But If Not…

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 10, we read the final chapter of that book (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

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

As we bring our Lenten series of meditations on the book of Lamentations to a close this evening, I’d like to make a few comments on the nature of the book as a whole before we dive into chapter five.

As we’ve discussed previously, Lamentations is a collection of five very tightly and carefully constructed poems, originally written in Hebrew.  Each of the first four poems is written as an acrostic – there is a stanza, or in the case of chapter 3, three stanzas, that begins with the first letter of the alphabet; then a thought beginning with the second letter, and so on.  Each of the poems has 22 verses, with the exception of chapter 3, which has 66 verses.  It is plain to see that each poem is a reaction to, in some way, the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Each poem offers a glimpse at the horrors that befell the city of God, and some interpretation as to how or why that event came about.

In fact, the Hebrew title for this book is Eichah– a word that means “How?”  Three of the four poems we’ve already considered begin with this word, which presents a summary of the book’s theme: how could this have happened?  How could God have allowed this to happen?

As we turn our attention to chapter 5, we should note that this is the only poem in Lamentations that is notan acrostic.  The tone is shifting as we come to the end of the work, and that would not have been surprising to the ancient readers of this poem.  The form of Lamentations was not uncommon in the ancient Near East.  There are several examples of “City Laments” that survive from around this time period, and many of these laments end with a prayer to the god of that particular city.  In fact, most of the “typical” city laments end on a victorious note, with a prayer to the god of that city and then an account of what that god did (or soon will do) to restore that city to its former glory.  So someone hearing a poem in this fashion might sense the change in tone and say, “OK, we saw this coming.  This is the big finish, right?”

Not only is the tone different because of the lack of an acrostic structure, it is by far the most communal of the poems we’ve seen thus far.  The Hebrew forms that relate to the first person plural – words like we, us, or our – occur 34 times in these few verses.  The poet is screaming: pay attention!  Something is happening here!

Our opening stanza is an appeal for God to once more notice what is going on in the city:

Lord, consider what has become of us; take notice of our disgrace. Look at it!

In fact, in some of your bibles this chapter is subtitled “The People’s Complaint”.  What follows is a summary of the difficulties that God’s people have had to endure.  Listen to the body of this poem in verses 2 – 18:

Our property has been turned over to strangers;
our houses belong to foreigners.
We have become orphans, having no father;
our mothers are like widows.
We drink our own water—but for a price;
we gather our own wood—but pay for it.
Our hunters have been at our necks;
we are worn out, but have no rest.
We held out a hand to Egypt
and to Assyria, to get sufficient food.
Our fathers have sinned and are gone,
but we are burdened with their iniquities.
Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives
because of the desert heat.
Our skin is as hot as an oven
because of the burning heat of famine.
Women have been raped in Zion,
young women in Judah’s cities.
Officials have been hung up by their hands;
elders have been shown no respect.
Young men have carried grinding stones;
boys have stumbled under loads of wood.
Elders have left the city gate;
young people stop their music.
Joy has left our heart;
our dancing has changed into lamentation.
The crown has fallen off our head.
We are doomed because we have sinned.
Because of all this our heart is sick;
because of these things our glance is dark.
Mount Zion, now deserted—
only jackals walk on it now!

This is, in fact, the people’s complaint.  It is a litany of awfulness.  In some respects, the bulk of this poem sounds like a lawyer’s closing argument. We are called to remember that no one has been spared from the horrors of this tragedy: the women, the girls, the boys, the men – everyone has suffered unspeakably.  From outright attack and violation to shame and humiliation, the whole range of degradation and defeat is laid out here.

In fact, not only have God’s people suffered, but the land itself is bearing the curse of God.  Water and firewood have become scarce commodities, and the sun has scorched not only the people but the earth itself.  All of this is summarized in verse 18, which depicts the supreme irony that the place that was once characterized as a land flowing with milk and honey and the space within that land that was regarded as the holiest and most life-giving, life-affirming, God-honoring place on earth was now a site of desolation populated only by scavengers and filled with death.  The complaint made before God is pathetically blunt: we have no joy, there is no real life; we can’t see well, and there is no hope to be found in us.

Now, in a typical city lament poem, this is where we would expect to hear the tone change yet again – this is where readers would anticipate hearing the statement of final victory in the face of disintegration and death – their god, and the god of that city, will show up and show up in a big way.  It’s not uncommon in poetry of this type to have statements that are triumphal and even arrogant: yes, this is where we are, but just you wait!  You’ll see!  This amazing thing will happen and we will be on top once more!

Here is how the book of Lamentations ends:

But you, Lord, will rule forever;
your throne lasts from one generation to the next.
Why do you forget us continually;
why do you abandon us for such a long time?
Return us, Lord, to yourself. Please let us return!
Give us new days, like those long ago—
unless you have completely rejected us,
or have become too angry with us.

Wow!  Did you hear that?  There is no “happily ever after” for God’s people who survived to write the book of Lamentations.  Instead of triumphalism, we hear a tentative plea that if it doesn’t presume the silence of God, it at least allows for the silence of God.  The writer acknowledges that it’s possible that God is finished with God’s people.

And yet… And yet… Remember the name of this book in Hebrew?  Eichah? “How?”

Here’s something that you might not know about Hebrew.  When writing Hebrew, the only letters that are used are consonants.  The vowel sounds appear as small symbols that are written beneath or within the consonants.

For instance, you might read words like this:

See the words reading “cap”, “cup”, “cop”, and “hat”, “hit”, “hot”, “hate”. Note that with the consonants enlarged the words appear more similar than usual.

So when you see a word, you have to look closely to see the vowel sounds below; a number of words will remind you of other words.

The consonants in the word Eichah look like this:  אֵיכָה

That is to say, here in this amazing book of poetry that describes how horribly broken things are, the people of God are looking for God and saying, Eichah? How could this be? Where were you when this happened to us, God?

If you were to turn all the way back to the beginning of the story – back in Genesis, we find that the roles are reversed.  Do you remember that there’s another poem – a poem about a Garden and a Tree and a Man and a Woman and a Snake?  And the humans make choices that break things horribly, and God wanders through the Garden calling out to humanity, “Where are you?”  Do you remember that part of Genesis?

The Hebrew word that God says in Genesis 3:9 is Ayekah, and the consonants in that word look like this:  אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

אֵיכָה

אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

Can you look at those words and see how similar they appear to be?

The first poem in the Hebrew Bible includes a God who is wandering through creation, calling in the midst of brokenness, Ayekah?  Where are you?  And here in the book of Lamentations, a people who by their own acknowledgement have chosen to do things that break God’s heart are now calling out almost the same word.

I’m suggesting that the parallelism here is intentional.  The poem, and the book, concludes, not on a note of triumphalism or with a declaration of certainty as to how the story ends, but rather with an appeal to God’s character. This is not, as some of the other ancient poems were, an assertion of the vindication that would come to people who deserved it.  Instead, it is a proclamation of who God is even in the midst of trial.  The authors of the book of Lamentations wanted to remind their readers that the God to whom this lament is addressed is a God who goes out looking for those who have experienced brokenness – and is willing to even look for those who have causedbrokenness.  “God, you sit on the throne.  You are God for ever and ever.  No matter what happens here, you are still God.”

Actual leaflet dropped by the Luftwaffe onto Allied troops near Dunkirk.

Listen: in the Spring of 1940 the British and French armies were on the run from Hitler’s troops.  They were being driven back relentlessly by the mechanized divisions as well as by air assault, and in May of 1940 the Luftwaffedropped leaflets on the troops indicating that they were totally surrounded, and there was no hope for escape.  The British Navy was unable to get into the shallow and rough harbor at Dunkirk, and the 400,000 soldiers under Allied command were low on food, water, and ammunition.  To make things worse, the Germans had been able to crack all the codes, so there was no possibility of a secret plan.

The British commander sent a three word telegraph to his superiors in London.  It read simply, “But if not…”  That telegraph was a direct allusion to the words of the three Hebrew children in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace in the Book of Daniel.  The pagan king had ordered them to be burnt alive, and before they went in to the blaze, they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”(Daniel 3:16-18)

“But if not…” that simple 3 word message indicated that “maybe we will be saved, maybe we won’t be saved, but in either case that doesn’t say anything about the rightness of Hitler’s cause.”  It was a testament to the truth that experience is not the only arbiter of truth.  And, if you’ve seen the recent movie about the experience of the soldiers at Dunkirk, you’ll recall that the simple message galvanized an unlikely fleet of 800 fishing vessels that were able to safely evacuate nearly 340,000 allied troops.

This is the cornerstone to the entire book of Lamentation, and to our own work as those who lament today: God is God.  We may, or we may not actually survive this disaster that has befallen us today. But even if we do not survive, that does not say anything about who God is.

Listen to that theme here in Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him…” (Job 13:15)

Or again from II Timothy 3:15: “if we are faithless,God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

Lamentations 5 ends by raising the possibility that God is and will be silent. It points us, this Lenten season, to the agony of Jesus’ questions in the Garden.  It is a reminder that we are creatures of time and space who are seeking, always, to relate to a creator who is constrained by neither time nor space. How can we even share a vocabulary with a God such as this?

In the days following the fall of Jerusalem, God’s people cried out against hunger and death and violence and humiliation.  They threw those words to God and trusted in a God they could not always see or hear.

In the opening years of the 21stcentury God’s people cry out against famine and flood and racism and abuse and addiction and gun violence and broken families. We throw out words to a God who seems inexplicably and maddeningly silent sometimes.

And at the end of the day, our affirmation is the same as was theirs: we do not always know where God is, and we may not always know what God is doing, but we can and do know who God is.  That is the promise, beloved, and you can trust it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Lament Means Hearing, Telling, and Living With the Truth

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On March 20, we explored some of the history behind the compositions as well as the poem contained in Lamentations 2 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  We are trying to learn that.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:

As we re-enter the world of Lamentations, let me invite you to recall some of what we said last week about this beautiful little book.

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, 1867

First, we need to recall that this “book” is actually a pamphlet of five complete poems that came out of the experience of those who survived the worst day ever in 6thcentury BC Judah.

In 586 BCE Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar completed his siege and conquest of Jerusalem, laying waste the town, destroying the temple, and taking captive the educated elite of the nation.

Not just a city, but a culture and a people lay in ruins.  People do not know how they will survive in the face of the loss, not just of property and life, but of meaning and purpose and, in a very real way, history itself.

You may recall that the “book” of Lamentations is actually a series of five carefully constructed poems.  Each of the chapters in our English Bibles contains one of the five poems of Lamentations. Like Lamentations 1, chapter 2 is an acrostic poem – that is to say, it follows a pattern based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The first letter of verse one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – aleph.  The first letter of verse two is the second letter: beth.  Likewise, the first letter of verse three is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel.

If you were here last week you’ll recall that Lamentations 1 was divided into two parts.  It began with a description of Jerusalem as a woman – a “fallen” woman, if you will – someone who was vulnerable but whose underpinnings had been pulled out from beneath her.  She has been violated by, or at least abandoned by those who should have who promised to protect and comfort her. About halfway through the chapter, though, the voice of the poem changes from being adescriptionof suffering to being a personal narrationof suffering.  Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to notice the condition of the city – not because anyone expected God to fix it, but rather so that God will not forget to punish anyone else who may have been guilty of the same things that Jerusalem did. It’s kind of like when you punish one child, and while that child does not deny the wrongdoing, the child is eager for you to mete out the same punishment to the other kids.

Let us now turn our attention to the poem in chapter 2.  Listen first to the Word as found in verses 1 – 10:

1 Oh, no!
In anger, my Lord put Daughter Zion under a cloud;
he threw Israel’s glory from heaven down to earth.
On that day of wrath, he didn’t consider his own footstool.

Showing no compassion, my Lord devoured each of Jacob’s meadows;
in his wrath he tore down the walled cities of Daughter Judah.
The kingdom and its officials, he forced to the ground, shamed.

In his burning rage, he cut off each of Israel’s horns;
right in front of the enemy, he withdrew his strong hand;
he burned against Jacob like a flaming fire that ate up everything nearby.

He bent his bow as an enemy would; his strong hand was poised like an adversary.
He killed every precious thing in sight;
he poured out his wrath like fire on Daughter Zion’s tent.

My Lord has become like an enemy. He devoured Israel;
he devoured all her palaces; he made ruins of her city walls.
In Daughter Judah he multiplied mourning along with more mourning!

He wrecked his own booth like a garden; he destroyed his place for festivals.
The Lord made Zion forget both festival and sabbath;
in his fierce rage, he scorned both monarch and priest.

My Lord rejected his altar, he abandoned his sanctuary;
he handed Zion’s palace walls over to enemies.
They shouted in the Lord’s own house as if it were a festival day.

The Lord planned to destroy Daughter Zion’s wall.
He stretched out a measuring line, didn’t stop himself from devouring.
He made barricades and walls wither—together they wasted away.

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;
her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction!
Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.
They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.
Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

In some ways, the narration here sounds like the beginning of chapter 1. There is an observation provided by an omniscient narrator – someone is describing what has happened.  But note that the tone of this poem is much darker, and much more explicit than the previous work.  In chapter 1, there is the suggestion that although Jerusalem has suffered at the hands of her enemies, fundamental cause for the suffering of God’s people is actually the Lord – God’s very own self.

Here in chapter 2, there is no mere suggestion of that.  It is an outright statement of fact:  The Lord has thrown down, devoured, torn down, cut off, burned, killed… and most personally, perhaps, consider verse 7: the Lord has rejected his own altar; he has abandoned the sanctuary, he has handed over the walls of the palace to the adversary.  There is no defense made for God’s behavior here – in fact, there is only a description.  “This is what happened” (chapter 1); “God did this” (chapter 2). The hearers are not aware of any reason as to why Jerusalem would be receiving this kind of treatment from the Divine hand.

Another similarity to chapter 1 is that the voice changes in the middle of this poem, too.  Just like in the previous chapter, the poem shifts dramatically in the middle.  The pronouns shift, and we once again find ourselves hearing first-person testimony.  Listen:

11 My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered, because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.

12 They say to their mothers, “Where are grain and wine?”
while fainting like the wounded in the city streets,
while their lives are draining away at their own mothers’ breasts.

13 What can I testify about you, Daughter Jerusalem? To what could I compare you?
With what could I equate you? How can I comfort you, young woman Daughter Zion? Your hurt is as vast as the sea. Who can heal you?

In chapter 1, the poet chose the voice of the first person so that we could hear the suffering from the experience of the one who has suffered. Here, however, the first person continues to speak of suffering as though it is happening to someone else. It’s still horrible – but this is not a complaint – it’s a statement about what is being observed.

As I read these verses, and I saw the incredulity in them, I was reminded of the radio news on May 6, 1937 when a WLS broadcaster named Herb Morrison was narrating the momentous arrival of the pride of the German Airfleet, the Hindenburg, to a mooring station in New Jersey.  Just as the blimp arrives, there is a deadly accident and the newsman is overcome.  I’d like to invite you to watch this short clip, but remember that there was no television news at that time – this is Morrison’s audio matched to a film that was taken on the same day.

Did you hear that?  He is a person, narrating what he sees – and he is overcome by it.  In a sense, it’s not happening to him – but consider that phrase that has become a part of our culture: “Oh, the humanity!” He says “I have to stop now – I cannot speak…” He cannot believe his own eyes, and yet he is compelled to describe it.

That is the tone, I believe, of the middle part of chapter 2.  Someone is walking the reader through an experience for which one does not, and should not, have words.  It is horrible.  It is the worst.

But still, there is no clue as to why this is happening.  That comes to us in the next few verses.  Listen:

14 Your prophets gave you worthless and empty visions.
They didn’t reveal your sin so as to prevent your captivity.
Instead, they showed you worthless and incorrect prophecies.

15 All who pass by on the road clap their hands about you;
they whistle, shaking their heads at Daughter Jerusalem:
“Could this be the city called Perfect Beauty, the Joy of All the Earth?”

16 All your enemies open wide their mouths against you;
they whistle, grinding their teeth. They say, “We have devoured!
This is definitely the day we’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen it come to pass.”

17 The Lord did what he had planned. He accomplished the word
that he had commanded long ago. He ripped down, showing no compassion.
He made the enemy rejoice over you; he raised up your adversaries’ horn.

Do you see? The reason for this punishment, according to the theology of Lamentations 2, is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were paying attention to the wrong things.  They listened to the false prophets, and in so doing refused to address – they were unable to address –  their real brokenness.  God, in God’s wisdom, gave the people brokenness – God gave them what they asked for.

Here is something I have wondered in recent days: why is so much of America fascinated with, and incredibly resentful of, people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlan?  I mean, these two celebrities only want what literally everyone else on the planet wants: they want life for their kids to go well.  They want the best for their kids.  Yeah, they bribed college admissions officers to let their kids in, but hey – they just want these young people to be happy, right?  Doesn’t everyone?

And you say, “Sure, Dave – we all want our kids to be happy.  But for crying out loud, they broke the rules. They sought an unfair advantage for their children.  They chose the wrong narrative for their families, Dave.  They listened to false prophets.”

Allegheny County, PA, School District Map

Maybe.  But let me push back on that a little bit. And be aware, friends – I’m talking to me, not just you. When people in the United States choose to buy their own homes, what is one of the key factors in that decision: the school district.  If you want your kids to do well, you scrimp and you save and you get yourself a place out in Robinson, or even better, Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair.  Sure, homes cost a little more there, but that means that the tax base is deeper and that means that the income stream for the schools is more reliable and that means that in addition to better academics, your child will have access to enhanced opportunities like music, athletics, theater and other extra-curriculars. People who canget out to a great school district for their kids do.  But what about the rest of the folks?  The poor? The renters? By and large, the story in every state in the USA is the same: the folks in the city are stuck with failing public schools and in spite of the fact that they are paying property taxes in one way or another, their best options are often some sort of parochial or charter schools.

This is what I mean: right now, half of America is losing their minds because a few wealthy parents are apparently circumventing the rules of our existing social contract.  “Shame, shame, shame!” we cry.

Yet not many of these same people are outraged by a system that fails most of the parents and most of the students most of the time.

What I’m suggesting is that it is not just ancient Jews who have listened to false prophets.  We have had truth-tellers who have brought messages to us about racial reconciliation, or the environment, or the public good and politics – but we’ve disliked and therefore disregarded their messages.  We’ve chosen – dare I say it – we have chosen “fake news” – because it just helps us sleep better with the people that we’ve become.

Well sooner or later, the dam will burst and all hell will break loose. What do we do when that happens?

Lamentations 2 ends with the first real imperative of either poem.  An imperative is an “action” word – a command. Listen:

18 Cry out to my Lord from the heart, you wall of Daughter Zion;
make your tears run down like a flood all day and night.
Don’t relax at all; don’t rest your eyes a moment.

19 Get up and cry out at nighttime, at the start of the night shift; pour out your heart before my Lord like water.
Lift your hands up to him for the life of your children—
the ones who are fainting from hunger on every street corner.

When your world falls apart – cry out! Make your tears run!  Get up and cry out! Lift your hands up to him…

In other words – the author of this poem is instructing those of us who have listened to false prophets for too long to, well, engage in a period of lamentation.  To utter to God that which is broken.  And then the poem concludes with a strategy for that Lamentation:

20 Lord, look and see to whom you have done this!
Should women eat their own offspring, their own beautiful babies?
Should priest and prophet be killed in my Lord’s own sanctuary?

21 Young and old alike lie on the ground in the streets;
my young women and young men fall dead by the sword.
On the day of your anger, you killed; you slaughtered, showing no compassion.

22 You invited—as if to a festival!—terrors from every side.
On the day of the Lord’s anger, no one escaped, not one survived.
The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.

In modeling lament as a spiritual practice, the poet here implores God’s people to confront God with God’s own behavior, and to ask God to act in a way that is consisted with God’s nature.  Don’t pretend that this evil does not exist – rather, turn to God and name it and invite God to bring about a reality that is consistent with his purposes.

This is a hard word for us, because we would rather hear the false prophets – the cheerful news.  We love having the ability to change the channel!  But when the terror strikes, this Lenten season, my friends, let me encourage you to dwell with the things that are hard for a moment or two longer. And question the things that you hear – the prophecies that “everybody knows” to be true.

Look for the place in your life and in our world that seem to be out of whack with God’s intentions, and lay them before the Lord in a time of lament. Lift up that which some might hesitate to speak, and in so doing, make your lament a prayer.

We mentioned last week that there is not a lot of overt “good news” in the book of Lamentations.  This chapter ends with a woman holding her dead children, saying “God did this.” But I want to remind you that Lamentations did not spring up from nowhere – it was crafted by a community who had lived through the worst and survived.  They learned in the midst of that survival the strategy of lament – of coming before God and saying, “I know that we have not gotten this right!”

The fact that a community survived – that a community was left to give voice to a communal lament – is in itself good news.  That is the thing to which we may cling this evening.

In the name of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Amen.

Thoughts and Prayers

Like many of my peers, Ash Wednesday 2018 found me immersed in the quietness of my study.  I didn’t watch the news, and I wasn’t really all that active in social media.  I was preparing for worship at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights – one that centered on the age-old practices of the imposition of ashes (indicating repentance) and the sharing the Lord’s Supper (celebrating the community we’ve been given).  So when folks gathered for worship and I learned of the horror that was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I was caught off-guard.  In the aftermath of that horror, I have seen “thoughts and prayers” receive the derision that inaction deserves.  However, I thought that it might be important for me to go ahead and publish this message anyway – in spite of the fact that its very title might get it dismissed – because I firmly believe that people of faith ARE called to think and pray – and that if we do those things right – we’ll be led to action.  Our text for the evening was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Religious Studies 356, taught by Professor Justin McDaniel, is so popular that students who are interested in taking the course can only be admitted to it after passing an interview with the instructor. One recent seminar attracted 200 applicants, but only 26 students made the cut. The experiential learning course is subtitled, “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life”, and there are no requirements for papers or exams.

There are some who would hear that and scoff, “Seriously? People are taking out student loans for classes like that? Come on, get real. If you’re going to college, you better be learning something.” Some of you, however, might be thinking, “Wow, why don’t they offer that at Duquesne or CCAC?

Students who have taken the class are quick to point out that they’ve learned a lot. Although there are no mid-terms or essays, the requirements are very stringent. Students agree to spend $50 or less each week; they are required to write in a journal every half hour while they are awake; they must go to bed at 10:30 each night and wake up at 5:30 each morning. In addition, students must practice celibacy, eat only raw vegetables or meat cooked without oil and give up all technology – including cell phones and computers – for a month. During that month, they are not allowed to speak to anyone unless it’s an extreme emergency; instead, they’ve got to write everything down by hand.

Can you imagine living that way? Can you imagine living that way on a college campus, while you are enrolled in other classes? Yet students who have completed the course say that it was an amazing experience. “A majority of the course’s former students noticed a dramatic improvement in their academic performance during the semester that they took the class. Although balancing other courses may seem impossible given the course’s restrictions, students have had surprisingly few problems. ‘I have a 100% success rate in the four times I’ve taught the course, not one student has ever gotten lower grades. And almost every student’s grades have shot up,’ Professor McDaniel shares.”

One student said it “was a good way to take a step back from life and just view it from the outside and get a clarity that you don’t get when you’re actively involved with everything all the time.”[1]

Not only does this class and its apparent impact on college students fly in the face of many of our preconceived notions about young adults, it also seems to be the precise opposite of much of our prevailing culture. Think about it: an entire course based on the wisdom and practice of, well, “thoughts and prayers.”

Are there three words in use today that are more vacuous than “thoughts and prayers”? According to the Wikipedia entry on that topic, this phrase, often used when expressing condolences after a natural disaster or violent episode, has received criticism because it “may be offered as a substitute for taking potentially materially corrective actions.” For example, after the Las Vegas shootings in 2017 the local hospitals released a statement saying that while “thoughts and prayers” are appreciated, it’d be more helpful if people gave blood.

In fact, if you visit the website called thoughtsandprayersthegame.com, you’ll be directed to a web-based video game that seeks to demonstrate the impact that “thoughts and prayers” have had on eliminating deaths due to mass shootings in the USA. Here’s a hint: it’s not an optimistic site…

So on the one hand, we have empirical evidence from a small group of motivated, committed people that seeking to be intentionally contemplative and centered does in fact change us. And on the other hand, a survey of current events would seem to indicate that most people’s expressions of “thoughts and prayers” are vacant and irrelevant.

Which kind of Lent will you observe?

At first glance, Jesus seems to play into the hands of most 21st century Americans – those who see “thoughts and prayers” as empty platitudes. It is entirely possible to hear his words in the Sermon on the Mount as “Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t let anyone else know that you are praying, or fasting, or giving. That stuff is between you and God and nobody else needs to know about it.” In other words – it probably won’t make a difference in the “real world”.

Of course, that’s not actually Jesus’ point. What he says is “don’t pray, fast, or give in such a way so that other people will be pretty darned impressed by the fact that you pray, give, and fast.” If we seek to engage in any act of piety or devotion because, first and foremost, we want to be seen as pious people – well, we’re doing it wrong. The purpose of these or any acts of spiritual discipline is not to raise anyone’s estimation of ourselves. How dare we claim to be praising or worshiping God when in fact we are merely seeking to draw attention to ourselves and our kind-heartedness or faithfulness.

The great tradition of the church – and that in which Jesus himself rested – is the opposite: our acts of prayer and fasting and giving are effective and useful only insofar as they activate us on behalf of the world.

In fasting, praying, and giving, we seek to be in touch with the creative power that formed the universe so that we can do everything within our power to align our world with the Creator’s intent.

“Thoughts and prayers” is not some vague sentiment that we hold out to others when we feel guilty because we were not stricken by an earthquake or victimized in a mass shooting; it is not a political slogan which is a handy substitute for substantive action; and it is not a greeting card sentiment that we jot down when we’re not sure what else to say.

Instead, thoughts and prayers are the best tools for reshaping our own lives to the end that we are able to join with God and one another so that the love, justice, hope, and peace of Jesus Christ is more fully, more tangibly, and more palpably demonstrated in the world. Thoughts and prayers are not a hollow box you give to someone else: they are the hammers and chisels with which we fight selfishness, indifference, and feelings of irrelevance in our own lives.

My hope and prayer this Lent is that you will join me in seeking to gain experience in using these tools. Like the course at Penn, there are no exams and no one will be checking your work. But I can assure you that if you seek to be deliberate in this area, your life, and our world, will be changed. Thanks be to God for thoughts and prayers that bear fruit. Amen.

[1] Quotations from “The Sound of Silence”, http://www.34st.com/article/2016/03/the-sound-of-silence

Trumpet (Trombone) Lessons

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered in worship to consider the mystery of the resurrection of the body that is so central to the Christian faith.  Our texts included Job 19:23-27 and I Corinthians 15:50-58.  You can read the manuscript, and you can also click on the arrow on the left of the bar just below this paragraph to hear the sermon as recorded in worship on April 2, 2017. 

If you are unable to hear the sermon by clicking on the bar above, please visit https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/sermon04-02-17.mp3  Ignore the rather confused older man speaking in the beginning of the recording.  I’m sure he means well.  He’s a nice guy, and mostly harmless.

I have a confession to make.

For a minister, I don’t talk about heaven very much. To be honest, it makes me uncomfortable.

There are a few reasons for that. For starters, I’m really wary of what might be termed a “transactional faith”, in which I try to boil the entire message of the scripture to a simple exchange wherein I insist that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again so that I could get my sorry butt into heaven when I die. I know, it doesn’t sound that great when I say it like that, but the truth is that’s what a lot of us believe and you can visit any Christian bookstore in the world and find volumes and volumes written from that particular perspective. Jesus came to save my soul from the fires of hell. Amen. I think that there has to be more to it than that.

Another reason I don’t like to talk about heaven too much is that I find myself agreeing with famed American author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who once complained that “some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” You know people like that – they are so set on getting pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye that they can’t be trusted to do the shopping or clean up from the youth group meeting…

And lastly, I think I don’t often bring up heaven because I’m pretty sure that I don’t really understand it all that well. Is heaven a real place? What happens to us when we die? Our bodies decompose and fade away… but what happens to the “us” that is “us”? I mean, you can send out a tweet that makes heaven sound pretty good, but the more you think about it, the more questions we face…

Detail from School of Athens, Raphael (1509-1511)

When I was a child, there was an old lithograph that hung above the sofa in the living room. We weren’t usually allowed to spend much time in that room – it was for the grownups – but I’ll always remember this image of “The School of Athens.” In it, we see Plato and his star pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle is gesturing outward, indicating his belief that what truly matters is that which is tangible and can be empirically experienced. Plato, on the other hand, points to the heavens as he indicates that ultimate reality is always and only spiritual – the things that we think we see or experience here on earth are only shadowy forms of something more real or more true in the spiritual realm.

I’m not sure why my mother chose to hang that print there. It may be that there was a give-away at the grocery store and she had a blank spot on the wall. It may be that she had a soft spot for ancient philosophy of which I was unaware. But that image captures what was the dominant western mindset at the time the Bible was written: that to be human means that we possess a body and a soul. When we die, our body rots away, but our soul is freed for eternity. The soul is limited by the reality that the physical body imposes, and once death arrives our soul is finally able to achieve the state for which it was intended.

The Soul Hovering Over the Body Reluctantly parting with Life, William Blake (1813)

For too many Christians, that view has received a quick baptism and has become our dominant belief. We are born into this vale of tears and suffering, and for a while we do our best. But eventually, these bodies fail us and our spirits are freed to go to heaven where the troubles of the physical existence will be forgotten.

When we think about humans as having an immortal soul, we get into trouble. For one thing, that diminishes the significance of the bodies we’ve been given. If there is no value to the human form, then why bother to help those who are suffering through famine or natural disaster? I mean, if this life is so horrible, then why not rejoice when you get to leave it and go straight to heaven? And if this physical existence is not significant, then why should I care about climate change or pollution or the health of the planet?

If my immortal soul is the only thing that matters, then who gives a hoot about what I do with my body or to yours?

But you would say, I hope, that those things do matter. That the ways we interact with each other, the things we do with and to our bodies, and the ways we relate to the cosmos that surrounds us – they all matter.

Detail from Creation of Adam, Michelangelo (c.1512)

That is, I hope, because you’ve come to embrace the biblical truth that the notion of an immortal soul trapped in a decaying and virtueless body is simply a lie. When the Bible talks about how life came into being, we’re told that God scooped up some of the dust – which he’d already made and pronounced as “good” – and breathed into it the breath of life. When the breath of God met the dust of earth, the man was given nephesh – a life force. Neither the breath of God nor the dust of the earth is the totality of this experience of true life… our existence is the product of both these things.

Scripture is pretty clear about the value of our physical selves. Leaf through just about any book of the Bible and you’ll find laws about what God’s people should or should not eat, or wear, or do with their bodies. More than that, there are expectations as to how we treat each other and animals, too. We are even instructed to care for the earth.

All of this points to a value of the tangible, physical, corporeal self. The truth of scripture is that whatever makes you who you are is some combination of your body, your mind, and your heart.

That is to say, there is not some essential “Daveness” that can be isolated merely from the things that I think or feel. I am a white male human who has taken 56 trips around the sun. I have a lot of hair, high cholesterol, and a body mass index that is way too high according to that scary chart my doctor has hanging in his exam room. All of those things contribute to me knowing who I am. I am not, nor have I ever been, and nor will I ever be a “real” Dave that is tethered to an irrelevant bag of bones that my soul just has to cart around until I die.

The Bible teaches that the creation of all that is, seen and unseen, was beautiful and right and true… until somehow, it was not. That which was perfect became sullied and imperfect; things that were designed for life began to suffer death. But the Creator, not wanting to see the universe so twisted, began to talk of making things right. The means of this making things right is resurrection.

There is a current reality, which you and I are experiencing right now. You are aware of the hardness of your seat, the temperature of this room, and the effectiveness of your morning coffee. When this current reality has run its course, it will be replaced by a new reality that not only contains the essence of that which we know now, but fully matches the intentions of the Creator. The prophets all talked about the “new heavens and the new earth.”

Job pointed to this in the passage you heard a few moments ago. He was in the midst of pain and alienation and estrangement, and yet declared that somehow, in all of his Job-ness, he would encounter the Divine. He saw his flesh heading to destruction, but he trusted that such was not the end. There would be, in some fashion, a re-making.

Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, lays out a careful theology of resurrection. In chapter 15, he points to the resurrected Jesus as the indicator of that which is to come in all of creation. Using the analogy of a garden, he compares our current physical selves with seeds that undergo several transformational steps, and yet retain their full integrity at every stage.

For instance, I could show you a seed, a tree, a blossom, a piece of fruit, and a pie. If I were to ask, “What kind is this?”, the answer in every shape and form would be “apple.” The appearance and in fact the cell structure, aroma, sound – all would be different in each of these expressions of that which we call “apple”, but each of these is, undeniably, “apple.”

As a gardener and baker, I seek to be attentive to “apple” in whatever form I find it – treating each iteration of “apple” with attentiveness and respect even as I do what I can to appreciate what it is, what it has been, and what it might become. I can only be faithful with what I have in front of me at the moment and seek to create a future in which that which is now only potential might, in fact, be realized.

You and I, along with the entire created order, are, I believe, headed toward a reality in which beauty, grace, integrity, love, relationship, truth, worship, and God are all central. Those are things that matter forever. Our task, therefore, at this particular juncture of space and time, is to be attentive to those things in such a way that prepares us to experience eternal reality. We are called to practice those things in whatever way we can right now even while we wait for a fuller and richer understanding and experience of them in the future that God has prepared.

Listen: when I was in high school, I was hired to teach a young man named Billy how to play the trombone. Each week, I was given $7 to sit next to him on the piano bench in his living room. I showed him the positions of the slide, talked with him about his embouchure, and noted the importance of emptying the spit valve in appropriate places. I was a fair trombonist at the time, and the band in which I played won some renown.

That was forty years ago. I’m not sure I could find my trombone these days – but I know that it’s dusty and unused. I couldn’t tell you how spell embouchure to save my life. Yet if you were to Google my former student, you’d find that he’s a professional trombonist who has performed in many, many venues and led great musical ensembles.

Why?

Because he did what I stopped doing: he practiced. In 1977, I was a waaaaaaay better trombonist than Billy was. And yet today, he’s wearing tuxedos and blowing his horn in ways that he would not have believed then and I can only dream about now. Because he practiced.

“The trombone will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (I Cor. 15:53) I know, your translations say “trumpet”, but I’m convinced that there’s been an error in the Greek manuscripts…

The resurrection of the dead is not just some amazingly complicated mystery that preachers fall all over themselves to explain. It is where we are headed. And since it’s our future, I’d suggest that we practice resurrection living right now.

I know… we’re not very good at it all the time. We fail, and we try again. We fall, and we get back up. We sleep, and we are jolted awake. We suffer, and we look toward healing. Each of these is a mini-resurrection that is in some way preparing us for that which is to come.

In his amazingly profound book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson writes,

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

We are God’s people, called to practice God’s way of resurrection life. We do this all in the context of the relationships we have, using the bodies we’ve been given in the knowledge that one day our understanding and experience and our selves will be complete.

How does it work? I’m not sure, exactly.

But I want to keep practicing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up In Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

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.

Why Are People Good?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 14, we read the beginning of that work (Job 1:1-11) and wondered about what it means to be good, do good, and work for good.  

 

StarWarsA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

You know that story, right – at least some of it? So let me ask you: is it true? All that stuff about the rebels and the Empire and Luke and Leia and Yoda… Is it true?

Well, I guess that depends on what we mean by “true”, right? Am I asking, “Did it really happen?” Or am I asking, “Does it ever happen?”

Think about the message and content of the Star Wars saga:

  • Humans exist in a world in which good and evil are at war, and often it appears as though evil holds the upper hand.
  • There is a Force, and it is with you.
  • The old masters have a way of life and faith to which young followers are called
  • There is life beyond that which we can see

Do you see what I mean? Sometimes there is more to “truth” than simple history. I’m pretty sure that George Lucas made up the story about Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi. But I’m equally certain that it’s true.

Which brings me to the scriptural text for this morning, the opening verses of the book of Job. In spite of the fact that it’s closer to the middle of the Old Testament, most scholars believe that this is the oldest book in the Bible. It is among the most ancient pieces of writing on the planet, in fact. We know this because of the style of the Hebrew in which the book is written. You know that all languages change and develop. If old William Shakespeare were writing in 2016 instead of 1592, he would not have Juliet say, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” Instead, the troubled lover would say something like “O, Romeo! Why do you have to be called Romeo?” When you read Shakespeare, you know that you are reading something from an earlier age, right? It’s the same with Job. The language and expressions are all in a kind of writing we call “paleo-Hebrew”. This story of an amazingly good and upright man who is beset by all kinds of problems is very, very old.

But did the events described in this story actually happen? I don’t have a clue.

Do these things happen? Every single day.

It’s hard to imagine a person alive who is not familiar with the questions raised by Job – questions that we’ll consider throughout this Lenten season.

  • Is God really in charge?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • What do I do when someone I love is in pain?
  • Is it OK to question God?

In fact, if there is anyone here who has NOT wrestled with these questions, please speak to me immediately following the service, because I have some questions for you!

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

Job and His Family, William Blake (1805-1810)

For now, let’s dive in to this ancient text and say hello to Job.

The first thing we learn about Job is that he is, by all accounts, an incredible guy. “The greatest man among all the people in the East,” in fact. How do we know that? What is the criteria for “greatness”?

For starters, Job is loaded. I mean, he is clearly the Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of his age. Did you hear about all those camels and sheep and all the other stuff he’s got?

Moreover, he’s got ten children. Seven boys and three girls represent the Hebrew numbers of completeness. “Everybody knows” that children are a blessing from the Lord, and look at Job’s family! It’s perfect.

In addition to these tangible signs of wealth and blessedness, take a look at how Job conducts himself as a father. Right after the narrator tells us that Job is the greatest guy around, we learn that this Mr. Wonderful spends his time praying for his children. Dads, take note of this as you ascribe to greatness: pray for your children!

Job is such a great person, in fact, that he is the topic of conversation at the staff meeting between God and the angels in heaven. God points him out, and says, “Wow! What a wonderful human being! That Job is one of the best!”

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

Satan Before the Lord, Corrado Giaquinto (1750)

And Satan hears God say this –

– Wait a second? Why is Satan at the board meeting in heaven? Great question. We’ll get to that one in two weeks.

– So Satan interrupts God and asks the first difficult question in the book of Job: Why is Job good? Satan does not argue with God as to whether or not Job is actually good, but rather he wants to know why this great man is so good.

Have you ever wondered that? Most of us, especially those of us who were raised in the church and who grew up believing in “the American Dream” have been taught that being “good” is important. But why?

What’s the purpose of being a good person? Why does Job – or any one of us – aspire to goodness? What’s in it for us?

Satan says to God, “Of course Job is good. You reward him for being good. Job is as good as he is because he knows that you will like him better because of it. And not only is he a little brown-noser who is just trying to impress you, you make it worse because you’ve built a wall around him. Don’t go trotting out Job’s goodness, God, as if it is something special, because it’s obvious to anyone that you’ve put him in a little box where nothing bad can happen to him.”

Well, that’s an interesting charge, Satan. Let’s take a look. Has God put a wall around Job?

The fact of the matter is, yes. Yes God has done that.

To be fair though, that’s what God does. Listen to this reading from the first (but not oldest) book in our Bible: Genesis 1:6-9 reads,

And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.

There’s a word that shows up there a couple of times: “firmament”. In other translations it’s “dome” or “vault”. Here, in a description of who God is and what God does when God first starts out being God in our experience, we see that God spends God’s time bringing order out of chaos. It’s in other places throughout the Bible as well: Psalm 104:9 talks about the fact that God has set boundaries or borders for the chaos that is the sea; Isaiah 5:1-7 describes a hedge or protective border that God established around his people.

So, Satan, are you saying that God is a wall-building, hedge-planting, boundary-establishing God? That God intends protection and order and justice? You are right. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

And who is Job? Let’s look at Genesis again:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Job, like Adam and Eve, like you and me, is created in the divine image. That is to say, Job is created to be like God. As are you. As am I.

And if taking care of things, ensuring justice, shielding the vulnerable, and bringing order out of chaos is what God does, then perhaps those of us who are made to be like God are called to do them as well.

I am here to suggest that, contrary to Satan’s claim, Job does not do good in order to get God to like him any better. There is a wall around Job because it is in God’s nature to build walls around that which he loves. Nothing that Job does is going to get that wall to be any taller or thicker. And Job is good because that’s how he was made. In God’s image. We are designed for goodness; moreover, later on in the book when we hear more about Job’s goodness, one of the things that is mentioned is that he builds walls of protection around those who are poor, suffering, or vulnerable.

But wait – if God is so good, and if Job is so good, then why do really bad things happen to Job?

– Great question. We’ll get to that one in three weeks.

For today, let us hold to this truth – in some important way, Satan is correct. He says, “Does Job honor God for nothing? You’ve built a wall around him!” He’s right. Job does not fear God for no reason.

Job fears and honors God, not because he is afraid of what God will do to him if he messes up, but because of who God is and because of what God has done in the world. In other words, Job is good, not to try to get God to like him better, but because Job appreciates who God is. Job is thankful for the world God has made. Job’s goodness is a response to God’s goodness, not an attempt to appease God or to prevent God from being less than good in the future.

The oldest book in the Bible begins with a list of blessings: Job has received money, children, respect.

What are your blessings this day? In what ways has chaos been held at bay in your life? Where is the wall that is around you? Where has that wall been strong? How have you known God’s goodness and God’s protection in your life?

Can you think of ways in which God’s light has shone on your path?

Now – think very, very carefully about the answer to this next question: what did you do to deserve that blessing, that wall, that order, that protection, that light, this life? These are all gifts, and you have received them in different ways and at different times.

I would suggest that Lent is a time for us to think less about what I do or do not do to somehow deserve the love of God and more about how I choose to respond to the blessings and kindnesses and generosity that I have received.

Are there important questions ahead of us? You bet there are. But today, let us begin our Lenten walk in gratitude for what is and what has been; in thanksgiving for who God is and who God has made us to be; and in hope for the days that are to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.

 

I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.