Getting Ready to Run

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

 

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

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

From the Maciejowski Bible, 12th c.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about our private lives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giant Who Defeated David

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

May 14, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

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

Until today.

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

David And Bathsheba (Marc Chagall, 1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes you any different from King David?

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paying the Price

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 30, 2016 we considered the implications of Jonathan’s embrace of what God was doing in David’s life, and wondered how we could cultivate that spirit of humility, service, and discipleship in our own lives.  Our texts included I Samuel 20:24-42 and Luke 14:25-27.

This was an endorsement that not many people saw coming. I’m not talking about Angelina Jolie’s decision to become a spokesperson for Louis Vuitton or any of the celebrities that are lining up behind one of the contenders for political office in 2016. We could see most of those coming, and frankly, we’re a little tired of all the commercials.

But the one we just heard about – now that was a shocker. Who saw this coming? Jonathan… that would be Prince Jonathan, the son of King Saul of Israel, comes to the man that his father hates more than anyone else, David the son of Jesse, and says, “Look… No matter what happens, I’m with you.” In fact, a couple of verses prior to the beginning of our reading for the day, we hear him say, “‘May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.’ And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.” (I Samuel 20:16-17).

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

Wow! The son of the king – the man who was next in line for the throne – says, “David, I want you to succeed. God is clearly with you, and you’ve got to do this thing.” Who saw that coming?

Of course, Jonathan wasn’t the first one in his family to sense David’s ascendancy. Last week we read about his sister, Michal… Princess Michal, who warned David as her father tried to have him killed, thus keeping him alive so that he’d be free to live into the promised future that God had laid out for him. Today’s reading is simply a description of another child of Saul moving toward David.

But note how he does this. This is not a public endorsement intended for the newspapers or television camera. Instead, it is a deeply personal and private conversation in which Jonathan seeks to confirm for David all of the things that old Samuel had told the boy so many years before… before the Philistine wars… before the battle with Goliath… before all the conflicts with Saul, and before the wedding to Saul’s daughter… On this moonlight night at the shooting range, Jonathan pulls David aside and says, “Look, David, you have got to see this through.”

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

Without Jonathan, David was at risk of either abandoning his vocation and returning to the simple life of tending sheep or developing a murderous spirit of retaliation to get even with the man who despising the best that was within him. He did nether. He accepted Jonathan’s friendship and in receiving it received confirmation of Samuel’s earlier anointing to kingwork and the God-dominated imagination that made it possible to live in and by God’s Spirit in song and story.[1]

In short, for the second week in a row, we have a child of King Saul saving the life of the man who would replace him – knowing that in the eyes of the world, Jonathan is acting against his own best interests. There is something deeply admirable about Jonathan’s behavior and principles here. I wonder how Jonathan got to be this kind of a human being – the kind of man who is able to look not only to his own interests, but to the greater good; a man who is eager to sense how and where and when God is moving and to share in that, even if it brings him to a place of disruption or personal pain. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be a person like that.

But how? How do I grow into having that kind of persona?

I think it starts with learning how to say “no”, and perhaps more precisely, knowing what to say “no” to.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that Jonathan’s enthusiastic embrace of David is due, at least in part, to something amazingly wonderful and captivating about David. This is a special, special kid, and you’d have to be willfully ignorant to miss that.

But Jonathan’s actions here are more than merely looking at David’s amazing gifts and affirming them. He invests himself deeply in David’s life, and the only way that is possible is because Jonathan is willing to train himself to say “no” to some parts of this world that have a deep attraction for him. In the space that those denials provide him, he is able to add his emphatic “yes” to God’s future in the life of his friend David.

Our reading for this morning offers us a glimpse into a conversion of sorts. At the beginning of chapter 20, Jonathan is trying hard to be both a dutiful son and a good friend. Saul’s behavior – including the attempted murder of this dutiful son in a fit of rage – drives Jonathan to the place where he expresses his desire to follow David, not Saul, into an uncertain future. As Jonathan expresses his loyalty to David, he is living into the words of Jesus in Luke 14: ““If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

In our culture, we often think of the word “hate” as the opposite of the word “love”. When we say “I love NCIS but I sure do hate Jeopardy”, we are saying that we have an attraction toward police drama and are repulsed by quiz shows. In the Semitic world, however, the meaning was a little bit different. To “hate” someone or something was to turn away from it or to detach oneself from it. When Jesus called his followers, he was inviting them to turn away from any allegiances that would stand in the way of their full-time discipleship and to love him more than anyone or anything else.

As Jonathan came to see what was going on in his own household, including the mad ambition, the spiritual depravity, and the murderous jealousy of his father, he had to “hate” that. He had to turn himself away from those things and detach himself from that kind of a heritage. And because he turned his back on those things, he was able to embrace the thing that God was doing in David. Jonathan confirmed God’s call on David’s life and he pledged himself to helping David realize the totality of that call.

And 700 years or so later, Jesus, the Son of David, finds himself marching toward Jerusalem in the last months of his life. He knows that he is walking towards his death, the great sacrifice for the sake of the world. Jesus has challenged the status quo, he has stood up to religious charlatans who were eager to jump into bed with the Empire, and he has sought to proclaim the outrageous love and grace of God. Jesus knows exactly where he is heading, and he knows exactly what will happen to him when he gets there. And as he keeps marching, he turns around and seems surprised that there is a crowd behind him.

He speaks: “Are you all sure about this? Do you know where this trip ends? Don’t come with me unless you know where we’re headed. Following me means turning away from what you have held most dear. Saying ‘Yes’ to the movement of God and the rule of the Spirit means saying ‘No’ to unhealthy habits, long-cherished notions, and a life centered on pleasing yourself.”

And those words of the Savior are not only for that crowd 2000 years ago. They are for us. How do we learn from Jonathan? How do we follow the Savior? Where do we need to say “no” so that our “yes” will mean something?

Some of us need to unplug. That is to say, we need to dial back on the devices that are seeking to control us or are having an unhealthy impact on us. That could mean cutting down on your investment in social media. We are so transfixed by what happens in this little alternate reality that we become unable to function in the real plane of our existence. We check our feeds, we wait for our followers to react, and we have alerts sent to remind us when someone we love or loathe does something to bless or irritate us. As a result, we find that we are more antagonistic, our blood pressure rises, we’re more irritable, and we are so concerned with the virtual world that we find it hard to be attentive to the actual world that is in front of our noses. I have friends who have deactivated Facebook because it’s taken them to places they don’t want to go; there are those who find that the anonymity and immediacy of Twitter means that it’s far too easy to become vile and hateful; and still others among us are so tethered to our email that we have to check it six or eight times an hour. And maybe you scoff at all of these technologies but at the same time can’t wait to turn on the talk radio or get to your favorite cable news station…which, in fact, do the same things to you. Some of us need to unplug.

And speaking of plugging, there are those among us who might actually be helped by getting a little better connected. That is to say it may be that the current cesspool of cyberspace in which you’re trapped may be online pornography or gambling. If that’s the case, then let me encourage you to upgrade to Snapchat or Pinterest as possible alternatives to the fantasy world in which you are immersing yourself. As I’ve already noted, these platforms are not without their flaws, but at least they’d be a step closer to real relationships with real people.

In addition to unplugging, perhaps we all need to just simmer down a little bit. That’s what my grandmother would say to me when she thought I was getting a little too high on my horse. Actually, I’m not at all sure what she meant by me being on my high horse, but “simmer down” was grandma’s way of saying “chill.” Is it me, or do so many people seem to be so angry so much of the time? Every time you turn around, someone is about to bite your head off… Anger comes from fear: Psychologists tell us that when we are threatened, our natural instincts are to fight or to flee. Anger is half of that equation. I fall in love with my ideas, and when I discover that your ideas are different, I want to argue with you about it. I’m afraid of loss of identity or purpose or integrity; I’m afraid of some threat to my way of life, and rather than acknowledging all of that, I simply call you an idiot, get angry at you, and walk away.

You don’t have to watch too many political ads to see this at work in our lives today, do you? And it’s even worse when we see that getting played out in the church. I have some friends on the left who take some interesting ideas about social justice and fairness and equality and give them a quick baptism and proclaim that Jesus is here, and only here.

On the other hand, I have some friends on the right who start with some deeply held beliefs about God and country and patriotism, and frame those with an appeal to the founding of our so-called “Christian nation” and America as the promised land and pretty soon opposing any of those ideas is the same thing as turning one’s back on God.

And yet to all of my friends I would say, “Relax. Simmer down. Jesus isn’t running for President. And he wasn’t in the primaries, either.” You have your ideas. Great. Vote, of course. Express your opinions – but do all of that thinking, voting, and expressing after you’ve spent time on your knees, waiting in prayer, asking God where God is already moving in the world.

And with the energy and equilibrium that we gain when we unplug and simmer down, perhaps then we will find ourselves in a position to dive in somewhere and make a promise to someone. Eugene Peterson calls us to be Jonathans in the lives of people around us. Listen:

     Each of us has contact with hundreds of people…who take one look at us, make a snap judgment, and then slot us into a category so that they won’t have to deal with us as persons. They treat us as something less than we are; and if we’re in constant association with them, we become less.
And then someone enters our life who isn’t looking for someone to use, is leisurely enough to find out what’s really going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what’s deepest within us. A friend. It’s a great thing to be a Jonathan.[2]

He’s right, of course. But the only way that we are able to be strong enough to do that is when we detach ourselves from our anger, our fears, or our unhealthy addictions to people, substances, or attitudes.

Or make a promise in a different way: demonstrate your intention to walk in a new path by making a profound promise to commit to giving more of your money to the Lord’s work in the year to come. Too many of us “lowball” it when we come around to thinking about what we’d like to give. We think about what might be a comfortable gift, and then we back off that a little bit and make our promise. What if we led with our best and deepest hopes and then spent the year trying to live into that?

Or maybe your deal isn’t really money: it’s time. Maybe you can make a promise to really endorse someone by simply showing up… again and again. Come in in for the After School program… or be a mentor… or volunteer at The Table.

I realize that none of these things – not service hours, not financial donations, not presence with others – none of these things are the goal. Yet each of them are concrete, active ways to move toward the goal: following Jesus. Letting go of the things that hold us back and detaching ourselves from unhealthy patterns free us to pick up new practices that enable us to grow into the kinds of people who can walk with Jesus on the path to self-sacrifice, humility, and ultimately, resurrection.

I really, really wanted this sermon to be about the virtues of friendship and what an admirable and all-around nice guy Jonathan was. But the text doesn’t lead us there. Instead, it challenges us to consider whether we are willing to let go of anything – whether it’s anger or politics or bitterness or pornography or popularity or public esteem – that would encumber us on our walk with Jesus. We pray that we might be released to see the new hope and purpose that comes in the power of God in person of Jesus. Jonathan saw God at work and let go of some of his deeply held dreams and beliefs. The first followers of Jesus discerned the movement of God’s spirit among them and let go of some long-held allegiances in order to move with the Lord. What in us needs to change if we are to become more faithful disciples? Help us to see that, Lord, and then help us to do it. Amen.

[1] Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, HarperCollins 1997, p. 54-55.

[2] Leap Over A Wall, p. 54.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.

 

I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Who’s in Charge Here?

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On January 24 we considered the way that Jesus addressed some key religious practices, most notably fasting, as presented in Matthew 6:16-18.  We also considered Paul’s words to his community in Corinth as given in I Corinthians 9:24-27.

 

Do you remember the weather forecasters during the middle of the week? The snow is coming! Snow!

When you heard that, what did you do? Well, if you’re like the stereotypical Western Pennsylvanian, you heard the forecast for snow and you hightailed it down the Giant Eagle to make sure you had milk, bread, and eggs. Because that’s what we do, right? One flake, and we’re there. Oh, we may have some difficulty due to the snow, but we’re not going to experience French toast-related emergencies in this household, thank you very much.

It’s what we do.

In the first century, if you were a religious Jew, you gave alms, you prayed, and you fasted. Maybe you spent a lot of time thinking about it. Maybe you didn’t. But you did those things, because that’s what religious people did.

Jesus’ disciples were not an exception, apparently. Here in the Sermon on the Mount, he addresses those practices, and three times he says, “When…” When you give to the needy, when you pray, and when you fast.

Most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day fasted twice a week – they went without food on Mondays and Thursdays. There were a lot of reasons for this practice, including repentance for sin and a desire to be connected with the things that were important to the Lord. There was also, evidently, something important about being seen as a person who fasted. When Jesus speaks to his followers about fasting, he specifically instructs them NOT to make a big production out of it. In fact, he says, try not to let anyone suspect that you are fasting.

My hunch is that of the three practices that Jesus lifts up here in the beginning of Matthew 6, this is the one that seems the most remote to us.

For the last two weeks, we’ve talked about prayer. We like prayer. We pray for each other, we ask other people to pray for us. We’re pretty good at prayer, in some respects. We get prayer. In fact, a few of you asked me to preach a whole series of messages on the various aspects of the Lord’s Prayer.

And while not everybody likes to give money or time or energy away, we’ve all done it. In fact, here in the USA our own government gives us an incentive for charitable giving in the form of tax deductions. So when Jesus talks about when we give, that makes sense to us.

Hungry person hand holding fork knife on food plate

But fasting? Not so much. What good does it do, we wonder? I can kind of see how my praying for your grandma might make a difference. And I know that if I give someone in the youth group $25, she’ll take that to the Youth Group Famine and it will help feed a family for a month. But how in the world does my skipping out on lunch have anything to do with my faithfulness as a disciple?

The Bible is full of people who fast: Moses, Hannah, David, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, Anna, John, Jesus, Paul… all kinds of people are mentioned as going without food as a spiritual practice. People fasted as a means of expressing repentance for their sin, or so that they could really concentrate on serving God well. Some people fasted as a kind of enacted prayer, where they sought to learn more about depending fully on God, rather than their own efforts.

But what about us? Does this apply to us at all? Does Jesus want his followers in 2016 to be people who fast? Or is that one of those bible things, like frankincense or getting fed to lions, that used to happen but doesn’t anymore?

Well, he’s talking about it right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. That ought to be a clue – I mean, so far, there’s nothing very optional about the other things that are in the Sermon.

So far, we’ve experienced the Sermon on the Mount as a catalogue of Jesus’ ethical reality. That is to say, we see the Sermon as the way to follow Jesus most closely. And as we hear the Sermon, we are struck by how difficult it is. I know that we covered chapter 5 all the way back in November and December, but there is some important stuff in there. Do you remember? Don’t fall prey to the dangers of anger, or lust, or revenge. Be a person of integrity. Be generous in all your thoughts and deeds. And be a person of love – love for your enemy, love for your brother.

Those are some hard practices in which to engage, aren’t they? If we are going to be people who do those kinds of things, we’re going to have to be in shape, spiritually speaking. We just don’t fall into those kinds of behaviors.

For millennia, people have found that fasting is a way of aligning our inner spirit with our outward behavior. As we fast, we allow our bodies to feel the weight of spiritual truth. We say we are hungry for God’s reign, but when we are actually feeling our bellies rumble, we can identify that longing in a different way.

When the Apostle Paul talked about spiritual discipline to his friends who lived in Corinth, he referred to a set of athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games. These were modeled after the Olympics, and took place in Corinth every two years. Paul talks about the fact that the prize for these contests was often a wreath made out of celery, but the prize for spiritual faithfulness was eternal. For Paul, the physical body was helpful in teaching the mind and the spirit some things that were true. There were some religions at that time that taught that anything physical – including our own bodies – was evil. Paul counteracts that heresy by saying, essentially, that rather than being the enemy of faithfulness, the human body is a tool for right living.

Back to 2016. Allow me to suggest that there are at least three reasons why occasional or even regular fasting can be important to you as you seek to live like Jesus would have you live.

The physical sensation of hunger or desire can serve as a reminder of our spiritual need. I have often found that if I want to be mindful to a particular situation or need, fasting helps me to be focused. Let’s say that a friend in another state calls to tell me that he’s about to enter into a particularly difficult situation – he’s facing surgery, or anticipating some big test, or applying for job. If I say to him, “OK, I will hold you in prayer” and I engage in a period of fasting at the same time, then every time I feel hungry, I can stop what I’m doing and hold this friend before the Lord in prayer. I can take the time I might usually spend on eating lunch and use that time to be focused on my friend’s need.

FastingWorkoutWith each time I am reminded of my body’s hunger for food, I have the occasion to direct my thoughts and prayers in a specific way. That’s what we mean when we say, “I’m fasting for Bill today”, or something of that nature. On the one hand, my friend receives no direct benefit from the fact that I’m going without food, but on the other hand, I am clearly more focused and attentive as both a friend and a child of God because I’m engaging in this discipline.

Another benefit to fasting in 2016 is that it allows me to get better at being able to do stuff that I don’t want to do. That may sound odd, but think it through with me: many of the core realities of being a faithful adult disciple in the world are rooted in being willing and able to things that we would rather not. Whether we’re talking about doing the dishes, going to school, forgiving your mother, or showing up at a friend’s funeral, our lives are filled with things we don’t like doing. Part of being an effective human being, though, is being able to do them anyway.

When I fast, I am specifically choosing to do something (be hungry) that normally I’d just as soon avoid. Going without food for a designated period of time is uncomfortable. I have a friend who speaks about fasting in almost mystic terms: she talks about having heightened clarity and deepened response… Not me. I’m cold and if I’m not careful I’m irritable and there’s just nothing magical about it…

…Until I am faced with something else that I need to do, but I don’t feel like it, and I find that I’m better at that because I’ve fasted. I’ll think about how much I really don’t want to show up for that meeting, or show kindness to my neighbor, or act in someone else’s best interest…and then I’ll remember, “Hey, Carver, last month you went four days straight without eating anything. That was hard. You can do this, and do it well. You are more capable than you thought you were.” And I’m right – fasting helps me to get better at doing what I don’t want to do.

A final means in which fasting has been a blessing in my own life is that it is an opportunity to share God’s love and provision with those who need it. Of course, the Youth Group Famine is a great example of this. There are times when I go without food and I directly give some of that time, energy, and money to someone who needs it more than I do. When the Youth Group pauses next month to fast for a day and a half, we’ll take some of the time we’ve been given and use it to learn about starvation and nutrition and justice in the world. We’ll take some of our energy and offer it to our neighbors in service. And we’ll use some of the money we might otherwise spend on ourselves to purchase food for the hungry.

I knew a man whose name was Egonn. When he was a child, he fled the Nazis and came to the USA. He told me of hiding out nights in frozen barns, afraid of who might find him and what they’d do to him. One day I overheard him say to his wife that he wanted to give $30 per month to help alleviate suffering in a certain refugee camp. His wife, who was herself kind and generous to a fault, said, “I understand what you’re saying, but we just don’t have that money. You know the budget. We can’t find another dollar a day.” He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Well, then, let’s get rid of the coffee maker. I don’t need to drink coffee at home.”

I have no idea how much coffee Egonn drank, but I remember being struck by his willingness to voluntarily abstain from something he enjoyed because he thought those resources could be better used elsewhere. When we choose to fast, we can make significant amounts of money, energy, or time available to those for whom those resources could make a huge difference.

This week, let me invite you to consider planning a fast of your own. Think about a day or so that you can skip your regular meals, or engage in some other kind of fast. Maybe you get off social media for a while, or you turn your back on trashy television, or give up something in particular like coffee for a season. We’re coming into Lent, and that might be a good time for you to consider engaging in a practice like this. But think this week about how you can undertake a fast that is meaningful to you, helpful to the world, and likely to prompt you in greater discipleship. You’re not doing it because it’s going to get you a better parking spot in heaven, or because you want me to be so impressed with what a great Christian you are. You can do it so that you are more likely to be shaped in the ways that God is calling you to live.

Way back on Tuesday, when Treva asked me for a title to this message, I said “Let’s call it ‘Who’s in Charge Here?’,” because I thought it was a clever way to indicate that you – your mind, your spirit, your will – you are in charge of your own body, your own calendar, and your own wallet.

I think it’s a good title, but not for those reasons. When we engage in spiritual practices like giving alms, praying, or fasting, it’s because that’s the number one way that we make our lives reflect the truth that we speak all the time: God is in charge. We do these things because we want to be where God is, doing what God does. If we’re really disciples, that’s what we do, right? So let’s talk about a fast that points us to our dependence on God and heightens our ability to be a blessing to our neighbors, because, really, who is in charge here?