The Life Of The Party

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

Practicing Gratitude

On Sunday, November 5, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights began a month-long exploration of gratitude and thanksgiving, and how necessary those disciplines are to the life of faith.  Because of a death in the family, I was unable to be there myself, but this sermon was read by my dear friend Karen.  I do not have an audio file to post.  The scriptures for the morning included Deuteronomy 16:13-17 and Colossians 1:15-20.

When I was a kid, my sister and brother and I had to wait on the top step of the home until both mom and dad were awake on Christmas morning. Dad had to be the first one downstairs, allegedly to check and make sure that Mr. Claus had safely come and gone (although I do remember the smell of coffee wafting up the steps on those mornings, too).

Once Dad gave the OK, we were allowed to go downstairs, but all of us had to walk right past the presents that were under the tree and make our way to the stockings. After everyone had unpacked their stockings, then the family moved to the kitchen for breakfast (and, as I recall, more coffee for the grown-ups). Usually, the orange at the “toe” of the stocking made up part of the holiday breakfast.

After breakfast, we kids were finally allowed to go in and investigate the gifts under the tree. Presents were opened, one by one, with each person taking a turn while the rest of the family watched.

Why did the Carvers “do” Christmas in this way? Well, for starters, it made the day last longer. Some years, there were not many gifts under the tree, and a deliberate pace stretched the celebration out. In addition, the practice of moving slowly through the gifts helped the family to remember that the things under the tree were not the most important part of the day.

Not surprisingly, those rules followed me from Wilmington DE to Pittsburgh and became a part of the practices that Sharon and I gave to Ariel. They were never written down, and often times not even discussed. They just were… things happened that way because that’s how they always happened.

You know that there is no “right” way to do Christmas, but that the ways that I was shown as a child shaped my view of Christmas, gifts, priorities, and led me to practices as an adult. The fruit of the practice of a deliberate and slow-paced Christmas was, for me, gratitude and appreciation for the gift of a family.

Every culture and every family has rules and practices and “a way that we do things here…” Like the Carver Christmas, they’re not often written – but they are all taught and learned.

In Leviticus chapter 23, the Israelites are getting ready to enter into the Promised Land and God says, “You want to be my people? I’ll tell you how to be my people. Remember these days and keep them holy.” And then God goes on to lay out seven Holy Days on which people are commanded to feast. Many of these days you know: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, The Feast of the Trumpets, Yom Kippur (or “The Day of Atonement”), and Sukkot. Why does God give the Jews these feasts? So that they remember the Passover, remember the flight from Egypt into the desert; remember the provision of God in the midst of their journey. God wants them to remember that they lived in tents in the desert and to remember that they are forgiven by His grace. Why does God give them the commandment to have these feast days? So that on the feast days, they will have the opportunity and responsibility to tell their children the stories and their children will learn who they are.

Deuteronomy 16 gives a little more information about one particular feast – the celebration of Sukkot – also called the Feast of the Ingathering, the Feast of Booths, or the Festival of the Tabernacle. For seven days, the people of God were called to move out of their homes into sukkah – meaning “booth” or “tabernacle” – a temporary structure where they were to dwell for seven days and nights. A sukkah was to have at least two and a half walls covered with a material that will not blow away in the wind. It could be of any size, so long as it is large enough for one to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in it. The roof of the sukkah must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks, bamboo reeds, sticks, or two-by-fours. The roof must be left loose, not tied down, and the covering must be thin enough that rain can get in, and preferably sparsely enough that the stars can be seen, but not so sparsely that more than ten inches is open at any point or that there is more light than shade.

Let me interrupt this description of the booths to ask, doesn’t this make Judaism sound like the coolest religion ever, especially for eight year olds? Seriously, what child hasn’t begged to sleep out in the yard – to have a camp out, in a tent, all night long? And here, God commands it – for a whole week! How cool is that?

The gift of Sukkot is designed to remind the Israelites, and to encourage them to teach their children and grandchildren, the practice of thankfulness. They are called to remember and re-enact, physically, the truth that we are all always utterly dependent on God. The flimsiness of these dwellings is a reminder that it is not the bricks of our homes that provide us shelter, but rather the grace and goodwill of God.

This idea of leaving something substantial and dwelling in something less substantial is heightened in the New Testament. In the first chapter of John’s gospel, we read that “the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth.” (Young’s Literal Translation). Our reading this morning from Colossians tells us that in Jesus, the completeness and fullness of God was pleased to dwell – to tabernacle – in the person of Jesus. Somehow, in the fragility of the human form, the essence of the Divine moved out of eternity and entered into time. Just as the Jews were to move out of their substantial homes and into a fragile structure with a leaky roof, so too did the Son of God leave the majesty of heaven and enter into our reality.

And, of course, in other sections of the bible we read that the church – you and I – is called the body of Christ. Given that, it’s not too much of a stretch to put it together like this:

  • God is the source of all that is, and God provides, guides, leads, protects, and sustains the creation.
  • The Israelites are commanded to remember this core truth about God, and to teach it to their children by cultivating a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving.
  • That remembering and teaching includes the practice of dwelling or tabernacling.
  • God reminds us of that truth by coming to dwell, or tabernacle, with us in the person of Christ.
  • Christ sends the church to be his fragile, temporary dwelling in the world and commands us to model gratitude, share grace, and point to the generosity of God.
  • Because we, in fact, have been made for gratitude and thanksgiving.

Do you see how those lines are connected? It begins with God and ends with our thanksgiving.

How will we practice that kind of a lifestyle? How do we teach our children and this in our community the importance of being grateful and gracious? We can insist that they say “please” and “thank you”, of course. We can take part in meal time prayers. But I suspect that there needs to be more to it than that. The challenge that Dave will put before us all month long is to model a life of gratitude and thanksgiving for the way that God meets us in the midst of what we need.

It’s a little chilly to be camping out on the front lawn in Western PA right now, but what about adopting the simple practice of writing one thank-you note a day every day for the next four weeks? Some of you have participated in a social media exercise called “Thirty Days of Gratitude”, wherein each day you put up a post on Facebook or Instagram indicating that you are grateful for running water, or democracy, or toilet paper. That’s not a bad thing – it’s just not what we’re talking about this morning.

I’m suggesting that once a day for the next 28 days you write a personal note to someone else thanking that person for some way in which she or he has been a blessing to you. It needn’t be deep, but it should be personal. Write a note and tuck it inside your child’s lunchbox. Track down a former teacher. Think about the ways that someone at school or work has been helpful to you. Notice those things. And name them.

There are about 150 cards in baskets in the back of the sanctuary. They are there to help get you started. In fact, if you’re stumped, your first attempt could be to write a note to Pastor Dave saying “thanks for getting these cards for us to use this month…”

Each day, think about who you can thank. In your homes, or when you’re with friends, ask each other: “Did you write a note today? To whom? Why?” This will help us to develop a vocabulary of gratitude.

Thanksgiving is a great holiday, and we’ll get to it soon enough this month. But if thanksgiving is only one day that is marked by overindulgence and eagerness to get out the door for the Black Friday sales, well, then, we’ve done it wrong.

Can we remember that we were created to dwell in gratitude? Can we tabernacle in Thanksgiving? Can we, as a community, be a living, breathing sukkah – a reminder of God’s care and presence in the world? A fragile dwelling, connected to something more substantial, perhaps, that points to the truth that all that we have, all that we are, and all that we ever will be comes from God?

Let us be grateful. And let us practice in such a way that will allow us to cultivate that attribute in our children – to the end that the world may see the grace and glory of God. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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)