My Neighbor is a Sinner

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


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

OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.

David’s Greatest Sin

In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 9, we considered what some have called David’s greatest failure: his census of Israel.  Our texts included II Samuel 24 as well as Philippians 4:1-13. Thoughts on counting, pride, and forgiveness in this week’s message.

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

What do you know about Alphonse “Scarface” Capone? That he was a gangster and the leader of the Chicago mob that was responsible for the “St. Valentines’ Day Massacre” in 1929? A bootlegger, murderous thug, and career criminal? Do you know the crime of which he was found guilty and sentenced to prison? Tax evasion.

I bet that a lot of you remember Jack Lambert, who at 6’4”, 220 lbs. was one of the fiercest men to ever wear the uniform of an NFL team. He was renowned for his ferocious hits on opposing ball carriers, but he was driven from the game he loved by an injury: turf toe.

King David, Adam Tadolini (Rome, 19th cent.)

I bring up these big men who were taken down by seemingly small opponents because we’ve come to a part of the David narrative with which many of us are unfamiliar. This is the twenty-second sermon I’ve preached about David in the last year, and if I were to ask you what was the one thing that threatened David’s reign and legacy the most, how would you answer? The adulterous, murderous episode that led to Bathsheba becoming his wife? His suspected collusion with the Philistines? The instructions he gave to Ahimelech, the high priest, that ended with the deaths of all the residents of the town of Nob? His failure as a father?

Nope. The closest David came to blowing it, big time, was when he issued an executive order mandating a census throughout Israel.

Seriously? A census? How does counting the population rise to a level of offense commensurate with the other tawdry episodes in David’s past? Well, this is no ordinary counting: it is a preliminary act for the institution of a military draft and a massive taxation. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “This census is much like that of Caesar Augustus. It is not a benign act of counting but an act of bureaucratic terrorism…The purpose is to mobilize military power. David has yielded to the seduction of state power.”[1] David’s greatest sin is not about the math… it’s about the pride that threatened to undo him in a way that nothing else had.

King David’s Census, Illustration from Treasures of the Bible, Henry Davenport Northrop (1894).

He’s nearing the end of his life. He’s survived several attempted coups and assassinations; he’s weathered a lot of storms, and, frankly, he’s starting to roll the credits. II Samuel 22 contains an amazingly beautiful song of praise to God. II Samuel 23 allows the monarch to recount the list of “David’s Mighty Men” – several dozen soldiers whose amazing exploits and feats of strength and bravery were simply astounding.

Perhaps the old monarch simply got caught up in the moment. As he considers all of his oldest and most trusted companions, it would be tempting for him to say, “You know, we were pretty darned tough. I mean, we did some serious business back in the day… But what about now? What else is there for me to do? Who else can I conquer? What if there are bigger things in store for me or for this nation?”

In short, David begins an exploration of nationalism and exceptionalism that nearly costs him – and his people – everything.

We’re told in the beginning of the passage that “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel…” Why? Well, it doesn’t say, but I have an idea. Do you remember the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.” Do you remember the first sin in the Garden of Eden? The humans refusing to accept the authority of God. It is God who establishes, God who reigns, God who rules… and in our reading from II Samuel, as well as these prior incidents, the humans (David in this case) reject God’s primacy and put themselves on top.

It’s interesting to note that this same exact story is written down in I Chronicles 21 – with a significant difference. In the reading for today, we’re told that God incited David’s heart; in I Chronicles, the idea for the act is credited to Satan. In either case, the result is the same: David chose to order this census. Nobody made him do anything he didn’t already want to do. He calls up Joab, his loyal general, and tells him to get the thing up and running. And even Joab, the traditional strongman for King David, says, “Um, look, your majesty, are you sure about this? I don’t this this is your best idea ever. Maybe you want to sleep on it…”

David flat-out ignores his advisor and the census begins. It takes ten long months to come up with an answer; when the numbers finally come in, David realizes what he’s done. He gets the answer for which he’s been looking, and then he grasps the implications of the questions he’s asked… and he cries out for forgiveness. The David in verse 2 is strong, purposeful, resolute, and full of pride. The one who speaks in verses 10 and 14 is as broken as he’s ever been. David realizes the depth of his willful arrogance and rebellion. He sees his pride for what it is and falls on God’s mercy.

The extent of David’s repentance can be seen in the curious conversation that he has with the prophet when Gad brings him news of God’s judgment. The Lord offers David a choice: what kind of punishment does he want to receive? Three years of famine across the whole nation? Three months of intense attack from his enemies? Or three days of pestilence and plague on the nation?

When David is at his best, he fears God. When David is at his most faithful, he trusts God. Here, in this dark, dark hour, he cries out asking for God, not humans, to deal with him. He knows that if there is any mercy, any relief, any hope to be found, it will come from the hand of the Lord.

In the next three days, seventy thousand people die in Israel. To put that in perspective just a bit, that is more than the total number of US military deaths in the combined six decades of our involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. David sees the weight of this carnage and cries out, “Enough! Look, God, if you want to kill someone, kill me. Leave these people out of it! I am the sinner here!”

The prophet then commands David to go and worship by building a worship site on a threshing floor belonging to a man named Aruanah. There are a few observations I’d make about this worship.

First, the king treats this farmer fairly. The David of verse 2 would have walked into town and declared “eminent domain” on this poor man’s property. He might have said something like, “I need this for the good of the nation. Step aside, citizen…” But the David who shows up in verse 24 pays a full and fair price for this land, knowing that he has the ability and the responsibility to do so

This comes, of course, from the David’s awareness that he, and all he has, belongs to God. David will not “thank” God with other people’s money.

A threshing place in modern Santorini, Greece

And the last thing I’d like to point out about the location of this reconciliation is that it is on a threshing floor. You probably don’t have one of these at your house… or in your city, but it was a site of tremendous importance to this pre-industrial agrarian culture. The threshing floor was an elevated, hard, level surface where the crop would be placed and beaten or trod upon so that the edible grain would be separated from the worthless chaff. The threshing floor was the place in which that which gives life is separated from that which is useless. David puts himself in this place and says, “Lord, make me… make us pure and useful…”

This is the last story in the books of Samuel. The narrative which contains the selection of a young child to be the king, the defeat of a mighty giant, military campaigns, palace intrigue, significant defeat, and astounding victory… ends with the old monarch on his knees in a strange place, crying out for forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. There’s more than enough smiting, fighting, sleeping around, and even the occasional happy episode thrown in. What’s the point? Why does the narrator of Israel’s history choose to end the book of Samuel with David’s prideful attempt to count his fighting men and implement a tax plan?

Well, for starters, I’d think an important lesson we can take away from this passage is the fact that it’s foolish to spend too much time and energy reading or believing your own press clippings. One of the worst things that David did was to insulate himself to the point where he was unable to see how his bureaucratic power grab was an affront to the Lord. When you and I rely too heavily on our own feelings, or on the perception that we’d like to cultivate in others, we are similarly unable to perceive the truth. When you are “up” and doing well, remember that you are in danger of falling. And when you are broken, do not forget that you are made in the image of God. You might not feel like a child of the Most High, but that doesn’t change your reality.

In a few moments, we’ll sing Forgiveness by Matthew West. Some of the lyrics we’ll proclaim are “Show me how to love the unlovable/ Show me how to reach the unreachable/ Help me now to do the impossible/ Forgiveness.”

It may be that you’re at a place in your life where the greatest challenge in your walk will be to look at other people as you sing that song. You mentally picture the one who has wounded you so deeply or regarded you so callously, and you pray for the grace to be humble and Christlike toward her or him. But it’s just as likely that you need to remember those lyrics the next time you look in a mirror. You’ll remember the thing you said to your child or your parent; the lies you told to avoid embarrassment; the way you compromised your integrity in order to feel “liked.” In those cases, then, perhaps the “unlovable” and the “unreachable” is not someone else… you may think it’s you. And you are, of course, wrong.

Ask the Lord to give you a good vision of yourself, and others, and God. Pray for a realistic view of what is, and what can be, and how you fit into it.

The Philippians passage that we read this morning contains perhaps one of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible, at least in the context of American Christianity. Whether we’re talking about winning the Super Bowl, finding a parking spot, or getting a date to the prom, millions of us find ourselves chanting “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” We use that verse as though it is some sort of mantra that guarantees our success, and makes Jesus our lucky charm.

St Paul the Apostle. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

Paul’s life was as complicated and erratic as David’s in its own way. He had grown up as a member of the educated elite, and he’d made a career as a renowned teacher and scholar. In his younger days, Paul was the one you hoped might be called in as a guest lecturer; he had all the right contacts and influence. Yet at the time of this writing, he’s been beaten and imprisoned. He’s stayed at the Hilton and in Medium Security… traveled first class and been shipwrecked… and here he shares the fact that the only meaning and purpose he’s ever found in his life comes through his ability to be content in the knowledge that he is never alone because of the work of God in Jesus Christ.

Being a person of faith doesn’t mean that you can get the job you want, or run a marathon without training, or pass your test without studying. That’s not the “all things” Paul is talking about in this passage. What he is saying is that through the grace of God, you and I can find the ability to be content, to know peace, to find an inward centeredness that is not dependent on our outward circumstances. We can do that through Christ who gives us strength.

My hope and prayer for you this morning is that today and each day you might join your brother David on the threshing floor of your life. That today, you might sit in the presence of God, resting on a firm and solid foundation, knowing that within your life right now are the elements necessary for significant fruit. Ask God to help you blow away the chaff and the things that distract you, and seek to find your center in Jesus Christ. Whether you are on the cusp of a significant opportunity or on the brink of an incredible challenge, look for the contentment and peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. If we can start the days like that, we will find, I trust, that we can get through anything in the power of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Interpretation Commentary on First and Second Samuel (John Knox Press, 1990), p. 352

Deal Gently…

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.  June 25, we rejoined that narrative and considered the ways that David reacted to the rebellion of his beloved son, Absalom.  The text was from II Samuel 18:1-8 and we also considered John 13:34-35.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please click on the player below:

 

Do you remember being in a place or time where you saw something happening that you thought was just terrible, but you felt as though you were powerless to stop it because you were too young, or too recently hired, or too inexperienced, or something similar? Maybe you were playing in a youth ball game and the coach totally belittled a player who’d made an error, and you thought, “When I get to be coach, I’ll never do that!” It could be that you watched your parents relate (or fail to relate) with each other and you made a vow that if you ever got married, things would be different in your house. Or maybe you had just been hired and your supervisor threw you under the bus at the budget meeting, causing you to vow, “When I’m in charge, this will not happen!” Does anyone remember something like that? More to my point, can you think of something you do now, consciously, as a result of such an experience?

“Saul Wishes to Slay Jonathan” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

I’m asking because as we return to our year-long study of King David, I’m pretty sure that the events of this part of the story are framed by David’s experiences as a young man. Perhaps you’ll recall back in October, when we listened to the part of the story that took place prior to David’s installation as king of Israel. He was living with Saul, the acknowledged king, and more than anything, Saul wanted his son, Jonathan, to be king after him. Jonathan and David were best friends – like brothers, really – and while Jonathan could see God’s hand of blessing on David, and the future of a Davidic kingship, Saul was blinded with rage. In fact, not only did Saul repeatedly try to murder David so as to ensure that Jonathan would succeed him, when he thought that Jonathan was helping David he actually tried to kill his own son, too. I can only imagine a young David thinking to himself, “If and when I make it to the throne, I will never, ever treat my son like that…” Those experiences had to have left some vivid scars on David!

“Absalom Leaves David To Start a Conspiracy,” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

The last time we heard from this story, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had been killed by his younger brother, Absalom. Following that, Absalom fled the country and even when he returned after three years, his father wouldn’t speak to him for two more years. David is apparently overwhelmed with depression or lethargy or something, and Absalom decides that he’d really like to be king – even if the office isn’t vacant yet. The prince wins the support of the military and many of the people of Israel, and then declares war on his father. Absalom has the advantage of numbers, perhaps, but David is more experienced and has a much better network and strategy.

II Samuel chapters 15 – 17 describe the lead-up to the battle that everyone knows is coming, and so it seems a little anticlimactic when the entire conflict is summarized in two verses you heard earlier – David and his men put down the rebellion.

What strikes me about today’s reading, however, is the conversation that David has with his key leaders on the eve of the battle. He proposes one strategy, and they make a counter-proposal that he humbly accepts. Then he issues a direct order: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

David has thousands of men assembled to go out and protect him from this son who is trying to kill him… and he says, “Deal gently…” David remembers a father who sought to slay his own son, and he wants no part of this – no matter what Absalom has done. One translator renders this verse as “For my sake, be sure that Absalom comes back unharmed.” (CEV) Let’s unpack this phrase and consider some of its implications for us today.

The first imperative is, of course, “deal”. Absalom has created a huge problem, and that problem has got to be dealt with. David is unwilling to simply roll over and pretend that he’s not king anymore. Absalom has made a serious threat to David and the entire nation, and that has got to be named, taken seriously, and resolved.

But there’s an adverb – a word that is used to express the means by which the imperative is to be carried out. By all means, deal with the situation – but do so gently. Do not be harsh or cruel to the young man…

And the order ends with what the grammarians call a “subordinate clause”. The dealing that needs to be done, and the gentleness in which it is hoped to occur, are to be carried out “for my sake”. Of course, David recognizes that Absalom is dead wrong here. But David hopes that the breach is not beyond repair. “Don’t give Absalom what he deserves”, the king says. “For my sake, treat him better than that…”

So what can we learn from this for our own lives today?

Well, again, let’s start at the top. Deal. You and I encounter a host of issues in our lives every day. Most of them, thankfully, don’t rise to the level of having one of our children try to kill us in cold blood, but each of us faces challenges, slights, wounds, and attacks from others. Many of these are not significant enough to bother with – and you can walk away and let them roll off your back without causing anyone any damage.

But, beloved, you know that there are some attacks, some offenses that have wounded and continue to grieve you. If you pretend otherwise, you are simply allowing an open sore to fester and become infected with resentment and perhaps lead to a greater disaster in the days ahead. After all, David sought to ignore the difficulty with Absalom for years – and found that his son’s resentment grew every day.

Look at your life, look at your situations, and seek to discern what it is that you need to deal with. What is there that is happening to you or around you (or maybe because of you) that cannot be excused or ignored and must, instead, be named and dealt with. If you are being mistreated by a colleague at work, or in an abusive relationship, or otherwise being marginalized or diminished, it may be time for you to come up with a plan to address and improve this situation.

When you see that, make sure that your plan for correction includes humility. Deal – but deal gently. How can you move towards healing and changed relationship in a way that doesn’t do violence to someone else? Not long ago, I had to ask a friend to write a letter to a pastoral colleague in another state. The reason I had to do this was because many years ago, an issue developed between the two of us. I was quick to name the issue, and I spoke truth to the person who was in the wrong. But listen to me, people of God: even though I spoke truth, I did so harshly and clumsily. I wounded my colleague to the extent that she ended our relationship. Because of my arrogance, a friendship was broken unnecessarily.

As you seek to address the situations in your lives with humility and honesty, know that you need to do so for your own sake. Even the boss that is mistreating you, or the spouse who abuses you… if you do not find a way to let go of the pain or resentment, it will become a cancer inside of you that will overwhelm you. You may be 100% correct, and have all the virtues of truth and justice on your side… but if you do not seek to overcome the pain or work through the grief, you will be weighed down forever. Any resentment that you harbor will ferment into toxicity. A few of us were talking not long ago about a quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.” No matter who was at fault, no matter where the blame lay – if you cannot find some way to deal with it, pain and bitterness will eventually consume you.

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

Deal gently…for your own sake. That sounds pretty easy. Six little words. But how do you do that when the problem is as big as an abusive relationship or an addiction that is sucking the life from an entire family? How do you do that when you are filled with shame or depression or fear?

We can take another lesson from David here. In the chapters leading up to our reading from II Samuel, there is an account of the ways that David and Absalom prepared for this clash.

Absalom was hungry for power; he told people what they wanted to hear, and he surrounded himself with those who did the same for him. He made as though he was going to worship the Lord, but he did so only as a ruse – for Absalom, faith, humility, and integrity were foreign concepts. Life was a show, and as long as the spotlight was on Absalom, things were good.

We’ve talked enough about David to know that he, the people of Israel, and anyone else knew that he wasn’t perfect by any stretch. He was deeply flawed; he both gave and received significant pain. Yet on this occasion, David sought to surround himself with people he knew and trusted were committed not only to him, but to the Lord. Some of these people had been with him for years, and he’d trusted them with his life on many occasions – men like Joab and Abishai. But others were newcomers who had impressed him with their faithfulness and wisdom. In fact, the third commander that David entrusted on this day was Ittai, a Philistine man who had only been in town for a couple of days – but David recognized that he had gifts and wisdom that would help the nation. And when these three men heard David’s plan, they helped him to see the flaws in it and he allowed them to re-shape the strategy that wound up allowing his monarchy to survive despite being desperately outnumbered.

Beloved, are you surrounded by trustworthy companions who will help you do what you need to do? Are you humble enough to hear the thoughtful encouragement and good counsel of others? Is there someone in your life who can tell you not just what you want to hear, but the truth?

Moreover, is there someone who will walk with you into the difficult places when you’re not sure you can get there on your own? If you are trapped in an abusive relationship, who will help you be strong enough to leave it? Who loves you enough to not only tell you the truth about the damage that addiction is doing in your family or circle of friends, but to go with you to an AA or Al-Anon meeting? Is there someone who will care enough for you to sit with you in the midst of your depression or anger and then not leave you there all alone?

The story of Absalom’s rebellion does not end well for anyone, really. Absalom is caught up in his own scheming and pride, and eventually Joab runs him through without blinking an eye; David was restored to the palace in Jerusalem, and sought to make peace with those who had rebelled – even issuing a general amnesty. It was a painful time, and we’ll talk more about that in weeks to come. For now, I want to emphasize the fact that each of us have situations in our personal and professional lives that need to be dealt with and addressed with gentleness and humility so that they will not overwhelm the things that God is trying to accomplish in and through us. We seek out good counsel from old and new friends and hope to find a way to live into that which is best.

Jesus showed us how to do this. On the night that he was arrested, he watched his friend Judas get up from the table and embark on his traitorous mission. And then he looked his followers square in the eyes and said, “Listen: the only way we’re going to get anything done is if you love each other the way that I love you. The only way any of this is going to make sense to anyone else is if you can put aside all of your fears and failures and give yourselves fully to each other and to the work I’ve put before you. Love each other.”

At the end of the day, Absalom lay dead and the old king’s heart was nearly broken. David cried out, “Oh Absalom, my son! If only I had died instead of you… my son… my son.” As Frederick Buechner points out, David meant every word of that. “If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”[1]

In David’s love for both his people and his son, we see something of God’s love for us and for our world. Let us learn from that love, and let us share that love in the days we’ve been given. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures:A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 6

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.