Are You Sure About This, God?

Sunday May 5 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights spent some time reflecting on an ordinary person who was asked by God to do something truly extraordinary… We talked about the ways that fear can blind us and reduce our ability to trust God to work in our lives and the lives of those around us.  Our scripture was Acts 9:1-19.

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

The party was going on and on – speeches were made, the band was playing, and all the passengers on the cruise were having a great time.  Because of the celebration, the ship’s captain had ordered an extra special buffet, and each of the passengers was taking advantage of it. Sitting at the head table was a man of about 70 who was looking a bit embarrassed, but trying to accept the praise that was being poured on him.

Earlier that day, a young woman had fallen overboard, and within seconds this same man was at her side in the dark, cold water.  The woman was rescued, and this fellow was an instant hero.

When the time finally came for him to speak, the room fell silent to hear the words of the brave hero.  He approached the microphone and offered what might be the briefest “acceptance speech” of all time:  “All I want to know is…” and he paused to clear his throat, “…who pushed me?”[1]

Jew at Prayer, Marc Chagall (1913)

I think that in a lot of ways, the disciple Ananias would probably deliver the same sort of speech if he were given half a chance.  As we continue to look at the development of the Christian community in the months and years that followed that first Easter – the people who lived into the reality that Mark described – we are presented with a couple of very different personalities this morning.  Ananias, who is our subject for this morning, is one of those people who is crucially necessary for the “big picture”, but not really well known.  Saul, on the other hand, is better known by his Greek name, Paul, and responsible for half of the New Testament.

My hunch is that if we were to ask Ananias and Saul the question of the day, namely, “are you sure about this, God?”, that they might offer two answers.  Is God sure? Well, friends, the Lord is right behind you, pushing you out the door.  And that same Holy Presence is out in the distance, preparing the way for you, dwelling with you in the future.

Because you have probably heard more about Saul, I’m going to center our discussion this morning around the guy whose name you’re not sure how to pronounce. Ananias is a normal Christian. He’s no apostle, he’s not one of the twelve, and he didn’t write a book of the Bible.  There are three men named Ananias mentioned in the book of Acts: our friend here in Damascus, an earlier follower who, along with his wife Sapphira, lied to the community in Jerusalem following the sale of some property, and the High Priest who’s mentioned at the end of Acts.  Perhaps as much as anyone in the scriptures, Ananias is just a regular guy leading a regular life trying to be faithful.  And God uses Ananias in a huge way.

When we meet him, he’s praying, and he receives a vision.  God calls his name, and, according to the author of Acts, Ananias responds by saying, “Here I am, Lord.”  What’s interesting about that is the fact that in all of Scripture, there are only three other people who happen to be wandering along, minding their own business, and they hear God’s voice calling their name.  Any ideas on who that might be?  Who might hear their name?  “Abraham, Abraham.”  “Here I am, Lord.”  “Moses, Moses.” “Here I am, Lord.”  “Samuel, Samuel.” “Here I am, Lord.”  Yet unlike these three men who became prominent in the narratives of the faith, Ananias is just an ordinary follower who comes on the scene, does his job, and then disappears.

So God calls Ananias without mincing words any words.  In his vision, Ananias is instructed to go over to Straight Street and meet someone.  Not just anyone, but Saul.  Not just any Saul, but Saul from Tarsus.  God spells it out pretty clearly.  And Ananias says, “Lord, not to be disrespectful or anything, but haven’t you seen the news?  This Saul of Tarsus is, well, problematic.  All my sources are telling me that he tries to kill people like me.  Think for a moment, God: I’m sure you must have heard from the church down in Jerusalem about this guy.”

And what is God’s response when Ananias shares his fear? “Go!”  God tells Ananias that Saul is God’s “chosen instrument”, and that whereas up to now, Saul has been one to inflict suffering upon the church, from now on, he will suffer on behalf of the church.

And Ananias stops arguing with the Lord and simply does what he is told. He is so sure that God is in this that he believes that God will protect him even against the chief persecutor of Christians.  He obeys God and marches down to the house on Straight Street and goes in to pray with Saul.

And look at how he does it!  Don’t you wish, at least a little bit, that Ananias would have an attitude?  I mean, if Saul was going around persecuting and perhaps even murdering Christians, it’s logical to assume that Ananias would know at least some of the people involved.  And when you read this story, don’t you find yourself wishing at least a little bit that Ananias would show up in the room on Straight Street and say, “Oh, well, look who’s found religion now!  What do you think, Mr. ‘I’m here to beat up the Christians’? You’re not so tough away from your goons, are you?”  After all, Saul was a bad guy.  Why is Ananias so nice to him?

Because he not only did what God told him to do, but he believed what God told him.  And when God said that Saul was God’s chosen vessel, that was good enough for Ananias. He walked over to him and greeted him tenderly.  “Brother Saul…” he said.  And then he prayed for Saul, and the scales fell away from his eyes.

Whose eyes did the scales fall from?  Saul’s, right?  But did you know that they could have been in Ananias’ eyes?  Sure they could have.  It’s possible that Ananias could have been blinded by his own fear.  I here to say that there have been times where I’ve been blinded by fear.  It may be that when God asked Ananias to go and meet with Saul, that Ananias could have been so scared that he couldn’t even see straight.    Ananias could have allowed his fear to incapacitate him, couldn’t he?  He could have been so frightened for his own safety – or perhaps that of his wife, his friends, his children –  that he’d be simply unable to do what God wanted him to do.

But it might have been more than that, too.  Ananias could have been blinded by the fact that Saul was an enemy. Saul sought to do harm to all that Ananias loved.  And it could have been that even though God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, changed Saul from an enemy into a friend, that Ananias couldn’t see that change.  I think that you’ll agree that it’s at least possible to think about the fact that Ananias could have chosen to treat Paul as a failure, a threat, or an outsider.  But he didn’t.  He simply called him “Brother Saul” and did as he had been asked to do.

Beloved, I see at least two things in this passage that teach my heart today.  First, I see an affirmation of the truth that there is not really anywhere in the Bible where the problem of evil is spelled out for us and solved.  Ananias heard God talking about Saul and asked God if it was really safe.  And God didn’t tell Ananias all about how Saul had seen the light and heard voices and had met Jesus.  God didn’t tell Ananias about the possibility of real healing in the inner psyche, about regeneration, about a transformative experience.  No, instead, he essentially told Ananias, “Look, friend, you leave Saul to me.  I’ll take care of him.”

The promise that comes through Scripture is not that we’ll understand the nature of evil or be able to solve it.  The promise is not that we’ll avoid the pain associated with sin, or be free from suffering.  The promise is simple, and if I had another bible verse to throw at you this morning it would be one of my favorites: Psalm 34:4.  “I sought the Lord, and he answered me.  He delivered me from all my fears.”  The promise is that with God’s help, we can somehow get through the pain and the evil and the sin that surrounds us – in spite of our fears.

What are you afraid of?  What is it that hangs like scales in front of your eyes, blinding you to the things that God is doing in the world?  Are you afraid that you don’t really have any value or worth apart from your children, and so you are living your life through them, instead of seeing what God is calling you to do?  Are you wishing you could leave your job and try something new, but not sure how you could ever explain yourself?  Do you have ideas about what could make things better for someone else, but you’re hesitant to share them because you’re afraid that no one will listen anyway? Are you afraid to really care about someone else because you’ve been alone for too long?

There is no fear that is greater than God’s ability to meet your needs. The Psalmist says that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him.”  In other words, as you draw close to God through obedience and love, God will equip you to deal with whatever gets in your way.  Look, it’s not wrong for you to ask, “God, are you sure about this?” But when you do, be prepared to accept the fact that God moves and acts in and through people like you all the time.  Ananias could go and meet Saul not because Saul wasn’t scary, but because God was powerfully present to an ordinary Christian like Ananias.

The Baptism of St. Paul, mosaic from the Palatine Chapel (Sicily), c. 1140

The second truth that this passage teaches can be a hard one for us to accept.  God’s power turns enemies into family.  When God first approaches Ananias about Saul, Ananias calls him “that man”. “I’ve heard about HIM, Lord. I know all about HIM.”  Yet when God equips Ananias to meet Saul, he is called “brother Saul.”  The stranger, the alien, the enemy – in a heartbeat becomes the brother.

Beloved, you do not know on whom it is that God will pour out his favor. But how many times do you hear yourself saying, “Oh, that one.  Don’t talk to me about that one, Pastor.  I know that one.”  One of the incredible strengths of a faith community like this one is that many of you have known each other for years – ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. You went to school together.  You married each other, or your sister married her brother, or something like that.  And you formed impressions of each other in 1966 or in 1988 or in 2001.  And sometimes, you treat each other as if you were the same people now as you were in 1966 or 1988 or 2001.  You hold a grudge against him because of something he said to your child ten years ago.  You are bitter because of the ways that she treated you in days gone by. Oh, you won’t say anything about it. You’ll be polite, and hand each other the pew pads when we ask you to.  But in your heart of hearts, you maybe find it a little hard to believe that God would work with someone like that.

OK, let’s just start with this: there is no one in this room, including the one who is standing up and talking to you now, who is worthy of the grace of the Lord that is poured out.  When we remember that, we can know that if God can take someone like me and do something with me, and God can take someone like you, and do something with you, then surely God has the freedom to take that one that you think you know so well and work a miracle in that one as well.  So be challenged, brothers and sisters, to keep thinking the best about each other.  And be encouraged, brothers and sisters, to keep praying for the ones that God hasn’t touched yet.  And be willing, brothers and sisters, to look for those changes and to bless God when you see them – and to join in with one another in fulfilling the ministries to which God has called you.

After these few verses in Acts 9, we never meet Ananias again.  He went back to First Church of Damascus and probably told a few people about what had happened to him.  And then he disappears from our view.  But do you think that Saul ever forgot how beautiful Ananias looked the instant that those scales fell from his eyes?  You know that he didn’t.  Who will remember you?  And why?

[1]  Told in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcartby Charles Swindoll, p. 119

Anybody Want a Sandwich?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/scene1_2018-04-22_11-28-31_t001_in1.mp3 into your browser.

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

I drank a lot of coffee here back in the day…

Years ago I was having lunch with a group of pastors down at LaVerne’s Diner in the West End – a place that, sadly, is no more.  It was one of the shiny-on-the-outside, Art Deco on the inside places that featured lots of formica, good coffee, and simple food. As LaVerne herself came to take the orders, she asked what I wanted.  I said, “LaVerne, it all looks good.  You decide. Give me your best sandwich.”

She said, “Well, what do you like? How do I know how to make it?”

I said, “There’s no ingredient on this menu I won’t love.  You make me the one you like best.”

So she went back to the kitchen and pushed the cook, John, out of the way.  Every now and then she would yell to me through the window separating the counter from the kitchen: “Will you eat onions?…What about cheese?…” and so on.  Each time, I simply responded, “LaVerne, make your best sandwich.”

She came out with our four plates and put them down in front of us.  I picked up mine, which was essentially a glorified cheeseburger, and took a bite.  “Mmmm,” I said, “Outstanding!  This is delicious!  What do you call it?”

And LaVerne got a little red in the face and looked down and said, “Well, it’s the ‘Big L’.” Because of the look on her face, and the way that she treated me every time I went into the restaurant after that, the “Big L” was my favorite sandwich.

What’s the point of a sandwich, anyway?  It’s a simple dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for some different kind of food. Of course, having the bread makes the delivery of the other food a bit easier (can you imagine ordering a grilled cheese and then saying “hold the bread”?).  But the best sandwiches rely on an interplay between the bread and the filling.  You can’t have, for instance, a Monte Cristo sandwich unless you use French toast.  Can you make a gyro if you use a croissant instead of a pita?  Of course not…it’s just a lamb sandwich.  The bread and the filling go together to make the whole package – which is often more than the sum of its parts.

Our scripture reading for this morning is a peculiar bit of storytelling that the theologians call “a Markan sandwich”.  At least eight or ten times in his Gospel, Mark will start off by telling us one story, and then just when that one gets going, he’ll switch his theme.  When he’s finished interrupting himself, he’ll get back to the original thought.  Now, you know as well as I do from personal experience that when someone does this in conversation, it can be frustrating and difficult to follow.  However, when Mark does it, it almost always provides us, as hearers of the gospel, with a chance to look at how the stories connect with each other.  In fact, often times the “bread” of the story will serve as a commentary on the “meat”, and vice-versa.

So today, we have a typical Markan sandwich for our worship meal.  The outer layer is a story about a wealthy, powerful man named Jairus, and his sick daughter.  The filling is a story about a poor woman who was herself sick, and who in fact had nobody besides Jesus to whom she could turn.

Do you remember where we were when we last saw Jesus in the gospel of Mark?  He had taken us over to the region of the Gerasenes, where we had to spend the night in the graveyard with a demon-possessed madman, surrounded by pigs and pig-farmers.  You may recall that we thought that the disciples were not all that happy to be there, so you can imagine their relief when, upon coming home to “our” side of the lake, they are met by Jairus.

What a contrast between the wealthy, respected, learned, distinguished leader of the community and the total loser with whom we had to spend the night among the tombs. I’m sure that the disciples followed this conversation between Jairus and Jesus with great enthusiasm: “OK, Now we’re getting somewhere!” They have to be thinking that this conversation with Jairus is an indication that Jesus is wising up and that things are going to get better for him, his ministry, and for them.

But no sooner had they started off towards Jairus’ home when Jesus stops the procession.  In the crush of the crowd, someone has brushed up against him.  Jesus stops, and demands to know who it was.

The Woman With the Issue of Blood, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Do you think that the first disciples of Jesus ever snapped – if they ever looked at Jesus and said, “What are you, nuts?  Give me a break!”  Well, that appears to be what happens in this morning’s reading.  “Come on, Jesus, there have to be 200 people around you. How can you even ask a question like that?”

It was more than simply an issue of Jesus feeling as if his personal space was invaded. Virtually every adult Jewish male in that day would have worn a prayer shawl while walking around – and surely a Rabbi such as Jesus would have had his on.  The edges of these shawls were woven in such a way that they ended in four tassels, called tzitzit.  The prophet Malachi, writing about four hundred years earlier, said that the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”.  The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that was a prophecy about the coming Messiah – that he would be so Godly that even if one were to touch his “wings” – his tzitzit, that one would receive healing. When this woman reaches out and receives healing in this way, Jesus allows her to confess her faith that he is, in fact, the messiah.

I am unaware of the name or artist for this work. i would appreciate it if someone could teach me those things!

Meanwhile, Jairus has to be thinking, “Look, I’m not opposed to healing or theological conversation, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a race against time here…” And in fact, while Jesus is still speaking to this un-named woman, they get word that they are too late.  The girl has died.

Yet as you have heard, that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus takes Jairus and his family home and raises the little girl, much to the amazement of the mourners who had gathered.

So there you have it – the sandwich.  Mark could have told us about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and then said, “and the cool thing was, there was this other healing while Jesus was on the way…”  But he doesn’t.  He wraps them together, and in so doing, he invites us to compare them. So let’s do that now – let’s take a look at the different healings that comprise this “sandwich”.

Jairus’ Daughter Woman who was bleeding
Powerful, wealthy family with many resources Unknown, unconnected, un-named woman who had “spent all she had”
A public appeal to healing based on status A secret approach made in fear
12 years of joy-filled living with a beloved daughter 12 years of isolation and shame – living as one “unclean” and unwelcome
She was a precious child She was nobody’s child (she is never named or acknowledged until Jesus himself calls her “daughter” in v 34)
A public approach results in a private healing A private approach results in a public healing
Jesus risks being labeled as “unclean” by contacting a dead body Jesus is rendered “unclean” by being touched by a woman who is bleeding

Note that in both cases Jesus – just as he did with the fellow who roamed amongst the tombs and the pigs – risks “crossing to the other side” to be with folks who matter to God.

When LaVerne made me that “Big L”, she took special care to combine the meat and the condiments and the bread.  I learned something about her in the choices she made, and in the way that she made that sandwich and served it to me.

When Mark uses a “sandwich” to tell us about a Jesus who heals both Jairus’ daughter and this sick woman, he tells us something about that Jesus.  What can we learn from this passage?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remember that not every interruption is a negative thing.  I get my day all planned out and think that I have all my ducks in a row…and then something else happens.  If I’m paying attention to Jesus, I can learn that sometimes some incredibly important things can happen when I least expect them.  What would happen if I were to treat each “interruption” in my day as an opportunity to learn more about God’s purposes for the world or for myself?

Planning is a good thing, and I’d encourage you to do it.  But I’d warn you to not get so lost in your plans that you miss the chance to see God at work in the unexpected each day.

But more than a lesson about scheduling and planning and interruptions, this is a story that speaks to me about hope.  There is hope for everyone, Mark says.  Even if you feel as if you have suffered for a lifetime – did you notice that the woman’s illness had lasted as long as the little girl’s life? – there is the possibility that God will make his presence known to you, or through you, in amazing ways.

And this hope is available to everyone – even to “outsiders”.  The woman who had been bleeding suffered from more than a flow of blood.  The cultural law mandated that for the health of the community, she had to refrain from contact with any other human being as long as she bled.  She was in a hell of loneliness and isolation – she was outside of any group you could think of.  Yet this is the one that Jesus calls “daughter”.  He blesses her.  In naming her healing publicly, he restores her to her life and to her community. There is hope for those of us who feel as though we are on the outside looking in.

When we are feeling “on the top of our game”, it’s easy to suffer though a tough time.  But when we feel unworthy or unclean, it’s a little easier to feel that anything bad that is happening to us is simply judgment – I’m just getting “what I deserve”.  This sandwich reminds me that there is hope for healing and joy in everyone’s life – not only those who are pure, but for those who are struggling and for those who feel like we’ll never be good enough.

And lastly, as Jesus confronts the evil of death in this passage, we learn that it’s never too late for hope.  The little girl’s parents must have felt a little foolish when Jesus went in and took the hand of their daughter and spoke to her corpse…yet Jesus restored her to them.

Is there a part of your life where you have given up hope?  Is there something in you that you feel is too far gone?  Let me encourage you not to laugh at Jesus with the other mourners, but rather to allow him and his disciples to enter into the deepest and most painful part of your grief…to enter into the place that you think might even be dead…and to allow him to speak to that.

The sandwich that Mark fixes us this morning reminds us of the truth of the Psalm: “The earth and everything on itbelong to the Lord; the world and all of its peoplebelong to him.”  If the healing and hope of Jesus does not include both the unnamed woman and the rich man’s daughter as well as both the disturbed man who roamed amongst the tombs and the eager disciples who gave their lives to the Lord, then it’s not really hope at all.  It’s a reward for people who are in the right group at the right time in the right place. Yet this is a bold claim that in fact, the promises of Christ are open to all, and the presence of Christ is universal. My prayer is that this will nourish you and sustain you and encourage you to move forward in your journey of faith with the one who is the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.”  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Stay With Us

On Easter Sunday, 2018, the saints at Crafton Heights spent the second worship of the morning retracing the steps of a long journey on a horrible day – the walk to Emma’s (and back!).  Thoughts on the ways that we fear isolation and loneliness, and the impact those things can have on our hearts… and wondering why the Gospels are so soft on explanations but so big on presence. This message is based on Luke 24:13-35 as well as Isaiah 25:6-9. 

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below

 

In January of 1987 I was invited to take part in a two week course in Southern California.  I was so excited to be able to participate!  We were given a day off, and while many of my colleagues went to see Hollywood or the Pacific Ocean, I went to Disneyland.  I don’t know whether it says more about my colleagues or me that I couldn’t convince anyone else to go, but the short story is that I went to Disneyland by myself.  And it was miserable.  Every single time I stepped foot anywhere, I kept thinking, “You know who would really like this?”  I found people looking at me as the creepy guy who had to fill in the extra seat on the rides.  It was so bad that on three different occasions that day I found a pay phone and called a friend just to tell them that I wished that they were there – and that I thought that they’d be having fun.

(For those of you who are under 40 years old, I should say that once upon a time, we didn’t all have phones in our pockets. If we were away from home and needed to make a call, we had to find a machine, put money in it, remember the phone number, and dial our friends, hoping that they were home to answer their phones – that’s what life was like back in the dark ages).

What about the rest of you? Can you think of a time when you definitely did notwant to be alone?  What about when you were in the ICU waiting room? Or maybe it’s a big holiday, and you don’t have anywhere to go… Have you ever longed for the company of family or friends on Thanksgiving or a birthday or an anniversary?

When we find ourselves in a situation where we are sure that we shouldn’t be alone, what do we do?

Well, if we’re smart, and honest with ourselves, we own that fact and we do something about it.  We reach out to friends or neighbors and explain, saying, “Wow, you know, this is really hard right now.  I’d prefer not to be alone.  I’m really anxious, or depressed, or frightened.  I wonder if you’d be willing to come and wait with me…”

Of course, how often are we smart and honest with ourselves? Not as often as we should be, are we? And so oftentimes on those days when we know we should not be alone, we act as if it’s no big deal, or we’re simply afraid to bother anyone else.  So we pretend that we’re notanxious or depressed or afraid.  We sit at home and eat half a gallon of ice cream by ourselves, or we pretend that we’re just going to sit at the computer for a while and check Facebook for a moment and wind up getting sucked into the muck of internet porn, or we think that we unwind with a beer but wind up having 12 of them and that leads to going to bed with a stranger… in short, there are times when we are so pained by being alone that we do whatever we can to numb that pain, that isolation, that fear, that anxiety.

The power of isolation is real, and loneliness can lead to incredibly destructive behaviors and attitudes.  We all experience pain and fear – but how we respond to them can make all the difference.

The disciples who we met in our reading from Luke, for instance, were two individuals who may have been traveling together, but in many ways, they were alone.  They had lost everything that had mattered to them, the most important of which was the hope that up until three days ago had carried their spirits. And now, this Sunday morning, they are trudging back to their homes.  They walk together, but they are fundamentally alone.

On the Road to Emmaus (used by permission of the artist) ©Paul Oman, 2018. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.paulomanfineart.com

A stranger approaches, and engages them in conversation.  Before they know it, the day is gone and they stand in front of the home that is their destination.  Now, they’ve got some deciding to do.  Clearly, this conversation has had some sort of an impact on them.  Neither one of these folks has processed it yet, but each is aware that the presence of the stranger has mattered.

As they stand at the gate of the home in Emmaus, it would have been perfectly acceptable for them to shake hands with this stranger and wish him well as he continued his travel.  After all, there is nothing about their situation that has changed in the least.  From their perspective, reality is unchanged: they’d left everything to follow Jesus; they’d given up their jobs, their homes, their dreams in order to follow the one whom they’d imagined could make such a difference, only to see him give himself so willingly to the humiliation of execution on a Roman cross.

I’d imagine that it would have been easy for these disciples to have felt as though they’d been schnookered – that they’d fallen for something that proved not to be true, as if they’d become the victims of a terrible April Fool.

Do you see what I mean? Even after traveling all day with this stranger, nothing about their lives was substantively different than it had been that morning. Spending the day in conversation with this man hasn’t fixed anything.

And yet, somehow, it’s better.  Nothing about their external situation has changed, but each of them senses that somehow, there is something that has happened in on the inside.

So they have to decide.  What will they do with this stranger?

They turn to him, and they plead: “Stay with us.”

That’s all they say.  “Look, it’s getting dark.  Stay here.  Please.” And he enters the home.

And the briefest of pleas (“stay!”) leads to a shared meal.  I might have skipped that part, had I been them…  The meal leads to an occasion for recognition as to who this stranger really is. That recognition leads to an incredible moment of honesty with themselves and each other.  Again, I’m not sure I’d have been courageous enough to risk being that open with my friend.

At that point, I think that I look at my friend, and he’s looking at me, and he starts to say, “Did you…I mean, while he was talking on the road, was there…”  And in my head, I’m thinking, “I think that guy was Jesus!” but there’s no way I’m going to go THERE.  I saw Jesus die.  He’s not coming back.

And so if I’m the one on the road to Emmaus, I give my buddy the look that says, “Don’t go talking crazy around me, fella.” And that shuts him up. And if I’m one of the people on the road to Emmaus, maybe the other disciples never, ever hear about the conversation on the road or the breaking of the bread.

But because these people are able to be honest with each other, they are able to engage on an even greater risk – and they return to Jerusalem to speak with the other disciples.  Remember, these folks had probably been there when the women came in talking about the empty tomb, and they probably knew that everyone thought that these women had lost their minds.  Now, they are willing to go back and risk that same treatment because of the experience that they themselves had had.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make with this – that throughout this day, the realities these disciples faced did not change substantially.  There was no part of their circumstances that had been radically altered, so far as they had been able to know in that moment.

And yet, in the experience of simply trying to stay close to Jesus, everything was different.  And in that trying to stick close to Jesus, they find that they are able to make decisions that are, somehow, incrementally better.

When I think about this idea of just trying to stick close to Jesus, I’m reminded of a story that Garrison Keillor told about the time that 24 Lutheran Pastors visited Lake Wobegon, MN as a part of a study tour to understand the problems of life in rural America.  Pastor Ingqvist agrees that they guys could use a night out, and so he accepts Wally’s invitation to host the 24 pastors on his 26 foot pontoon boat. What could go wrong, right?

Well, the folks quickly discover that putting so many middle aged, portly, bearded Lutheran pastors on a boat that size is not wise.  As Keillor tells it,

…They had reached the edge of the laws of physics.  They lurched to the starboard side and there – in full view of the town – the boat pitched forward and dumped some ballast: [a batch of] Lutheran ministers in full informal garb took their step for total immersion.

As the boat sank, they slipped over the edge to give their lives for Christ, but in only five feet of water. It’s been a hot dry summer…

The ministers stood perfectly still in the water and didn’t say much at all.  Five feet of water, and some of them not six feet tall, so their faces were upraised to the bright blue sky.  They didn’t dare walk for fear of drop-offs, and their clothes were too heavy to swim in…

Keillor describes how these men were unsuited to this problem; they were not used to asking anyone for help, and so they had to practice crying out in their rich baritone voices… “um, help… help… help…”  He tells us of “…twenty-four ministers standing up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.”

But then there is a new voice: “Clint [Bunsen’s] little nephew Brian waded out to them.  ‘It’s not deep this way’, he said.  He stood about fifteen feet away, a little boy up to his waist.”[1]  The pastors gingerly edged toward the sound of the boy’s voice and gradually found their way to a place where they could first stand, and then walk, out of the lake – twenty-four pastors dripping wet, covered by clothes that would have sunk them, but ready to participate in the rest of the conference.

Maybe I’m reading into that little story too much, but it seems to me that it’s a fitting parable for the Christian experience.  I do not know of anyone who has lived a life of faith and been spared trouble or difficulty.  I am unacquainted with anyone who has accepted Jesus and thereby avoided suffering.

In my experience, the life of faith is not about accepting all of the right doctrines or finding a way to agree intellectually with all of the appropriate “isms”.  Instead, it’s more like finding myself up to my neck in pain or doubt or confusion and hearing a voice that I believe I can trust telling me that the ground might be a little firmer over this direction… It’s about sticking as close as I can to Jesus and holding onto him when I can.

Supper at Yummaus
Barry Motes (used by permission of the artist). More at https://www.jbmotesart.com

And because I know what it feels like to be swamped and gasping for air, every now and then I feel as though I have the opportunity to lift my voice and call out, “You know, I think it’s a little shallower over here.  It’s not quite as overwhelming in this direction.”

[4]The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when justice would be shared, death defeated, and alienation and anxiety swallowed up.  The key component of that day, we’ve heard, is that people will say “we have waited for God.”  They do notsay, “Aha! We were right all along, and those suckers were wrong.”  There is no cry of exultation because all of their doctrine was correct.  Instead, there is a confession that all of this has happened because they were able to keep close, somehow, to the Lord.

Jesus’ friends looked back on Isaiah’s prophecy and said, “You know, we are closer now than we were then.  We can see more evidence of death being swallowed and hope being brought to light.  In Jesus, we have a glimpse of what God is like and we have an inkling of what God is doing. So we’re going to keep waiting, keep hoping, and keep doing our best to stick close to him.”

Look – this is Easter Sunday.  I’m not sure why you’re in church today, but I can tell you this: if you are here expecting answers, hoping that you’ve come to a place where you can have everything explained to you… or, worse, if you’ve come because you havea lot of answers that you can’t wait to lay down on all of the rest of us… well, give it a break.

I’m not interested in talking with anyone who thinks that they can explain things – especially things like suffering and violence and injustice and death.

But if you’ve come because you’re willing to watch, to wait, and to stay close to Jesus – well maybe together we can learn a little more about the power and implications of hope and resurrection in our lives and in our world. And if we do that, then maybe we’ll be better equipped to help each other find a place to stand that isn’t quite so treacherous or frightening.  And maybe God might even use us to remind someone else that it might just be possible to get through this thing together.  Thanks be to God for the Christ who is willing to stay with us as we wait on the promises of God.  Amen.

[1]Quotes from “Pontoon Boat” in Leaving Home(Penguin Press, 1990).

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.