marks the first time I was ordained.

Stained Glass Window from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Port Clinton, OH

My first ordination came on December 25, 1960 in the Presbyterian Church of Dansville. In that drafty old building in Western New York a man with rough hands and coffee on his breath held me over the water and did to me what we’ll be doing to Lorelai in a few moments…and what, in all probability was done to most of you a lifetime ago. I am wearing the handprints of some of you that can prove it…

Baptism is a setting apart, an acknowledgement of God’s reign and rule in your life and in our world; it is also a preparation for the testing that will surely come. Earlier this week, I was given a book of poetry by some of the inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, and inscribed on the cover was a remark attributed to CS Lewis: “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

You who are baptized should not be surprised when you find yourselves in places that are challenging or even apparently hopeless. That’s where the baptized are sent.

There’s a little line near the beginning of the baptismal liturgy to which I hope you’ll be attentive this morning. I’ll say, “Let us remember our own baptisms as we celebrate this sacrament.” Some of you can clearly recall the event as it happened. You were old enough to appreciate and remember it. Whether that is the case for you or not, each of us is called every single day to remember that it happened.

This morning, may you remember your baptism – your first ordination. And may you press on in the midst of whatever wilderness you find yourself; may you find angels there to minister to you in your weakness; and by the grace of God, may you seek to become an angel as you encounter someone else in pain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/mass-shooting

What’s the Plan?

On the first Sunday of Advent, 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for the day included Mark 1:1-8 and Psalm 85. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

When I was eighteen years old, I was supposed to be on top of the world. In August of that year, the grown man across the street from my home stopped me and said, “David, congratulations on finishing high school. Now, you’re going to college! This is the best time of your life! I’d give anything to trade places with you!” And by November of that year, I was in college. I was “free” from all the limitations that come from living at your mom and dad’s home. My family, my church, my friends – they all sent me off telling me that wonderful things were in store for me. All of us had some pretty high hopes.

And yet, in spite of that, two weeks before Thanksgiving I found myself in a dark place. I was lonely, a little afraid, and overwhelmed with schoolwork. I missed my old life and, well, let’s be honest – I was already starting to worry about what in the world I’d do with an English Major… My reality seemed miles away from the expectations we’d had.

My hunch is that you know something about real life not matching up with what you’d thought it might be. Maybe you spent years, or even decades, in loneliness, wondering if you would ever find a life partner – and now you’re beyond frustrated because of the arguments you’ve been having over Christmas bills… Perhaps you’ve worked for months to bring the family together for a vacation, but then when you get to where you’re going, everyone is bickering about schedules or lost on their phones for the whole time.

Things don’t always work out the way that we think that they will, and, even more often, it’s tough to see how things can possibly work out when you’re in the middle of some crisis. Ask the parents of a newborn who’s got the croup and diaper rash how much time they spend wondering some nights exactly why all of this seemed like such a good idea…

The Ascension, Dosso Dossi (16th century)

The earliest followers of Christ lived in the first century Roman Empire. These people believed with all their hearts that they had seen the ultimate purposes of God in Jesus of Nazareth. They had been witness to miracles and healings. They were sure that the knew what Jesus meant when he said, “the Kingdom of God is among you!” Sure, they had suffered a great deal during the events of Holy Week and especially on Good Friday, but they knew the truth and the power of the resurrection. They had been there, many of them, for the miracle of Pentecost. Most importantly, they believed him when he stood at that mountain and promised to come again. Christ is coming again! He will return! He said so!

Now, normally, we have some sort of context to understand when a person says, “I’ll be back.” For instance, if you’re watching a movie with a friend whose phone keeps on ringing, she might sigh and say, “OK, just a moment. I’ll be right back.” And if you’re a good friend, you’ll pause the movie while your friend is out of the room.

On the other hand, you may go out to coffee with your brother who tells you that he’s been reassigned to the Virginia office, but not to worry, he’ll be coming back. You surely don’t pause the movie for him, but you plan the holidays and birthday parties around the expectation of seeing him again, and soon.

So when Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven on that hill in Jerusalem and said, “I’m coming back”, well, you can’t blame the disciples for saying, “That’s fantastic, Lord! When?” And sure, his answer was a little evasive – “that’s not up to me” – but you know that the Christian community was upbeat. “All right, Lord, you go and do what you need to do. We’ll be over here. Waiting. We’re pretty excited about this!”

And they wait. Five years pass. Then ten. Twenty. Thirty. All this time, babies are born, people get married, people die… The world marches on. Some of the disciples experience conflict and persecution, but still – Jesus does not return. The community began to ask, “Well, Lord? When are you coming? How long?”

And there was silence in the heavens.

On the 18th of July in the year AD 64, a fire erupted in one of the slums of Rome. It spread quickly and raged for three days. Ten out of the fourteen districts of that city suffered damage, and three were reduced to ashes entirely. Hundreds of people died, and thousands more were homeless.

Rumors quickly spread that the Emperor, Nero, was actually responsible for the blaze. In an effort to deflect that criticism, Nero put the blame on the small group of Christians who lived in the city. These followers of Christ were a fringe group who were broadly misunderstood by most Romans. They were called atheists, because they did not believe in the Roman gods and goddesses. They were called cannibals, because they were said to eat the body and blood of their founder. And they were called incestuous, because even spouses called each other “sister” and “brother” and their most sacred rite – an agape love feast – was only open to members of their own community.

Nero’s Torches, Henryk Siemiradski (1876)

This group was an easy target for Nero, and so many believers were handed over to the magistrates and sent to their deaths on crosses, in the arena, or even burned alive to provide “entertainment” in Nero’s gardens.

And at that moment, you know that those who followed Jesus were saying to themselves and each other, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this what we are called to?”

In addition to all of that, as the first generation of Christians was dying, it occurred to someone that unless something happened soon, the stories of Jesus that “everyone knew” would be lost. Who would remember them for the next generation?

Taking Notes: Peter and John Mark, Craig Erickson (2014) Used by permission of the artist. See more at http://www.craigerickson.net/home.htm

Around this time, the tradition of the church tells us, the old Apostle Peter was sitting in a Roman jail cell awaiting his own execution for not respecting the divinity of the Emperor (Peter, essentially, “took a knee” when confronted with the claims of the Empire). He was tended to by a young man named John Mark, who was the nephew of one of the most respected leaders in the early movement, a man named Barnabas. John Mark had failed miserably in his attempt to join with Barnabas and Paul in a mission trip, but now comes to the aging disciple and helps him to record his stories of Jesus.

Peter and Mark are not trying to write history here, but rather to deliver a message. We know this because in verse one of the little book that bears Mark’s name, we read arche tou euangellio Iesuo Christu, Huiou Theou – “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The book of Mark is the only piece of literature in the New Testament to actually call itself a “Gospel”. This little booklet can be tough to read, because it’s barely more than an outline. The incidents described are roughly chronological, but there are few attempts at contextualizing them. Sometimes, the Gospel interrupts itself with some detail or even another story. It is a lousy history book.

It is, however, a tender and compassionate pastoral response to a community in crisis. People want to know, “Is God still in charge? Is Jesus coming back? Does faith matter? What’s the plan, Lord?”

The Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Peter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

This morning, our congregation is going to begin a walk through the Gospel of Mark. We’re not going to rush, and I suspect it will take us most of a year to get through to the end. It’s a curious choice, perhaps, to begin this Gospel during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas. After all, there’s not a wise man in sight, and no sign of angels or blessed babies or even genealogies to open this Gospel.

And yet the theme of this morning’s reading – and, in fact, the entire Gospel – is that of expectancy. I think that British author C.S. Lewis captures this sense of anticipation and delight well in his series The Chronicles of Narnia when creatures throughout that kingdom continue to whisper to each other – even in the dead of the winter that has no Christmas – that Aslan is on the move.

Just as John the Baptist appeared in the midst of the desert announcing hope to those who are weary of the oppression of both an occupying army and a religious establishment that had lost touch with its reason for being, so the Gospel of Mark appears at a time of crisis and persecution to say that God has not forgotten his promise. Christ has come, Christ is coming, and Christ will come again. The Savior who appeared in the Judean wilderness proclaiming that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” is still wandering in the wildernesses of our own lives.

This Advent, as every Advent, is a reminder of the fact that Jesus is alive and active and still on the move. It is a season of profound hope for those who find themselves pinched between expectation and reality, and it is a season of reflection as we are called to consider what it would mean for you and me to repent – to turn around – and live in an awareness of Jesus’ presence in this time and place.

The first Advent of Christ was to a war-weary people living in a land of great injustice and deep fear. Advent of 2017 finds us living in a world that is seemingly on the brink of nuclear conflict… where it so often appears as though some bodies – notably the brown ones – matter less than the white ones, and where the color of money seems to be the most important hue of all… it comes to a culture where we are increasingly aware of the violence that is perpetrated against women and those on the fringes of society every single day.

The Gospel of Mark, then, comes to you and me at exactly the same time it came to its first readers: at the time when we are crying out, “What’s the plan, Jesus?”

And the Gospel – the euangellion – the message is the same: it is Good News in all of those horrible circumstances and more. Our call for this day is to listen to, and then get in line behind, John the Baptizer. To make the paths straight, and to prepare our hearts and our corners of the world for the inbreaking of the purposes of God as we come to know them in Jesus Christ. So let us, dear sisters and brothers, be alert as we enter into this part of the story – for the first, or for the fiftieth time. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Packing Light

My wife and I were raised in the faith community of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  As a part of their sixtieth anniversary this congregation invited me to preach the sermon on October 29, 2017.  Coincidentally, this was the room in which I was ordained to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament on October 28, 1990.  Perhaps NOT coincidentally, the worship service at Trinity on 10/29/17 began with the commissioning of a “Disaster Response Team” (ostensibly for relief in parts of West Virginia, but I have my suspicions that this had something to do with my ordination…).  The scriptures for the day, included in the audio portion, were Matthew 22:34-46 and Colossians 3:12-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the link below:

In her profoundly beautiful and deeply disturbing novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of a fiery evangelical Baptist who leaves the hills of Georgia in 1959 in order to take his wife and his four young daughters to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo. The book opens with young Leah describing how the family packed for what they imagined would be a year in the heart of “the dark continent”. Her mother had spent weeks laying out what she thought of as “the bare minimum” in the spare room: Betty Crocker cake mixes, Underwood Deviled Ham, a dozen number two pencils, and so on. However, they encountered a challenge:

Just when we considered ourselves fully prepared and were fixing to depart, lo and behold, we learned that the Pan American Airline would only allow forty-four pounds to be carried across the ocean. Forty-four pounds of luggage per person, and not one iota more. Why, we were dismayed by this bad news! Who’d have thought there would be limits on modern jet-age transport? When we added up all our forty-four pounds together, including Ruth May’s—luckily she counted as a whole person even though she’s small—we were sixty-one pounds over…
We were nearly stumped. And then, hallelujah! At the last possible moment, saved. Through an oversight (or else probably, if you think about it, just plain politeness), they don’t weigh the passengers. The Southern Baptist Mission League gave us this hint, without coming right out and telling us to flout the law of the forty-four pounds, and from there we made our plan. We struck out for Africa carrying all our excess baggage on our bodies, under our clothes. Also, we had clothes under our clothes. My sisters and I left home wearing six pairs of underdrawers, two half-slips and camisoles; several dresses one on top of the other, with pedal pushers underneath; and outside of everything an all-weather coat. (The encyclopedia advised us to count on rain). The other goods, tools, cake-mix boxes and so forth were tucked out of sight in our pockets and under our waistbands, surrounding us in a clanking armor.[1]

Having led more than one planeload of would-be missionaries to Africa, I laughed when I read about the strategy of the Price family – because I know that it’s true. At the heart of that narrative is a question with which anyone who’s ever left home has struggled: How will we be able to survive in this new and foreign place without the things that we are sure we’ll need?

In fact, as I stand here thinking about that family and their struggle to enter a new place, I cannot help but reflect on the events that took place in this very room on October 28, 1990. Some very wise, thoughtful people representing both this congregation and the Church of Jesus Christ stood in front of the body that had assembled and testified that you, and they, had done everything possible to prepare me for a vocation in the pastorate. And they weren’t lying, I can tell you.

In 1990 – myself with my daughter, my father, and my wife.

I’d somehow managed to cram a three-year graduate degree into 8 years of study. I’d been to four seminaries, worked in three Presbyteries, and had already been employed by two different denominations. I had boxes and boxes of books that were filled with underlining and highlighting, a plethora of wall hangings, and files and files of paper. I belonged to caucuses within the church and had served on committees; I had stood up for issues and made sure that people knew my positions on the important matters of the day.

And when I stood in this chancel on that day, I felt like I had a lot to carry with me into this new land of ministry. It was a wonderful day in so many ways. My good friend Kate Killebrew Salmon preached a whale of a sermon, and then I knelt on the slate floor here and people like Stu Wysham and Barbara Price Martin put their hands on me and prayed and I felt the weight of all I’d been given and everything I’d carried with me, and it seemed as if my knees would be ground right into the floor.

But that day was not just about me – it was about this church sending one of its children into the world. And I think that for the church, it was a good day.

You came by it honestly, of course. Just a few decades before, you’d been started on a journey yourselves by the good and wise people of New Castle Presbytery. You found yourselves plopped down on a few acres in a growing area, and held the worship services in the old farmhouse.

Brandywine Hundred was up and coming in those days. There were plenty of new families moving into the community, and a number of them ended up here… and so the Venables and the Tills met folks like the McCoys and the Carvers and the Chubbs and the Smrz’s. There was a great opportunity for growth, and the church had to get crack-a-lackin if it was going to claim northern Delaware for Christendom and Presbyterianism.

You started in a farmhouse, but you had an entrepreneurial spirit and big ideas. Soon enough, we had the Naaman’s wing. There was space for worship, a giant tree under which we could enjoy lemonade in the warm weather, and the remnants of an orchard where I could pick cherries or pears or apples while I waited for my parents to quit talking and get me home to play.

Growth and fruitfulness were the order of the day, in fact. The sanctuary was added, and later on the “new building”, or the Darley wing, which contained all sorts of spiffy new rooms in which you trusted the likes of a teenaged Dave Carver to teach your second-graders their Sunday school lessons. It was a good place to be, and a fine place to grow up.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, like thousands of other congregations scattered across North America, functioned as a vendor of religious services to a culture that was overwhelmingly Christian. The hope, I believe, was to produce fine citizens and servant-leaders who had a heart for Jesus. I learned something about life and ministry and went to college where I continued to work with children and youth – although I will confess that a good bit of the time my early work with young people seemed to be about keeping “our” kids chaste and sober until they came to their senses and embraced the “faith of our fathers…”

Trinity Presbyterian, Dave Carver, and the entire North American church, by and large, did this because we were pretty convinced that the future would closely resemble the past. We built ministries around the culture and the landscapes that we knew. We filled our days and hours making sure that we were orthodox – that we had the right ideas and beliefs about the world, because we knew that having the correct answers mattered – it mattered a lot.

And then… the world changed. It didn’t happen overnight, necessarily, but it sure changed quickly and dramatically.

This church, and a thousand like it, was built in the expectation that people who had been faithful somewhere else would move into this neighborhood and continue to practice the orthodoxy they’d learned in some other place. We’d have kids, of course, and reach out to the few people who didn’t have a place to worship regularly (without being pushy, of course). Mostly, though, we’d keep doing what we’d always done, teaching the answers that had always worked so well for us.

Except it didn’t really work out that way, did it? I mean, when I stand at the corner of “Real Life” Avenue and “21st Century America” Street with my collection of diplomas, books, orthodox ideas and doctrinally correct positions, I am regarded with as much suspicion by the natives as was the Price family when they arrived in the Belgian Congo laden with Betty Crocker mixes, pinking shears, and Absorbine Jr.

And we – the church of Jesus Christ – have had to learn (again) that what matters most is not what we carry, but rather staying in touch with the One who sent us – to Brandywine Hundred, to Pittsburgh, and to 2017.

The Pharisees and Saducees who encountered Jesus on that day in temple were not bad people. Heck, if any one of them walked through the door this morning they’d probably be approached by the nominating committee in the hopes that they’d be willing to serve as an officer here. They were wise, seasoned believers who were trying desperately to keep the faith that they’d received from their ancestors. The problem, of course, was that the “faith” had been confused with a lot of other things, and by the time that Jesus entered the Temple, these decent men and women were holding on to all kinds of things that they did not need.

Matthew 21, 22, and 23 describe a series of encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. They wanted to see his diploma, check his orthodoxy, and make sure that he’d read all the right books. And in return, Jesus looked at them and said, “You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be. You know this stuff, for crying out loud. Love God with all that you are and with all that you have. And love your neighbor.”

Which isn’t so scary, really, in a world where my neighbor looks like me, believes like me, and votes like me.

And today, two thousand years later, there are decent women and men of faith who look at Jesus and say, “I hear what you’re saying, Lord, but to tell you the truth, my neighbor is a Muslim. My neighbor has three kids to three different fathers. My neighbor is an addict, or is homophobic, and I’m pretty sure that my neighbor voted for that person.”

We look at Jesus and we say those things as if we somehow expected Jesus to stop and say, “What? For real? Well, gee whiz, I never thought of that! Of course, if you’re going to love God, you can’t possibly be expected to tolerate people like that in your life…”

And some of us are so surprised by the fact that Jesus doesn’t take us off the hook that we simply pretend that he says all that stuff anyway.

But of course, he leaves us on the hook. He tells us to travel light. He keeps on asking us to trust him more than we trust the books that line the walls of my study… to trust him more than we trust our own ideas or inclinations.

Jesus Sends Out the 72, by James Tissot

And we remember that when Jesus sent anyone anywhere, he never said, “Hey, make sure you take an extra suitcase of good stuff, because you never know what kind of knuckleheads you’re going to run into out there…” He told us to pack lightly, and to trust that the One who was sending us would make a way for us when the time was right.

Listening to and following Jesus can be way scarier than anything you’ve got planned for Halloween. But I think that the only way to stay rooted in the Divine intention is to practice that kind of faithfulness.

When I take a group to Africa, I tease them about the 17 bottles of sunscreen, or the rolls of Duct tape, or the boxes of granola that they cram into their suitcases. I tell them about the Price family and The Poisonwood Bible.

But as I consider how Leah Price and her sisters layered up before they got on the airplane, I remember the words of Paul that invite us to take small suitcases but to wear lots of layers. “Put on”, says the old saint, “layer upon layer of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness. Don’t pack these away – wear them every day. And at all times, keep yourself wrapped in love for God and neighbor.”

There’s one thing that I have carried ever since October 28, 1990. So far as I know, it’s never gone out of style and it never will. It’s a tiny communion kit that was handed to me by Carson Herr as a gift from this congregation. It’s gotten beaten up. It’s tarnished and dented. The felt inside the case is getting threadbare, and the outside is held together by Duct tape and replacement hinges. The original plastic bottle wore out and sprung a leak about a decade ago.

But whenever I use it, or see it, I remember the words I learned here. Do this. Do this – offer yourself in love to the people who need what you have because you remember how God, in Christ, has offered God’s self to you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I can’t find my diplomas. I lost a lot of books when my study flooded in 2010. I’ve changed my mind on a lot of issues. But this? Well, I think it’s all I need.

And, thanks be to God, you have one too. May God bless you in the next sixty years of doing, remembering, and loving. And don’t forget to layer up when you go out there. Amen.

 

[1] The Poisonwood Bible (Harper paperback, 2003, pp. 16-18).

Getting Ready to Run

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 2, we considered a “bit part” in that saga, that of Ahimaaz, the messenger who didn’t have a message.  Our texts included II Samuel 18:19-33 as well as Luke 12:35-40.

 

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

My hunch is that to most of you, the name “Ahimaaz, son of Zadok” doesn’t mean a whole lot. Have any of you ever heard or read about Ahimaaz? I didn’t think so. He’s a bit player in scripture. Stands off to the side, although he had a shot at something bigger, perhaps.

From the Maciejowski Bible, 12th c.

Ahimaaz’s story comes to us as a sidebar to the year-long study of David in which we’ve been engaged. Do you remember Absalom, David’s son? Last week, we talked about Absalom’s revolt against his father wherein he captured the capital city of Jerusalem while King David was forced to flee. Ahimaaz was the son of Zadok, one of the priests that was loyal David. When Absalom took over the city, David arranged for a few spies to remain behind. Ahimaaz was the runner who would get the information from the spies and then deliver it to David. There are several episodes in chapters 16 & 17 where this young man acted heroically in the service of his King. In fact, it was Ahimaaz who eventually delivered the information that resulted in Absalom’s defeat.

When we left the story last week, the conflict had ended and the victorious David was heading back to Jerusalem. At this point, David was aware of the outcome of the battle, but knew nothing of Absalom’s fate. Late in the day, Absalom was fleeing and was discovered by a group of David’s men. When they reported this to David’s general, Joab. Joab immediately killed Absalom and in the aftermath, David’s troops gathered round.

One of the young men we see crowding up to the front of the scene is Ahimaaz. You heard this a few moments ago, and you know that even though Ahimaaz has been a trusted messenger during this civil war, Joab sends a stranger to report Absalom’s death, because he knows that David has a habit of killing messengers who bring bad news. Ahimaaz wants to run. He wants to deliver the news that the battle is over. Joab says, “Look, son, run another day. You weren’t here, you didn’t see everything. Just leave it.” And, as you heard, Joab dispatches a foreigner to carry the news to the king. But the more he thinks about it, the more Ahimaaz pesters Joab. Finally, perhaps because the Cushite had had a head start, Joab releases Ahimaaz. Listen:

Ahimaaz son of Zadok again said to Joab, “Come what may, please let me run behind the Cushite.”

But Joab replied, “My son, why do you want to go? You don’t have any news that will bring you a reward.”

He said, “Come what may, I want to run.”

So Joab said, “Run!” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain and outran the Cushite.

While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone. The watchman called out to the king and reported it.

The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.

Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!”

The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”

The watchman said, “It seems to me that the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”

“He’s a good man,” the king said. “He comes with good news.”

Then Ahimaaz called out to the king, “All is well!” He bowed down before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Praise be to the Lord your God! He has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my lord the king.”

The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.”

The king said, “Stand aside and wait here.” So he stepped aside and stood there.

Then the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.”

The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”

The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”

    Ahimaaz is so intent on bringing the news that he outpaces the foreigner. He appears, first in the distance, then up close. He finally arrives, breathless, and David asks him what’s happened. Ahimaaz reveals the truth about the outcome of the battle. David say, “What about the boy? How is my son?” And here, Ahimaaz loses his composure. “Ahhhhhh, yes your majesty, there was a crowd, you see. Lot of people . . ..” David implores him for news, and Ahimaaz hems and haws and stammers around until David finally pushes him aside and tells him to shut up. The Cushite runner appears and tells David the good news that is really bad news to this father’s heart, and the last glimpse we have in scripture of Ahimaaz is of a breathless, confused messenger who doesn’t really know what the message is. The one who was so anxious to be involved in the situation becomes irrelevant and powerless. It happens around him, or to him. He is powerless to affect the situation any more.

You might not know who Ahimaaz is, but I bet you know how it feels to be him. It may be that a friend comes to you and says, “I know I’ve blown it. My marriage is in a shambles, and I don’t know where to start. What do you think I should do?” and you find yourself thinking, “Ohhhhhhh, yeah, I know that the Bible says something about relationships. What was the pastor saying that one time?…” Or it may be that you’ve received a call from your local auto repair shop asking you to sign off on a repair order that’s higher than you think it ought to be, but knowing that he’s going to submit it to insurance anyway. You don’t want to offend him, but you’re not sure it’s right…

We know how it feels to be Ahimaaz, I think. It is all too common a situation to find ourselves standing by the wreckage of some situation over which we might have had some control, feeling powerless, not sure of what we should say or do, feeling irrelevant. “I wish I’d known… I couldn’t… Who would have thought that… Isn’t there something…”

 

Image from theartofmanliness.com
Yes, there is a site by that name…

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, seeking to prepare them for a life of ministry and service in a world that is not always excited about ministry and service, and he tells them to be ready. “Let your loins be girded – be dressed ready for service” he says. Do you remember seeing pictures or movies from Bible times? All the men wearing these loose robe-like things? Now, imagine trying to run a race wearing one of them, or fight a battle, or chase after a wayward child. Couldn’t do it, could you? Neither could they. When someone in scripture talks about “girding his loins” he means, wrapping the robe up a little higher and tighter, allowing more freedom of movement. If your loins are girded already, it means you’re ready to respond in an instant – no delay at all.

Jesus then says that they should let their lamps be burning. Again, this is a signal for action. Finding light in those days was not as easy as flicking a switch, or even striking a match. It took some measure of work and preparation to ensure that you could light your lamp. Jesus says to be ready. Be prepared. You don’t know when you’re going to need it, so have it lit.

         He tells a parable to explain what he’s talking about. The owner of the house is away at a wedding feast. His servants are home, waiting for him, ready to spring to action the moment they hear his keys in the door. Their great fortune is that he is coming home in a fantastic mood, still singing and dancing. He’s got an extra bottle of bubbly in his coat and two sacks full of groceries in his hands. He doesn’t talk about where they’ve failed or how they’ve fallen; he sits them down and cooks up the best: bacon, eggs, Belgian waffles, strawberries, home fries — and serves them all breakfast. He is coming home from a party that he doesn’t want to leave – so he brings the party with him.

If you’ve ever baby-sat, I bet you know a little about this. It’s getting later and later, and they said you could fall asleep, but you don’t want to. Finally, almost 3 in the morning, and here they come. They’ve got a sack of goodies from the party for you to eat, they overpay you, and take you home with the radio blasting. You are rewarded for your faithfulness by being included in the celebration.

Here’s the deal. It’s a typical summer Sunday in Crafton Heights. You’re relieved that we don’t have a super long service planned, you’re irritated by the lack of air conditioning or padding in the pews, and you’re glad to see that the Cross Trainers camp is going pretty well so far. So far, so good. We may have sung your favorite song, or maybe we missed it. It doesn’t really matter… the question is, when we leave here in half an hour or so, what difference will any of this make? What are you going to do — what are you, my parents, my children, my brothers and sisters in the faith — what are you going to do so that the Crafton Heights Church does not end up like Ahimaaz — so that at a time when you or your community most need to know the truth, when you are in the greatest need of being ably to rely upon the message, you are not standing off on the sidelines, out of breath, tired, and irrelevant?

You can be awake. You can have your lamps lit, be aware and on the look-out. And that is no easy task, especially in matters of the spirit. In his memoir, Living Faith, President Jimmy Carter talks of visiting an Amish community. As they gathered for worship, he asked his host who would be delivering the message, and was told “We don’t know”. The host went on to explain that on the table in the front of the room was a stack of hymnals; at the beginning of worship each man would go up and select a book. Whoever got the book with the red ribbon in it was the preacher for the day. Carter said, “Well, how do you know when to be ready?” His host replied, “In my experience, it is always a good idea to be prepared!”

We have a tendency to think that things are “good enough”, and so we leave them be. We get comfortable in our own little lives. A part of being awake, I would suggest, is to try new edges in your life. Where is your faith old and comfortable and maybe even a little bit boring? And what could you do to shake that up a bit? Is it time for you to step forward and participate in a new ministry? To join with some friends in a prayer circle, or volunteer at the Open Door, or ask a friend to recommend a book or a mission experience that could be transformative?

When Christ calls us to be awake, to be alert, I think that it means to avoid becoming so well-rested, so satisfied with where we are that we aren’t able to grow any more. I’m not saying that everything new is great — but will you open yourself up in one way or another to keep growing?

The second thing that Christ mentions is to be ready for action. To have our collective loins girded up.

As a congregation, that’s not so hard. Are our programs ready to nurture and disciple children and young people? Are the Deacons in place and trained to respond to the needs of the congregation and tuned in to the opportunities in Allegheny County and around the world? If I am is doing my job, this church ought to be ready, or moving towards readiness — at least in the way we run our programs.

But what about our private lives?

Are you ready? Do you know the truth for your life that is contained in scripture? Are you studying the Bible in public – with a class or small group — and in private – on your own at home? Because if you don’t know it, you can’t share it. You can’t love it. You can’t teach it. You can’t lean on it. I’m not suggesting that you need to be a Seminary professor. But I am suggesting that a part of readiness includes knowing what the Master wants us to be like.

Are you able to “be real” with another person? Is there a place in your world for you to be honest in your hopes and dreams, in your doubts and fears? That’s a part of being ready too – being able to address the uncomfortable areas in our life.

When I read through this parable in Luke, I found myself cheering for you, rooting you on. I saw you — I want to see you — in the faces of the watchful servants who are awake and ready when the master comes.

Partly, I want this for your sake. I want to see the joy on your faces when you share in the celebration that the master brings home with him. I want you to celebrate the kingdom the way that your Creator has invited you to.

But mostly, I want this for the sake of the people who aren’t in the room right now. People who don’t know the Lord yet, but who, as a result of the ministry that we are sharing, will come to know the Lord. People who form the community around the church. I don’t know most of those folks at all. Yet I know that these people are people with questions. People want to know what’s important. What is worth dying for? What is life about? Who can I trust? What should I do? What do I need to do to be loved?

And you will be here. And too often, do you know what the Christian church looks like? Too many churches in Allegheny County have stood here like Ahimaaz — panting, confused, and irrelevant. And the people in this community – children and adults – who have questions about love, life, values, and priorities will get the answers from someone. At some point, at least some of them will cross paths with you. If you help them find answers, they will be blessed. And if they don’t, they’ll wander away.

You ought to know that I love being your pastor. This is a great place to be, beloved. But let us never forget that we are not called to be here simply to enjoy each other’s company on pleasant Sunday mornings… we are entrusted with a message of hope and reconciliation and power and joy… a message that is ours, not to keep, but to share – again and again and again. When the time for sharing it comes, may we be found to be alert and prepared! Thanks be to God, Amen.

Who Is It?

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David (shepherd boy, slayer of Goliath, friend of Jonathan, King of Israel, “Taker” of Bathsheba…).  On May 21, we heard the prophetic follow-up to the episode involving Bathsheba, and considered the importance of truth-telling and community in our own lives.  The text was from I Samuel 12.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the link below:

 

As we continue in our exploration of the life of King David, let’s take a quick look back at the story we encountered last week. Those who were here will remember that David – who had been called the nagid of YHWH – the “prince of God” – abandoned that role by making quick work of at least four of the Ten Commandments. As he lay around the palace one evening, it seemed, for some reason, like a good idea for him to “send” for and “take” a vulnerable young woman. In the process, he breezed right through coveting and lying en route to an adultery that wound up in murder. It seems like a far cry from the earnest, prayer-filled, justice-seeking shepherd who was willing to go up against Goliath thirty years ago.

As we begin II Samuel 12, the scene shifts. Whereas in chapter 11, it was David who did all the “sending” (at least four times, by my count), this part of the story begins with YHWH sending the prophet Nathan to visit the king. They’re not in the temple, but David is going to church, I can tell you that. The preacher starts in with a story, and the audience of one is compelled to listen. I mean, Nathan’s story just draws David in. The monarch eats it up.

Why? Because it’s about someone else. Who doesn’t like coming to church and hearing the pastor really lay it down all over those other people? You know what I mean: we love getting ourselves worked up in a lather over what President Trump said on that bus or how President Clinton behaved with “that woman”; we can’t wait to show our contempt for the ways that George Soros or the Koch brothers spend their billions… but who in this room wants all of your dirty laundry made public? Who’s ready to share your browsing history, your tax returns or checkbook, or publicly reveal the conversations you thought to be private?

David, along with most of us, prefers that old time religion – where we get all fired up with righteous indignation about what the other guy is doing.

Nathan Admonishing David, Rembrandt (1650-55)

And, apparently, Nathan obliges. He dishes up a story about two men. The first man is simply a stock character – a boorish, boring tycoon who has everything and more. The second man in the prophet’s story is the picture of tender-heartedness. He loves his pet lamb so much that he lets it use his own plate and allows it to curl up on the sofa with him as they watch the hockey game together. Well, as you heard, the rich man wants to organize a little barbeque for a visitor so he sends for and takes the lamb that belongs to his poorer neighbor. You may have guessed this, but the word for “took” that is used in verse 4 to describe the action of the wealthy neighbor is the same one used in chapter 11 to tell us what David did to Bathsheba.

David is blinded by self-righteous anger, though, and it boils up inside of him. He is appalled, indignant, and ready to make things right. He’s the king, for crying out loud, and he’s going to give that wealthy and powerful man what’s coming to him! “Take me to this guy!”, David screams. “I’ll settle this!”

Nathan continues to speak for YHWH, and now it is his turn to raise his voice: “You want to know who that man is? I’ll tell you – You are the man!” Two simple words in Hebrew – ’attah ha’is– bring David the most potent accusation he’s ever faced.

Before we consider David’s actions or reactions, think for just a moment about what Nathan has done here. He walks into a private meeting with a leader who has unbridled power and only recently has had several men put to death for inconveniencing him; he’s played fast and loose with his authority and power in so many ways. Nathan could have been, and should have been scared to death… but he tells David the truth about himself anyway… Because of his great love for David, his great love for YHWH, and his great love for the community, Nathan tells the truth.

And you heard how he lays out YHWH’s case against David. I anointed you, says YHWH, and you acted like you were in charge. I gave… and you took. And now you have set into motion a series of events that are all connected – they are all consequential – and the dominoes will fall one after another. It will be neither pretty nor easy. You will face shame and pain and your family will not be spared either. This is a hard, hard truth that the prophet is sent to reveal.

The Sorrow of King David, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

And just as Nathan brought the accusation with two words, now the king slumps in his chair and utters two words that tell us a great deal about who he is and who he wants to be. “Hata’ti lyhwh.” “I have sinned against the Lord.” It may sound cringeworthy, but believe it or not, this is the Gospel story showing up in David’s narrative today.

Often, we think of confession as a devastating and humiliating act of groveling and self-loathing. “I know, I know… I’m a terrible person who does horrible things… I’m so ashamed… I’m nothing but dirt… I’ll do better next time…” But I think that David’s confession – and that yours and mine, too – can be so much more than that.

In the fifth century, a man named Augustine was teaching about Christianity in North Africa. As he considered the impact of sin and brokenness in the world, it struck him that if not for his sin, he would have no reason to have turned towards his savior. The more he thought about that, the more excited he got until he scribbled down on his scroll the phrase Felix culpa – “O happy sin!” Augustine says that when I see and recognize my own sinfulness, I am in a position to turn to God and seek the healing that I have always needed, now that I am more deeply aware than ever of my desperate situation. For example, let’s say that you fall and break your leg. That’s horrible. Until you get into the hospital and they give you the whole work-up and discover that not only do you have a broken leg, but you have an aneurism that’s about to burst and there’s a shadow on the x-rays in your chest. Nobody wants a broken leg, but if you don’t break your leg, you don’t seek treatment and somebody finds you laying dead on the sidewalk in a week. Sometimes, breaking your leg can be a good thing. Felix culpa.

This is an important truth for us to consider today as we baptize young Marshall into the faith. Today we acknowledge as publicly as we know how that he has been born into a world of sin, hurt, fear, and pain. Some of this he’ll inherit as a result of choices that his parents, family, and friends have made or will make. Some of Marshall’s experience of these things will come from participation in a world that is too often characterized by sins such as racism or violence. And, you can be sure, Marshall will be pretty good at finding sin, hurt, fear, and pain on his own – we all do.

Fully aware of this, the church of Jesus Christ welcomes Marshall today and speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation – even to his infant self – because he needs to grow into an identity that is rooted in the awareness that those things are possible.

We hear this story in the 21st century because we need to remember that the life of discipleship is not built around doing our level best to make sure that we never sin: that would be impossible. Instead, we are here to remember that the life of faith nurtures us to recognize sin and teaches us how to respond when we see it.

Listen: we dare not attempt to raise Marshall nor any of our other children with the expectation that they will make it to adulthood sin-free. We are not training them to tiptoe around the edges of the world, stridently avoiding sin and always doing good, making sure that they measure up to the standards of perfection and flawlessness that some image of God might demand. If we do that, we are creating a climate of judgmentalism and shame and fear; worship will become an exercise in moralism or condemnation, at the heart of which lies an inability to be honest with ourselves or each other… “if those people knew what I was really like…”

But, thanks be to God, or maybe I should say felix culpa, I have the gift of confession. I see sin and I name it, which leads me to a place where I can remember (again) that I am not God and that I have not been called to moral or ethical perfection. I am, instead, called to obedience and faithfulness.

In the isolation and fear and shame that moralism brings, I want sin to be about you, or about anyone other than me. His greed. Her promiscuity. Their violence. There is something in me that wants you to be worse than me so I’m not all that bad by comparison.

But that’s not helpful. And it’s not the truth. And it’s not the Gospel. When Eugene Peterson writes about this story, he says,

This is the gospel focus: you are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done.[1]

The gospel – and truth – is painful, but it leads me to grace, reconciliation, and healing that would be impossible without the recognition that God is God and I am not.

As we hear this difficult scripture this morning, I would ask you to remember at least three things.

Remember that your primary identity is not that of shame or fear. We see sin, and we are called to remember that our deeper identity is hidden with God in Christ. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are shaped in the image of God. We are participants in the Divine nature. That’s who we are. What we do? Well, sometimes what we do doesn’t match up with who we are. When we notice that, we are called to lay those things down and begin anew in reclaiming our birthright as children of God.

And because none of us has perfect perspective, we all need to remember the importance of having a Nathan in our lives. Who will tell you the truth about yourself, even when you don’t want to hear it?

Some years ago I got a call from a friend who lives about four hours away. “I really need to see you, and soon,” she said. “What’s going on?” I replied. “I can’t really talk about it on the phone, but it’s important. Can you get here?” Well I love my friend, and I’d do anything to help her. She needed me? I was in the car within a week. I rushed into the coffee shop where she was waiting for me. “What’s the problem?” I asked, in my best and most concerned Pastor Dave voice.

And she laid it on me. I mean, she went Nathan all over me. She told me some unpleasant truths about myself – and she told them to me in a way that made me glad to have heard them, if you can believe it. And because she loved me enough to tell me the truth, I was able to recognize my sin and step into what was more clearly the light of grace.

Do you remember that you need someone like that in your life? Someone who will help you identify the landmines that you unable to see or willing to ignore? I’m pretty sure that’s a prime reason we are called together, beloved… to learn how to be in relationships that allow us to hear those things about ourselves…

And the last thing I’d like you to remember is that you need to be willing to bear truth into the lives of those who are around you. Now, there are some important warnings with this. First, don’t presume to think that you can speak truth into someone else’s life if you are unwilling to admit anyone into your own. That’s a recipe for failure. And just as critically, remember that truth shared in this context is always a gift. Truth pointing to reconciliation and forgiveness is always a benedictio – a “good word”. I do not dare speak a word of correction or advice or truth to you, nor you to me, unless we recognize that it is a blessing: a holy and beautiful, if heavy, gift. You are always true with someone you love, or for them. You are never true at them or on them.

David’s sin brought him to the place where he could realize that what he needed more than anything else was the love of God in his heart and the hand of God in his life. He needed that more than he needed the power and prestige of the kingship. He needed that more than he needed to look good and strong and holy in front of the community. He needed that more than he needed the companionship of Bathsheba or his dominance over Uriah. David needed to know that God was close. That God was forgiving.  That God was already in the future, reconciling all things to himself.

David’s sin taught him all of those things, and more. And it launched him toward the grace of God.

So the next time you wake up feeling as though you have done the unimaginable; when you are feeling lower than low because of a situation you have brought upon yourself, may you, too, learn to see God in Christ moving toward us in the places of our brokenness so that we are free to live into our best, God-created, identities. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (HarperCollins paperback 1998, p. 185).   I am deeply indebted to Peterson for his treatment of this entire passage.  Anything good and helpful in the message has probably come from Peterson’s insight.

The Giant Who Defeated David

Since September 2016 the Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church has been seeking to listen to, and learn from, the stories surrounding David.  On May 14, we considered his encounter with Bathsheba and the fallout from that.  You can read the story for yourself in II Samuel 11.  We also considered a few verses from I Peter 1

May 14, 2017

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click the link below.

 

Lamia Airlines flight 933 crashed in Columbia in December 2016, and 71 people died. In June, 2009, Air France lost flight 447 and all 227 souls on board. A further 137 lives were lost when Germanwings flight 9525 plunged into the French Alps. In these and dozens of other airline disasters, what is the first thing that the authorities do? They look for the “black box”, right? Those things have been required in commercial aircraft for 50 years. They tell a story.

Here’s a trivia question for you: what color is the “black box” on an aircraft? It’s orange. And, appropriately, nobody in the transportation safety field calls it a “black box”; it’s known as the Flight Recorder. Generally, these devices consist of two units: the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder.

Why do the authorities spend so much time and energy looking for these things after a disaster? Well, you might say that they tell us what went wrong – and if you said that, you’d be incorrect. But more about that in a moment. They do, in fact, often reveal clues about what went wrong in that disaster, but I don’t think that’s the ultimate reason that these things are sought.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

Since September, our congregation has been watching the story of David’s call and rise to be the ruler of Israel. We saw him as a young boy when he was plucked from the fields by Samuel and anointed in front of his older brothers. We were there as he rose to prominence as the one who slew the Philistine giant, and watched as he was unjustly accused and hunted down by King Saul. We have seen him protect those who were vulnerable and seek to unify Israel, which culminated on the day that he was called the nagid – the “prince” – of God. We’ve noted that this has not been what you might call a “meteoric” rise, but slowly and steadily, David has been growing in wisdom, power, and faith. He has behaved as, and has been called, “a man after God’s own heart.”

Until today.

The reading this morning from II Samuel 11 describes a crash and burn which is no less dramatic than the crash of USAirways flight 427 here in Pittsburgh almost 25 years ago.

David And Bathsheba (Marc Chagall, 1956)

You’ve heard the story of how this gifted and faithful man, in relatively short order, manages to neglect his duty to his office, abuse a vulnerable young woman, order the murder of her husband and several other deaths which could be chalked up as “collateral damage”, and finally lie to both the nation and to YHWH about what he had done. The closing verse of this chapter is indeed an understatement: “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.”

Just as the flight recorders on airliners contain a lot of information that can clue investigators into seeing what went wrong, this chapter has a good deal of data that assist us in our investigation of how things went so badly so quickly.

The narrative begins matter-of-factly by asserting that in the spring – that is, during the wheat and barley harvest when armies were on the move… David was not. For all of his life, David had been on the front lines. When it was time to fight Goliath, he went when nobody else was willing to go. On other occasions, he led with bravery and distinction. But here, he is willing to send other people into harm’s way, but not to lead them there. Instead, he orders his nephew, Joab, to take charge while he remains behind in Jerusalem.

Not only is David unwilling to go to battle on behalf of the nation, he is also apparently disinterested in the affairs of state. The text tells us that one evening, David got out of bed and took a walk upstairs to the balcony. The leader of God’s people is evidently sleeping all day and prowling around, bored and distracted, at night.

In his choice of titles, the narrator gives us further clues as to what was happening with David. At his installation as king, and again when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, David was referred to as the nagid of Israel. The typical word for “king” in Hebrew is melek, but David is called nagid, or “prince”. This is an affirmation of the fact that when he was on his game, David functioned as the temporal agent of the real authority – God. As nagid, David was accountable to an even higher authority. Yet here in verses 2, 8, and 9, we see David called melek.

It’s easy to see why that word is used, too. Look at the verbs in verse 2. Unfortunately, not all of them translate freely from the Hebrew, but in fairly short order, David sent, took, used, and sent a woman away. That’s what meleks do. That’s what old Samuel tried to tell Israel all the way back in I Samuel 8 – that kings will take and use and discard. Clearly, that’s what David is attempting to do here.

Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (detail) (Rembrandt, 1654)

Let’s take the spotlight off David for just a moment and look at the poor woman who is, I suspect, unwillingly involved in this drama. We know (although not from David) that her name is Bathsheba. I suspect that she is quite young – perhaps a teenager, because she is old enough to be married but young enough not to have started a family yet. We know that she is religiously observant, and faithful to the laws of God. Because she is forced to bathe in the open air, I think that we’d be justified in thinking her to be a person who lived in poverty – after all, privacy has a price tag that the poorest cannot afford. And she is vulnerable. In spite of being told her name, David does not bother to use it. Throughout the narrative, she is “the woman” or “the wife of Uriah.” She is not granted her own personhood, but rather exists only to be defined by others.

Just last week, in II Samuel 9, we saw how David used Mephibosheth’s name to liberate Mephibosheth from anonymity; David sought an intimacy with the son of his friend that allowed him to build a relationship that was characterized by chesed – the loving, loyal, truthful presence and practice of friendship that led to a blessing that was passed down through the generations.

Today, David is only interested in satisfying his own pleasure, slaking his own lust, and solidifying his own power – a series of behaviors that leads to death and destruction that has generationally similar effects.

When he has used Bathsheba in the way that suited him and then she was found to be inconveniently pregnant, David fell to a new low as he tried to pin the conception on her husband. All weekend, David tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, but the soldier’s thoughts are only with his comrades and with the nation – he doesn’t have time for the distraction of family leave – he wants to get back to the front. And so you heard how in verse 15 David arranged with his nephew to set Uriah at the worst point of the fighting so that the Ammonites would kill him.

If you were here a couple of months ago, you’ll recall that this is the exact same strategy used by King Saul to get rid of David – in I Samuel 18, he asks David to attempt the impossible so that the Philistines will wind up killing David and Saul will not be to blame.

In short, David has become the melek that he replaced; he has become the very thing that he abhors; the very one about whom God’s prophet Samuel warned the people and that God himself disdains. It is a horrible sequence of events: evil took root in David’s heart, and that evil brought him to a place where he willingly sought to inflict pain and grief and misery on others; and that in turn led to a number of tragedies in the lives of Bathsheba, Uriah, the royal family, the nation, and of course David himself.   It is, as I have stated, a crash and burn.

At the outset of this message, I asked why we sought to be attentive to the information contained in the Flight Data and Cockpit Voice Recorders. When someone suggested that we did that so we would know what happened, or what went wrong, I said that I thought that was only partially correct.

The real reason we want to pay attention to that kind of data is so that we can avoid making similar mistakes in the future. We need to know what happened, of course; but more than that, we need to learn from it. We need to come up with some strategies or safeguards that prevent us from ever doing this again.

If I asked you to name the giant that David defeated as a young boy, you’d say, I hope, “Goliath”. And you’d be right. But if I asked you to name the giant that defeated David in his middle age, I’m afraid you’d say “lust” or “desire”. And I don’t think that’s correct. Oh, that may be what knocked him down. But the defeat started earlier with the ways that David nurtured a giant named complacency. Complacency was the one who convinced David to leave the doors of his heart and spirit unlocked, and lust was the one who happened to come in and ransack the place.

It’s obvious that David, at this point in his life, has grown smug and self-satisfied. He’s addicted to his own power and the lifestyle he enjoys – one that is drenched with luxury and ease. Amidst all of that, he has lost touch with his source of real power, purpose, and strength. He has become completely unhinged.

And it might be easy for us to say, “Well, of course. I mean, it’s a mid-life crisis for a wealthy man. He got drunk with his incredible wealth and power and this is what resulted.”

Except we can’t really say that. Let me be clear: everyone in this room is wealthier and, in some way, more powerful than King David could ever dream of being.

The average poor American – someone who makes, say, $25,000 a year, lives in a home that is climate controlled and equipped with a television and a telephone. He or she eats far more calories that necessary and is able to take those calories from abundant and varied food sources.

Although King David lived in a palace, he didn’t have access to running water; and with the threat of smallpox and tuberculosis and who knows what else, the average life expectancy for a man was about 45 years. He would have eaten well in comparison to his countrymen, but still would have been limited to seasonably available food from relatively local sources.

With your bike, your car, and these roads – to say nothing of a plane ticket – you can travel further in one day than David ever imagined possible. With your computer or television or smartphone, you have access to more enticing images of naked bodies than any of the ancients would have thought possible.

My point is simply that David did not have a rich person’s problem. He had a human problem.

David, the “man after God’s own heart”, chose to leave that heart unguarded, and that decision brought calamity to him and to all who surrounded him.

What makes you any different from King David?

What makes your discipleship any more reliable than his? What makes your integrity any greater? Your devotion any more passionate?

Nothing.

You and I are every bit as human as was he. And we are therefore called to be attentive to what we can salvage from his story in an effort to learn from it so that we might not fall victim to the same fate.

There is wisdom for us, church, in the letter that Peter sent to his followers. Peter – another fella who knew something about acting rashly and impulsively – writes to a group of believers scattered through Asia Minor. These are people who know all of the Jesus stories; they’ve said all of the right things and believe all of the important stuff. The translation you heard this morning reads fairly well in English. In it, Peter says, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” But the literal translation is even juicier: he uses the expression “gird up the loins of your mind.”

I bet you didn’t know your mind had loins, and if so, exactly how you would gird them. Here’s the meaning of that phrase: it has to do with ancient wardrobe practices and athletic prowess.

Image from theartofmanliness.com
Yes, there is a site by that name…

In the ancient near east, both men and women would have worn something loose and flowing – much like this alb I have on now. It works well in the heat, provides protection from the sun, and so on. But imagine how silly I’d look – and how dangerous it would be – trying to sprint up Stratmore Street dressed like this. So when it was time for some hard work or quick action, the wearer would have to get a lot of this extra fabric out of the way by hiking it up around the midsection and tying it off. If you knew that quick action or hard work was on the horizon, you’d “gird” yourself – be prepared – so that the wardrobe would not prevent you from doing what was necessary. In the same way, Peter says, we do that spiritually. We are alert. We are ready.

We do this by training ourselves to resist complacency. One of the most important conversations I’ve ever had with anyone occurred some years ago as I was talking with a trusted spiritual advisor. I must have said something that smacked of “Ah, I got this. No big deal,” because she grabbed me by the lapel and said, “David Carver, do not ever forget that you are seducible. I don’t know by what – it may be sex, it may be money, it may be popularity – but know this: you are seducible. Be on your guard.”

The memory of that conversation – probably fifteen years ago, now – is vivid for me as I seek to be moving forward in faith. The primary means of avoiding complacency is seeking to continue to grow in our faith. We cannot ever get to a place where we simply decide that we’ve “nailed it.” There is always room to grow, always something to learn, always a path that leads deeper. David got lazy, or weary, and he stopped looking for opportunities to grow stronger in his faith. That had disastrous consequences for him and for his community.

You and I are called to pursue holiness – to remember that God has something for us, and we are here to figure out how we can grow in our ability to steward that which God has given us.

Every plane you’ve ever been on carries a flight recorder – a “black box”. But I’d guess that none of the flights you’ve been on has needed to refer to the data from that recorder. Why? Because you haven’t crashed. Why haven’t you crashed?

In all probability, you haven’t crashed because the people flying the plane have completed the pre-flight checklist. They have gone over the list of tasks that are necessary for safe operation of the plane. I’m sure that it’s tempting for seasoned pilots in familiar aircraft to think that these are unnecessary; I hope, however, that they take it seriously every time. Just as we count on the folks from Southwest or American Airlines to check and double check the flaps, seals, and stops, so you and I do well to make sure that we are connected well to each other and to God every day; to be alert to and diligent about the small things in our lives that affect our integrity – so that when it comes to the big questions, we’re less likely to fail. Beloved, let us commit to staying focused on our faith, to being honest with each other, to practicing the disciplines of prayer and study and generosity and humility – so that when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, we might be ready to move through it without crashing and burning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

God Isn’t Asking You To Be “Nice”

Continuing in our year-long exploration of the stories surrounding King David, the folks at Crafton Heights listened on May 7 to the stories of Mephibosheth.  Our texts included II Samuel 9 and Luke 14:12-14.  

To hear the sermon preached in worship that day, simply use the audio player below:

I’m excited to continue our exploration of David and his story, because it may be that our reading for today contains one of the best stories you’ve never heard in scripture.

Besides David, the key protagonist in our narrative is a man named Mephibosheth, and he is the son of David’s best friend, Jonathan – which makes him, of course, the grandson of Saul, who had been king prior to David. Go ahead, say it: Mephibosheth. It’s important that we learn that name.

We meet Mehibosheth three times in the book of Second Samuel. In chapter four, we’re given his “back story”. On that horrible day when his grandfather, his father and two of his uncles were killed in a battle against the Philistines, Mephibosheth became an endangered species. People knew that David was hoping for the throne, and the common practice was for the one who wanted power to wipe out all of the males in his rival’s family.

So when word of the death of King Saul and his sons came in to the family compound, a well-meaning nurse grabbed the child and started to flee – thinking that she was saving the boy’s life. However, she dropped Mephibosheth, and he broke both ankles. The bones didn’t set properly, and Mephibosheth never walked again.

He was hustled off to a town on the east side of the Jordan called Lo-Debar. The name means “no pasture” or “no communication.” It was an impoverished, remote place – the kind of town where people don’t ask each other questions and everyone is just trying hard to get by.

We don’t know how Mephibosheth was raised, but there is every temptation to believe that he grew up wallowing in self-pity, despair, and cynicism. After all, he had seen the palace… but was brought to maturity in a wasteland, forced to suffer the dual indignities of anonymity and dependence on others. It’s easy to think that day after day he was taught that everything bad that had ever happened to him was David’s fault, and that he grew up resentful and angry.

The events of which you just heard, in II Samuel 9, take place about twenty years later. David has finally been established as king over all of Israel and he has succeeded in securing the nation’s borders and building a capital. Now, he finds that he has the time and the opportunity to reach out to Saul’s family in an effort to keep the promise he’d made to his best friend, Jonathan. He asks his staff whether there are any survivors to be found.

They call one of the long-time palace employees, a man named Ziba, into the room, and he replies “Well, as a matter of fact, there is one guy. He’s a cripple, and he’s been holed up in Dead Man’s Gulch for as long as anyone can remember.”

David asks Ziba a question, and the reply is that the person being sought is worthless. He’s not named. He lives in the middle of nowhere. And he’s not much good to anyone, because he’s disabled. Ziba does everything he can to minimize Mephibosheth’s personhood.

David calls for Mephibosheth to appear before him, and the young man comes before the king cringing with fear.

I want you to pay attention to this: what is the first word that David speaks to this man who is on his knees, eyes averted?

“Mephibosheth!”

David speaks his name. David acknowledges his worth. Where everything about his upbringing and everyone in his culture would say that he is worthless, David recognizes Mephibosheth’s personhood by using his name.

Mephibosheth kneeling before David; detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th Century)

That’s crucial, because in the next sentence he announces his intention. In our English translation, we hear “I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.”

This is an unfortunate translation, but it’s understandable. When we use the word “kind” in American culture today, we think it refers to being “nice” or “polite”. If you are “kind” to someone else, it means that you’re showing some momentary generosity of spirit… The other night, I was out on the river and a couple of guys were having some boat problems. I had a couple of spare parts they could use. I handed them off the fellas and then drove away. It was a nice thing to do.

You’re driving in rush hour and all of a sudden a minivan filled with screaming kids and out-of-state plates swerves in front of you just before the Fort Pitt Bridge. You slow down to make space for them. You smile. Because you’re a kind person who does nice things.

Except that’s not what the Bible is talking about here. When David says, “I will show you kindness”, the word that is used is chesed. If you look at a variety of translations, you’ll see that people try to express the meaning of this word as “kindness” or “loving-kindness” or “mercy” or “steadfast love” or even “loyalty”. It’s tricky, because there really is no English equivalent. Those of you who have had the exquisite joy of sitting in my study for six or eight premarital conversations might recall the emphasis that I place on the word “troth”, and for my money, that’s the best equivalent there is for chesed – except that nobody but me really uses the word “troth” in a sentence that frequently. Chesed, like troth, conveys elements of love, loyalty, generosity, and faithfulness that are willingly and eagerly extended to one with whom I desire relationship.

That last qualifier is what makes “kindness” or “niceness” poor substitutes: one can only show chesed to someone in the context of a relationship. One does not act in chesed to a stranger, any more than one pledges one’s troth to the person who just sat down next to them on the bus.

Chesed is used 240 times in the Old Testament, and it is almost always preceded by a word like “doing” or “keeping” or “showing”. It is a word full of integrity and intentionality that bears fruit in concrete ways, and it is one of the central attributes of God. For instance,

  • Isaiah 54:10: Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
  • Lamentations 3:22-23: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
  • Or even in Psalm 103, which you’ve already read this morning as a part of our assurance of pardon: For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…

It is important for us to note that in II Samuel 9, David is choosing to act like God in this context. He says that he wants to show and to keep chesed with Mephibosheth and his family. He lives that out by restoring to him his grandfather’s land, which guarantees this family an income and an inheritance. Furthermore, he elevates this formerly anonymous non-person to a place of prestige by insisting that Mephibosheth eat at the king’s table. Can you imagine the difference between dinnertime in Lo-Debar and the feasting of the royal table in Jerusalem?

David is referred to in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart”, and I think that today’s reading is a great example of that. He is seeking out someone who has been pushed to the fringes of society and choosing to engage with him with a generosity of spirit and a steadfastness of purpose that brings healing and hope in the context of an intentional, ongoing relationship.

The third time we see Mephibosheth mentioned in II Samuel, it’s under very different circumstances. It takes place about ten or fifteen years after this meeting and presumably, Mephibosheth and David have been present to each other for all these years. David’s son, Absalom, is intent on seizing the kingdom and so he starts an insurrection. Everyone in Jerusalem has to decide: whose side are you on? David’s? Or Absalom’s?

The rebellion intensifies so much that David is forced to flee the capital. As he’s running out of the city, he encounters Ziba, the man who’s been charged to care for Mephibosheth’s affairs. They greet each other, and Ziba assures David of his loyalty. David asks where Mephibosheth is, and Ziba throws his master under the bus, saying that Mephibosheth has always hated David and that he’s stayed behind in Jerusalem in the hopes that David’s reign will collapse and Mephibosheth can become king.

David is, understandably, irked by this revelation, and so he gives Ziba all of Mephibosheth’s property on the spot.

Absalom’s rebellion ends with his death, and David returns to the city having won a military victory, but having lost a son, and a great deal more. He’s wrapped in grief and regret. When he gets to the palace, he discovers that Mephibosheth is there to greet him – and Mephibosheth is in mourning – he’s unshaven, he hasn’t bathed or changed his clothes – he’s a mess… but he’s so happy to see David! Mephibosheth manages to convince David that Ziba was lying, but the best that David can come up with in this time of grief and crisis is, “You know what? You guys work it out. Divide the property between yourselves.”

At this point, Mephibosheth responds by blurting out, “Property? Shoot – he can take the whole place! I’m so happy that you’re all right. That’s what really matters to me!”

The chesed with which David treated Mephibosheth over the years had come to bear fruit. The fearful, angry, resentful anonymous man who had grown up in Lo-Debar was now a friend who sought to treat David with the same chesed he himself had received. Mephibosheth has totally left the bitterness and self-pity of Lo-Debar and embraced David with the embrace that he himself received. The community has been substantively changed because of this relationship of chesed.

So what?

I mean, really, it is a great story – but what does it mean for us today?

We are made in the image of God. We are made to be like God. It’s not only David who is called to act as a person who is “after God’s own heart”.

Yes, you say. We get that, you say.

But too often, we think that acting like God means being “nice”. We think that being good Christians means being bland, polite, people who aren’t interested in making waves of disturbing anything.

But take a look at David. Consider Jesus of Nazareth, or those who followed him. The day that Jesus died, there was nobody who stood at the foot of the cross and said, “Now, you know what? That’s a real shame. I mean, this Jesus was a nice guy.”

When Peter or Paul or any of the rest of that crew blew into town and started preaching the Gospel and showing the love of Christ, nobody’s first thought was how well-mannered and polite these nice young religious boys were.

These people who were sold out to the heart of God and passionate about the love of Christ reached out to real people, dealt with real problems, and showed real love. They moved in chesed.

As should we.

For some of us, that means that it’s time for us to get up and move out of Lo-Debar. We’ve suffered greatly, perhaps as a result of someone’s intentional action or perhaps as a result of some unfortunate accident… but in either case it’s left us angry and bitter and living in the place of desolation… and it’s killing us. Some of us are called to open ourselves to the God who is reaching toward us in chesed and accept the truth that new beginnings are possible and healing of our damaged selves is the divine intent.

And all of us are called to live our lives in such a way so that there are fewer “nobodies” in our lives. We are called to learn people’s stories and to speak people’s names. You can see that in so many ways here. After worship, in fact, a group of people called the “connectors” will meet. Their goal is to make sure that people in this community are remembered. On the front of the bulletin every week we are told that one of the main purposes of this congregation is “to share life’s joys and sorrows.” The Connectors try to make sure that we don’t do that in the abstract, but that we know the stories of the people we sit next to each week.

We saw it again on Monday evening. A group of young people took a big fat check down to the Presbytery to be used for famine relief. But here’s the deal. Those kids are not interested in “feeding the hungry”. They are committed to sharing their resources and themselves with their partners in faith and their brothers and sisters in Malawi and South Sudan. They want to act in chesed towards those with whom we are connected by a vibrant relationship. We know each other’s names. We’ve eaten at each other’s tables.

I’ll be honest with you – if you want to follow Jesus, being nice helps.

But you can’t do it without a willingness to enter into real (and sometimes messy) relationships with real (and often irritating) people who are in all sorts of real (and often complex) situations. The challenge for you, people of God, is to spend some time learning their names, hearing their stories, and showing them the chesed in which you yourself have walked. Thanks be to God. Amen.