The Case of the Unauthorized Exorcist

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 October 21, we followed Jesus and his disciples into a small home in Capernaum where they learned an important lesson. Our gospel reading was Mark 9:33-41. We also heard from Numbers 11:26-30.

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

If you’ve ever done any work with children at all, the scene will be familiar to you. Everyone is in a certain place (say, Fellowship Hall), and then you need to group to move to the next place (say, the Sanctuary).  You stand by the door and say, “All right, let’s get ready to go.  Everyone who is in my group, line up over here.”  And where does every single child want to be? At the front of the line!  Everyone wants to be first, right?  And how do they solve this? Usually there is some shouting, some pushing, and some pouting.

Jesus and his followers have been spending some time in the far north of Israel, near the community of Caesarea Philippi.  Today, though, we read that they are on the move – headed south through the Galilee.  You know this: when Jesus and his followers went from one place to another, how did they move?  They sure didn’t Uber or take a bus!  They walked. And when they walked, it was impossible for them to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. The narrow paths and steep terrain wouldn’t permit it.  So what do they do? They line up, and they follow.

They finally get to the place where they’re staying for the night and Jesus asks a question.  Now, if that question sounded familiar to you, congratulations, because the same exact question came before us the last time we opened Mark’s Gospel.  For the second time in two days, Jesus looks at his followers and is forced to ask, “What were you arguing about?”

I wonder, Church, if we’ve given him any cause to ask us anything different in 2018?  I mean, he’s just given them some amazing (and difficult) teaching.  They could have been talking about what it meant when Jesus had spoken about the fact that the Son of Man was destined to be betrayed, to suffer, and to die.  But that’s not what they were talking about. They could have been reflecting on the teaching he’d given them when he healed the boy with the seizures, wherein Jesus had emphasized the importance of prayer and other spiritual practices.

But that’s not what they were arguing about, is it, Church?  And my first question for you all today is simply this: Has the quality of church arguments improved in the last 2000 years, or would we we just as likely to sit in embarrassed silence if he were to ask US what we’ve been spending so much time and energy on lately?

When no one can answer him, Mark tells us that Jesus sat down.  I will tell you that is not the sign of a weary man looking to take a load off his feet.  When an ancient Rabbi sat down in the presence of his disciples, it was a sign that he was ready to begin a formal teaching session. Jesus sat down in such a way as to communicate, “All right, boys, listen up.  This is going to be important.”

“Suffer the Children” (detail), Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

And it was.  He addresses the core of their behavior on the road, and he does so bluntly.  “Do you want to be first? Do you want to be great? Here’s the trick: become a servant. If you want to be first – get in the last place.”  And in order to emphasize his point, he calls a child into the circle, takes that child into his arms, and says, “the true mark of discipleship is how you treat someone like this – anonymous, weak, ‘inconsequential’ in the world’s eyes.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian man who, after experiencing some of the horrors of World War II, served with distinction in the Royal Navy.  He was unsettled, though, and left the military to pursue a career in academia.  He earned a PhD in Philosophy and wrote books on the importance of Aristotle and ethics. However, he became disenchanted with the life of a scholar and happened upon a community of severely disabled adults – and in this group he found his true vocation.  He formed an intentional community, called “L’Arche”, in France, where he dedicated his life to serving and learning from these who have been most marginalized. He writes,

[These men] do not have a consciousness of power. Because of this perhaps their capacity for love is more immediate, lively and developed than that of other men. They cannot be men of ambition and action in society and so develop a capacity for friendship rather than for efficiency. They are indeed weak and easily influenced, because they confidently give themselves to others; they are simple certainly, but often with a very attractive simplicity. Their first reaction is often one of welcome and not of rejection or criticism. Full of trust, they commit themselves deeply. Who amongst us has not been moved when met by the warm welcome of our boys and girls, by their smiles, their confidence and their outstretched arms. Free from the bonds of conventional society, and of ambition, they are free, not with the ambitious freedom of reason, but with an interior freedom, that of friendship. Who has not been struck by the rightness of their judgments upon the goodness or evil of men, by their profound intuition on certain human truths, by the truth and simplicity of their nature which seeks not so much to appear to be, as to be.[1]

I think that Vanier was paying attention to Jesus, even if the disciples were not.  Look in particular at verse 37: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.” Do you see that? Four times in a single sentence wherein Jesus is seeking to communicate the essence of discipleship he uses the word “welcome”.  Do you think that he understood that to be an important hallmark of the community that would follow him?

How well did the disciples hear the voice of their master?  We don’t have to wait long to find out: as soon as Jesus finishes the sentence in which he uses the word “welcome” four straight times, John – who is often referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – the one who, if Jesus had a best friend, it was probably him – John can’t wait to say, “Oooh oooh oooh – hey Jesus, we saw a guy who was using your name but not doing everything the way we do, and so we made him stop!”

You just have to know that if Jesus ever did a face-palm, it was here.  “Seriously, John? All this conversation about welcoming and hospitality and humility, and the best thing that you can think to say at this very moment is this? Great googly-moogly.”

It’s telling to see what John said.  He had to shut the guy down, he said.  Why? “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”  Not, “he wasn’t following you, Jesus…” Nope.  Those guys who were arguing about who is going to be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are still worried about it now, even after Jesus told them of the call to welcome and receive.

This situation echoes the one to which we referred in our Old Testament reading: there, Moses had felt the burden of leadership, and the Lord had told him to gather some of the elders who would join in the ministry with him.  They were all to go to a certain spot and the Lord would pour out His spirit upon them. So far, so good.  But then, lo and behold, a couple of the fellows who were not there wound up getting touched by the Spirit as well!  Good news, right?  Not to young Joshua, Moses’ assistant.  Just as the disciples of Jesus tried to hush the man who wasn’t with the Lord, so Joshua attempted to prevent these men from exercising the gifts they’d received from God. In both cases, the response is the same: “Why in the world would you want to silence the Spirit of God just because it’s coming from a place that surprises you?”

Beloved, I think that there is a word from God for us here today.  The call to be a disciple is a call to share, to adapt, and to grow.

Let me tell you a part of my own story.  For a long time, I prided myself on a certain point of my theology. I knew what I believed and why I believed it. I could throw six or eight Bible passages at anyone who questioned me.  I was devout, I was orthodox, I was, well, right. I spoke out about my own beliefs, and I wrote about them.

There was another person who had a different take on this issue.  She sought to befriend me.  At first, I was wary.  Why would she want to talk? “Don’t waste your breath trying to win me over to your side,” I told her.  “I’m not interested in being converted.”  She told me that was the farthest thing from her mind – she told me that she wanted to know how my spirit was touched by this thing.  We met occasionally for coffee and conversation.

Not long after that, she was brought before a church court on charges relating to her position on this issue.  I was called to serve as a “judge” at the trial that followed.  Throughout the affair, she was never less than gracious or hospitable.  I thought she was wrong – but she was never smug or accusatory.

I saw her once in the airport.  When I greeted her, she mentioned that her husband was seriously ill.  I asked if I could pray for him, and if we could pray there in the airport.  At that moment, I realized that we were not merely two sides of an argument – we were two children of God seeking to make our way in a universe that is seemingly opposed to the intentions of God far too often.  She received my offer to pray as it was intended, and our friendship grew.

We still don’t agree on everything. But I know that because God limited my ability to see her only as “the other”, the mistaken, the wrong… I was able to grow and adapt in my own walk of faith. My ideas have changed.  I have grown – in my intellect, in my faith, in my spirit.

I believe that the call of Jesus, echoed by Moses, is to resist any pattern that would have the church define itself by the ideas we are against, the people we want to keep out, or the things that we hate.  Let us refuse the temptation – so common in America’s political and cultural climate in 2018 – to “other” someone else.  Whether we call it tribalism or white supremacy or Islamophobia or racism or ethnocentrism – any practice that perpetuates or even encourages us to draw stark lines between “us” and “them” can only lead to more entrenched marginalization and the fracturing of the human family.  Instead, let us, as followers of Jesus Christ, commit ourselves to welcoming and even embracing those for whom Christ has died.

Edwin Markham was an American poet who was active around the turn of the last century.  He captures the heart of this part of the gospel call in his whimsical little piece called “Outwitted”.

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in![2]

Beloved, let us never, ever, give into the temptation to add to those things that divide us.  Instead, let us seek to create and contribute to a culture of tolerance, embrace, and hospitality to the end that all people might be touched by the Spirit and love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[3]Jean Vanier, Eruption to Hope(1971)

[2]“Outwitted”, by Edwin Markham in The Shoes of Happiness And Other Poems (1913).

Glory!

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 September 30 we stepped away from the liturgical calendar and explored the wonder of the Transfiguration of Christ.  Our gospel reading was from Mark 9:2-13. 

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

Well, it’s official – this is “wedding season”.  Maybe you’ve gone to one or two already this fall.  If it seems like more and more people are getting married at this time of year, you’re right.  Nine of the top ten wedding dates in 2018 are in September or October (yesterday was #4, by the way).  If I was a part of your wedding, you’ll know that I have a standard fee for conducting the ceremony: I ask for a photo of the three of us for the “wall of fame” in my study.

Wedding pictures.  What a tradition.  You may have been in some, and I’m sure you’ve seen a bunch.  There are some pretty outlandish ones being taken these days…

As I contemplate the photos of so many of you that line my study, I ask myself, “Why do we take so many pictures at our weddings?”  Surely the reason can’t be simply to remember the fact that we got married.  There are a hundred reminders of that every day.  In addition, have you ever met someone who had forgotten that they got married?  I don’t think that’s the purpose.  There has to be more to it than simply remembering the event.  Why do we get ourselves all gussied up and stand in front of the cameras for a very long time on what are often incredibly hot days, smiling as if we are as cool as cucumbers who aren’t worried about whether the DJ will pronounce the names correctly or how we’re going to feed 239 of our best friends?

Here’s my theory: I think we stand up there and take the photos because we want to somehow “mark” the day. We want to remember that it is a special day.  But not just the day – we want to acknowledge our hopes and our dreams.  We want to remember, when the dishes are piling up in the sink and the kids are screaming and the power goes out and the snow needs to be shoveled and the dog messed the carpet (again!) that when we started this adventure, we had some incredibly high hopes and we were surrounded by some amazing people – friends and relatives who had gone to great expense and trouble just to be there with us and for us on this incredible day. I think we take photos at these formal times so that we can remember not only how we looked, but all that we have hoped and dreamed.

The Transfiguration of The Christ, Earl Mott (contemporary)

I think that’s why Peter tries to get the Lord to allow him to set up some tents on the mountain. You know, there are a lot of reasons to love Peter in the scripture, but today’s reading is one of my favorites.  Jesus has invited Peter, James, and John to come with him for an incredible experience, and Peter is overawed.  I love the fact that just after recording Peter’s request to set up a few tents, the author of Mark says, “He did not know what to say…” It’s a clear acknowledgement that sometimes, Peter just can’t help himself. He knows he’s out of his league, but he just can’t shut up.  I know how he feels…

He just wants it to last a little longer.  Clearly, neither Jesus, nor Moses, nor Elijah needs any kind of extra shelter…but Peter just wants to stay there.  “It’s so good – to be in the presence of the Lord, and to see these figures from the past, representing the Law and the Prophets – WOW!  Don’t let it end, Jesus!  I know that sooner or later you’re going to start talking about dying again, and we’re going to have to leave…but let’s not rush, huh?”

You can’t blame him.  Peter is awash in the light; basking in the heavenly voice, overwhelmed by the moment. After all, he and the other disciples have just witnessed a Christophany; that is, a physical manifestation or revelation of Jesus’ true nature. Only six days prior to this, Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ.  Here, the Divine voice, along with the presence of Moses and Elijah, confirms what Peter has named.  He sees the light; he loves the light; and he wants to stay there.  You can’t blame him for that.

But unfortunately for Peter, the moment does not last, and the vision fades, and it’s just them and Jesus, coming down the mountain.  As they do so, Jesus tells them what he’s told just about everyone else in the past nine chapters of this Gospel: “Don’t say anything about this.” We’ve heard this talk of the “messianic secret” before, and it appears to be the Lord’s way of saying to Peter and to the rest of us – “Look, I know you are in love with the idea of me being the Messiah, but you don’t really get it yet.  And whatever you do, don’t try to tell this story until you know how it ends. When you really ‘get it’, you’ll be able to tell it well.  But for now, mum’s the word.”  What is interesting to me at this point is that this is the final time in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells people to keep his identity a secret.  He is entering an increasingly public phase of his ministry and preparing for his death.  There are to be no more secrets in the days ahead.

Messiah’s Entry Into Jerusalem, Siegmund Forst (1965)

As they come down the mountain, the disciples raise questions about the role of Elijah.  Most of the rabbis at that time taught that when the Messiah finally came, he would be unmistakable in part because God would send Elijah to earth to announce the Messiah’s coming.  According to these teachers, one day Elijah would stand on the mountains of Israel, weeping at the desolation he saw.  Then in a voice that would be heard from one end of the earth to the other, he would cry out “Peace comes to the world!”  On the second day, he would cry out to all creation, “Good comes to the world!” And on the third day he would cry “Yshua (salvation) comes to the world!”  And then Elijah would come and make things right so that the Messiah would come into a kingdom that has been properly prepared.[1]

Now remember that the twelve had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and now here they see Elijah – and so they ask Jesus, is it going to be like that?  And Jesus says, “No – not exactly.  Elijah has already come” – a reference to the role of John the Baptist in announcing the ministry and work of Jesus.  Jesus continues by saying, essentially, “You know, they didn’t get John’s ministry, they sure as shooting won’t understand me.” The world and the culture were limited in what they believed and could understand about God – and anyone who imposed those limits on John and on Jesus was unable to see God’s working in John’s and in Jesus’ lives.

Jesus, though, uses this event – we call it “the transfiguration” to teach his followers to remove that kind of limitation.  Peter, James, and John had literally “seen the light”.  They were different for having been in that place, even if they couldn’t fully realize it. Jesus allowed them to see him, and themselves, and each other in a different light – and they never, ever forgot it.

The Transfiguration, Sieger Köder

Have you “seen the light”?  What I mean is, have you ever been made acutely aware of who you are, where you are, and what that means?

Try this. Please, folks, don’t say anything out loud here.  But think with me…

Think of a time when you were made aware of your own sinfulness.  A time when you saw, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were not who you wanted to be, or thought you were, or wanted someone else to believe that you were – a time when you were broken by this kind of awareness.

It may be been the day that you realized you were addicted.

Or the day that you took credit for work that was not yours, and were caught in it.

Perhaps it was when you were caught having an affair, or the shame you felt when you raised your hand to your child.  It may be, for someone in this room, an awareness of shame that has come upon you in light of the national conversation regarding the #metoo movement.

Look, I don’t know exactly when it was for most of you, but I’m betting that I don’t have to convince you that you’ve had days where you realized that you’ve blown it.  Do you remember that day?  That pain? That shame?

As odd as it may sound, that was the light of Christ shining in your life. It illuminated a part of your world that had been dark, revealing a truth that you’d been hiding from others and perhaps yourself for a long time.

Stay in that pain for a moment.

Now, I want you to remember a time when you experienced great grace.  A sense of your life being something that you did not deserve – a gift that came to you and you knew it was not the result of your own charm, wittiness, or rakish good looks.

Maybe it was the time he told you he loved you, or the birth of a child or grandchild.

It could be that time she stuck with you after you both knew you’d screwed up.

Maybe it was the day you heard about an amazing scholarship, or saw that relative who had written you off for dead, or somehow felt accepted in spite of your brokenness.

Can you remember a day like that?

That, too is light – coming from outside of you and revealing truth by illuminating the reality of your heart.  You have seen the light – no less than the apostles did on the mount of transfiguration.  I know you have.

This passage records the church’s commemoration of the time when Jesus’ face was set ablaze by the presence of the holy on top of the mountain. It reminds disciples – then and now – of how Moses’ face was radiant following his conversations with the Lord.

Our witnesses to this event did not produce that light.  They did not invent it or manufacture it or manipulate it. They simply stayed in it.  They allowed it to change them.  The light shone on them, and they stood in the light.

If I’m right about your best day and your worst day, you know something about standing in the light, too.  So let me ask you, what happens when you stand in the light? Can you be changed?

What I really want to know is this:  what if you were able to live in the deep awareness of the light of God penetrating your life – both your deepest sin and greatest brokenness andyour ultimate joy and amazement at the undeserved grace that God has put in your life?  What if you walked around every day convinced that you were terribly flawed, a great sinner in need of a great saving while at the same time you were absolutely sure that you were receiving some unmerited favor, some great gift that you did not deserve but clearly enjoy?

What if you had the self-awareness every day to say, and to believe, that “I am a great sinner whose life has been marked by grave misjudgments and boneheaded mistakes.  And I am also a child of God whose life is filled with blessing that does not originate in me, and whose sin and mistakes cannot define.”

If you or I had the presence of mind to live like that, well, we’d be living like the transfiguration wasn’t a one-and-done kind of deal.

Listen: if you are sure that you’ve been broken by sin, then how in the world will you judge your neighbor?  What makes you any better than that person you’re ready to throw under the bus?  We both know the answer to that question.

Again: if you are convinced that God’s grace has been brought into your life, and that you are aware of the power of God’s life, light, and peace – how will you hold that in, and think it only applies to you?

Oh, that the church might be full of those who are so grateful for what they’ve received that they are sold out for others!  That we might be so defined by gratitude and so overwhelmed by the grace that we’ve received that we have no option but to extend that graciousness, that hospitality, to others.

My prayer for this day is that God will reveal to each of us who we are, and where we are. That we will claim that identity and dwell in it.  And that the love of God might flow freely in and through us in ways that allow our neighbors to see the grace and forgiveness of Christ, whom we love and serve by loving and serving those amongst whom he has placed us. Thanks be to God for the light that has not stopped shining!  Amen.

[1] Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Mark(Westminster, 1956), p. 218.

 

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