Staying Alive

The people at the Crafton Heights church have been spending this Lent listening to the words of scripture – in particular, the scriptures set to music in the context of Handel’s Messiah.  Many of these ideas are explored in great depth in the excellent Kerygma resource, Hallelujah: The Bible and Handel’s Messiah.  On March 19, our scripture text was The 22nd Psalm.  

 

I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the power of music in your life. How does what you hear shape who you are, what you feel, and how you look at things? I would suggest that for most of us, there are some songs that mean so much to us that when we hear even a snippet of them, we are reminded of something that is much larger, much more important than the few bars of music we encounter.

And, at the risk of losing you for the entire sermon, I’d like to show you what I mean.  Click here and listen to the song…  It’s OK.  I’ll wait…

If you know and like these movies, I bet that right now you are aware of the truth that there are no odds that are insurmountable; you know that you have to stay strong even in defeat; and that you can push yourself – you are reminded of these things simply because you heard a couple of lines of music.

Let’s try it again.  Try this one…

Again, some of you are transported to a place where things are not always as they seem, and where innocence matters, and where self-sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the universe… And the rest of you? You’re just Muggles, that’s all. Nothing to be ashamed of.

We could go on, but you know where I’m heading… I can tell a lot about you simply by looking at your playlists or seeing your music collection.

Why does this matter today?

Because we are in the season of Lent – a time of reflection, repentance, and preparation that leads us to Holy Week, where we commemorate the suffering, death, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. And as we approach that week, we do well to note that both Matthew and Mark go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was thinking about a particular song when he died. In fact, each of these Gospels indicates that the last intelligible thing Jesus uttered prior to his death was “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani”. Those words form the Aramaic translation of the beginning of Psalm 22, which you heard (in English) a few moments ago.

It was customary in Jesus’ time, as in our own, to use a few phrases from a song or scripture text to bring the entire passage to mind. Because Jesus died singing Psalm 22, we often look at that scripture and say, “Wow – that song really is all about Jesus: it talks about his death, and his rejection, and the ways that his clothes were divided…”

And when we do that, it’s unfortunate because if we make Psalm 22 some sort of a magic incantation that predicts specific details of Jesus’ life and death a thousand years into the future, we will lose sight of some important truths in both the Psalm and in Jesus’ life.

Psalm 22 is not about Jesus. Jesus was about Psalm 22. The fact that this prayer, this song, was present to him as he endured such torment and that he chose to make that song present to those who waited with and watched him die makes that song important to us this Lent as well.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist – more at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Like many other Psalms, this particular scripture is a song of lament. There is a structure. For instance, if you remember anything about poetry, you’ll remember that a Haiku consists of seventeen syllables arranged in lines of five, seven, and five. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem traditionally written in iambic pentameter. The structure of these poems informs the meaning, and vice-versa.

A typical lament has five parts: there is an invocation, a complaint, a statement of trust, a request for God to act, and a brief expression of praise. When you sing a lament, you are right to expect these things in this order.

Psalm 22 is remarkable among the Psalms of lament because there is really no overt expression of trust in God’s power or presence in the moment. The psalmist, going through one of the most difficult times of his life, knows all of the “right answers” that he learned in Sunday school… but he was still afraid that maybe God was not paying attention to him, or worse –that God didn’t want to pay attention to him. He knows that others have trusted God; he knows that he should trust God, but he finds that such trust is exceedingly difficult to come by at this moment.

Crucifixion (2008) by Michael O’Brien (used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.studiobrien.com)

Could that have been why Jesus was thinking about these words as he hung on the cross? Could it be that maybe he was having a very, very difficult time trusting his Father to see this thing through to completion?

Or was it perhaps that he brought this Psalm to mind for the sake of those whom he loved who were watching him die? In raising this particular lament, was he acknowledging to them that faith and trust and hope are sometimes incredibly difficult to come by?

Do you ever feel that way? You want to trust, you want to believe, but WOW is it hard on some days… If I’m right about some of this, then your struggles to always have faith don’t necessarily take you away from Jesus – they may make you more like Jesus.

The other thing that is remarkable about Psalm 22 as a song of lament is the fact that the praise and thanksgiving section is five or ten times longer than in most of the other Psalms of lamentation.

Moreover, the praises here are not limited only to the singer. This Psalm begins with a deeply personal cry for help but it ends with the declaration that praise is due God from not only all of Israel, but those from every nation, and the ends of the earth, and even those who have already died or who are yet to be born.

What starts off as an individual’s heartfelt cry of pain and isolation (“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”) is somehow transformed in the life of the Psalmist to a song of praise that stretches not only across the entire globe but through eternity as well. In mentioning the dead who will praise God, this Psalm offers us a quick glimpse of resurrection hope.

Could it be that Jesus, in calling this psalm to mind at the moment of his own greatest anguish and pain, held out hope to himself and for his followers that pain, suffering, darkness, and crucifixion are not all that there is? Could it be that as he hung on the cross he needed to know – and he needed us to know – that there is more to the song – but we can only experience that “more” after we come through the suffering or the isolation or the grief?

Many churches, including Crafton Heights, have adopted the practice of “burying the alleluias” during Lent. You may have noticed that we’re not singing, say, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, or any other song that includes the word “Alleluia”. “Alleluia”, of course, is an expression of praise or thanksgiving that is the Hebrew word meaning “praise God”. For many Christians, the word is a spontaneous expression of joy or thanks because of some great blessing that has been received. Churches often “hide” the Alleluia during Lent as a means of saying that there are times of great joy and there are times when our greatest hopes are realized, but there are also times when those things seem so far away. During our Lenten time of reflection and repentance, we practice a “fast” from the Alleluias not because they are not true, but because it’s not time for them right now…

Each of us, at some point in our lives, walks through a season of darkness and pain. We know the horror of betrayal or the anguish of a bad prognosis or the sapping power of doubt and uncertainty… and when we experience these things, the last thing in the world we want to see is some chipper, happy-clappy friend come bounding into the room telling us to get over it, to “turn that frown upside down”, to get busy or distracted and just feel better, gosh darn it…

In each of our lives, there are times when it is all we can do to simply sit in the dark and experience the grief or the shock or the pain. Often, during those times, it’s better if a friend is there to sit with us – not because that person is able to take away the grief or the shock or the pain, but somehow their presence validates our experience of it and offers some sort of mute testimony to the fact that this, too, can be endured.

Psalm 22 is a cry from a dark and painful place that somehow points to a deep hope that, while even though it appears to be hidden or buried, has always been there and will always be there.

Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I mentioned on Wednesday night that a number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Jerusalem with my daughter. One of the most moving experiences came to me in a place of which I’d never heard: The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. Most of the church is dedicated to the memory of Peter’s denial of Jesus (“gallicantu” means “cock’s crowing” in Latin). The church was built on what is believed to have been the site of the High Priest’s palace. I found it to be a fascinating place…

The upper levels were interesting enough, but it was the basement that got me.  Down below was a dungeon that dated from the first century.  The signs were clear: We have no way of knowing this, but since this dungeon is fairly close to what was the High Priests’ residence at the time of Jesus, there’s a chance that this is where Jesus, and later the Apostles, would have been imprisoned by the authorities.  In a very subdued manner, the signs explained the way that the dungeon was laid out.  And there, at the darkest, lowest, point of the dungeon was a simple stand with the text of Psalm 88 – like Psalm 22, a Psalm of complaint and lament.

Lower Level, St. Peter Gallicantu

In the dungeon, St. Peter in Gallicantu.

 

The basement of St. Peter’s in Gallicantu, Jerusalem

I’d been to the so-called “Upper Room”; I’d visited the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane; and I’d seen at least two places that claimed to be the empty tomb of the resurrection, but I am here to tell you that it was not until I cried out to God in weakness, in darkness, and in isolation did I have some sense that those deep and hidden places are not the end of the story.

Jesus wanted us to sing the song of despair because he knows that the despair is real and true and has power in our lives. It was thus for the Psalmist in 1000 BC. It was brought to life by Jesus on the day that he died. And I suspect that it is true for you, too – at least some of the time. And on those days when it feels as though the pain will overwhelm you and when the alleluias seem buried forever, then please, beloved know this:

It’s ok to be there.

It’s ok to wonder where God is and how things work.

But know this, too: that the song is not over. You have heard the song – but only a part of it. Lent is not forever. Remember that nothing that is buried – not Jesus, not alleluias, not your or me – nothing stays buried forever.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

When God Says, “Not Yet”

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On March 5, we wondered what happened right after Saul died… in the years between when David could have assumed the crown and the time it finally happened.  Our texts included II Samuel 3:1-5 as well as Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh”, found in II Corinthians 12:6-10

Did you know that the average American spends thirteen hours each year waiting on hold for someone in customer service to pick up the stupid telephone? Six months of your life will be spent waiting at a traffic light. That’s easy compared to the two years you can expect to spend waiting in line at the grocery store, the bank, the gas station, or the movie theater…

Waiting… who likes to wait? Isn’t that about the most frustrating part of your day? And these examples, while certainly unpleasant, are only the day-to-day, small-picture, grindingly-irritating things for which we wait.

The time you spend in line at the bank or watching the calendar pages turn as you wait for your tax refund to arrive is frustrating, to be sure, but we can usually comfort ourselves by knowing that the resolution to our concern or the fulfillment of our desires is at least in sight, if not imminent.   You know what I mean, right? You’re chafed at the fact that the other line is moving faster, but you know that sooner or later the clerk will start scanning your items and you’ll be able to take your groceries and head for home. This kind of waiting is a pain in the neck, but it doesn’t produce a crisis of faith or lead to long-term angst or depression.

But what about the other things for which we wait in life? The “big” waits? What about the couple who is desperately trying to conceive a child, or the young father who’s looking for work? Can you imagine living in a refugee camp, knowing that you’re not home, but not sure whether there ever will be a “home” again? Or the single person who longs for the intimacy of marriage, or the person living with cancer who wonders about the length of the remission she’s been granted… What about that kind of waiting? The kind of uncertainty and hopefulness and despair that can lead you to say “O, please, God, when will it stop… or change… or get better?” The kind of waiting that can lead to deep questions about God, and life, and meaning, and eternity? How well do you deal with that kind of waiting?

Now, while you think on that, let me ask you to picture this scene in your head. You’re on a retreat or a mission trip with a large group. We’ve all agreed to meet at, say, 8 a.m. to get started on our day. You know how it is… some of us are there at 7:45, eager to get a jump on things. A handful come into the room at 7:58. And, because this is our church, let’s assume that another half dozen people show up at 8:05. Can you picture this in your head so far?

How many times is there that one guy who just isn’t there by 8:10? We’re waiting, and we clarify with each other – “we said 8 o’clock, right?” We get a little passive-aggressive and we start rolling our eyes, or conspicuously checking our watches. We sigh – quite loudly. And you want to send someone into the next room to check on him to make sure that he’s aware, but you know he’s there. You can hear him whistling a show tune or maybe working away on his laptop. Finally, he strolls into the room, brushing his teeth, and looks up and says, “Oh, hey guys! What’s up? Oh – wait – did we say 8??? I was sure it was 9! My bad…”

OK, show of hands… how many of you have been in a situation like that, where you’re waiting and waiting and waiting for someone who seems to be pretty clueless and disengaged from the group process?

Now, how many of you have ever been that guy at least once in your life?

The question is… how many times when you’ve been in the midst of some huge and horrific wait have you felt as though God has been acting that way?

Here you are – you’ve got some serious business going on. You need that job, you are dying of loneliness, you can’t stand to see your child struggling with addiction any longer, and you’ve been praying and praying and praying. You have cried out to God, and it seems as if he’s not there, or even worse, as though he’s just messing around with something else? You want to scream at all those athletes and poor students, “Will you shut up about that game you’ve got coming up or that test you didn’t study for? God’s got more important fish to fry!”

I am not aware of the source of this illustration. If you know where credit might be rendered, I’d be grateful to know.

Where is God when you need him?

Where is God while we are waiting, or hoping, or suffering?

Why is it that God sometimes takes so long to get his act together?

Do you remember when we met David? He was just a kid, out minding his own business, taking care of his father’s sheep. Through the prophet Samuel, God calls to this boy – who is maybe fifteen years old – and says, “All right, son: stay on the straight and narrow. One day, you’re going to be king. Not yet, of course, but one day…” And David shrugs and says, “OK, God, I’ll wait…

And then he goes out and kills Goliath… He moves into Saul’s house, and Saul’s son Jonathan becomes a best friend.   He marries Saul’s daughter, and then he gets chased out of Saul’s house. His wife is taken from him. He gets chased out of Israel. His friend dies. For fifteen years, give or take, David is on the run. Finally, Saul dies.

This is it! This is what David’s been waiting for, right? Now he can be the king! And, in fact, he is anointed king… in the tribe of Judah. The other Israelites are holding out for a relative of Saul’s. There’s a power struggle and uncertainty and dis-ease for another seven and a half years.

With the benefit of three thousand years’ hindsight, we can say, “Wow, God really was faithful to David, wasn’t he?” But the reality is that for nearly a quarter of a century, David’s primary experience of God was…not yet. For David and those around him, year after year was spent asking, “Now?” and hearing “Nope.”

I know that nobody here has waited twenty-two years in the hopes of becoming the rightful king of Israel, but I know that you know the pain of waiting or the frustration of unanswered questions. What do you say when God seems silent? How are you supposed to act when it seems as though God has already checked out?

Let me suggest that in some important ways, David can be a model for us in these situations.

The scripture that you heard a few moments ago from II Samuel summarizes seven and a half years of conflict in a single verse, and then goes on to name the six sons that were born to David during this time. What does that suggest about the way that David was behaving during this time of waiting?

– That is not what I meant! –

I’d venture to say that this is one way of saying that David was getting on with his life. He continued to act as though the promise was coming true, even if he couldn’t see it with his own eyes right now. While this behavior is not necessarily the model for family life that we’d like to see in the church in the 21st century, the reality is that even while David is continuing to wait on God, he is looking toward the future that God has promised him.

The other thing that David did during these years after Saul’s death was to continue to seek the Lord. Although it isn’t mentioned in the readings we heard this morning, II Samuel chapter 2 relates the fact that David continued to inquire of the Lord with some regularity. In his public as well as his private life, David appealed to the covenant that God had made, even though the terms of that covenant had not all been fully realized.

Furthermore, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the very experience of waiting in this manner shaped David into the kind of king that he would become. Of course he behaved differently as a forty-year old king than he would have as a fifteen-year old monarch. Some of what he went through shaped him for that which he was to become.

In the same way, those of us who are waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen or for something to end are called to continue to walk in the paths of discipleship. We can hold on to what we have and continue to act as though all of God’s promises are true even on those days when we have a hard time feeling their truth.

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. He mentions what he calls his “thorn in the flesh” – some mysterious affliction – that seems to get in the way of his happiness or productivity. We’re not sure exactly what this “thorn” was: some scholars have suggested Paul struggled with depression, or epilepsy, or failing eyesight, or recurrent bouts of pain. We can’t know what it was, because Paul doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us, however, is that what God is doing is more important than what Paul is feeling. Paul senses God’s presence with him saying, “Look, don’t put all your trust in what you can do or what you hope will happen. Trust that my grace is enough for you. Trust in me to hold you up.” Paul does this, and is able to write about finding contentment in Christ.

We are not promised easy answers or short-cut solutions. Those things didn’t show up in David’s life or in Paul’s. It seems to me that the path of faith invites us into all of the messy and sometimes painful places of our lives in the expectation that God will show up at the right time… even if the timing is not what we would wish.

Søren Kierkegaard stressed the importance of the discipline of waiting in faith. He said that many of us are like the student who didn’t like math, but needed a good grade in the course, and so he stole the teacher’s answer sheet before the test. His goal, of course, was to memorize all of the right answers and then get a perfect score. Kierkegaard rightly points out that answers like that are not really answers at all. To truly have the answers, we have to work through the problems.[1]

Your life and mine are full of problems. Some of them are minor irritants, such as choosing the slow line at the Giant Eagle or getting lost in traffic. Some of them are incredibly difficult to bear, such as the loss of a child or the dimming of hopes that were bright. We will not escape the problems. But with the help of God, we can walk into them knowing that these problems will not overwhelm us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the company of those around us in the body of Christ, we can work it out. We can wait it out. We can hope it out. God’s grace was sufficient for David and for Paul. It is enough for you and me as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Ben Patterson’s Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent (Intervarsity, 1989) p. 14

Living With Giants

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.  The third message in the series was centered in the epic confrontation between the boy who would be king and the giant bent on destroying him.   Our text was from I Samuel 17, and is included below. 

This week we return to our year-long consideration of David and the role that he played in Israel’s story, the ways he pointed to Jesus, and the things that we can learn from that. As we do so, a little refresher is in order.

The man who is acting as the King of Israel at this time is Saul. He was chosen, apparently, because he was really tall and pretty good-looking. I Samuel 9:2 tells us that Saul was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” Yet it would appear as though his height and movie-star looks did not guarantee success, because in just a few chapters, Saul has disobeyed the Lord and as a result, has been told that the kingdom has been stripped away from him and his family.

Not long after this, we meet a nobody named David who comes from down south; he’s the last-born son of a farmer who finds himself called in from the sheep and anointed as king-in-waiting in a secret ceremony.

goliath_taunts_sauls_men_001And all the while the Philistines are making life miserable for the people of God. These coastal people are sending war parties and conducting raids and generally wreaking havoc. It comes to a head in the low country around Socoh in the region of Judah. The Philistine army has gathered and has sent their champion forward. One writer describes him this way:

Goliath stood 10 feet tall in his stocking feet, wore a size 20 collar, a 9 1/2 inch hat, and a 52-inch belt. When he put his full armor on, he looked like a Sherman tank. Even stripped to the bare essentials, he had plenty to carry around, and flesh and bones were the least of it… When he tried to think something out, it was like struggling through a hip-deep bog. When he tried to explain something, it was like pushing a truck uphill. His dark moods were leaden and his light moods elephantine.[1]

Like Saul, Goliath was a big man. In fact, that’s kind of the crux of the matter as we begin I Samuel 17: the Philistines have said, essentially, “Look – our giant is bigger than your giant. Here’s what we do: we’ll send our best guy, you send out yours, and we’ll see who does what…” For forty days, Goliath and the Philistines taunt, curse, and demean God and God’s people. Forty days! That’s a long time. So long, in fact, that some of the folks in the Israelite army find themselves running short on provisions.

David, who had previously been working in the palace as a part-time musician, is back home tending the sheep. His father becomes concerned about his older sons who are serving in the military, and so he sends the boy on a grocery run.

David arrives at the front and see’s what’s going on. He is indignant at the behavior and language of the Philistine champion, and he says so. The hardened soldiers at the front, including his own brothers, dismiss him as being naïve and out of touch with the real world. And yet, David claims truth and holds out faith that the reality the Israelites face is not in line with God’s intentions. The shepherd boy makes his way into the king’s presence, where at first he is taken as a lightweight. However, in the 37th verse of this story, something happens. For the first time, evidently, since the struggle began, an Israelite brings up God’s name. And the Israelite who does this is, of course, David. Listen:

“Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul, the man who would be king, is caught off-guard by this sincere expression of faith, and he essentially says, “Oh, sure, well… give it a shot, kid…”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.

David may have been glad, initially, to have been given the chance to fight the giant. It must have been a relief to be taken seriously, and to be recognized as one who could oppose the enemies of the Lord. That relief, though, must have been short-lived as soon as he stepped into the fitting room and realized that he was not, and never would be, Saul. The king does what the king thinks he ought to do, which is to try to make David as much like himself as possible. It becomes apparent to everyone, however, that David is no giant. He is not Saul, and he is not Goliath. He can’t even walk in the armor that Saul gives him. So he gives up on his attempt to be like Saul, and instead looks to be David.

Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

The shepherd, who has already testified to God’s meeting him in the past, who has already pointed to the ways in which God has saved him, now once again reflects on his trust in God.

He steps into the creekbed, and he crouches, and he selects some stones that might fit into his sling. Think about where David is right now, at this point in the story: he is kneeling between two giants. Saul is behind him, Goliath ahead of him, and David is on his knees looking for stones that are small enough to fit into his pockets.

David is young and inexperienced, but he knows that using one giant to defeat another is just a bad idea. There will always be more giants, and they will always just get bigger. There has to be a non-giant solution to these giant problems.

And there, my friends, is a word for the church and perhaps for our community here. Too often, the people of God take what the culture holds out and they try to baptize it and turn it around and use it just the way that the world might. Too often, we accept as “given” the tools and methods that are used in the world and we try to use them in the Church.

Sometimes, that kind of thinking damages the ways that we are together in the church. We hear about churches that are trying to function more like businesses, and about “executive pastors” and ways in which the church ought to produce more results… and it sounds like we’re David wearing Saul’s armor.

It’s even more apparent in the political climate in recent years as would-be leaders of every stripe are playing to the worst aspects of our humanity – our fear, our hatred, our selfishness, our insecurity – and the answers that are offered (and too often gladly accepted by people of faith) are really just an appeal to getting a bigger, stronger giant.

Think about the people who have run for office in recent years, and the ways that they have appealed to voters. “Do you know what you need? You need security. You need to be stronger than they are. And you know who can make you safe? Me… My opponent? Please. My opponent couldn’t wipe the spaghetti off a toddler’s face. What we need is someone who can wipe those folks off the map, and I’m telling you, I’m the person for the job.”

And the population – the Christian population – of this nation says, essentially, “Oh, good. Let’s get tough on those guys. Let’s make sure that we can wipe them off the face of the map!”

I’m reminded of the lyrics to a song written by the late Larry Norman, “Do you really think the only way to bring about the peace is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies?”[2]

osmar_schindler_david_und_goliath

David und Goliath Osmar Schindler (1869-1927), 1888

David’s gathering stones while kneeling by the creek bed as the giants pace all around him is a reminder that the life of faith requires new strategies and that our Creator allows for and even expects creativity when it’s time to face the giants in our midst.

Goliath, of course, knows nothing of all this. He has one way to handle conflict, and so he taunts and curses and threatens the boy, all the while promising what he’ll do to end this stand-off:

 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!”

David’s response is simple. He merely points out that the Philistine has apparently brought the wrong weapons to this battle.

David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

His speech here would be remembered and re-worded by countless others. One scripture verse that comes to my mind is from Zechariah 4:6, which reads, “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” David understands that the promise of God is stronger than the weapon of the enemy. Look at what happens next:

As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.

Look at that: for forty days, the Israelites were hiding out behind the best giant they could find – Saul – while lamenting the fact that the giant over there was even bigger. Now, a shepherd boy arrives and raises up not his own stature, but the name of the Lord. And this shepherd boy is not hiding behind anyone or anything – David is running at Goliath and in so doing brings release and relief to the Israelites.

davids-stonesWhat do we learn here? How can we move ahead in our life of faith?

Think about your own life. My sense is that you’ve seen some giants roaming around from time to time. Maybe they even have names: anxiety. Depression. Addiction. Broken or abusive relationships. Money. How are we to deal with these giants in our world?

Let me make three overly simplistic, but potentially helpful, suggestions.

Name the giant that you are facing. And as you do this, make sure that you name it correctly. For instance, you might think, “wow, Pastor Dave is right. I do have a giant, and that giant is that I don’t have enough money.” And that may be true. But is the giant really named “not enough money”? Or is the giant named “gambling” or “materialism” or “systematic racism”? In some cases, “not enough money” is simply a symptom of the fact that there’s a giant on the loose. What’s the name of the giant that’s threatening you?

After you name a giant or two, try kneeling between them. In other words, remember that we are not to play by the enemy’s rules. What resources do you have at your disposal? What else to you need? Remember, David brought his sling along with him. He had to stop to look for stones, but he had some of what he needed before he ever knew about Goliath. You’ve got a lot going for you right now. How can you bring those things to bear in your struggle against the giant? Ask God to show you options and to point you to allies that will stand with you.

And lastly, know that God’s intentions are for healing and life and victory. Believe the truth that before you were depressed or lonely or broke or addicted, you belonged to God. And you still belong to God. That’s what this table is about. “On the night he was betrayed…” Jesus knew what was happening even as he took his friends aside and said, “this is for you.” He commissioned them. And you know, Judas was there. Peter was there. And Jesus washed their feet and gave them the feast. Because he loved them. We, no less than they, are recipients of that amazing grace in the midst of tremendous brokenness. Trust in God’s intention to bring you to healing, even as you ask God to help you see a path to the same.

We think that the story of David and Goliath, when we think of it at all, is just a kid’s story. But I’ll suggest that we tell it to our kids again and again and again because it is we who need to hear it. We are the ones who are ashamed and humiliated by the giants that keep calling us out… we are the ones who wonder if there is any way out of this mess… we are the ones who keep looking for other giants to hide behind… we are the ones who can’t believe that God is willing or able to bring us to a new and better place… Beloved, this story is not for your children. It is for you. And it’s good news!

Name the giants. Kneel in their midst. And know God’s intentions for our life together. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (Harper: 1979, p. 41).

[2] “The Great American Novel” on the LP Only Visiting This Planet (1972).

A Mixed Bag

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

On September 7, 2014 our readings came from Luke 12:22-25 and Psalm 37:1-7

Have you ever noticed how when two people describe the same event, there are almost always some subtle differences between the two accounts – small details that reveal the biases of the person who is telling the tale? I might mention that on a late night outing to do some mission trip planning, we shared a pizza. Someone else might describe the same trip and say that Pastor Dave ate five pieces and everyone else had one. It’s the same information, more or less, but the omission or addition of detail reflects the different emphases of the storyteller, and perhaps influences the way the story is heard.

The men who wrote our Gospels are the same way. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each chooses to include some details and leave others out. When we look at what they mention and what they don’t, we can guess some of their priorities.

St. Luke, Frans Hals (1625)

I thought about that as I read today’s scripture reading, and about how much more I tend to enjoy Luke’s writing than I do that of Matthew. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not down on Matthew. You can be sure that you’ll be hearing from him in the months to come. But I simply love the way that Luke takes every opportunity he gets to tell the story of Jesus from the vantage point of the underdog.

When Matthew wrote his Gospel, it was directed primarily towards educated Jews who had become believers in Jesus – people who could be considered “insiders” in some important ways. A few years later, Luke wrote the Gospel that bears his name with an eye towards gentiles who had heard about this Jewish messiah, Jesus, and wanted to follow him. Luke’s readers are often those who are on the outside looking in.

To give you a sense of how these differences are reflected in their writing, consider the fact that when Matthew is giving us Jesus’ “family tree”, he traces it back to Abraham, the “father” of the Jewish nation. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus has come to save “us”! But when Luke presents a genealogy, he goes all the way back to Adam, indicating that Jesus is here to offer salvation to everyone.

Matthew tells us that Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” opening up a can of worms as to what it means to be poor in spirit. Luke simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.”

feederbirdsMatthew remembers the day that Jesus was preaching about trusting God, and he says that Jesus reminds us to “consider the birds of the air”. That lacks specificity, and, if you’re like me, you hear someone asking you to think about birds and you think of small, beautiful, brightly-colored and dainty creatures. Inoffensive, happy, chirping little companions who have come to brighten up your day. Jesus says that God feeds and cares for these birds and you think, “Well, why wouldn’t he? I put out a little birdseed myself every now and then. They are just so fun to watch…”

Yet when Luke remembers this story of Jesus’ teaching, he points out that Jesus said, “consider the ravens.” Well. Hmmm. That changes the old mental picture a little bit, doesn’t it? If you stop to consider one of these birds for a moment or two, I’m pretty sure that “dainty” or “beautiful” are not words that will come to mind. What is his point?

The Common Raven

The Common Raven

Well, let’s consider the raven. According to Leviticus, it’s an unclean animal. Many in the ancient world taught that the raven was a cursed beast; some say that ravens were white when Noah took a pair of them onto the ark with him, but when that bird proved to be unhelpful to him, God ordered that all of its offspring wear the color of coal. A few ancient rabbis taught that this curse was given because the raven feasted on the flesh of the corpses of those who had died in the flood, and of course when we see ravens today it’s often because they are scavenging roadkill. Ravens are described as menacing, and are associated with death and desolation. In some cultural fables, the raven is associated with gluttony, and in fact if I want to tell you how hungry I am, I will say that I am simply “ravenous”.

On the other hand, though, ravens are one of the few birds known to relate intentionally with mammals. In many parts of the wilderness, ravens and wolves travel together, and the ravens can be seen actually playing with wolf cubs. Similarly, ravens have been taught to speak. While it is true that a raven turned its back on Noah and the occupants of the ark, Elijah, the prophet of God, was saved from starvation when these birds brought him sustenance.

Not only that, but the raven is an incredibly intelligent creature. Studies have shown that these birds can learn, will use logic to figure out puzzles and tests, and can recognize individual human faces as well as remembering specific birds for at least three years.

Consider the raven. A large, intelligent, ominous creature. One that has the potential to partner with wolves or rescue prophets. A creature with an enormous capacity and an even larger desire. The raven is truly a mixed bag, isn’t it?

Does anything sound familiar here? Are not the ravens far more like us than we are like the juncos or hummingbirds or cardinals? Are we not creatures who know something about what it means to be capable of great good and terrible harm? Of, shall I say, ravenous capacity for that which brings life as well as that which would kill?

In Consider the Birds, Debbie Blue writes

They are scavengers. They are ravenous. They rave…you can see the dark in its eyes. And God feeds it.
It’s one thing to believe that God feeds the little pretty birds of the air. They have small appetites. They need a few seeds. Everybody loves them. It’s not that much to feed. They do not seem needy. But what if you’re ravenous?
Is the hope that God will feed you as long as you’re not that hungry, as long as you don’t need that much? God will feed you, sure – if you have the appetite of a little dove, as long as all you need is seeds, dry little seeds? The hope is not so proscribed.
God feeds the ravens, the ravenous, the mixed-up greedy gluttonous carrion eater. That’s saying a lot more, somehow, something more shocking, maybe, than that God’s willing to give bird food to light eaters. And how much more will God feed us? We need a lot. A lot of food and attention and love and healing. The world needs a lot. And I don’t think I usually believe that God will feed us all. Jesus seems crazy here to me, unreliable, like, how can we even listen to him here? How can we model ourselves on the raven, the lilies – it’s lunacy to ask us to believe we will be fed.[1]

That’s why I like Luke so much: because he is daring us to believe great things about God and God’s care for and in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t like you better if you know all the verses to all the songs they play on K-Love. Jesus doesn’t care if you feel particularly holy or if you feel so overwhelmed by the problems of the world that you’re not sure what to do next. God’s not asking us to be polite, or to be beautiful, or to smell nice or to have sensible diets.

What Jesus is telling us is that God wants us to trust him. It’s OK, says God. Just settle down and listen for a moment. Relax. Let me take care of things.

A Raven

A Raven

Maybe we are, in our heart of hearts, ravens. We know that we are a mixed bag; that we can be too smart for our own good sometimes and that we are willing to scavenge for whatever scraps we can find laying around. We sometimes choose to run with the wolf pack and share in the kill, and yet we have it in us to befriend prophets and love our neighbor, too. Maybe some days we get out of bed and we look ourselves in the mirror and we realize that we are sleek, dark, shifty creatures who can’t always be trusted to do the right thing, and who are afraid, in our heart of hearts, that we aren’t good enough – for God, for each other, or for ourselves. And so we pretend to be juncos or goldfinches or hummingbirds instead.

What if somehow, some way, we were able to believe for an hour or two that God really will take care of us? What if we could stop pretending long enough to listen to what Jesus is saying, and to trust that God does long to shape us according to his purposes?

If we could approach life with that kind of trust in the One who made us, then maybe it would be a little easier to care about other people, and to cut people a break when they need it. If we wasted less time and energy pretending to be something we’re not, then maybe we’d have more enthusiasm for seeking justice and peace in the world.

If we could believe that God was truly holding tight to us, and to those whom we love, then maybe we could loosen our grip on our children and grandchildren and be less inclined to hover over or smother those with whom God has entrusted us.

TrustGodIf we could trust that God is willing to give us what we need, then maybe we’d be more likely to recognize the gifts of God when they show up in our lives, and it’d be a little easier to offer what we have and who we are to those who surround us.

Yeah, I hear you, Pastor Dave, but I’m starting a new job. I had to change schools last week. My kid is riding the BUS now. I haven’t had a regular paycheck for three years. They shut off my gas. I’m not sure my wife loves me anymore. You can talk all you want about trust, Pastor Dave, but I’m falling apart here. Do you know what will happen if I can’t hold it together?

Luke gives it to us straight: consider the ravens. Look at those things, and all that is true about them. God made them. God cares for them. God is present with them. How much more, then, is he with and for you?

Believe that. Accept that. And be with and for God. And be with and for those people who are sitting all around you – and those who are afraid to come into this room – so that they, too, might know – and trust – the embrace of God.

[1]  Consider the Birds (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 201-202.

Karma or Consequences?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  On 1 December we finished our Fall series by hearing the disheartening tale of Abimelech (after this, we really need to take a break for Advent!).  The scriptures for the morning included Judges 9:1-25, 50-57 and Romans 7:21-8:2.

OK, I was going to start this message with a warning that this could be the most disheartening passage that you’ve had to hear in the Christmas and Advent seasons.  But then I remembered that this is the place we come to hear about King Herod slaughtering the babies in Bethlehem, so if you show up and are surprised or grossed out by the story of Abimelech murdering his seventy-ish brothers, well, it’s not my fault.

All of that being said, we do want to acknowledge that this is one of the most pathetic scripture readings I hope you’re forced to endure this year.  Lots of times, I know, I stand up here after someone has read a confusing or daunting passage, and I say, “Don’t worry, friends, there is good news here.”

 

James Tissot (1836-1902), Abimelech Slays His Seventy Brethren

James Tissot (1836-1902), Abimelech Slays His Seventy Brethren

But here’s the deal: there is virtually nothing redemptive about this story of Abimelech, the murderous son of Gideon.  This is horrible.  You heard the story: a young man (whose name translates to “My father is the King”) is so eager to seize power that he runs out to Shechem and, waving his father’s name around quite a bit, inspires the Israelites to make him their king.  Of course, if he’s going to be king, he’s going to need an army.  So they raise the money – and did you notice where they got it?  At the temple.  Whose temple?  The temple of “Baal-berith”.  Do you remember who Baal is?  The Canaanite fertility god… But look, he has a new name: Baal-berith.  “Berith” is a word that means “of the covenant”.  In other words, Gideon’s failure in leadership has been so complete that by the time his son is old enough to make horrible decisions, Israel has decided that Yahweh is not the God of the covenant – Baal is!  Do you see how bad things are?  And this is at the beginning of the story!

So they raid the offering plates at the temple to Baal so that Abimelech can hire some thugs who then go with him on his murderous mission.  As you heard, one of his brothers, Jotham,  escapes the slaughter and lives to tell a parable, in which the trees go out looking for a leader, but the only one willing to do the job is the thorn bush – a worthless, shadeless weed who makes promises that he is unable to fulfill.  The point of his parable is essentially that if the Israelites think they made a good choice in selecting Abimelech, well, more power to them; but if they made a bad choice, well, don’t come running to Jotham. 

Who is the main character in the story we’ve read this morning?  Abimelech.  Who else shows up here? The Shechemites, the “worthless fellows”, Jotham…  There’s someone who is not mentioned here…  Nowhere in Judges 9 do we hear the name “YHWH.”  Is God absent in this story?  I mean, let’s be honest, if he’s going to skip out on one, this is a fine one to miss, because there is nothing redeeming here.  Plus, the Israelites have apparently decided that Baal, not YHWH, is the god of the covenant.

This is the truth: God may be silent in this chapter, but God is not absent from it.  Twice we hear the narrator reminding us that God was involved, even when he is not invoked or worshiped.

I think that’s helpful for us to remember – that we cannot confuse God’s silence with God’s absence.  Have you ever experienced the silence of the Almighty?  Have you ever been in a situation that seemed horrible and bleak and empty, and was even worse because you could not get a sense of where God was or what God was saying? 

I know that you have.  I can’t think of anyone I know who has not, at one time or another, experienced the silence of God.

Yet I can promise you, my friends, that not once, since the day you were conceived, have you ever known the absence of God.  If God were to leave your life or this world, it would simply cease to be.  The Creator is integrally linked with the creation, and you could no more be absent from God than you could cease breathing.  Do not, now or ever, interpret the silence of God to mean that God is not present.  Even here, in one of the slimiest chapters you’ll ever hear in church (although not, I’m sorry to say, the slimiest chapter in the book of Judges), God is found.

That leads me to a second observation about this chapter: we serve a God who is willing, apparently, to allow us to live with the choices that we make.  Every now and then we hear a reference to “Karma” – and it’s almost exclusively a negative reference.  Karma is popularly thought to be a cause and effect phenomenon wherein when you do something bad, someone or something comes back to punish you as a result.  When we think of karma, we often connect it with a vengeful or punishing force.

What we see in Judges is not karma – it’s the simple affirmation of the fact that God empowers us to make choices and expects us to live with the end results of those choices.  Isn’t that the main point of the parable that Jotham tells to the people of Shechem?

This is a good time to remember where we are in the overall story.  We’re studying the book of Judges, right?  And do you remember what a “Judge” is, and what kind of job description that title carries with it?  A “Judge” is raised up by God to restore righteousness and truth and to lead the people back to God.  Isn’t that the pattern that Ehud, Deborah, and the rest of the Judges we’ve studied have followed?  God’s people rebel, and start worshiping an idol, and then get miserable, and then get oppressed by someone like the Moabites or the Midianites, and then God calls someone and equips him or her to defeat the enemy and lead the people to a place where they are able to choose faithfulness.  But remember what I’ve said: that the deeper we go into Judges, the darker things get.  And now, please notice that things are so bad that it’s not the Midianites or Amalekites who are oppressing us – it’s us!  We have made such poor choices that the other nations don’t even have to come in to screw us up – we are doing it to ourselves. 

Abimelech is not a Judge.  He is not a bringer of justice or a restorer of peace.  He is a selfish, godless, petty tyrant who is bent on seizing power for himself.  He chooses to live violently and he winds up dying violently.  The Israelites choose to make Abimelech their leader and thereby find themselves increasingly removed from the gracious and generous intentions of God.  It’s not karma.  It’s simply the consequence of their decisions. 

Remember that, my friends: that while there are times where God is willing to rescue us from the misfortunate effects of our choices, there are plenty of times when God allows us to live with the consequences. 

So we know that God is present, even when God chooses to remain silent; and we know that God allows us to experience the consequences of our own choices.  Add to that the reality that we often wind up paying the freight for the choices of the people around us, and that presents us with a conundrum: what do we do when our reality is shaped, apparently, by evil? 

Chances are that none of you have ever been in a village filled with frenzied idol-worshippers celebrating the murder of seventy men and which finds itself degenerating into a culture of violence, lawlessness, and anarchy.  I could be wrong, but I don’t see that kind of reality in our lives.  So in that case, the scene that is depicted in our reading seems remote.

Yet I would suspect that chances are good that you’ve been in a situation where it would appear as though none of the choices are good ones, or at least that the effort you can expend to “do the right thing” seems hopelessly futile. 

How are we to live when we are in a situation in which there are no good options – only “less bad” ones?  What happens when we are surrounded by evil and brokenness?

I’ve seen that a few times…as I read the description of life under Abimelech’s rule, I remembered walking through Soweto, the township near Johannesburg South Africa that was home to some of the ugliest and most vile scenes of the apartheid era in that nation.  I remembered visiting orphanages in Mexico and in Africa where there seemed to be an overwhelming number of children and an amazing scarcity of resources.  I remembered having the opportunity to visit East Berlin and Leningrad and other places behind the Iron Curtain as the bankruptcy of Soviet communism was most apparent.  I remembered sitting in my friend Mary’s living room in Rochester, New York – a drafty, unheated, uninsulated, unpainted room that not only didn’t have enough furniture or food for her family, but seemed to be lacking in possibility of there ever being enough.

You see?  I know that you’ve never been to Shechem, but I know that you have experienced evil and brokenness; I know that you know that promises are not always kept and cancer sometimes wins and community often fails and the darkness just keeps increasing and deepening.  You’ve felt the silence of God and experienced the burden of consequences.

What do you do?

Welcome to Advent.  Our world wishes it were Christmas, full of peace on earth and good will to men.  But we know that it’s Advent.  A time of waiting and hope.  A time of increasing darkness and silence.  And yet… And yet…

Each of those places that I mentioned a few moments ago – Soweto and Berlin and orphanages and poverty-stricken neighborhoods – was full of people who chose to believe that God was absent.  They could not apprehend the presence of a promise, and so they lived as though God was nowhere.  And their choices reflected that.  And their lives did, too – just like the folks in Shechem.

But that’s not what I remember most about those places.  What I remember most is that in each of these instances, there were vibrant outposts of believers who chose to live as though they believed that God’s silence did not necessitate God’s absence, and so they lived as though God was now here.

The external circumstances of the lives, just like the letters on the page, are the same: G O D I S N O W H E R E.  Yet the way that we arrange those lives, and the way that we arrange those letters, makes all the difference.

 

  Death of Abimelech, Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913-1996)

Death of Abimelech, Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913-1996)

At the end of the day, Abimelech gets his.  How?  After leading Israel through a tempestuous period of vengeance, ethnic and tribal conflict, and tyranny, he winds up attacking a tower filled with those who once supported him.  And he dies.  How?  Because “a certain woman” dropped a millstone on his head and inflicted a mortal blow.

Seriously?  The reign of terror ended when someone dropped a kitchen utensil on the head of a thug?

Yup.

Who was she? We don’t know.  An anonymous woman chooses to act in the only way possible using the only materials at hand.  And the narrator comes to remind us that God’s presence was demonstrated as God’s people were once more free to choose well and wisely.  A certain woman, acting within her character and using the things that she had, chose to live as though God was Now Here.

You can’t change the world.  You can’t do everything.  When you are surrounded by Advent darkness, sometimes it’s all you can do to keep your head above water.

I know that.  But you can choose to act, beloved, as though even though there are things that you cannot do, God can.  You can live in the midst of the evil days as if God is Now Here.  Like the communities I witnessed in Soweto and behind the Iron Curtain, in the orphanages and amidst overwhelming poverty, we can choose to live with an awareness of hope and a largeness of spirit.  We can frame our days to deal with the realities that face us – including the fact that we’ll be threatened by evil and brokenness.  But we can do so knowing that evil and brokenness are not the end of the story.  It is Advent.  But the Christ-light is coming.  Begin your day with an affirmation of the presence of God and even those days that seem silent will become less oppressive.  Because God is here.  And always has been.  And always will be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.