Practicing Hallelujah

 

 The saints at the Crafton Heights Church celebrated Easter on April 16 as we concluded our Lenten study of the Bible passages used to frame Handel’s Messiah.  Our readings for the morning came from John 20:19-23 and Revelation 19:4-8.  An audio link to the sermon is immediately below this text.

I was raised in a home that, while wonderful in many, many respects, did not have a great deal of disposable income. There were times when our family struggled financially. That might explain why I have such vivid memories of the “gifts” that my dad would sometimes bring home from work. He’d show up with a paperboard drum from the plant and say that now we had a brand new container for our baseball bats. I remember how happy I was to get a pile of stickers from his work – sure, they all said things like “fragile” or “load this end” or “packing list enclosed” – but you know what? They were stickers, and they were mine, and it was awesome.

But there was one thing he brought that gave me, the middle child, a queasy feeling. It was a motivational poster that warned, “If you a not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!” I know his intentions were good, but why would you give that sort of thing to a nine year old?

My nine-year-old self read that and was terrified. I mean, money was tight, which led to parents arguing, which led to fear and uncertainty that only a middle child who desperately wants everything to work out and nothing to be his fault can understand. I didn’t want problems. And I most certainly did not want to BE a problem. No sir. Not me.

There is, believe it or not, a theological application to this. Hear me out.

In certain circles of American Christianity, there is a school of thought that might be summed up by saying, “You! You are a sinner. You are dirty, evil, and destined for ruin. On your own, you are nothing and nobody. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. But, thanks be to God, Jesus is a problem-fixer. He can clean you up, and make you acceptable, and is even willing to save your soul so that you can make it to heaven when you die.” To be honest, some of our best-loved hymns carry this line of thought.

Look, I don’t want to deny the reality of sin and brokenness. And yes, there are some really terrible things that you’ve done (me too.). But a theology that has as its deepest affirmation something along the lines of, “Wow, I was horrible and then Jesus said, ‘Hey, man, relax. I’ve got this’, so now I’m just chilling over here waiting for heaven…” is a horrible, insufficient theology. For one thing, it’s a gospel of shame; and for another thing, you can’t simply say that Jesus’ main goal was to keep your sorry butt out of Hell.

And when I put it like that, you, being the kind, sophisticated and genteel people that you are, would say, “Oh, heavens, no! Of course, Dave! That’s not the kind of theology we’re interested in.”

Um, well, not so much.

A kinder, gentler version of this line of thinking is that you are not necessarily the problem, but let’s be honest, you do have a problem. A big, ugly problem. I’m fundamentally a good person, but I just need a little help taking care of this one thing over here… there is some sin in my life – an addiction, or greed, or lust, or whatever – but when Jesus comes and stands next to me it’s all good. Everybody knows that nobody really wants to be a jerk, but sometimes it happens. We accept the forgiveness that we have in Christ and it’s all good.

The difficulty I have with those variations of theology is that neither one of them is really adequately supported in scripture.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

I mean, let’s take a look at how Jesus behaved in what John said was the first face to face meeting that took place between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. You heard that in the Gospel lesson a few moments ago. The disciples are all hiding out, afraid that they’re going to get what Jesus got from the religious leaders and the Romans. They’re sure that they’ve let Jesus down, they’re not sure what they can do, and are pretty much paralyzed. And then, into that room walks their resurrected Rabbi.

If the most important message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was that you are a horrible person who needs to be filled with shame about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and the only way to make anything better would be for you to come groveling back and then go over there and stand in that line of people waiting to get into heaven, well, this would be the ideal time for Jesus to lay that one on them.

Clearly, the disciples had disappointed Jesus. The past few days had been filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial, and cowardice.

But what does Jesus say to this group of losers?

“Peace. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

What? No dressing down? No 37 Choruses of “O! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know: nothing but the blood of Jesus”?

Nope. Not here. He settles them down (because they think they’ve seen a ghost) and then he tells them that he’s sending them out.

And how is he sending them out? In the power of the Holy Spirit, as he himself was sent. As practitioners of forgiveness. In this, the first concrete example of what life in the kingdom of the resurrected Son of God will look like, we discover that the hallmark of the early Christian community is forgiveness – forgiveness that is modeled and shared and lived.

Jesus looks at the disciples – and, by implication, at you and me – and says, “You – you are not the problem. And, while you may have problems, it’s not really all about you and your problems. The reality is that the entire cosmos has a problem. It’s why I came. And it’s why I’m sending you out in the way that I was sent, so that you can continue the work of resurrection in the places you go.”

The first thing that the resurrected Jesus told his followers was that they were agents of and ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is my point: that the resurrection is not a little agreement between you and God wherein the Lord looked at you and said, “Wow! That’s ugly! That’s a problem. Look, here’s a way out of that mess.”

No, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the next step in the expression of God’s intentions to reconcile not just those disciples, or you, or me to himself, but rather to reconcile all of creation to itself and its Creator.

And there in that dimly lit upper room, the disciples are given the task of modeling, sharing, and living forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Of course, there is a profound brokenness in my life and in yours. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s bigger than us!

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation cries out for restoration. John writes in Revelation that he can see a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. In the commission of Christ to his disciples, we participate in that restoration as we take seriously our call to be stewards of the planet. The Church of Jesus Christ does not need “Earth Day” to motivate us. We proclaim reconciliation and we live resurrection whenever we act as though we care about the devastation of strip mining, or overfishing, or toxins leaching into our water table. God created humanity to live as caretakers of the garden, and that task is still ours! The way we treat the earth is a statement about what we think God is like and expects from us.

The Golden Rule (Norman Rockwell, 1961)

The early Christians embarked on a pattern of behavior and relationships that meant that the church was never intended to be a haven for one particular kind of people. Instead, the book of Acts describes how wall after wall of exclusion and intimidation was destroyed leading to a vision of a church that was truly reflective of the vast diversity of humanity. John writes in Revelation of people from every tribe and language singing around the throne… that’s what the restored Kingdom looks like.

We participate in that reality as we are willing to risk leaving the safety of our own desires or cultures or homes in order to learn how to be fully present to someone else. We find a way to greet them in a language that makes sense to them; we open our homes to those who are unlike us, and we work to ease the suffering of refugees or victims of war and famine. Why? Because conflict and hunger are not a part of God’s intentions. We have been sent to announce that reconciliation is the goal – and to do what we can to effect that.

The resurrection can and should have great meaning for you and for me personally – but not simply because it means that we’ve got a great fire insurance policy that kicks in when we die.

The resurrection gives us our marching orders as we prepare for and practice living in such a way that the great Hallelujah of which John writes in Revelation makes sense. We are called to walk in, to live in, and to share freely the reconciling work of God in Christ to the end that all creation will echo with the joy for which God intends.

Listen: in a few moments, a dozen or so of us are going to come up here and do our level best to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. We’ve been practicing it for a month. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and I don’t want to disrespect my fellow singers, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be the best version of this piece that you’ve ever heard.

On the other hand, I’m almost certain that it will be the best version that any of you have ever heard in this room. I bet that you’ll be singing along and tapping your toes. Great.

But here’s the deal: when we finish that song, it’s up to you to go out and be the best version of the Hallelujah Chorus that the folks in your house, on your bus, in your home room, and at your office have heard on that day. We are called to go out and practice Hallelujah so that the world might know that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.

Well, we did sing the Hallelujah Chorus, but unfortunately we didn’t video it.  You’ll have to be satisfied with this version from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and trust that the 14 singers from Crafton Heights sounded about like this…

You Don’t Have To…

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On January 22, 2017 we considered the tremendous power that our own desire has over us… and the ways that we are free to choose otherwise.  Our texts included I Samuel 24 and Romans 12:14-21.

This week we will return to our year-long exploration of some of the stories surrounding David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be the greatest King that Israel ever had. When we last saw David, he was in a difficult spot: King Saul was breathing down his neck and the residents of the town of Keilah as well as the inhabitants of Ziph had just thrown him under the bus by telling Saul exactly where David and his men could be found. Just as Saul and his army were closing in, however, there was an attack from the Philistines and Saul had to leave David to attend to that matter of national security.

David Spares Saul, illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David Spares Saul, illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

Our reading for today begins with a description of a renewed manhunt by Saul and 3000 of Israel’s elite fighters. They’ve come into the wilderness to put an end to David once and for all. The problem is that David and his men have had time to hide in the caves that dot that part of the countryside. During a lull in the search, Saul ducks into the nearest cave to take care of some urgent business. As fate would have it, the cave that he chooses for his toilet is the same cave in which David and his men are hiding out.

While the king squats in what must have been an extremely vulnerable position, David’s men goad him to action. “Now’s your chance!” they say. “Time to do what you want to this so-called king!”

Emboldened by his men, David creeps up on the unsuspecting Saul and cuts off a corner of his robe. The reason for this is unclear: he may want to toy with Saul a bit, or scare him, or even emasculate him by demonstrating the amount of power he has over the king. But something happens. There is a change of heart. We read that David was “conscience-stricken” and says to himself and his men, “No! I’m not going to do this. I want to – but I won’t! I’m supposed to be better than this…”

David takes it a step further when he calls out to Saul – “My lord, the king”, he says. He tells Saul what he did, and what he wanted to do, and then he says, “But may the Lord be our judge.” In doing so, David casts himself onto the Lord’s care. He refuses to trust either his own judgment or his own sword.

Saul is challenged and humbled by this and takes his army home. At the same time, David chooses not to chase Saul, and he does not proclaim victory – he simply returns to “the stronghold”. I take this both physically and metaphorically. On the one hand, it’s clear that he and his men returned to their hideout – back to the place where they’d be able to defend themselves from further attack. But on the other hand, I think it’s a way of saying that David continued to dwell in the safety of God’s promises to and about him. He did not attempt to hurry God into anything, but rather was content to wait with God until the time was right.

I believe that this part of David’s story contains an important word for Christians in the twenty-first century.

In a general sense, I think that this is a compelling and refreshing reminder that you don’t have to do what you want to do. I mean, here is Saul spending all his time telling lies about David, attempting to kill David not once but time and time again, and generally making life hell for David. He’s interfered with David’s closest friendship (Jonathan) and David’s marriage (Michal). All that Saul has done in recent years is seek to diminish or disable David. And so when David’s men say, “Now’s your chance, boss! Do what you want to do!”, well, David wanted to kill Saul.

But he chose not to do that.

Don’t each of us face situations like that all the time? Oh, sure, it may have been a while since your father-in-law stalked you into a cave in the wilderness with 3000 commandos intent on taking your life, but don’t you know something about having to decide whether or not you’re going to act on your first impulse or wait it out so that you can choose something better?

In many ways, you do this every single day: you decide whether to set an alarm or not; you decide whether to get up when it rings; you decide to jump in the shower, have breakfast, and go to school or work… even when you don’t want to do that. You want to stay up late, eat more pizza, watch a couple more episodes on Netflix, and skip work or school. But most days, you choose to do, not what you want to do, but what you ought to do.

Years ago a woman shared with me how messed up her life had become. She had been deeply hurt, and in an effort to anesthetize that pain, she wound up piling bad choice upon bad choice, which led to doing great damage to herself as well as to those who loved her. After we sat for a while, I simply said, “What would happen if you just didn’t go out like that every weekend? You know, if you called a friend and stayed home?”

She sat for a moment, and then said, “Wait… are you saying that I don’t have to do what I want to do?”

Of course not. As you contemplate putting that post on social media, making that sarcastic comment, starting that affair, eating that next donut, or choosing to give into the despair that you fear may be swallowing you whole… you can remember that you don’t have to do any of those things, even if you find that you would really, really want to do them in the moment. You have the power, with God’s help, to make other choices.

Now, having said that, I find that I am drawn particularly to the exchange that David and Saul have here. Not only does David choose to do something other than that which he really wants to do, but in so doing he claims a significant victory over someone who has wounded him personally and deeply. There are many people in the room this morning who have struggled with pain as a result of someone else’s actions or incompetence. It seems to me that there might be a word of release for us in this conversation between the faithless, yet powerful king and the humble and vulnerable young man who is called to replace him.

When David speaks to Saul, he cries out both to and against the king, and then he declares his freedom from that pain as a defining characteristic of his life. David does not allow Saul’s evil to drive himself into a deeper, darker place. Instead, David points out to Saul – in the presence of his men – the fact that Saul has brought great harm into David’s life, and then he trusts in God to bring Saul’s story to an end. It is not David’s role or responsibility to deal ultimately with Saul. David chooses instead to invest himself in hope, trust, and faith.

I thought about this in connection with the recent sentencing of Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white supremacist who murdered nine African-American worshipers in South Carolina in June 2015. One of the survivors of that attack, Felicia Sanders, addressed Roof after the judge sentenced him to death. In a burst of honesty and vulnerability shaped by her Christian faith, she said, “Yes, I know you. You are in my head. I can’t hear balloons pop. I can’t see the fireworks. I can’t hear an acorn fall out of a tree… Most important, I cannot shut my eyes to pray,” she said. “I have to keep my eye on everyone around me.”

Did you hear that? This brave woman stared the one who tried to kill her – while she was shielding her 11-year old granddaughter from the hail of bullets – and named the pain he had caused her. And then she gave him over to God. After her initial comments, she showed those in the courtroom her battered and torn Bible, the same one she carried to that Wednesday night Bible study. The pages had been cleaned of blood, she said, but the words remained intact.

“You can’t help someone who don’t want to help themselves, and that is you,” she said to Roof, adding, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was slain in the attack, stared at Roof and said, “Dylann, I was very vocal about you not getting the death penalty… I still don’t want you to die. I want you be to be able to sit in that cell.”[1]

Doesn’t that sound like what David said to Saul? “I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.”

Again, I realize that there’s no one here who has been falsely accused of treason and hunted down by a mentally unstable monarch; I don’t believe that any of us have been put in a situation where we’ve had to lay between our grandchildren and the bullets of a psychopath. But I know you. You have been hurt. There was a parent or grandparent or other trusted adult who abused you in some way. You have suffered greatly at the hands of someone you thought was a friend you could trust. You have been betrayed by a sister or brother or colleague. You have felt the ravages of an attack from an enemy.

What did you do? What will you do?

Let me encourage you first, if you’ve not done so already, to get out of that situation. Put yourself in a place where the evil cannot reach you – hide yourself in a cave like David if you must, but do anything you can to diminish that person’s ability to inflict suffering into your life.

And if you’ve done that, then seek healing for the wounds which have been received. This is not a selfish act – instead, you have the responsibility to care for yourself so that you do not unwittingly become a perpetrator of pain in the life of another equally innocent person.

And in doing that, I beg you to not allow yourself to be consumed by the thirst for revenge – as tasty as that sounds in the moment. Give your pain – and the one who caused it – to God. No matter how much you want to do otherwise, choose to be better than the one who harmed you.

We do that by following in the way of David. After this confrontation, Saul called his army and headed for home. David did not chase after him. Instead, we are told simply that “David and his men went up to the stronghold.” When you have done all you can, then hide out in the stronghold of God’s mercy. Invest yourself in the things that bring life and wholeness to other people.

One of the great truths in this life is that we are not prisoners of our own desires. Each and every moment, we are filled with tremendous want. When you sing the last hymn and get up to leave this morning, you’ll have lots of opportunity to give and receive offense. You do not have to do what you really want to do. You can choose to act differently. Look to God, stay with your community of faith, and hide in the stronghold of grace. Thanks be to God for the gifts that allow us to become better people than we really want to be. Amen.

[1] Quotes from “’Justice Has Been Served’, Families Say to Dylann Roof” in USA TODAY, January 11, 2017.

The Problem With Keeping Score

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 16, 2016 we considered the difficulties that arose when Saul’s jealousy overpowered his ability to stay centered in God’s Spirit.  Our texts included I Samuel 18:1-16 and James 4:1-10

 

Wally Pipp's 1923-24 Baseball Card

Wally Pipp’s 1923-24 Baseball Card

In 1924, a gentleman named Wally Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees. In the previous five seasons, he had recorded a .301 average, with season averages of 29 doubles, 94 runs scored, and 97 runs batted in per season. He had led the league in home runs several times. Pipp was a star. However, on June 2 of 1924, Pipp showed up at Yankee Stadium that day with a severe headache, and asked the team’s trainer for two aspirin. The Yankees’ manager noticed this, and said “Wally, take the day off. We’ll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow.” “That kid” played well and became the Yankees’ new starting first baseman. Lou Gehrig became known as the “Iron Man” and played for the next sixteen years – an astounding 2,130 games in a row, and Wally Pipp went from being a star on the league champs to being the answer to a trivia question. Pipp said later, “I took the two most expensive aspirin in history.”

I came across an article recently that was entitled “What To Do If You’re Smarter Than Your Boss”. It explored the reality that many times, we find ourselves being overshadowed by someone that we perceive to be “beneath” us in some way. When the Sophomore gets to start while the Senior sits, for instance; or when you’ve been preparing for this job for eight years and all of a sudden the guy who showed up last year steps right in to “your” promotion. It just doesn’t feel right, does it? There’s a sense of anger and frustration and even injustice. It’s easy to get steamed when your little brother is outdoing you in some way or another…

Saul is the recognized King of Israel. He lives in the palace, his face is on the money; he’s the “status quo”. His army has just defeated their perennial enemy, the Philistines. His stock ought to be on the rise.

Except that young David, the insignificant shepherd boy and part-time lyre player, seems to be grabbing all the headlines for doing the kinds of things that kings ought to be doing (such as leading the army in the defeat of the Philistines).

Saul Attacking David, Guercino (1646)

Saul Attacking David, Guercino (1646)

In our reading for today, we see David once more taking up residence at the palace, where he quickly becomes everyone’s darling. Chapter 18 tells us that two of Saul’s own children are smitten with David, and truth be told, Saul himself is crazy about this kid. That is the odd conundrum that has become Saul’s personal reality: when he sees David succeeding, it sends him catapulting to the edge of madness; the only thing that can bring him back from that edge is spending time in David’s presence.

Yet as the headlines pour in, and as the feeds come through the social media, it’s clear that the Junior Staff Person is getting more publicity than the boss here. Saul is increasingly resentful of David, and the chants of the women outside the palace reveal the score: Saul has gained victory over thousands (yay!), but David has triumphed over tens of thousands (YAY!!!).

Saul, who wants more than anything to be king, is keeping score. He’s paying attention to who gets credit for what. He’s asking to be measured by these particular statistics, and he’s got to make sure that he comes out on top.

Compared to Saul, Wally Pipp’s problem was minor. He eventually signed on with the Cincinnatti Reds, and after he left the big leagues he was one of the first writers for Sports Illustrated before settling into a career in manufacturing. It could have been worse.

And it was worse, for Saul. He had given up wanting to be measured in terms of his faithfulness to God, and instead wanted to be known for his own power and his own strength. The Lord was willing to let Saul be evaluated by whatever measure he chose, and as a result Saul is behaving as though it is all up to him. In fact, we’re told that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul.

David, whose position was precarious to say the least, responds to the situation by diving more deeply into God’s care for him. He trusts the Spirit of God that Saul had rejected, and as a result finds that he has the fruit of humility growing in his life. Like anyone else in Israel, David can see that he is serving a man who is less honorable, less noble, and less able than he is. And yet he continues to trust in God to sort everything out.

In fact, there’s a word that appears three times in chapter 18 that is very telling. We’re told in verses 5, 14, and 30 that David had “great success”. The Hebrew word there, sawkal, means literally “to behave wisely”. Our translators evidently are combining the end result (David succeeded) with the reason for that (because he kept his head down and his nose clean). The bottom line, however, is apparent: David was humble in the face of his successes, while Saul was increasingly torn apart as his influence and power appeared to be waning. Do you remember last week, when we talked about how David spent his time kneeling in the creekbed between the two giants – Saul and Goliath? That is an example of sawkal – acting wisely

St. James the Apostle

St. James the Apostle

The first-century Christians to whom the Apostle James was writing seemed to face a situation that would have resonated with that of Saul and David. There is a cancer spreading throughout this community that claimed to be following Jesus. There are those in their midst who are acting with pride and supposing that they alone know all the answers. Increasingly, they are unwilling to listen to each other, unable to hear each other and reluctant to work together. The result, of course, is that there is bitterness and rivalry in the church. Jealousy and pettiness. James is appalled. “This is the church, for crying out loud,” the old Apostle bellows. “How can this be?” He accentuates his displeasure by comparing their behavior to murder and adultery. The solution, says James, is to cultivate the virtue of humility.

Now, think about that for a moment. How, exactly, does one preach about humility? Since I do not have the authority of Scripture and the assurance of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind all of my words… what can I say about humility? How do you know if I’m humble? How do I know if I’m humble?

What if I were to say, “trust me, I’m humble. In fact, I’m twice as humble as I was a year ago. Yep, my mama raised me right…”

Or even more alarming, “You know, you ought to take a page out of my notebook. You need to be humble, my friend. I mean, seriously, have you ever stopped to think? Be like me. Quit being such a jerk and get humble… you know, like me…”

Humility is a virtue, but how do we assess it? How do we cultivate it in our lives? Can we seek it out? Can we actively work on learning how to be humble?

Fortunately for us, in addition to the example left by young David, there are some imperatives in the letter from James that will help us to become more humble, and therefore more Christ-like, in the days and weeks and months to come.

It begins with taking stock of yourself and your situation. James says, “Submit yourself to God” and “draw near to God.” Place yourself in perspective, and ask God for the self-awareness to see yourself realistically.

That’s really, really hard to do! So often, we are so acquainted with the way that we do things or the reasoning inside our own heads that we have no idea what is really true. This lack of self-awareness leads us to believing things about ourselves or others that are simply not true.

For instance, I once found myself in a group that was about half African and half American. We were rehearsing a traditional African folk song that we would perform at some event when our director (a white American), stopped the rehearsal and began to scold us. He said, “Come on, people, I know these words are difficult, but we’ve got to pronounce them properly.” He then went on to tell us how we were to say the words. The Africans in the room, for whom this was their first language, raised a hand to correct him. One brave soul ventured, “Um, excuse me, sir but that’s not how we say that phrase…” African heads nodded. But the director, his nose stuck in his notes, simply said, “You’re not doing it right. Say it this way…” This man had no sense of even the possibility that he might have been mistaken, or that he was in the presence of those who were far more versed than he in the subtleties of their own language.

Yet how often do we do that? I walk into a room and I want to take charge, I want my ideas to succeed, I want the way we’ve always done things to become the way we will also do things that I can’t imagine that there might be a better leader, a stronger idea, a more effective practice. I need to ask God to show me who and where I am in relationship to the situation at hand. I need to ask God to give me a solid sense of self-awareness and perspective.

In my case, and in the passage at hand, we see that when that prayer is answered, the next step is confession. When I realize who I actually am compared to the One who created me and the things for which I have been created, the next step is to acknowledge that things are not as they ought to be, and often I am not who I ought to be.

Every month, the elders of the congregation gather for our monthly meeting – it is the time where the business of the church is conducted and all the affairs of the congregation are explored. Before we meet for business, however, we gather for worship. And each month, the elders of this church offer this prayer prior to the meeting:

Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
I confess to almighty God,
 and to you, my brothers and sisters,
 that I have sinned through my own fault, 
in my thoughts and in my words, 
in what I have done, 
and in what I have failed to do;
 and I ask you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

I want to tell you that this is an empowering prayer. Before we even think about doing or saying anything in the name of Christ or of his church, we admit to ourselves and to each other that we are imperfect vessels who have to approach the work we’ve been given in a spirit of humility and mutual support and encouragement.

So we begin with an honest assessment of ourselves, and that leads us to confession, which in turn brings us to the place wherein we can be deeply aware of the position we hold in God’s heart. When we strip away all pretense and self-aggrandizement, we can accept the fact that in spite of all our imperfections and sin, in spite of the ways that the world is so often not what it should be, God chooses to love us, and chooses to work through us, and chooses to use us in the world – not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

You may remember Greg Louganis, an Olympic diver in the 1980’s.

      In the 1988 games, during the springboard event he missed one dive and hit the board with his head. Physicians stitched his cut, and he went on to win. In the platform diving he won the gold on his final performance with an incredibly difficult dive called a reverse three-and-a-half somersault tuck. It was a breathtaking finish that brought Americans to their feet.

When reporters hounded him in Los Angeles he gave them a very unusual response. They asked, “What were you thinking about as you prepared for your final dive?” Maybe they were referring to the pressure, or to the fact that that dive is extremely dangerous and killed a Russian athlete just a year before. Louganis’ simple answer was, “I was thinking that no matter what happens, my mother will still love me.

When Greg was just eleven, he became very frustrated at his diving performance in an early and important meet. Frances Louganis took her son aside and said, “I do not come to see you win. I come to see you dive. Just do your best. I will love you no matter what.” That unconditional love carried her son to forty-three national diving titles, six Pan-American gold medals, five world championships, one Olympic silver medal, and four Olympic gold medals.[1]

When we seek to learn who we are in God’s presence, and confess the ways that we have fallen short, we can find ourselves holding on to the unconditional love in which and for which God has created us. We can trust in the gifts that God has given us and seek to grow in service to God and our neighbor.

One writer phrased it this way:

Humility is not a false rejection of God’s gifts. To exaggerate the gifts we have by denying them may be as close to narcissism as we can get in this life. No, humility is the admission of God’s gifts to me and the acknowledgment that I have been given them for others. Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.[2]

Saul looked at David’s gifts and then at his own, and was envious and angry. David looked at the ways in which he had been blessed and chose to act wisely. And when he acted wisely, good things happened. May we have the grace to do the same: acknowledge who we are and what we have received and seek to offer those gifts for the life of the world and the glory of God. Amen.

[1] Reader’s Digest, June 1988, p. 163-170, quoted at http://www.sermonnotebook.org/old%20testament/1%20Sam%2018_1-4.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (HarperCollins, 1990 p. 65)

The Dangerous God

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On December 6, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who seems willing to send those he loves to dangerous places.  Our texts included Nahum 1:3-5 and John 20:21.

 

You’ve heard the old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” right? “Like father, like son”?

Think about your parents. Which characteristics did or do they have that you’d like to think are present in your life? And where are you just a little bit afraid that you’re going to wind up being exactly like your mother or father?

Think about the people you know. How often are you surprised to find out that two people are related because they just seem so different from each other? And how often can you see clearly that, yes, these people definitely came from the same stock?

This is Advent, the season of expectancy and hope and joy; the season where we celebrate the fact that God’s own son has come into the world. Jesus, the pre-existing Son of God the Father, is here! Hallelujah!

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation, Michelangelo, c. 1510

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Vegetation, Michelangelo, c. 1510

There are many in our world who talk about Jesus as though he’s some sort of an exception to the “like Father, like Son” principle. How many times have you heard something like, “Well, that God in the Old Testament, he was just so angry and vengeful all the time. All of that smiting and judging and punishing. But then Jesus came and he was so kind and loving and humane. I like him a lot better.”

As if God is the really grouchy, crotchety old neighbor who’s always chasing the kids off his lawn while Jesus is the boy scout who shares milk and cookies with children and shovels other people’s walks just for fun…

Have you encountered that line of thinking before? I have to say that it’s not really that helpful, because while we perceive the person of Jesus differently than we perceive the person of the Father, scripture is clear that they are one in essence. As Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30).

That means that all the power of God is present in Jesus. And all the love of Christ started in the heart of the Father.

Don’t get me wrong – God is immense and powerful and limitless. You heard that in the reading from Nahum, although we could have just as easily turned to a dozen other prophets or the Psalms. The Bible is full of places where, when God shows up, there’s thunder and lightening, or even worse.

And yet when God chose to reveal himself in a more complete and intimate way, he chose to be present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

And again, don’t get me wrong – it’s not like Jesus didn’t know a thing or two about power. Do you remember the time he cleaned out the Temple, and sent the moneychangers flying? Hoo-boy, that was something. Do you remember how angry he got when he saw people using God’s name to do despicable things? Yikes.

And yet, he chose most often to reveal himself in vulnerability and even weakness.

There was a very successful advertising campaign in the 1970s for a perfume, the tagline of which was “if you want to get somebody’s attention, just whisper.” In some ways, Jesus of Nazareth was the “whisper” of the omnipotent, omnipresent God.

Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son, was sent by the Father into a world longing for the presence, healing, and justice of God…that Jesus had access to all of the power, might, majesty, and weaponry of God. And yet he chose not to use it.

And there were times when his closest friends, once they figured out who he was, could not believe that he was setting all of that aside. Do you remember when Jesus and his followers were going through Samaria and his disciples felt disrespected and unwelcome? They turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, now can we call down fire from the sky and destroy them? Because these people are really getting on my nerves, Jesus.” (Luke 9:54). I mean, that’s an Old Testament strategy if ever there was one, right? And do you further remember that not only did Jesus refuse to permit his disciples to go all fire and brimstone on the neighbors, but he rebuked them for even suggesting it. He shut them down cold, saying “Look, fellas, that’s not the power we are using here…”

The incarnation – the presence – of Jesus is a demonstration that compassion is stronger than hatred, that hope is better than fear, that grace triumphs over judgmentalism, and that, at the end of the day, love wins. Deeper and more powerful than the raging anger and world-shaking, tree-tossing, pillar-of-fire-and-smoke power of God is the astoundingly simple, disarming, and vulnerable truth that brute force and coercion is not what God is best at. There’s a deeper, stronger, more eternal truth, and it is love. That’s Advent in a nutshell, right? That’s Christmas – love wins!

Which leads me to one of the scariest things that Jesus ever said. It is so frightening and so intimidating that Carly could only read one sentence from the Gospel this morning. You all thought she got off easy and were remembering the day I made you say things like “Mephibosheth” or “Ahasuerus” when you were lay reader, but I’m telling you that Carly laid down the hardest Gospel truth of all this morning. What was it?

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

Listen, beloved: if we are paying any attention at all to what happens in the Gospel, that sentence should scare the pants off of us.

As the Father has sent me…

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eisenberg

Christ of the Breadline, Fritz Eisenberg

How did the Father send? Naked. Vulnerable. In a pall of shame and suspicion. In poverty. As a child refugee whose parents had to flee to another country to save not only their own skins, but that of the One who created skin. Humbly. In poverty. Armed, not with fire and brimstone, but with love and truth.

As the Father has sent me…

To whom did the Father send? Not to those in the palace. Not to the prominent, successful, or the religious insiders. But to those on the margins. To the excluded and beaten up. As one of my favorite theologians has put it, Jesus was sent to the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.[1]

As the Father has sent me…

For what was Jesus sent? To submit himself to the will of the One who sent him. To offer himself as a sacrifice. To reach out. To empower.

Do you hear that, church? As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you. Like that. To them. For this.

“Uh, er, yeah, Jesus… that sounds pretty intense. I mean, like, you know, a lot of commitment. Don’t get me wrong, Lord, I really want to be a follower and all, but, well, I’ve got a lot going on right now. And I told my mom I’d be home before dark. My show comes on at 9. And I have this thing on Saturday…”

Jesus of Nazareth, whom in the Nicene Creed we say is

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father…

that Jesus looks at us and says, “OK, I called you to follow me. I showed you how. And now I’m sending you. This is how you do it.” And most of us, most of the time, don’t like it. Encountering the Advent God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth is a dangerous thing because this God seems to expect so much from us.

A lot of us can point to a time when we met the Lord and we said, “Wow, I really need help right now.” We look at Jesus in all sincerity and say, “You are right. I need a little forgiveness. No, I need a lot of forgiveness. Yes, thank you Lord. Thank you for that forgiveness. You can just put it right over there.”

And we’re serious when we say that. We’re serious when we ask for forgiveness and we’re grateful when we say thanks. But Jesus comes in and sets his love and forgiveness down and then stands around like a the pizza guy waiting for a tip. Actually, it’s worse than that, because Jesus comes all the way in and he never wants to leave. I tell him to put that really nice (OK, that really big) box of forgiveness and love over on the counter and I’ll get to it later, but he opens it up and starts to unpack it and begins to rearrange the furniture of my life, critiques the art I have hanging inside, and even starts nosing through the medicine cabinet and the pantry. Jesus strolls into my life and starts acting like he owns the place?

He does, of course.

Following Jesus is scary business. We serve a dangerous God who doesn’t seem to hesitate to send those whom he loves to dangerous places.

Too often, we get caught up in our own safe places. We don’t want to leave what we call “the comfort zone”. We get into a nice routine, doing what feels good, following our patterns, and pretty soon our faith gets stale and predictable. We catch a glimpse of Jesus, whispering for us to step closer to him, and we notice that he’s moved away from our comfort zone. And so we find ourselves in one-on-one conversation about real stuff that matters…we find ourselves face to face with another human being who is homeless, or a refugee, or a kid who needs an adult mentor…before we know it we’re packing our bags for a place that seems so far away…we’re standing up for the rights of someone else…and we find ourselves trusting in the One who called and sent us more than we trust our 401(k) plans, our security systems, our concealed carry permits, or ourselves.

And it’s just plain scary.

As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

Never forget that. God bless us in the scary and dangerous places of this Advent journey. Amen.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Eerdman’s 2002) p. 205.

But…But…But…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 22 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to the treatment of  “the enemy” as found in Matthew 5:38-48. In addition, we considered one of God’s commands to the Israelites as found in Leviticus 11:44-45.

It has been a hard, hard month for this planet. An African poet named Warsan Shire has expressed it this way in her work titled “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

 

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

worldterrorIn case you’ve been under a rock, I’m talking about the terror attacks in France, Lebanon, Kenya, Mali, and a dozen other places. I’m talking about the millions of people who are running for their lives, seeking refuge in other towns, cities, or countries. I’m talking about the ways that we have engaged in fear-mongering and name-calling and race-baiting and other such mutually-destructive tactics.

We have not seen humanity at its finest…

And yet here we are, doing what we’ve done for the last couple of thousand years… we come into a room, and we sing a few songs, and we take a look at some ancient texts, and we ask where God is now… we ask what Jesus might have to say, if anything, about a world like ours in times like these.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012 Used by permission of the artist.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012
Used by permission of the artist.

And coincidentally, we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, a message that has been hailed as one of the greatest expressions of ethical living in difficult times. In each of the last four readings, we’ve heard Jesus compare teaching of old with a new ethic. He has lifted up topics like anger, sexuality, marriage, and honesty and led his followers through a series of reflections contrasting the “things that everybody knows” with a glimpse of God’s intentions for his people. And, as you’ve already heard, today we consider the last two of those comparisons, each of which deals with how we treat the enemy.

As we begin to look at these texts, it’s important to note that for Jesus, the enemy is the one who seeks to harm us. You will find nothing in the Sermon about the people whom we seek to harm, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus leaves no room to even consider whether His followers have any basis for wishing harm to someone else.

In the New Testament our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility, for Jesus refuses to reckon with such a possibility. The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother…His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus…[1]

That’s a lot to consider, and I’d invite you to think about that the next time you hear someone claim that, as a “Christian Nation”, the USA is morally bound to “bomb those people back into the stone age”. Jesus, it would appear, does not seem to allow for the possibility of my working for your annihilation.

Quite the opposite, in fact, Jesus offers a series of behaviors emphasizing non-resistance. He calls for us to forgo the temptation for revenge and instead to offer what we have – our coats, our energy, our money – to those who ask. And then he proceeds to flesh that out with a series of imperatives that end Matthew 5.

Now, listen to me: we call ourselves Christian. We claim to follow Jesus. We say we want to be his disciples – that we want to be like him. And if there is any place in our lives where we all walk into a room saying those things, and then hear the Gospel, and then say, “Um, nope. Not gonna do that, Jesus”, well, it’s this place. This could be one of the most unreasonable things that Jesus ever said, and frankly, we don’t want to hear it. And so we look at the text and say things like, “I wonder what Jesus really meant? After all, he couldn’t have wanted us to take that literally, could he?”

I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at three specific words in our text in the hopes that we can understand what, in fact, Jesus meant in saying what he said that day.

By the time we get halfway through verse 43 in the Revised Standard Version, Jesus has used 997 words to convey what a disciple’s life ought to look like. One word that he has not chosen to use, at least until we get to 998, is “love”. In Greek, it’s agape. For the first time in Jesus’ primary treatment of ethical living, he tells his followers to love.

Love who? Kind-hearted older people? Adorable grandchildren? Cuddly puppies?

Nope. The first imperative to love in the Sermon on the Mount is directed towards the enemy – the one who wishes you harm.

But how can I love that person, who has sought to destroy me? How can I love this one, who has brought so much pain and death? I’m just not feeling it, Jesus!

Fortunately for us, the kind of love to which Jesus calls us is not based on feeling. Agape means that we act for the welfare of another. It is not a feeling, but rather a pattern of behavior that recognizes the humanity of each person and that moves towards justice and mercy. Jesus isn’t asking me to feel all warm and fuzzy toward you or anyone else; he is directing me to treat everyone – especially the one who seeks to harm me – the way that he has treated me.

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

In my last message I mentioned Corrie Ten Boom, whose family harbored Jews in the Second World War. They were eventually caught, and sent to the concentration camp called Ravensbrück, where she watched her sister die. Two years after the war ended, Corrie was invited to preach in a Munich church. She writes of a man who approached her afterward and stuck out his hand in greeting. She recognized him immediately, but it plain that he had no recollection of their ever having met:

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there…But since that time… I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.

Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.[2]

Corrie Ten Boom knew, far better than I ever will, I suspect, that forgiveness is a posture and a behavior that is rooted in love that comes, not from doing what I feel like doing, but from treating the other as God has treated me.

The second word that leaps out at me from this part of the text is one translated in verse 47 as “more”: “if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

The Sermon on the Mount is a contrast on the ways that followers of Jesus are called to do “more” – in Greek, perisson, whereas the rest of the world does what Jesus dismisses as “the same”.

The world would be happy to live by the old “eye for an eye” rule, where if you push, I push back, and if you hit, I hit harder. But here Jesus states explicitly that his disciples are bound by a higher calling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

…the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the perisson. It is this quality which first enables us to see the natural in its true light. Where [the perisson] is lacking, the peculiar graces of Christianity are absent. The perisson never merges into [the same]. That was the fatal mistake of the false Protestant ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness…Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak. For him the hallmark of the Christian is “the extraordinary”.[3]

Do you see? It is in striving for the perisson – the extraordinary treatment of the other – that we participate in the Divine nature. It is in treating others with love that we become more like the One who made us in love.

Which leads me to the third word I’d like to consider this day: Jesus’ call to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holy smokes, if Jesus is expecting moral perfection from me, then he’s got another thing coming. Is this another instance where Jesus is holding out an impossible ideal? Nobody is perfect, right? How can he even ask that?

The word that we have here is teleioi, and it does mean “perfect” – but perfect in the sense that “it’s all done – it’s complete – it needs no further refinement or change.” In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out as he breathed his last, “tetelestai”, which we have translated as “It is finished”, and which comes from the same root as teleioi.

If you were to attend a session of Congress, or some other body where Parliamentary Procedure is observed, you might hear someone make a motion. Then, someone else might move to amend that motion. What happens next is that the motion is “perfected”. That doesn’t mean that it’s the greatest motion in the history of motions: it means that the people talking about the motion are getting it to say what they really need it to say. They are “perfecting” it in the sense that they are giving it the direction and integrity it needs.

SermonOnTheMountIn this last teaching in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to be people who have been perfected: people of integrity and wholeness. We cannot be perfect if we desire that only some hungry children are fed, or only some torture stops, or only some homeless find shelter. That kind of thinking is “the same” – it’s what got us where we are.

Jesus invites us to imitate, not the world, but the Father. Leviticus calls us to “be holy, as I am holy”. That is, to refuse to walk by what we can see right now, and to hold on to a higher righteousness. The Hebrew slaves could have given into the temptation to become just as evil as the Pharaoh had been to them, but instead they are called to a lifestyle of integrity, completeness, and dedication.

I don’t know how I’d feel if my sister had been murdered in the concentration camp, or if it was my child’s body that washed up on a foreign beach after we were forced to flee our home, or if I had to live in a city where bombs rained death from the sky. I don’t know how I’d feel. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to listen to Jesus or anyone else talking about love for the enemy, or the “extraordinary”, or being perfect.

But I hope that I know enough about Jesus to be able to extend love to the people that I can today; I hope that my walk with the Lord thus far has equipped me to pray and to do “the extraordinary” that love requires, even when it involves those who would wish me ill. I hope I can remember that fear is of the devil, and fear-mongering is deceitful.

I hope that in days like these, I am able to act with integrity and completeness, in enacted love, as God in Christ has acted toward me.

This has been a hard, hard, month for the planet. As followers of Jesus, are we making things better for those who suffer the most? May God be merciful to us as we seek to follow in his steps. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (MacMillan paperback 1963), p. 164.

[2] Guideposts Magazine, November 1972. Found online at https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1

[3] The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 169-170.

Shouldn’t I Say Something?

Further thoughts on when and how to engage in meaningful conversation about stuff that matters with someone who you love.  Our scriptures for the day included Proverbs 27:5-6 and Colossians 3:1-17.

 

Perhaps you were here last week, and you heard me preach against publicly shaming other people for what you perceive to be moral failures on their part. I said that we were called to imitate Jesus, who resisted the invitations he constantly received to pile on and point fingers at those who had fallen.

That sermon made sense, at least to some of you. I know that because a few of you said things like, “Thanks for the reminder, Dave,” or “I need to go home and think about my own dirty laundry before I go looking through someone else’s…” I am glad for such feedback.

However, the message was incomplete. Sometimes, you have to say something. Sometimes, you see someone engaged in a behavior, a relationship, that is just wrong. Perhaps it is causing harm or pain to someone else. Maybe it’s self-destructive. At any rate, I don’t want anyone to think, “But wait – did Pastor Dave say we weren’t supposed to say anything?

No, that’s not what I said – or at least, not what I meant to say. As our reading from Proverbs implies, sometimes friendship requires difficult conversation. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to stop pretending that everything is ok and to go ahead and name what is wrong and bring it into the light.

How do we do that? There are many models in scripture; I’d like to look at Colossians 3 as one guide for having difficult conversations.

The first thing that we want to consider is the fact that this part of the Bible is attributed to the Apostle Paul – a man who by all accounts had an incredible track record for irritating other people. He was accused of being a hot-head with a quick temper. I might suggest that at least some of what is written here in Colossians 3 is written after some serious self-reflection.

When it’s time to say something, Paul writes, we need to start by remembering who and where we are. We belong to Christ. We are located with him, or in him. Our primary identity, says Paul, is that of “Christian.” He reminds us to live into our baptisms each and every moment.

OK, that sounds good, but how do we do that? Well, we clean house. We put to death the things that are not right within us. We get rid of pride, lies, anger, and greed. We need to do some serious self-reflection: if I feel compelled to talk with you about something that you are doing, it had best not be because I am envious of you. For instance, if I am secretly jealous of how much money you have, I’m probably not the person who ought to sit down and talk with you about the importance of tithing. Someone else’s attempt to engage you in conversation about the way that you treat your wife ought not to be related to the ways that that person is feeling intensely lonely. Do you see: if the only reason I want to talk with you about some supposed “sin” in your life is because I’m jealous of you for it, or because I need to feel superior to you because of it – then I’m no friend of yours.

I can only approach you in the humility that is born of knowing that I, like you, am a forgiven sinner. I have died to any notion of my own moral superiority. I can only approach you as one who has stripped away all pretense.

But Paul goes on to say that I dare not approach you naked (a bit of advice for which we can all be grateful this morning). No, he says, after I allow all of my own delusions and self-righteousness and self-importance to be stripped away; after I own all of my own baggage, then I am free to put on what Christ gives to me: I can be clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

I’d like to say just a few words about one of those words, “compassion”. It’s a compound word that comes from two roots: pata, meaning “to suffer”, and cum, meaning “with”. We approach each other in compassion.

I think what that means is that unless you have received a specific call from God to be a prophet sent to publicly unmask someone else’s sin, then that’s not your job. The normative thing is for you and I to suffer with those who struggle, not to point out all the places where they are screwed up. Instead, I look to you and I think, “Wow, that must hurt to carry that kind of load… I wonder what has happened to bring you to the point where this was the best choice you could make…

Is your friend in a broken sexual relationship, or hiding in a web of lies, or somehow being engulfed by the darkness? If so, you do not have the right to saunter into that person’s life and turn on the big old Truth Light, point your fingers, and say, “You’re welcome” just before you walk out of the room.

No, you are called to have compassion – to suffer with that person. To look for the pain in her life and to enter into the pain. When you’ve done that, then you can speak the truth in love.

When you’ve come to that person in a profound awareness not only of your deep sinfulness but this other person’s ambiguity, confusion, or pain, then you are prepared to love like Christ and to forgive like Christ.

And when we’ve gotten that far, then, according to verse 16, we can teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. In fact, Paul says, you probably don’t have the right to address a brother or sister’s brokenness unless you are able to sing together.

And, for the record, I know what this sounds like. This sounds like old Pastor Dave is about to get all “Kum ba Yah” on you. This sounds corny. It sounds fake.

I get it. And if you see a child being harmed, or someone being attacked, or some grave danger, then you need to step in and stop that from happening. Sometimes, there’s no time for singing.

But can we, who bear the name of the body of Christ, seek to love each other enough to be friends? Can we care enough more about each other than we care about being right, or about winning the argument?

This morning, we are going to commission the Cross Trainers ministry staff. Let me direct a few words to them by way of example.

TruthInLoveYou guys know that you are about to embark on a full summer program. There will be a number of long, hot days ahead. If you do not know this now, you will by this time next week: sinfulness is not limited to specific age categories. These little angels who will fill our building tomorrow? They can be tough. They can be mean. They can be terribly obnoxious.

And whenever it strikes you just how tough, mean, and obnoxious they can be, your first temptation will be to show them how tough, mean and obnoxious you can be. You’ll say to yourself, “OK, self, it’s time to show them who’s boss.” You will want to take charge. You will want to unleash the power of your voice, your intellect, your presence on them. You will want to lay down the law.

But I’m here to ask you to work a little harder when that happens, and don’t worry so much about laying down the law as about laying down the love.

Your goal this summer is not to run a precision camp populated only by impeccably behaved children who will sit quietly in classrooms because they are afraid of you.

Your goal is to help some beautiful and flawed little children learn something about what it means to fall in love with Jesus. The only real hope that any of these kids have of surviving some of the horrors through which our world has already put them is if they get a glimpse of Jesus.

Some of the kids you’ll meet have an amazingly great grasp on that already. But a lot of them? They’ve never seen Jesus. They’ve never begun to even imagine someone like Jesus… But they’ll see you.

So right now, this morning, in the quietness of this room… Right now, before those kids irritate you, or offend you, or disappoint you in some way – I want to ask you to decide to love them. Love them anyway. Love those kids. Love that neighbor. Approach them as God in Christ has approached you.

It’s been said that people care what you know when they know that you care. Brennan Manning once said, “How I treat a brother or sister from day to day, how I react to the sin-scarred wino on the street, how I respond to interruptions from people I dislike, how I deal with normal people in their normal confusion on a normal day may be a better indication of my reverence for life than the antiabortion sticker on the bumper of my car.”

Don’t bumper-sticker people. Love them.

Some day – hopefully, a long time from now – you’ll be invited to come into a room and look at a few photos of me. Then you’ll take me out to a field somewhere and throw dirt in my face and come back to this building and eat cheesy potatoes and talk about how it’s too bad that I had to die like that.

And if I did it right, then there will be at least a couple people here who will come sort of grudgingly. If you get them talking, they might say something like, “You know, I didn’t agree with that guy. In fact, I thought he was a real knucklehead some times. But you know what? I think that he loved me.”

If the person you seek to correct is sure that you love them as Christ has loved you, then you have a chance to be heard as you come alongside them. If people are convinced that you love them, we might just have less screaming and more singing. Singing! Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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).