May I Have Your Attention?

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys.  On May 28, we heard some of the most difficult parts of that story – and looked at some of the ways that this pastor’s mind has changed.  The text was from II Samuel 14 (included below) as well as Luke 13:1-9.

Due to technical difficulties, there is no audio stream this week. 

When I was a child, money was tight in our family. Something else that was tight was the waistline of my pants, and so my mother decided that one way to solve both of those problems was to stop buying real milk, and have me drink several glasses of powdered skim milk each day. I did it, and I lived to tell about it.

I did something else for well over half my life that will make some of the younger folks’ heads spin. When the phone that was wired into the wall rang, I just answered it – I didn’t know who was calling or anything. I just picked it up and said, “Hello,” just like that. Crazy, right?

There are lots of things that I used to do that I don’t do anymore; my mind, my habits, my thoughts, and my activities have changed. I think that’s part of what it means to be human: we grow and we learn.

This morning’s scripture lesson provides an opportunity to reflect on some things that I used to think, and where I am now.

The Sorrow of King David, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Last week, we heard the prophet Nathan storm into the royal chambers and lay out the truth of God’s displeasure with the king as a result of the sinful ways in which David treated Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, the Israelite army, and the nation. In part, Nathan said, “The sword will never depart from your house… I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house…”

You could understand that as a threat, or a punishment; you could also interpret that as a perceptive realization that whatever David’s gifts might have been, being a “Great Family Man” was not among them.

Over the past few months, you’ve heard me or someone else up here mention some of David’s wives. Most of them probably didn’t stick with you… and I’ll offer $10 to anyone who can name more than three. I think that’s a safe bet. But if you’d like to keep track at home, there are eight women named in the Bible as David’s wives: Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba. There were probably more, but those are the names we have.

Those women helped David to produce children. There are nineteen sons of David named in the Bible, and there were probably more of them as well.

Only one of David’s daughters is named in the scripture, and her story is so horrible you can bet that the others are just as happy that their names were not important enough to record for history. The story of Tamar, in fact, is so difficult and ugly that I could not bring myself to preach on it or even read it in public worship for this series of messages. You can read it for yourself in II Samuel 13 and 14. Here’s the gist of it, presented in the PG-13 version.

David’s oldest son, Amnon, was, in addition to being heir-apparent to the throne, a real piece of work. He was evidently spoiled rotten and self-centered to the core. He tried to seduce his half-sister, Tamar, and when she refused, he drafted an elaborate plan to assault her. After he took what he wanted, he threw her out of the house. King David knew all of this, but according to II Samuel, “When David heard what had happened to Tamar, he was very angry. But Amnon was his oldest son and also his favorite, and David would not do anything to make Amnon unhappy.” (II Samuel 13:21, CEV)

Tamar fled and confided in her full brother, David’s third-born son, Absalom. Absalom was appropriately enraged and waited for David to act – and the longer his father went without punishing Amnon, the more resentful and bitter Absalom became.

The Assassination of Amnon at the Feast of Absalom (Guercino, 1628)

Finally, more than two years later, Absalom has had enough. He throws a big party and invites all of his relatives to come, including Amnon – to whom he hasn’t spoken since the assault. When everybody is having a high old time, Absalom murders his half-brother to avenge what he had done to Tamar.

Next, Absalom does what you might do if you murdered the crown prince – he high-tails it out of town. He hides out in the kingdom of Geshur, where he stays with his maternal grandfather. David is overcome with grief at the death of Amnon, and also finds himself yearning for Absalom – but he still cannot do anything to take charge of his children.

Absalom (James Tissot, c. 1900)

Eventually, after three years have passed, David’s general and nephew, Joab, convinces the monarch to do something to make things right with Absalom. So David sends for the young man and tells him it’s time to come home. However, when Absalom returns to Jerusalem, David cannot bring himself to face his son, and so he won’t receive him in the palace. Joab, loyal to a fault, refuses to see Absalom as well.

In spite of all this, everyone in Jerusalem sees Absalom. The narrator goes out of his way to tell the readers what a dreamboat this young prince is. He is quickly replacing Amnon in the line for royal succession… if only he could get his father to notice him the way that everyone else in the kingdom is noticing him…

Another two years passes – so it’s been seven long years since the attack on Tamar and five since Amnon’s murder and Absalom’s last conversation with his father. Finally, Absalom can stand it no further, and he demonstrates once more that he is a schemer and conniver of the first order, and he manipulates the situation so as to get the royal audience he craves. The second reading for this morning is II Samuel 14:28-33. Listen for the Word of the Lord:

Absalom lived two years in Jerusalem without seeing the king’s face. Then Absalom sent for Joab in order to send him to the king, but Joab refused to come to him. So he sent a second time, but he refused to come. Then he said to his servants, “Look, Joab’s field is next to mine, and he has barley there. Go and set it on fire.” So Absalom’s servants set the field on fire.

Then Joab did go to Absalom’s house, and he said to him, “Why have your servants set my field on fire?”

Absalom said to Joab, “Look, I sent word to you and said, ‘Come here so I can send you to the king to ask, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me if I were still there!”’ Now then, I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.”

So Joab went to the king and told him this. Then the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom.

Absalom Setting Joab’s Barley Field on Fire (From the Maciejowski Bible, 13th c)

It’s a brilliant move, adding arson to his list of accomplishments as he seeks to get the attention first of Joab and ultimately, his father.

And I’ll tell you that years ago, when I first read this, I thought, “Wow! There is something here for me! How many times have I had some sort of experience with similar signs – there was something ‘off’, something that wasn’t quite right – and it occurred to me that AHA! – God is trying to get my attention here, just like Absalom tried to get old Joab’s attention.”

That’s what I thought. And, lots of times, that kind of reasoning works.

A friend of mine had been suddenly hospitalized with anxiety and panic attacks. He asked me to come and visit with him, and as we talked, I said, “Buddy, what’s going on?” He said, “I can’t figure it out. This just came out of nowhere!” Later in the conversation, he happened to mention that he’d found a mistress and was making plans to leave his wife. I just about exploded: “Gee, do you think that there’s a connection between your anxiety attacks and the fact that after preaching for a dozen years on the sanctity of marriage you’re having an affair?”

Or a couple of years ago, when the youth group was en route to Sunset Gap, TN for our mission trip. For a number of reasons, we were about five hours late in arriving on the scene. When we got there, we found the dorm in which we’d have been asleep in flames. It was easy to think, “See! These troubles on the road put us in a position where we didn’t get burnt! Awesome!”

For years, I thought, and I taught, that if there’s a barley field on fire in your life, then maybe that’s just God’s way of getting your attention. Something happens and you experience pain or dis-ease or stress, and I want to know, “Well, what is God showing you here? What do you need to learn?”

But the more that I thought about that, the more I realized that a theology like that makes God out to be, well, kind of a jerk.

Listen: if the fact that my barley field is on fire – that is to say, if I’m going through a tough time in some way – means that God is trying to deal with me somehow, then the opposite must be true as well. No fires? Everything is cool. If I say that every bad thing that happens to me is an indication of the fact that God is trying to teach me a lesson, then that essentially puts me in a fatalistic universe where everyone gets what they deserve. What did Tamar do to deserve what happened to her? Or would you like to suggest that maybe God sent her that particular trial in order to teach her something?

Jesus spoke against this kind of theology in the passage you heard from Luke. Someone thrusts a copy of the Jerusalem Gazette under his nose and says, “Wow! Would you look at that, Jesus? Pilate really hammered these guys but good! They must have really screwed up to merit treatment like that, huh?”

And Jesus looks at his audience and says, “Yeah, you’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you? After all, Pilate’s not beating you up these days, is he?” And Jesus grabs the paper and turns to page B-9 and says, “What about this story – all those folks that got flattened when the building collapsed over in Siloam? Those folks – did they deserve that? More to my point,” says Jesus, “Are you any better than they are simply because you didn’t get crushed?”

It’s a tempting theology, friends.

Look at your news feeds: Terrorism in Manchester. A new influx of child refugees from South Sudan into Uganda. The President and the Pope hobnobbing with each other. A man in New York finds a $24 million lottery ticket while cleaning out his home – just a couple of days before it expires.

Do those people deserve that stuff? Do bad things happen to bad people? Do good things happen to good people?

“Not so fast,” Jesus says, pointing again to the newspaper filled with dead bodies. “It’s time to stop pretending that death is something that God only sends to bad guys. You’re all dying.”

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree (James Tissot, c. 1890)

We are not motivated by the fear of destruction: we are enlivened and empowered by the presence of grace. Grace is the foundation on which the whole enterprise is built. And then Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a fig tree located smack in the middle of a vineyard that was there simply because the owner of the whole place decided to allow it to remain there. And when he’s thinking about clearing out the space, his gardener talks him out of it, saying “Master, leave it for another year.” The Greek word he uses is aphes, which literally means, “forgive”. The fig tree wasn’t pulling its own weight, but the gardener stood up for it anyway. “Forgive”, he says.

I have a hunch that story took on new meaning for Jesus’ friends a couple of years later as they watched him die on the cross. As the life was being crushed out of him, Jesus looked at the people who had done it and said, “Aphes… forgive them…”

Robert Capon writes about this parable:

The world lives, as the fig tree lives, under the rubric of forgiveness. The world, of course, thinks otherwise. In its blind wisdom, it thinks it lives by merit and reward. It likes to imagine that salvation is essentially a pat on the back from a God who either thinks we are good eggs or, if he knows how rotten we actually are, considers our repentance sufficient to make up for our unsuitability. But by the foolishness of God, that is not the way it works…[Jesus] doesn’t come to see if we are good; he comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good. He does not come to see if we are sorry; he knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it… We are saved gratis, by grace. We do nothing and we deserve nothing; it is all, absolutely and without qualification, one huge, hilarious gift.[1]

The Gospel story is not that God is sending me terrible calamities in order to attract my attention to something that God needs me to do…Instead, the Gospel story is that God is present to and with and for me in all of my circumstances.

At a better point in his life, King David was hard up against some ugly, painful circumstances. In Psalm 27 he wrote, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord n the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage.” (Ps. 27:13-14, NASB). If, even in these horrible circumstances, I didn’t think that I could see God’s goodness…well, I’d cash in my chips. But I believe that even here, even now, I can see not the threatening, vengeful God – but the gracious, forgiving vinedresser in Luke.

So if 2 Samuel 14 is not about God sending us horrible days in order to get our attention so we’ll straighten up and fly right… What is it about?

I’d suggest that we have to look at it in context. David has had an adulterous, murderous affair, while neglecting his parental office. The absence of discipline leads to horrific acts wherein Absalom plays the cards he’s been dealt in the only way he knows how: violently and destructively. In fact, Absalom will go on to unleash a plot to overthrow his father’s kingdom and murder his father – but more about that next month.

It seems to me that the message of 2 Samuel 14 is that if we insist on keeping score and on playing the game we’ve always played it, we’re bound to lose. If we insist that it always and only depends on us, then it will end poorly for us.

How would it have been had David or Absalom or Amnon asked God to interrupt and break the cycle? We don’t know for them. But we can try it for us.

Look for grace, beloved. In every circumstance – look for grace. It is all around you. Many of you have heard the words of that Mr. Rogers suggested that we say to our children in times of disaster:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.[2]

Look: sometimes fields catch fire. Horrible things happen. When they do, look for grace. And when you find it…give it away. Your neighbor probably needs it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Parables of Grace (Eerdman’s, 1988, p. 97-98).


What About THEM?!?!

The second Sunday in June God’s people in Crafton Heights sat with Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-11 as we considered what Jesus did when people wanted him to publicly denounce those people who were somehow considered more sinful than the rest of “our team”.


Ripley'sWhen I was a kid, one of my favorite diversions was Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. These cartoons and books provided me with hours of entertainment, as each panel portrayed some incredible or horrific depiction of humanity. Many in our culture have found their own curiosity stoked by the tabloid papers, or by “news feeds” that point to salacious details about some celebrity’s life. And of course, there is now an entire industry based on “reality entertainment”, and our culture has been exposed to more information about the lives of people like the Duggar Family and the Jenner and Kardashian families than I ever wanted to know.

I mean, seriously. I have friends who are being hunted down in South Sudan because they talk about Jesus; in the amount of time you’ll spend in worship this morning, close to 25 children under the age of five around the world will die, largely from preventable causes like diarrhea, malaria, or pneumonia; there are dozens of kids in this neighborhood who are crying out for mentors and authentic relationships… All this is true, and yet so many of my acquaintances will say, “Yes, but did you see what THAT dude did?”

I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from fellow pastors and “concerned Christians” who want to know what I’m going to preach about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. My honest and weary response has been, “I’m not interested in preaching about that in the slightest.”

However, for some reason this text from Luke 13 has crept into my heart and consciousness in the past few weeks. So I’m not going to preach about any celebrity, but I would like to talk about Jesus for a few moments.

Pontius Pilate, unknown artist, Italian 16th century

Pontius Pilate, unknown artist, Italian 16th century

Apparently, the Roman Governor in Palestine, whose name was Pontius Pilate, had brutally murdered a few folks from Galilee while they were in the act of worshiping God. One of the things that “everybody knew” back in that time was that if you are bad, bad things happen to you; and if you are good, good things happen to you. I think that’s what Facebook users today call “Karma”. Folks in that time came to believe that you get what you deserve.

It’s not a huge leap to go from thinking, “if you are bad, bad things will happen” to thinking, “well, if something bad happened to you, you must be a bad person”. “What did HE do to deserve this?” can be transformed into “Oooooh, I wonder WHAT he did to deserve THIS?” very quickly.

So Jesus’ hearers grab a headline and say, “Wow, those people from Galilee must have been pretty awful, huh? I mean, what happened there was terrible, Jesus. What did THEY do?”

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus and the Pharisees

And Jesus pointed to the next headline in their news feed and said, “Yeah, what about those folks killed in the earthquake? They must have been pretty bad people too, right?” And as his crowd begins to shake their heads, he interrupts himself, saying, “No! That’s now how it works. Life is uncertain. You are going to die. The question is, what will you do between now and when you die?”

Do you remember that time when a bunch of people came to Jesus in a hurry to get him to point out how sinful and evil someone else was, and Jesus was like, “Totally! I mean, that guy is going to BURN! God is so angry with him!” Do you remember that time?

No, of course you don’t, because it never happened. Every time someone came to Jesus in a huff about someone else, Jesus instructed people to take a good look at their own lives. Whether it was the man who was born blind or the woman who was caught in the act of adultery or the crooked tax collector named Zacchaeus or the “sinful woman” who poured out her oil on Jesus…in every case, Jesus refuses to shame them publicly. If you can find a place in the Gospels where Jesus piles on someone for some moral failing, please show it to me, because I can’t.

In our reading for today, Jesus tells his hearers, “Listen, don’t you worry about THEM. Instead, you worry about you. You have some serious repenting to do.”

Repent. Isn’t that a churchy word? I mean, seriously, who else uses that word any more? You hear the word “repent” and you figure you’re going to get a sermon on how you ought to feel badly about what you did, or sorry for what you said. When we say “repent” these days, we pretty much nod our heads and say, “oh, yes, sure. I’m sorry. I slipped up there. I repent.”

But when the prophets, and John the Baptist, and Jesus used the word “repent”, they meant it to be a fundamental turning. The Greek word, metanoia, means to change direction, it is a total change of mindset and practice. It means that we are converted from one way of living to a different way.

IMG_0546If you drive by Cumberland Street you’ll see that I have a new look on my front porch. It’s the second time I’ve rebuilt that porch. When I did it ten or twelve years ago, I did it wrong. It was not sealed properly, and so no matter what I did, the boards shed paint in big, ugly strips. Every year, I’d feel bad about how ugly it looked, and repaint it. And every year, the porch got uglier – because the structure was bad.

So this year, I didn’t repaint. I repented. I took down what was poorly-made and replaced it with something better. I had to fundamentally alter the reality of the porch in order to make it functional. When I treat you poorly, or scoff at someone else, or dishonor God’s intentions for the world and then say, “Oh, yeah, my bad…”, and then shrug and walk away – that’s repainting. Repenting is when I ask the carpenter from Nazareth to change my framework so I’m not likely to cause that kind of harm in the future. The prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus – they didn’t want us to feel badly about the ways we’d messed up. They wanted us to become so dissatisfied with the unhealthy ways in which we were living that we asked God to help us re-align our lives from the inside out. That is repentance.

And Jesus elaborates his call for repentance with a parable about a man who had a fig tree that was not productive. His gardener talked him into giving it a little more time. Now, while sometimes it’s difficult to assign specific meaning to parables, I think that there are several clues here that stand out.

The landowner stands for God the Father, the one who created and tends to and rules over all things.

  The Vinedresser and the Fig Tree, 1886-1894, James Tissot

The Vinedresser and the Fig Tree, 1886-1894, James Tissot

Throughout scripture, the prophets and teachers often compared the people of God or the nation of Israel to a fig tree. When Jesus told a Jewish audience about a wealthy and powerful man who owned a fig tree, they would have assumed right away that this was a story about God and his relationship to his people.

Now, about this fig tree. Where was it? In a vineyard. What do you expect to find in a vineyard? Vines. Not trees. Yet for some reason, it pleased the landowner to plant a fig tree in the middle of his vineyard.

It’s important to remember that this man’s identity is not bound up in growing figs. He doesn’t have to have a fig tree; he wants to have a fig tree.

People of God, you, and me, and the church…we are not God’s job. We are not some duty to which he attends each day because he feels obliged. God has caused this world, these people, this church to be here because he wanted us to be here. For some reason, God the Father finds joy and satisfaction in the idea of you and of me. That’s important to remember because sometimes we talk about grace and love as if it’s an idea that came to God after we got into the story a little bit. No – it’s there from the very start. This? This is here because God thought it would be cool.

But the problem is, things are not the way that the owner intended. There are no figs on the fig tree. There is no joy, no fruit. And so he decides to get rid of it. He calls the gardener – the vinedresser – to remove the tree.

And in this parable, the Vinedresser is clearly God the Son, Jesus of Nazareth. How can I be so sure of this? I know because of what the vinedresser says: “Leave it alone, sir. Let me take care of it.”

“Leave it alone.” “Let it be.” In Greek, the word is aphes. It means, fundamentally, “forgive.” “Forgive this fig tree for not bearing fruit. Let me tend to it, nurture it, and enrich it.” That’s what the vinedresser says, right?

And the reason I know that Jesus is the vinedresser is because eleven chapters later, when he is hanging on the cross, suffocating and bleeding out because of all the terrible things that religious people did to him in the name of God, Jesus lifted up his head and spoke to his Father and said, “Father, aphes – forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s the same exact word said by the same exact person for the same exact reason.

Most of the time, most of the world and indeed most of us live under the perception that we are doing all right. Oh, don’t get me wrong – we’re not perfect – not by any stretch, but at least we’re not nearly as bad as those people. They disgust me. I mean, I may have my quirks, but I’m not as twisted as them.

And then Jesus shows up, reminding me that my own little world is so fragile, my own heart is so twisted, my own morality is so narrow and self serving…and then he reminds me that I am headed for death, too, no matter how much better I am than those people.

And then Jesus – this same Jesus, this beautiful Jesus, offers to come to me in my unfruitfulness, in my sinfulness, in my death, and he says, “I will become death for you. In fact, I will nurture you, I will tend you, I will feed you in my own death.”

Robert Capon has written more powerfully about this than I could ever hope to, so let me simply give you some of his words here:

The Vinedresser who on the cross said “aphes” to his Lord and Father comes to us with his own body dug deep by nails and spears, and his own being made dung by his death, and he sends our roots resurrection. He does not come to see if we are good: he comes to disturb the caked conventions by which we pretend to be good. He does not come to see if we are sorry: he knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it. He does not come to count anything…he comes only to forgive. For free. For nothing. On no basis, because like the fig tree, we are too far gone to have a basis…We are saved gratis, by grace. We do nothing and we deserve nothing; it is all, absolutely and without qualification, one huge, hilarious gift.

All because there is indeed a Vinedresser. I can love Jesus…I don’t know about his Father. The only thing I can say about God the Father is that he’s lucky to have such a lovable Son. Sometimes I think that if I had to go by his track record instead of just taking Jesus’ word for his good character, I wouldn’t give him the time of day. And I don’t know about the Holy Spirit either. So much hot air has been let off in his name that if Jesus hadn’t said he was sending him, I’d write him off too. But Jesus I can love. He does everything, I do nothing; I just trust him. It is a nifty arrangement, and for a deadbeat like me, it is the only one that can possibly work. As long as I am in him, I bear fruit. As long as his death feeds my roots, I will never be cut down.[1]

Do you see what I mean? When that Vinedresser, that Jesus, comes to me and says that I am rooted in him, I can’t stop to look at the tabloids or the Entertainment Network and try to judge those people.

Am I saying that God does not care about them, who they are, what they say, what they do? No – I’m not saying that at all.

What I am saying is that I am bound to follow Jesus’ lead and that I will not pile on anyone publicly. Does God have a word for the Jenners, the Kardashians, the Duggars? You can bet that he does. Only they are not here. I’m not their pastor. I’m not their friend. There is no point in talking about them this morning. Do you have questions about your life? Do you want to come and talk with me about where God is speaking to your heart? Would you like to explore what repentance and conversion and bearing fruit looks like for you? Man, I am all over that. Come in. Let’s talk. About you. Not them.

For some reason, the Father delights in you, and the Son died to nurture you, and the Spirit lives in you. Live into your God-ordained purpose of bearing fruit in a world that is starving. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1]  Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988, p98).