Paying the Price

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 30, 2016 we considered the implications of Jonathan’s embrace of what God was doing in David’s life, and wondered how we could cultivate that spirit of humility, service, and discipleship in our own lives.  Our texts included I Samuel 20:24-42 and Luke 14:25-27.

This was an endorsement that not many people saw coming. I’m not talking about Angelina Jolie’s decision to become a spokesperson for Louis Vuitton or any of the celebrities that are lining up behind one of the contenders for political office in 2016. We could see most of those coming, and frankly, we’re a little tired of all the commercials.

But the one we just heard about – now that was a shocker. Who saw this coming? Jonathan… that would be Prince Jonathan, the son of King Saul of Israel, comes to the man that his father hates more than anyone else, David the son of Jesse, and says, “Look… No matter what happens, I’m with you.” In fact, a couple of verses prior to the beginning of our reading for the day, we hear him say, “‘May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.’ And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.” (I Samuel 20:16-17).

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

David and Jonathan, Gustav Doré (1843)

Wow! The son of the king – the man who was next in line for the throne – says, “David, I want you to succeed. God is clearly with you, and you’ve got to do this thing.” Who saw that coming?

Of course, Jonathan wasn’t the first one in his family to sense David’s ascendancy. Last week we read about his sister, Michal… Princess Michal, who warned David as her father tried to have him killed, thus keeping him alive so that he’d be free to live into the promised future that God had laid out for him. Today’s reading is simply a description of another child of Saul moving toward David.

But note how he does this. This is not a public endorsement intended for the newspapers or television camera. Instead, it is a deeply personal and private conversation in which Jonathan seeks to confirm for David all of the things that old Samuel had told the boy so many years before… before the Philistine wars… before the battle with Goliath… before all the conflicts with Saul, and before the wedding to Saul’s daughter… On this moonlight night at the shooting range, Jonathan pulls David aside and says, “Look, David, you have got to see this through.”

Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

Without Jonathan, David was at risk of either abandoning his vocation and returning to the simple life of tending sheep or developing a murderous spirit of retaliation to get even with the man who despising the best that was within him. He did nether. He accepted Jonathan’s friendship and in receiving it received confirmation of Samuel’s earlier anointing to kingwork and the God-dominated imagination that made it possible to live in and by God’s Spirit in song and story.[1]

In short, for the second week in a row, we have a child of King Saul saving the life of the man who would replace him – knowing that in the eyes of the world, Jonathan is acting against his own best interests. There is something deeply admirable about Jonathan’s behavior and principles here. I wonder how Jonathan got to be this kind of a human being – the kind of man who is able to look not only to his own interests, but to the greater good; a man who is eager to sense how and where and when God is moving and to share in that, even if it brings him to a place of disruption or personal pain. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be a person like that.

But how? How do I grow into having that kind of persona?

I think it starts with learning how to say “no”, and perhaps more precisely, knowing what to say “no” to.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure that Jonathan’s enthusiastic embrace of David is due, at least in part, to something amazingly wonderful and captivating about David. This is a special, special kid, and you’d have to be willfully ignorant to miss that.

But Jonathan’s actions here are more than merely looking at David’s amazing gifts and affirming them. He invests himself deeply in David’s life, and the only way that is possible is because Jonathan is willing to train himself to say “no” to some parts of this world that have a deep attraction for him. In the space that those denials provide him, he is able to add his emphatic “yes” to God’s future in the life of his friend David.

Our reading for this morning offers us a glimpse into a conversion of sorts. At the beginning of chapter 20, Jonathan is trying hard to be both a dutiful son and a good friend. Saul’s behavior – including the attempted murder of this dutiful son in a fit of rage – drives Jonathan to the place where he expresses his desire to follow David, not Saul, into an uncertain future. As Jonathan expresses his loyalty to David, he is living into the words of Jesus in Luke 14: ““If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

In our culture, we often think of the word “hate” as the opposite of the word “love”. When we say “I love NCIS but I sure do hate Jeopardy”, we are saying that we have an attraction toward police drama and are repulsed by quiz shows. In the Semitic world, however, the meaning was a little bit different. To “hate” someone or something was to turn away from it or to detach oneself from it. When Jesus called his followers, he was inviting them to turn away from any allegiances that would stand in the way of their full-time discipleship and to love him more than anyone or anything else.

As Jonathan came to see what was going on in his own household, including the mad ambition, the spiritual depravity, and the murderous jealousy of his father, he had to “hate” that. He had to turn himself away from those things and detach himself from that kind of a heritage. And because he turned his back on those things, he was able to embrace the thing that God was doing in David. Jonathan confirmed God’s call on David’s life and he pledged himself to helping David realize the totality of that call.

And 700 years or so later, Jesus, the Son of David, finds himself marching toward Jerusalem in the last months of his life. He knows that he is walking towards his death, the great sacrifice for the sake of the world. Jesus has challenged the status quo, he has stood up to religious charlatans who were eager to jump into bed with the Empire, and he has sought to proclaim the outrageous love and grace of God. Jesus knows exactly where he is heading, and he knows exactly what will happen to him when he gets there. And as he keeps marching, he turns around and seems surprised that there is a crowd behind him.

He speaks: “Are you all sure about this? Do you know where this trip ends? Don’t come with me unless you know where we’re headed. Following me means turning away from what you have held most dear. Saying ‘Yes’ to the movement of God and the rule of the Spirit means saying ‘No’ to unhealthy habits, long-cherished notions, and a life centered on pleasing yourself.”

And those words of the Savior are not only for that crowd 2000 years ago. They are for us. How do we learn from Jonathan? How do we follow the Savior? Where do we need to say “no” so that our “yes” will mean something?

Some of us need to unplug. That is to say, we need to dial back on the devices that are seeking to control us or are having an unhealthy impact on us. That could mean cutting down on your investment in social media. We are so transfixed by what happens in this little alternate reality that we become unable to function in the real plane of our existence. We check our feeds, we wait for our followers to react, and we have alerts sent to remind us when someone we love or loathe does something to bless or irritate us. As a result, we find that we are more antagonistic, our blood pressure rises, we’re more irritable, and we are so concerned with the virtual world that we find it hard to be attentive to the actual world that is in front of our noses. I have friends who have deactivated Facebook because it’s taken them to places they don’t want to go; there are those who find that the anonymity and immediacy of Twitter means that it’s far too easy to become vile and hateful; and still others among us are so tethered to our email that we have to check it six or eight times an hour. And maybe you scoff at all of these technologies but at the same time can’t wait to turn on the talk radio or get to your favorite cable news station…which, in fact, do the same things to you. Some of us need to unplug.

And speaking of plugging, there are those among us who might actually be helped by getting a little better connected. That is to say it may be that the current cesspool of cyberspace in which you’re trapped may be online pornography or gambling. If that’s the case, then let me encourage you to upgrade to Snapchat or Pinterest as possible alternatives to the fantasy world in which you are immersing yourself. As I’ve already noted, these platforms are not without their flaws, but at least they’d be a step closer to real relationships with real people.

In addition to unplugging, perhaps we all need to just simmer down a little bit. That’s what my grandmother would say to me when she thought I was getting a little too high on my horse. Actually, I’m not at all sure what she meant by me being on my high horse, but “simmer down” was grandma’s way of saying “chill.” Is it me, or do so many people seem to be so angry so much of the time? Every time you turn around, someone is about to bite your head off… Anger comes from fear: Psychologists tell us that when we are threatened, our natural instincts are to fight or to flee. Anger is half of that equation. I fall in love with my ideas, and when I discover that your ideas are different, I want to argue with you about it. I’m afraid of loss of identity or purpose or integrity; I’m afraid of some threat to my way of life, and rather than acknowledging all of that, I simply call you an idiot, get angry at you, and walk away.

You don’t have to watch too many political ads to see this at work in our lives today, do you? And it’s even worse when we see that getting played out in the church. I have some friends on the left who take some interesting ideas about social justice and fairness and equality and give them a quick baptism and proclaim that Jesus is here, and only here.

On the other hand, I have some friends on the right who start with some deeply held beliefs about God and country and patriotism, and frame those with an appeal to the founding of our so-called “Christian nation” and America as the promised land and pretty soon opposing any of those ideas is the same thing as turning one’s back on God.

And yet to all of my friends I would say, “Relax. Simmer down. Jesus isn’t running for President. And he wasn’t in the primaries, either.” You have your ideas. Great. Vote, of course. Express your opinions – but do all of that thinking, voting, and expressing after you’ve spent time on your knees, waiting in prayer, asking God where God is already moving in the world.

And with the energy and equilibrium that we gain when we unplug and simmer down, perhaps then we will find ourselves in a position to dive in somewhere and make a promise to someone. Eugene Peterson calls us to be Jonathans in the lives of people around us. Listen:

     Each of us has contact with hundreds of people…who take one look at us, make a snap judgment, and then slot us into a category so that they won’t have to deal with us as persons. They treat us as something less than we are; and if we’re in constant association with them, we become less.
And then someone enters our life who isn’t looking for someone to use, is leisurely enough to find out what’s really going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what’s deepest within us. A friend. It’s a great thing to be a Jonathan.[2]

He’s right, of course. But the only way that we are able to be strong enough to do that is when we detach ourselves from our anger, our fears, or our unhealthy addictions to people, substances, or attitudes.

Or make a promise in a different way: demonstrate your intention to walk in a new path by making a profound promise to commit to giving more of your money to the Lord’s work in the year to come. Too many of us “lowball” it when we come around to thinking about what we’d like to give. We think about what might be a comfortable gift, and then we back off that a little bit and make our promise. What if we led with our best and deepest hopes and then spent the year trying to live into that?

Or maybe your deal isn’t really money: it’s time. Maybe you can make a promise to really endorse someone by simply showing up… again and again. Come in in for the After School program… or be a mentor… or volunteer at The Table.

I realize that none of these things – not service hours, not financial donations, not presence with others – none of these things are the goal. Yet each of them are concrete, active ways to move toward the goal: following Jesus. Letting go of the things that hold us back and detaching ourselves from unhealthy patterns free us to pick up new practices that enable us to grow into the kinds of people who can walk with Jesus on the path to self-sacrifice, humility, and ultimately, resurrection.

I really, really wanted this sermon to be about the virtues of friendship and what an admirable and all-around nice guy Jonathan was. But the text doesn’t lead us there. Instead, it challenges us to consider whether we are willing to let go of anything – whether it’s anger or politics or bitterness or pornography or popularity or public esteem – that would encumber us on our walk with Jesus. We pray that we might be released to see the new hope and purpose that comes in the power of God in person of Jesus. Jonathan saw God at work and let go of some of his deeply held dreams and beliefs. The first followers of Jesus discerned the movement of God’s spirit among them and let go of some long-held allegiances in order to move with the Lord. What in us needs to change if we are to become more faithful disciples? Help us to see that, Lord, and then help us to do it. Amen.

[1] Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, HarperCollins 1997, p. 54-55.

[2] Leap Over A Wall, p. 54.

The Problem With Keeping Score

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 16, 2016 we considered the difficulties that arose when Saul’s jealousy overpowered his ability to stay centered in God’s Spirit.  Our texts included I Samuel 18:1-16 and James 4:1-10

 

Wally Pipp's 1923-24 Baseball Card

Wally Pipp’s 1923-24 Baseball Card

In 1924, a gentleman named Wally Pipp was the starting first baseman for the New York Yankees. In the previous five seasons, he had recorded a .301 average, with season averages of 29 doubles, 94 runs scored, and 97 runs batted in per season. He had led the league in home runs several times. Pipp was a star. However, on June 2 of 1924, Pipp showed up at Yankee Stadium that day with a severe headache, and asked the team’s trainer for two aspirin. The Yankees’ manager noticed this, and said “Wally, take the day off. We’ll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow.” “That kid” played well and became the Yankees’ new starting first baseman. Lou Gehrig became known as the “Iron Man” and played for the next sixteen years – an astounding 2,130 games in a row, and Wally Pipp went from being a star on the league champs to being the answer to a trivia question. Pipp said later, “I took the two most expensive aspirin in history.”

I came across an article recently that was entitled “What To Do If You’re Smarter Than Your Boss”. It explored the reality that many times, we find ourselves being overshadowed by someone that we perceive to be “beneath” us in some way. When the Sophomore gets to start while the Senior sits, for instance; or when you’ve been preparing for this job for eight years and all of a sudden the guy who showed up last year steps right in to “your” promotion. It just doesn’t feel right, does it? There’s a sense of anger and frustration and even injustice. It’s easy to get steamed when your little brother is outdoing you in some way or another…

Saul is the recognized King of Israel. He lives in the palace, his face is on the money; he’s the “status quo”. His army has just defeated their perennial enemy, the Philistines. His stock ought to be on the rise.

Except that young David, the insignificant shepherd boy and part-time lyre player, seems to be grabbing all the headlines for doing the kinds of things that kings ought to be doing (such as leading the army in the defeat of the Philistines).

Saul Attacking David, Guercino (1646)

Saul Attacking David, Guercino (1646)

In our reading for today, we see David once more taking up residence at the palace, where he quickly becomes everyone’s darling. Chapter 18 tells us that two of Saul’s own children are smitten with David, and truth be told, Saul himself is crazy about this kid. That is the odd conundrum that has become Saul’s personal reality: when he sees David succeeding, it sends him catapulting to the edge of madness; the only thing that can bring him back from that edge is spending time in David’s presence.

Yet as the headlines pour in, and as the feeds come through the social media, it’s clear that the Junior Staff Person is getting more publicity than the boss here. Saul is increasingly resentful of David, and the chants of the women outside the palace reveal the score: Saul has gained victory over thousands (yay!), but David has triumphed over tens of thousands (YAY!!!).

Saul, who wants more than anything to be king, is keeping score. He’s paying attention to who gets credit for what. He’s asking to be measured by these particular statistics, and he’s got to make sure that he comes out on top.

Compared to Saul, Wally Pipp’s problem was minor. He eventually signed on with the Cincinnatti Reds, and after he left the big leagues he was one of the first writers for Sports Illustrated before settling into a career in manufacturing. It could have been worse.

And it was worse, for Saul. He had given up wanting to be measured in terms of his faithfulness to God, and instead wanted to be known for his own power and his own strength. The Lord was willing to let Saul be evaluated by whatever measure he chose, and as a result Saul is behaving as though it is all up to him. In fact, we’re told that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul.

David, whose position was precarious to say the least, responds to the situation by diving more deeply into God’s care for him. He trusts the Spirit of God that Saul had rejected, and as a result finds that he has the fruit of humility growing in his life. Like anyone else in Israel, David can see that he is serving a man who is less honorable, less noble, and less able than he is. And yet he continues to trust in God to sort everything out.

In fact, there’s a word that appears three times in chapter 18 that is very telling. We’re told in verses 5, 14, and 30 that David had “great success”. The Hebrew word there, sawkal, means literally “to behave wisely”. Our translators evidently are combining the end result (David succeeded) with the reason for that (because he kept his head down and his nose clean). The bottom line, however, is apparent: David was humble in the face of his successes, while Saul was increasingly torn apart as his influence and power appeared to be waning. Do you remember last week, when we talked about how David spent his time kneeling in the creekbed between the two giants – Saul and Goliath? That is an example of sawkal – acting wisely

St. James the Apostle

St. James the Apostle

The first-century Christians to whom the Apostle James was writing seemed to face a situation that would have resonated with that of Saul and David. There is a cancer spreading throughout this community that claimed to be following Jesus. There are those in their midst who are acting with pride and supposing that they alone know all the answers. Increasingly, they are unwilling to listen to each other, unable to hear each other and reluctant to work together. The result, of course, is that there is bitterness and rivalry in the church. Jealousy and pettiness. James is appalled. “This is the church, for crying out loud,” the old Apostle bellows. “How can this be?” He accentuates his displeasure by comparing their behavior to murder and adultery. The solution, says James, is to cultivate the virtue of humility.

Now, think about that for a moment. How, exactly, does one preach about humility? Since I do not have the authority of Scripture and the assurance of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind all of my words… what can I say about humility? How do you know if I’m humble? How do I know if I’m humble?

What if I were to say, “trust me, I’m humble. In fact, I’m twice as humble as I was a year ago. Yep, my mama raised me right…”

Or even more alarming, “You know, you ought to take a page out of my notebook. You need to be humble, my friend. I mean, seriously, have you ever stopped to think? Be like me. Quit being such a jerk and get humble… you know, like me…”

Humility is a virtue, but how do we assess it? How do we cultivate it in our lives? Can we seek it out? Can we actively work on learning how to be humble?

Fortunately for us, in addition to the example left by young David, there are some imperatives in the letter from James that will help us to become more humble, and therefore more Christ-like, in the days and weeks and months to come.

It begins with taking stock of yourself and your situation. James says, “Submit yourself to God” and “draw near to God.” Place yourself in perspective, and ask God for the self-awareness to see yourself realistically.

That’s really, really hard to do! So often, we are so acquainted with the way that we do things or the reasoning inside our own heads that we have no idea what is really true. This lack of self-awareness leads us to believing things about ourselves or others that are simply not true.

For instance, I once found myself in a group that was about half African and half American. We were rehearsing a traditional African folk song that we would perform at some event when our director (a white American), stopped the rehearsal and began to scold us. He said, “Come on, people, I know these words are difficult, but we’ve got to pronounce them properly.” He then went on to tell us how we were to say the words. The Africans in the room, for whom this was their first language, raised a hand to correct him. One brave soul ventured, “Um, excuse me, sir but that’s not how we say that phrase…” African heads nodded. But the director, his nose stuck in his notes, simply said, “You’re not doing it right. Say it this way…” This man had no sense of even the possibility that he might have been mistaken, or that he was in the presence of those who were far more versed than he in the subtleties of their own language.

Yet how often do we do that? I walk into a room and I want to take charge, I want my ideas to succeed, I want the way we’ve always done things to become the way we will also do things that I can’t imagine that there might be a better leader, a stronger idea, a more effective practice. I need to ask God to show me who and where I am in relationship to the situation at hand. I need to ask God to give me a solid sense of self-awareness and perspective.

In my case, and in the passage at hand, we see that when that prayer is answered, the next step is confession. When I realize who I actually am compared to the One who created me and the things for which I have been created, the next step is to acknowledge that things are not as they ought to be, and often I am not who I ought to be.

Every month, the elders of the congregation gather for our monthly meeting – it is the time where the business of the church is conducted and all the affairs of the congregation are explored. Before we meet for business, however, we gather for worship. And each month, the elders of this church offer this prayer prior to the meeting:

Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
I confess to almighty God,
 and to you, my brothers and sisters,
 that I have sinned through my own fault, 
in my thoughts and in my words, 
in what I have done, 
and in what I have failed to do;
 and I ask you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

I want to tell you that this is an empowering prayer. Before we even think about doing or saying anything in the name of Christ or of his church, we admit to ourselves and to each other that we are imperfect vessels who have to approach the work we’ve been given in a spirit of humility and mutual support and encouragement.

So we begin with an honest assessment of ourselves, and that leads us to confession, which in turn brings us to the place wherein we can be deeply aware of the position we hold in God’s heart. When we strip away all pretense and self-aggrandizement, we can accept the fact that in spite of all our imperfections and sin, in spite of the ways that the world is so often not what it should be, God chooses to love us, and chooses to work through us, and chooses to use us in the world – not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

You may remember Greg Louganis, an Olympic diver in the 1980’s.

      In the 1988 games, during the springboard event he missed one dive and hit the board with his head. Physicians stitched his cut, and he went on to win. In the platform diving he won the gold on his final performance with an incredibly difficult dive called a reverse three-and-a-half somersault tuck. It was a breathtaking finish that brought Americans to their feet.

When reporters hounded him in Los Angeles he gave them a very unusual response. They asked, “What were you thinking about as you prepared for your final dive?” Maybe they were referring to the pressure, or to the fact that that dive is extremely dangerous and killed a Russian athlete just a year before. Louganis’ simple answer was, “I was thinking that no matter what happens, my mother will still love me.

When Greg was just eleven, he became very frustrated at his diving performance in an early and important meet. Frances Louganis took her son aside and said, “I do not come to see you win. I come to see you dive. Just do your best. I will love you no matter what.” That unconditional love carried her son to forty-three national diving titles, six Pan-American gold medals, five world championships, one Olympic silver medal, and four Olympic gold medals.[1]

When we seek to learn who we are in God’s presence, and confess the ways that we have fallen short, we can find ourselves holding on to the unconditional love in which and for which God has created us. We can trust in the gifts that God has given us and seek to grow in service to God and our neighbor.

One writer phrased it this way:

Humility is not a false rejection of God’s gifts. To exaggerate the gifts we have by denying them may be as close to narcissism as we can get in this life. No, humility is the admission of God’s gifts to me and the acknowledgment that I have been given them for others. Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.[2]

Saul looked at David’s gifts and then at his own, and was envious and angry. David looked at the ways in which he had been blessed and chose to act wisely. And when he acted wisely, good things happened. May we have the grace to do the same: acknowledge who we are and what we have received and seek to offer those gifts for the life of the world and the glory of God. Amen.

[1] Reader’s Digest, June 1988, p. 163-170, quoted at http://www.sermonnotebook.org/old%20testament/1%20Sam%2018_1-4.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (HarperCollins, 1990 p. 65)

Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(In)Significance

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  Our series began with this message, and the texts included I Samuel 16:1-13 and I Corinthians 1:26-31.

OK, so you’re sitting around with someone you love, and you’ve got nothing better to do, so you decide to pop on down to the Redbox and get a movie. There have been all kinds of new releases lately, and it’ll be a great way to spend some time together.

Until you find yourself standing in front of the machine, looking at row after row of titles, saying, “Nope… nope… nope… Um – wait, who’s in that one? Oh, right. Nope… nope…” It’s horrible, isn’t it? How hard can it be to pick a film?

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Believe it or not, that’s the image I have as the old prophet Samuel meets with Jesse’s family. God has told him that there’s a new king to be anointed, so here is Samuel, watching each of the boys pass before him, shaking his head over and over again, “nope… Uh-uh… Nope…”

For much of this year, we’re going to be looking at the life and times of the one who is eventually chosen by God, the man we’ve come to know as King David. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time for us to consider issues of power, leadership, integrity, perspective, and God’s working in history.

First, an introduction. Most of content at which we’ll be looking in the months to come is found in the Old Testament books of Samuel. Although your Bible might refer to these as among the “historical” books, it’s important to note that they are not “history” in the way that most of us understand that word. What I mean by that is that this is not an ordered account whereby we are given a strict chronology of events, complete with footnotes and cross-references. What we have before us is more of a series of family remembrances – stories that are told from a particular perspective that aim to remind us of certain core truths again and again.

In the books of Samuel, we see a significant transition in the life of Israel. What we heard about in Judges and Ruth was a loose confederation of insignificant tribes that really had no cohesion as a functioning nation, but in the span of a few short pages, we see the emergence of a centralized nation-state that is moving into some prominence on the world stage. There are three key figures in this narrative. Samuel is the last “Judge” of Israel, and he is called by God to establish a monarchy. Samuel has incredible religious fervor and great depth of character, but he is not really a great leader and has absolutely no patience when it comes to working with other people. He is led to anoint Saul as king. Saul is an amazingly motivational leader who really knows how to work the room – whichever room he happens to be in. He has a commanding presence. Unfortunately, however, Saul is also spiritually bankrupt and mentally unstable.

Samuel and Saul are really the set-up men for the main event, however: David, the one who no less an authority than the Apostle Paul described as “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22). David is the instrument by which God transforms this motley group of clans and warlords into a functioning nation, and today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to this remarkable person.

Our reading opens with a reminder of Saul’s inability to be king and the declaration that it’s time for something new. When God sends Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king, he is understandably frightened. After all, Saul still thinks that he is the king; if he discovers that Samuel is out there looking for a new king, well, there’s going to be trouble. After all, the job isn’t really vacant.

The Lord gives Samuel a cover story about going to make a sacrifice (which reminds me of the time that God told Moses to take the people out of Egypt: “Tell Pharaoh that you need to take a long weekend to offer a sacrifice…” That seems to be one of God’s ways of announcing regime change…). So Samuel goes into Judah and is met by a quaking group of elders from the town of Bethlehem, who are troubled by the presence of the old Judge in their town. If Samuel is there because Saul sent him, then they are afraid that Saul’s about to inflict some new round of taxation or plunder. If Samuel is there to incite rebellion against Saul, however, the elders will be held responsible and punished accordingly.

Samuel manages to quiet everyone down by saying it’s time for worship, and then he asks to have Jesse’s family invited. Well, again, this is awkward. I mean, if you’re going to have a sacrifice and worship as God’s people, why invite Jesse? His grandmother, Ruth, was from Moab. According to Deuteronomy (23:3), Moabite families – down to the tenth generation – are excluded from the assembly of God’s people. And yet, here (at God’s urging), Samuel is insisting that the worship service can’t go on until Jesse and his boys show up.

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

That leads us to the parade of sons with which we began this message: Jesse marches his oldest boy in and Samuel is immediately struck by the notion that this is one amazing young man. But the Lord says, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Son after son comes in until there are seven fellows standing in the “rejected” line and no others visible. Now it’s Samuel’s turn to be perplexed, and he says as much to God as to Jesse, “Wait – isn’t there anyone else?”

“Oh, well, there’s the youngest, but he’s out with the sheep.”

Samuel and our narrator heighten the drama by bringing things to a grinding halt until this nameless afterthought could be found and brought to worship. Eventually, the young man is brought in and, even though Samuel was warned against judging anyone from the outside, he is quick to notice that this boy is special in all kinds of ways. What matters most, however, is the fact that the Lord grabbed hold of Samuel and said, “Now! This is the one!”

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

God reaches into an insignificant family in a forgotten corner of a developing nation and says, “Yes! This is the one who has a heart like me. This is the one with which I will shape the history of my people!” David is chosen, not for any quality of which he or anyone else is aware, but because God has decided to take something of apparent insignificance and use it for eternal purposes.

While young David may be striking in his appearance, what is important for us to remember this morning is that at this point, he is one of the marginal people. You’ve seen a thousand faces like his this week, as you’ve read or seen stories of Native Americans protesting a pipeline, or Syrian refugees struggling to find safety, or anonymous first responders showing up on doorsteps where who knows what is inside, or kids from this neighborhood waiting for the bus to come and take them to school. The point is that David has no credentials, no social standing, and no reason to attract the attention of the local military recruiter or scholarship officer, let alone the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, that attention is given, even to David – even to the one who was marginalized.

Illustration may not be to scale...

Illustration may not be to scale…

In the late 1970’s, Douglas Adams produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a remarkable work of science fiction and imagination. In it, we are introduced to a device called “the Total Perspective Vortex”, which is allegedly the most horrific means of torture a sentient being can endure. Adams writes, “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.’” The idea behind this torture is that the victim is forced to realize just how insignificant, how worthless, how small he or she is, and such knowledge is totally debilitating. When you see yourself in comparison to everyone and everything that ever was, is, or shall be, the logical response is “Who am I?”, and a logical consequence is having your entire sense of self obliterated. Interestingly enough, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have experienced something like this, called the “Overview Effect”. When we realize just how small we are in comparison to everything else there is, well, it redefines us…

So this anointing of David, the great-grandson of a foreign-born refugee, the lastborn son of a sheepherder from a little town fourteen miles from nowhere, the marginalized and uncredentialed and unschooled and unworthy one – this anointing could have been the moment when David realized that he was nothing and nobody; it could have, and perhaps should have, blown his mind.

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea...

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea…

But it didn’t. It didn’t because David chose not to compare himself to everyone and everything else. Instead of seeing himself in contrast to all that surrounded him, David saw himself encompassed by God’s care and God’s call. Instead of seeing himself alone in a world filled with people who were more competent, more powerful, wiser, smarter, or more important than he was, David chose to see himself as wrapped in the intentions and heart of God.

The anointing takes place in silence, and at the end of the day, David is still everyone’s little brother, given the grunt work to do by the family and village that do not understand what’s happened. Saul is still the king. Samuel is on his way to Ramah. The key change is unseen: the Spirit has come upon David in a new and powerful way. The anointing has received no press coverage, and its secrecy will last for years. Yet history has been changed, and the Spirit is at work. The old order, whether Saul knows it or not, has ended. The next big thing is under way as God’s Spirit works on and in and through the young boy who has been called to change the world.

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

In 1809, if you asked anyone in Europe, Western Asia, or Northern Africa, what was going on, all you’d hear about was the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor of France was gobbling up territories and people in London and Rome and Moscow and Tunis and Madrid went to bed wondering what the world was coming to. The war was horrible, and in fact spilled over into North America in the form of the War of 1812.

And while Napoleon was getting all of the media attention in 1809, other things were happening. Babies were being born, for instance. A family in Coupvray, France, welcomed a young son named Louis. In Boston, two young actors named their son Edgar. A family in Shrewsbury England welcomed young Charles, and deep in the woods of Kentucky an impoverished family named their second child Abraham. Nobody cared about these children in 1809. Everyone cared about battles.

And yet today, nobody but a few historians know who fought in the Fifth War of the Coalition in 1809, or which side prevailed in the epic Walcherin Expedition. But ask people about the ways that the work of Louis Braille opens up the world for them, Edgar Allan Poe shapes imagination, or Charles Darwin engages sense of wonder at the natural world, or the impact that Abraham Lincoln has had on this nation and the world, and you’ll see that some of the seemingly insignificant events of 1809 wound up as being far more important than anything that was in the headlines.

I don’t know what the headlines of your life are right now. I don’t know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, as compared with all the other people and places and things in God’s great creation. You may well go to bed tonight thinking that you are, by many measures, insignificant. You may walk home today with a heavy heart as you know that you are surrounded by some sort of a battle that makes the Battle of Aspern-Essling look like children fighting in the sandbox. And you may be right, if that’s the way that you choose to measure those kinds of things. But if you and I can let go of that system of self-evaluation and instead think about the fact that the same Spirit that was at work in David is available to us, then we can grasp the truth of which Paul spoke in his letter to the Corinthians. We are where we are, we are who we are, by the grace of God. If we bring ourselves to God in humility and with joy, it may seem insignificant, but I’m telling you that such discipleship is wrapped in significance.

Samuel had no idea what he was doing as he followed the Spirit into Bethlehem that day. I am here to tell you that the smallest acts of obedience and faithfulness and generosity can bear amazing fruit in the hands of God. Today, this week, this year, as the headline-grabbing battles rage throughout your own life – ask God for the gift of being able to see yourself in God’s heart, that you might care for the things about which God cares, in the hopes that you will be the agent of God’s presence and provision to those who need them. Your story, our story, His story, is still being written. Thanks be to God! Amen.

The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.

 

Whatever It Takes

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our texts for Sunday June 26 were Ruth 2:1-7 and I Thessalonians 4:11-12.

 

 

Let me invite you to do a little thinking as I begin this morning. Please complete this sentence, to yourselves: “I’d rather die than…”

What reality, what possibility, is so unattractive to you that you’d just as soon shuffle off this mortal coil as to go ahead and follow through on it?

I mean, all of us have preferences, right? I like to eat fish, you prefer a little tofu, and he won’t eat a salad. But if fish, or tofu, or a big old bowl of salad was all that stood between you and starvation, could you choke it down?

I guess what I’m asking is whether there is anything that you consider to be so far “beneath” you, so unattractive, that it is, in fact, impossible for you to even consider.

GoodLieThe film The Good Lie tells the story of a group of Sudanese children who are forced to leave their villages and wander through the wilderness in search of refuge. At one point, the youngest child in the group dies as a result of dehydration. When he realizes what has happened, the eldest boy urinates into a metal pot and says, “I want to live. I do not want to die.” He takes a drink, and passes it around to the surviving children, who each repeat that phrase before they sip. It is a powerful, powerful scene, as something that is abjectly horrible (children drinking their own urine) is transformed into something almost sacramental as the group’s leader acts with love and humility to preserve life.

Coal PickingIn contrast, there’s an equally moving scene in Angela’s Ashes in which a young Frank McCourt is ridiculed by his father for picking up lumps of coal that have fallen from a wagon. Malachy McCourt is too proud to do that, and so the family’s home is cold and damp and several children die as a result of the conditions there.

The first film gives us a glimpse of someone who did the unthinkable in order to survive, while the second demonstrates the ways that human pride or laziness or bitterness can literally kill.

Today’s reading from the book of Ruth allows us to focus on the character and behavior of Ruth for the first time. Last week, we saw the overwhelming nature of this family’s calamity from the perspective of Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. Her suffering was so great that there were several times when it appeared as though she was pretty much ready to lay down and die – she felt as though the grief was too real, and there was too much for her to do.

Gleaning, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)

Gleaning, Arthur Hughes (1832-1915)

At this point, however, her daughter-in-law, Ruth, decides that if the family is going to be saved, it’s because she can take action. Here in the beginning of Ruth 2, this woman acts with courage, integrity, and humility. She does what it takes to ensure survival.

As we consider this text, pay attention to how she is known. She’s not just “Ruth.” She’s not “Mahlon’s wife” or “Naomi’s daughter-in-law.” She is “Ruth the Moabite”. “Ruth, the Outsider.” “Ruth, the One Who Doesn’t Belong Here.” In the wake of the global movement to demonize refugees and ostracize the foreigner, this is important for us to note this morning. Even while Naomi and at least some in her home village know the sacrifices that Ruth has made and the bravery she’s already displayed, they can’t resist reminding her and the rest of us that she’s really not that important. She’s just a Moabite. She’s nobody, at least in the eyes of that culture. They are not sure that she’s welcome.

And yet, as I’ve mentioned, she has chosen to do what she needs to do in order to stay alive. If Ruth and Naomi are to survive, it’ll be because Ruth is willing to become a gleaner.

I would imagine that if many of us were told today that our survival depended on our ability to “glean”, we’d be in trouble, simply because a lot of us aren’t exactly sure what that means. “Gleaning” is the act of going through a farmer’s fields to collect that portion of the crop that was not taken by the original harvesters. It might be unripe, or overripe, or damaged – but for whatever reason, a “gleaner” is someone who goes into a field from which almost all of the food has been removed in the hopes of finding something that will get her or him through the day. In reality, when you see a homeless person picking through the trash at the fast food restaurant, you’re looking at a form of 21st-Century gleaning.

Untitled (Ruth and Naomi Gleaning); photo by Adi Ness, 2006  Used by permission; see more at http://www.adines.com

Untitled (Ruth and Naomi Gleaning); photo by Adi Ness, 2006
Used by permission; see more at http://www.adines.com

Whether we’re talking in Bible times or in our own, gleaning is hard and demeaning work. I don’t know whether Ruth thought of herself as a gleaner when she made all those flowery promises to Naomi about sticking together back in chapter 1. But now they’re in Bethlehem, and they are hungry. And so for Ruth, there is not much debate about it – she simply announces to her mother-in-law that she’s going and she works so hard that she catches the eye of the folks who are getting paid to bring in the crop.

As we consider wisdom of the Book of Ruth for our own day and age, it seems to me that one lesson might be simply that sometimes we have to do what we would prefer not to do in order to get to a future that is a better place than where we are now. Sometimes, we have to do that which we consider to be unappealing or menial or even humiliating if we are going to do our part in growing in faith and life.

Now, before I tell you what I do mean, let me emphasize what I do not mean by this. I am not suggesting that it is ever appropriate for someone with power to somehow bully you or anyone else into doing something that is immoral or unhealthy or destructive just because you may not have any better options. I was once asked by a thirteen-year-old girl if I thought that selling drugs was bad. When I mentioned that I did, she started to cry and said, “Well now I don’t know what to do. My daddy makes me help him put the stuff in little bags and weigh it, and when I told him that I didn’t want to, he said that the Bible said to ‘honor your parents’, so if I want to be a good Christian I have to help him.”

No. I can’t tell you how wrong that is. In the same way, it’s not appropriate to let someone use you – your body, your labor, your self – as a means to help them get to a place that is in opposition to God’s best. That is not what I mean when I say sometimes we have to do things that are unpleasant or humiliating.

And similarly, I’m not talking about all those commercials that you’ll be seeing in the months to come about the Olympics, and about what makes a person special is the fact that she or he gets up at three a.m. and runs 37 miles and eats only raw eggs and locusts as he or she pushes towards being the best gymnast/swimmer/sprinter that has ever gone for the gold. There may be some valid lessons in self-discipline and motivation to be had there, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

What I am saying is that a huge part of the Christian life is rooted in doing what you can do to take responsibility for yourself as well as for other people. Lots of times, that will be unpleasant. Often, it will be difficult. Sometimes, it will even seem unfair. None of those are sufficient reasons not to act.

Sometimes, this kind of action is easy to recognize, but difficult to do. Paying your rent on time, for instance. Just do it. Getting out of bed and going to work or school, even on days when you don’t “feel like it”. Doing what you need to do in order to keep promises you made to someone, even when somehow that’s become inconvenient for you. I don’t think that you need me, or Ruth, or Jesus, to tell you that these things are right and good and appropriate ways to behave as a mature person in the world. If this was an internet meme, it would say something like “adulting is hard”.

My mother used to encourage me to “be the bigger person”. For a long time I hoped that meant eating two sandwiches a day and taking extra dessert, but it turns out that’s not what she was talking about. What she meant, of course, was that being in relationship with other people provides us with all kinds of opportunities to swallow our pride and take the risk and try to do what’s right, even when we’re afraid that it’s going to come back to bite us and lead us to more pain.

Years ago, I heard a version of this from a friend, who had gotten it from a friend, who had probably stolen it from someone else. Where it comes from doesn’t matter: the point my friend shared with me was this: Dave, you’ve got to keep your side of the street clean.

What she meant by this was the fact that people will do all sorts of things that are unfair or ill-advised, but that you can’t control all that they are doing. You can only be in charge of making sure that there’s no way in which you are contributing to the degradation or marginalization of another human being.

Ruth is a strong woman who knows who she is and is willing to go and do some difficult things for all the right reasons. I wonder if people might be able to say the same thing about me or about you? Have I gotten so tired of being burnt in relationships that I don’t extend myself the way that I ought? Are you so frustrated by the ways that nobody at your place of work seems to do anything that you’ve become a part of the problem, too? When you look at a relationship or a social problem, are you tempted to cry out, “Oh, what’s the use? I hate this and nothing is ever going to change anyway…”?

Paul writes to his friends in Thessalonica, and he says that they ought to work hard and be diligent and seek to “be respectable”. I’m pretty sure that he’s not saying this because there’s a great financial or social gain to come from it. I think he’s saying it because no matter what your neighbor does, who your pastor is, or what your brother did last week, the bottom line is that if you have the chance to do what’s right, you do it. End of story.

But you might object, and say, “look, this ‘doing it all like it depends on you’ business sounds an awful lot like we are supposed to excuse other people’s bad behavior and just get used to being the people who clean up other people’s messes. You might think that if people of faith walk around being humble and menial and deferential, that the powers that be will never be challenged and that real change won’t occur. I agree – we can’t be one-sided in any of this, and there are a lot of things that we need to say about people who have power (and we’ll say them next week). The truth this week is that Ruth isn’t in charge of, and can’t control Boaz, or Naomi, or the other reapers or gleaners. Ruth can only take responsibility for her own actions – which she must do on a daily basis.

As we consider the example of Ruth this morning, let’s remember that the story of our faith calls us to take responsibility for ourselves, to act with courage, humility, and grace in the areas where we can.

For you, that might mean taking responsibility to work towards reconciliation in a relationship, even if it’s not “your fault” that things went south. Or it might mean that you need to stand up for yourself in a place where you’ve been accepting poor treatment from someone else in the hopes that if you name the truth about the ways that you’ve been treated, others will be spared the pain that you’ve endured. And it might simply mean that you act as one who keeps the promises that you’ve made, even if such promises are now inconvenient or even costly to you.

In another part of the Bible this kind of living is held up for us to consider. Psalm 15 reads like this in The Message:

God, who gets invited to dinner at your place?

How do we get on your guest list?

“Walk straight, act right, tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend, don’t blame your neighbor; despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you, make an honest living, never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get blacklisted if you live like this.”

 

As I mentioned last week, the story of Ruth is the story of us. Starting with the actions that we can control, we have got to be people of integrity and reliability. Thanks be to God, that way is open to us. I hope that we are willing to go there, even when the road seems difficult. Amen.

Texas Mission 2016 #5

So, I had to go back and re-read what I wrote yesterday.

I had to do that because in many ways, today was a frustrating day for our team.  And it was frustrating, by and large, because we felt increasingly driven by the need to do and achieve and produce some great deal of work on the little house on Puffin Street in Edinburg, Texas.

IMG_3263

Jon has spent some time this week apprenticing as an electrician. he may have a knack!

All that stuff I wrote yesterday about partnership and being together and allowing God to shape us?  Yeah, well, it turns out that it’s harder to remember some of that when you’re frustrated by using borrowed tools and working to finish a job someone else started and trying to figure out how in the world you are going to finish this job by the time the day is over.  So, one by one, we took a trip to the “bitter barn” today.  The flanges didn’t flange right, and the wire was too stiff, and the plumbing connections were for the other kind of plastic tubing and the paint dried on my brush in the sun and Jon fell into a hole and twisted his ankle (not apparently very seriously, but as he himself reminded us, we shoot horses for less) and the drywall might have fallen from the ceiling and crumbled into 73 pieces when the fellas thought it was up there pretty good…

This picture looks pretty cool, right? Guys working together... 4 minutes later the piece in question had crashed to the floor - a victim of late-day, late-week frustration.  And we all lived.

This picture looks pretty cool, right? Guys working together… 4 minutes later the piece in question had crashed to the floor – a victim of late-day, late-week frustration. And we all lived.

…and yet, as you read this, the world still turns on its axis.  Somewhere, the sun is shining, birds are singing, and a gentle breeze waves across the field.

Here I am painting about half as much as I'd hoped to today...

Here I am painting about half as much as I’d hoped to today…

 

Gabe managed to wrangle some recalcitrant wire into shape to provide service to the home.

Gabe managed to wrangle some recalcitrant wire into shape to provide service to the home.

We didn’t finish.  That was an unrealistic goal.  But this afternoon, we stopped.  And that was fine.  We did what we could with the energy and skill and tools and time that we had, and it’s good.  And when the next team steps up to the plate, it’ll be better.  And it’s fine.

Here's our team, along with Texas Bob, letting go of what we couldn't finish.

Here’s our team, along with Texas Bob, letting go of what we couldn’t finish.

Because after we stopped our work in Texas this year, we did something amazing.  We left Puffin St. in Edinburg and headed west about 45 minutes or so to visit the home on which we worked last year.  And it was amazing.

The little purple house to which we contributed our meager efforts is now a home.  We met our old friend Juani and her children again. We saw how they have taken the structure that was a house and have filled it with character and celebration and joy and hope… And it was simply beautiful to see.

With Juani and her family, celebrating God's gift of home.  We read Psalm 133 and prayed together, and it was good.  Very good.

With Juani and her family, celebrating God’s gift of home. We read Psalm 133 and prayed together, and it was good. Very good.

We didn’t finish that job either.  But it’s done now.  Thanks be to God, it’s done.

This is Vicky.  At her home.  Wearing a shirt that reads "Princess".  Everything about this is beautiful.

This is Vicky. At her home. Wearing a shirt that reads “Princess”. Everything about this is beautiful.

And, thanks be to God, there’s another one on the way.  And – no thanks to us, but to our colleagues in Texas – another and another and another.

Pray with us tonight for families who flee violence and who survive trauma; pray for those who need a home and those who can help to provide it; and take it easy on yourself when you’re feeling all that pressure to do and achieve and produce.  Take some time today to be.  Be thankful. Be hopeful. Be courteous. Be kind.