The Long and Winding Road

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 23, we watched as David (now almost 40 years old) was anointed as king by the elders of Israel… decades after Samuel had made a similar anointing.  Our texts included II Samuel 5:1-5 and Philippians 1:3-6.  To listen to the audio version of this sermon, please use the player below.

One afternoon in 1968, a 25 year-old man paused to take stock of his life. For a decade, he had been climbing to the top of the world. Since he was 15, he and his friends had played in a band that had gained some real success, but now their worlds were crashing in around them. Tensions between the lads were high, and what had once seemed effortless and carefree was now a morass of conflict and miscommunication.

That day, young Paul sat down at his farm in Scotland and plinked out a melody on his piano. He later said, “I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.”[1] The result of that afternoon’s labor was a ballad entitled “The Long and Winding Road”, which was released a month after Paul’s band, The Beatles, broke up. It sold 1.2 million copies in the first two days of its release, and was the last #1 hit The Beatles ever had.

My hunch is that you know this tune, but to refresh your memory, here is a portion of the lyrics:

The wild and windy night

That the rain washed away

Has left a pool of tears

Crying for the day

Why leave me standing here

Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone

And many times I’ve cried

Any way you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

Paul recorded a demo version of the song, and was unhappy with it, and left it. Later, John Lennon gave that recording to a producer, who added strings, horns, and a female choir. Paul was so incensed by these changes to his work that when the hearing over the dissolution of The Beatles took place, he listed the treatment of this song as one of his chief grievances. It’s a sad, sad song.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

If you didn’t know better, you might imagine King David singing this song at some point in his life. The reading we’ve had for today from II Samuel announces a significant change in David’s life. Here, at age 37 or so, he is crowned as the King of all Israel. Prior to this, he’d spent seven and a half years as king of the tribe of Judah in the village of Hebron. That was preceded by two years running a band of 600 guerrillas out of Ziklag. For eight years before that, he’d been hiding out as a fugitive from Saul and the army of Israel. That was preceded by time serving on Saul’s staff as a royal musician and part-time Philistine fighter. He had risen to prominence as a teenager when he killed the giant, Goliath, but he first attracted our notice when he was called in from tending the flocks of his father’s sheep in Bethlehem and anointed, as a boy, by the prophet Samuel.[2]

If anyone had a right to sing sad songs about long roads that go nowhere and friends who say one thing but do another, it would be David. For virtually his entire life, he was bounced around and searching for some way to live into the call that had been extended to him. More than once, I’m sure it must have been tempting for David to think of life as a twisted, directionless trek that left him alone and powerless against the world.

This is not, however, the song that David chose to sing. Instead of seeing himself as the victim of an unfeeling universe, David opted to see himself as one who had been invited to cooperate with YHWH and to participate in joyful and energetic response to the ways that God had been moving in the world around him.

We have noted several times that David was a mere boy when the prophet Samuel pulled him aside and told him that God would establish him as the king. For the better part of three decades, young David continued to act upon that promise even when he couldn’t see how it was coming to fruition. God had appointed him to lead, and so he sought to do that as best he could. Even the staunch traditionalists in Israel offer testimony to the same thing on this, the day of his coronation.

In verse 2 of our reading, these men come to David and say, “In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns.” This is a tacit affirmation of the fact that even while Saul was wearing the crown, it was David who as acting as a King should act. The further Saul descended into his own madness, the more David took it upon himself to do the work of the king – keeping the people safe from their enemies, working for justice, and so on. The people of Israel are able to see in David’s actions that which had only been promised, and now they ask him to step into that role.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

In doing so, we see that there is a beautiful symmetry to David’s life. Here, at his coronation, the elders remind David that YHWH has called him to be their shepherd. The one who as the eighth-born son of a poor farmer was out tending to the flocks in the field has now become the leader of all of Israel. In choosing this vocabulary, they are reminding David to take advantage of the lessons he’s already learned about caring for the weak and vulnerable and to apply them in his office as King.

The other bit of vocabulary that jumps out of this verse is the next term that the elders use to describe David: he is called to be not only the “shepherd” of Israel, but their “ruler.” The Hebrew word here is nagid. The statesmen could have said, “David, be our melek, or “king”. But that’s the kind of ruler Saul had been. David is charged to be nagid, which can mean “ruler” but is often translated as “prince”.

Think, for a moment, of the implications of coming into office as the “shepherd” and “prince” of Israel. Although the word is often attached to him, this passage makes it clear that David is not to be “king” in the same way that Saul had been king. A prince is someone who rules in collaboration with a greater authority. YHWH is the King; David is a prince. He has come to realize that true strength will often come through submission, sacrifice, and service – attributes with which Saul appears to have been unfamiliar.

There is no reason to suspect that Paul was thinking about David’s willingness to hold on to the promises of God even when outward circumstances seemed to argue against it, but this story would have made sense to the people who formed the church of Philippi.

Philippi was on a busy highway, the via Egnatia, between two important towns. It was officially a “colony” of the Roman Empire, meaning that life here was to reflect as closely as possible the circumstances of those in Rome. This includes, presumably, worship of any number of Roman gods, participation in an economy that is driven by a multitude of slaves, peasants, and service-providers all of whom were there to cater to the whims of the Roman soldiers and former soldiers who ran the place. The church in Philippi had not gotten off to a promising start – there were very few Jews in town, and so the Christian community appears to have been formed by a rag-tag group of marginalized folks. When confronted with the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Empire, I suspect that there were days that the members of First Church, Philippi, looked around and thought, “Am I really able to believe in the call of God to this place?”

Paul says in no uncertain terms, YES! “I am confident of this: that the One who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ comes.” Paul encourages the struggling congregation not to give up on that which they’ve received, but instead to hold fast to the promise of God.

He reminds them of the ways that God has been moving in the past, and encourages them to look for God’s hand at work in the present. Furthermore, Paul says that this group of careworn believers can march confidently into an uncertain future knowing of God’s purposes for the Creation.

It was good enough for David. It was Paul’s advice to the folk in Philippi. How’s it working out for you? Are you able to live into, or to lean on the promises of God’s presence and power in your day-to-day life?

I know you well enough to know that many, if not most, of you have had at least one occasion to throw your hands up in the air and say, “Seriously? Are you for real, God? You expect me to believe that you are moving in and through this circumstance? Where are you, God?” How well do you see God’s movement in the world around you? How confident are you that God will see the work in YOU through to completion? And how can you get better at those things?

For generations, God’s people have made use of a spiritual discipline known as examen. Quite simply, this is the practice of setting aside some time – ideally each day – to unplug from the what do I have to do next and when is it supposed to be done by rhythm of life and spend some time reflecting about who and how and where you have been in the day and how and where God might have been present in your day or the moments of your day.

Now, here’s the deal when it comes to examen. The goal is to think objectively enough to see the whole picture, and not to simply obsess about the best or worst five moments of the day. I learned this week about a tool that the National Football League uses that is not available to the ordinary fan. Each game is recorded using a system of cameras called the “All-22”. These films allow the coaches to see the entire field of play for the duration of the game. When you and I watch the Steelers play we are forced by the good people at CBS Sports to see how tightly the quarterback grips the laces or how many fingers of the defensive lineman’s right hand are jammed into the facemask of the running back. On the other hand, the All-22 is designed to show the coach how the entire system functions during each play. That way, the coach can see how the guys who don’t have the ball are behaving away from the play. They have a much broader view of the ebb and flow of the entire contest.

Too often when I stop to think about my day, it’s either to beat myself up for that incredibly stupid thing I did right in front of everyone at 11:27 a.m. and how I’m such a moron for doing it OR to think about the fact that I didn’t get a speeding ticket when I blew through the speed trap so it was a great day after all.

A better approach would be to try to give some thought to the movement of the entire day and see where things went well and where I struggled. Sometimes I’ll ask my wife or a friend to check me on something – I’ll say, “This is how I experienced that… what was your sense?” While I don’t usually have an “All-22” view of myself, it’s helpful to listen to someone I trust and make sure that I’m not being either too hard or too easy on either myself or God.

Of course, another way to make sure that I’m attentive to the presence of God in the world around me is to train my eyes and ears to pick up on that. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to spend time reading the Bible and being present to God in prayer – because if I can see what it looked like when God was moving in the lives of people like David or Paul, maybe I’ll be better equipped to catch a glimpse of him in mine.

It’s not unlike bird-watching, to be honest. That is to say, I’m working with my granddaughter so that she knows that just about every red bird she sees at my house is a cardinal. The yellow ones are goldfinches. As she gets older, we’ll get a little deeper and talk about the differences between juncos and titmice, and if she really goes crazy, she’ll learn about the 35 varieties of sparrow that can be found in North America. The more she looks, the easier it will be for her to discern what she’s really seeing.

In the same way, I can train myself, through prayer and scripture, to be better able to spot God in action. When I catch a glimpse – even if it’s only momentary – it’s easier to remember and live into the promise.

I began this sermon with a love song about looking for company on a road fraught with difficulty, and I’ll close it with another. This one wasn’t written by a kid from England, but rather one from the Middle East. It’s a song about walking in trust with God towards a future that is almost always unknown but is never uncertain, and it describes the fact that security is possible, even in the midst of the storms.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, image from the 4th century catacombs in Rome

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One of the things that allowed David to enter into the role of shepherd and prince of Israel is the fact that he never, ever forgot – not while he was afraid as the rapids of life threatened to inundate him; not while he was unsure as to where the path was leading him; not while he was forced to spend time in the valley of the shadow of death; not while he was surrounded by his enemies – he never forgot that he himself had a shepherd and a King. As do I. As do you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (MacMillan, 1998, p. 539)

[2] This chronology is summarized in Leap Over a Wall (Eugene Peterson, Harper-Collins, 1997) p. 137.

Watch Your Step

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights marked the fourth Sunday of Advent 2016 by giving some thought to what it means to be a people of peace in a culture that seems riven by conflict.  Our texts included Isaiah 2:1-5 and Luke 1:67-79.

Do you like hockey?

I do. I mean, I really do. I’ve been watching more and more of it in recent months. 20 years ago, you could say that I had a passing interest in the game. That grew to the point where 10 years ago I might have been called a “mild” fan. Now I find myself watching most of the games on TV, and I even go to a few. I love it.

rondaveA couple of months ago I came across a pair of tickets and so my neighbor Ron and I went to see the Penguins take on the Sharks in a rematch of this year’s Stanley Cup finals. Early in the second period, the Sharks scored and that quieted the fans down a bit. Not long after that, it appeared as though Hornqvist put one in for the Penguins, but the replay showed it was a bad goal, and so it was disallowed. And then the Sharks scored again.

By the end of the second period, we were down 2 – 0, and in addition, two of our defensemen were injured and out of the game. During the intermission, Ron turned to me and said, “OK, this is all right. They’ve got a two-goal lead. That’s the most dangerous lead in hockey.”

I looked at Ron as if to say, “Nice try, neighbor. But let’s go get some nachos or something to redeem this evening.”

In the third period, the Penguins scored three times in seven minutes and ended up winning the game. I like hockey – in part, because it’s possible for my team to come back in a big way.

Believe it or not, there’s an Advent connection here.

Today is “peace” Sunday. We’ve talked about the ways that Advent leads us toward hope, love, and joy; today we are considering the notion that peace is reflective of the Lord’s intentions for his people.

advent-candle-flames-1200x450If you have any access to any kind of device that is capable of relaying any information about the world outside of these walls, you will know that this has been a tough week for the team that follows the One who is sometimes called “the Prince of Peace”. Just on my phone – a three inch screen – I’ve seen…

  • the most recent devastation of Aleppo
  • The next steps toward genocide in South Sudan
  • I had a friend call and describe how the house across the street from him had been shot up in a drive-by
  • We saw the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings and heard the verdict in the trial of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church
  • There was a shooting on Barr Avenue – five or six blocks from here – over a parking place
  • Another friend about whom I care deeply received word that a loved one had attempted suicide

Sometimes, I just don’t get it – we come in here and we read these words about swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, but I don’t know, man. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jesus – I’m a big fan… But when I look around at what’s going on in the world – even in my little corner of it, which is a pretty sweet little corner… it seems like we’re in a really tight spot. This is worse than a 2-goal deficit, if you know what I mean.

I just don’t see how Team Peace can pull this one out. There always seems to be more hatred, more violence, more death. It’s hard. I mean, it’s just really hard some times.

I said I like to watch the hockey games. And at least once a week, I do. But when I watch them, I use the amazing little feature called DVR – that allows me to skip the commercials and, more importantly, the intermissions. I turn on the game at 8 or 8:30 and I watch it straight through.

Usually.

On November 16, the Pens went down to Washington and played the Capitals. It was horrible – they wound up losing 7-1. I can guarantee you that I didn’t watch that whole game. I mean, we fall behind 4 – 0, 5 – 0… it’s time to let my wife have the remote control. I don’t have time to watch that kind of performance.

Why? Why do I give up like that?

There are at least two reasons. First, I give up because I can. Look, it’s a hockey game. If a bunch of well-paid, enormously-talented young men want to spend a couple of hours crashing into each other, loosening teeth and creating bone-jarring collisions long after the outcome has been decided, well, they can be my guests. But I’m not interested in that kind of a “contest.”

And secondly, I stop watching because I’m well aware of the fact that I have no impact on the outcome of the game. I’m a fan. I’m not even in the same city, often. What can I do about it?

But if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor a bit, I’m not merely a fan of Team Peace. Like you, I’m one of the players. I have a stake in the game, and I have a responsibility toward the other players and the team.

Look at the reading we’ve had from the Old Testament. After Isaiah tells the people what the Lord is going to do, in verse five he looks at his audience and says simply, “so let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

zaechariah-and-elizabeth-with-johnIn Luke 1, the old man Zechariah sings a song we know as the Benedictus. He starts by recounting what God has already done: God has redeemed, raised up, showed mercy, and remembered. The next verse is about what his son, the one we would come to know as John the Baptizer, will do: John will prepare the way for the messiah, and he will tell the people of God’s saving love and forgiveness. And the final refrain describes what is going to happen as a result: the tender mercy of God will come upon us, and it will shine on those who are in the darkness and under the sentence of death, and it will guide our feet in the paths of peace.

In both of these passages the implication is unmistakable: God has acted, God will act, and there is a role or a responsibility for us. There is a path that we must take – the work that is before us is to walk the pathways of peace.

OK, so what does that mean? How do we live in such a way so as to prepare for a reality in which swords and spears are superfluous? How do we live in a way that recognizes the fact that our God is a redeeming, raising up, merciful, remembering God?

It means that we get out there and we live the faith that we talk about. We walk in the light. We move through the shadows. We stay on the path.

And how do we do that? Well, here’s a clue: the paths of peace do not begin and end in this room.

Let’s go back to hockey. What’s the part of the telecast that I hate the most? What’s the reason that I use a DVR to watch the games?

The fact that NHL games have not one, but two intermissions. From where I sit, an intermission is 17 minutes of bad commercials, useless commentary, and talking heads. There is no action at all.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a little like worship – an artificial interruption of real life where a couple of people do a lot of talking, sometimes someone tries to sell you something, and not much appears to be going on. Maybe Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was right when he said in a 1996 interview, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

Exactly. This? This is not very efficient.

carlyle-practice-620-thumb-620xauto-357815But listen to this: in the NHL, the intermission does not exist for the spectators or the fans. When that horn sounds and the teams traipse off to their locker rooms, that’s a chance for the players and coaches to get together and see how things are going. They look at who’s hurting. They talk about strategy. I can imagine that someone might come up to Sidney Crosby and say, “Look, #43 has been trying to ride me up the boards all night. What if we faked a breakaway and you gave me a pass a step behind him?” The players and coaches use those 17 minutes to take a breather, to hydrate, to adjust their equipment, and to reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

Nobody connected with the NHL thinks for a minute that intermission is the reason to sell tickets or play the game. But successful teams realize that it is crucial to use these breaks from the action to reflect on where they have been, to correct or adjust strategy, and to choose how to move forward into the time that remains.

And here’s the problem: many churches, Christians, and pastors act like the hour we spend in worship every week is the primary means by which we follow Jesus Christ. And that’s just not true. It’s a load of hooey, in fact.

The path of peace brings you by here now and then – but you’d better be walking in that path 24/7/365.

When I was growing up, I thought that 11 a.m. on Sundays was the time when Christians played the game. I thought that was the most important hour of the week. That worship was where the action was – it was what counted.

I was wrong. This? This is intermission. This is where we all stop our running around and beating ourselves and each other up and we come in here and we catch our breath for a bit. This is a sanctuary – but it’s also a locker room.

And I gotta tell you, team… it looks like we’re getting beaten pretty badly right now. Team Peace is taking it on the chin.

What are we going to do?

We could quit. Forget trying to do anything meaningful about the pain, suffering, and dis-ease around us and focus in on the things that we like. We have great coffee hours. And the kids seem to enjoy each other. Maybe we just re-think where we’re going.

I suppose you could call in the substitutes. Maybe you want to get a new coach? I hope not. I kind of like it here… and besides, no matter what you do with the lower management, the Ownership is not likely to change any time soon, if you know what I mean…

So how do we respond to the fact that we are living in a world that is by many measures more violent and less peaceful?

What if we got ready to take five key young leaders and immerse them in a cross-cultural experience that will not only knock their socks off, but just might screw them up for the rest of their lives in terms of their ability and inclination to fit into a materialistic and violent culture?

What if we took a couple of thousand dollars and bought a new furnace for the Open Door on Friday morning and then hosted a party for 200 neighbors on Friday evening?

The ministry down at the Table, where we offer a hot meal and warm fellowship to dozens of people who need it, seems to be taking off. How about we recruit a few extra folks to staff that?

We could prepare a group of twelve adults to travel to the southern border of this country, where they could learn about issues of poverty, justice, and immigration while helping churches in that area reflect the love of God through the provision of adequate housing…

Do you see what I mean? You don’t come in here because this is the place where you act like a Christian. You come in here because this is the place where we catch our breath; we talk to the team; we listen for some new direction or fresh ideas; we revisit the basics; we share our heaviness and our joy – before heading back out to where the action is.

Come Saturday night (Christmas Eve) we’re not going to stand around and sing old songs and light candles because we think that kind of nonsense actually accomplishes anything in our ongoing battles with addiction or depression or ISIS or materialism or fear or war-mongering or greed or racism…

We engage in those practices because they remind us that at the end of the day, light does shine! Peace will reign. We are not here to offer a little mumbo-jumbo that somehow erases all the pain; we are here in order to be shaped and challenged and refreshed in our attempts to live lives of peace all week long!

So rest this morning, saints. Catch your breath. In a few moments, we’ll have the choir sing a little number. I think you’ll like it – it’s a real toe-tapper.

But that’s not the point. The point is getting you equipped, getting all of us ready to get back out there and continue walking in the paths of peace, even when it seems rough.

God is doing a new thing. Not just now, but tomorrow morning and on Thursday and yes, on Saturday night. Remember that, and move toward that all week.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Interview with TIME Magazine, January 13, 1996