Desire

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on June 29 with readings from Exodus 16:1-15 and Psalm 37:1-6.

There are, as many of you know, a number of reasons to love my friend David. He is a wonderful human being. I was struck by Dave’s thoughtful and reflective nature earlier this week, when a large group of people had gathered to watch a World Cup Soccer game. The cameras focused in on Cristiano Ronaldo who is the most highly-paid, and by most accounts, the best soccer player in the world.

David looked at the screen and said something like, “Look, I don’t care what kind a person you are or how you are wired, you have to admit that man is an attractive person. It doesn’t have to do with being gay, but he is just gorgeous.”

What a risky thing to say in a room full of people! Because almost always, when a man says, “that person is beautiful”, the presumption is that is a statement of desire, and if there is desire, the presumption is that the speaker would love to move towards a physical relationship.

As David (who gave me permission to share this story) pointed out, that’s not what he was saying. He was naming the truth: Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, OIH has been blessed with an astounding set of chromosomes. Thanks be to God.

That conversation with Dave got me to thinking about the business of desire. Desire is defined as “a strong sense of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” You could say that Clint Hurdle desires a pennant for Pittsburgh, or that the 1956 Thunderbird was Larry’s heart’s desire.

Desire is key in our lives. As a grown-up person in America, I am astounded at how many times I am involved in conversations where the biggest question is, “What do you want?” Sometimes that’s because I’m down at Hanlon’s and the server is inquiring about my menu choice, but I have asked that question of a couple in a struggling marriage, a woman seeking to overcome decades of addiction, or a child throwing a temper tantrum. “What do you want? What do you wish would happen?”

Billy Graham Preaching, Bible RaisedWhen I was a teenager, my mother was a big, big Billy Graham fan. She somehow obtained a written copy of a sermon he preached in 1972 entitled “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” and compelled me to read it. I’m not sure what Billy Graham was actually saying, but this is what I took from that message: desire is a simple matter. You can want what God wants you to want, or you can go the other way. I spent most of my teen years desiring all the “wrong” stuff, and was therefore convinced that I was headed the way of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Just about everything I wanted was pretty darn worldly, and I knew I would burn eternally because of that. It was pretty black and white to me.

For 400 years, the people of Israel languished in slavery. Generation after generation of Jewish children grew up and grew old and died as captives in Egypt. I don’t suppose that old Pharaoh was much for protest marches, but if they had them, I would imagine that the chant could have gone like this: “What do you want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do you want it?” “NOW!” These folks wanted to get out of Egypt. They wanted to live as God’s people. That’s pretty black and white, I think.

DesertSooooo, six weeks after they get that for which they’ve been longing for 400 years, how’s that march coming? “What do you want? “The Fleshpots of Egypt!” “When do you want them?” “NOW!”

Seriously? Six weeks? Six weeks of wandering in the desert, and they begin to long for the bread and the stew that they “enjoyed” while living in slavery?

This story gets told twice in the Old Testament. In the Exodus reading we’ve just shared, God’s response to their complaining is to send them bread and meat. There’s manna to be found every morning, and in the evening, the quail come blowing in and pile up in heaps. “You want meat? No problem, I’ll give you meat,” says the God of Exodus.

The common quail is a simple and easily domesticated bird. Although it can fly, it prefers to walk and scavenge along the ground, and will usually only take to the air as a means of avoiding a predator. Even quail that migrate, such as those mentioned in Exodus, are such weak fliers that if they have to go very far (like across a desert or an ocean), they will wait for a strong wind that’s going in that direction to help blow them along.

The Common Quail

The Common Quail

The first time I saw a quail, I marveled. I admired its plumage, I wondered at its ability to camouflage itself in its surroundings, and I chuckled at the way that it ran amidst the desert grasses. In following Jesus’ command, I considered the quail.

The Israelites of Exodus, though, had no such time for appreciation or consideration. They were hungry, they told God they wanted meat, and the evening breeze brought them a vast ocean of quail – not to wonder at, not to consider, but to eat.

The first time we read about these birds, in Exodus, the implication is that God is lavishly providing for his people. They long for the meat of their slavery, and he gives them the meat of freedom in abundance!

In the book of Numbers, however, the story is told from a slightly different perspective, and for many, the quail become a “last supper”. We’re told that God promises that they’ll eat the meat that they so desire – and in fact, that they will eat it until it “comes out of their nostrils”. Many die after gorging themselves on this quail that has literally been a “windfall”. Traditionally, we’ve understood this to be the biblical way of saying that God is punishing his people for having the wrong desires, as if God is saying, “Look, you miss the meat of your slavery? Fine. Here. BOOM! That’ll fix your wagons.”

OK, I’m pretty sure God never threatened to fix anyone’s wagon, but sometimes, in my head, God sounds a lot like my mom. My point is that we have often read the bit about the quail and the people dying as God’s way of getting even with us for wanting the wrong thing.

And if that’s not confusing enough, a couple of hundred pages later we get to the scripture from the Psalms, which promises that “God will give you the desires of your heart.”

DelightNow, put yourself in the place of a young Dave Carver, who is pretty sure that there are “good desires” and there are “bad desires”, and if you choose poorly, well, that’s an eternal bummer for you… And then the minister comes in and says, “Remember what it says in the Good Book: ‘God will give you the desires of your heart…’”

My response was “Noooooo! That would kill me!”

How often have you thought, “Thank God I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back there!” How often have you been willing to choose the thing that would kill you if you let it?

Think about that: what if you ate everything that you wanted to eat? What if you watched or surfed every show or site that attracted you? What if you actually said everything you ever wanted to say?

Do you see? It might be alcohol, it might be driving like a maniac, it might be doing mean things to your spouse with a stick – but there are times when we really, really desire and crave and want things that will just crush us. We long for things that will cause us and those around us great damage…and we want them anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just Israelites who long to be Pharaoh’s slaves.

So how are we to understand the promise that God will give us “the desires of our hearts”?

Let’s remember the whole passage. It starts with some commands: “Trust in the Lord!”. “Live right!”. “Live where God sends you.” “Do what the Lord wants you to do.”

Too often, we wake up in a world where we are taught to believe that our desires and our wants are the most important thing – or at least the first thing. We think about what we want, and then plan our day after satisfying that on our own terms.

But the scriptural approach seems to be the opposite: we wake up and we decide that we’ll let God order the universe and our lives. We’ll seek to be attuned to the things that God has or will do, and then, when we’re in that kind of rhythm, God will give us the desires of our hearts.

Listen: the world is filled with people who are as beautiful as Cristiano Ronaldo or George Clooney or Taylor Swift or Scarlett Johannsen. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing! Can we praise God for beautiful creatures?

And the world is filled with delicious foods, and tasty beverages and shiny objects and gorgeous art. Again, wonderful! It is right and good to notice, to admire, and to appreciate beauty where you encounter it without presuming to manipulate that beauty or to allow your noticing of that beauty to lead you to an unhealthy wish to own, control, or use that beauty in a way that diminishes the creatureliness of either you or the other.

What do you want? And how will you get it?

Here’s a young mother who is stressed by the demands of her full-time at-home job and her part-time gig at the grocery store. The boss was yelling before she left work, the kids are crying now, she’s got a headache to beat the band, and she passes by the liquor cabinet. She wants a drink so bad that she can already taste it. Why?

Because she’s so tired of hurting and feeling inadequate and incomplete. What do you want, mom? I want to feel like I can do it. I want to know I matter. I want to experience life without thinking that someone is squeezing it out of me.

Those are huge wants, and deep desires. You know that a couple of shots of Tequila aren’t going to satisfy them, right?

Here’s a man who finds himself sitting at a meeting next to a stunning woman. She is beautiful, and his thoughts begin to drift towards all the ways that he might use or enjoy that beauty. He imagines a conversation – and more – that is based on how badly he “wants” her. Why?

Because he’s stressed. He’s a man, after all. He has needs.

And he does. He needs to know that he is not unlovable. He wants someone to tell him that he is not old or fat or ugly, and if someone that attractive would want to be with him, well, then he would, in fact, be attractive, beautiful, or worthwhile himself.

And when he stops to think about what he really needs, as opposed to what his first impulse is, he might realize that that’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman to whom he’s never even spoken before.

What would happen if either of these people would look to God and ask God to help them understand who they are as his children? What would happen if you or I were to look to the Creator, not a creature, to offer self-worth and validation?

In her excellent book that inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue points out that in the Bible, quails are signs of both God’s extravagant provision and the fact that our desiring and wanting need to be transformed and renewed.[1]

Today, in our celebration of and remembrance of baptism, we acknowledge the truth that we don’t always know what we want. Too often, we look in the wrong places, or we use a beautiful creature in the wrong way. As we baptize these infants, we name the truth that God’s grace is here, and that it has been since well before you or I knew to ask for it. As we baptize them, we indicate to them, and we remind ourselves, that there is a new way of living – there is a way to trust that God will give us what we need.

Beloved, the God who created and called and claimed you knows who you are, and he knows what you need. Bring God the things that you want. Ask God about what you want. And ask God to help you to identify the need that is behind that want. God in his grace is already there, helping you to transform the desire and appreciate the beauty that is present. Move toward and into that grace. Relax in that grace. Grow in that grace.   Name and celebrate all the beautiful things you see in your world, and ask God to give you the ones that you need. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013).

The Driving Wind

As I studied the scripture for The Day of Pentecost and thought about the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, I was struck by a number of images and emotions that were not necessarily linear.  So I wrote a story that came out of my reading of Numbers. I don’t know how much of it happened like this, but I hope that some of it did, anyway. As you listen, it’s probably important for you to know that in the languages in which the Bible was written, Hebrew and Greek, the words for “wind” and “breath” and “spirit” are all the same. So if I said, “The fierce wind took my breath away and sapped my spirit”, I’d be using the same word 3 times in the same sentence.  The scriptures for the day can be found in Acts 2:1-13 and Numbers 11.

You’d think it would be the heat. And I’m not going to lie, the heat was simply brutal. But the thing to remember is that the heat had always been brutal. We had lived with the same dry, dusty heat every day while we were in Egypt. When we got out of there and found ourselves in the desert, we were not at all surprised by how hot it could get. Heat we knew.

What caught so many people off-guard, however, was the wind. The howling, driving, constant wind. You know the truth: there were times when that wind was a friend to us as we traveled. I know that we could not have crossed the Red Sea without the power of the wind driving back the waters. And many a night I fell asleep thanking the Lord for the breeze that wafted through my tent.

But often – surprisingly often – the wind was a foe. It was unrelenting in its biting, stinging, blinding onslaught. You felt so vulnerable when you walked into its teeth – and as the sand was flung against you, any exposed skin felt as if you’d just stepped into a beehive.

They have wind in Egypt, of course, but there, we had buildings and quarries to hide in. There was a place to escape its fury. But there in the desert, we were simply exposed, and after a while, you get tired of being so vulnerable.

The early days of freedom were so full and intoxicating, but before long, that vulnerability grated on us like, well, sandpaper. There was grumbling. The manna came, and at first it was magnificent! Can you imagine, eating a miracle for breakfast every morning? But after a couple of years, even that got old. People began to reminisce about the taste of fish from the river. At every meal, someone would say, “You know what would make this manna? A little garlic. That’s all I want.”

So we complained to Moses. And, bless him, he complained to God. And God said that he’d send his wind – his Spirit – to his people. He told Moses to take seventy of the elders to receive the Spirit.

"Moses Elects the Council of 70 Elders"  Jacob de Wit, 1737

“Moses Elects the Council of 70 Elders”
Jacob de Wit, 1737

Seventy. You know that created a problem. There are twelve tribes in Israel. If every tribe sent six elders, we’d have seventy-two. Why didn’t the Lord just ask for seventy-two? That would have been easy. But each tribe sent six, and nobody listened when Moses suggested that two of the tribes could withhold a representative voluntarily.

Moses agreed to take all seventy-two outside of camp. He asked me to make a box, and to fill the box with seventy-two lots – slips of papyrus paper. He asked me to mark seventy of them with the word “elder”, and to leave two blank. The plan was that once all the men had left the camp, they’d pull their lots. The two who drew blank lots – the ones whom God did not want – would then return to the camp to wait with the rest of the people.

I made the box, and I filled it with papyrus. I carried it alongside of the leaders until we got to the appointed spot. As we began to prepare to draw lots, someone noticed that there were only seventy elders present. Two were missing. Moses decided that we didn’t need the lots, and we didn’t need the box, and, frankly, they didn’t need me – and so he sent me back to the camp.

When I returned, I met two of the elders there: Eldad and Medad. I probably should not have spoken so boldly to these leaders, but I asked, “Why did you not go? The Lord has promised to send his Spirit!”

It took the men a while, but what eventually came out was that they were afraid to be seen as failures. Both Medad and Eldad confessed that they were not worthy of the Spirit of God. They were nervous about being the ones to pick a blank lot in front of the assembly and being shamed by that. They did not want everyone to know that they were not worthy – that God had no use for people like them. And so they stayed in the camp, tending to the needs of the people who were there.

A couple of hours later, a fierce wind blew through the camp, and I knew that it must have been the signal of the presence of the Spirit of God. I wondered what it would have been like to be out there with Moses and the others, hearing the breath of God in the gathering of those God had called. When the wind was at its fiercest, though, a commotion erupted right outside my tent.

I emerged to discover that Eldad and Medad had been filled with the Spirit of God and were prophesying to the people. They were saying that God intended to bless all of his children, and that we were being saved so that we would be a blessing to others. And then they said something that seemed impossible: they said that we would all have meat to eat that day.

Moses would want to know that this was going on. This had never happened before. I ran – I ran as fast as I could outside the camp. Right before I got to the group, Joshua came running to meet me and asked what the problem was. I told him what I had seen, and he grew white as a sheet.

Moses was sitting with the other men, they all looked as though they were taking a rest – as if they’d just been through some sort of strenuous workout. I stood where I was, afraid to do anything, but Joshua hustled over to the old man and told him what had gone on back in the camp. You could tell Joshua was furious, wondering who these men thought that they were to try to speak for God without Moses around! In fact, Joshua (no spring chicken himself) offered to run back to camp and personally stop the prophesying.

Well, even before Joshua finished speaking, I could see Moses’ head tilting back and he was laughing – a deep and rich laughter, as if God had just pulled a joke on him or something. And then, when Moses saw how upset Joshua was, he grew very serious and said, “No, no, no, Joshua. Don’t stop them. Don’t stop anyone who is touched by the Spirit of God. One day you will understand how deeply I long for everyone to be filled with that Spirit.”

We remained in the spot for a few more moments, but it was apparent that the wind had stopped blowing and the elders would not prophesy again. Moses was eager to return to camp, and when we got back he went straight for Medad and Eldad.

I’ll tell you the truth: when they saw Moses coming towards them, it was their turn to be pale with fear, but he kissed them both on the cheek and they sat and spoke quietly for an hour or so.

I don’t have any idea what they said, but I know this: as dusk approached, the wind kicked up again. It was a fierce, howling wind that drove us all into our tents for shelter. It sounded like the raging of a storm outside for forty-five minutes. And suddenly, it grew quiet. There was nothing to hear. I was afraid I had gone deaf.

"Quails are Sent to the Israelites" James Tissot (1836-1902)

“Quails are Sent to the Israelites”
James Tissot (1836-1902)

And then, the laughter. I heard laughter. I walked outside the tent and looked around and as far as I could see, the ground was covered in quail. Heaps and heaps of birds, just laying there!

Moses was there, with Medad and Eldad, encouraging people to go ahead and eat. Some of the people were greedy and making a scene, but many were unsure. Moses again encouraged us to gather and prepare the food. He told me I should save some to dry out for later, and he asked me if I had something to put the birds in.

He saw the box I’d made and filled with papyrus, and walked toward it. I tried to get there before him, but he was surprisingly quick. When he went to open the box that he’d asked me to make for him, he discovered my secret.

I had made the box exactly as he’d asked me to. I had gotten seventy-two papyri, exactly as he’d asked me to. And each of those ballots was still inside the box. None of that was a secret. Yet I feared his reaction when he discovered that not a single one of those papyri was marked with the symbol for “elder”. There were, in fact, seventy-two blank ballots there.

He looked at me with a question in his eyes, and I said,

“My lord, Moses. Forgive me for disobeying, but I could not mark those ballots. No one is worthy of God’s Spirit. I had to leave them all blank.”

“You have grasped a great truth, my son,” the man of God replied. “No one – not even one – is worthy to receive what is Holy. And yet see what has happened this day: God pours out his spirit, his breath, his wind on us all anyway. God’s Spirit came to those outside the camp, and to our brothers Eldad and Medad inside the camp, and now to the entire people – none of whom are worthy. Yet all of whom are blessed.”

As I remember that day, I know that if I try to tell you how hot it is in this wilderness, you might not believe me. I know that not everywhere is hot, and not every wilderness is the same. Maybe you have never felt heat such as that through which we walked those years in the desert. I can accept that.

But I cannot believe that you do not know the wind, because I know that the wind is everywhere. And listen to me, people: today, as you move through your world, be it desert or forest, take note of the wind.

I know that at times the wind is biting and furious. The wind can send a painful trial to even the most patient of men.

And yet I also know that sometimes, the things that appear to be most difficult to endure can lead you to a place where you can discover the very breath of God.

You might not have been among those who were called to go outside the camp on that day, selected as a prophet by God.   But that doesn’t mean that God does not want you. It is true – in and of ourselves, none of us are worthy to carry the Breath of God.

But the Spirit/Wind/Breath of God blows anyway. The Spirit/Wind/Breath of God is God’s gift to and through people like Eldad and Medad; people like you and me.

Listen for that wind. Don’t be afraid to walk in it. And don’t forget to look for the quail.

Amen.

Texas Mission 2014 – Day Four

At some point in the history of the early church, there seemed to be some conflict caused by who might get credit for what in the grand scheme of things.  Writing to the Corinthians, Paul sought to defuse that particular time bomb:

After all, who is Apollos? And who is Paul? We are simply God’s servants, by whom you were led to believe. Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do: I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plant, but it was God who made the plant grow. The one who plants and the one who waters really do not matter. It is God who matters, because he makes the plant grow. There is no difference between the one who plants and the one who waters; God will reward each one according to the work each has done. For we are partners working together for God, and you are God’s field. (I Cor 3:5-9, GNT)

Our fourth day on the job was an exercise in remembering that we are all in this together.  By the time we got to the home that will be occupied by Angelica and her seven children, a group from one community in Texas had already laid the foundation and built the walls.  Another group, from a vastly different community, had gathered to begin to paint the outside.  And we, in our foolishness, thought we might “finish” the place.

Fat chance.

Oh, we did great things – the walls are all up and taped.  Electrical sockets and switches are in, as are most of the plumbing fixtures, kitchen cabinets, and a lot of other bells and whistles.  But “done”? Nope.  Someone else is going to have to put the finish coat of drywall mud down, and lay the carpeting, and connect the sewage drains.

But it’s ok.  That family is one step closer to the freedom of a new home, and we got to help.  That’s something.  Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, once said, “the privilege is ours to share in the loving.”

And that’s what we did this week.  We shared in the loving – we extended some of ourselves, to be sure.  But we were treated royally – by a congregation that welcomed us into their building with amazing hospitality and more grapefruit than we know what to do with; by another congregation that invited us to worship and dine with them tonight in a feast of spiritual and physical food that lasted until 10 pm; by a young widow who doesn’t speak English, but who shared the fruit from the tree in her garden because we asked to try it; by her children who wanted just to play a little soccer…

Here are some images of the good life in Texas from today.  There are stories behind them, but it’s after midnight and we’ve got more to do in the morning.

My specialty today was taping drywall corners on ceilings.  At least no one dripped anything on me!

My specialty today was taping drywall corners on ceilings. At least no one dripped anything on me!

Joe and Bob hung the doors for the bedrooms and the bathrooms and installed the privacy hardware.

Joe and Bob hung the doors for the bedrooms and the bathrooms and installed the privacy hardware.

Lindsay gets another tutorial from the electrical guru, complete with visual aids on the wall.

Lindsay gets another tutorial from the electrical guru, complete with visual aids on the wall.

What's that? A loggerhead shrike right outside the window? Put down the drywall knife Dave, and grab the camera...

What’s that? A loggerhead shrike right outside the window? Put down the drywall knife Dave, and grab the camera…

The kitchen/living area, as "done" as we could do it.

The kitchen/living area, as “done” as we could do it.

The hallway to the back door, the bath, and the rear bedroom.

The hallway to the back door, the bath, and the rear bedroom.

Angelica and five of her children. And no, Steve, you can't keep the puppy, even if it does follow you home.

Angelica and five of her children. And no, Steve, you can’t keep the puppy, even if it does follow you home.

The group in our "home" church of First Presbyterian, Mission TX

The group in our “home” church of First Presbyterian, Mission TX

Leading worship with Pastor Danny translating at the Solomon's Porch Thursday night worship service.

Leading worship with Pastor Danny translating at the Solomon’s Porch Thursday night worship service.

Give Us A Sign!

Advent worship continued at Crafton Heights on Sunday 15 December.  We heard God’s word from Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-11.

If you have a Facebook account, you know what I’m talking about.  If you use email, you understand.  In fact, if you have ever, even once, logged on to the internet, you have gotten a message, tagged “urgent”, entitled something like, “Guys, check this out!” or “Hey, this is amazing!”  You have seen them plastered all over your virtual wall.

cute-facebook-timeline-covers-kittensKittens.

Cute, adorable, cuddly and playful.  Kittens.  Oh, there are a few puppies thrown in.  Some photogenic children.  But mostly, it’s kittens.

Why?  Seriously, why?  Not “For the love of God, man, please make it stop!” why?, but simply, “Why?”  What is it about the kittens – or, more likely, what is it about us – that makes this seem like a good use of the kind of technology that has sent humans to the moon and toppled dictatorships?

9481510-newspaper-cuttings-and-headlines-natural-disasters-and-tragediesI have a theory.  It’s not supported by anyone, so far as I can tell.  But this is what I think: I believe that in an over-stimulated, over-connected world that is now linked to a 24/7 news cycle, we need to know that there is still good news.  We are weary of the shootings, the racism, the debilitating poverty and the unending stream of negativity and….awwwww, kittens!  Aren’t they adorable?beautiful-christmas-cats-hanging-wallpaper

To put it Biblically, we want a sign.  We want to know that what we see isn’t everything, and that what we face is not interminable.  We want to hope that things are different than they sometimes appear to be.

And if we, the richest, healthiest, longest-lived, most-medicated generation the planet has ever seen – if we need to know that things get better and that beauty exists, well, then imagine the audience that showed up to hear Isaiah preach.  They were captives who descended from people who had been forcibly removed from their homes in Israel.  They’d lived for a generation in Babylon, the enemy capital.  They were aware that whatever passed for home back in Palestine had been destroyed and overrun; they were unable to fully worship; they were immersed in a foreign culture; and they wondered what was true.  They wondered if hope was something that they could afford, and if faith was worthwhile.

01. DESERT HILLS.And the prophet says, “Yes.  Yes, there is a future.”  And he starts with an image that they understand: he says, “Do you know what happens to the desert after it rains for a couple of days? How the dull brown apparently unending death is jolted with new life and color and vibrancy?  Well, beloved, that can happen in your world, too.  God’s purposes are for life and good.  The heat and the parchedness do not win.  Life wins.  desert_flowersRedemption is God’s intent.”  And then the old prophet and preacher gives his neighbors a sign that God is not finished with them yet.  Some parts of that sermon and sign, like blind people seeing or redeemed people returning home must seem impossibly distant.  Yet other aspects of those purposes are as close as the next rain shower.  There is good news for Isaiah’s people.

And for us.  We want a sign, too.

And yet if we, the most literate, technologically-advanced, nutritionally blessed generation with the cutest children and grandchildren ever imagined – if we want a sign, well, imagine how John the Baptist felt.

We heard about John last week.  Do you remember him, out in the desert, eating locusts, wearing the camel hair shirts?  When we last saw him, he was riding the wave of public opinion.  The crowds were coming out to see him and be baptized; he had challenged the religious and political leadership of his day.  After that, he found himself asking the king some tricky moral questions and wound up imprisoned for his troubles.  I can’t imagine that is what he thought was supposed to happen.  And so he wonders, “Is it true?  All this stuff I’ve said about the coming Kingdom…can I count on it?  Or am I wrong?  Have I wasted my life?”

 Used by permission © suntreeriver design

Used by permission © suntreeriver design

He sends his followers to ask Jesus, who is quick to reply: “Look, you fellows run back and tell John what you’ve heard.  Describe what you’ve seen.  The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, and good news is being preached to the poor!”  John’s reality appears otherwise, but this is exactly what old Isaiah was talking about.  God is on the move.  Grace is his intent.  Healing is real.  Love wins.

And, as readers of Matthew know, Jesus unleashed the new reality in amazing ways.  He spoke the truth.  He gave us God’s design.  He pointed to God’s future.  Jesus was, as we all know, amazing.

Yet the reality is that the future that Jesus described and to which Isaiah pointed is, in many ways, still the future.  Oh, none of us is in exile, really.  None of our neighbors are in prison for making helpful comments about the King’s sexual adventures.  And nobody we know is facing crucifixion.

And yet…and yet…we know that the world is not as it should be.  The world that we live and breathe and work and shop and play in is too full of abuse, debilitating poverty, addiction, persecution, and death.

And like the Israelites, and like John, we need to know that what we see is not all there is.  Our neighbors and our world need to be reminded that we will not always be where we are now; things will not always be as they are now.

To put it another way, we say that we are in Advent, a time of waiting.  Well, if we are willing to dedicate a portion of our lives to waiting, we must acknowledge that for which we wait.  If we say that we hope, we must point to that for which we hope.  We want a sign.

Beloved, this is the truth: you are the sign for this time and this place.  This congregation is a living reminder of the coming reality that God has promised to his creation.  The people in exile, and John in his prison, and folk up in down this street and across this city say, “Show me a sign”, and God holds up…well, YOU.

CHUP WorshipYou know, thank God, that God is a God who speaks.  Your presence here gives witness to the fact that you believe God has a word – not just for Hebrew slaves and first century prophets, but for our world.  You show that sign by your willingness to engage in worship together.  Your worship is strong and intergenerational.  It is full of the real parts of life – we laugh and we cry.

BaptismYou point to this God who speaks in other ways as you seek to understand the written Word.  Adult Faithbuilders discussions center on the Bible.  There are vibrant studies in the evenings for adults.  Your children and grandchildren are learning how to listen for and honor God’s word.

And this God who has spoken and still speaks calls us together in community.  Every week the front of the bulletin reminds us that a part of why we are called together is to “share life’s joys and sorrows”.  And you do that.

I have noticed here that when the specter of death emerges among you, as it does everywhere, no one is alone.  When the gift of life appears in your midst, there is shared joy.  When someone you love – or are learning to love, is in need of healing – you point to it.  You are learning what it means to be God’s people with and for each other.  You are recognizing that when we know God and seek to participate in his kingdom, we can’t do it alone.  We can only do it with and for others, whom we are learning to love and trust and serve.

IMG_6851And this God who speaks and calls us together empowers us to share his intentions with the world.  We believe that while there is great suffering and pain and dysfunction in the world, God’s purposes are greater still.  And so this congregation, this year, launched a ministry that wound up feeding 1300 starving families in 8 apparently forgotten African villages for three of the toughest months they’ve known.

This congregation, at this time, serves as a welcome beacon for dozens of neighborhood children who long to know that they are important to someone and that they can thrive in this community.  The Open Door ministry is a tangible sign of God’s love and presence on our street.OpenDoor

Downstairs, there is a food pantry that is bulging at the seams.  Three weeks ago, we thought we wouldn’t have enough food to share with hungry neighbors, and so someone stood up here and said that we thought we needed more.  And earlier this week I walked into the room downstairs and one of our most dedicated volunteers was complaining because there wasn’t room for all the food that was coming in.  God’s intentions for abundance are evident for our neighbors in tough times.

And to a generation that wants to see a sign and that was raised on visual imagery, I have one more.  This is one of our partners in our newest mission endeavor located in South Sudan.  Some of you know that for generations, folk from the north of that country have raided the south and stolen people into slavery.  This video clip is an image of a Christian leader who has brought a group of former slaves home to their village in the south. The Christian community in South Sudan and around the world has come together and now those who have lived in captivity are being reunited with their loved ones – because of the Gospel and Christ.  

These things are amazing!  They are fantastic, beautiful, wonderful signs of a God who comes.

I don’t want to sugarcoat things, or pretend that we live in a world without problems.  We know well enough that every day is a challenge.  I am very aware of the fact that it was all some of us could do to get out of bed and drag ourselves in here this morning, and we are preparing to go home to pain, to dis-ease, to a secret or shame that threatens to overwhelm us.  We are sinful and broken people who live in a world that is profoundly disrupted by sin and brokenness.  I know – believe you me, I know that sin and brokenness are unwelcome intruders.

But now, and here, I proclaim to you – and you to each other – that deserts do bloom.  That the deaf can and will hear.  That the poor can eat.  That the dying do receive new lungs. That those enslaved – by hostile neighbors, by abusive relationships, by debilitating drugs – that all those enslaved can be freed.  Addictions can be broken.  I proclaim that as the message from the God who speaks, who calls us together, and who sends us out.  And, seriously, my friends, isn’t that way better than kittens?

What remains is for you to explore what that means for you.  God is opening a new way of life in Jesus Christ.  That’s wonderful and amazing.  So what?

How are God’s intentions, promised to Israel and revealed in Jesus Christ, evident in your life?  How are you participating in those things with this, the body of Christ in this time and this place?

Celebrate those intentions now.  Point to them in your life.  Live the grace and truth of God, and share it as a sign, in your life this week.  Thanks be to God for this wonderful gift!  Amen.

What Have You Got To Lose?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  On World Communion Sunday, we considered one of the most terrifying, and least-likely to be included in Children’s BIbles, texts – the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael (excerpted below).  Our Gospel reading was John 12:23-26.

         If you have not been following along, you need to know that we are working our way through a study of the Book of Judges.  This morning’s reading, like most of that volume, is a bleak and difficult story, especially if we take it at face value.  As we begin, let me remind you about a couple of things.  First, the overall purpose of Judges, as we’ve described it, is to help us see what happens when there is no sense of order and purpose in society.  Several times the text says, “In those days, there was no king in Israel”, and I am taking that to mean that Judges paints a picture of a people who have forgotten the Lord and His purposes.  And secondly, I’d like you to remember that the theological theme of Judges is that God calls his people to replace systems of repression and slavery with structures of release and liberation.

metal-and-stone-spiral-staircaseIn reality, reading through Judges is like following a circular stairwell into a deep, dark basement.  We seem to be going around and around, and instead of getting easier and brighter, it’s getting harder and darker and colder.  And if you think what we’ll read today is bad, well, just wait until March.  This week, I had the sense that a lot of these stories full of violence and bluster are the campfire stories of a culture that needs to hear something of God’s purposes and deliverance, even if they sound unbelievable.  It’s a lot like whistling while you walk past the graveyard in the dark, I suppose.

Let’s begin this fourth chapter, the story of Deborah and Barak, Sisera and Jael.

 

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

You see the cycle, right?  The last Judge, Ehud, dies, and there is peace.  And then we forget, and we do what is evil.  And then God allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, and then we cry out to God…

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

But wait a second.  It says we’re oppressed by a king…and what is the distinctive feature of this particular king?  He’s got chariots.  I seem to remember another king with chariots who tried to stand in the way of God’s purposes.  Do you remember Pharaoh?  Can you see how this is being set up as a story of God’s delivering God’s people?

The story continues:

 

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deb′orah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abino-am from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naph′tali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

DeborahBarakLast week we looked at the meaning of the names in the story.  This week, we’ll see some more of that.  We’re told that Deborah is the “wife of Lappidoth”, and that may be.  But “Lappidoth” is also the word for “torches”.  So she may be “Mrs. Lappidoth”, but she may also be “the torch lady”.  She lives into that name, because she sure lights a fire under Barak!

And “Barak” is the word for “lightning”.  When you hear the rest of this story, I hope you’ll see that perhaps this is a bit of a joke, like when you call a bald man “Curly” or a 350 pounder “Tiny”.  This guy is surely not quick, powerful, or brilliant.

But Deborah, the “torch lady”, is a prophetess.  That is, she is called by God to tell the people the truth.  And the truth she reveals is that God will save us from Sisera:

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”

Barak is doubtful and even cowardly.  He chooses to see the size of the problem, rather than the power and the purpose of the savior. “I can’t do it…you’ll have to come.  You be my ‘good luck charm’.”  Earlier in this passage, I suggested that the chariots were to remind us of Pharaoh.  Can you think of another man who was told by God to lead his people to freedom, and who tried to get out of it?  Doesn’t Barak sound just like Moses here?  Moses said that he wasn’t a good enough speaker, that he wasn’t powerful enough.  Barak said he couldn’t do it alone, either.

Deborah gives him his answer:

And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him.

Here’s the truth: God does not punish people for an inability to believe, but I am sure that people who cannot trust or believe are unable to see all of God’s best. That’s the situation for Barak, at any rate.  God will do what God will do, but you’ll miss out on some of it, Barak. 

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Za-anannim, which is near Kedesh.

OK, that’s a little bit random.  Why do we need to know about Heber and the Kenites?  Isn’t this a story about Deborah and Barak?  Yes, it is.  But here we are reminded that the Kenites, even though they are from Canaan, usually play for our side.  Going all the way back to Moses, we’ve had pretty good relations with them.  Moreover, this verse explains why this particular group of Kenites found themselves in Kedesh.  They are usually much further south…but for some reason, there are a few of them around here.  I wonder what they are doing?

12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abin′o-am had gone up to Mount Tabor,

Wait!  Sisera found out about Barak’s army?  How did he do that?  Who told him? Heber!  Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.  I thought we were friends!  But now you’ve ratted our guy out to the enemy.

13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The scene shifts now, to what the RSV calls “the river Kishon.”  The word that’s used, though, is “Wadi” – “Wadi Kishon.”  A “wadi” is a riverbed that is usually dry, packed and firm.  However God defeats the army of Sisera in the Wadi Kishon.  Chapter 5 (verse 4 and 21) describe a battle occurring in a thunderstorm – the dry wadi became a raging torrent, and Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic.  In fact, the word for “panic” that is used here is the same word that describes what happened to Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus 14:24.  Can you see the echo of a liberation story here?

God does in fact use lightning to defeat Sisera – but it’s actual lightning, not Barak.  Once again, we see that God’s hand is more powerful than the enemy’s chariots.  That’s fantastic!  Let’s see how this story ends:

17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Ja′el, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24 And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Seriously?  A tent peg through the skull?  Look, you can read through the Bible and find a lot of places where you think, “Somebody needs to be wearing a WWJD bracelet here”.  This is not the best and finest part of our story, folks.  What’s going on here?

Well, for starters, let’s consider a couple of things that “everyone knows” – that is, what would be really obvious to hearers of this story that might slip past us?

Sisera, the enemy general, went straight to the tent of a woman.  In that culture, that’s a serious breach.  He ought to be presenting himself to the master of the property, the man.  In a time when the “taking” of “war brides” and forced sexual advances was common, a soldier walking into the tent of a woman is a real threat.

Furthermore, he asked for a drink.  Everyone knows that a good guest doesn’t ask, he waits to be served.  This is very forward and, again, threatening.

Finally, this guest commands his host to lie for him. 

The chapter concludes with Jael finishing the story, all right.  She deals with this threatening stranger and along the way, she undoes her husband’s treachery (remember that it was her husband, Heber, who alerted Sisera to Barak’s presence), and she declares God’s victory and liberation.

So what’s the good news here?  What can we learn from this difficult story?

The Good news is that here in Judges, just like in Exodus, God acts to save his people who cry out. God’s power brings liberation and release.

Deborah and Jael see this, believe it, and act into it.  These strong women take the steps that they can, using the tools they have at hand, to create a future consistent with God’s intentions for peace and freedom.

The men?  Well, not so much.  Both Barak and Sisera seem very intent on saving their own skins.  Barak, at least, is mildly interested in what the Almighty has going on, but it is clearly secondary to self-preservation. He can’t believe what Deborah says and will not move forward into God’s promise without the “torch lady” lighting a fire under his bum.  Sisera leaves his army, hides in a woman’s tent, and lies about that.

If we were to interpret this chapter in the light of our reading from John, we could say that each of the men sought to save their own necks by playing it safe.  They withheld trust and faith, and it ended up costing each of them.

So the women are faithful and able to walk into God’s purposes, while the men shrink back.  That leads me to another question: How do I respond to the call of God? How do I move forward into a future characterized by the intentions of a liberating, empowering, releasing God?

I know.  I know.  The story in Judges 4 is a nasty, brutish narrative.  It’s written by a people who knew far less of God’s intentions and presence than you do.  Nobody here had the Psalms or the Prophets, let alone the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  Every one of you sitting in the pews this morning knows more about light and life and God’s purposes than anyone in this story ever did.  You have more light than they did.

What are you doing with it?

Barak looked at Deborah, and then at the size of the enemy army, and said, “No way.  I am not going in there.  At least, not alone.  I’m only going if you will come with me, Deborah.”  And she becomes his token, his good-luck charm, his idol, his crutch.

CryOutWhat are you afraid of?  What do you look at and say, “No way.  I can’t do it.  Not gonna happen…”? Is it taking charge of your financial affairs?  Getting clean? Are you afraid of aging or dying?  Do you lack boldness in a relationship?

What do you insist on taking with you into the presence of fear?  Barak took Deborah. Do you take a drink instead of facing your fear directly?  Do you medicate your problems with shopping, or seek to anesthetize them with gambling or television or hiding out in the bedroom?  Do you find that you simply can’t move because you feel incapable and overwhelmed?

I’ve got good news.  In a few moments, you’ll be invited to sit at the Lord’s table.  You’ll have the opportunity to receive the sacrament that more than anything else is a tangible sign of God’s presence with you.  A reminder that God’s intentions are for you.

As you come to the table, you can let go of your good luck charm, your idol, your fear, your crutch.  You can walk toward the future, knowing that God is there, that God is in control.  Barak thought he was helpless unless he had Deborah with him.  Sisera thought he was safe hiding in a lie.  Both of them were wrong.  There is nothing else we need to bring, and no reason to hide.  Come into the light.  What have you got to lose?  No, seriously, I’m pretty sure that most of us need to lose something.  What have you got to lose?  The good news is, you can lose it, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The Stuff We Don’t Really Mean

We are continuing to look at The Lord’s Prayer in worship, and so on Oct. 7 (World Communion Sunday) we thought about “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 8:1-10 and Mark 8:1-10.

I want you to think for a few moments this morning about how many times in a day you say things that you don’t really mean.  How often does that happen?

–       Hey, Larry!  Great to see you – let’s have lunch sometime soon!

–       I’m sorry I missed your call, but if you leave your name and number I’ll get right back to you…

–       Wow, Shirley, that was the best casserole I’ve had in years…

–       Give us this day our daily bread

Hey, no fair, Pastor Dave!  That last one is different.  That’s the Lord’s Prayer!  Of course I mean that!

Uh-huh.  So if I went to your home, I’d find enough food for today.  If I canvassed the refrigerator, the freezer, the pantry, and al the canned goods, there would be a one-day supply of food – because you are counting on God to show up tomorrow with more, right? Give us this day, our daily bread…

No, that’s not what I mean.  For crying out loud, Dave, you are always saying that we have to be careful about taking the Bible literally.  Of course I’m not saying that I have ONLY one day’s worth of food on hand…

Ahhh.  You see.  Do you mean it when you pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”?  And if so, what, exactly, do you mean?

The first three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer are mostly about God taking care of God’s business.  Keep your name holy, Lord.  Bring in your kingdom.  Do the things that are important to you – your will be done.

But the next three – our daily bread, forgive us, and lead us not into temptation – represent some sort of shift.  Now we are asking God to help us with the things that we need to continue our journey.

Someone told me about the time that they hosted a visitor from a developing country.  As the woman looked around at the amazing abundance of her host’s home, she said, “But you have everything you need!  What do you have to pray for?”

That’s the rub this morning.  How do we pray for “our daily bread” when it might appear as though we don’t really need it?  Most of us in the room this morning, to be honest, are OK with food.  A few of us could use a little help, but we have an idea where to get it.  And probably nobody in this room has had to watch a child starve to death because food was not available.  By and large, in our community and in our nation, we are more worried about how much is in our retirement plans than about how much there is in the pantry.  Could a nation that took this fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer seriously make a toaster like this?

You can’t make this stuff up. Seriously.

How do we pray asking God to give us what, apparently, we already have?

It’s what he thought would happen, you know.  You heard the reading from Deuteronomy a few moments ago.  God is speaking to the group that has left Egypt and wandered through the desert for 40 years.  They are on the brink of entering the Promised Land, and he tells them how amazingly awesome it will be.  Barley and fig trees and pomegranates and honey…Wow, are you in for an amazing ride!

And then there’s the zinger in verses 11-18.

11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. (NIV)

You will forget me, God says.  Once you get settled and start really enjoying all that the Promised Land has to offer – this time in the wilderness will fade from your memory.  You will forget how you relied on me to care for you.  The manna will become meaningless to you.

The lesson of Deuteronomy, of course, is that God does provide.  God is able to care for God’s people – whether we are in the desert or in the Promised Land, we need God’s provision.

From a woodcut in Martin Luther’s Bible

Years later, the Son of God was out in the desert, and he had the brightest and best of his followers on hand.  For an entire weekend, he was teaching a huge crowd of people – there were parables, miracles, and an amazing sense of the presence of the Holy.  After a few days, he turns to his followers and says, “These people need to eat…”

Oh, Jesus, don’t go there.  How can anyone provide bread for people in the desert?

Now I would not have blamed Jesus if he looked at the disciples and said, “Actually, my Dad is pretty good at that sort of thing…”, but he doesn’t go there.  Instead, he repeats the miracle of the manna in the wilderness.  Using the crowd that has gathered, he re-teaches the lesson that it all comes from God.  We do not, as the disciples have already said, have the ability to do it ourselves.  But God can.  And God does.

Hear me, church.  We cannot feed ourselves.  We depend on others to get us through.  Our lives are always and ultimately in the hands of God.  We need God.

–                     the Israelites in the desert

–                     the 4000 in the wilderness

–                     the single mom waiting in line at the food bank

–                     the overpaid celebrity or athlete

We need God.  We who are physically hungry and we who are dying on the inside; we who think we have it all, and we who know we are nothing.  The core of this petition in the Lord’s Prayer is the conviction that God, and God alone, is able to give us what we need.  And in this phrase, Jesus is teaching us that not only is God able to provide, but that God is willing to provide.

And let’s look a little more deeply into the passage from Mark.  As Jesus looked at the 4000 people in the wilderness, what did they need?  Bread.  As I said, it’s a re-enactment of the manna in the wilderness.  God’s people need bread, and Jesus does something about it.  What does he do?  He does not give the bread to the people that need it.  He gives bread – more bread than they could possibly use – to his followers.

The crowd needs bread.  And Jesus gives the bread that they need to someone else.  And those men, bless their hearts, they get it right.  They realize that they are a part of God’s strategy for accomplishing this miracle of daily bread, and they distribute that which Jesus gives to them.  The followers of Jesus are the means by which God’s people are given their daily bread.

I’ve seen people who needed bread – daily bread.  In 2003, I was privileged to help lead a group of Christians to Malawi.  In 2001, we had heard that a famine was brewing, and so we worked to develop a plan.  And I’m here to tell you that it was a great plan, and that the world was changed for thousands of people.

I know that, because one day in May, 2003, I took a walk with Pastor Dennis Mulele in the Chingale region of Malawi.  I asked Dennis about the famine program, and he said, “Oh, Dave, it is amazing.  Six months ago, or a year ago, I was preaching eight or nine or ten funerals every week.  But since the food has gotten here, I am only doing two or three funerals each week, and many of them are people who are already sick or elderly.  I am not burying so many children these days.”

Two weeks ago, I met with the President of Malawi.  She told me that famine is coming to Malawi this year. The rains have failed, and the crops are sparse.  That means that the “hungry season” will begin early.  More than 2 million people – many of them children – are at risk for food insecurity in the next few months.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Here’s the deal: a lot of those children don’t have time for us to come up with a sensational program that will take two years to develop.  I don’t want to see Dennis and have him tell me that he did ten funerals a week while someone put together a plan.

So I have an idea.  And it looks a lot like Mark 8.  I’m suggesting that some of us have some bread that we can share with those who are starving.  A 50 kg bag of corn can supplement a family’s diet for a month.  Right now, we can buy that corn in Malawi for about $20.

I would like to ask you to pray with me that we can launch a program I’m calling “a-MAIZE-ing Grace”.  The goal of this program is simple: we ask Christians in the USA to buy a bag of corn so that Christians in Malawi can give it to people who are hungry.  People here could purchase a little token that indicates the food is being shared, and we ship the money to our partners in Malawi, where they will buy the corn and feed the hungry.

The program isn’t ready yet.  And I’m not using my sermon time to sell you anything.  I am using it to explore this notion of God’s willingness and ability to provide for his people, and his apparent preference for using other people to meet those needs.  And the thing I want you to do today – this world communion Sunday – more than anything is to pray that famine will be averted and that funerals will be postponed until these children die of old age.

Give us this day our daily bread.  Give me what I need, God.  Give me the ability to see who “us” is and what “ours” is.  And show me how I fit in.

I mean it, God.  Seriously.  I really mean it.

Amen.

 Check back soon as to how YOU can get infolved with the Famine Relief/Avoidance plan.  It will be launched within a week!

Flour Power

On October 16, the Crafton Heights Church began to explore “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” – five behaviors which, if enacted consistently, will allow us to grow into the church that God intends for us to be.  The concept is based in the writing and teaching of United Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase, and you can learn more about this material from his blog.

Our first practice is that of Radical Hospitality, and we considered Genesis 18:1-8 as well as the familiar teaching of Jesus regarding the sheep and the goats found in Matthew 25:31-46

In November of 1965, poet Allan Ginsburg wrote an essay encouraging those who were against the war in Vietnam to make their protests witnesses to beauty and life.  In particular, said Ginsburg, protesters should carry flowers and offer affirmations of what is good, not just point out what is bad.  Ginsburg’s suggestion caught on with a number of people in the hippie culture, and some of the most memorable photos of that era involve protesters standing against weaponry with daisies and daffodils.

In fact, “Flower Power” became a rallying cry of the hippie movement.  When the mainstream culture referred to someone as a “flower child”, that was another way of saying that this individual was into psychedelic drugs, or social permissiveness, or some other countercultural behavior.  “Flower Power” became the recognized and durable image of a generation of Americans in the 1960’s and 70’s.

But you know, I trust, that Allan Ginsburg and Abby Hoffman weren’t the first to experiment with this rhyme.  You, or your mom, or your granddad might remember the flower power of the 1960’s, and that’s great.  But this morning I would like to talk with you about your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great….grandmother, Sarah, whose experiments with Flour Power more than three thousand years ago changed the world.

The desert of Wadi Rum in Southern Jordan

The story takes place in the Middle Eastern desert.  More than twenty years prior to the reading that you heard this morning, Sarah and her husband, Abraham, had been called by God and had heard great promises of amazing things.  Even though they were elderly, God said, they would have a son.  Even though they were few, they would have many descendants.  Even though they had no heritage to speak of, they would receive a blessing that would enable them to become a blessing to millions of other people.  God’s promise was that great things would happen.

Except for about two dozen years, nothing happened.  Oh, they had some ups and downs.  They went on a few nice trips.  They encountered the neighbors in all sorts of ways.  But the bedrock promise – the son for Sarah – was not fulfilled.

In the reading you heard a few moments ago, we hear that three visitors show up on Abraham and Sarah’s doorstep.  Now we know that one of these visitors was “the Lord”, but there’s no indication from the reading that either Sarah or Abraham had any idea who the visitor was.  What we do know was that during the heat of the day – at the absolute least-convenient time – three people arrive at their home.

Ariel breakfasting with the Sheikh in the desert at Wadi Rum, Jordan in September 2010

And when that happens, Abraham does what desert-dwellers (then and now) do – he offers hospitality.  The extending of a meal and a place to stay is not simply a courtesy that is offered by someone trying to be nice.  In inviting the men in, he is quite possibly saving their lives.  The desert is a wilderness that is full of danger and short on opportunity.  This was really impressed on me last year as our daughter Ariel and I camped with the Bedouin people in southern Jordan and northern Egypt.  Nobody knows what is coming next, and when you meet a fellow-traveler in this situation, you share what you have.  You share because you know that one day you’ll be the traveler and therefore you’ll be relying on someone else.

And in this case, Abraham and Sarah respond to the need with lavish generosity.  Abraham tells Sarah to go ahead and fix up “three measures of flour”.  That’s about the direct opposite of me setting out a couple of twinkies and a can of pop.  Three measures of flour is the equivalent of 128 cups of flour.  That’s sixteen five-pound bags – a bushel – of flour.  When you add the water to prepare the bread for baking, it comes to more than a hundred pounds of dough![1]  That’s more bread than you could eat in a week.  And just to make sure that the guests feel welcome, there’s an entire calf and some cottage cheese on the side.  For three visitors!

In the context of this meal that is shared, Abraham and Sarah come to learn of the identity of the three guests.  The promise of a son is renewed, and in fact a timetable is given – it will be within the year.  In addition, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family are saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  As Abraham and Sarah extend this gift of hospitality, they come to know God’s will and intentions in deeper and more powerful ways.

This is truly “flour power.”  This is a great example of God’s people responding to the needs of other people – or at least the opportunities that surround them – with grace and generosity.  All week, many of us have been reading about the practice of Radical Hospitality as one dimension of a healthy and fruitful faith community.  And surely Abraham and Sarah could be the poster children for this practice in the way that they offered themselves to these guests.  We can learn a lot from them.

If I stopped here, though, it would be tempting to view the practice of hospitality from some sort of a cost/benefit analysis.  After all, we could reason, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents Abraham and Sarah shared hospitality and they got richly blessed.  Maybe if you or I follow suit, then we’ll be blessed, too.  After all, you’ve got to give it to get it, right?

And to be honest, that’s how hospitality is viewed in our culture today, isn’t it?  We speak of the “hospitality industry”, which includes lodging, dining, travel, and amusement parks, among other businesses.  Because our culture, unlike that of Abraham and Sarah, does not expect that people will house or feed strangers who find themselves on the road, Hyatt or Econolodge or King’s or McDonald’s will take care of that.  And the goal of the hospitality industry is to maximize profit by creating repeat customers who are loyal to a particular brand.  So it’s in the best interest of, say, the Hilton Hotel to treat you right so that you will not only sign up for their frequent traveler plan, but you’ll also recommend the Hilton to your friends.  Most of the “hospitality industry” stays afloat because they take care of their customers for less than their customers pay them – and the profits are returned to the shareholders.  You run a nice hotel, you get nice clients, you make money – everybody wins.

That model is present in the church, too.  Churches do analyses of their communities and discover who is there and then they come up with a plan to lure those folks in so that they can become members so that they will contribute so that the church won’t lose money and the church can stay open.  In fact, I got some grief about this a number of years ago when this church began to operate the Open Door Youth Outreach.  Another local pastor asked about our children and youth ministry and said, “But aren’t most of those kids in families that aren’t likely to come to your church?”  Maybe, I said.  “And a lot of the kids who come to your programs…are they low income?”  Quite a few, I said.  “Well, I just don’t get your strategy,” he said.  “You might be able to get a few of those kids to join, but they’re going to be lousy members and probably end up costing you money in the long run.”  I explained that we weren’t looking at the Open Door as a revenue generator or a member producer, but more as a chance to share the love of God with kids who might need to know about it, but I’m not sure he was convinced.  Oh well.

This idea of offering hospitality because it’s a smart way to plan on getting some sort of payback is pretty common in our homes, too.  We have a gathering and we invite “our kind” of people.  Folks who we want to like us, or to help us.  So far too often we screen our friends carefully and make sure that when we invite people in, they will be people who won’t mess up our stuff or stain the carpets.

The problem is that in every one of these cases, we don’t really know who is coming to the door.  According to Jesus, God is still in the business of making surprise visits to unsuspecting hosts.

Did you hear what he said in Matthew?  “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.  I was sick, or lonely, and you cared enough to show me some kindness.”

The righteous, of course, reply by saying, “There must be some mistake, Lord.  We never helped you at all.”

“Maybe not,” says Jesus – but when you extended yourself to the least of your neighbors, you were reaching out and welcoming me.”

Hospitality is a Kingdom value.  Those of us who claim to follow Jesus are bound to consider it in all the areas of our lives. I wonder: what are the implications of the Biblical commands to welcome the stranger and shelter the traveler when viewed in light of a particular nation’s immigration policies?  Do the things that Jesus says about caring for others find any traction when we make decisions about humanitarian assistance in other parts of the globe?  We are not going to explore those questions today, but it seems to me that it is foolish to think that there are no connections between the scriptural imperative to care for “the least of these” and the policies Christians around the world instruct our various governments to implement in our names.

But, as I say, we don’t have time (and, I suspect, you don’t have much interest in) to discuss all of those ramifications and viewpoints.  A little closer to home, we could ask how we as a region or a community welcome the stranger.  One of the reasons that I am excited about The Pittsburgh Promise is because I believe that it’s one means by which people in our city can say, “If you live here, we will help you do well by your children.”  But even county and city policies are a little adventurous for a morning sermon.

What about our own congregation?  What can we at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights do to be faithful to the command to practice hospitality?

You might say, “Well, Pastor Dave, we’ve made some great strides.  Look at the building!  People who were unable to be here two or three years ago can get into the room now.  The plumbing is accessible!  The ramp is working!”  And you’d be right.  The building is easier than ever to use.

But are we any better at caring for and with each other?  When I was a student in ministry, I served a large congregation.  I know it seems a little shocking to you, but in this congregation, people had gotten accustomed to sitting in their own pews – the very same pews week after week!  Can you imagine that?  One Sunday we welcomed a new minister to the church, and before he preached his first sermon, he made everyone in the room stand up.  He said, “I’ve only been here a week, but I want you to know, friends, that I’ve met a lot of people who sit over on the left side of the church.  And they are nice people.  And the folks on the right hand side seem pretty impressive, too.  You’ve all introduced yourselves to me – but I’m not sure you know each other.”  And so for the first two weeks, he made people get up out of their seats and cross the aisle and sit with someone else.

No, as a matter of fact, he didn’t last too long at that church.

But here’s the deal – we are a friendly congregation.  You show up to worship here, and I bet someone will shake your hand and maybe even offer you a cup of coffee.  That’s not shabby.  But there’s a difference between being friendly and being hospitable.  Friendly is saying hello after worship, and hospitable is asking if there is anything that you’d like us to pray about.  Friendliness is mentioning that there is childcare available in the back, and hospitality is offering to help with your crying baby or asking if you need some babysitting later in the week.

One of the best ideas you all have had in recent years is the afterschool program that Jessica Simcox is leading in this building four days a week.  Under her leadership, we are able to involve concerned and capable volunteers in the lives of young people who need safe places and trusted relationships.  Can we do that in other areas of our life together, too?

And finally, what about our own lives?  Forget about national policy, or local government, or even the Crafton Heights church.  What about the way I spend my time and energy?  At the end of the day, am I a welcoming person?  Not only in the sense of “sure, I’ll fix you a cup of coffee” but in the larger and more important sense of making my life a safe place?  When you talk, am I hearing you?  Or are you just background noise in my head?

When our ancestors Abraham and Sarah made room in their lives for some strangers, they used a hundred pounds of bread dough and a calf.  My hunch is that probably isn’t going to work in your neighborhood. What is the 21st century equivalent to that kind of radical hospitality?  I have a hunch it’s more than being “facebook friends”.

What would that kind of hospitality look like in your life?  Is it volunteering for the carpool? Cutting your neighbor’s lawn? Taking dinner to a friend’s family?

Flour Power.  Abraham and Sarah used it, and it changed the world.  I dare you to spend an hour this week thinking about what you can do in your world to demonstrate the concrete love and welcome of Jesus Christ in the world around you.  And then I double dare you to go ahead and try.  God bless you as you do.  Amen.


[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdman’s/Zondervan 1985, p. 118)