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.

A Whole New World

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 17 brought us to the end of the story in Ruth 4 as well as Paul’s statement about the redemptive work of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-17.  

 

Did you hear the debate? It was quite a while ago, but – WOW – was it powerful! I wanna tell you, it was a real scorcher.

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The fellow on the right – the old guy with the white beard – he made a strong case for what we might call “traditional values”: you know, a return to the things that made the country great back in the day. He was particularly tough on immigration and what we might call “multiculturalism”, and he was campaigning on a platform that proposed legislation that would not only prohibit marriage to foreign-born people, but would declare any such marriages to be invalid and would immediately deport the foreign wives and any children from such marriages.

It’s all there in the Old Testament book of Ezra, chapter 10. Ezra, and his buddy, Nehemiah, said that the anger of God had descended on the nation because so many foreigners had come and led people away from the truth. The legislation that they proposed won in a landslide – there were only four people who went on record as opposing their action. And so they built a wall and sent the immigrants packing.

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

But then the woman started speaking. It was hard to understand her because of her accent, but she talked about the idea that there is no single perspective that can capture the entirety of God’s majesty. She didn’t say this in so many words, but she sort of implied that if anyone thought that he or she had God fully figured out and understood God completely, then that person had to be wrong because God is so much more than any human mind can comprehend.

She went on to say that we are better off when we walk together toward the truth, and that when we are vulnerable to each other and those around us in love and humility we are more likely to be able to hear the ways in which God might direct our steps. One man, hearing what she had to say, summarized it this way:

[God’s activity in the world is amplified as people go] beyond the limits placed upon them by society. The social definitions of ethnicity and gender are not only unhelpful but they block the successful solution of life’s problems. Inclusion and the violation of role limits become the proper ways of living out one’s faith in the midst of a pluralistic world.[1]

To be honest, the woman didn’t speak nearly as much as the man did in the debate, but she sure showed her intentions and her heart in the ways that she acted. She demonstrated her heart for God and for God’s people in the way that she lived.

This was not, of course, a “real” debate – at least, not one that we saw in person. On the right, as I’ve mentioned, we have the historical figures of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of Israel’s leaders who brought the nation back from a punishing time of exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah understood, rightly, that much of what had led people into the place of exile and separation from God was the pagan practices that they had learned from their neighbors as they gave up on following God and instead followed the selfish desires of their own hearts. They reasoned that much of what had led God’s people to engage in such pagan practices was their willingness to enter into marriage with non-believing, foreign-born spouses, and so the solution that they proposed was simple: ban foreigners, end mixed marriage, and thus stay pure as God’s holy people in God’s holy land. As I mentioned, you can read a lot more about where these folks are coming from in the books that bear their names.

The author of the Book of Ruth gently counters this logic by reminding people that if it weren’t for foreign women, Israel would not have the greatest leader it ever knew, King David. This man who captured Israel’s heart and who led the nation into new places of obedience and success was at least 1/8 Moabite. In David’s story, we find a stunning bit of irony, in fact. A strict interpretation of the law as found in Deuteronomy 23:3 would declare Ruth’s marriage to Boaz invalid, and that any descendants of that marriage (up to the 10th generation) were to be excluded from participating in the worship of God. Since King David was Ruth’s grandson, that means that he should not have been allowed anywhere near the tabernacle. And take a look at the Psalms – the hymnbook that we’ve carried around for 3000 years: all of the best songs were written by someone who, according to the strict reading of the Law, wasn’t even supposed to be here.

What do we do?

Let’s look at Boaz.

Boaz' Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 - 1260)

Boaz’ Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 – 1260)

Boaz’ role in the Book of Ruth is to serve as what is called a “guardian-redeemer”. This role is well-defined in Leviticus 25 and other places in the Law. When an Israelite man dies, it falls to his brother to take responsibility for the man’s widow and to do everything that he can to ensure the survival of the family, even to the point of providing a son who will continue the dead man’s legacy. If there is no brother, then the next closest relative is responsible to make sure that the widow is cared for and that the line continues.

In the book of Ruth, we have seen a young woman, poor and humbled and despised for her status as a foreigner, come to Boaz and ask him to fulfill the role of “guardian redeemer” in her situation. Even though Ruth represents a family that has acted against the strict interpretation of the Law, Boaz acts in grace toward Ruth and Naomi and so presents to them, and to us, a picture of the face of Christ. Boaz sees these widows as those who are forced to contemplate a life of poverty, fear, exclusion, and homelessness and who then takes steps to offer himself to them in the hopes of correcting that.

As you might imagine, not everyone can do that. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, there was a man who was, legally, more responsible for their care than was Boaz. He could have, and perhaps should have, said “yes” to their plea, but he did not. He passed the torch to Boaz and said, “If you would do this, you’ll not only be helping these women, you’ll be helping me, too.” And, as you saw, Boaz was able to act in the interest of Naomi, Ruth, and the entire community by offering himself.

Many scholars have looked at the way that Boaz embraced the role of “guardian redeemer” and have seen an example of Christ. One writer puts it this way:

Through his actions, Boaz communicates Christ. His person and character illustrate the incredible hesed (compassionate loving-kindness) that Christ possesses for his people, as well as the great measures he is willing to take to redeem his bride. Though Ruth arrives at Boaz’s bed empty-handed and humbled to the core, Boaz treats her with respect and kindness (3:10-13). Disgraced by her position and despised for her ethnicity, the young Moabite woman appears to have little to offer. Yet, despite all this, Boaz views her as a worthy woman (3:11). Though Ruth comes from a family that has turned their backs on the Lord, the Lord turns his face towards Ruth and reveals himself to her through Boaz. Boaz foreshadows Jesus Christ, the ultimate kinsman redeemer who will redeem a bride for himself—the church.[2]

Jesus, like Boaz, took on a problem that was not his so that we could have a chance to become what we were created to be.

In this way, I’d suggest that Boaz and Jesus ended any debate between Ezra and Ruth. Each of them acknowledges the truth that when we leave God’s intentions, we can die; when we seek out less than God’s best, we are diminished. It is possible, but surely not wise, for us to pollute ourselves and our world by embracing things that are counter to God’s purposes. Yet as they call us to remember this truth, they also remind us that it is God, not us, who gets to define those purposes. It is God, not us, who sets the boundaries for the world.

The solution for Ruth and Naomi and Boaz was not to build higher walls, to spark more violent protests, or to shout louder than their adversaries. That was clearly not the solution for Jesus, either. And that makes me wonder why I would imagine that it’s a solution that would work well in my own life.

It would seem to me as though this story of Ruth invites me to look across at someone whom I might identify as being “other” and do my best to discern in what ways I am called to walk – with that “other” – into the intentions of the One who created us both.

I think that there is a word here for the protester and for the policeman… for the light-skinned and the dark-skinned… for the one who trumpets adherence to “family values” (however that one chooses to define that term) and to the one who wears all the colors of the LGBTQ rainbow… to the one who just got off the boat and to the one whose great-great-great grandfather was born here… To the born-again, sanctified Christian and to the Muslim as well as the Jew and the atheist… It seems to me that the key is not to push against each other and yell and scream more loudly, or, worse, to blow up more of theirs before they have the chance to blow up yours… but rather to walk in the steps that God has laid out for you in the hopes and in the expectation that God knows God’s heart, God’s purposes, and God’s intentions and that if we are able to submit to those things we will discover how to live more Christ-like lives ourselves.

Can we embrace the concept of redemption? Can we acknowledge that things are a red-hot mess in the world right now, but that the best hope through this mess lies not in violence and the extermination of the “other”, but in the transformation of each of us? Author Anne Lamott posted something incredibly true on Facebook Friday morning:

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. it will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.[3]

I know that this sounds incredibly idealistic. I know that you may think me to be naïve; and yet it is apparent to me that the way of Boaz and Ruth and the way of the cross requires me to choose to act first out of love and humility and inclusion rather than in hostility or revenge. I confess that my heart is not pure, and that one way for me to make it purer is to learn to sing some of the songs that were written by the descendant of a Moabite woman. I want to offer the strength of my arms and my back and my legs, not to wreak havoc or inflict judgment or mete out revenge, but to protect the weak and restore the broken and search out the lost. And I’ve come here, to this congregation and to the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, to meet with those who, like me, are called to walk in the way of the cross. May we remind each other, and the world around us, that grace does bat last. That the game isn’t over. And that love always, always, always wins. Thanks be to God for the One who sought to reach out to us when we were so far away. Amen.

[1] Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, A Social and Historical Approach, Fortress Press, 1995, pp 223-225.

[2] Stephanie Van Eyk, “The Ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer” in Ligonier Ministries blog: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/ultimate-kinsman-redeemer/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/894203970709247

There’s a Storm A-Comin’

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 29 we had the 18th and final message in this series.  The text was Matthew 7:24-29 and our epistle reading was I Peter 3:12-18.

 

The pastor had all the kids up front for the children’s sermon. At one point, she asked if anyone could think of a name for a small grey creature that had a long bushy tail, gathered nuts for the winter, and lived in the trees. One little boy said to his sister, “Since we’re in church, I know that the right answer has got to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

jesus-crashed-25840-1250214387-56

 

Jesus.

Seriously – that’s the answer. I’m here to say that I love Jesus.

"Baptism of Christ" (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

“Baptism of Christ” (Detail), Pietro Perugino (1481-1483).

Whoa! No kidding! Last week, I started my message with “I love to talk”. This week, “I love Jesus.” Who could possibly see that coming? You may have seen in your bulletin the fact that next week is baptism Sunday at CHUP. Make sure you’re here for the 10 a.m. worship, where you might learn that water is wet!

But seriously – I love Jesus. And let me tell you more (because, you know, I love to talk, too…).

Late last summer I commenced with a plan to spend most of this past year studying the Sermon on the Mount. This is the eighteenth sermon I’ve preached in that series. When I said we were going to focus on Matthew chapters 5-7, I made the case by saying that we’d had a year wherein we considered the importance of hospitality and worship, and we’d emphasized mission and looked at a number of key Old Testament passages. And I wasn’t lying when I said any of that.

But the truth is that last summer, I was weary and dry.

Listen: I know a lot about running a church. If there’s a crisis, I can be a good guy to have in the room: I’m farily level-headed; I know some great scripture verses; I can pray up a storm on some days…

But here’s the deal: sometimes I think that I – and the rest of the Christian family – get so hung up on running the church, on having productive meetings and missional emphases and sustainable strategies that I – and we – miss the reason that we got into this in the first place. Jesus.

The church is important. The church needs to do stuff in the world, and the people in this room are the ones to make that happen. We have to talk about the heroin epidemic and gun violence and corporate greed and human sexuality and environmental issues and money and a thousand other things. I know that. I get it. And we do talk about those things.

Yet sometimes I get so hung up on my own ideas about those things that I lose sight of the one who called me. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the church that I lose sight of Jesus.

And I was afraid that was happening last year, and so I said, “All right, CHUP, we’re going to study the Sermon on the Mount.”

When I did this, I hoped to explore some new insights about what Jesus had to say about the issues of his day and ours, but mostly, to be honest, I just wanted to be with him for a while.

JEsusIn the middle of all our churchiness and programming and policies, I just wanted to hang around with Jesus, and to remember who he has been for me and for us. I wanted to be like Peter and hold on to the testimony – “we ourselves have been eyewitnesses of his majesty”, the old apostle says. We’ve known Jesus. We’ve seen Jesus. We love Jesus.

And so for much of the year we’ve wandered through some familiar sayings. We’ve contemplated the logs in our own eyes, the wisdom of cutting off one’s right hand, and foolishness of making a show of our giving or praying. And we’ve liked being there to hear those things and to remember those things with Jesus.

But our walk through the Sermon on the Mount is not just about memory, or going into our spiritual “happy place”. The Sermon on the Mount ends with a series of dire warnings. Last week, we heard Jesus talk about false prophets. This week, we get a weather forecast – and according to Jesus, there’s a storm a-comin’, and we’d best be prepared for it.

Nothing I can find in the Gospels indicates that Jesus ever lost a lot of sleep over whether or not we would like what he had to say, or that we would get all warm and fuzzy when we heard the beatitudes. He didn’t do much opinion polling. His concern, as evinced here, is whether we and the other hearers of the word would be attentive to the message. The question is not, “Do I like it?”; the question is, “Will I obey?”

Does the message of the Sermon on the Mount shape me? Do I hear the words of Jesus and as a result of that hearing, am I less likely to become debilitated by worry, or falsely emboldened by a judgmental attitude, or less likely to be consumed by lust or anger? That is to say, am I building my life, am I experiencing reality, as defined by Jesus’ words? Or am I simply admiring them the way that I do a sunny day, a beautiful painting, or a fine meal?

In the conclusion to his own study of the Sermon on the Mount, German pastor and theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it. That is the only way to hear his word. But again he does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal, he really means us to get on with it.[1]

And those who heard it first knew and understood that to which Bonhoeffer referred. Matthew tells us that they were amazed at his teaching – they knew right away that this was no mere wordsmithing; Jesus meant business.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

Jesus, by Rembrandt Van Rijn.

And the religious establishment and the Romans knew that a man who said things like this was something to be reckoned with – they came to realize that Jesus was dangerous to their cozy charade, and that he needed to be dealt with.

You see, that’s why I love him so much. Jesus, contrary to the understandings of him that are so prevalent today, was not blowing smoke. He is the real deal. He said it. He did it. And he offered to teach you and me how to do it, too.

So if you don’t know this already, let me tell you plainly: the storms are coming. It is a question of “when”, not “if”; a question of “how”, not “whether”.

Have you ever noticed how often we speak conditionally? It’s ridiculous. You hear it all the time. Someone says, “If I die…” or “Should something occur.” Seriously? Of course I’m going to die. There is no “if”, only a “when”. “Should something occur…” When in the history of history has something not occurred? You know that it’s going to happen… jobs will be lost, your spouse or parent or child will die, we will see floods; lives will be wracked by drug abuse or affairs; we’ll break legs and promises, we’ll suffer auto accidents and famine… It’s going to happen, people. And even if you say, “No, I’m good, I’ve already had that…”, well, think again – because this isn’t the mumps, people. The storm is coming. Again. And again. And again.

And when (not if) that storm comes, who will you be?

And when (not if) that storm comes, how will you get to the next step?

And when (not if) that storm comes, to whom will you turn?

Jesus.

Yes, that’s the right answer. Jesus.

When the first disciples hit a wall, and a lot of the crowd melted into the woodwork, Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave, too?” And Peter replied– do you remember this? –

“Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”

I’m with Peter. I don’t have any better ideas because Jesus is the best that there is.

I hope you’re not surprised to hear your pastor say this, but a lot of days, I don’t get it all. There are times when I look at God the Father and I think, “Holy smokes, what in the world is going on with this Guy?” There are, as Robert Capon says, some days where I look at the Father’s track record and I think that the best thing he’s got going for him is a Son like Jesus who is willing to vouch for him, ‘cause I sure can’t figure him out. And often the Holy Spirit isn’t much better – so much gets credited to him or blamed on him that I’m not sure what to believe – except that Jesus said he was sending the Spirit so I’ll be on the lookout.

But Jesus? Jesus I can love. Jesus does everything. I can do nothing on my own, but I can trust and follow him. It is a sweet deal, and the only deal that works for a knucklehead like me.[2]

I had a friend who lived with debilitating mental illness her entire adult life. Some of you knew her and would remember her. She suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia and four or five other conditions that landed her in the hospital for six or eight months at a time. But when she was lucid – wow, was she a woman of faith. And I can’t remember how many times she grabbed my hand with tears in her eyes and said, “Oh, Pastor Dave! Thank God for God! Thank God for Jesus! Right, Pastor Dave? I don’t know what’s happening, but thank God for Jesus.” And all I could do was hold her hand right back and say with conviction, “That’s right, Barb. Thank God for Jesus…”

Because, you know, he’s Jesus.

So we’re finished with the Sermon on the Mount. And because we’ve had it in bits and pieces for 18 weeks over the course of nine months, let me ask you to do this: go home and read Matthew 5, 6 and 7 today. And read the entire Sermon every day this week. And try it. Look for logs in your own eye. Give secretly. Let go of lust or anger. Remember Jesus. Listen for his laughter, heed his warnings, learn from his wisdom, and accept his grace.

And love him. Oh, for Christ’s sake, love him.

And follow him into the storm, knowing that you can’t control the ride, but you can control who you’re going to hold onto in the midst of it.

And thank God for Jesus. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 218-219).

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

During the offering, I concluded the series of messages on The Sermon on the Mount by singing a Rich Mullins tune entitled “Heaven in His Eyes”.  You can hear this song (although, mercifully, not me!), by clicking on the link below or pasting this url into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCBOZVLfCco

Don Quixote and Me

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On May 8, we sat with Disciples as Jesus warned about the rigors of “the narrow way” (Matthew 7:13-14, below).  Our readings also included Peter’s plea for communal love and discipline as found in I Peter 4:7-11.  May 8 marked our observance of “Preschool Sunday”, in which our congregation highlights the importance of the ministry of the Crafton Heights Community Preschool to both our community and the families of the children involved.

 

If you happen to find yourself sitting next to me and my cell phone “rings” (yes, I’m one of those old timers who, embarrassingly at times, allows his phone to ring when getting a voice call…), you’ll get an earful.  Listen:

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

Don Quixote, Pablo Picasso (1955)

That, my friends, is the Overture from the sound track of Man of La Mancha (the first 30 seconds of which call me to attention whenever I forget to hit the “silence” button). The central figure in that show is an old man named Alonso Quijana, who has become so steeped in stories of chivalry and injustice that he renames himself Don Quixote de La Mancha and goes forth as a knight-errant to save the world.

If you don’t already know this, you should: Don Quixote de La Mancha is my hero.

Seriously. I mean, my daughter is under orders that she’s got to find someone willing to sing “To Dream the Impossible Dream” at my funeral. I’m a little over the top on this one.

Why?

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote by Fabricio Moraes. Used by permission. See more at http://www.fabriciomoraes.com

Don Quixote is an idealist who charges at windmills and who dreams of slaying dragons. He treats those on the margins with respect and honor, even while all the time he is thought by the world to be a madman.

Yet at the end of his story, he has taught a community to believe the best about themselves and each other. He has led his squire, Sancho Panza, and the lowly kitchen wench, Aldonza, to not only embrace his so-called folly, but to share and appreciate the value of what he calls “the quest”: the task of making the world a better place by the way that you treat it and those who are in it.

I thought of Don Quixote this week as I encountered the next few verses in the Sermon on the Mount. Since September, this congregation has been considering this body of teaching by Jesus that has been called the greatest set of ethical instructions ever offered. We have heard the beatitudes, the reimagination of the Law, and the proper direction for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we’ve overheard Jesus’ instructions to his followers as to how to live lives like his. And now he is coming to the conclusion, and he says this:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

road-to-hellYou know, when I was younger, this passage scared the heck out of me. I remember wondering, “How will I know if I’m on the right road? What if I’m wrong? This road sure looks crowded…am I heading for destruction? What if someone I love believes the wrong things about Jesus? How can I possibly know everything? What if I get to the gate and I’m wrong?

You see, I had almost always pictured this verse as some sort of theological final exam. You choose a path and you walk down it and you get to a gate (hopefully, a really teeny-tiny one) and someone asks you if you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Reconciler of the world and you say “Yes” and start to come in but then there are a lot more questions about the virgin birth and the theory of atonement and the doctrine of the Trinity and prevenient grace and transubstantiation and so on and so on. I’d thought of the “narrow gate” as having the ability to give my intellectual assent to some core doctrines of the church. If I get enough right answers, then I’m allowed through the narrow gate; if I don’t, well, I guess I’ll have plenty of company on that other road…

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

I As I said, that’s what I used to think. However, I’ve come to see that this interpretation does not fit the text. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ means of equipping his followers to live as he does. Verse after verse for three chapters contain a whole array of practices in which the disciples are called to engage. There is very little in this message about doctrinal correctness or theological certainty. Rather, Jesus is describing the life of faith – the best life possible – as a journey, or better yet: a quest.

German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his monumental work The Cost of Discipleship. Listen:

The path of discipleship is narrow, and it is fatally easy to miss one’s way and stray from the path, even after years of discipleship. And it is hard to find. On either side of the narrow path deep chasms yawn. To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray. But if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path. For he is himself the way, the narrow way and the strait gate. He, and he alone, is our journey’s end.[1]

The Sermon on the Mount is the way that Jesus chose to communicate the core truths – not about what to believe theologically, but how to live in the world day in and day out as we follow in his steps.

And the message sunk in, eventually.

How do I know this? Because one of the men who was there when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, a fisherman named Simon Peter, found himself in a jail cell thirty years or so later, writing to a community of people who wanted to know what it meant to call themselves “Christians” – or followers of Christ. And as Peter found himself nearing the end of his own life, he wrote to this group of believers, saying, “Do you want to know how to live right? Then do these things…”

Now maybe you remember a few things about Peter’s life, but just in case you forgot, Peter is the man who fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not once, not twice, but three times after Jesus begged him to stay awake… And this man now writes his friends and says, essentially, “For God’s sake, people, stay awake! Be alert! Look for chances to love each other and to be welcoming and hospitable to the stranger. Share the grace that you’ve been given, and look to God to get you through. Love Jesus. Love each other. Share what you have.

And you shake your head and say, “OK, Rev., that’s mildly interesting. What’s your point today?

"Jesus and the Children of the World", Richard  Hook (1965)

“Jesus and the Children of the World”, Richard Hook (1965)

My point is that today is Preschool Sunday here in Crafton Heights. And whether you have access to and responsibility for a particular three year old of your own or not, this is as good a day as any for us to pause and think about which road we are training our children to follow as they come to know the opportunities and dangers that await them on the journey ahead.

We want our children to choose life and avoid destruction, don’t we? How do we shape them for that? How do we equip them to become those people whom God is calling them to be?

Albert Schweitzer, the famed physician and theologian, said this: “There are only three ways to teach a child. The first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example.” If that’s true – and I am certain that it is – the question is not so much, “How will we teach our children?”, but rather, “What are we teaching our children?”

I’d like to suggest three ways by which we who are a little further along the road of discipleship and faith might help shape and nurture the hearts, minds, and spirits of those who are following us.

Are you engaging in a model of life-long discipleship and learning? That is to say, are you in a relationship with some community or group that includes adults talking about matters relating to faith and practice of life together? When the children around you consider your behavior, do they see someone who is not only regularly present for worship, but who is active in worship? If faith and discipleship and “the narrow way” are, in fact, lifestyles rather than dogmas that we accept or reject, we’ve got to demonstrate to our children the fact that we are actively walking in this way.

More specifically, we’ve got to engage in practices of love and generosity with some intentionality. You can help the young people around you learn to adopt and share these values by allowing them to help you shop for the food pantry, for instance. As they get a little older, it’s important to have conversations around your house about how you get money into the house and how you choose how to spend it.

And while we’re on the topic of money, can I please ask that we put on particular sentence on indefinite leave of absence? I think that we do our children a disservice when we hide being the phrase “but we can’t afford that”. Whether you’re talking about another candy bar in the checkout line or the latest in electronic gadgetry, saying “we can’t afford that” is an easy cop-out that diminishes the opportunity for genuine conversation and deeper faith formation. Our children are learning how to prioritize and make choices all the time. If we simply say, “That’s not something we value in this family”, or “I can see why that’s appealing to you, but we are going to use our money for…”, then that teaches the child that all of life is about choosing how to spend the selves that we’ve been given in some of the many, many places of possibility.

Finally, as we walk with and in front of the next generation, can we do so in a way that will allow them to say that we were honest, forgiving, and kind? Can we interact with each other and those around us in ways that recognize that we, ourselves, are those in need of forgiveness too?

One of the ways that we can model this for the children that we love is to have open and honest conversations with them about things like racism, hatred, and bullying. I am ashamed to say that for much of my own early parenting, I was not as intentional as I could have been because, you know, racism didn’t affect our family. I was wrong then, and you can see it now – our culture is increasingly toxic when it comes to matters of hate and exclusion and villanization. And perhaps the central task facing adults in our culture is whether we are able to help our children recognize that toxicity before it kills them.

We don’t agree on everything. Some days we don’t agree on much. I don’t think that having the same views on any number of issues are prerequisites for the life of faith. Yet, as we heard from Jesus last week, maintaining a posture of love and humility are: treat others as you would have them treat you. Let’s teach that to our kids, shall we?

I’d like to thank the Preschool teachers, the Open Door staff and volunteers, and all the people who give of themselves to help create programs here that foster these behaviors in our children.

And in the same breath, I know I speak for many who offer prayer for moms and dads, grand parents, aunts and uncles, neighbors and coaches – advocates who are tireless in investing yourselves in the welfare of the next generation.

No one of us can do all of this alone. That’s ok. We’re not supposed to. Some days, you may feel like you’re charging at a windmill, or stuck on the quest all by yourself. The life of faith is not always fun or easy or natural. But it’s good.   And it’s worth it. And it leads us to life in abundance. Let us go – and let us remember equip those who follow us to walk in this way. Let us teach them to believe that they, and their world, and the people with whom they share this world, are of great worth. Let us model lives of heroism and courage and idealism. I’m not saying you’ve got to change your ring tone, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a song like that stuck in your head when you go out to slay the dragons tomorrow morning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1961, pp. 211-212)