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.

What Difference Does It Make?

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 30, we witnessed the dancing of King David as the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem… and considered how dangerous worship can be..  Our text was II Samuel 6:12-22 and we also listened to Colossians 3:15-17

To listen to the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below.

 

Well, good morning! How are you feeling? Have you checked your vital signs lately? Heart rate? Blood pressure? Cholesterol?

I’m asking because of an article recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers followed a group of nearly 75,000 people for twenty years, and found that women who went to church more than once a week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the study period than those who never went. These people had higher rates of social support and optimism, lower rates of depression, and were less likely to engage in some key self-destructive behaviors. See? You mother was right. Going to church is good for you. And if this study is right, judging by how often I see you, some of you are going to live forever.[1]

One might conclude from this study that worship is a fundamentally safe place and involves little risk. I’d like to challenge that assumption.

Worship is – or ought to be – dangerous. It was in the days of King David. The beginning of chapter six, which was not included in our reading for today, describes how the Israelites organized a great big religious festival in order to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Things were going along more or less as choreographed when all of a sudden one of the oxen pulling the wagon stumbled a bit, and the lay reader for that day, a man named Uzzah, reached out to grab the Ark. No one is exactly sure what happened here, but the result was that Uzzah was struck dead by the hand of God. Apparently, he thought that it was his place to “manage” God, or that God needed his help in order to stay on track, and God didn’t appreciate that.

Well, nothing takes the wind out of the sails of your church service like having the hand of God smite one of the lay readers, so folks scattered and they tucked the Ark into the garage of a local non-Israelite until someone came up with a better idea.

King David was so scared that he didn’t do anything about it for three months, because that was the day he realized that worship could kill you.

And we read that in 2017 and say, “Wow, I mean, I thought I was going to die of boredom a few times, but nothing like that has ever happened around here…”

That may be because we’re more comfortable with the worship that Uzzah was liable to lead. I’m not here to speak ill of the dead, but we all prefer to know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and how much it’s going to cost. We like worship to be energizing, but even moreso we want God to be predictable and well-managed.

If that’s how we treat our relationship with God, then we’re doing it wrong. The act of worship and the life of the disciple is a wild ride that is fully engaging and utterly transformative. It will change us.

One of the best letters I have ever received came to me from a 12th grade student who had joined me on a short-term mission pilgrimage to the developing world the year before. It was about ten pages, hand written, and in it she dropped the “F— bomb” more than you might typically think necessary in a letter to one’s pastor. The first four or five pages were angry accusations that our trip to visit the world’s poor had totally screwed up her life and her plans for her senior year. She wrote, “When I returned from that trip I discovered that all of my friends were shallow, self-centered, and materialistic. Worse, I saw that I was all of those things, too. Of course, we were all like that last year, but I didn’t know it. Now, thanks to you and that stupid trip, I know who I am and I know the world I live in and I know some of what God expects of me. All I wanted was to be dumb and happy and enjoy my senior year, but now I keep having big thoughts about how screwed up everyone’s priorities are. And it’s lonely here.”

By the time she got to page ten, she was thanking me for giving her an opportunity to take this trip, but it was a fascinating bit of self-revelation for a young woman to share… God is dangerous and unpredictable, and if we think that showing up in worship is a nice little way to pass the time and maybe impress your boyfriend’s parents, well, we’ve got another thing coming.

David and Michal in the windows of St. Therese Church in Vasperviller, France

Part of why worship is dangerous is the fact that it reveals to us and to the world who and what we love. In the reading from II Samuel, for instance, David’s wife Michal isn’t participating in worship – she’s watching, from a distance. She was in a prominent place where she’d be noticed, but not expected to actually do anything. And she comes down hard on her husband for behaving in a way that she thought compromised his position. She screams at him, “Is this any way for a king to act?”

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the Hebrew word for “king” is melek. The melek is the one who has unbridled authority and does what kings do: grab, take, seize, rule… all in their own power.

When Michal challenges David, however, he says, “Yes, I am called to this office… as nagid – “prince”. When David was anointed, he was called the nagid of YHWH – extending the power and benefits of God’s realm in submission to the God who had called him to service and sacrifice on behalf of God’s people. YWHW is the King; David is the nagid who serves at the King’s pleasure.

David realized that the act of worship is a means by which we discover and announce to the world the things that are most important to us.

We say things like this all the time at church, of course. But I’m not sure that we really mean them. You all love that old hymn by Isaac Watts that goes, “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.” I know you do. We sing several versions of that here.

Whole Note = “certain terms and conditions may apply. Not valid every Sunday.

You know that hymn ends with what musicians call a “whole” note, right? That is, it’s an extended period where we sing the same note and the same word… Unless we’re honest, and we admit that’s where we slide in all of our terms and conditions…

Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all…unless it’s opening day of trout season…or my kid is in a Sunday soccer league…or I had a date last night that was really fantastic but it just got too late and…” You see? That “whole” note allows us the time to tell God what we really mean.

The act of worship is important and defining. In choosing who and what to worship, we allow those things to shape our priorities and practices. Our worship forms our identity.

In 1957 the New York Giants baseball club uprooted itself and moved to San Francisco. The team was losing fans and revenue and the West Coast beckoned alluringly. Reporters asked the team’s owner how he felt about leaving the kids of Manhattan, and he replied, “I feel badly about the kids, but I haven’t seen many of their fathers at games lately.”[2] In other words, it’s easy to say “Oh, I’m a big fan”, but unless we’re showing up at the ball park, nothing will change.

So, the choices we make about worship are fraught with meaning and reveal a great deal about not only who we worship, but who we are. The final point I’d like to make about worship this morning is that proper worship makes the world a better place, even for those who do not believe.

Detail from the Maciejowski Bible (13th c.). The caption for this image in Latin reads, “How, having completed the sacrifices, David blesses the people, distributing bread and other foods among them.”

When David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, he offers sacrifices of meat and grain. The reading describes how everyone in Israel got a square meal that day. In and through his worship, David blessed both the people of Israel and those in his own home. The things that happened between David and God leaked out of David into the world around him, and that world became a better place because David had been in worship.

There is a great deal of American Christianity that is unsettling to me because we come to worship as consumers. We are feeling a little sad, or wonder about our purpose in life might be, or are afraid of our own mortality, and we think, “You know what? I’m going to get myself to church. That will make me feel better.” And it does. We come out, we sit with our friends and we sing some perky songs; the pastor gives us a nice little pep talk and I feel better about my life. Worship is a refuge. A sanctuary. An escape.

We all need that from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling at home with or encouraged by worship. But the main goal in worship is not to make you happy. Some years ago a fellow pastor told me that as he was greeting people after worship, folks were walking by exchanging the usual niceties. One woman, though, took him by the arm and said, “Pastor, that was a very moving service. I must say, however, that I did not care for the second hymn – not one little bit.” The pastor replied, “Well, then, how fortunate for everyone that we didn’t come here this morning to worship you.” That man knew the truth: the main aim of worship is to point to God and to seek to shape ourselves to become more and more the people God intends us to be for the good of the created order.

When we give our hearts and minds to God, our lives will reflect the things of God. To put it another way, your neighbor’s life should be better because you are here worshiping this morning. If the things that we do and the ways that we do them on Sunday mornings do not lead to this neighborhood knowing more of God’s love and grace and blessing, then we ought to pack up and go home and try something else.

When David worshiped God, the people around him were blessed. Does that happen in your home? On your street? In your workplace? At your school? What difference does any of this make to the people who have never been here?

If we do this right, more children will be coached and mentored and loved because we’ve been here. The lonely will be visited, the poor will be fed, and those who would abuse their power or authority will be challenged.

This story about David and his dancing before the Lord is not here to impress on us what a great guy David was. It’s here to demonstrate how powerful and awesome David thought God was – and how far-reaching the implications of that were for David and for those who surrounded him.

Frederick Buechner describes this well in his brief essay on David:

With trumpets blaring and drums beating, it was Camelot all over again, and for once that royal young redhead didn’t have to talk up the bright future and the high hopes, because he was himself the future at its brightest and there were no hopes higher than the ones his people had in him. And for once he didn’t have to drag God in for politics’ sake either, because it was obvious to everybody that this time God was there on his own. How they cut loose together, David and Yahweh, whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame of such magnificence that not even the dressing-down David got from Michal afterward could dim the glory of it.

He had feet of clay like the rest of us, if not more so – self-serving and deceitful, lustful and vain – but on the basis of that dance alone, you can see why it was David more than anybody else that Israel lost its heart to and why, when Jesus of Nazareth came riding into Jerusalem on his flea-bitten mule a thousand years later, it was as the Son of David that they hailed him.[3]

I hope and pray that your participation in worship this morning, this month, this year, does more for you than lower your blood pressure and pep you up. My prayer is that this practice of worship would ignite in you a holy fire so that you, and we together, might be a blessing to the world because of all that God has done in and for the likes of people such as we. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/16/health/religion-lifespan-health/

[2] http://www.sbnation.com/2012/10/29/3570908/san-francisco-giants-new-york-giants-franchise-moved

[3] Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 23-24).

Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

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

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

I have a confession to make.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When The Shepherd is a Lamb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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