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.

Help Yourself!

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 3 included Luke 1:46-55 and selected verses from Psalm 40.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below. Please note that because I’m an idiot with all things technological, there are approximately 20 seconds of silence before the recording starts.  Don’t get your hopes up, people.  I actually do preach a whole sermon here…

I have a friend – a preaching colleague of mine, actually – who stood up in front of a huge crowd and told an amazingly powerful story. He shared a narrative that was filled with emotion and drama, and was a perfect illustration for the scriptural point he was trying to make. It had its intended effect, and at the end of his message, people were crying, signing up for profound commitments, and more. It was a great story.

We were chatting afterward, and his son – who had been mentioned in the story – cleared his throat and said, “Um, dad? That story you ended with? Can I say something?”

“Of course!” was his father’s quick reply.

“Well, it was a good story, only… well, it didn’t happen that way.” And the son went on to recount the incident as he remembered it. When he was finished, his father looked at him and said, “Hmph. So, it didn’t happen the way I said it did, huh?” His son shook his head. The father paused for a moment and said. “Hmph. Well, it should have.”

I’m sure that all of you have forgotten things that have happened. How many of us remember things that didn’t happen? Who knows something that isn’t true?

I have a question for you, but I do not want you to raise your hands. It is a trick question. How many of you remember reading the Bible verse that says, “God helps those who help themselves?”

Now, how many of you know someone who believes that phrase is found in the Bible? Everyone needs to raise your hands now, because a recent survey indicated that an astounding 82% of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.

And you might smile to yourself and say, “Well, of course, if we’re talking about all Americans here. Real believers know better. And you’re right. Only 81% of people who identify themselves as “born again Christians” think that’s a verse from the Bible.[1]

Four out of five people think that this phrase is scriptural! I’m here to tell you that you won’t find it in the Bible. If you look, you can find it in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Ben probably borrowed it from Aesop’s Fables, wherein we find something very similar.

But… but… it just sounds so true, doesn’t it? It sounds really Bible-ish. You might be looking at me and saying, “Seriously, Dave, I swear I read something like that in the Bible…”

And you’re close. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.” That verse was used a couple of years ago by a member of Congress who was looking to cut food stamp benefits to hungry families. The context in Thessalonians, however, is more complex. There were people in that community who were so convinced of the imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world that they had stopped participating in the responsibilities of daily life. They quit their jobs, they stopped caring for their gardens, and more. After all, if Jesus is coming back on Tuesday, why bother going to work today? Let’s just enjoy this moment!

In fact, the larger context of Paul’s letter is actually a rebuke to the people in Thessalonica to start acting more like Jesus would in terms of caring for each other and the world around them.

When someone says, “God helps those who help themselves,” it’s almost always from the perspective of one who is in a position of being able to help, but who chooses not to. You drive across the bridge and you see a panhandler. You turn on the news and are irritated by the fact that someone is using your tax dollars to pay for groceries or utilities. I find myself getting angry at those who are lazy, freeloading, good-for-nothings, and then I say, “After all, God helps those who help themselves…” It is a justification for me not to act, because in my refusal to help, I am being like God.

As such, then, “God helps those who help themselves” is a statement that is rooted in privilege. Think about all the aspects of your existence right now that are rooted in some sort of a privilege or advantage that you enjoy. Many of us are beneficiaries of what is called “white privilege”. Among other things, I can walk through a Family Dollar without being shadowed, or pull over with absolute confidence when I’m stopped by the police in any municipality in the USA. I enjoy “male” privilege, and I see this when I’m visiting in a hospital room and the Dr. speaks directly to me about the patient’s condition, rather than to the mother, wife, or daughter of the patient. I know that I am economically privileged, because if you told me this morning that the price of gasoline was going up a dollar a gallon because of hurricane Harvey, I’d still hop in the car and drive to visit my granddaughter this afternoon.

Can you read? Were you greeted by a friend today? Did you grow up in a community of faith? Did you wake up this morning in a residence that had both working electricity and running water? If any of those things are true, then you join me in having access to privileges that much, if not most, of the world can only dream about. If we start to think about those things as something we have “earned” or “deserved”, we run the risk of becoming blind to the many gifts that we have received.

Can we please realize how rooted in privilege the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is? It’s ludicrous.

Who looks at those people in Texas, hanging onto rooftops, seeking shelter anywhere they can find it, and shrugs, “Well, that stinks. They better get crack-a-lackin, because, you know, God helps those who help themselves…”?

Who walks past a woman using a walker at the Giant Eagle who is struggling to reach that can on the top shelf and thinks, “Well, if you just tried a little harder, lady…”?

Journalist George Monbiot points out the fallacy of this line of thinking by saying simply, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”[2]

When we say “God helps those who help themselves”, it sounds much like a disavowal of the other. “You – you’re in a jam? Hey, help yourself. Get a job. Be more like me.” That kind of language is insulating, divisive, and cancerous.

I’m suggesting that we redeem some of that same language, but we do so that it might be an invitation rather than a dismissal.

Every person in this room has been, I hope, in a situation where there is some bounty – a feast, a garden, a craft table, a clothes closet – where the opportunity is extended: “Do you see this? Help yourself! This is for you. Take what you need, or want, or can use…”

Do you see what I mean? They are the same words – but instead of help yourself coming across as a selfish statement of isolation or derision, it conveys an invitation to participate in a deeper, more generous relationship.

When we say “help yourself” in this way, we are in fact behaving more like God. The scriptures all point to the glorious truth that God, in fact, helps those who cannot help themselves.

The Psalmist testifies that he was in a pit, lower than low, when God reached out to help. It was slippery, and every single place he tried to find a foothold, he wound up sinking deeper and deeper… And then, by the grace of God, he found a place to stand! He gives witness to the truth that we are poor and needy, and God is the deliverer.

When Mary discovers the identity of the Christ child within her, her spirit soars as she belts out the song we have come to call “The Magnificat”. “God lifts up the humble! God fills the hungry with good things!”

Mary’s Song, by Julie Lonneman (http://julielonneman.blogspot.com) Used by permission

Every page of the Bible is filled with the affirmation that God does what God can do, but does not have to do. We learn over and over that it is in God’s nature to be giving, forgiving, filling, satisfying, and empowering to those who find themselves to be in need, or distress, or marginalized. The theological term for this attribute and behavior of God is “grace”.

Grace is God’s decision to meet us where we are and help us to get to where we need to be, or could be, or should be. In grace, God sets God’s self before us and says, “Help yourself. Dive in. This is who I am…”

And if that is true, then by implication we are called to be people who consider the generosity and graciousness of God in our lives and seek to share that with others. And that means that there are strategies that we can employ in our own lives.

When you are in charge of the buffet, what do you do? Don’t you set out what you hope will be more than enough of everything? You might reserve some of the things that you absolutely need for yourself, but by and large, you want to make sure that you’re offering what is needed and appreciated, right? You don’t offer the things that are likely to embarrass you – the burnt edges, the moldy fruit, or the sour milk. You offer as much as you can as well as you can.

What if we sought to do that, not just when it’s our turn to host the thanksgiving meal, but every day? In some ways, that might turn our discipleship – and our lives – upside down.

For instance, in the area of personal finance, we often come to church thinking, “Well, what can I afford to donate today? What is the amount I should give? I don’t want to cramp my style or be racked with guilt. What is the least I can do and still feel good about myself?”

What if we approached our lives from the other end: what do I need in order to be me, and how can I make the rest of it available for God’s purposes? When I was a 17 year old high school student, I committed myself to doing my best to tithe any income I received. When we got married, I said, “Honey, the first 10% belongs to God…” And we did that. But then we figured out that, actually, all 100% belongs to God. And we didn’t need 90% to live on. So for many years now, Sharon and I have been privileged to make more than 10% of our income available for the Lord’s work.

It’s the same when we come to think about the time that we have. You have been given an amazing gift of a life… how are you spending it? Are you looking for ways to share yourself freely and deeply as you seek to grow in your ability to serve and be in relationship with others? Or are you bored and restless? You know, I’ve done a lot of funerals, and I’ve sat with a lot of folks who were dying. No one has ever said to me, “You know what, Dave? I wish I’d have had the chance to watch more pre-season football…” Nobody’s ever said, “You know, my house was spotless while those kids were growing up, and they were proud of that, you betcha…” But so often, those are the things that seem so important in the moment. How do you anticipate investing the hours you’ve been given today, this week, and this year? Can you do so in ways that bring life and hope and joy?

Last week, when I introduced this series of messages, I said that phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “God helps those who help themselves” are half-true, or true-ish.

The reality is that this phrase is anchored in something that is eternally true. It’s just that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is, perhaps like this sermon, simply too long.

God helps.

That is true. It always has been, and always will be.

So this week, can we look at the world around us, and act like God? God helps, and so will we, to the extent that we are empowered and privileged to do so. Thanks be to God!   Amen.

[1] Statistics from the Barna Research Group, quoted at http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/01/20/the-scandal-of-biblical-illiteracy-its-our-problem-4/

[2] “The Self-Attribution Fallacy”, http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/

May I Have Your Attention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absalom (James Tissot, c. 1900)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a tempting theology, friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Capon writes about this parable:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] http://www.fredrogers.org/parents/special-challenges/tragic-events.php

The Little Things — A Christmas Story

Every year it is my practice to write a story that will explore and, I hope, deepen the meaning of Christmas for those who are present in worship.  Many of these stories have been collected in a volume published in 2011 by Lulu press entitled I Will Hold My Candle and Other Stories for Christmas.  If you’d like to know more about that book or how to purchase a copy, please simply click here.  In 2016, we experimented with making a live feed of our worship service.  I am not sure how long it will remain up, but if you are a Facebook user you might find it on my Facebook page.  The text for this story is an unusual one for Christmas: I Corinthians 1:26-31.

I met Wayne Barker in an unusual place. I had stopped to fill my tank and I looked across the parking area at the service station and I saw an enormous man crawling around on his knees. I wandered over to see if I could help, and he was muttering to himself… using mostly words that are not common in church. I asked if there was a problem and he looked up and said, “Yeah, I think. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a real problem or not but that little screw cap from my tire fell while I was adding air, and now I can’t find it. Why do they make those things black anyway? Isn’t every gas station parking lot in the world black? And they are so small!”

So because I didn’t want to appear insensitive, I gave the area at least a cursory glance, but it was so rainy that I was relieved when he stood up and said, “Sheesh. Forget about it. I’m sick of these pebbles grinding into my knees, and besides, I must have some sort of slow leak. I’ll get a new one when I get the tire fixed.”

Perhaps like a lot of big guys, Wayne isn’t good at little things. If you were to see his dresser at home, you’d see that it’s covered in an ocean of “small”. Pennies and paper clips, loose keys and nuts and bolts are heaped in piles, waiting for someone to be attentive.

Wayne Barker is a “big thing” guy. In his work as a heavy equipment operator, he lives in an oversized world. The tires are bigger, the holes are deeper, the sounds are louder… and all of that is OK with Wayne.

When he’s not moving huge piles of dirt with enormous machines, Wayne is shaping trees into objects of beauty. The day I met him the back of his truck was filled with rough-hewn maple. He told me he was on his way home to spend the weekend turning that wood into a queen-sized rocking chair.

You see, his only daughter, Megan, was pregnant. With twins. He had already made a special crib for her – it was, essentially, a “double wide”. There were two sides, and space for two mattresses, but the babies would be able to reach through and touch each other if they wanted to. He hadn’t planned on making a rocker, but he was fed up with what he called “discount store cheapies”, and apparently he’d been to Megan’s home twice already to measure the doorways. He wanted to make sure he was building the absolute biggest chair that could fit into her home.

When Wayne starts something, he’s all in. That would explain why he didn’t leave the house after he got home that Friday afternoon. He was building. Cutting. Sanding. Joining. Making the world’s greatest daughter – the world’s most important mom-to-be – the best rocking chair in the history of furniture.

But at about 4 on the following Monday morning, his plans went awry. He was awakened by a call from his panicked son-in-law, who simply said, “We’re at the hospital. Get here as soon as you can.”

Wayne flew out the door and was immediately confronted by a flat tire on his pickup. Evidently the leak we’d seen on the previous Friday had gotten worse over the weekend, and the vehicle was not drivable. He let out an involuntary scream (again, using language I’ll not repeat here). At that moment, his neighbor arrived home from his shift as a taxi driver. When Wayne explained the situation, the man immediately said, “Get in!”

That made Wayne a little uncomfortable, because he’d never really spoken to his neighbor before. He was from India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh or somewhere, and he was a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Sikh, or something. Wayne had always thought of him as being odd, and yet here he was going out of his way to help.

When they got to the hospital, Wayne pulled out his wallet but the neighbor waved him off, saying, “This? This is a little thing. Go inside. Go!”

When he got inside, he was, himself, smaller than he’d ever been. There were lights and noises and people rushing in and out. Wayne didn’t understand everything, but what he did understand scared him to death. Apparently there was a problem with the blood flow to the babies, and unless they did something, at least one of them would die before it had a chance to be born.

His daughter told him that they were going to do something called Laser Ablation. Using an impossibly skinny needle, the medical team inserted a small laser right into Megan’s womb, where they re-arranged some of the blood vessels using a laser beam shot from inside the needle.

When Wayne saw the size of the camera, and the laser, and the babies in the womb, he couldn’t believe his own eyes. How could something so small be so amazingly important? More than that, how could something that little do anything worth doing?

I’m happy to tell you that the surgery was a success and Megan was able to leave the hospital a few days later with nothing more than a band-aid on the outside and, more importantly, two increasingly healthy children on the inside. The babies were able to develop normally for another four weeks until she went into labor and delivered them last month – six weeks early.

Wayne got his tire repaired, and then he took his first step in learning the lessons of littleness by crossing the street and properly introducing himself to, and then thanking, his neighbor. And he has been in the neonatal intensive care unit every evening to hold his grandchildren. They are so little that he can easily hold one in each hand – or he would if the nurses would let him get away with it. For five weeks, he has marveled at their size and remembered how frightened he was the day of the procedure.

Of course, when he holds the children in the NICU, the nurses come by and offer comments about how big they are getting (which, of course, they are, compared to the other babies in that unit)… and when he shows photos to anyone at work, the constant comment is, “oooooh! Look how little!” (which, of course, they are, in comparison to everyone else’s grandchildren).

So these days, when he’s at work with his big equipment doing big jobs, Wayne Barker notices little things that are simply crucial. The other day, he observed how a tiny sliver of metal called a cotter pin that costs pennies and can be bent with his bare hands is absolutely essential to holding the bucket on his backhoe. He thought about it again while he fished around in his pocket for the key that started up the earth grader. Even in the hospital cafeteria, he noticed that he had a huge bowl of soup that was vastly improved by a few grains of salt.

Wayne isn’t at the hospital tonight, though. The babies are coming home on Monday, and all of these big thoughts about little things have brought Wayne to worship.

Here’s what I mean: for most of the past 33 years, Christmas has been BIG for Wayne and his family. He’s the guy who bought those giant stuffed bears. You couldn’t get into his living room once the tree was set up because he chose the biggest, fattest tree he could find. And when it came time for dinner, well, Wayne didn’t think it was worth eating if the turkey was less than 24 pounds.

And yet, this year, he can’t take himself away from the smallness of it all. Tonight, he is filling his heart, mind, and spirit with thoughts of littleness. Thoughts of one star, twinkling in the murky depths of space. One child, coming to reveal the whole heart of God to humanity. One candle, beating back the darkness in defiance of the drafts. One congregation, trying to live in ways that will change the world.

Up until now, Wayne Barker hasn’t had time for the littleness of Christmas. All of that has been nonsense to him – that is to say, it made no sense at all. And maybe, tonight, it still is nonsense.

But this is what he knows: that tonight, four miles away the heart of his heart is beating double time because something amazingly and improbably small had come in and changed reality.

And tonight, for either the first time or the hundredth time, he gets it. He understands what the Lord was saying to the prophet Zechariah all those years ago:

Then he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts… For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel… (Zechariah 4:6,10)

Although that’s an obscure book, it had always caught Wayne’s eye because Zerubbabel was a builder – and he took some grief from others on account of the fact that he seemed to always start slow and start small. But lately, it seemed to Wayne, that starting slow and starting small might just be the way that God likes to operate.

So tonight, Wayne is trying to get in touch with the littleness and the subtlety and even the weakness for which the Almighty seems to have an affinity. He’s lighting his candle, dusting off his hope, and trying to get ready for the changes that need to take place… in him… in his neighborhood… and in his world.

It’s a little thing. But maybe, just maybe, there’s no better time than Christmas for the little things.

Wishing you all the grace to find energy and devotion to learn the lessons of littleness in your particular corner of the world today.  May you be surprised by what is vulnerable or even weak in yourselves, and may be be an agent of grace in this world.

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)

Living With Giants

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  The third message in the series was centered in the epic confrontation between the boy who would be king and the giant bent on destroying him.   Our text was from I Samuel 17, and is included below. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

osmar_schindler_david_und_goliath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  The second message in the series brought us the opportunity to consider the ways in which David was shaped for his vocation in surprising ways.  Our texts included I Samuel 16:14-23 and II Corinthians 4:7-12.

When you are driving past the bus stop and you see a group of young people wearing oversize white tops and finely checked pants, you know that you’re looking at folks who are on their way to the Culinary Institute, where they’ll continue their preparation as chefs. Similarly, when you are walking through the corridors of the hospital and encounter a quartet wearing stethoscopes trailing a woman in a white lab coat, you assume you’re seeing student nurses. In these professions, and in dozens of others, folks enter into their vocation after a period of training, apprenticeship, or coursework. You probably did something like that in one way or another.

Last week, we began our exploration of the stories surrounding King David by reading about the day that, as a young boy, he was taken aside by the old prophet Samuel and anointed as King. One of the difficulties that this presented, as we noted, was that the office of King was not vacant at the time – Saul had been anointed King some years before and he had grown pretty accustomed to the position.

David, then, finds himself in an awkward situation: he’s preparing for a position of which he has already been assured, but has no sense of when he’ll actually be called into that place. In our reading for today, we learn more about the training that David received as he waited for God’s direction. What lessons will he learn as God continues to shape him for the office that he will eventually occupy? And as we consider these events in the life of David, we need to ask ourselves how we understand them to be relevant in our own circumstances.

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

We’re told in verse 14 that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul and, instead, an evil spirit from the Lord was tormenting him. It’s hard for us, as 21st-century believers living in the USA to enter into a mindset of good and evil spirits, let alone a view of the world which holds that the One whom we suppose to be nothing but goodness and light is in the business of tormenting poor unfortunate souls. However, the text we’ve received is one that comes from another time and another place, and an unsophisticated worldview which held that all things are ultimately a result of God’s work; God kills and God brings to life; God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and so on.

In an effort to de-mystify some of the language here, a few modern readers have simply assumed that Saul was suffering from a medical condition: maybe depression, maybe anxiety disorder, or perhaps schizophrenia. While this may be helpful in terms of giving us an insight into the symptoms that Saul may or may not have displayed, it ignores the fact that Saul’s primary problems were theological in nature. He had flagrantly disrespected and violated the Lord’s presence, and so the Lord left him, and that resulted in this series of unfortunate symptoms.

Saul felt the absence of God horribly. In spite of having the best medical care available, with zero copay and zero deductible, he was overwhelmed. Fortunately for Saul, though, the people around him were brave enough to risk acknowledging his situation publicly. “Saul, you are a mess! You need help, and you need it now.”

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 - 1812)

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 – 1812)

One of the lessons that young David needed to learn as he prepared for his role of King is that every one of us needs to listen to the wise counsel of those who are close to us. It’s not something that comes easily to many, and as we look at some of David’s most spectacular failures, we’ll see that it took him some time to figure this out. Yet we note that here, before he ever tries on the crown or even thinks about moving into the palace, David is learning the importance of acting upon trusted advice and having a teachable heart.

Saul is more than eager to be relieved of this distress, and so he listens to his counselors and sends for the musician to be brought before him. He finds, much to his own delight (and surely that of everyone on his staff), that the shepherd boy really does have a great voice and can play the lyre like nobody’s business.

David is brought before Saul and asked to do something for which he had prepared – even though he had no idea that’s what was happening. What I mean is this: do you suppose that David took his lyre out to the hillsides while he was hanging around with those sheep and said, “I’m going to practice and practice and practice, because you know what? Sooner or later, I’ll be called to be the personal musician of the King!”

That’s unlikely. My hunch is that he probably took along the lyre to alleviate the boredom of being alone so much; that he sang and thought and played because he thought he was all alone; in actuality, though, he was being prepared in the solitude for that great call that came through Samuel.

Perhaps as he played the lyre for a King who was in such distress, David was able to remember that God sometimes uses the unpleasant, or bitter, or painful experiences to grow us in some way for the future. Have you ever had to work for a boss that is completely unhinged (I’d be grateful if current and former church staff did not answer this one out loud)? It had to be very, very difficult to be David in that situation; he knew that he had been called to be the King, and yet of course he was not the King, and instead he was being called to soothe the dis-ease of the one for whose position he was being groomed.

Let me ask those of you who can remember being in an intensely painful or unpleasant situation: is it possible for you to look back on that time of your life and see that you experienced some growth, that you learned some lesson, that you discovered some fruit as a result of being in a difficult place? I’m not asking you if you were glad to have been there; I’m not saying that God put you there so that you’d be taught something… I’m asking whether or not you can look back at some horrible time in your life and say, “You know what? When all of that was going on, I learned ___________.”

I don’t want to spend time talking about the causes of these difficult situations; I simply want to ask you to explore whether or not you have grown through times of pain.

And if you can say, “yes, I can look to some important things that I learned while in that difficult place”, then are you able to recognize that it’s likely that you are going to be able to grow in, through, or in spite of the next painful spot in which you happen to find yourself?

I believe that one of the things that David was able to grasp while in the service of Saul is the truth that even in seasons of pain and discomfort, of horror and grief, we can grow.

Perhaps the third lesson that David was able to grasp while in this formative place with King Saul is the importance of waiting on God and honoring those with whom you are placed.

David Playing the Harp Before Saul, Ivan Ivanovich Tvorozhnikov (1848-1919)

Think about it: David knows that he’s the next King. He’s been told that by no less an authority than the Prophet Samuel. The kid leaves his house, where he’s in charge of keeping the sheep out of trouble and maybe carrying the groceries every now and then, and comes into the royal residence. He sees the luxury that surrounds the King, and he sees the King in a very, very fragile place. And look at what he does: he acts to be an anxiety-reducer in that place. In some ways, David is acting against his own best interests here. There has to be a part of David that’s saying, “You know, if old Saul finally loses it here, then I’m in! It’ll be my turn to live into the prophecy that Samuel shared!” There are all sorts of reasons why it would be to David’s advantage to hasten Saul’s descent into madness and obscurity, yet he refuses to do so. Instead, David brings life to Saul, and helps Saul to find his way back to normalcy. David does not feed the fear; instead, he seeks to defuse and disarm the fear.

There’s a word there for the church today. We live in an environment where there is every conceivable incentive to grow fear. Everywhere we turn, people are trying to get you to be more alarmed, more anxious than you were five minutes ago. Politicians tell lies and make up stories about each other; the current Presidential election is rife with fear-mongering and alarmist rhetoric; the entire culture is saturated with distrust and disgust and fear and anxiety and there is no peace.

A couple of weeks ago, the Smith & Wesson Company announced that their profits have doubled since last year. Background checks for weapons permits are on a pace to shatter the record that was set last year. Do you think people are buying all this firepower because they feel safe and secure? And do you think that anyone who owns stock in Smith & Wesson (the value of which has surged 60% in 2016) has any interest in reducing anyone’s anxiety right now?

Of course not. There’s money to be made in fear. Hate sells. Anxiety brings out the voters, brings in the money, and obliterates the truth.

And far too often, in our culture, it’s people who wear the name of Jesus who are out there leading the yelling and screaming. We feed the fear. We nurture it. We allow it to grow, when we should be seeking, as David did, to be a non-anxious presence in time of great fear. David’s eyes were not on the madness of King Saul, but on the presence and power of God.

Father Luis Espinal was a priest born in Spain, but who went to Bolivia to serve as a missionary amongst the poor in 1968. For years, he spoke out against the gangs who ran the drug trade and the government that supported those gangs. He railed against injustice, poverty, the lack of freedom of the dictatorship, the massacres, the exiles, the complicit collaboration of many with the dictatorship, drug trafficking, and the guilty silence of members of the Church. On March 21, 1980, he was leaving a movie theater when he was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a death squad. Yet just before his violent death, he wrote this brief meditation:

Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are a definitive smile for humankind.

What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance…You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!” From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!

So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world. Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever…and death will disappear.

Does any of that ring true with you? Have you or your friends fallen prey to “hysterical reactions”? Does it seem conceivable to you that the world is slipping out of God’s hands, somehow?

When I say it like that, you say, “Oh, no, Dave, we don’t believe that. God is still God. God is our Rock. God is our fortress.”

If that’s the case, then the challenge for this week is for you to go out there and live like that’s true. Accept the call on your life that was the call on young David: to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of a fearful world. To be the voice of reason and tolerance even as you are surrounded by those who hurl vile racism and who abuse power and who profit from decay and would foment discord. Use your voice, your presence, your song, so to speak, to speak truth and peace and grace to those around you.

I know that it’s not easy to do this. And it’s not easy to hear this. Earlier this week, in an effort to be perceived as funny and sophisticated and wise, I made a comment that was smug and dismissive and disrespectful. Someone I love came to me and said, “Do you realize how hurtful that was?” In my attempt to be well-regarded, I was instead smarmy and self-inflating, and I contributed to separation and alienation. And someone cared enough about me to pull me aside and say, “Look, Dave – is that your best self? Is that who you want to be?”

That’s what I’m asking you to do today. To show up in rooms where people are acting more irrationally than old King Saul ever did and to use the voice that God gave you to bring peace, to point to hope, and to demonstrate resurrection.

We’re in a hard place. We can expect that it’s going to get harder. Let’s go ahead and do what is right anyway, trusting God to be with us even as he was with David, in the midst of our vulnerability and risk, in a place of fear. When we are tempted to distrust, can we join together and repeat the psalm of peace? Thanks be to God, Amen.