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.

Uh-Oh

What happens when you hear your name being called?  This spring, the folk at Crafton Heights Church are examining the ways that God has called to God’s people in the past… in the hopes that we might be attuned to those calls as they come today.  The scripture for April 19 included the calls described in Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11.

When I was a kid, one of my best friends was a fine young man named Nathaniel. There were lots of reasons to like him, and a few reasons to be envious. One of the silliest things of which I was a bit jealous was his name.

This is what I mean: growing up in the suburbs in the USA in the 1970’s, how often do you think I was in a crowd and heard someone yell, “Hey, Dave! Dave?” And how often do you think I turned and said, “Yep?” And then the person who had called my name looked at me with irritation and said, “No, not you. Please. I meant Dave Lock, or David Cummings, or Dave Tang, or…” Carver. Hmph.

WavingIf it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve seen it. Someone calls your name, or maybe even just points and waves, and you respond, and then it dawns on you that they are talking to or looking at the person over your right shoulder…And you feel like a complete loser.

I must have had fifteen people in my high school class named “David”. It got so I just pretended to never hear my name. I did not like to respond when it was called. But how often do you suppose my buddy heard, “Hey, Nat! Nat! – no, not you, the other Nat!”

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Last week, we began a series of messages that focus in on the call of God, and we said specifically that there are two things on which we can hang our hats: that God is a God who calls and that you are call-able. This morning, I’d like to explore the nature of the God who calls and, perhaps more centrally, our response to that call.

As we begin, I’d like to ask you to think with me for a moment of every single time in Scripture where God’s presence overshadows someone, or God’s Spirit calls out, or God’s angel appears and says, “Hey, you – yes, you…Look, you know that the world’s in a bit of a mess right now, but, hey, good news! I have an idea. Here’s my plan…”, and the person who is being called says, “Oh, hey, great! I was hoping that you’d ask! I love the concept, Lord, and as a matter of fact, let me show you a few ideas of my own that I’ve been working on…”

Um, Dave, we can’t think of any place in the Bible where that happens.

Of course you can’t. That stuff is not in the Bible!

Every call of which I’m aware features the same essential pattern. The Lord or an angel shows up, and when that presence is finally noted, the first thing that the divine messenger has to say is “Fear not!”, because people are always so unnerved by the fact that God is actually calling to them. Then, the plan is laid out and the call is extended and with a few notable exceptions, the response is generally, “Uh-oh. Me? Really? Have you thought this through, Lord? I’m not really sure you’ve got the right person here…” And often, the one who is called by God will go ahead and list the reasons why the plan that God has just can’t work in this situation.

And as the person is talking about why God’s idea is such a bad one, they are not usually listing excuses like, “Oh, Thursday’s no good for me, Lord. What about Tuesday? Sunday? Oh, no, Sunday is my only day to sleep in…” It’s not a conflict in scheduling that prevents the call from being heard.

No, the readings from Isaiah and Luke today are typical: when God invites someone to step more intentionally into God’s purposes for the world, there is almost always an immediate cry of confession. “Oh, woe is me! I am not worthy! I am a man of unclean lips! Get away from me, Lord, because I am a sinner.”

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006).  Used by permission.  Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006). Used by permission. Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The call to serve begins in confession. It does so because when God shows up, the veil is lifted just for a moment, and the perfection and holiness of God is perceived a little more clearly. That’s what Isaiah saw, isn’t it? He was actually given a vision of the Lord, and of those who are in the presence of the Lord saying “Holy, holy, holy…”

I’m not aware as to whether you’ve ever been invited into the presence of God, but I am sure that you know something about the Lord. God is love. God is light. God is faithful, right? God is all of those things, and more besides.

But you won’t find anywhere in the Bible that says, “God is love, love, love” or “light, light, light”. God is those things, to be sure – but there is something about holiness that is at the root of God’s very nature and existence. We affirm that every week when we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

God is so holy that it is his name – or his name itself is holy because of its connection with the Lord. God is holy. God is not like us – “Holy” means “set apart”, or “separate”, and carries with it a sense of weightiness or heaviness. God is not on the same scale as we. One writer puts it this way: “This word applies to God because God Himself is totally other, separate, sacred, transcendent, reverend, and set apart from every created thing.”[1]

There is a sense in which I can think of myself as smart, funny, wise, moral, tall, old, or any other adjective. And when I do that, I always measure myself in relationship with the other people around me. I compare myself to the rest of the people in the room and think that I am or am not any of those things.

But when the creator of joy, of life, of good, of size and perspective makes himself known…well, then, I’ve got nothing. I am none of those things in comparison with Him.

To put it another way – I may be perfectly capable of and content to cruise around in my own mediocrity and general all-rightness, but when I am invited to stare unblinkingly into the Light of the World, then I become profoundly aware of my own failures, regrets, and general un-holiness. When I see some of who God is, and become more aware of who I am, then it is easier for me to get in line with Isaiah and Peter and say, “Uh-oh, um, no – I can’t. I’m not the right guy for this.”

When God calls to Isaiah, and when Christ summons Peter, and just about every other call in scripture all boils down to this: the Lord is saying, “Look, I know you. I made you. I love you. Of course you are my person. Of course you can do this…as long as you remember that it’s my plan, and not yours. My strength, not yours. My holiness, not yours.”

A calling from the Lord provides me with a grounding and an orientation as to who God is and who I am. When I am well aware of who I am, and the ways that I fall short, or am bent or twisted, and yet somehow in the midst of that am somehow useful to God, I can carry out the business with which I’ve been entrusted in a fashion that is marked by humility.

When I say humility, I not only mean approaching God with a sense of perspective about where I stand in relationship to God, but where I stand in relationship to you and other people who are also called and loved by God. When I remember that I am not “all that and a bag of chips”, I am more useful to actually accomplish the tasks that God has set before me in partnership with others.

Sports Illustrated...$1?  How old is this photo?

Sports Illustrated…$1? How old is this photo?

There was another Dave in Pittsburgh a few years back who said something that really struck me. Dave Parker was a superbly-fashioned specimen of humanity who was, as it turned out, really, really good at hitting a small ball with a large stick. He was so good at it, in fact, that he became the first person ever to be paid a million dollars a year to hit a ball with a stick. When asked about it, Dave Parker said, “Every team needs a foundation, and I’m it. They ought to pay me just to walk around here.”[2] He told Sports Illustrated, “There’s only one thing bigger than me – and that’s my ego.”

Now, I’m not here to bash Dave Parker, or to take a few of his comments out of context. Rather, I want to use them as a reminder that those who have been called by God have a deep appreciation for the essential goodness, power, glory, and love of God as well as their own brokenness or failure. That leads them to a sense of humility and perspective that allows for growth.

I am not aware of a time when the world has ever been changed for the better when a group of high-minded, confident, self-assured, incredibly talented people who knew all the answers showed up and got to work on the rest of us.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

On the other hand, though, think of what Jesus did with a small group of broken-down, second-career people who had been given a glimpse of who he was and of the ministry to which he was inviting them. When we are humble, we are teachable; when we are humble, we are better able to see the gifts that others have brought.

I like the story of the man who had been looking for a church in his new community. After being disappointed in several congregations, he showed up at one a few moments late. As he walked into worship, the group was praying the unison prayer of confession, and they said, “we have done that which we ought not to have done, and have left undone that which we ought to have done…” As he found a seat, he beamed, “At last! These are my people!”

God is not calling you to be the star of anything. God is asking whether you will go in his power, with his agenda, into a world filled with people who are every bit as broken as you are. He’s asking if you can see them with his eyes and love them with his love. He wants to know if you can share with them the gift of forgiveness as a starving man shares a loaf with his friends, and to invite them to deepen their own walk with the Lord so that they might encounter God in all of God’s holiness.

God did not call me because in all of his wisdom he thought that the world would be blessed by how holy I am. He called me for the same reason that he has called you: so that we might remind people that they are already wrapped in God’s holy presence.

So you – yes, I’m talking to you – do you realize that this calling God is reaching out to you? That he knows exactly who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re capable of, and is still calling? That he is calling you now – not the you that you think might show up in four or five years once you get a little more this or a little better at that. He knows you, he loves you, and he’s reaching out. Can you find the voice to say, with Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me.”?

By God’s grace – with humility and thanksgiving, you can. Amen.

[1] Jack Wellman, writing at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/24/what-does-the-word-holy-mean-bible-definition-of-holy/

[2] Quoted in Randy Roberts, Pittsburgh Sports: Stories From the Steel City (University of Pittsburgh, 2000), p. 206.

An Improbable Convert

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for Maundy Thursday, April 2,  came from various excerpts from Mark 14 and 15 and contrasted the actions of Judas Iscariot and the Roman Centurion who watched Jesus die on Good Friday.

Each week during Lent, we’ve been watching the interaction between Jesus and people who have had the opportunity to meet with him on more than one occasion. If you’ve been here in the past month or so, you’ve met John’s disciples, the man who was possessed, the blind man in John 9, and more. Tonight’s readings give us the opportunity to encounter two men who run into Jesus – maybe even on the same night – and they are men who are going in decidedly different directions.

The Kiss of Judas,  Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

The Kiss of Judas,
Giotto, c. 1305 (Fresco in Padua, Italy)

Judas Iscariot has, of course, known Jesus for a while. As one of the twelve disciples, he’s traveled with the Lord for some years; he was one of the twelve who got sent out in Mark 6 and probably one of the seventy-two dispatched in Luke 10. Judas has, in fact, just finished celebrating the Passover Seder with Jesus, at which time his feet were washed by the Lord. For Judas, turning and re-turning to Jesus is something that has been second nature for two or three years. Now, however, Judas has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and so it’s time for him to cut his losses and move on. We’ll talk more about Judas on Sunday morning.

The other man who has captured my attention this evening is the unnamed centurion who watches Jesus die. We have no way of knowing how or when he first met Jesus or if, in fact, they had ever met before. Given the small size of the city of Jerusalem, however, and this man’s place in the Roman army of occupation, it’s hard for me to imagine that he would not have encountered the Lord during Holy Week. In tonight’s reading we see that the centurion, like Judas, has apparently decided that Jesus is not who he thought that he was, and that leads this soldier to stake his claim to faith and see where God would lead him.

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

The Confession of St. Longinus, James Tissot c. 1890

Who is this man that shows up in our reading this evening? A centurion was a member of a special class within the Roman military. The title does not reflect a specific rank (such as lieutenant or captain), but rather a place of honor. Historians believe that most centurions would have held ranks equivalent to anything between a major and a one star general in the modern military.

Centurions were men of significant prestige and power. Polybius, a second-century BC historian, said this about centurions: “In choosing their centurions the Romans look not so much for the daring or fire-eating type, but rather for men who are natural leaders and possess a stable and imperturbable temperament, not men who will open the battle and launch attacks, but those who will stand their ground even when worsted or hard-pressed, and will die in defense of their posts.”[1] Centurions were to be vigilant, strong, capable, and respectable.

Each centurion, in spite of what his title suggests, is thought to have led a group of 80 soldiers. In battle, they led from the front lines. They were easily identified by their distinctive helmets and other uniform features (which included a vitis, or “swagger stick”, a short stick made from rattan reeds), and perhaps as a result of this centurions suffered a disproportionate number of casualties during military engagements.

The centurion mentioned in Mark’s Gospel would almost certainly have been a Gentile – that is, a non-believer. One other item of note about this centurion – and all his compatriots, in fact – is that every centurion mentioned in the New Testament is spoken of in a positive manner. That is surprising, given that these men represented the army of occupation and the power of Rome.

So that’s a little about our centurion. What, or who, did he see when he looked at the prisoner Jesus of Nazareth? Initially, there was probably little to draw his attention to this itinerant Rabbi. After all, there was little in Jesus’ resume to attract much attention from the imperial elite. Peasant messiahs were a dime a dozen (or maybe I should say they were a shekel an ephah?) in those days.

He would not have been impressed with the method of Jesus’ capture. The religious authorities, who challenged Jesus publicly, chose not to detain the man from Nazareth until the crowds died down and they could sneak up on him in the middle of the night. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend, an act of dishonor, would have added to the centurion’s belief that this Nazarean was of no concern to him. Initially, the only trial that Jesus was given was before a religious body that would have had no impact on any Roman soldier.

However, it’s reasonable to think that this soldier, or at least others like him, would have stood by as the Roman Governor, Pilate, questioned Jesus and then shipped him off to the Jewish leader, Herod. The centurion would have seen the crowd’s rejection of Jesus in favor of Barabbas, who was known to be a thug and a mercenary.

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest's home in Jerusalem

The dungeon cell from the Church of St. Peter Gallicantu, which was erected on the ruins of the High Priest’s home in Jerusalem

The centurion might have been able to witness the mockery that Jesus endured from the soldiers as he sat in the dimness of his prison cell. Five years ago I was privileged to visit Jerusalem, and was humbled to visit a dungeon in the basement of a church that was built on the site of the high priest’s house. There is no evidence to suggest that the cell I visited actually housed Jesus, but the conditions would have to have been similar, if not identical. Surrounded by damp walls and hearing only echoes from the street, I was struck by how intensely lonely Jesus must have been. The centurion would have seen that, all right. And he may, in fact, have been there. Do you remember the vitis? And how we read that the Lord was struck by “a reed”?

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

Public toilets from the Basilica in Philippi

And we know that he was there as Jesus hung on the cross. He would have watched the taunting and the mockery continue. One particularly gruesome aspect of that mockery became clear to me when I visited some ancient Roman colonies and discovered, of all things, public toilets. We saw a long row of latrines that were constructed over a channel of flowing water. Someone in my group asked about hygiene, and we were informed that in the absence of modern toilet paper, every latrine had a bucket of vinegar close by, and every Roman soldier was issued a sponge and a stick to use for his personal hygiene. Upon learning this, my first thought was of this passage where a soldier asks Jesus if he’s thirsty while holding a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick… The centurion watched as this kind of scorn was heaped upon the man from Galilee.

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

A spongia used for bathroom hygiene

And, of course, the centurion saw Jesus breathe his last. It would not have been the first man he’d seen die, nor would it be the last. All we know for certain is that when this respected, powerful leader of the Roman army saw how Jesus conducted himself in his final hours, he was driven to worship the Lord.

Judas looked at Jesus and was disappointed. Jesus was not powerful enough, not strong enough, not gutsy enough, not aggressive enough to suit Judas’ ends. Jesus did not serve Judas’ purposes, and Judas moved on.

The centurion looked at Jesus and saw strength, power, and authority. This man, who served under governors and emperors and alongside of the most capable and fearsome troops that established Rome’s rule, was moved by what he saw in Jesus. The Romans, of course, had made a study of power. For them, power was a means to an end. The centurion and his colleagues were intensely pragmatic and not given much to theory or speculation. As he watched Jesus suffer and die without giving in to anger or self-pity, the centurion saw Jesus as the epitome of all that was good, righteous, and powerful – and therefore worthy of his worship.

Earlier this week, your church staff read the scriptures where the crowd chooses Barabbas instead of Jesus. As we talked about what would make a man like Judas turn his back on Jesus, and what would make the religious leaders incite the crowd to release a terrorist rather than a poor street preacher, we considered these words from James Harnish:

Is it possible that our world still knows better how to deal with a bandit, a murderer, an insurrectionist than it knows what to do with the Prince of Peace? There is a sense in which an assassin’s attempt on the pope’s life is less shocking to our world than the pope’s forgiveness of him. Is it possible that we would rather deal with raw power that rides on a stallion than with this one who comes on a donkey, with the weapons of love, patience, suffering, and peace? Given the choice, isn’t it possible that we would take Barabbas, too?[2]

The truth is, I’m afraid, that given half a chance, we – like Judas – are eager to call on our Jesus to serve our own ends. We seek Jesus on our own terms, and want him to come and take care of us.

Jesus, come on, Jesus, I really need to get an A on this test right now. Please, Jesus, just buy me that jet plane. Get me the job, Jesus. Heal my baby, Lord. Don’t forget, Jesus, the lottery drawing is tonight. Remember my dad in the hospital, Lord…

Listen – it’s not wrong to ask God about the things that are important to you. Jesus said that we were to go to God and open our hearts.

It’s important to remember, though, that we don’t follow Christ so that we get better stuff, or somehow receive better treatment from the Lord at the end of the day.

We come together as followers of the one who washed feet, who shared the loaf and the cup, and who laid down his life for his friends all while he was pointing to God’s eternal purposes of truth and reconciliation in the world. We follow Jesus not because we expect that somehow we will be treated better than he was treated, but so that the world, through us, will get a better glimpse of God’s intentions for healing and wholeness.

St. Longinus  Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

St. Longinus
Bernini, c. 1635 St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

The ancient church liked to tell the story that this centurion who watched Jesus die was a Roman officer named Longinus, and that after bearing witness to the humble death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus, he went on to be baptized, leave the army, and tell the world about the power that can be found in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t really know much about Longinus, and whether I trust that story.

The Confession of the Centurion James Tissot, c. 1890

The Confession of the Centurion
James Tissot, c. 1890

On this Maundy Thursday, however, I do know that I can be a selfish, broken, greedy, lonely, scared, violent, angry, suspicious, powerless little person, and that I am surrounded by people who are a lot like me. And like the centurion who watched Jesus die, I know that my best hope is to continue to look to Jesus to feed and clean me as I seek to follow him in humility, service, and love…which is, of course, the most significant power that the universe has ever seen. That’s the power that made the centurion stop in his tracks…and can re-arrange your life, and mine, this evening. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Rise of the Roman Empire, Translated by Ian Scott Kilvert, Penguin Books, New York, 1979, p.322

[2] from What Will You Do With King Jesus, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Reuben Job (Upper Room Books, 2006), p. 166.

Who Told You?

We are looking at the various components of our worship – this week, it was confession.  What’s it for, and why bother?  Our scriptures included Genesis 3:1-11 and I John 1:5-10. This message is, incidentally, the first time in my life I have used the phrase “as the Good Book says” in a sermon, and I found 1100+ sermons on my computer this afternoon.  Hmmm.  Cliche much?

When I was an eager young pastor I was in the practice of making unannounced visits to congregation members. I walked up to one house, and the door was slightly open; I could hear the sound of the TV on inside, and I rang the bell. And then I knocked. I knew someone was home – but they were clearly ignoring me.

Eager to impress with both my knowledge of scripture and my willingness to get to know people, I took my business card and I wrote “Revelation 3:20” on it. That verse says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…”

On Sunday, my card was returned in the offering plate, and I noticed that there was an addition: someone had scrawled “Genesis 3:10.” That verse reads, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

OK, that never happened. But it should have. Maybe one day, it will.

This morning, we are continuing to explore the practices that we associate with the worship – and the Worth-ship – of God. You might recall the last time I was up here, we remembered that our public gatherings start with an announcement that we are a new people who come together in a new time and a new space – we “waste” our time in order to be fully present to the one who has created time and placed us within it. Today, we’ll talk about how we move more deeply into that presence by clearing the decks – by preparing our hearts, minds, and spirits to encounter the Word that is promised.

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

That is to say, this morning, we’re going to be talking about confession.

I know a pastor who sat with me for forty-five minutes one day and said, “You know, Dave, I just don’t get it. Why do you want a prayer of confession in your Sunday morning worship? I mean, we come in, we get together and sing a few great songs. We finally get to the point where we’re really “up” and feeling good about ourselves, and then you want to stop us and say, ‘I know, God, I’m a worm, I’m no good, please don’t be too mad at me…’ It’s such a downer, Dave. I hate that.” And so, to the best of my knowledge, this pastor does not have confession as a part of his regular worship services.

My own experience, on the other hand, is closer to the man who had been searching for a church in his town and couldn’t find one where he felt welcome. He came into one congregation as they were beginning their prayer of confession, and as the congregation intoned, “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed like lost sheep. We have followed too much the desires of our own hearts. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us…” he was able to relax and he thought, “Finally, a church I can relate to. These are my kind of people!”

One thing that I have learned in more than three decades of walking with people toward Jesus is that I hardly ever need to remind someone of the fact that they have screwed up. Oh, there are particular instances where I’ve helped someone to see that a particular action or comment was not right, but by and large, by the time they get to 11 on Sunday morning, most of the people I know are pretty well-prepared to own the truth that their lives are not what they are supposed to be. We know that we are broken. In theological language, we know that we have sinned. There is something that is not right about us. There is something that is not good within us.

So if we all know it anyway (which is a part of the reason my pastor friend didn’t like a prayer of confession – he said it was just a waste of time that we could use singing or preaching), why bother? If everyone knows that we’re sinners, why bother confessing?

Let’s go back to the questions from Genesis. The Lord discovers the man and the woman and he asks, “Where are you?” and, a little later, “Who told you that you were naked?”

Oh, for crying out loud, Lord, everybody in the garden knows what’s happened here. We feel bad enough already. What difference does it make who told whom?

I am unable to find the source of this image.  If you are aware of it, please

I am unable to find the source of this image. If you are aware of it, please let me know!

Listen: let’s say that I have a friend who is a 22 year-old woman. The honest to God truth is that she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. How does she know that she is beautiful? People have told her. Everybody tells her that she is beautiful. It is the truth.

One of the regulars at the restaurant where she works told her. He has told her many, many times, really. He keeps telling her, three or four times a week, as he complains that his son is a loser and his wife is emotionally dead and he himself is so lonely and my friend is so beautiful, so beautiful, and can he just buy her some dessert and coffee, or maybe something more some time…

One of her teachers told her she was beautiful. There’s an art professor down at the college who has her own photography business on the side, and she sells “stock” images for advertising and marketing to large corporations. She has told my friend several times that she is so beautiful, and does she want to sit for a few photos – nothing, much, really – and if she sits for the photos she can get extra credit, especially if the professor is able to sell those photos for a tidy sum…

Her little sister has told her. The younger sibling does not share the smooth, clear skin that her older sister has, and as she cries out over her acned face, my friend tries to comfort her, only to be told “What do you know? What do you care? You’re so beautiful! You have no idea…”

All these people, all day, telling her what everyone already knows: she is beautiful. But why do they say this to her?

And then, last night, a young man took her to dinner, and as they sat in the quiet restaurant he pulled a small box from his pocket that was full of a ring and the promises of a lifetime, and he told her she was beautiful.

Do you see? All of these people are telling the truth. This woman is beautiful. But why do they tell her that? I know, truth is truth…but how you learn it, and from whom, affects your ability to enter into it.

You and I both know that you are a wreck. You are a sinner. Like me, your life is broken and marred and incomplete. That is the truth.

Who told you? And why?

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

In Genesis 3 and in Revelation 12 and on just about every page of this Bible there is one who is called “the accuser” who stands with you as you look at yourself and who says, “Yes, you really are a screw-up. You never do anything right. I doubt you ever will. You are disgusting, and God is going to be so disappointed in you. You had better go and hide, you pathetic wretch…”

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And similarly, from start to finish in the Bible, we hear another voice, sometimes called “the Advocate”, who tells us the same truth: that parts of our lives are bent and twisted and we are deeply scarred, but who then goes on to say “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Both the accuser and the Advocate will tell you the truth – but how? And why?

There are good, moral, upright people who will look at the brokenness of our world and of your life and who will shame you. They will judge you. They will instill you with fear, saying things like, “Oh, for crying out loud, who do you think you are? Confess, you dirty sinner! Repent! Turn from your evil, or burn in hell forever.”

These people have, in some measure, a portion of the truth. They know who you are. And yet their voice is invalid because the truth that they claim to possess is truth that is aimed at you like a weapon. Truth, told thusly, is not gift. Truth like this brings fear, guilt and shame – and, ironically, more brokenness, more scarring, more running, more hiding.

When we confess in our morning worship, it’s not because anyone here is holding the answer key and is eager to demonstrate how you have failed. We confess because we already know the truth – and we need to release that knowledge, that fear, that shame so that we are ready to enter into the fullness of the Story that is about to be told. We have a prayer of confession in our worship because we need to lay down the things that we know about ourselves so that we’ll be ready to hold onto the hope and healing that are the proper fruits of truth.

We do not confess out of a posture of fear or shame, but in order to acknowledge the situation and then to let it go. In fact, the fathers and mothers of our church have indicated that a worship service may include or omit a prayer of confession. That’s an optional part of a Presbyterian worship service. However, they go on to instruct me that it is wrong for me to invite you to confess your brokenness unless I immediately follow that with an acknowledgement that the promise of restoration and forgiveness is bigger than your confession. If you ever come in here and are invited to confess, you had better leave here knowing that you are forgiven. A half-truth is no truth.

That’s why we confess.

How do we confess? You’ve already heard a significant part of that – we confess by sharing a unison prayer, standing together and laying our sin and disruption before the Lord. Almost always, we share a common prayer and a few moments of silent, personal prayer.

The congregational prayer of confession is difficult for some. I had a man call me once, very angry, because in his mind I was making him confess to all these terrible things by reading this prayer. “I don’t do that stuff!”, he said. “Why should I have to confess it?” I simply replied, “OK, that’s fine. Just tell me what kind of thing you do do and I’ll be happy to include it in this week’s bulletin.”

nakedandashamedWhen we confess as a congregation and in public, we are saying that this is a condition: we are a greedy, racist, selfish, fearful people. Oh, I get it – today, you may be a little less greedy, racist, selfish or afraid than you were yesterday, but by and large, our common prayer covers most of us. Our common prayer names the world we live in, and identifies the air we breathe.

The confession we share here on Sundays is a part of the confession we’ll need if we are to move forward in our discipleship. In addition to our congregational and corporate confession, I believe that we need to have a personal and private confessional. Such a practice is not generally a part of our public worship – unlike in, say, “joys and concerns”, I’m not likely to stand here and say, “Does anyone have a particularly juicy sin they’d like to confess before the body?”
Yet each of us needs to have someone who knows our particular brokenness, fear, and shame so that they are in a position to help us see the power of release and redemption and healing that is available. For some in the Christian family, that means going into a little room and sliding a screen and saying, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” For others, it means hiring a therapist and asking them to help us sort out the messy truth that is our lives.

For me, it means that once a week or so, I put myself in a position where I am with a trusted friend who loves me and who knows the truth about me. In this kind of friendship, I am able to talk about where I struggle, where I fall, and where I celebrate. Those people are the ones who help me to see the difficult truths about myself without shame or fear – and when I let go of shame and fear, it’s easier to hold onto the promise of God’s best.

As we walk through worship today – and most every week – we name the truth. We are sinful people. We are damaged. We have scars. And as we walk through worship, we are met by the One who made us, who calls to us, who Advocates on our behalf and says, “Yes, of course you are like that. I have known that about you for a long time. Let’s take care of those things…”

And once this worship service ends, as you go through the week, there will not be many days when you will fail to be confronted with the truth of your own brokenness. And you will need to remember that what is true in here is true out there – that it is possible to let go of that brokenness and walk without fear towards healing.

I have a hunch that most weeks, most of you can wrap your heads around that truth when you are here…but out there, you might not be so sure. If you find that you have a hard time believing that the truth – the whole truth – is a gift; if you find that you are more and more listening to the accuser, rather than the Advocate, then call a friend. Call me, or Pastor George, or one of your elders, and we will sit with you and remind you of the truth that is true FOR you.

Acknowledge that truth. And remember that the sinfulness and brokenness of our human condition is not eternally true – but the grace, and peace, and mercy of God are, as the Good Book says, from everlasting to everlasting. Remember that. And help your neighbor to do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

[2] Statue of the Fallen Angel, statue in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

[3] Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

You Tell ‘Em, Lord!

On December 8 the folks at Crafton Heights engaged the season of Advent by listening to the teaching of John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:1-12 along with the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-10.  

Do you remember that day when we were coming home from school, cutting through the yards down behind the bus stop and all of a sudden Mrs. Johnson came flying out of the house yelling at us because she was sure that we had vandalized her vegetable garden?  I mean to say, she lit into us that day.  And then, about a block on further, we ran into Kenny and Joe, who were laughing so hard because they were the ones who had smashed her pumpkins, and we got blamed for it.  Do you remember how scared we were to go home that day, afraid that she’d already told our parents and we’d get in trouble?

Do you remember you great it was the next day when your big brother, Carl, beat the living daylights out of Kenny and Joe?  Wow.  I still owe Carl for that one.  That was great.

Do you remember last July when you got that speeding ticket?  As I recall, you were rushing around trying to get out of a meeting at work in order to get home in time for your daughter’s softball game – I think it was the championships or something like that.  They caught you red-handed going 50 in a 35 zone.  I remember how you tried to plead your case, but that cop was not having any of it.  When you told me that story, I mentioned to you that my neighbor was a police officer and we made a few calls and by the time you got to court, you didn’t have any points or a fine.  That was sweet, wasn’t it?

Do you remember the time a bunch of self-righteous arrogant jerks showed up at the church retreat, but the speaker – I think his name was John the Baptist – really let them have it?  I mean, those guys were totally out of line.  They were so full of themselves, and John – BAM – he just let them have it.  It was just delightful to watch when they got what was coming to them!

Don’t you love it when you get to witness power being used to correct an obvious wrong?  We hate to see anyone victimized, and it seems so good when a poorly-behaving person “gets what’s coming to him”.  Next time you log onto Youtube, just type in “Bully gets owned” – you’ll see more than 70,000 hits.  When the “bad guy” finally gets paid back, well, it’s just delicious.

So delicious, in fact, that sometimes we fail to see just who the bad guy is and how the power is directed and what the “fix” could be.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee
Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci (1506-1511) in Florence, Italy.

Our Gospel reading for today shows us a group of religious leaders from the first century who knew all the prophecies.  They knew that the Messiah was coming, and that he would bring truth and justice.  They knew that God’s anointed one would establish God’s intentions in a powerful fashion.  Yet too often, they – and we – assumed that those intentions were directed against someone else, rather than toward our own hearts and minds.

Here’s what I mean by that: John, the son of Zechariah, has begun to preach the nearness of God’s intentions for the world.  In doing so, he begins with an invitation to repentance.  The word that he uses is “metanoeite”, means “change your mind” or “act like things are different”.  And the crowds can hear that message.  Many people can understand a part, at least, of what he says, and so they open their hearts to the transformative word and their lives are shaped and arranged and re-arranged by God’s spirit.

But the religious leaders assume that God’s word is not spoken towards them, but rather given as a tool that they can employ against someone else.  In this view, the Word of God is not an invitation to consider how God is alive and active and moving in my world, calling me to be more like him each day; instead, it’s an instrument with which I am called to shape, to carve, to manipulate you into the person that I think you should be.

The church of Jesus Christ invites us to consider today’s scriptures during the season of Advent so that we might remember that the reign and rule of Christ is a gift – a gift that comes directed towards us – and so that we might remember that anyone who wants to follow Christ does so beginning with repentance.  If we want to follow Christ, we have to be willing to leave the path we’re already on.  Metanoeite is a word that contains within it a description of what needs to happen: if we are going to follow in that way, we’ve got to be willing to give up on this way.  If I’m going to live as though I believe that that is true, then I have to be willing to consider the fact that this may be less than the truth.

Given that realization then, let me invite you to think about something that really angers you.  When you look at our world, what do you see and want to scream, “this is evil!”?  I know that you are aware of plenty in the world that falls short of God’s intentions as you have come to understand them: it may be racism, it may be animal abuse, it may be economic injustice, it may be abortion…  Whatever the issue or concern is that has just come to your mind, let me ask you, for a moment, to not run and grab your favorite Bible verse.

This is what I’m afraid of: I’m afraid that when we confront that thing we understand to be evil that we are so overwhelmed by it that we pick up our scriptures and we start to use them to hack away at that issue, at those who see things differently, or at those who have not recognized the truth in the same way that we have.  We use the Word of God as a tool to prop up our own opinions, or we behave as if God needed our support to validate his own cause.

This Advent, ask for the truth of God to come to your life.  Ask the spirit of the Lord to show you the path you are on – and the path that you should be on – when it comes to your conduct and outlook on this area of life.

In Advent, we celebrate the fact that God comes near.  God chooses to speak.  God invites us to hear.  So when it comes to consumerism and greed, or our culture’s changing views on sexuality, or the racial divides in our world, let me implore you to begin with an open heart.  Where do I stand when it comes to my own greed and acquisitiveness?  How do I understand the power of my own sexuality?  In what ways am I shaped by the color of my skin?

I need to ask those questions in light of God’s word.  I need to know where I am a creature of habit, with biases and fears and insecurities.  I need to confess that I am broken in each of these areas, and more.  When that happens, then I realize that the Word of God that comes is a gift to a world that is not as it should be, rather than as a threat to be used against those who are different from me.

Look at it this way: Advent points us to a story in which all of the best characters are humble and lowly and tentative.  There is an unwed teen mother and her newborn baby; there is the quiet man who has been publicly shamed by the fact that his fiancée is pregnant before their marriage; there are the shepherds who have been told for their entire lives that they are insignificant outcasts.  The backdrop for the entire narrative is a backwater country that has been filled with an occupying army and is seething with resentment and oppression.  God’s word, in this case, does not come in order to break people.  No, in fact the opposite is true: God’s word comes to those who are already broken.

This month, I invite you to join me in asking God to mold our hearts so that we might first hear his word and then shape our lives to it before we go out and pound other people with it.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon principles or act as if every proposition is equally valid…but I am suggesting that if we begin the day secure in our own success and confident because of our correctness, then when we look to scripture we’ll be tempted to use it as a weapon, rather than receive it as a gift.

We do that, don’t we?  We hold onto our favorite Bible verses and we just let other people have it.  Most of us, at least in this room, are probably too polite to do that to strangers.  We don’t run down to the bus stop or the Walmart and start beating up people with the Bible.  But when it comes to one of those issues that we care about, and we think that we’re going to get into a discussion with someone else here, well, too many Christians are tempted to want to fill our bag with favorite scriptures as if we were collecting rocks to throw at an enemy.

This morning I was struck by the fact that John called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers.  Serpents that are full of poison that can kill.  And that image collided with Isaiah’s prophecy of children who play near the homes of venomous snakes.  And I was horrified to connect the dots in my head and realize that in many ways, our own religious practice can be toxic to our children.  I was horrified to think that in many ways, church can be a place where children are abused in one way or another.  The news has been overly full in recent years of accounts wherein some children have suffered physical abuse.  But that’s not the only poison in the church, is it?  If we make the church a place where we are right and they are wrong; where God might love everyone but we’re clearly his favorites; where hate is taught as a theological virtue…then we are no better than the religious leaders who came out to challenge John.

Each Advent, we deck out the sanctuary in purple and blue not only because those are the colors of royalty, but because those are the colors for reflection and confession.  The Kingdom of heaven is near.  Thanks be to God for that.  How can we shape our hearts and our lives so that we might be appropriate recipients of and ambassadors for that Kingdom where the wolf and the lamb lie down together, and where the poison has no power over the child?

Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Change your mind.  Act like things are already different.

 

We need you so desperately, O God:

we need to accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.

Too often, we choose flickering candles and bulbs over your true light:

we choose to hide who we truly are;

      both the sins that shame us,

      and the potential that frightens us.

Too often, we choose quick fixes over your true justice:

            we choose to be right rather than righteous,

                   in our countries, our communities, and our covenants.

Too often, we choose cheap thrills over your true joy:

            we choose to fill our lives with what we can own or ingest,

                 we choose safety over surprise.

Too often, we choose our schemes over your plan:

            we reject leaps of faith in favor of small, secure steps,

 we reject selfless giving in favor of our own fiscal prudence.

We need you so desperately, O God.

We need your light, your justice, your joy, your plan.

Hear us, forgive us, and help us accept you for who you truly are, not what we expect.  Amen.[1]

 


[1]  This Advent Prayer is adapted from a longer version written by James Hart Brumm, ©2008 Brummart Publishing.  Used by permission.