Being Centered in God’s Care in the Exile

With other communities here in Western Pennsylvania, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are experiencing the “next stage” of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’ve entered the “Yellow Phase” of our struggle with this virus.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 17 included Daniel 4:18-37 and Acts 17:24-28.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player immediately below.  There is a link to the YouTube recording of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog entry.

Imagine that you are hosting a few guests from another country.  Let’s say that you are looking for opportunities for your friends to experience your culture, and so during their stay, you immerse them in all manner of places and events.  And let’s say that you’ve been invited to a wedding, but at the last minute you can’t go. Because you really want them to have the experience, you send them anyway. When they gets home, they’re very impressed, but have a few questions.

Your friends ask you about the part where the announcer called all the people in the room to form a circle, and then how everyone began acting very strangely.  Your guests say that people began to wave various body parts at each other.  You think and you think and you think and finally it hits you.  They were watching the crowd during “the Hokey-Pokey”.  It wasn’t a random waving of body parts, but rather a choreographed sequence of motions:  “You put your left hand in, you take your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…”

In this case, you can tell your friends that there is really nothing unusual here – it’s just a dance.  Now it would be unusual, you think, if you went to a wedding and there in the middle of the vows someone jumped up and started doing the Hokey-Pokey, or if off in the corner there was an odd person doing it alone.  But in our normal context of weddings and dancing, there is nothing odd about it because, in spite of the song’s claim, the Hokey Pokey is not really what it’s all about.

You may be asking yourself what all this has to do with the Bible and our current exploration of the life of exile.  Well, the answer is simple:  Daniel 4, and indeed all of Daniel, answers the basic question, “What is the reality of history?”  Do we experience our lives, do families and cultures and nations come and go by chance?  Or are we in some sort of a dance?  Is our world shaped by random, and therefore meaningless events, or are we participants in a choreography that has a final conclusion and promised end?

This is precisely the presenting issue here in Daniel 4.  Who calls the shots?  Who is in control?

A reminder that last week we heard Daniel 3, which began with king Nebuchadnezzar punishing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for worshipping YHWH – because the king said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not, in fact, a real god.  And Daniel 3 ends with Nebuchadnezzar praising these three young men, and saying that they have in fact shown him that YHWH is a god – or at least, one of the gods.  Here in Daniel 4, we see Nebuchadnezzar take the next step: the chapter ends with the pagan king saying that at the end of the day, he has come to realize that YHWH is not just a god, but THE God, the Most High God.  How did he learn that?  Through a means we’ve seen already in this story – the interpretation and fulfillment of a dream.

Daniel Explaining the Dream to Nebuchadnezzar, print by Adriaen Collaert (between 1593-1597)

You have heard the dream.  Like much of the book of Daniel, it’s repeated in a couple of different ways so that the hearers can soak it in.  This is a long chapter, and I’ll encourage you to read it all.  Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is a prediction of the king’s punishment with insanity and loss of reason, leading to his humiliation and eventual restoration.

Let me invite you to look at the reading, and in your own bibles go ahead and circle verses 17, 25, and 32.  Here we see the refrain of this story chorused again and again:  “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.”  Time and time again,Nebuchadnezzar (and we) hears this profound theological statement – a statement that reminds this great king that he is not who he thinks he is – he is not the most powerful, the most wise, the most authoritative person in this story — God is.

Daniel gets that theme.  Daniel understands!  And in verse 27, Daniel pleads with the king to change his behavior, to adjust his life, so that he will not receive the punishment of which he’s dreamed.  Daniel says, “Look, King, it’s not too late.  Start over.  Maybe you can make this punishment only a bad dream…”

It’s interesting to note that Daniel has not only a bit of counsel for the king, but he has a strategy.  God wants the king to know who is deserving of glory and praise – only God.  And this message from Daniel to the king seems to indicate that the correct response for those who know that God is in control is to act with righteousness and to show mercy to the oppressed.  There is something about recognizing God’s position in the world that ought to compel us to treat others rightly.  When we recognize that we are not almighty, we have the opportunity and responsibility to treat others with mercy and humility.

But, of course, the King doesn’t get it.  Take a look at verse 30.  A year later, he’s walking through the palace and it hits him — he’s done all right for himself.  “Look at my palace, my city!  I made it myself.  It’s great – and it displays my honor and my glory!  I’m all right!”  And before the echo from the marble pillars and golden statues dies down, Nebuchadnezzar receives the fulfillment of his dream.  He is punished in one of the worst ways imaginable – he is driven from human society and away from reality.  The mighty, powerful king finds himself eating grass; his hair is as long as an eagle’s feather and his fingernails are like talons. I mean, you thought the “stay at home order” has been tough, but…

And some time later, God relents and Nebuchadnezzar is restored.  He blessed God and moves, as we have said, from being obsessed with his own power and glory to extolling the one true God.  And the end of the chapter describes Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance and the ways that he yields to God’s greatness and power.

Friends, the book of Daniel calls the question: Who is in control?  Who calls the shots?  Only God.  God is, in the words of our reading from Acts, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  The prime mover.  The unmade maker.  The Ground of all being.  There are lots of ways to describe this truth – but it is foundational to our understanding of life, and it is profoundly Good News for Hebrew exiles.  The proud Empire that conquered Jerusalem is not really in control.

A theological way to talk about this idea is called the doctrine of “Providence”.  That is to say, human history and existence has a meaning and a purpose.  We are not simply here on a roll of the die or a spin of the wheel, but rather we believe that somehow God, who sits outside of human history, is ordering that history towards a particular end.  Another theological expression that might be applicable here is the one that we call “Election” or “Predestination”.  Over the years, Presbyterians have taken a bad rap on this one, because people have said that the idea of predestination means that God, before the foundation of the world, decided that you, me, and your mother in law would inherit life forever no matter what, and that your sister, my brother, and my mother in law would go straight to hell, no matter what.

While I resist these individualistic understandings of belief systems anchored in the idea that God, not me, is sovereign, I like what Karl Barth has to say: that the doctrine of election or predestination is more binding on God than it is on humanity.  That is to say that before the invention of time and before the beginning of the world, God elected to bind God’s self to humanity through Jesus of Nazareth so that humans might receive life.  Barth points out that when folks talk about election and predestination, it’s almost always about individual people being sent to heaven or hell – but that the act of reconciliation that Jesus accomplished was to bring the children of God to the throne of grace.  God is in charge, moving through history so that everyone – kings and peasants – will know that fellowship with God is the purpose of life.[1]

Friends, the notion of God’s providence and sovereignty over the creation can be seen as either a threat or a promise.  For those who are unable to see themselves, their plans and desires, and their authority as anything less than central, well, this notion causes difficulty.  And so I would suggest that the first word that we can hear in this text for today is one of caution.

As we find ourselves in the first “yellow phase” of our lives, many of us are tired and irritable and, frankly, just about over this whole coronavirus thing.  We are ready to get back to normal.  We want to take that vacation, we need to get our hair and nails done, and we bristle at any so-called “authority” who tells us what we ought to do in a reality we no longer want to inhabit.

When I have those thoughts, I wonder… how much of that comes from a place of humility?  How much of that is rooted in an awareness to God, and not me, rules over creation?  When I sit out on my porch and work myself up into a state over what “they” (whoever “they” are) are trying to do to “me”, am I any different than Nebuchadnezzar strutting across his balcony preening in his own power and authority?

And you might respond, as I hope that some of you do, that there is not just a need for a word of caution here, but of compassion as well.  After all, we read that one of the prime complaints against Nebuchadnezzar was his unmerciful behavior toward the oppressed.  And, for all I know, some of you may be yelling at your TV screen now saying, “Look, Carver, you chowderhead!  I don’t want to go out because I’m all that – but people have got to get back to work.  I want to support the folks in the restaurant industry and the hair stylists and the hotel workers.”

The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots: pati, meaning “suffer”, and com, meaning “with”.  We stand at a place in history where we have been extended an opportunity to offer compassion to our neighbor.  To enter into their suffering.  And I get it: maybe you really do want to get out because you want to help people feed their families.

Can you do that today?  Do you want to help your hair stylist feed their family? Then give that person a Giant Eagle card – not because they cut your hair, but because they are suffering.  Don’t let your pride (“Uh, well, I would do that, Pastor, but then that would just make it weird between us…”) get in the way of your ability to live with compassion.  Offer what you can to the people who are in your field of vision.  Give of yourself.  Compassion.

And lastly, there is a word here of encouragement.  Remember, I said a few moments ago that the idea of God’s providence implied both a threat to the proud and a promise to the humble.

So remember this, beloved: there is good news for the people who heard the story of Daniel for the first time.  Consider the context of this story!  Do you remember the situation in which the first hearers of this story found themselves?  They were being persecuted.  Their children were murdered.  Their holy objects were profaned.  An evil king was tearing apart those who would be faithful to the Lord.  But here, in Daniel, they hear something different.  They hear the story of a pagan king who turns to God.  They hear of an evil tyrant who is punished and repents.  They hear a story that cannot help but fill them with hope that somehow, their suffering might have meaning.

God is in control!  That’s not just good news to an unknown crowd of Jews a couple of thousand years ago.  There is good news for today.

There’s good news for those who are caught in the economic crisis of this pandemic.  You, or someone you love, may have lost a job or some savings because of the climate of greed and irresponsibility that has typified this nation for a while.  The truth that this morning’s lesson brings to each of us is that none of us is in “free fall” right now.  At the end of the day, we are not at the whim of China or the President or a bail out or even a virus.  We are not living in a chaotic world where we have to deal each day with the luck of the draw and are subject to chance in every area of our lives.

You are living in a world where God has chosen to be a partner in your life.  God has willed – God has elected – to be active day by day.  We are dancing with the Lord. Now look, I didn’t go to the Mary Pappert School of Music at the Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit like some people I know, but I understand that when our friend PJ was learning to play jazz piano, he came to understand quickly that while he may have some mad skills, he is not always the composer or the director. Sometimes he’s given a sheet of music that’s in a particular key and carries a certain time signature and he’s expected to do his best to improvise within a chord structure that he didn’t choose.

That’s us. I know that there are times when we simply cannot see the purpose and our lives look a whole lot like a mishmash of one thing after another.  Yet I am convinced that the Book of Daniel is here to point to the Gospel truth that we will one day know the full depths of the Composer’s love for and presence with us.  You belong to God, and are headed to God.  It is in the very heart of God that you live and move and have your being.

My prayer for you is that you would believe this.  That you – wherever you are – will begin to understand yourself first and foremost as a disciple of the Christ who has come to establish fellowship between God and humanity.  And when you think of yourself as a disciple, for goodness sake, don’t do it the way we do so many things – by dabbling around but not really investing ourselves.  So often we go part way.  We put our left arm in, or we put our right arm in, but we don’t really take it seriously.  Friends, follow God in this dance of discipleship and belief; listen for the rhythm of God’s movement in your life and in your world any place you are… and then, beloved, put your whole self in.  Shake it all around.  That’s what it’s all about!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] See The Theology of Karl Barth, by Herbert Hartwell (Westminster, 1964) p. 105ff.

Being Faithful and Rooted in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 26, 2020 to continue the celebration of the season of Eastertide.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts this week included Daniel 2:25-49, and we also heard from Paul to his friends in Rome, Romans 12:3-5

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire service at the end of this blog.

So at the Ash Wednesday service, the congregation prepared for the usual prayer of confession.  The preacher started off as usual, but apparently got so caught up in the moment that he stepped away from the elegant pulpit, threw himself on the chancel, and began to weep loudly.  As he did so, he cried out, “Nothing, God, nothing! Before you, I am nothing!”

The congregation was visibly moved by this show of humility, and in a moment the leader of the worship team throws herself down next to the pastor and begins to imitate him, wailing, “I’m nothing, Lord! Before you, I am nothing…”  After a moment, there’s a bit of a stir in the back when the town drunk steps into the aisle and kneels, and cries out, “O Lord, before you, I am nothing!”

While the congregation stares, the worship leader nudges the pastor and says, “Well get a load of this! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This morning, I’d like to talk about who we are, who we think we are, how we understand ourselves, and the notion of humility.  And as I start I’ll confess that this is a difficult message because the more I talk about humility, the less you’re convinced that I have any of it.

“Daniel Interprets the Dream of King Nebuchadnezzar”, William Brassey Hole (1846-1907)

We are continuing to read in the Book of Daniel, listening for ways in which God’s presence and truth was revealed to a people who were sent to a place they didn’t want to go, held by a power they didn’t acknowledge, and asked to define themselves in ways that they couldn’t understand.  Last week, we read about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar had had a vision in the night and he was just about ready to slaughter every one of his advisors before young Daniel announced that, with God’s help, he knew the dream and its interpretation.  He rushed to tell the executioner, Arioch, that God had given him the answer and that the wise men’s lives could be spared.

Did you notice what happened in the reading today?  Arioch leads Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar and begins by saying, “I have found a man who can solve your problem, O King.”  Seriously? The only thing Arioch did was to not kill Daniel – but he wants the king to associate whatever success Daniel has with Arioch himself.  Not what I’d call a lesson in humility.

Then, as you heard, Daniel tells the truth.  That is, he not only reveals Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, but he interprets the dream.  It’s a long and complicated vision, and, quite frankly, not the point of this morning’s sermon.  If you’d like to talk with me about the four kingdoms and the ways in which they may or may not be representative of various historical realities, well, give me a call and maybe we’ll both have had enough of the Coronavirus boredom to make that an interesting conversation.  But the emphasis for today is this – that the king puts an apparently impossible demand in front of his lackeys and Daniel is the only one who brings him any satisfaction.  Nebuchadnezzar accepts Daniel’s explanations and our text indicates that he worships Daniel.

When many of us gathered for our Wednesday night Bible study this past week, we talked about the word “worship”, and how it is a natural attribute of humanity.  When we “worship” someone, we usually use that word to mean a celebration of someone’s strength or other attributes, or an adoration of that person, or pointing to the power or accomplishments of the individual. I say this because when the Bible says that the king “worshiped” Daniel it is not implying that the King somehow “accepted Daniel into his heart” or began a new religion.  Rather, it’s a way of saying that the king acknowledged that Daniel was a great guy who told the truth.

The king goes on to acclaim Daniel’s God, YHWH, as the God of gods and the Lord of kings, and he promotes Daniel to be, essentially, vice-king.  He also elevates Daniel’s other companions to offices of respect and power.  I assume you got that from the reading today, right?

Question: did any of that sound vaguely familiar?  Look at the arc of the story: a young man is taken away from his home and his family and sent to the capital of the Empire.  While there he is imprisoned, threatened with harm, and attempts are made to convert him to the Empire’s way of thinking and style of life.  The king, however, experiences a disquieting dream and, against all odds, the young captive from Israel is brought in to interpret the dream.  The grateful king celebrates the wisdom of this outsider and elevates him to a position of great rank and authority in the Empire, recognizing his wisdom and the superiority of his God.  Have you seen this movie before?

Of course you have!  Isn’t that the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt but rising as the vice-chancellor to save the people?  This type of an account, which might be called a “court story”, is central to the Old Testament narrative.  In fact, we’ll see it again next week as we walk into the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Why are these stories important in the Bible?  I’d suggest that there are at least three things that the court stories do.

First, they serve to remind everyone – the people of God, mostly, but the whole human family in general – that God is sovereign.  That is, they affirm the truth that the great I AM is the one true God.

Secondly, it would follow from this that those who learn from YHWH and who are faithful to YHWH have access to a wisdom that is superior to wisdom that comes from other sources.

And thirdly, these court stories are told and re-told to remind those who follow and serve YHWH that they can be encouraged and even hopeful in the midst of situations that might be otherwise untenable.  As Andrew Lloyd Webber put it in his musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,

Close every door to me,
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
For we know we shall find
Our own peace of mind
For we have been promised
A land of our own

These court stories inform the collective memory of the people of God in such a way that nurtures and sustains hope, especially when things look dire.

All right, so if that’s what we’re looking at when we consider this story from Daniel – a “court story” that reminds us of what is true even when our own immediate experience might suggest something else – then what are to do with it?  In what ways can we apply Daniel’s experience to our own?

Well, how does our brother Daniel behave when he finds himself facing a traumatic event in his own life?  As we’ve noted, Daniel is uprooted from his normal routine, taken away from his regular school or work, given a new diet, forced to learn a new language, expected to participate in a reality that is not of his choosing…  How does he respond?

One key aspect of Daniel’s personality that shines through here is his remarkable humility.  You heard it a moment ago – several times when the king is seeking to praise him, Daniel deflects and says, essentially, “Look, it’s not me or any other human; it’s YHWH.”  You could argue, correctly, I’d say, that Daniel does not get into a deep kind of self-abasement or lowering; he does accept the king’s gratitude for the role that he played.  Humility is like that, isn’t it?  As Paul says, it’s a proper assessment of who we are. We take an honest look at who we are and we think about how the gifts we’ve been given equip us to participate in what God is doing.

Frederick Buechner writes about humility, saying

Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a [card] player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.  If you really aren’t much of a [card] player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly.  This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.  True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.  It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.[1]

A few weeks ago I suggested that we could learn something from Daniel when it comes to living in the age of Coronavirus.  What would it look like for us to practice humility during these times of social distancing and virtual community?  Well, I can think of at least three things.

I don’t know what your screen time has been like, but 76% of us are reporting an increase in smartphone and tablet use during the lockdown.  47% of these folks say that their use of social media has increased significantly.[2]  Do you know what that means?  It means that you’re more likely to come into contact with fools.  It’s not a mystery, and it’s not a shocker.  The internet is full of idiots, half-baked ideas, and misinformation.  One aspect of humility is having the strength to avoid arguments with fools.

Look at what Daniel did.  He was surrounded by people who mocked him for his belief, who belittled him for his diet, or who couldn’t pronounce his name.  His continued faithfulness was not demonstrated by trying to prove to these guys that what he knew was superior to what they knew; instead, he went about his business and focused on being the person that God was calling him to be.  In fact, as we saw last week, not only did he refuse to get sucked into anything with the idiots around him, he actually saved their lives!

Another way in which we can see Daniel demonstrating humility is his refusal to compare himself with those around him. Again, last week we saw him drawing near to his colleagues, inviting them to pray with him and to seek the power and presence of YHWH.  You don’t hear Daniel pointing out how either Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego have it somehow better than he, or how his suffering is more or less than the others.  He recognizes that they are in this together.

One of the temptations in our current reality is for those of us in some areas of the nation or world where the effects of the virus are not as pronounced is to look at other people and say, “Suck it up, buttercup!  It’s not that bad.  Quit being such a baby!”  And yet when we do that, we diminish the real pain and suffering in those communities where death has been a too-frequent visitor and the danger of infection is a matter of critical importance.

And finally, one of the most significant lessons we will learn and re-learn from our brother Daniel is that God, not we ourselves, assigns our identity.  Imagine this: that Daniel went into the bedchamber of the most powerful man in the universe and said, “Look, your majesty, you’re pretty big – I’ll give you that… but even you live in a universe that is governed by the God that I worship; that God is the one who raised you up and that God is the one who knows when you’ll fall.”  Daniel consistently points to a God who is sovereign over human history.

And if there is anything that sounds un-American in the Bible, well, that is it.  We are raised to think of ourselves as self-determining.  All around us these days are people who are proclaiming, in the name of something called “liberty”, that they, and they alone, will determine if they’ll go to the Target, if they’ll wear a mask, if they’ll respect social distancing… because, well, freedom.  “Nobody tells me what to do,” we say.

Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas were college professors when their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony was published.  They write,

Our culture has perverted “liberation” to mean freedom from the demands of others in order to be free to follow the demands of the self… Why do you think that we’re all here at the university?  To get liberated!  To stand alone, on our own two feet, autonomous, liberated!  And when we finish…here at the university… you will not need mother, father, husband, wife, children, God, anybody.  We call it “education.”
…It’s tough out there.  Paganism is the air we breathe, the water we drink… Paganism defined as the worship of false gods who promise us results.  [As a person of faith], You better not go out there alone, without comrades in arms… So we must gather on a regular basis, for worship.  To speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God.  We must speak to one another as beloved brothers and sisters in a world which encourages us to live as strangers.  We must pray to God to give us what we cannot have by our own efforts in a world that teaches us that we are self-sufficient and all-powerful.  In such a world, what we do here on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death.[3]

Beloved, know this: that if there is one thing of which this lockdown has reminded us, it is that we are no more self-sufficient or all-powerful than was Nebuchadnezzar.  We, no less than Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are interconnected, interdependent, and belong to each other.

We need each other.  We have the ability, in some cases literally right now, to save each other’s lives.  We have the ability to crush each other’s spirits.  How will we treat that portion of the creation with which we’ve been drawn close?  How will we treat those around us?  May we have the grace and wisdom to learn humility from our brothers Daniel and Paul and live with it onscreen and in real life, to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.  Thanks be to God, who rules and reigns forever.  Amen.

Here is the YouTube recording of the entire worship service:

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper San Francisco, 1973) p. 40.

[2] https://thenextweb.com/growth-quarters/2020/04/24/report-most-important-data-on-digital-audiences-during-coronavirus/

[3] Resident Aliens, p. 153-154.

Wearing the Uniform

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 13 we talked about the virtue and practice of Humility.  Scriptures included Matthew 23:1-12 and Philippians 2:1-11.

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

I’d like to start this morning by sharing one of my all-time favorite memories of Christmas.  In the mid-1980’s, before we were parents, Sharon and I spent a day buying clothes for a student at a prestigious private school where Sharon was doing some research. This young lady was a “scholarship” kid who lived in what thirty years ago we called “the projects”.  Most days, she did well at school, but the last Friday of every month was sheer torment for her, because it was “dress down day”.  That meant students were free to shed their uniforms and wear whatever they wanted to.  I think that Maddy could tell us something about how nice it feels to be able to choose your own clothes for a day every now and then.

The problem was that this student didn’t really have any other clothes that were nice enough to wear to that school – so she just wore her uniform on those Fridays.  And, because kids are kids, she got ripped apart on those days, and was teased mercilessly. Because my wife is one of the kindest, most generous people I know, she decided that we’d go school shopping for a high school girl.  We bought a couple of bags of clothes, and got a youth group member named Tom Taylor to dress up in my Santa suit and deliver the goods.  It was wonderful to hear Sharon narrate the scene she witnessed on the next “dress down day” at that school.

Now, the Gospels don’t record that Jesus ever had to deal with a posse of “mean girls”, but there was a group who consistently targeted and criticized him for being “not like us”.  They looked at Jesus and they scolded and mocked him, saying, “What’s up with those losers you surround yourself with?  And how can you justify spending your time in that way? And that stuff that you eat? And the people you eat it with? For crying out loud, Jesus, you are embarrassing us.  You are so out of it.  How dare you think of yourself as one of us, Jesus.”

But Jesus looked at that crowd – we know them as The Pharisees – and shot right back.  “Those guys?  Please.  Oh, they may think that they’re all that.  And they’ve got the right uniforms on – their prayer shawls and beads and scripture boxes – but there is no substance there.  They don’t have a clue.  They were born on third base but they walk around like they just hit a triple.”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

And then he looked at those who were following him and issued a call to humility. “Don’t be like that,” he said.  “You are to take the lowest place. You are to see yourselves as students, not teachers.  You are to serve each other.”

It’s hard to talk about humility in the church – or anywhere, really.  I mean, if you talk about yourself as someone who is humble, you probably aren’t.  I’m reminded of the time that the congregation surprised their pastor at the end of one Sunday worship service.  They announced that he had been voted the “Most Humble Pastor in America”, and then they presented him with a medal having that inscription.  The next Sunday they took it away from him because he wore it.

As we continue this series of messages on “The Dress Code for Christians,” what does it mean for us to be people who wear humility in our relationship with each other?

Let’s look at a case study: the situation in the First Church of Philippi.  Things were rough there.  We don’t know exactly what was going on, but it’s clear that the place was simmering with conflict. Plenty of people were really irritated with each other.  Paul names two adversaries in chapter 4 of this letter, and so it may be that folks in church were taking sides in this dispute.  Maybe some of the folks were running around saying, “Well, I’m on Syntyche’s side” and others were saying, “Why is that person being so mean to Euodia?”  It could be that what had started as a personal argument was polarizing people in the congregation.

Or maybe there was some conflict around the idea of what made someone a “real” Christian.  Some folks insisted that you couldn’t follow Jesus unless you bought into all of the Jewish Law first, and others insisted that there was no impediment to following Jesus – nothing at all.

And it could have been that some people there were irritated at Paul – they saw him as playing favorites, or as being too close to some people while being distant from others.  Whatever the cause, the content of the letter makes it plain that there was some genuine conflict in the church.  I know, I know, it sounds difficult to believe, but it’s right there in the Bible so I guess we’re going to have to accept that it’s possible for people to argue with and even be petty with each other at church.  Go figure.

So Paul addresses this conflict by constructing a theological argument.  He begins chapter 2 with a sentence that strings together a number of clauses that all begin with the word “if”.  In the Greek, it is ei.  You heard it a moment ago: “if you have any encouragement… if any comfort… if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Now, in English, when we use the word “if”, it’s often in a conditional clause: “If it rains on Saturday…” It might be gonna happen, it might not be gonna happen.  We won’t know until Saturday.  But the Greek language allows for an understanding of “if” as a statement of fact.  Something like, “Look, Andre, if I’m your friend – and we both know that I am – then…”[1]

My point is that Paul is not wondering whether there is encouragement, comfort, commonality of purpose, or compassion to be found in Jesus – he is affirming FOUR TIMES that we all agree that those things are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  So he starts this case study by reminding them of what they all know.

In the second verse, Paul goes on to tell the Philippians what ought to happen.  And once again, he re-states the goal four times: be like-minded (this does not necessarily mean that he expects them to agree on everything or vote unanimously, but rather that they are to work toward having the same attitude, or to be looking in the same direction); have the same love for one another; be of one spirit (the literal Greek there says “share the same soul” or “share the same breath”); and be of one mind.

You may think that he’s stretching to make it come out to four by repeating the word “mind” twice in this list, but I’d like to suggest that in repeating the word phroneó, he is actually getting that word into their heads so he can use it again in verse 5.  He calls his congregation to have the same mindset, the same view, to have a commitment to seeing things… how? To seeing things the way that Jesus saw them.  “Be like Jesus,” Paul says.

And then the old Apostle does something that you’ve done a hundred times.  Do you know how sometimes you have something to say, or you want to tell me something that is true, and you’re not quite sure how to put it into words, and then you think of a song that says it exactly right?  You want to remind your spouse of the way that you love her, and so you play “your song” on the car radio.  You are grief-stricken at the cemetery and all you can do is just stand there while “Taps” is played.  You are searching for something true to say at church and the best you can do is say, “Well, Amazing Grace, right?”

That’s what Paul does in Philippians 2.  He either reminds them of a song that they’ve sung before or he writes a new hymn on the spot.  The purpose of this hymn is to point to the humility of Jesus.

So what did humility look like when Jesus wore it? It begins, Paul says in verse 5, with a mindset.  He repeats the word phroneó as a means of affirming that Jesus, in the mystery of his pre-existence within the Trinity, decided something.  Jesus chose to submit himself to the overall purpose and intentions of God.

Now that choice, that mindset, led Jesus to a specific course of action.  When Jesus decided to align himself with God’s purposes, that meant that he was setting down the pathway of obedience.  In this case, obedience means that he yielded his rights, privileges, or place in line so that he might be better able to see, hear, and simply be with people like us.  Obedience for Jesus meant the setting aside of one possible reality in order to fully embrace something else.

Of course, every action has a consequence.  According to the hymn that Paul sang, the result of the action that Jesus took was his death.  He suffered pain that he did not deserve because he had chosen to act in obedience.

However, that action also produced fruit.  Yes, Jesus died, but that was not the end of the story. The end result of Jesus’ decision and action was that the entire creation would come to the realization that Jesus, not Caesar, not me, not you, is Lord.

So what?  What are the implications for the people in Philippi? Or for the people in Crafton Heights?

Paul is calling us, as the people of God, to recognize that humility is a part of the uniform that we wear as Christians.  Like any other garment, we must choose to put this thing on.

Paul begged his friends in Philippi to see that humility is a willingness to accept that God, in Jesus, is at work in each life.  In my life.  In your life.  And in affirming that God is at work in my life, I must of necessity acknowledge that the work is not yet complete.  I am a work in progress.  And since I am not yet finished, I cannot (as the Pharisees did) present myself to you or anyone else as a final product.  I am still being molded, shaped, and used as I seek to stay on the path of obedience.

And if God is at work in each life, then God is moving not only in my life, but in yours.  I must acknowledge that you are being molded and shaped by the power of the Spirit that flows through Jesus.

And if THAT is true (and it is), then it is preposterous for me to think that somehow you are in your finished form.  I am not free to treat you as someone who is too high and lofty for me to reach – someone who is out of my league.  And neither can I regard you as one so lost that I shouldn’t even bother reaching out to you.

Like Paul, I’m not above quoting a song lyric that says something meaningful and important.  The late Rich Mullins wrote these lyrics:

My friends ain’t the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are
And I will be my brother’s keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won’t despise him for his weakness
I won’t regard him for his strength
I won’t take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother’s keeper[2]

When Paul tells his friends in Philippi, or when he speaks to us through the letter to his friends in Colossae, that we are to wear the uniform of humility when we come to church, he’s saying that we are to look to Jesus in obedience and to each other mercy and kindness.  That’s what Mullins is saying when he says he is his brother’s “keeper”, not “judge”.

John Ruskin was a leading thinker in 18th century Britain. He got to the heart of the matter at hand when he wrote,

“The first test of a truly great person is their humility. I do not mean, by humility, doubt of one’s own power…[but really] great people… have a curious… feeling that… greatness is not in them, but through them… and they see something Divine… in every other person, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”[3]

Humility, therefore, is not thinking less of yourself, but simply thinking of yourself less as you act in kindness and mercy toward others.

Beloved, this is the truth that comes to us from scripture this morning, the truth that echoes through the streets not only of Philippi but Crafton Heights: if your baptism means anything, it means that we are called to care with and for each other in demonstrable, observable ways; that we are charged to invest more in the means of building each other and the whole Body of Christ up than in tearing it down; that anyone who would wear the name “Christian” is by implication someone who is learning every day to adopt the mind of Jesus.

Thanks be to God for the call, the example, and the presence of Jesus on this path of obedience.  Amen. 

[1] Fred Craddock, Interpretation Bible Commentary on Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) p. 35.

[2] “Brother’s Keeper”, David (Beaker) Strasser | Rich Mullins, © 1995 Kid Brothers Of St. Frank Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.) Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

[3] https://ldschurchquotes.com/john-ruskin-on-humility/, edited for inclusivity.

Finder’s Keepers?

On August 5, the saints at Crafton Heights commissioned a group of young people for service and partnership with our friends and colleagues at the Wright Memorial Presbyterian Church, located in the territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York.  That prompted me to want to explore the notion of “discovery”, and that of “privilege”, and how in the world these things were connected to our experience.  Our texts for the day included Luke 16:19-31 and Micah 2:1-10.

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

OK, let’s see who paid attention in school. Does the name Isaac Newton mean anything to anyone?  Sure! He is credited with the discovery of the Law of Gravity in 1666.

How about Joseph Priestly? This one may be a little tougher, but Priestly is one of the men acknowledged as the discoverer of oxygen. His findings were made public in 1774.

In the interest of gender equity, let me ask you about Marie Curie. Does anyone remember why she rose to prominence?  She is credited with the discovery of radiation and radioactivity in 1898.

Each of these people is listed as a “discoverer”.  In this context, the word “discover” means “to be the first to find or observe”.  And in these cases, it is arguably true.  Somehow, Newton, Priestly, and Curie quantified or pointed to some phenomenon that was not known or understood by the people of their times.  Of course, they didn’t “invent” gravity, or oxygen, or radiation – they simply pointed to them and described them.

Let’s try another: do you recognize this man? Christopher Columbus. And what is he famous for? Well, we were all taught that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and he “discovered” America, right?

But wait – how could he claim to be the discoverer of a place that had between 50 and 100 million people here already?  How can anyone say that he “found” this place, and thereby “claimed” it for a king in Europe when there were already hundreds of people groups and communities thriving here upon his arrival?

Let’s try that notion of “discovery” in other contexts.  How would it be if you left worship today and went outside and found that your car was missing?  Would your first reaction be, “Hey, golly! I guess someone ‘discovered’ my Chevy this morning!  Good for them…”  Have your purse, or wallet, or keys ever been “discovered” by someone else?  Doesn’t feel too good, does it?

A few years ago I saw a greeting card that read, “This year, I’m going to celebrate Columbus Day the old-fashioned way.  I’m going to take the bus across town, find a house that I like, kick the current owners out, move in, and take all their stuff.”

Common sense will tell you, “Hey, you can’t do that! People have rights!”

Of course they do. All people have rights.  So the only time when you can do things like is when you do them to those who are not really people.

That’s the justification that much of Western Civilization has used for the past five hundred years.  In 1452, as much of Europe was getting pretty excited about the idea of vast quantities of land and resources of which it had previously been unaware, Pope Nicholas V wrote that it was the sacred duty and obligation for Christians to

“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”[1]

The leader of the Christian church said that anyone who wasn’t a European Christian wasn’t really a person at all, and so it was important for Christian people to find ways to use their stuff that would make God happy.  That line of thinking became a part of our American story in many ways, not the least of which was a decision by the US Supreme Court in 1823, which read, in part,

[T]he character and religion of [the New World’s] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy. To leave them in possession of their country was to leave the country a wilderness …

[A]griculturalists, merchants, and manufacturers, have a right, on abstract principles, to expel hunters from [their] territory …

The potentates of the Old World … made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing upon them civilization and Christianity.[2]

Perhaps you are familiar with the portions of the US Constitution that spell this out – pun intended – in black and white, indicating that slaves and other persons of color were to be counted as 60% of a real person for the government’s purposes.

To put it plainly, the recognized policy of the church and law of the land for half a millennia, at least, was to say that anyone who didn’t look like me was in some way or another sub-human, and therefore did not really deserve the same treatment as a person such as me might expect.

I hope that when I state it so plainly that you say, “No way, Dave! That stands in complete opposition to the Bible!  Didn’t you hear what Micah said about taking the things that belonged to others, or expelling women and children from their homes?  We’re not supposed to do that!”

That’s the line of thinking taken up in St. Louis earlier this summer when the Presbyterian Church (USA) officially repudiated and condemned what has been called “The Doctrine of Discovery”.  In an overwhelming vote, the Presbyterian Church denounced these and other statements that laid the groundwork for the suppression, oppression, and removal of Native American people and other persons of color.  We said that it was wrong to say that just because a place didn’t have anyone like me in it it was “empty” or “unknown” and therefore it was ours for the taking.

And some of my friends said, “Great.  It’s about time.  Now what are you going to do with those horrible parts of the Bible that claim the same thing?  Have you read Exodus, or Numbers, or Deuteronomy?  Isn’t that what the Jews did to the Canaanites?  They walked into someone else’s home and said, “God told me that this all belongs to me now, so, see you later…”

I can only say that I’m stumped by that.  I just don’t know.  I can say that those who were trying to follow God 4000 years ago did not have the whole story.  They had a few visions and a couple of great leaders, but they didn’t have access to the prophecy or the preaching of Jeremiah or Isaiah.  The person and work of Jesus and the witness of the early church was, of course, unknown to them.   It seems to me that the Doctrine of Discovery was based on an application of certain aspects of the Old Testament that categorically ignored the pleas of the prophets and the Passion of the Savior.

And as a 58 year old male with British heritage, there is something about all of this “Discovery” conversation that makes me feel uncomfortable.  I have a difficult time knowing what to do with decisions that were made hundreds of years before I was born.  Yes, what Columbus did was wrong.  And slavery was bad.  And so was the internment of American Citizens during World War II and on and on and on.  That was all horrible.

But really – it’s not my fault.  If I could undo it, I would.  But I can’t. So what am I supposed to do?

Can I learn from it?

Pittsburgh, March 18, 1936

Listen: in a couple of hours, we’re going to be taking a few carloads of kids from Western Pennsylvania up to the Seneca Nation reservation in New York.  Every single one of these young people has grown up in an area that was stabilized and enriched by the flood protections on the Allegheny River.  A hundred years ago, that river was cause for uncertainty. Lives and commerce were at risk as seasonal floods made development difficult and uncertain.  On St. Patrick’s Day, 1936, a flood hit Pittsburgh and destroyed 100,000 buildings, closed the steel mills, and forced the layoffs of an estimated 60,000 mill workers.

That prompted the US Congress to pass the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, which directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to install a series of locks and dams on the Allegheny river.  The crowning achievement of this act was the creation of the Kinzua Dam on the northernmost part of the river.  As a result of that dam, Pittsburgh grew to achieve unparalleled success in industry and stability.

Demolition of Seneca property to make way for the Kinzua Dam

But there was a cost.  The Seneca Nation of Indians lost one-third of the land that had been granted to them by the treaty of 1794, signed by President Washington. The Seneca lost some of their best farmland, burial grounds, and hundreds of people lost their homes.

Nobody in this room voted for that.  But everyone here has benefitted from it.  And our young people need to be aware of some of this history as we go to listen to the stories of the Seneca this week.  It’s not our fault that those lands were taken seventy years ago.  But something of what is good in our lives is here because they were.  We can’t forget that.

Lazarus and Dives, illustration from the Codex Aureus of Echternach (1030 – 1050)

The Gospel lesson for today brings us the story of a man who was fantastically wealthy.  We’re told of his extravagance in that he wore purple every day, not just on holidays; he feasted every day, not just on special occasions.  This man was fantastically wealthy.

But his wealth was not his problem.  His sin was not that he was rich – his sin was rooted in something that he did not do.

At the gate of his home was a poor man whose name, Lazarus, means “God is my help”.  And, I suppose, it’s a good thing that God helped him because the rich man paid him no mind whatsoever. The rich man was simply unable to see Lazarus.

In fact, even after he died, the rich man could not bring himself to see Lazarus as a human being.  In his misery, the rich man cried out to Abraham, saying “send Lazarus on these errands to help me out…”  He didn’t get it!  Lazarus was fully human, but the rich man could only see him as a resource, an agent given to serve the whim of the rich man.  In reality, though, Abraham affirms Lazarus’ humanity and celebrates the fact that Lazarus’ life has purpose and meaning.

I hear the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and I remember the connections between the Seneca Nation and the people of Pittsburgh, and I wonder… have we gotten any better at recognizing the humanity of those around us?  Are there parts of our stories that continue to dehumanize others?

For the Youth Group kids who were a part of last year’s mission trip to Cherokee, North Carolina and who will leave today for another, does it mean anything at all that the National Football League’s fifth-most valuable franchise – the one based in Washington DC – is named after a racist slur?

All of us live in an era of increasing polarization and a diminishment of our shared humanity.  In many of our lifetimes, we’ve watched as Nazis called Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals “rats” and called for their “extermination”.  Prior to the genocide in 1994, Rwandan Hutus called rival Tutsis “cockroaches.”  A few months ago comedian Roseann Barr lost her job for calling another woman the child of an ape, and that was only a few weeks after the President of the United States called immigrant gang members “animals”.  Just prior to that, the cover of the New YorkMagazine had a photo which depicted the President as a pig.

Are we so in love with our ideas and so afraid of the encounters we might have with others that we lose our ability to love those whose ideas and identities are different from our own?

The charge for this week – for the youth group team and for all of us – is to seek to learn from what has come before so that we can be better people in the days to come.  Can we dedicate ourselves to hearing the stories of the “other”, and to promise to look for the spark of the Divine Image in all people?  Can we refuse to demonize and dehumanize, and instead seek to honor and call forth our best selves?

Are we always going to agree? Of course not.  And there are some despicable actions done by those with horrific intent.  But nobody wins if we denigrate those with whom we disagree by calling them sub-human.

And, by the way, I didn’t discover this idea.  I didn’t invent it.  I found it when I started following a carpenter from Nazareth who invited those around him to love their neighbors, to break down walls, and to seek to bless those who are on the margins.  The thing is, he told me I couldn’t keep it.  He told me I had to give it away.  So…I just did.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]As quoted in “The Doctrine of Discovery”,  The Christian Century 4/20/15 (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-04/doctrine-discovery)

[2]From Johnson v. McIntosh, (1823), quoted in https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/archive/because-the-bible-tells-me-so-manifest-destiny-and-american-indians-762x1fEsrky5-1Gq0pDj7w/

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.