When The Shepherd is a Lamb

I came to appreciate many of the “classic” scriptures relating to the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus by listening to Handel’s Messiah.  During Lent 2017, the people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are reading through many of those scriptures on Sundays, even as we study them during the week.  On 12 March, we considered the “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 53 as well as John’s declaration about the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:29-34.

St. John the Baptist, El Greco, c. 1600

I’m not going to lie to you. John the Baptist was a strange man. He lived in the desert. He wore clothes that the Thrift Store would have rejected. When he preached, he called his congregation a bunch of snakes. There’s no doubt about it: the man was different.

And that may be what attracted so many people to him, at least at first. Almost like a car wreck, you know? You don’t want to look, you’re pretty sure that your sensibilities will be offended, but you just can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s just so…so…strange, that’s all.

To those who got past his people skills, his appearance and his diet, John was a wise teacher. More than that, he talked about the fact that he was the forerunner of someone more powerful, more important than he. The Messiah, said John, The Messiah is coming.

And so there he was one day not that long ago, and down the street walks an up and coming rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth. And as much to himself as to his small group of followers, John said, “Look, there! That man is the lamb that takes away the sin of the world!”

What, do you suppose, is the correct response to that? I mean, are we supposed to blurt out an “Amen!”? “Huzzah!”

What do you suppose that the people who were with him thought about that? When they heard John the Baptist proclaim Jesus as the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, what were they thinking?

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, they remembered Genesis 22 and the story of Abram’s call to sacrifice Isaac. One man was told, “Take your son, your only son, the son whom you love, and give him to me…” And then, as you know, they got to the top of the mountain and there was an angel who prevented Abram from killing his son. And instead of the only son dying, a lamb was found and the lamb became the sacrifice. One lamb killed, one son spared, one family preserved.

Passover, engraving published in “La Saincte” Bible, 1670.

Maybe when they heard about the lamb, folks remembered the story of the Passover and the Exodus. An entire nation was told, “Each of you take a lamb, and with the blood of that lamb, your family will be spared.” And the dreadful night came and went, and as many people who had offered up lambs in their homes, that many people were spared, and God’s people were spared the apparent wrath of God. Many lambs killed, many families saved.

And could it be that when they hard about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they remembered the custom of the Day of Atonement? On that day, the priest would bring in two creatures, usually goats. One of these would be sacrificed to the Lord as a sin offering for all of the people. And the second animal would be a scapegoat, and would carry, or bear, all the sins of the people. The priest was to place that goat on the altar and confess all the sins of the people. Then a man would lead that goat from the altar into the wilderness and set it free. The goat would carry the sin of the people far away from them. Two animals lost forever, and a community restored to the presence of God, at least for another 364 days. (Lev. 16)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, c.1635/40

Perhaps when John’s friends heard him talking about the lamb that takes away the sins of the world, they remembered the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah had dreamt of a man – not a goat, not a lamb – who would take away the sin of the people. More than this, a man who would participate with God in a decisive act that will release people from the stranglehold of sin on their lives – not for a day, or a season, or year – but forever.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between the lamb in Isaiah and the other lambs is this: each of the previous narratives describes an attempt to make things right with God. Each illustrates how humans can cover themselves with the blood or the innocence of another in an effort to somehow be presentable to a God who is very angry.

There is a key difference between Isaiah’s dream and the other sacrifices, however. In the stories of Abraham, the Passover, and the scapegoat, how much choice did the animals have? None. There they were, out with the flock one day and the shepherd picked them and led them to their deaths. They were victims, pure and simple, used capriciously by someone more powerful than they.

But not this lamb mentioned in Isaiah! Oh, it’s killed all right. But it’s killed because the servant walks deliberately into the suffering and death that the rest of us fear. The servant is no pawn, no powerless victim, but rather one who chooses to pour out his own life, who willingly takes the sin of the people not just into the next ZIP code, but away from them altogether.

So here we have crusty old John the Baptizer, complete with his camel-hair robe and his lunchbox full of locusts, and he points to Jesus and he says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world…” What do you suppose the people were thinking that day?

Were they thinking about atonement? That’s the theological concept here, my friends. Atonement means bringing two sides together. Two parties who had at one point been enemies or at variance with each other are now together; they are now on the same team, so to speak. Is this what the followers of John were thinking? When they saw Jesus, did they do a quick survey of the scripture and think about the fact that the system of sacrifices would never get the job done? Did they realize the truth that animal sacrifice was a sort of endless loop wherein each year, each season, people came before a God who they thought of as angry and did their best to satisfy that anger with a burnt offering, and then felt glad to get out of worship alive?

What I’m asking is this: do you think that those followers of John engaged in a period of theological reflection and critical thinking in which they systematically debated the merits of the ancient system of retributive justice?

We talked a little about that on Wednesday night – that much of the Old Testament understanding concerning participation in the life of God seems to come from a place where everything is cut and dried, and you get what you pay for. Up until the time of Isaiah, largely speaking, the assumption of the people of God was that if you do what’s right, you’ll be blessed, and if you do what’s wrong, you’ll be cursed. It’s not a huge leap from there to the conclusion that if you are blessed – rich, healthy, well-educated – then you must be doing the right thing; and if you are suffering – sick, in pain, in grief – then you must be in state of sin or disobedience.

Isaiah 53 introduces a new kind of theology – one where God’s people are called to enter into difficult places in order that they might a) be closer to the people who are in pain and b) seek to release or remove some of that pain by carrying it themselves. As Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of reading Isaiah 53, written 600 years before the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and say, “Wow! Isn’t that amazing that Isaiah was writing all about Jesus so far in the future.” I think it’s closer to the truth to say, “Wow, look at how Jesus was so intentional about living into the truth to which Isaiah pointed! How can I be a part of that, too?”

So I’ll answer my own question: I’m guessing that when John talked about Jesus being the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they didn’t stop for a long theological discussion. My sense is rather than sitting down and examining the theological implications of the statement that John made, they believed him, and they said, “I want to get a piece of this action. I want to have this in my life…” Oh, sure there was theology along the way. There was a time for reflection. But on this day, when they heard that Jesus was the lamb of God, they followed him. They wanted in on it.

Because whether they stopped to think about it for a long time or not, the implications of this are clear: that if success is not by definition a reward, and if suffering is not necessarily a punishment from God, then the suffering that they encountered was not indicative of the fact that God was angry with them. In fact, the “suffering servant” passage from Isaiah and the declaration of John and the behavior of Jesus indicate quite the opposite: that sometimes, suffering can hold great meaning. Sometimes, pain can lead to blessing. Somehow, in God’s economy, our wounds can become the instrument of true and deep healing.

Friends, Jesus of Nazareth is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The good news of the Gospel today is that you are not stuck in a binary system whereby everything is either good or bad and you get exactly what you deserve. No, you are free to follow the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

For some of us, some of the time, following the lamb means that we are free to make different choices. Some of us have walked into the room this morning feeling trapped by the choices that we ourselves have made – we feel stuck with an addiction, hounded by a lie, guilty about our behavior, or imprisoned by pride and selfishness. I declare to you the good news that you are free – that you don’t have to do those things. God, in Jesus Christ, is releasing you from that kind of sin and inviting you to a new way of living.

And some of us, some of the time, need to know that following the lamb means that even those situations where we do not have choices are not what ultimately defines our lives. Your parents may have divorced, your boss may be a jerk, your neighbor may be a racist, or your child may deny the Christ. You feel pain even when it does not come from a choice that you’ve made. But I declare to you the good news that this pain, this brokenness, this suffering does not indicate that you have been rejected by God.

When John and Isaiah talk about the lamb by whose stripes we are healed, they open up the possibility that even the suffering we endure can have meaning and purpose. The grief that you have carried, or the loss you have endured, or the scars that you wear… these are not signs of failure or indications of God’s rejection of you. Maybe these are the things that have brought you to this day, to this point of being able to walk with some measure of confidence into God’s future as one whose struggles have contributed to the self that you now are.

Behold, the lamb of God! It is the truth, dear friends. This Lenten season, we celebrate the good news that John was bold enough to proclaim: Jesus of Nazareth has come, and is coming, so that you might know life in his name. Claim that. Hold on to it. And more than that, live in hope and joy today that there is nothing in your life that is so broken or so bent that it cannot be made whole or straight. Remember, Isaiah 53 isn’t about Jesus. Jesus was about Isaiah 53. The call is for you and I to do and be the same. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Bystanders and Standing By

On July 12 our congregation commissioned a team of three travelers to head to Malawi and deepen and extend our partnership with the Mbenjere CCAP in Blantyre Synod.  As we did, we talked about postcards, texts, and tweets… and considered an ancient postcard as found in Obadiah 1-14.  Our other text was Matthew 10:40-42

 

A friend of mine has been on a trip this past week, and one of the gifts that I have received are a couple of text messages and a photo or two. I was saying to my wife that such greetings are the 21st century expression of a postcard – a glimpse into what’s happening, but not a lot of news.

This morning we are going to look at a special postcard from The Lord to His people. I’d like for you to think of the Old Testament book of Obadiah as a postcard or a text message – a little note — there’s not a lot of room here, not a lot of detail. But it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the church of the past to preserve this message for us — there is some truth here, some wisdom for us as we seek to be faithful in living day to day.

I’ll start off by saying that we don’t know a blessed thing about Obadiah the prophet. It was a common Israelite name, one that means “servant” or “worshiper of God”. This man was called by God to speak a word – a word directed primarily NOT to the Jews, but to a foreign nation, the country of Edom.

EdomWell, Edom was not exactly a foreign nation. You remember Abraham, of course. He and his wife Sarah had a son, Isaac, who was to bring the promise of a messiah to the world. Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was the son from whom the Jewish nation descended, and Esau was the son from whom the Edomites descended. So Israel and Edom were separate countries, but they shared some common heritage. There was some biological and spiritual tie between them. The land of Edom was a small, rocky outpost high in the cliffs. It was a secure outpost and easily defended because of the magnitude of the rock walls. Edom was not far from Jerusalem.

And that’s where Obadiah has anger at the Edomites. In 587 b.c., the Babylonian army was laying waste to the city of Jerusalem. It was a terrible time — there was intense violence, severe poverty, and unspeakable abuse that went on. And according to Obadiah, when the attacks first started, the Edomites did nothing. They acted like this was none of their business and went on with their lives.

As the siege wore on, however, something even worse happened. Even though there was some sort of connection between Edom and Jerusalem, these so-called “relatives” began behaving like the enemy! First they watched the walls fall down, and then they joined the Babylonians in the looting of the city. They burned the Temple. They pirated the homes of the Jewish people. And to top it all off, verse 14 says that when some of the Jews went into Edom as refugees, the Edomites captured them and handed them over to the Babylonians.

The brief book of Obadiah is a condemnation of Edom because they stood by while those in Jerusalem suffered. As I’ve said, at the start, that’s all it was. They just chose to look the other way while their neighbors were getting beaten up and raped and robbed. Then, they giggled about it. Eventually, they saw the gates wide open and they joined in. They may have been ‘bystanders’, but they were certainly NOT innocent.

Now it seems to me that there is a word for us in this little postcard from the past. Because it seems to me that if being an “Innocent Bystander” was an Olympic event, we all know people who would have a legitimate shot at a gold medal.

Sometimes, it’s obvious. How many times, for instance, do we hear of some horrible shooting or other crime in a public place and then see a news story that begins with “Police are searching for witnesses…”.  Someone gets attacked on a crowded street in broad daylight, and “nobody” saw anything? Nope.  “I was just minding my own business…” “I didn’t see a thing….”

And sometimes, it’s more personal. You know what that’s like. A man is mistreating his wife or his children. His neighbors know something is going on, but do they say anything? Not usually. “It’s his house,” they say. “He’ll take care of things.”

And it’s not just you and me, it’s the whole world! We live in a world of indifference. How can I tell? There’s a flood in Malawi or an racial tension in Baltimore. It’s in the newspaper or on the radio for a day or two, and then everyone forgets all about it. Oh, maybe a few people send in some money for relief, or a few churches offer prayers, but mostly people don’t have the time or energy to get involved, do they?

English playwright and author George Bernard Shaw expressed it this way: “the worst sin is not to hate a fellow creature but to be indifferent toward him. That’s the essence of humanity.”[1]

So then what is the message that we, a world of bystanders, might take from the prophecy of Obadiah, the messenger to the bystanders? What is the word for us today?

That’s no mystery. God would have you and me care about the people who surround us. God calls us to STAND BY those who are on life’s margins, rather than being BYSTANDERS as they are plundered.

 

The Bystander Effect Illustration by Lizzy Thompson, 2012.  Used by Permission.   See more of Lizzy's work at http://www.lzzy.co

The Bystander Effect
Illustration by Lizzy Thompson, 2012. Used by Permission. See more of Lizzy’s work at http://www.lzzy.co

You might think that I’m just playing with words now, and you’d have good reason to think so – because I like to do that. But here’s what I mean. I’m interpreting the word “bystander” to refer to a person who is aware of what is going on, but who has no sense of immediacy, no sense that what is happening is at all connected with her or himself. This week I learned of a phenomenon called “the bystander effect”, which states that when there is a problem or an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually do anything. In one study, researchers faked epileptic seizures on the streets of New York and found that when there was only one bystander, they were helped 85% of the time, but when there were five bystanders, help was only offered 30% of the time.[2] Bystanders are those who are there, but who cannot be trusted to act.

But the command to “stand by” is a different thing altogether. When an air traffic controller tells a pilot to “stand by”, for instance, he is saying, “look – something is going to happen. Be ready for it.” When an officer gives a policeman, firefighter, or soldier the command to “stand by”, she is instructing that person to be ready and available to act as the situation warrants.

But HOW do we do that? What does that look like as we seek to live it out?

 

First, let me ask you to be an answer to prayer this week. How do you become an do that? First, pray about it. Ask God about the best ways to use your particular gifts and skills. Maybe you are the kind of person who needs to go and help at the after school program in order to ensure that each child has a chance to thrive. Maybe you’re the kind of person who will write an encouraging letter each week to a missionary far from home. Maybe you’re the kind of person who can spend a couple of hours each week visiting the sick. Whatever you can do, ask God how your gifts can be an answer to someone’s prayers this week.

God calls us to Be WITH people.   There are surely more needs in this world than you can address by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pick one and work on being attentive. Does someone need to speak a word of hope to a young woman whose husband just died? Is there someone who will speak for the rights and the needs of the orphans? What can the church say or do to help move the government forward and protect the democratic rights of the citizens?

Stand by.

Another way to think about it is to ask yourself, ‘What is it that breaks God’s heart? What is it that causes God sorrow?

Now. Will you give an hour of your week to work on that problem, whatever it is? What is it? Hunger? Racism? The environment? Abuse of power? The fact that this morning there are more than 50 million – that’s four Pennsylvanias – refugees, internally displaced persons, or asylum seekers in the world today?

Give an hour this week. And next week. And thereafter. Give an hour to that cause — to those people — on whose behalf God’s heart is breaking.

It’s a risk, you know. You may end up busier than ever.

You might end up lonelier than you are now. Because it may be that the people you are trying to love don’t want to see you. That hurts. Trust me, I know, it hurts. And it’s lonely.

You’ll probably end up poorer. Caring for people is usually pretty expensive.

But, at least according to Obadiah and to Jesus, it’s worth it. Will you carry the cup of refreshment to the people in your world? Will you offer yourself – to Jesus, and to the people that he loves?

Hands on a globe  Tomorrow, Sharon, and Gabe, and I are heading to Malawi. The Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church and Mbenjere CCAP have been partners for twenty years. But we are not only partners in the easy things of sending letters and gifts. We are partners in the difficult truth of proclaiming the whole gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Our partnership exists because we believe that God is using it to help us stand with and stand for not only each other, but for all of the people that God loves. Having friends in someplace like Ntaja, Malawi, Africa makes us somehow better at “standing by” for those who are at risk.

So three of us are getting on a plane this week. That means 115 of us are not. Stand by, friends. I don’t know what will come up in your lives or in your world in the next two weeks. But when it does, may God find you, and me, standing by – ready for action, ready to proclaim his love and the hope we have found in his name. Let us join together and bring joy to the heart of God by being the kind of church he expects us to be. Maybe we can be not just a text or a postcard – but a letter – a love letter – from Jesus to the people that he loves. Amen.

[1] Quoted in The Tale of The Tardy Oxcart (Chuck Swindoll, Word 1998) p. 296.

[2] http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/bystander_effect.htm

On Flags and Faith

We gathered on July 5 to consider the Word of God in relationship to our nation’s Independence Day celebrations.  We took our cue from the Apostle Paul in Acts 16:25-40 and Galatians 3:26-28

 

LifeguardI saw something pretty cool at the beach last week. No, I’m not talking about the 8-foot hammerhead shark that came within ten feet of my boat (although that was awesome!). I’m talking about a display that the line of “Surf Rescue Technicians” (that’s the new name for ‘lifeguard’, by the way) put on as they began their day. All up and down the beach, they stood on their platforms and held out small flags, waving them in such a fashion as to communicate via semaphore the fact that the beach was now officially open for business.

That, in turn, got me to thinking about flags. Did you know that people have been using flags for more than 4,000 years? Pretty much as far back as anyone can tell, folks have been taking little bits of cloth or some other material and holding it up in order to communicate information to someone else.

In the middle ages, for instance, all the knights looked alike when they wore their armor, so the flags helped them know who was fighting whom. Flags have been used to instill fear in people, to assert dominance over someone or something, and to rally folks in times of crisis. Flags are wonderful and powerful symbols.

The South Carolina and American flags flying at half-staff behind the Confederate flag erected in front of the State Congress building in Columbia, South Carolina on June 19, 2015. Police captured the white suspect in a gun massacre at one of the oldest black churches in Charleston in the United States, the latest deadly assault to feed simmering racial tensions. Police detained 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shown wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in pictures taken from social media, after nine churchgoers were shot dead during bible study on Wednesday. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV        (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

And, as you know, flags have been in the news lately. A lot. Whether we’re talking about the battle flag of the Confederacy, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay and lesbian pride, the stark black and white banner of the Islamic State, the “white-power” insignia of the KKK, or even the old stars and stripes of the United States – the display of flags and the way that we treat them reveals a great deal about the things that we believe, respect, fear, and hope.

Perhaps the most powerful conversation I’ve ever had about a flag was with a friend who has since passed away. We were talking about the appropriate manner in which the US flag should be displayed, and he told me through angry tears of his three friends on Clairtonica Street, “boys who went into the South Pacific and onto the beach at Normandy and who gave their lives for that flag!”

Literally, of course, that was not true. Those men did not sacrifice themselves for a piece of fabric – they died because they believed that the things that flag represented in their lives and in their world – justice, freedom, hope, independence – were worth dying for. The flag about which my friend and I talked was a symbol for those things, right?

All of this leads me to ask you on this Fourth of July weekend, “what is the relationship between flags and faith?” As we consider that question, I’d like to turn to our brother, Paul, and the way in which he lived his life.

In the reading we have from Galatians, we see that Paul – a man, who, by the way, took his various identities quite seriously – emphasized the fact that when it comes to children of God, our history, tradition, ideology, political views, ethnicity, or gender identity is not the most important thing about us. “Some of you are all of these things,” he says, “but that’s not the core of your self. You are BAPTIZED. You belong to Jesus. You are his. After that, you might be slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek. But all of those things are secondary to your identity in Christ and all that entails.”

Many of you know my friend Saleem, who described for me a worship service to which he had been invited in another city. He said that the congregation was friendly and the Scripture was proclaimed in a language the people could understand. The singing was fine, and the sanctuary was beautiful. At the front of the sanctuary was a large cross – Saleem said that it was clearly the focal point of the architecture in the room – all eyes were directed towards the empty cross – the symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the new life we’ve been given in his name.

Near the end of the service, the organ started playing a patriotic tune, and as the people rose to sing the song of their country, that nation’s flag was slowly unfurled from the rafters of the church. It was, Saleem said, a beautiful flag. And it was huge. And it filled the front of the sanctuary. The problem, however, was that the flag blocked Saleem’s view of the cross. Here, in a service of Christian worship, the national flag obscured the view of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Beloved in the Lord, when any flag, from any nation or any interest group ever gets in the way of you being able to see Jesus – that flag is simply flying too high. Any flag that impedes our ability to see Christ is a flag that is in the wrong place.

But we love our flags, don’t we? Oh, we don’t all love the same one, but we all love some of them. And yet the Gospel calls us to love Jesus more.

Here’s a little experiment I devised. Check out these two images – one of a US flag being desecrated and disrespected, the other of an African-American church that has been torched. Ask yourself: which image provokes a more visceral reaction for you? Are you more disgusted by the sight of someone burning the stars and stripes, or by the thought of a person hatefully destroying the house of God?

Flag Burning

church-burning

Oh, they’re both merely symbols, we know that. One of them is a piece of colored cloth. The other is a building used for meetings – meetings which many of you have freely described to me as “boring”. But oh, the power of those symbols! If Paul is right about our identity in Christ, we ought to be more angered by the desecration of a church than by the desecration of a national symbol. My primary loyalty, says Paul, is not to a government, a history, or a piece of land – but to the One who empowers governments, who directs history, and who created all lands. That’s not to say that it’s ok to burn a US flag, or to cheapen its symbolism – rather, I’m trying to emphasize the fact that as strongly as we feel about that symbol, our connection to the people of God is deeper and more powerful – or at least it should be.

So be careful, beloved, as you wave your flags. Send your messages. Communicate. But be sure that you don’t love that flag – any flag – more than you love the One who invented meaning and purpose and, in fact, you.

photo-us-flag1Having said that, the fact remains that we live here. Many of you, like me, are people who left home today and had your US flag flying. It’s Independence Day. We want to celebrate the fact that this is our home. Most, if not all of us in the room today are citizens of the richest, most powerful civilization to ever populate the earth. What does it mean to be a Christian and an American? Does our citizenship impact our discipleship, or vice-versa?

Again, I’d like to take a glance at Paul’s life. Although he wasn’t an American, his passport was the gold standard in his day. He was born as a citizen of the Roman Empire, which bestowed upon him great privilege around the world at that time. In addition, he was raised as a Jew, and understood the practice of his faith to be central to his identity. He became a scholar’s scholar – multilingual, well-traveled, widely-respected…and then he met Jesus.

In that weekend, Paul’s whole life and sense of self changed. His view of the world, the lens through which he saw everything – was adjusted because of his faith in Jesus. Instead of seeing his citizenship as a right to be grasped or a privilege to be exploited, he sought to use his place in the Roman Empire to further the cause of reconciliation in Christ Jesus.

Our reading from Acts, for instance, describes how Paul showed up in Philippi and began moving among the people talking about Jesus. He was attacked and beaten – and, apparently, said not a word. They imprisoned him, and he spent the night in the jail singing and praying.

PaulSilas

Paul and Silas in Prison by  Gerard Hoet (1728)

And then the earthquake hit, and Paul and the other prisoners were free. The first thing that he did was to save the jailer’s life. The jailer took Paul and Silas to his own home, where he first washed their wounds, and then they shared with him the cleansing waters of baptism.

I want you to note that to this point in the story, even though Paul is a natural-born citizen of the Roman Empire who is traveling through and then experiencing significant pain in one of the leading colonies of that empire, he has not said anything about his nationality. It is only when they ask him to leave that he brings this up. Why? Why do it then?

Well, look at what he does: he approaches the Roman Magistrate and says, “I’m a citizen of the Roman Empire who has been publicly beaten and jailed without a trial – and now you want me just to slink out of town?” The magistrates had broken the law when they treated Paul in this manner, and he had them over a barrel. He demanded that he be escorted publicly to the edge of town.

Paul Asserts His Citizenship (artist unknown)

Paul Asserts His Citizenship (artist unknown)

Only that’s not where they go – at least at first – is it? No. They stop at Lydia’s place and greet the church that is there. A church that is not comprised of citizens of the Empire. A church that has watched followers of Jesus be beaten to within an inch of their lives. And now Paul and Silas say to the police in that town, “Look, we’re leaving, and we’re not going to make trouble for you even though you beat us. But these people? They are our friends. And we’re going to be watching you. We care for them…nothing should happen to them.”

Paul used his Roman Citizenship all right – but not as a badge of honor or a status symbol, rather as a blessing to other people and a means to stand with the marginalized.

When I read of Paul’s visit to Lydia in the sight of those who bore great power to hurt and destroy, I had a flashback to my recent visit to South Sudan, a nation torn by civil war and atrocity and violence and every manner of evil.

I had gone with my team to a restaurant on the Nile River in Juba. It was to have been a day off, and we were dressed casually, laughing and joking. An armored vehicle drove up, and a huge man bristling with weaponry and accompanied by six or eight soldiers strode to an adjacent table. He was a fascinating man…and as I stared, I realized that I recognized him from somewhere…but where?

I asked one of my South Sudanese hosts who he was, and he sat up and said, “Him? Oh – that is ___________.” Of course it was. This man is a butcher – he has led in the burning of towns, the raping of women, the abduction of child soldiers, the destruction of property… by all accounts, he is a horrible person. As I reflected on what it meant to be sharing space with that man, I could see the wheels turning in my friend’s head, and he turned to me suddenly. “Will you take a photo with him? You and the team?”

I was flabbergasted. Before I knew what was happening, my host was at this man’s table, saying something like, “Sir, we have a group of friends from the United States who care about us and they have come to make sure we’re all right. They’ve heard about our troubles here and have just made a visit to emphasize peace. Would you take a photo with them?” And that’s how I wound up posing for a photo with a man who could, and perhaps should be on trial for war crimes some day.

Do you see? It’s not about him being a celebrity. I have come to understand that in some way, this was an invitation to use whatever influence, authority, or status we have as citizens of the world’s most powerful nation to help shield our friends in South Sudan. Because now in addition to me having a photo with this man, he has a photo of me, given to him by a pastor who said, “These people are from the USA, and they are watching us. They care for us. They will notice if something happens to us…”

It wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t plan it, but if my small effort to stand publicly with someone in harm’s way may wind up protecting that person or his family, it may be the single best thing I’ve ever done as a citizen of the United States of America. I was in a position to respond to an invitation to use any status or rank that I have on behalf of someone who has neither status nor rank. And, thankfully, I did, just as our brother Paul did when he took the soldiers to Lydia’s place.

It’s the Fourth of July. Watch the fireworks. Have a hot dog. Yippee. Celebrate your independence and your rights. Have a blast.

But what are you doing with that gift? How do you understand the power that your citizenship carries as you seek to love your neighbor in Jesus Christ?

Will you take the time to be informed about issues and then communicate with your elected officials, advocating for those on the fringes? Will you care about the neighborhood in which you live, and seek to treat all who are there as Christ has treated you? Can you be bothered to cast your vote in various elections, remembering that the people who win elections write the budgets, and the people who write the budgets determine the priorities of the nation?

Many of my friends approach this most patriotic of holidays as a Holy Day of sorts, in which they are eager to name all of the rights that they have inherited as citizens of the United States: we can own all the guns we want, we can fly whatever flag we choose, we get cheap gasoline, we can worship where and when and how we choose, and my internet better work when I want it to.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the point.

US-PassportcoverThis is my passport – stamped with the seal and flag of the United States of America. It is an incredible tool, and, frankly, I’m pretty proud of it. It guarantees me some freedom. And it gives me great power.

 

Baptism

And this is the font that holds the water in which I was baptized. It is at this font that I learn who I am and who I will be, and how I am called to use every gift, all my powers, all I am or hope to be – for the service of Christ and the love of my neighbors.

Please, beloved, don’t let me ever, ever, get these two confused. If I start to think that my baptism is a tool that gets me into a club that carries certain privileges and gives me great benefit, and that my passport is the place where I learn my true identity and who I really am, bad things will happen. Thanks be to the God who calls us – from all flags and all places – to wade in the waters of baptism and celebrate the power of Christ. Amen.

Who Let THEM In?

In Advent of 2014 we looked at the shepherds who led us towards the stable: previous entries explore Abram, Moses, and David.  On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we take at look at the only shepherds who were actually there – the shepherds of Bethlehem mentioned in Luke 2.  Isaiah 56:3-8, although not specifically about shepherds, is instructive here as well.

There are a lot of times when I look at my life and think, “Holy smokes…I can’t believe I did that.” Sometimes, those are words of regret – I’m filled with remorse at doing something unthinkable. Other times, I’m in awe of some great privilege that was extended to me. And some times, I just can’t figure out how my parents let me do something that I’d never let my own child do.

CircusFor instance, when I was a teen, I spent several weekends a year working with the Shrine circus when they rolled into town. I was there, my parents thought, to put on my clown makeup and suit and assist wheelchair-bound children as they experienced the show. And I did that. But they let me sleep in a trailer with five or six other teens on the circus lot. We got there early, and watched as the carnies set up the big tops. Late at night, after the crowds went home, we’d wander up and down the lanes, where I saw more bad teeth, hip flasks, tattoos, and what I might politely call “adventurous behavior” than I thought possible. When my parents came to see the show, they saw the fresh-faced college kids who’d been hired to take the tickets and operate the side show bannerschildren’s rides. I liked watching the rough assortment of humanity charged with setting up the tents, clearing away the elephant dung, and running the sideshow. These weekends did more to enlarge my vocabulary, my understanding of human nature, and my appreciation for human anatomy than anything I ever saw in National Geographic, I can tell you that.

I thought a lot about carnies – the rough-edged men and women who travel with the circuses and shows – this week as Sharon and I set up our Christmas decorations. You may know that my bride collects nativity sets. We’ve got several dozen scattered around the house now, and more in the basement. All of them have at least Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. Some have the wise men. And most have a few shepherds and some sheep.

shepherds-angel-nativity-setMostly, when we think of the shepherds to whom the angels sang about the baby’s birth, we think of simple, gentle folk who must have enjoyed a tranquil, pastoral existence as they tended the little lambs under their care. I would imagine that many of us think about shepherding as a noble profession and an accepted vocation. I mean, “The Lord is my shepherd”… Abraham, Moses, and King David all spent time with the flocks. And look at the shepherds in our nativities – the strong, silent, types. It’s pretty easy to think about one of these fellows grabbing his son and pa-rum-pa-pa-pum-ing it all the way into the stable, right?

Those might be the shepherds that you see on my coffee table, but they are not the men invited to the stable on that first Christmas Eve. At the time of Christ, shepherds were people on the fringe of society – that’s what brought the carnies of my youth to mind as I decorated this week.

sheperd-300x204Shepherding was a despised and lowly occupation in first-century Palestine. Those who were hired to do this work were without rights or any stature in society. Jewish law forbade them from testifying in court, which means that if someone attacked you in broad daylight in front of a dozen shepherds, each of whom could identify your attacker and knew him by name, nothing would happen – because, by law, no one could believe what a shepherd says.

The Mishnah, which is the written record of the Jewish oral law, refers to shepherds as “incompetent”, and says that if you happen to encounter a shepherd who has fallen into a pit, you are under no particular obligation to help him out. In fact, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd because that would be equivalent to receiving stolen property.[1]

Shepherds were considered to be ritually unclean, which meant that they were not able to present themselves for worship in the Temple.

Whereas my mother would have been horrified to find her oldest son sitting at the feet of circus carnies like the contortionist woman or the elephant keeper, a good Jewish mama two thousand years ago would have done everything she could to make sure her son steered clear of low-lifes like shepherds and lepers.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

And yet, those who are, by definition and understanding, called “unclean” are invited to worship by the angels themselves. The ones who are prevented from entering into the Temple for worship are now called to the feet of the Lord himself. People who are not “good enough” to watch the priest make the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement are summoned to greet the One who represents God’s greatest, and most deeply self-sacrificial, gift.

Here in the second chapter of Luke, the illiterate bumpkins who are presumed to be untrustworthy and unreliable now find themselves in the position of telling other people in the village about the new thing that God is doing! Before any king gets word of the Messiah’s birth, it is these transients and oppressed, these “undesirables”, who are given a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. People who have been told for their entire lives that there is just no place for them in civilized society have a privilege and a responsibility with which none can compare.

If that’s true – that is to say, if in fact, shepherds were as despised and mistrusted and ill-treated as the literature suggests that they were; and if, in fact, those shepherds were actually called to the scene of the holy birth by an angelic choir in the manner that Luke records – then I have three questions for our consideration this morning.

Who are you to think that somehow you are not “good enough” for God to use in a meaningful way? I mean, sure, if all shepherds are to be held to the standard of Abraham, Moses, or David, then we have the right to be a little intimidated. But the angels didn’t invite any of those men to witness Jesus’ birth – just the group of outcasts who were pulling the night shift in Bethlehem that week. And if God decides that God can use people like that, then how dare you take it upon yourself to say that you, of all people, are just not up to God’s standards.

You’ve got baggage, I’ll give you that. The things that happened to you when you were little. That massive amount of debt that you’re sitting on right now. Your secret sin – that brokenness that you’ve managed to hide so well for so long. I get it. You’ve got baggage. Do you think that the people sitting in front of you don’t? Do you think that you alone are supremely unqualified to participate in that thing that God is doing in the world?

Look: if God can use first-century Palestinian shepherds, and God can use me, and God can use people like that guy just behind you…God can use you. Who are you to say otherwise?

And before you turn around to look at the person behind you, let me ask my second question: who am I to judge you? What gives me the right to think that because of the way that you look, or speak, or walk, that somehow the image of God is clearer and more pronounced in me than it is in you?

Now, listen to me: obviously, there are certain areas of life in which we expect there to be some qualifications present. I mean, there is a reason that the doctors hang all those diplomas on the wall. Certain tasks require specific expertise. I get that. But for me to look at another person and determine that someone like that is too far gone even for God to mess with? That kind of thinking has no place in the Christian walk. I have been incredibly blessed by the wisdom of dirty, barefoot men – men who didn’t look like much, but who walked with God. My spirit has been revived by the prayer of a smelly, clumsy, schizophrenic woman. Who am I to call “unclean” those whom God has called to himself?

And the final question that comes to me from the mute and rough faces of the shepherds in Bethlehem this morning is this: who are we to tolerate, or, even worse, to actively participate in systems that contribute to the tendency to render another faceless or voiceless?

When the people who wrote the Bible talked about Jesus’ birth, only one person mentioned the shepherds being present. Do you know why? Because no one else saw them. Not that they weren’t there – they were invisible. They were only shepherds, after all.

It seems to me that, increasingly, our way of life is built on rendering gifted, beautiful people of God into anonymous objects. We used to get the things that we needed from the people who were close to us. We made them, we borrowed them, or we bought them from the guy at the corner store. But increasingly, we turn on a machine, click a few buttons, and the things we want show up on our front porches. How? Who knows. Where did they come from? Who cares. Were the people treated well? Not my problem.

It used to be that we had real relationships with real people. Today, more people will use their computer to click on porn sites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Because the people on the porn sites are always beautiful, always available, and never demanding.

Who do you see when you go through your day? The people who wash your dishes? The ones who clean the bathrooms at work or school? The farmer who grew your food or the trucker who brought it to the store? Who do you see? And who sees you?

The miracle of Christmas is that God became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. He has a face. He tells his story, even to outcasts and those who other people think are invisible. But by this very act of becoming enfleshed and sharing that news with those on the margins requires us to honor all flesh-wearers and seek out especially those who have been marginalized.

Is Pastor Dave telling you it’s God’s will to send your kid on the road with the carnies, or that everybody is always good and there’s no reason to fear? Absolutely not.

What I am asking is this: who are you to be so quick to assume that God isn’t interested in using you? And who am I to presume that I’m better than those folks over there? And who are we to participate in systems that dehumanize and depersonalize those humans, those persons for whom Christ came at Bethlehem?

Today, let me ask you to embrace Christmas by standing for the dignity of those who have been given the gift of being made in the image of God. Start with respecting yourself. Remind me to respect the other people we know. Get yourself to that stable and offer who you are, right now, in worship. And don’t be surprised who else shows up right next to you. Amen.

[1] http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/#ixzz3MHA2M1Ab

Outlandish Trust

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the first Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Abram.  The scripture was from Genesis 13:1-18.

My friend and neighbor Jessalyn would say that this is a “first-world problem”. But I’m here to tell you, it really chaps my hide.

Five spots.  Don't screw it up.

Five spots. Don’t screw it up.

The distance from the corner of Earlham Street to the fire hydrant in front of my house is about a hundred feet. If you do it right, there’s plenty of space for five vehicles. If you screw it up, you can park two there.

Nothing gets under my skin more than driving home after a long day and discovering that some idiot has ruined two or three parking spaces in front of my home because he couldn’t be bothered to learn how to parallel park. I’m driving up Cumberland Street, and I wonder – will there be enough space to park? I mean, come on, people, I pay my taxes, I take care of the place, and I don’t have any place to park my car?

And some kind person might say, “Well, Dave, why not park around back?” “What are you, crazy? I can’t park there! That’s where I keep the boat…” Oh, yeah. Rich people’s problems.

You see what’s happening here, right? This is a great illustration of a concept with which we’re all familiar, and on which too many of us base our lives: the concept of scarcity. All the economic systems of the world are based on the ideology of scarcity: communism, capitalism, it doesn’t matter – all of us are trained to see the world through the lenses of scarcity. We believe – we know – that there is not enough to go around, and so we need to figure out a way to get what we want. Now. If there were five parking spots and only two interested cars, you’d just take one and be done with it. But if there are more cars than spaces, and we all want to park as close to our homes as possible, who ends up with the prime location? You see? Scarcity. We know the ideology of scarcity.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham.  Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham. Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

Our reading this morning from Genesis points us towards an example of scarcity and its implications. Abram and his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, had been in Egypt where some rather unusual things had gone on (more about that in a moment). They are called from Egypt northwards – back to the land that had been promised to Abram and Sarai and their descendants. And as they show up near Bethel, the drama of scarcity plays itself out before our eyes.

Abram and Lot have each done pretty well for themselves in recent years. They’ve got sizeable herds and more than a few employees. It turns out that the “promised land” doesn’t have enough water or grass to keep everyone happy. Tempers are short. Conflict erupts. And here we see, according to theologian Walter Brueggeman, the tension between the ideology of scarcity and the power of the promise.[1] God has already promised this land to Abram and his descendants. Abram could say, “Well, Lot, it was good to be with you. Good luck with the herds and everything – I guess you’ll be needing to make your own way in the world now, so I can save all of these resources for my descendants. I hear that Lebanon is nice this time of year…”

But you know that’s not what happens! Instead, Abram opens up the land to Lot. “Go ahead, son, you choose.” How can he do that? Because Abram has a trust in the promise that trumps his fear of scarcity. As a septuagenarian who is depending on God to make a great nation out of his unborn children, Abram is saying to Lot, “Look, it doesn’t matter. If God can keep the promise of a great nation out of my withered old body, then he can do it on any land. Just pick, and let’s not fight.”

That attitude from Abram brought a question to my mind: where did he learn to believe like that? How did he trust so completely? Well, in chapter 12, God promised the land to Abram and Sarai . However, their first experience in that place is one of famine. Turns out the “promised land”, at least on first glance, wasn’t everything that these old folks thought it might be. So they leave the land, and, facing a scarcity of food and a time of insecurity, they come into Egypt. And there, in that climate of worry and doubt and fear, Abram responds by lying to Pharaoh. Pharaoh has a crush on Sarai, and Abram doesn’t do anything to discourage it. “Did I say she was my wife? Ohhhh, must have been a mistranslation…She’s my sister. My sister.” Fortunately for everyone, God intervenes in a remarkable way, but the lesson is learned. Even when Abram was careless with the promise (after all, how was Abram going to come by all these descendants apart from his wife?), God remains faithful. God’s promises do not depend on human situations – God is not a believer in the ideology of scarcity and God reunites Abram and Sarai and sends them back to the land he’s pledged to give to them and their children.

And, as you read, the result of Abram’s faith, trust, and generosity is that, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “Lot took over the rich bottom-land and Abram was left with the scrub country around Dead Man’s Gulch.”[2]

But that’s not all he’s left with. There in the desert of Canaan, God renews the promise. And whereas in Genesis twelve, God mentions “offspring” or “seed” only once, here we see that word three times in verses 15 and 16. Abram’s children will be countless, God says. You can’t see them yet. They’re not here yet. But there is seed. And then God calls Abram to get up and take a survey of the land; Abram builds altars to worship the Lord and continues to live in tents.

It’s interesting to note, too, what didn’t happen. When Abram gave Lot the good land, there wasn’t any great declaration of gratitude on Lot’s part. The children that God promised didn’t come immediately. There was no mass outcry from the local population for Abram to come and live with them. Abram and Sarai were not given the “keys to the city” anyplace in this promised land. Abram was, in the eyes of the world around him, pretty irrelevant and insignificant. Just a crazy, lonely old guy who trusted God and obeyed him. That’s how Genesis 13 ends.

So what is the word for us today? Where is the call of God in our lives from this passage? Allow me to suggest that this scripture invites us to explore the areas in our lives where there is a conflict between what is easy and what is right; between what is convenient and what is just; between what is good and what is best.

Think, for instance, about the fact that the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown. I was not on that grand jury, and so I can’t speak to whether they did the absolute right thing or whether they blew it big time. But I do know that many of my African American friends are experiencing this as a season of grief and fear, rather than of Thanksgiving. It is very easy for me, as a white adult male, to say, “Well, that’s too bad. I’d rather have seen that go the other way”, and then switch channels and hope that the Steelers can pull it out today. I do not fear for my safety. I do not believe that the system is rigged against me.

Some of the community who disagreed with the verdict reacted with rage and hate. You saw the images of the flames. That’s not good. It’s easy to understand, in a way, why that happened, but it’s not good.

Abram’s nephew Lot saw the easy money and he took it. I probably would have done the same thing.

Abram remembered the promise and lived it – even when it didn’t look all that strong at some points. He depended on God in the gray areas of his life, and he did not let his fear dictate his actions.

It seems to me that the life of faith looks at the situation in Ferguson and refuses to take the easy way that says, “well, those people are never going to change. You can’t make them ­­­_________! It’s no use.” I think that allegiance to the promise requires us to engage the reality of our day and to listen for the story – and the promise – as heard by the other.

Three weeks prior to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a crowd at the Grosse Point High School and talked about his concern for the prospect of racial unrest in the upcoming summer. He said,

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[3]

Is that true? Am I more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than I am with justice? If that’s the case, there’s something wrong.

And you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave! Brown men are shot by the police way too often in our country. That’s a problem.” And you’re right. And then you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave, there are way too many riots in our country.  That’s a problem.” And once again, you are one hundred percent on target.

I believe that the Christ who invited us to this communion feast fully intends for there to be enough – enough grace, enough justice, enough hope, enough joy, and, yes, even enough parking in the world. More than that, I believe that there is enough of all of that.

seedThe difficulty is that too much of it is still in the form of seeds. The difficulty of Advent is that too much of what God intends is waiting to germinate…and God seems to expect us, like the old shepherd Abram, to care for and nurture the seed into bearing fruit.

The call of Advent and the call of Christ is to not throw up your hands in despair, nor to give in to rage or helplessness. The call of the Gospel is to engage, to advocate, to speak for those whose voices are muted and to care for those who have lost their way. To trust that the Spirit continues to enter silently and secretly and to do all that you can to proclaim God’s intentions of enough for all.

When you hear the news, how do you pray? Are your prayers based on the presupposition of scarcity in which we’ve all been trained? Have you accepted as fact the notion that God can’t possibly be interested in keeping his promises of justice and love, so you’re better off simply looking out for yourself?

Or can you, like Abram, remember that you are a people of promise. God promised Abram that through him, the world would be blessed. God is calling you to be a part of the answer to that prayer – God is calling you to be a blessing in the life of someone else today. There is enough of you to be a blessing in someone else’s life today. And, thanks be to God, you can do that. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Genesis (John Knox, 1982), p. 131.

[2] Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979) p. 4

[3] “The Other America”, delivered at the Grosse Pointe High School (Michigan) on March 14, 1968.

Gratitude: A Matter of Life and Death

On November 23, we finished our series of messages dealing with the shape and structure of our worship service by considering how we can respond to God’s movement in our lives.  Yes, it’s November, so it must be “the sermon on the amount.”  Sort of.  Scriptures included passages from Exodus 35-36 (quoted below) and Matthew 6:19-24

Turns out this isn't in the Bible after all.  Better come up with some new ideas for Christmas...

Turns out this isn’t in the Bible after all. Better come up with some new ideas for Christmas…

Did you ever stop to think about all the stuff that Jesus never, ever said? Sometimes he gets blamed for these things, but he never actually said…

God helps those who help themselves

You are pathetic. I could never use a loser like you

I want you all to have really nice, shiny things. Go ahead, and treat yourselves!

If you only acted a little better, I wouldn’t have to send hurricane Katrina or Ebola or AIDS to wipe you out.

There’s another thing that Jesus never said that might be especially confusing because it sure sounds like something that people like me say that he said…

You ought to give your money to the church.

Nope, he never said that. As a matter of fact, Jesus never went to church even once in his earthly life, but that’s a whole ‘nother sermon. But this morning, you need to know that according to scripture, Jesus never once told anyone to fill out a pledge card and put it in the offering plate.

What he did say, unfortunately, was a lot more inconvenient. You heard it a few moments ago: “No one can serve both God and mammon.” What did he mean by that?

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

Well, “mammon” is one of those words that we only hear in church. As it turns out, it’s an Aramaic word that was apparently well-known enough that none of the folks who wrote the Greek New Testament seemed to think that it even needed to be translated. Just like all of you, even the non-Spanish speakers, know what I mean when I say “adios”, the first readers of the New Testament all knew that “mamon” referred to wealth of any kind. It’s pretty straightforward: “You can’t serve God and wealth.”

What Jesus does here is to indicate that each of us is held captive by something. The question is not, “will you serve?”, but “whom will you serve?” In this brief statement, Jesus acknowledges the core truth that something or someone has a hold on our hearts, and whoever or whatever that is will wind up controlling us. Each of us serves a master. Who’s yours?

There are a lot of “masters”, a lot of motivators on the prowl in our world. One of the most prevalent is fear. We wonder if there will be enough for us. We worry that they will come and take what is mine. Others of us spend a lot of time and energy serving a master called shame or regret. We spend large portions of each day remembering that great failure, and as we wallow in our guilt we keep saying (to God, to our kids, to ourselves), “Oh, don’t you worry…I’ll make this up to you. Somehow, I’m gonna make this right.” And some of us are owned by anger or power. “Nobody pushes me around. I’m the boss of me, and I do what I want, when I want…”

If you stop to think about it, each of us winds up shaping our lives around an unconscious commitment to the thing that drives us, owns us, or motivates us. We order our days in such a way as to avoid fear, triumph over shame, or maximize our power. Whatever motivates us, that thing owns us, and therefore receives our attention and our energy.

The theological way to name the thing that receives our attention and our energy is worship. Worship is simply acknowledging the hold that someone or something has on you, and the ways that that thing or person can make you behave.

We have talked for the last few weeks about how our worship of God, as made known by the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus, shapes who we are.

We show up here in worship, not because we thought it was a nice or polite thing to do, but because we believe that God has invited us, or called us to worship. We confess our sin, and in doing so we let go of what has bound us, we acknowledge where we have fallen short, and we accept the wholeness and forgiveness that God offers. And we experience the mystery that we call “the Word”, wherein we hold onto the truth that God is willing to reveal a part of God’s self to us, and in that revelation, we find out that the Story is for us.

Because we have been called toward the Word and been given a glimpse of the Word, we can respond to that Word in joy. We sing with energy and depth of spirit. We share in the sacraments of Communion or Baptism, not because we think God likes us better if we do those things, but because they are ways that we can participate in what God is already doing. We bring prayer – our words – to God, because God has spoken God’s Word to us! And we bring our offerings to God as well.

Ha! There it is. It’s November, and the preacher is going to get around to preaching about the almighty dollar.

Well, guilty as charged – sort of. But you need to hear me saying that we don’t give out of a sense of guilt, or shame, or pride, or duty. In fact, if those are the reasons why you give this morning, I’d just as soon have you hold onto your money, because maybe you need it more than we do.

When I was a kid, the messages I got about money from the church all seemed to revolve around the theme of “You know, this church doesn’t run itself. Everyone needs to do his part and kick in a little. Who do you think pays the light bills around this joint? We’re trying hard, and if you just give us a little more of your money, we’ll get by all right.”

Please. As if God needed me, or my money, or my voice. If those things we’ve been saying and singing about God all morning are even halfway true, God doesn’t need me for anything. I’m not dropping my money into the plate so that God can go ahead and splurge on something nice for himself that he couldn’t otherwise afford if I wasn’t here for him to count on!

I give because I need to give. I give because I am responding to what God has done in my life. The reason that our offering is near the end of the worship has nothing to do with how you rate the sermon or the music or the overall ambiance of this establishment. It’s all about responding, in gratitude, to the amazing things that God has done and is doing. And because I am grateful, I bring what I have to God in an act of worship.

Construction of the Tabernacle with Bezalel. Johann Christoph Weigel (c. 1720)

Construction of the Tabernacle with Bezalel. Johann Christoph Weigel (c. 1720)

My all-time favorite story of grateful giving is found in Exodus. Check this out. The people have been slaves in Egypt. For 400 years, they’ve been serving the Pharaoh, making his mud bricks, building his cities, living in squalor. And God sets them free, and sends them into the desert, on the way to their own place. They are someplace, and they are stuck, and God moves towards them, and God releases them and God directs them. And they say, “Wow! We want to worship!” And God says, “I’m good with that. Here’s how I want you to worship.” And God goes on to give the people the plans for some amazingly beautiful and costly worship structures.

And Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with ability to do every sort of work done by a craftsman or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer. Bezalel and Oholiab and every able man in whom the Lord has put ability and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the Lord has commanded.”

Great! There’s a plan! God’s tabernacle is going to get done. But how? I mean, where is all this stuff going to come from?

And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every able man in whose mind the Lord had put ability, every one whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work; and they received from Moses all the freewill offering which the people of Israel had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary.

Ohhhh, I get it! The people are so excited to be included in on what God is doing that they bring their own treasures to God’s house. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have enough extra stuff laying around that you could bring some of it to God for God to use?

They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the able men who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task that he was doing, and said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work which the Lord has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp, “Let neither man nor woman do anything more for the offering for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing; for the stuff they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more. (Exodus 35:30 – 36:7)

Did you hear that? Moses had to send out a group text saying “STOP trying to give your gold and treasures to the people in worship. We have way too much stuff and it’s just getting in the way.”

Remember, who were these people? Escaped slaves. Do you think that they had a lot of extra gold and fabric and bronze laying around? Did they have 401(k) plans to cash in? Of course not. What do you think the net worth of the average escaped Egyptian slave was back then? These people had nothing…but they brought it to God because they were so overwhelmed with gratitude.

Can you even begin to imagine something like that today? What if the ushers had to, I don’t know, turn around and empty the plate a few times into a garbage can or something because it was so full it kept spilling? What if you got a letter from the Financial Secretary in August, saying, “Look, folks, we really appreciate all your good intentions and everything, but the fact of the matter is that our budget is fully funded for the entire year and we’re solid. If you’ve got more money you’d like to give away, maybe try the folks down at the Pittsburgh Project, or someone like Doctors Without Borders. But really, we’re good here…”

That’s hard to even imagine, isn’t it? But it could happen. I mean if a group of impoverished slaves could do that, what if we decided to respond to God’s grace in our lives according to our means? I give, not because God needs me to, or because I want you to like me more, or because the IRS gives me a tax break. I give simply because I am grateful. I’m grateful for a lot of amazingly wonderful theological truths, but let me break down for you this morning five things for which I am amazingly grateful.

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years...

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years…

I have a home. On any given night, 610,042 people in our country are homeless[1], and right now there are about 44 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to war or some other disaster – they are crowded into refugee camps, sleeping on the ground, exposed to the elements.[2] And I have a home. That is amazing to me.

Artist's representation...

Artist’s representation…

Inside my home there is a huge box filled with food. More food than I could eat in a month, I’d say. I have never, ever in my life worried that I could not feed my family. 18,000 children died of hunger-related causes in the last twenty-four hours,[3] but somehow I have always had more than enough to eat. How can I not share?

kitchen-sink-base-cabinetAlmost a billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. I have these things all over my house. When I need fresh water, I just turn a knob and BOOM! There it is. Pure, clean, water. I have so much water in my house, do you know what I do with it? The typical American uses 24 gallons of pure, clean drinkable water flushing our pee down the drain. Crazy! Across the world, there are people who will walk miles to fill a bucket of river water to cook with, but the average American uses 90 gallons of water a day – ¼ of which goes to get rid of our waste.[4]

ShoeAnd look at these babies: I call them “shoes”. Not only do they keep my feet warm, but I am protected from sharp objects, parasites, filth, disease… And, get this: I have more than one pair! I have brown shoes and black shoes and boots and… I am loaded! How can I not be grateful?

You may be familiar with the internet meme indicating if you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food in the fridge, a bank account, and cash on hand, you’re wealthier than 92% of the humans alive today. And do you know what? That’s not even what makes me think I’m rich.

These people love me.

These people love me.

Get a load of this! I have people to love and who actually love me back. How can I not be grateful every second of every day?

Yes, Dave, I hear you, but let’s be honest. Your house is OK, but this neighborhood is a little sketchy. And I’ve seen what you eat. You could do better. And some of your clothes are older than many of the people in this room. You could do better, Dave.

Listen for it, people…

You deserve better, Dave. You’ve got some nice stuff…but why not freshen it up a little bit? Go ahead, Dave. Take more.

goldencalf2You see? That’s the God of Mammon coming back to try to exert his control. Hours after we profess to being soooooo grateful for what we already have, we’ll trample each other in the stores in our quest to pile up more, better, shinier stuff.

Look, I’m not going to try to talk you out of doing anything. If you think you need to get up at 4 a.m. on Black Friday in order to get out there and buy the latest doo-dad, well, who am I to tell you otherwise?

Cornucopia_SuppliesBut I’m not your friend, and I’m a lousy Pastor, if I don’t at least remind you that this isn’t The Hunger Games and that pile of loot you’re rushing for isn’t the cornucopia filled with things that are going to save your life. Stuff won’t save you. Mammon doesn’t love you. It only wants to own you. And at the end of the day, in fact, it will kill you.

So today, as we finish out the Christian year and turn the corner towards Advent, I dare you to be grateful.

I dare you to remember the fact that you were called into this world by a God who is crazy about you. That you have been forgiven. And that – this is truly amazing – you are a part of the story that God is writing across the pages of history. God has spoken a Word, and it includes you!

Do you see? In our service of worship, we say that God has called us, come to us, and invited us. How will we respond?

Look at what God has done.

Love God.

Celebrate your freedom by acting like and walking with God. Do not let fear, shame, regret, or power motivate you. Point to this truth with thanksgiving. Demonstrate it with thanks-living. In worship and gratitude, share what you have. It is, quite literally, the only way to live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/snapshot_of_homelessness

[2] http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/maps/mapping-displaced-people-around-the-world/?ar_a=1

[3] http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-02-17-un-hunger_x.htm

[4]  http://magazine.good.is/articles/americans-flush-5-billion-down-the-toilet-every-year

Careful What You Wish For!

As the Autumn begins, the gathered community in Crafton Heights is focusing on Micah 6:8 –

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.”

On September 21, we considered the command to “DO” Justice.  The scriptures that helped us engage this topic were Amos 5:4-7, 18-24 and Matthew 7:21-23.  

A man hides in the woods and shoots two State Troopers in Blooming Grove, PA, killing one and wounding another.

Drug cartel violence in Honduras causes families and children to run for their lives, which results in an influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm our nation’s border.

IsisA single mother works full-time, but still cannot earn enough to feed her family, let alone move to a safer neighborhood.

Members of a terrorist group execute hostages and share the grisly images of the beheadings globally.

Police officers, sworn to serve and protect, shoot and kill an unarmed teenage boy in Ferguson, MO.

You work hard, you practice all summer, and are one of the better players on the team. Nevertheless, you get cut, and the coach’s kid – who is nowhere near your skill level – is starting.

In each of these situations and a hundred more, we cry out: “This is not right!” There is something in the system, something in the universe, that is fundamentally flawed and broken. When stories like these come across our televisions, our news feeds, or our kitchen tables, we pause and we lament the truth that things are not as they should me.

We want the killings, the discrimination, the violence, the favoritism, the fear – to stop.

More than that, there are times where in our anger and our pain, we want to inflict punishment and suffering on those who have caused it for others. I’ve got a relative who is a State Trooper. Would you like to guess what his friends were saying about the self-styled “survivalist” who took the life of one trooper and dramatically altered scores of others? What do your friends say ought to be done about the people who are beheading Christian children in other parts of the world, or beating their own children senseless?

We want to give them what they deserve, don’t we? We want to make them pay. We want to watch them cry out for mercy themselves. We want to hurt them so badly that… and then we remember the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who told the people of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1963, “the reason I can’ t follow the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy is that it ends up leaving everyone blind. Somebody must have sense and somebody must have religion.”

We may accept the fact that doing more of the same isn’t best, but we want something to be different. We need to know that there is hope. If we have no hope, then we descend into a pit of lawlessness and despair – we loot, we riot, we lash out – because without hope, we perceive that nothing can ever change, and if nothing is ever going to change, then why not respond with violence and mayhem?

We were created for wholeness. We were designed for a world wherein people do not attack each other randomly, or manipulate and use one another, or diminish the personhood of their neighbor. We are “wired” to feel at home in a place characterized by security, completeness, purpose, and integrity.

The word that characterizes that kind of world is “justice”. In Hebrew, it’s mishpat – an action or a decision that establishes or reinforces what is right. In a just world, children are not abused and there is no such thing as a “race card” and terrorist extremists do not exist.

We want that kind of world. I know that we do.

In the Old Testament times, God’s people often found themselves, like us, in situations where things were not as they had hoped. And they began to pray for what they called “the Day of the Lord”: the yom YHWH. In their public worship and private lives, people proclaimed that there was much that was not well in the world, and there was too much pain. Yet the prophets continued to indicate that God would come. And when God comes, they said, God is going to straighten things out. God is going to bring justice! God is going to speak truth! God is going to make things whole and complete!

And when the people heard that, they cheered, “Bring it on! What’s not to like about that? You bet – we want to know the Day of the Lord!”

In our reading today from the prophet Amos, God’s people are told to be careful what they wish for. Like his colleagues Joel and Zephaniah, Amos reassures the people that the God who is coming is a God who will set things straight. The only problem, he says, is that the ones who are longing for the Day of the Lord are themselves crooked. The Day of the Lord will be painful, says Amos, because God’s people are themselves a part of the problem. Specifically, Amos points to the ways that the wealthy and powerful in Israel have neglected and mistreated the poor and the vulnerable. The prophet is incredulous: the people claim to be crying out to a God of liberation while at the same time they are adding to the burdens of those that are oppressed.

Norman Vincent Peale was one of the more influential American preachers of the 20th century. He remembered a day when, as a young boy, he found a big old cigar laying in the street. He slipped into a side alley and lit it – and suddenly felt very grown up and mature. As luck would have it, who should come down the sidewalk but his father. The young man quickly hid the stogie behind his back and tried to distract his dad. He pointed to a billboard advertising a visiting circus and said, “Can I go? Please, Dad, when it comes to town, can we go?” And his father looked him in the eye and said, “Norman, never make a petition while at the same time you are hiding a smoldering disobedience.”[1] That, of course, is what the “faithful” were doing: “God! Give us freedom…but not them.”

Eight hundred years after Amos, Jesus sounds very prophetic when he looks at those who are clamoring to be associated with him and says, “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord’ is going to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” What does he mean by that?

inconceivable2Well, in the words of that brilliant theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When people – whether it’s fishermen in the first century or folks like us in the 21st – use the word “Lord”, we can only do so when we are referring to One to whom we are willing to submit, or One who is worthy of my ultimate loyalty. Too often, we say “Lord” and we mean someone who we are counting on to come and save my sorry rear end from some painful situation that may or may not be of my own doing. I experience some discomfort, dis-ease, or alienation as a result of some of my own choices, and I call out “Jesus – Lord! Come and save me!” When I do that, I’m not treating Jesus like the master of my universe and the One who orders reality. I’m treating him like the good-natured, if somewhat gullible, friend who will give me a ride home after I’ve had too much to drink, or the girlfriend who will take me back again and again, even after I cheat on her or beat her.

Cranach The Elder, The Form of the Body of Our Lord Jesus, 1553

Cranach The Elder, The Form of the Body of Our Lord Jesus, 1553

But when the Prophets speak of the Day of the Lord, and when Jesus says that he is Lord, they are saying that there is One who is worthy. There is One who has the authority and the power to direct my actions – One on whom I can center my life and my being. That affirmation has not changed since the time of Amos or Jesus. The call is simple: order our lives to reflect what the One we call Lord deems important. Jesus is Lord when we treat him as such. Jesus is Lord when we act like the stuff that matters to him matters to us.

One aspect to this kind of living is justice. In our theme verse for the month, Micah tells us that what God expects of us is pretty simple: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

To “do” justice. That’s the first benchmark we receive from the prophet Micah.

Not to demand justice. Not to admire justice. Not to clamor for it in the streets. We are called to “do” justice.

“Do” justice. What does that even mean?

Really. In the face of terrorism and abuse and multinational corporations and systemic racism and situations that are simply just not fair, I’m supposed to “do” justice. What does that even look like?

There is an individual component to it, to be sure. Doing justice means that we are willing to stand with those who are on the margins, to speak for those who have lost their voices, and to stand between those who would do damage and those who are vulnerable. What does that mean?

I saw an example of it not too long ago. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to embarrass anyone publicly, but I will tell you that in our youth group, there are some wonderful and amazing young people. And there are a few kids who will, for various reasons, get on your last nerve day in and day out.

We were getting ready to go on a trip, and three of our young people asked to meet with me. “Pastor Dave,” they said. “We want to talk with you about so and so.” Oh, yes, I could see that coming. This is a young person who – through no fault of their own – tries my soul. I braced myself. “So, look. On this trip, are you going to put us in small groups for activities and discussion?” I said that I was. “Well then, when you do, make sure that you put so and so in with at least one or two of us. We don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this person is hard to deal with, and a lot of the other people in the group aren’t always nice to this person. We really want to make sure this person has a good trip, and so please put this person in our group.”

Do justice. Stand up for the vulnerable and love those who are difficult to love.

Another example: think about how you shop. When you go out to buy something, where does it come from? Are you stocking up on so-called “deals” that are only possible because the people who produce those goods are living in inhumane conditions and being paid poverty-level wages? Does your desire for the latest “gotta have it” toy or accessory bless the people who live near where the raw materials were taken from the earth? I know that it’s impossible to know where everything we eat, use, wear, and drive comes from…but it’s pretty easy to be attentive to some of this. Check out the human rights records of the companies with whom you do business, and see if you’re getting a deal that you can be proud of.

Do you see? In our personal lives, every day we decide when we will speak and when we’ll be silent; we choose how to spend our money and our energy; we show up some places and ignore others. What do your choices say about your intention to Do Justice?

But it’s more than that. Justice assumes communal participation. In our various gathered communities, we participate in things that either bring healing and wholeness or that lead to isolation and death. We do that when we vote, or when we don’t vote; when we decide communally how to spend our taxes or our tithes, and in what we do to register our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with those decisions. As a congregation, are we willing to spend ourselves on those who are on the fringes?

Here’s the scary thing about the passage from Amos: it appears as though Doing Justice is the proof of our willingness to engage in faithful relationship God who invites us into covenant love day in and day out. In our worship, we say and sing and celebrate all sorts of grandiose truths about life and lordship and faith. And, really, they are wonderful and amazing words.

But that’s what they are. Words.

In the complex web of social and economic relationships in which we engage each day; in the decisions we make about where to shop and whose calls to send to voicemail and which cards we send and who sits at our table at lunch; in the normalness of our lives, we say what we really believe and acknowledge whom we really treat as “Lord”. In here, we sing about God’s care and we pray for God’s presence and we celebrate God’s faithfulness. And out there, the world says, “Prove it. I’m watching you, church. God is like that? You show me.”

May the lives that we live in the next six days match the words that we use this morning. May we, in our lives, say Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever – and YES, bring to us and all creation the Day of the Lord. Amen.

[1] http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/p/prayer_unanswered.htm