A Different Kind of King

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 “Christ the King” Sunday, November 25, we talked about the many, many ways that following Jesus can really screw up your life.  What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the one who deserves all our allegiance?  Our gospel reading was Mark 10:32-45.

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

When you look at your bulletin, or the screen, or perhaps your handy-dandy pocket liturgical calendar, you’ll see that today is called “Christ the King” Sunday. We’ll talk a little more about how this Feast Day came to be a part of our Christian year later on, but for now, I wonder what you think when we say that Christ is the ‘King’. As welcome New Members into our congregation, please give some thought to how it was that you entered into the path of following Jesus?  Who told you about the Lord? What did they say?

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, there are some who invite others to consider an eternal relationship with their creator using what could be called the “turn or burn, baby” method.  Listeners are urged to clean up their acts and to become holier people – leave sin behind, straighten up and fly right, and become the kind of people that God can like a little better.  Some folk see the Gospel as a call to repentance, which can often mean giving up sin and becoming a little nicer.

Another, more attractive approach to teaching others the good news could be referred to as “Jesus is the answer”.  There was a time in my own life where I encouraged people to turn to Jesus at a point when they were simply tired of all of the problems in their lives.  Their marriages were miserable, or they didn’t have any focus, or there was financial difficulty.  Whatever the problem was, Jesus had come to make it better.  An evangelist who subscribes to this school of thought might say that you should become a Christian because it will help you get rid of, or at least deal with, your problems better.

I am not here to rain on anyone’s parade, and truth be told, I’ve lived in both of these Gospel camps before. But I don’t stay in either of them very often now.  The way of discipleship, at least as it is described in the Gospel of Mark, has little connection with either the “turn or burn” crowd or the “Jesus is the answer” folks. Today, we join up with Jesus and his disciples as they are on the way to Jerusalem.  Most faithful Jewish men in that day and age tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal.  No doubt, that’s what the twelve disciples thought was going on, in spite of Jesus’ attempts to speak of it in other terms.

Ethiopian Icon of Jesus with his followers

This passage from Mark 10 contains the third of Jesus’ predictions about his own suffering and death.  In Mark 8, right after Peter’s confession that Jesus is in fact the Holy One sent by God, Jesus reveals to his most faithful followers that he will suffer and die.  Then in Mark 9, as the group is still basking in the glow of the Transfiguration and the healing of a boy who suffered from seizures, Jesus calls them out of that into a consideration of his impending struggle.  In each of these prior circumstances, the disciples don’t have a clue. They just can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about – how can he be the Messiah and die?  That’s just crazy talk.

He’s back at it today – he’s just laid two heavy teachings on them – one about marriage and divorce and sexual ethics and the other about money. And then he says pretty explicitly that when they get to Jerusalem, he will be forced to go through a sham trial, he’ll be beaten and killed, and he’ll rise on the third day.  In spite of the apparently obvious nature of this prediction, James and John start to daydream about how good it’s going to be when Jesus finally starts acting like a king.  Despite the fact that whenever Jesus has brought this up, he’s had to quell any talk about how great that’s going to be, James and John get so wound up in their discussion that it actually seems like a good idea to them to call “dibs” on the best seats in Jesus’ kingdom.

These guys don’t get it.  We know that because Jesus looks at them and says, “You fellas just don’t get it, do you?” But then look at what happens next. He doesn’t yell at them.  He doesn’t scold them.  He simply reminds them that they don’t know what the kingdom will be like.  They can’t imagine the crown he’ll be wearing – a crown made of thorns, crushed into his skull.  They haven’t the foggiest notion about what is waiting for Jesus on the hill known as Calvary, where he would be nailed to a tree and hung out to die.  And then, gently, he says, “You don’t understand anything at all about the cup that I will drink, but you will – because you will share that cup.”

And it’s not just James and John who don’t get it.  When the ten other disciples hear that James and John are trying to claim the best spots at the messianic inauguration, they are upset! I suppose you could make the claim that these guys were really looking out for Jesus here and were indignant by the petty request made by their friends…but I think that Mark’s pretty clear that they were irritated because if Jesus didend up giving James & John the two best seats in the house, where were the rest of them supposed to sit?

And again, Jesus sits them down and invites them to a time of teaching wherein he is gentle and patient.  He’s not belittling them, he’s not berating them, and he’s not telling them to straighten up and fly right.  Instead, he’s trying to help them re-shape their expectations.  He’s hanging in there with them.

Why?  Why is he responding like this?

Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t the first time that the twelve disciples appear to be slow, dimwitted, selfish, ambitious, and thick-headed. But here they are, following Jesus. They may not grasp all of the details concerning this coming kingdom.  But they are following Jesus.  They are not following Jesus because they want his help in getting rid of a few bad habits, and they are not following him because it’s easier than whatever it was that they used to do before they started following him.  But they arefollowing Jesus.

And listen to this: if the first readers of Mark’s gospel knew anything about following Jesus, it was this: following Jesus can really screw up your life.  After all, remember what we said about this little book when we started this exploration: Mark is written by a man who is jail, on death row, for preaching about Jesus.  The early followers of Jesus who lived in Rome were used as human torches at Nero’s garden parties.  So far as we can tell none of the twelve disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes.  And those first Christians who were not killed were treated as outcasts – they were told over and over again that they did not belong with the Jewish believers, and the Gentiles thought they were crazy – they called them cannibals and incestuous.  If there is one thing that the readers of Mark’s Gospel knew, it was that following Jesus will screw with your head and could really mess up your life.

Twenty-five years ago, I took a group of young people on a mission trip to Mexico.  Two weeks after that trip, I left that church and moved to Pittsburgh.  About five months later, I got a really thick envelope from one of the kids.  I tore open the envelope, expecting to hear sunny news about her life.  Instead, I read,

Dear Dave, I just wanted to thank you for totally ruining my senior year of High School.  My whole life, I’ve looked forward to this year, where we’d be on top.  My friends and I had all kinds of plans for how we were going to rule the school, and for Prom and Homecoming and parties.  But the trip to Mexico changed all that.  My friends are materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – they can’t get their heads out of their butts to save their lives. The things that they want are so small…of course, all of that was true last year, too – only I didn’t know that last year.  The trip to Mexico really opened my eyes, and showed me that I am materialistic and selfish and thoughtless – and I hate that about myself. Why can’t I be lazy and happy like my friends?  But no, I have to care now.  I have to think about other people.  That mission trip really screwed up everything about my senior year….

Do you see?  She got it! Yay!  She had been goingto church all her life…but here she was thinking about followingJesus!  The good thing is that the letter was ten pages long, and by about page eight or nine, she had gotten past some of the anger and had decided that if she had to choose between being selfish and materialistic and following Jesus, she’d rather be with Jesus…but it was a struggle.  Because when she took Jesus seriously, she didn’t fit into any of the really comfortable slots in her high school.

Beloved, if you are here expecting me to scold you into the Kingdom of God, it’s not going to happen.  I don’t think that the reason that Jesus came was so that you wouldn’t drink quite as much, or so you would think about sex a little less often, or write to your grandmother more.  If you need to hear someone say that it’s time to turn or burn, baby, well, I don’t think I’m your guy.

And if you are here because your life is miserable and you think that somehow I can help lobby Jesus onto your side so that you have fewer problems – if you think that if you are able to get yourself cleaned up a little bit then Jesus will reward you with a new car, a better boyfriend, or whiter teeth, well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Some People Following Jesus, Gary Bunt, Contemporary British Artist

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are holier than everyone else, if by holy we mean people who smoke less, or cuss less, or fornicate less than the general population.  Jesus didn’t come to make us nicer.

And as far as I can see, Jesus is not primarily interested in having a group of followers who are richer, or better employed, or have fresher breath or fewer neuroses than the general population. He didn’t come to make us more socially acceptable.

Jesus came to be the ransom.  To give his life so that we might have real life.  Jesus came to be God for humanity and to be humanity for God. And as he marches toward his death in Jerusalem, he is imploring the twelve to stick with him.  He’s not promising them anything, and he’s not threatening them.  He’s asking them to stay the course because that is the only way that they will be able to become the community that he is calling them to be.  For a couple of years, he has taught them “the Kingdom of God is at hand”.  Now he is equipping them to be the kingdom!  To enflesh that Kingdom in the world!  To be the sign of God’s presence in and through creation.

I hope that each of our new members will recall that in the Presbyterian Church we are governed by both the Bible and a document called The Book of Order.  In the very beginning of that book, it says that the church exists in order to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” (F-1.0304)

I love that!  It tells the truth that the only way that your neighbors or mine will know of the grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love of the Savior is if somehow the body of Christ – that’s us – is able to exhibit that grace, truth, forgiveness, service, and sacrificial love.

When the twelve don’t get it – here in Mark chapter ten, or anywhere else in the Gospels – Jesus doesn’t call them morons and tell them to get lost.  No, he calls them together and invites them to try again and to lean on each other and to stick together – because the only way that they’ll be able to make it in the world is if they do stick together.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will do something incredibly difficult.  It will take everything he has.  And he is asking his followers to stay with him when it happens.  And to take over for him when he leaves.

Discipleship is hard work, my friends.  It would be easy if all we had to do was lie a little less often or budget our money a little better.  But it’s all of who we are. Discipleship is not a part-time job. The only way for me to give all of who I am is if I can count on you to help me where I am coming up short.  I can be forgiving if you forgive me.  I can be gracious if you show me grace.  I can love unconditionally if you do that for me.  I can give my life away…if you come, too.

I mentioned that today is “Christ the King” Sunday.  Most of the great “feast days” of the church are hundreds, if not thousands of years old. The church has observed Advent and Lent and Easter and Christmas for millennia. However, it wasn’t until 1925 that “Christ the King” was added to the church calendar.  This observance came about because in the aftermath of World War I, much of the world’s population lived in places where tyrants and dictators were gaining strength.  These rulers insisted that Christians ought to somehow compartmentalize their faith, and see “religion” as a nice little hobby, but to give their highest allegiance to the government and the flag of one particular nation.  The church said, “No, it is Christ, not any human or any nation, who is worthy of our ultimate loyalty.”

Beloved, we are called to be committed. We are called to live the Christian ideal – that of following Christ.  Obviously, Jesus is concerned with your personal life and your habits. Obviously, Jesus is concerned with the choices you make.  But these things are not a precondition to becoming disciples – those things are matters for discussion once you are on the road.  Let us join each other in this holy, wholly difficult task of following the Master as we love and serve those among whom he has placed us.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


What happens when you hear your name being called?  This spring, the folk at Crafton Heights Church are examining the ways that God has called to God’s people in the past… in the hopes that we might be attuned to those calls as they come today.  The scripture for April 19 included the calls described in Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11.

When I was a kid, one of my best friends was a fine young man named Nathaniel. There were lots of reasons to like him, and a few reasons to be envious. One of the silliest things of which I was a bit jealous was his name.

This is what I mean: growing up in the suburbs in the USA in the 1970’s, how often do you think I was in a crowd and heard someone yell, “Hey, Dave! Dave?” And how often do you think I turned and said, “Yep?” And then the person who had called my name looked at me with irritation and said, “No, not you. Please. I meant Dave Lock, or David Cummings, or Dave Tang, or…” Carver. Hmph.

WavingIf it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve seen it. Someone calls your name, or maybe even just points and waves, and you respond, and then it dawns on you that they are talking to or looking at the person over your right shoulder…And you feel like a complete loser.

I must have had fifteen people in my high school class named “David”. It got so I just pretended to never hear my name. I did not like to respond when it was called. But how often do you suppose my buddy heard, “Hey, Nat! Nat! – no, not you, the other Nat!”

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Prophet Isaiah, by Marc Chagall (1968)

Last week, we began a series of messages that focus in on the call of God, and we said specifically that there are two things on which we can hang our hats: that God is a God who calls and that you are call-able. This morning, I’d like to explore the nature of the God who calls and, perhaps more centrally, our response to that call.

As we begin, I’d like to ask you to think with me for a moment of every single time in Scripture where God’s presence overshadows someone, or God’s Spirit calls out, or God’s angel appears and says, “Hey, you – yes, you…Look, you know that the world’s in a bit of a mess right now, but, hey, good news! I have an idea. Here’s my plan…”, and the person who is being called says, “Oh, hey, great! I was hoping that you’d ask! I love the concept, Lord, and as a matter of fact, let me show you a few ideas of my own that I’ve been working on…”

Um, Dave, we can’t think of any place in the Bible where that happens.

Of course you can’t. That stuff is not in the Bible!

Every call of which I’m aware features the same essential pattern. The Lord or an angel shows up, and when that presence is finally noted, the first thing that the divine messenger has to say is “Fear not!”, because people are always so unnerved by the fact that God is actually calling to them. Then, the plan is laid out and the call is extended and with a few notable exceptions, the response is generally, “Uh-oh. Me? Really? Have you thought this through, Lord? I’m not really sure you’ve got the right person here…” And often, the one who is called by God will go ahead and list the reasons why the plan that God has just can’t work in this situation.

And as the person is talking about why God’s idea is such a bad one, they are not usually listing excuses like, “Oh, Thursday’s no good for me, Lord. What about Tuesday? Sunday? Oh, no, Sunday is my only day to sleep in…” It’s not a conflict in scheduling that prevents the call from being heard.

No, the readings from Isaiah and Luke today are typical: when God invites someone to step more intentionally into God’s purposes for the world, there is almost always an immediate cry of confession. “Oh, woe is me! I am not worthy! I am a man of unclean lips! Get away from me, Lord, because I am a sinner.”

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006).  Used by permission.  Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The Vision of Isaiah, by Luke Allsbrook (2006). Used by permission. Learn more at http://www.lukeallsbrook.net

The call to serve begins in confession. It does so because when God shows up, the veil is lifted just for a moment, and the perfection and holiness of God is perceived a little more clearly. That’s what Isaiah saw, isn’t it? He was actually given a vision of the Lord, and of those who are in the presence of the Lord saying “Holy, holy, holy…”

I’m not aware as to whether you’ve ever been invited into the presence of God, but I am sure that you know something about the Lord. God is love. God is light. God is faithful, right? God is all of those things, and more besides.

But you won’t find anywhere in the Bible that says, “God is love, love, love” or “light, light, light”. God is those things, to be sure – but there is something about holiness that is at the root of God’s very nature and existence. We affirm that every week when we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

God is so holy that it is his name – or his name itself is holy because of its connection with the Lord. God is holy. God is not like us – “Holy” means “set apart”, or “separate”, and carries with it a sense of weightiness or heaviness. God is not on the same scale as we. One writer puts it this way: “This word applies to God because God Himself is totally other, separate, sacred, transcendent, reverend, and set apart from every created thing.”[1]

There is a sense in which I can think of myself as smart, funny, wise, moral, tall, old, or any other adjective. And when I do that, I always measure myself in relationship with the other people around me. I compare myself to the rest of the people in the room and think that I am or am not any of those things.

But when the creator of joy, of life, of good, of size and perspective makes himself known…well, then, I’ve got nothing. I am none of those things in comparison with Him.

To put it another way – I may be perfectly capable of and content to cruise around in my own mediocrity and general all-rightness, but when I am invited to stare unblinkingly into the Light of the World, then I become profoundly aware of my own failures, regrets, and general un-holiness. When I see some of who God is, and become more aware of who I am, then it is easier for me to get in line with Isaiah and Peter and say, “Uh-oh, um, no – I can’t. I’m not the right guy for this.”

When God calls to Isaiah, and when Christ summons Peter, and just about every other call in scripture all boils down to this: the Lord is saying, “Look, I know you. I made you. I love you. Of course you are my person. Of course you can do this…as long as you remember that it’s my plan, and not yours. My strength, not yours. My holiness, not yours.”

A calling from the Lord provides me with a grounding and an orientation as to who God is and who I am. When I am well aware of who I am, and the ways that I fall short, or am bent or twisted, and yet somehow in the midst of that am somehow useful to God, I can carry out the business with which I’ve been entrusted in a fashion that is marked by humility.

When I say humility, I not only mean approaching God with a sense of perspective about where I stand in relationship to God, but where I stand in relationship to you and other people who are also called and loved by God. When I remember that I am not “all that and a bag of chips”, I am more useful to actually accomplish the tasks that God has set before me in partnership with others.

Sports Illustrated...$1?  How old is this photo?

Sports Illustrated…$1? How old is this photo?

There was another Dave in Pittsburgh a few years back who said something that really struck me. Dave Parker was a superbly-fashioned specimen of humanity who was, as it turned out, really, really good at hitting a small ball with a large stick. He was so good at it, in fact, that he became the first person ever to be paid a million dollars a year to hit a ball with a stick. When asked about it, Dave Parker said, “Every team needs a foundation, and I’m it. They ought to pay me just to walk around here.”[2] He told Sports Illustrated, “There’s only one thing bigger than me – and that’s my ego.”

Now, I’m not here to bash Dave Parker, or to take a few of his comments out of context. Rather, I want to use them as a reminder that those who have been called by God have a deep appreciation for the essential goodness, power, glory, and love of God as well as their own brokenness or failure. That leads them to a sense of humility and perspective that allows for growth.

I am not aware of a time when the world has ever been changed for the better when a group of high-minded, confident, self-assured, incredibly talented people who knew all the answers showed up and got to work on the rest of us.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, by Raphael (1515)

On the other hand, though, think of what Jesus did with a small group of broken-down, second-career people who had been given a glimpse of who he was and of the ministry to which he was inviting them. When we are humble, we are teachable; when we are humble, we are better able to see the gifts that others have brought.

I like the story of the man who had been looking for a church in his new community. After being disappointed in several congregations, he showed up at one a few moments late. As he walked into worship, the group was praying the unison prayer of confession, and they said, “we have done that which we ought not to have done, and have left undone that which we ought to have done…” As he found a seat, he beamed, “At last! These are my people!”

God is not calling you to be the star of anything. God is asking whether you will go in his power, with his agenda, into a world filled with people who are every bit as broken as you are. He’s asking if you can see them with his eyes and love them with his love. He wants to know if you can share with them the gift of forgiveness as a starving man shares a loaf with his friends, and to invite them to deepen their own walk with the Lord so that they might encounter God in all of God’s holiness.

God did not call me because in all of his wisdom he thought that the world would be blessed by how holy I am. He called me for the same reason that he has called you: so that we might remind people that they are already wrapped in God’s holy presence.

So you – yes, I’m talking to you – do you realize that this calling God is reaching out to you? That he knows exactly who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re capable of, and is still calling? That he is calling you now – not the you that you think might show up in four or five years once you get a little more this or a little better at that. He knows you, he loves you, and he’s reaching out. Can you find the voice to say, with Isaiah, “Here I am. Send me.”?

By God’s grace – with humility and thanksgiving, you can. Amen.

[1] Jack Wellman, writing at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christiancrier/2014/05/24/what-does-the-word-holy-mean-bible-definition-of-holy/

[2] Quoted in Randy Roberts, Pittsburgh Sports: Stories From the Steel City (University of Pittsburgh, 2000), p. 206.

What’s Your Kryptonite?

On February 2, 2014 the saints at Crafton Heights walked through the third and final installment of the Samson story (see the two previous entries for the beginning and middle of this saga).  Our scriptures included excerpts from Judges 16 (below)  and Hebrews 12:1-3

superman_kryptonite11_138My hunch is that anyone who grew up in the USA in the 20th century knows something about what kryptonite is.  Superman, as we all know, was born on the planet Krypton, and miraculously made his way to Earth.  As he grew, he discovered that his body interacted with the elements of our planet in such a way so as to give him super powers – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a mighty locomotive, and so on.  Yet when Lex Luthor or anyone else brings some fragment of Superman’s home planet into his presence, those powers evaporate and Superman is rendered ineffectual.

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)

Samson is about as close to Superman as anyone in the book of Judges.  And if you’ve been here the past two weeks, you’ve heard me say that I think that much of Samson’s life was wasted in the pursuit of selfish gratification, and that Samson was, in my opinion, a petty man who failed to lead Israel into faith, and instead acted exactly like the Philistine overlords from whom he was called to deliver Israel.   Last week, we ended with the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson was a judge in Israel for 20 years “in the days of the Philistines.”

Chapter 16, the last chapter of Samson’s life, opens with a rather pedestrian story about the chosen leader of God’s people taking the red-eye over to Philistine territory so that he can meet up with one of their prostitutes. The folks at Philistine Immigration call him out, and in a superhuman feat of strength, Samson tears out the doors of the city gate and carries them halfway home, thus wounding their pride and leaving them with a large gap in their public-works budget.  It is an account of an incident that is thrown into our narrative so that we, and the Philistines, will know that Samson is still Samson.  Twenty years have come and gone, but he’s still ridiculously strong and apparently insatiable.

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)

And then we get to “the main event” in Samson’s life – the part of the story with which we, and Hollywood, are most familiar.  Samson and Delilah – an epic love story.  If by “love story” you mean that he was vain and lustful and eager to use her to his own ends and that she was greedy and willing to sell out Samson for cash on the nail.  Yeah, it’s a real romance, all right.

The narrative unfolds with a rather curious game in which Samson and Delilah engage in a series of lies and deceits to each other.  We might call it “guess my secret”, wherein Samson’s secret is the source of his strength and Delilah’s secret is that she doesn’t really give a hoot about Samson, but only the silver pieces that the Philistines have promised her.

Three times, she comes to him at her sultry best, and pouts, and says, “Come on, big guy, don’t you love me?  Tell me what makes you so big and brave and handsome…”  He tells her that he can’t be tied up with fresh bowstrings or with new ropes, or that if his hair were tightly braided, he’d be out of luck.  With each round of this game, Samson is the apparent “winner”, as he gets to kiss the pretty girl (and, presumably, spend a significant amount of time in other pursuits with her) and she receives only lies.  But finally, after days of pestering, round four brings us a different result.  Listen for the Word of God in Judges 16:

Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.

So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”

When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16:15-19)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)

Do you see – for Samson, it really is a game.  As an observer, you might think, “Why in the world would he tell her what keeps him strong?”  But the truth is that he had long ago stopped believing that his strength and power were gifts from God. He saw that tremendous strength as something that was simply his by right.  After all, we have noticed that there are three aspects to the vow of the Nazirite: no shaving or hair cutting, nothing to do with grapes, and not becoming unclean by contact with the dead.  For decades, Samson has been blithely ignoring two of those rules – he’s the host at several and the guest at many drinking parties, and he is never far from something or someone who is dead.

Here, he tells Delilah about the Nazirite vows, but it’s just another round in the game.  He tells her about these things the way that my dad told me about Paul Bunyan or the Easter Bunny.

We see this borne out in Samson’s response to the situation in verse 20:

Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”

He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. (Judges 16:20)

For him, it’s business as usual: “I’ll just get back to my old self here and…what the heck?!?!”  He found that he was as weak as any other middle-aged man who had been lulled to sleep in the arms of a mercenary, yet beautiful female spy…that is to say, he found that he was helpless.

We know that in the case of Superman, it’s kryptonite that causes the loss of his strength. So for Samson, it’s the hair, right?

Wrong. Samson loses his power because he has finally succumbed to the pride, the self-reliance, and the sense of invulnerability with which he has flirted his entire life.  His hair is an outward sign of an inward reality – and the truth is that Samson had long ago stopped believing in the mystical power of his flowing locks…and instead, relied on himself and taken that strength as his due.

For Superman, it’s kryptonite.  For Samson, it’s pride.  What is there in your world that saps your strength and leads you from God’s best in the world?

For some of us, it’s a fear of being known.  Every day, we look at ourselves in the mirror before leaving the house and as we pat down our hair one last time, we think, “OK, looking good. Keep up a good front, because if they found out what I was really like, then I’d be in trouble.”  We say and do this because so many of us are deeply dissatisfied with who we are, but we are not sure how to change…and so we hide behind an image or a mask or a job… We hide from others, we hide from ourselves, and we even try to hide from God.

And when we spend so much energy hiding from God or from each other or even from ourselves, then there’s not much left for seeking God’s best or for acting it out.  This fear will kill us.

Some of us struggle with the burden of regret.  Every hour of every day, we are reminded of some secret guilt that gnaws away at us.  We think of promises that we’ve broken, or angry outbursts directed towards those we love, or choices that we made an hour, a month, or a lifetime ago, and discover that they make for a debilitating load.  Regret is like a sack full of stones that we feel obliged to carry everywhere… it just gets heavier and heavier, and sooner or later, it’s just easier to not try to go anywhere at all, but to stay home, inside, and dwell in the land of “I wish I had never…” or “If only…”  This kind of regret is a waste of energy, emotion, and life.

The despicable twin of regret is the demon of worry about the future.  We look ahead, and of course, we can’t see everything very clearly.  So we become paralyzed, and are unable to move.  We think, “How can I do this, when that might happen tomorrow?  This may be a silly example, but perhaps you can relate:  when I started the tenth grade at Concord High School, I was seized with despair.  Here I was in a whole new system, a new place, with a new hierarchy, set of expectations, and opportunities. And what paralyzed me was the fact that I knew that I’d only be there 3 years.  Well, given my academic prowess, I should say that I hoped I’d only be there three years.  Why should I make friends, why should I try anything, why should I even care when I know that it’s all going to disappear in 3 years?  It all seemed so futile.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson.  Coincidence? Hmmmm.  Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I'm holding in my hands.

A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson. Coincidence? Hmmmm. Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I’m holding in my hands.

Fortunately for me, a band teacher and a youth group advisor told me that I was being an idiot (in nice, kind, Jesus-y language) and suggested that I enjoy the life that God gave me.  And I did. And I have.  And whereas I went into high school sure that there was no value in making friendships, I actually went on a few dates with a gal named Sharon McCoy that wound up changing my mind about that…

My point is that we know what it means to be surrounded by the worry, regret, or fear that seeks to render us powerless.  None of us comes from Krypton, but all of us know something that would drain the life from us if we let it.  So how do we deal with it?

Back to Samson.  What happened after his shearing and capture?

Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison. But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. (Judges 16:21-22)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

Did you ever think about the stuff that is and isn’t in the Bible?  We never hear about any of Jesus’ hobbies, for instance. Nobody bothered to write down whether the Apostle Paul kept any pets.  But here, someone thinks it’s important that we know that Samson’s hair started to grow after it was shaved.

Really?  Doesn’t all hair do that?  Isn’t it one of the properties of hair?  Why do we need to know that?  I’ll tell you why it’s not there – it’s not a teaser for the reader, so that we can say, “Ha, ha, those Philistines are so stupid, they don’t know that the source of his strength is his hair.  Go ahead, Samson.  Sneak up on ‘em.  Grow that hair.”  No, the faithful reader knows that Samson’s strength is from God, not his hairstyle.

The author of Judges includes that sentence because it’s a way of acknowledging that the Philistines believed that they had won.  Of course they noticed his hair growing, but they didn’t care, because they believed that he was no longer a Nazirite.  Not only did they believe that Samson had been vanquished for good, but that the God of the Israelites, YHWH, was as good as dead, too.  We see that in the worship service that they organize in the temple of their god, Dagon:

Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”

When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,

“Our god has delivered our enemy
 into our hands,
 the one who laid waste our land
 and multiplied our slain.”

While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. (Judges 16:23-25)

In a kind of reverse “Minute for Mission”, Samson comes out and offers the crowd “proof” that Dagon has defeated YHWH.

And then, something happens.  Samson finally gets it.  After a lifetime of being proud and arrogant and fierce and stubborn and godless, he is humbled and abused and blinded and mocked.  And he finds himself in the arena of the god who opposes YHWH, the very center of the shrine to all that he has been called to oppose.  And the once-proud and mighty warrior speaks quietly to the slave who is charged with leading him around:

When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. (Judges 16:26-27)

He feels the weight of his own decisions and behavior.  For the second time in his life that we know of, Samson cries out to God.

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)

Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:28-30)

Samson dies in an act of self-sacrifice.  He is strengthened – not because his hair grew back, but because God’s call is for always.  Do you remember when the angel showed up to old Manoah and his wife?  He told the couple that the as yet unborn child would be a Nazirite.  “…for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (13:7)

As badly as he had blown it, time and time again, Samson could not escape God’s grace.  God had said that he would be blessed until the day he died, and he found that strength on that day.

This is a tragic end to a horrible story.  I know in the last few weeks I have been pretty rough on Samson.  I am troubled by his story because he could have chosen otherwise – but in the end, he deals with his demons in death the same way he did in life – with violence and destruction.

Beloved, you know fear.  You know regret.  You know worry.

Can you – can we – lay these things aside and cling to the good to which Christ calls us?  Can we choose to live as those who are endowed with superpowers – the gifts of trust, and forgiveness, and hope?

baptismYou are no better, and you are no worse, than Samson.  The things that derailed him can derail you and me – and will, if we give them half a chance.  Samson wound up killing himself as he fought his pride and pettiness and selfishness.  But you and I can claim our baptism and say, “Yes, I have already died to fear, regret, worry, and anything else that weakens me and gets in the way of the peace, faithfulness, and obedience to which I am called.”  You don’t have to live with the kryptonite.  And you don’t have to kill yourself.  We can lean into God’s grace for this day – forgetting about yesterday and trusting for tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

A Matter of Life and Death

On September 9, the good people of Crafton Heights began a six-week exploration of The Lord’s Prayer.  As we considered the introduction and the first petition (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”), we turned to Leviticus 19:1-13 and Revelation 4:6-11.

Both Matthew and Luke tell us about the day that Jesus’ closest followers sat him down and asked him if he would teach them something about prayer.  Jesus’ reply was so profound that in millions of churches today, we will stop what we are doing and thinking and join our voices as we repeat the words that he gave to them: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Teachers, can you imagine that!  Who remembers what you taught on Thursday, let alone two thousand years ago?  But that’s what we did.  We remember, and we continue to pray.  And this week we will begin a six-week exploration of the “Lord’s Prayer” – the “Our Father” – as we sit next to those disciples who are so eager to learn from the Master.

I had a rude awakening on Friday this week.  Not because I was up and out early, but because of what I saw.  I was walking through a hospital at about 7 a.m. when I happened to pass by the chapel.  This is one of my favorite rooms in the city – I often stop in there to pray, to read, or to simply clear my head.  It’s a beautiful room with about 150 chairs in it.  And as I walked by on Friday morning, I noticed that there were about a dozen, or maybe even fifteen people in the room.  It was the morning worship service.

Yet here is what broke my heart and gave me pause on Friday: not one single person was sitting anywhere close to another person.  Here, in this place of profound fear and illness and death and healing and hope and terror, nobody sat next to each other.

Yet Jesus begins his lesson by reminding us that prayer is directed towards “Our Father…”  We will see in the weeks to come that the prayer is in the first person throughout – we believe that God does care, not just for some vague notion of creation or some category – but that God cares for individuals.  For us.  But not for me alone – not for me in the absence of you, or the other.  For us.  Jesus teaches us that as we approach the Lord in prayer, we do so recognizing that God longs to be connected, but that we are mindful of the fact that we see that connection with God in light of our connections with each other.

Our Father, who art in heaven.

Hallowed be thy name.

Oh, great.  Don’t you just hate that about the Bible!  It seems like every page you turn in the scripture, it’s full of words that are used there, but no where else in the world.  Who else uses words like “sanctify” or “redemption” or “expiation” or “covetousness”?  Who says “hallowed” anymore?

We do.  Every week.  Why?

“Hallowed” means “set apart”, or “holy”.  When something is hallowed, it is revered and honored.  In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stood near the Spangler family’s farm in Gettysburg and said that that ground was “hallowed” – it was forever set apart from the common work of growing and harvesting and reaping – because of what had happened there.  And if you’ve ever been to Gettysburg National Park, you know what I mean.  Arlington National Cemetery is another place that is hallowed.  Earlier this week, I read a note from our friend Ian Gallo, who visited the Kigali Genocide Center in Rwanda, and he wrote, “Around the edges of the room were glass cases.  Some had rows of skulls of victims, others had piles of femurs and personal belongings.  There is something incredibly powerful and intimate about looking a skull in the eyes that nothing can prepare you for.  I stood and wept.”  That place has become hallowed.

From the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. For more, check out Ian’s blog

When Jesus was teaching his friends – and us – how to pray, he taught us that everything that is connected with God, including God’s own name, is hallowed.  That is to say, that God is holy.  God is set apart.  God is nothing like anything I have ever known or experienced.  Whatever I am, it’s not God.  Whatever God is, it’s not me.

I don’t think that Jesus was suggesting that God is remote or distant – remember, we are to come together asking for an audience with “our Father”.  Rather, he is reminding us that God is not the same as us.  And indeed, the Bible is full of examples of the kind of relationship between God and humanity that suggest intimacy, but not sameness.  God is the potter, I am the clay.  God is the tree, you are the fruit.  Do you see?  These things are not the same, but there is a deep and vibrant connection between them.

The reading from Exodus describes the scene just after the people of Israel came out of Egypt.  They had been freed from the horrors of slavery.  In a series of incredible demonstrations that we remember as “the plagues”, Moses and Aaron showed the world that the so-called ‘gods’ of Egypt were merely powerless idols.  As the children of Israel march through the desert in those early days, you can almost hear them reminiscing about the looks on the faces of their former captors when our God showed his stuff.  I mean, think about how amazing and awesome it must have been to see that, and then to think, “Yeah, that’s OUR God.  He fights for us.  We play for HIS TEAM. That’s right, God.  Come on, YHWH, High Five!”

Um, yeah.  Not so much.

Exodus chapter 19 describes the precautions that Moses and the people had to take to avoid encountering the holiness of God.  Think about that for a moment.  You heard the promises that God made: I bore you on the wings of eagles!  You shall be my treasured people!  God is crazy about the Israelites.  But then a few sentences later, the people are told that if they cross that line and step onto the mountain, they’ll be struck dead.

Why?  Because you are not God.  God says, “You are mine.  But you are not me.  Don’t you ever, ever, ever forget that.”  For the people in Exodus, the holiness of God was a matter of life and death.  If they were to forget – even for a moment – who they were in relationship to who God was, it could kill them.

And you might say, “Wow, Pastor Dave, that’s so Old Testamenty of you!  I mean, of course, GOD is all stand-offish like that, but Jesus?  Heck, Jesus is like me.  Jesus is my buddy.  He gets me.  He has my back.

He is and he does.  But he is not you.

Jesus, the son of God, the son of Man, the second person of the Trinity, is not only “the greatest man who ever lived”.  Jesus is fully divine.  Jesus is God, enfleshed.  The theme of sacredness, of otherness, of separateness continues through scripture.  Do you remember when, on the morning he had been raised from the dead, he looked at Mary and said, “Don’t hold me!” – she was not free to relate to him as she might relate to Peter or John.

The Heavenly Throne, by Peter Olsen. Used by permission of the artist. For more of his work, visit http://www.peterolsenart.com.

In fact, this idea of God’s separateness continues until the very end.  The scripture you heard from Revelation chapter four describes a scene from heaven.  Do you remember what we read?  What do we learn about God in this passage?  We learn that God is holy, right?

Now, think for a few moments.  When you think about all the other passages from the Bible that you’ve learned, what are some other adjectives that come to mind about God?  How would you finish this sentence: “God is _____________.”?  Love.  Light.  Strength.  Power.

And you know, don’t you, that all of that is true, right?  God is Love, Light, Strength, and Power.  Whatever we know about those things, we learned from God.  But you will not find anywhere in the Bible any of those adjectives repeated three times.  “Love, Love, Love” comes from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.

Yet it says in Isaiah and in Revelation that God is “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  The thing that we know best about God is that God is Other. God is not me.

Isn’t that Good News!  God is Love, Light, Strength, and Power…AND NOT ME!  God is not marred by my sin, my imperfections, my brokenness.  God is fully and utterly light, love, strength and power and a million other blessings because God is wholly holy.

My friend Barbara Voeltzel used to think thoughts like that and shake her head and say, “You know what, Pastor Dave?  Thank God for God!”  I couldn’t say it better myself, Barb.

C.S. Lewis, when he was trying to get the idea of the holiness or the “otherness” of God across in his children’s tale The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, put it like this when he decided that the figure who represented the Lord would be Aslan, a Lion.

“Who is Aslan?” asked Susan.

“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know?  He’s the King…”

“Is — is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly.

“Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion — THE Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”[1]

And if you are thinking, “Wait, I saw that movie, and I don’t remember that scene,” it’s because when they made the most recent version of that film, they left that scene out.  Just another reason to keep reading, people.  Keep reading.

When Jesus is teaching us to pray, he wants us to know that we are not merely placing orders in the drive-through line.  We’re not texting our requests to a personal assistant; we’re not engaging in wishful thinking; we’re not talking to ourselves.

“Hallowed be thy name” – Jesus taught us that if we forget who God is in relationship to who we are, it could kill us.

As we begin this prayer, we are reminded that we can engage in communion with the Creator of all that is, the Author of life, the Giver of Light, Love, Hope…who calls us together and who invites us to love him as a father.

He is Good.  And he can be trusted.

Thank God for God.  Amen.

[1] The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, chapter 8.