Deal Gently…

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys.  June 25, we rejoined that narrative and considered the ways that David reacted to the rebellion of his beloved son, Absalom.  The text was from II Samuel 18:1-8 and we also considered John 13:34-35.

 

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

 

Do you remember being in a place or time where you saw something happening that you thought was just terrible, but you felt as though you were powerless to stop it because you were too young, or too recently hired, or too inexperienced, or something similar? Maybe you were playing in a youth ball game and the coach totally belittled a player who’d made an error, and you thought, “When I get to be coach, I’ll never do that!” It could be that you watched your parents relate (or fail to relate) with each other and you made a vow that if you ever got married, things would be different in your house. Or maybe you had just been hired and your supervisor threw you under the bus at the budget meeting, causing you to vow, “When I’m in charge, this will not happen!” Does anyone remember something like that? More to my point, can you think of something you do now, consciously, as a result of such an experience?

“Saul Wishes to Slay Jonathan” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

I’m asking because as we return to our year-long study of King David, I’m pretty sure that the events of this part of the story are framed by David’s experiences as a young man. Perhaps you’ll recall back in October, when we listened to the part of the story that took place prior to David’s installation as king of Israel. He was living with Saul, the acknowledged king, and more than anything, Saul wanted his son, Jonathan, to be king after him. Jonathan and David were best friends – like brothers, really – and while Jonathan could see God’s hand of blessing on David, and the future of a Davidic kingship, Saul was blinded with rage. In fact, not only did Saul repeatedly try to murder David so as to ensure that Jonathan would succeed him, when he thought that Jonathan was helping David he actually tried to kill his own son, too. I can only imagine a young David thinking to himself, “If and when I make it to the throne, I will never, ever treat my son like that…” Those experiences had to have left some vivid scars on David!

“Absalom Leaves David To Start a Conspiracy,” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

The last time we heard from this story, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had been killed by his younger brother, Absalom. Following that, Absalom fled the country and even when he returned after three years, his father wouldn’t speak to him for two more years. David is apparently overwhelmed with depression or lethargy or something, and Absalom decides that he’d really like to be king – even if the office isn’t vacant yet. The prince wins the support of the military and many of the people of Israel, and then declares war on his father. Absalom has the advantage of numbers, perhaps, but David is more experienced and has a much better network and strategy.

II Samuel chapters 15 – 17 describe the lead-up to the battle that everyone knows is coming, and so it seems a little anticlimactic when the entire conflict is summarized in two verses you heard earlier – David and his men put down the rebellion.

What strikes me about today’s reading, however, is the conversation that David has with his key leaders on the eve of the battle. He proposes one strategy, and they make a counter-proposal that he humbly accepts. Then he issues a direct order: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

David has thousands of men assembled to go out and protect him from this son who is trying to kill him… and he says, “Deal gently…” David remembers a father who sought to slay his own son, and he wants no part of this – no matter what Absalom has done. One translator renders this verse as “For my sake, be sure that Absalom comes back unharmed.” (CEV) Let’s unpack this phrase and consider some of its implications for us today.

The first imperative is, of course, “deal”. Absalom has created a huge problem, and that problem has got to be dealt with. David is unwilling to simply roll over and pretend that he’s not king anymore. Absalom has made a serious threat to David and the entire nation, and that has got to be named, taken seriously, and resolved.

But there’s an adverb – a word that is used to express the means by which the imperative is to be carried out. By all means, deal with the situation – but do so gently. Do not be harsh or cruel to the young man…

And the order ends with what the grammarians call a “subordinate clause”. The dealing that needs to be done, and the gentleness in which it is hoped to occur, are to be carried out “for my sake”. Of course, David recognizes that Absalom is dead wrong here. But David hopes that the breach is not beyond repair. “Don’t give Absalom what he deserves”, the king says. “For my sake, treat him better than that…”

So what can we learn from this for our own lives today?

Well, again, let’s start at the top. Deal. You and I encounter a host of issues in our lives every day. Most of them, thankfully, don’t rise to the level of having one of our children try to kill us in cold blood, but each of us faces challenges, slights, wounds, and attacks from others. Many of these are not significant enough to bother with – and you can walk away and let them roll off your back without causing anyone any damage.

But, beloved, you know that there are some attacks, some offenses that have wounded and continue to grieve you. If you pretend otherwise, you are simply allowing an open sore to fester and become infected with resentment and perhaps lead to a greater disaster in the days ahead. After all, David sought to ignore the difficulty with Absalom for years – and found that his son’s resentment grew every day.

Look at your life, look at your situations, and seek to discern what it is that you need to deal with. What is there that is happening to you or around you (or maybe because of you) that cannot be excused or ignored and must, instead, be named and dealt with. If you are being mistreated by a colleague at work, or in an abusive relationship, or otherwise being marginalized or diminished, it may be time for you to come up with a plan to address and improve this situation.

When you see that, make sure that your plan for correction includes humility. Deal – but deal gently. How can you move towards healing and changed relationship in a way that doesn’t do violence to someone else? Not long ago, I had to ask a friend to write a letter to a pastoral colleague in another state. The reason I had to do this was because many years ago, an issue developed between the two of us. I was quick to name the issue, and I spoke truth to the person who was in the wrong. But listen to me, people of God: even though I spoke truth, I did so harshly and clumsily. I wounded my colleague to the extent that she ended our relationship. Because of my arrogance, a friendship was broken unnecessarily.

As you seek to address the situations in your lives with humility and honesty, know that you need to do so for your own sake. Even the boss that is mistreating you, or the spouse who abuses you… if you do not find a way to let go of the pain or resentment, it will become a cancer inside of you that will overwhelm you. You may be 100% correct, and have all the virtues of truth and justice on your side… but if you do not seek to overcome the pain or work through the grief, you will be weighed down forever. Any resentment that you harbor will ferment into toxicity. A few of us were talking not long ago about a quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.” No matter who was at fault, no matter where the blame lay – if you cannot find some way to deal with it, pain and bitterness will eventually consume you.

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

Deal gently…for your own sake. That sounds pretty easy. Six little words. But how do you do that when the problem is as big as an abusive relationship or an addiction that is sucking the life from an entire family? How do you do that when you are filled with shame or depression or fear?

We can take another lesson from David here. In the chapters leading up to our reading from II Samuel, there is an account of the ways that David and Absalom prepared for this clash.

Absalom was hungry for power; he told people what they wanted to hear, and he surrounded himself with those who did the same for him. He made as though he was going to worship the Lord, but he did so only as a ruse – for Absalom, faith, humility, and integrity were foreign concepts. Life was a show, and as long as the spotlight was on Absalom, things were good.

We’ve talked enough about David to know that he, the people of Israel, and anyone else knew that he wasn’t perfect by any stretch. He was deeply flawed; he both gave and received significant pain. Yet on this occasion, David sought to surround himself with people he knew and trusted were committed not only to him, but to the Lord. Some of these people had been with him for years, and he’d trusted them with his life on many occasions – men like Joab and Abishai. But others were newcomers who had impressed him with their faithfulness and wisdom. In fact, the third commander that David entrusted on this day was Ittai, a Philistine man who had only been in town for a couple of days – but David recognized that he had gifts and wisdom that would help the nation. And when these three men heard David’s plan, they helped him to see the flaws in it and he allowed them to re-shape the strategy that wound up allowing his monarchy to survive despite being desperately outnumbered.

Beloved, are you surrounded by trustworthy companions who will help you do what you need to do? Are you humble enough to hear the thoughtful encouragement and good counsel of others? Is there someone in your life who can tell you not just what you want to hear, but the truth?

Moreover, is there someone who will walk with you into the difficult places when you’re not sure you can get there on your own? If you are trapped in an abusive relationship, who will help you be strong enough to leave it? Who loves you enough to not only tell you the truth about the damage that addiction is doing in your family or circle of friends, but to go with you to an AA or Al-Anon meeting? Is there someone who will care enough for you to sit with you in the midst of your depression or anger and then not leave you there all alone?

The story of Absalom’s rebellion does not end well for anyone, really. Absalom is caught up in his own scheming and pride, and eventually Joab runs him through without blinking an eye; David was restored to the palace in Jerusalem, and sought to make peace with those who had rebelled – even issuing a general amnesty. It was a painful time, and we’ll talk more about that in weeks to come. For now, I want to emphasize the fact that each of us have situations in our personal and professional lives that need to be dealt with and addressed with gentleness and humility so that they will not overwhelm the things that God is trying to accomplish in and through us. We seek out good counsel from old and new friends and hope to find a way to live into that which is best.

Jesus showed us how to do this. On the night that he was arrested, he watched his friend Judas get up from the table and embark on his traitorous mission. And then he looked his followers square in the eyes and said, “Listen: the only way we’re going to get anything done is if you love each other the way that I love you. The only way any of this is going to make sense to anyone else is if you can put aside all of your fears and failures and give yourselves fully to each other and to the work I’ve put before you. Love each other.”

At the end of the day, Absalom lay dead and the old king’s heart was nearly broken. David cried out, “Oh Absalom, my son! If only I had died instead of you… my son… my son.” As Frederick Buechner points out, David meant every word of that. “If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”[1]

In David’s love for both his people and his son, we see something of God’s love for us and for our world. Let us learn from that love, and let us share that love in the days we’ve been given. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures:A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 6

How Do You Know You’re In Love?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 10:12-19 and I John 4:7-12.  

 

A couple of months ago I set up the preaching schedule for the year decided to key in on the stories surrounding David, the shepherd who killed Goliath, became the greatest King of Israel, and fell hard for Bathsheba. It seemed wise to me to set aside a couple of breaks from that soap opera and all of its violence, intrigue, and general seaminess.

So we’ll get back to all of that after the first of the year, but for now, we’re going to consider some of the great Advent themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. These seem better suited to our preparation for Christmas than some of that other material; the words themselves conjure up muted pastel shades of nativity paintings, silent nights, and warm candlelight. That’s what we want right now. That’s what we need.

sweetbabooAnd when I knew I’d be away for the first Sunday of Advent, I thought, “When I come back, I’ll take ‘love’.” I mean, I’m coming in from a family vacation, we’ll have been spending time with a community’s wedding celebrations – heck, there’s no better theme for me this week than that of love.

To be honest, it’s not an uncommon topic for me – especially as I am in relationship with young people or others considering attachments of the heart. “Dave, how will I know when I’m in love?” is a question I’ve heard many times. Generally, the information being sought is essentially, “how do I know when I have found the right person?” The question is usually framed in the context of romantic love, accompanied by tenderness, affection, and an overwhelming feeling of bliss or joy.

There’s nothing wrong with romance, but Advent is a good time to remember that romantic love is only a small sliver of the full expression of love in which God’s people may walk.

Advent is a time for love.

In his letter to the earliest believers, the church leader named John says that love is the true mark of every Christian. The old apostle realizes that in many ways, “God” can be an idea, or a construct, or a theory. After all, he says, nobody can see God. Nobody’s met him. How do we know who or what God is?

Well, we can look at what God did. God showed himself by love. God showed the love in which he holds the creation and each of us by sending his son to be present with and for us. In the person of Jesus, says John, we came to understand who and what God is and the love that God bears for us. This kind of love is not a feeling or an emotion – it’s a verb. Love – and God – is a “doing” thing, not just a “thinking” or “feeling” thing.

In his letter, John is building on one of the most important pieces of the only Bible that the first Christians had: the Old Testament. Here, he echoes a passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Most of the earliest Christians would know that the book of Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon, or a collection of sermons, in which Moses speaks to the Israelites about what has come before and what lies ahead of them. He speaks to a community that has been living for generations in slavery and fear as captives in Egypt and yet has been granted the privilege of release and redemption as they journey to the land of the promise; they are increasingly free to follow God’s intentions for themselves and to demonstrate those intentions to others. And the reading that we’ve heard today is essentially a summary of the first 1/3 of Deuteronomy.

Moses pauses in his sermon and he says, “OK, folks, because of all that God has done in us and with us and for us, what is our response to be? What should we do?”

He talks, not surprisingly, about loving and serving God. He reminds his hearers that God moved toward them in love a long time before they were even aware of God. And he offers them a very tender and insightful description of the ways that God has behaved: in verse 15 he says, “Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them…” The words that are used there are fascinating to me. God “set his affection on” them – the Hebrew is chaw-shaq, and it can be translated as “to delight in”, or “to cling to” or even “to join”. And next, God “loved” them; the word is ‘aheb, and can mean “to have affection for”, or “to like”. It carries with it the idea of acting like a friend to the other. There are echoes of tenderness and vulnerability here.

What is happening in this verse, then, is that Moses is describing the love of God in the lives of the Israelites as One who moves toward the other in friendship, affection, and sincerity. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

Given that, says Moses; since this is true… then there are two imperatives for the rest of us.

The first command sounds a little odd in our ears. “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” When we read that, we think, “Well, first of all, that’s kind of gross, and second of all, it’s just impossible.” Physically speaking, that’s true. But let’s consider what the act of circumcision was about for those people. Generations before, in a covenant with Abraham, God had instructed the males of Israel to bear the physical sign of circumcision on their bodies as a reminder of the fact that they were a people who had been called out for service and to bless the rest of the world. This outward sign was, in many ways, a reminder of the fact that they were to be purified to and dedicated to God. It was intended to be an identity-forming act that gave shape and meaning to the lives of the people who were called to serve God.

The danger with any outward sign, of course, is that it can become separated from the inward reality that it’s supposed to signify. Think of the person who steps forward for baptism because he wants to keep his parents happy, but has no real intent to live as a Christ-follower; or maybe the person who puts on a wedding ring to symbolize eternal love and faithfulness but who pockets that ring when traveling out of town on business… We know that it’s possible for the sign to become just a show – a hollow act that does not really reflect the inward reality of one’s heart.

Moses warned against that, and said “don’t let the circumcision be only an outward symbol. Quit insisting on your own way all the time, and don’t be so stubborn. Live into that reality by acting like God does.”

OK, great. So how does God act? He “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing…” To make it crystal clear, Moses goes on to give the second imperative: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

In this context, it’s plain to see that loving the stranger is not a plea to cultivate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but rather a command to turn our hearts, minds, attention, and even our wallets in the direction of those who we perceive to be “other”. Alien. Stranger.

In short, Moses says that because God is God, and because God chose to act in love towards us, the only correct response is to return that love to God and to pass it on to the strangers and neighbors around us.

Which means, I think, that the test of our Christmas spirit is not how many gifts we give or receive; it’s not how elaborate our displays are or how many nativity sets we put out for our friends to see in our home.

The test of Christmas is this: are we engaged in actively displaying the incarnate presence of God on earth right now by living with circumcised hearts and walking in love for the stranger? Are those around us surrounded by love? Do they know that they are “in love” – by which I mean to say, do they sense that there is a palpable reality of care and concern surrounding them? And do they know that it comes through us?

img_5751Look. This is Lucia. She is my granddaughter. I may have mentioned her once or twice or a thousand times. She is the light of my world these days. She melts my heart. News flash: I love her.

aleppoAnd this is Aleppo. It is a place to which I’ve never been, but I understand that it is remote and dangerous right now, surrounded by death and filled with people who would give anything to be anywhere else at this very moment.

pittsburgh-skyline-through-the-trees-on-the-west-end-overlookAnd this is Pittsburgh, the geography in which I am most often to be found, the place where I live and move and shop and vote and play and worship.

If God is expecting me to feel the same way about people in Aleppo or Pittsburgh as I feel about my grand-daughter, well, then, God’s looking for the impossible. I can’t see how that is going to happen. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what God expects or demands.

I believe that the message of Advent is that while I feel crazy in love towards this three year old from Ohio, God is crazy in love towards not only this beautiful child but her dad and her grandfather. And not only that, but towards the people of Pittsburgh and Aleppo. And while I can’t possibly feel all of the feels for all of those people, I am called to show these people, to the best of my ability, the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

maryandjesusAnd I should point out, as obvious as it may be, that while my world may appear to revolve around a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired child living in a stable home in a free country, that’s not how Jesus chose to show up when he came to bring us the fullness of the embodied love of God. Jesus of Nazareth was an impoverished member of a religious and ethnic minority in a culture that was controlled by a militaristic empire. He began his life as a refugee, seeking shelter in a foreign land; an unwanted stranger who most likely could not even speak the language. Which means if my love is enacted only, or even preferentially, towards blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned people, it will more than likely miss the Son of God.

You know the truth: it is definitely God’s will for me to love my little girl. Yet I am a man with an uncircumcised heart and a stubborn will if I only love my granddaughter. My job and your job is simply – and excruciatingly difficultly – this: to show the love of God in Christ to the people whom God loves.

Even the ones who do things I don’t understand.

Even the ones whose practices I find abhorrent.

Even the ones who treat me poorly.

Even the ones who do not accept the love in which I am sent.

The challenge of Advent is NOT to “get ready for Christmas” by sending the right cards and making sure I’ve bought all the right gifts. The challenge of Advent is to make sure that the people who see me have every opportunity to know that they are, right now, in the love of God.

Dorothy Day was a journalist who lived an pretty dissolute lifestyle until she became convinced of the love of God in her own life. She converted to the Christian faith and launched a movement of non-violence and social justice. She wrote,

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child’s life. For they brought gold, the king’s emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe, and he was wounded from head to foot and no one bathed his wounds. The women at the foot of the Cross did it too, making up for the crowd who stood by and sneered.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. [1]

This week, let us go forward and seek to immerse the people to whom God sends us in the love that has been present from the beginning of time. Let us show them the truth of the God we worship by the way that we treat them. And may God have mercy on us and patience with us as we do so. Amen.

[1] On Pilgrimage, Dorothy Day and Peter Day (A & C Black, 1999), p. 35.

Put On Love

The reason for this trip to Chile was, in large part, so that our family might have the joy of sharing in the wedding that our Chilean “daughter”, Elizabeth ‘Mandy’ Arriagada Dölz was celebrating with her beloved, Matias Carrasco Mella.  They further honored me by asking me to share in the preaching of this event.  I thought that readers of this blog might enjoy the message preached in both English and Spanish, as well as a few photos of that event.

Put On Love

On the Occasion of the Marriage of Mandy and Matias

26 November 2016

Santiago, Chile

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14)

 

In 2010, our family had the opportunity to make our first visit to Chile. We were so excited to come to see Mandy’s family and community! There were tickets to be bought, clothes to pack, and activities to plan. One thing you should know about my family is that my wife is the “planner”. She makes lists, and usually, our daughter, Ariel, and I do them. So she made a packing list for our trip, and made us promise to bring everything on the list.

One of the items on the list for this trip, which included not only Chile, but some of the rain forests of Peru, was a hat. “Bring a hat that will keep the sun out of your eyes and the rain off your head,” she said.

This is a classic hat.

This is a classic hat.

So I brought a hat. It’s a great hat. I love this hat. It was a gift from some friends in Africa.

And, as you can see, it does the job. It will keep away the rain and the sun just fine.

Except that when we arrived at Mandy’s family’s home, when I unpacked, she said, “What’s that?????”

“It’s my hat.”

“You can’t wear that! It’s not a good hat!”

“It’s a great hat! It does everything a hat should do!”

But she wouldn’t budge. She told Mandy to take me out and help me find a new, better, hat for our trip.

Mandy took us to the market, and I saw all kinds of caps. So many different styles and shapes and sizes.

img_2732

This is a markedly better hat!

And then I saw this hat. And I liked it. And when I looked at my daughter and at Mandy, they said, “Oh, Dave, you look like Indiana Jones!”

Now know this: I like Indiana Jones. I think he’s smart and brave and creative… But the hat was more expensive than any other hat. So I said, “no… it’s too much.”

And they said I should buy it, but I didn’t because of the cost. And Mandy looked at me and she said, “Listen, Dave: being Indiana Jones isn’t cheap, you know…” And Mandy bought me this hat.

And I LOVE this hat. I wear it a lot. It’s been to Chile, Peru, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Korea, New Zealand, Malawi, South Africa, South Sudan… It’s been all over the world. And when I wear it – even to cut my grass – I feel a little bit smarter, braver, and more creative. The hat helps me to feel, well, a little more like Indiana Jones.

I’m telling you that story, not so much because I want you to know why I wear my hats, but because you know what it means to put on a piece of clothing and be changed a little bit. When you are getting ready to watch a big football match, you wear the jersey for your favorite team. Why? Because it helps you to cheer for them; it helps you to connect with them in some way.

Similarly, when we get ready for church, we often put on special clothes. The priest or pastor wears a number of symbols to remind him and us that we’re in a different place, and many worshipers get dressed in their best clothes to worship.

And look at today: Mandy is wearing a “wedding dress” – a special uniform that says a lot about who she is and who she hopes to be. Mandy and Matias will be wearing rings for the rest of their lives – little bits of gold or silver that don’t really DO anything… but they remind them, and us, and everyone else that they are people who make promises.

When the Apostle Paul was writing to his friends in Colossae, he told them to pay attention to the things that they were wearing. In fact, he asked them to wear compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience – like an outfit. Put those things on as you walk around, he said, and sooner or later you’ll find that just like me wearing the hat makes me feel like Indiana Jones, wearing those things helps us to act like Jesus.

At the end of the day, Paul said, “Put on love.” Make love your garment. Seek to do right by the people around you, and love them.

That’s what we want you to do, Mandy and Matias. You’ve been together for a long time. You’ve known for a long time that this is what you’ve wanted – but for whatever reason, it’s taken you seven years (?) to do it. I know, Mandy, you thought I was taking a long time to pick out a hat back in 2010, but this is longer. A lot longer. So let me tell you: being married isn’t cheap. You may have been smart to give it so much thought and planning. Nobody should just jump into a decision like that.

But now that you ARE married, let me encourage you to wear these things. Sometimes when we get something new we wear it for a little bit and then we come home and stuff it in the closet. Don’t do that with your promises and your hopes and your dreams. Put on love. Wear these promises. Wherever your marriage takes you, seek to act, every day, in grace and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience with each other.

I’m here to tell you that you won’t always LIKE your spouse. And she or he won’t always be right. And she or he won’t always be wrong. Those are the times when you need to be especially careful to put on the love that you’ve had for so long. To wear it. And to allow it to change your hearts so that you both continue to grow closer to each other and to the Lord.

Put on love, my friends. It’s not cheap. But it’s worth it. All day, every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Some of the congregation in attendance...

Some of the congregation in attendance…

The Deacon invited me to share in the blessing of the couple.

The Deacon invited me to share in the blessing of the couple.

As the marriage was declared.

As the marriage was declared.

Vístanse de amor

Por lo tanto, como escogidos de Dios, bendecidos y amados, envuélvanse de afecto entrañable y de bondad, humildad, amabilidad y paciencia, de modo que se toleren el uno al otro y se perdonen si alguno tiene queja contra otro. Así como el Señor los perdonó, perdónense también ustedes. Por encima de todo, vístanse de amor, que es el vínculo perfecto. (Colosenses 3:12-14)

En el año 2010, nuestra familia tuvo la oportunidad de realizar nuestra primera visita a Chile. Estábamos muy emocionado por conocer a la familia de Mandy y sus cercanos!. Pasajes que comprar , ropa que empacar y actividades a planificar. Algo que necesitan saber de mi familia es que mi esposa es la “planificadora”. Ella realiza una lista para nuestro viaje y nos hace prometer que llevaremos todo lo que dice la lista.

Uno de los puntos de la lista para este viaje, que no solo incluye para Chile , sino que para las selvas tropicales de perú, fue un sombrero. “Lleva un sombrero que aleje al sol de tus ojos y la lluvia de tu cabeza”, dijo Sharon.

Por lo tanto traje un sombrero: es un asombroso sombrero, amo este sombrero. Fue un regalo de algunos amigos de Africa y como uds. pueden ver, hace su trabajo. Me aleja de la lluvia y del sol muy bien.

Excepto que cuando llegamos a la casa de Mandy y desempaqué, ella dijo: “¿Qué es eso??!!”

“Es mi sombrero”, contesté.
“No puedes usar eso!!, no es un buen sombrero!!!”..
“Es un muy buen sombrero !! Hace todo lo que un sombrero tiene que hacer !! ”

Pero ella no se rendiría , Ella le dijo a Mandy que me llevara a encontrar uno nuevo y mejor para nuestro viaje.

Mandy nos llevó al feria donde vi una gran variedad de gorros. Tantos estilos, formas y tamaños distintos.

Entonces vi este sombrero y me encantó. Al mirar a mi hija y a Mandy, ellas dijeron: Oh, Dave, te pareces a Indiana Jones!!!

Sepan uds. que me encanta Indiana Jones. Pienso que es inteligente y valiente así como ingenioso… Pero el sombrero era mucho más caro que cualquier otro sombrero. Por lo que dije “no… es demasiado caro”

Luego me dijeron que debería comprarlo, aunque no lo hice por el alto costo. Mandy me miró y exclamó: “Mira Dave, ser Indiana Jones no es barato, ya tú sabes…”, y ella me lo compró.

Pues adoro este sombrero. Lo uso mucho. Ha estado en Chile, Perú, Israel, Jordania, Egipto, Corea, Nueva Zelanda, Malawi, Africa de Sur, Sudán… Estuvo alrededor de todo el mundo. Y cuando lo uso -incluso para cortar el pasto- me siento un poco más inteligente, valiente e ingenioso. El sombrero me ayuda a sentirme…bueno…un poco más como Indiana Jones.

Les cuento esta anécdota, no para que sepan por qué llevo mi sombrero, sino para que sepan lo que significa colocarse una prenda de ropa y transformarse un poco. Por ejemplo, cuando están preparándose para ver un gran partido de fútbol, uds. usan la camiseta de su equipo favorito. ¿Por qué? Porque ayuda a alentarlos; los conecta con ellos de alguna manera.

Igual que cuando nos preparamos para ir a la iglesia, generalmente nos colocamos una tenida especial. El cura o pastor lleva varios símbolos que nos recuerda que nos encontramos en un lugar distinto y muchos de los adoradores se arreglan con sus mejores tenidas para rendir culto.

Y miren hoy: Mandy está usando un “vestido de novia” – un uniforme especial que dice mucho de quién es ella y quién espera ser. Mandy y Matías llevarán unos anillos por el resto de sus vidas – un poco de oro o de plata no hace mucho en realidad… Pero les recuerda, y a nosotros también, así como a todos que son personas comprometidas.

Cuando el apóstol Paul, les escribió a sus amigos en Collossae, les dijo que pusieran atención en lo que estaban usando. De hecho, les pidió que llevaran compasión, amabilidad, humildad, gentileza y paciencia- como una prenda. Dijo: colóquense estos cosas como en cualquier ocasión, y tarde o temprano, encontrarán que – tal como yo con el sombrero me siento igual a Indiana Jones- al llevarlas puestas nos ayuda a actuar como Jesús.

Al final del día, Paul dijo: vístanse de amor. Hagan del amor su prenda. Hagan lo correcto con las personas a su alrededor y ámenlos.

Esto es lo que queremos que hagan, Mandy y Matías. Llevan mucho tiempo juntos. Han sabido por mucho tiempo que esto es lo que querían – pero cual sea la razón, les ha tomado siete año (?) hacerlo. Mandy, sé que pensaste que me demoré mucho rato para elegir un nuevo sombrero en el 2010, pero esto es mucho más. Entonces déjame decirte que estar casado no es barato. Seguramente has sido muy minuciosa en pensarlo y planificarlo. Nadie debería simplemente saltar en una decisión como ésta.

Sin embargo, ahora que ESTÁS casada, déjame alentarte a llevar estas cosas. A veces cuando obtenemos algo nuevo lo usamos un rato y luego volvemos a casa y lo guardamos en el clóset. No hagas eso con tus compromisos, tus esperanzas y tus sueños. vístanse de amor. Usen estos compromisos. Donde sea que su matrimonio los lleve, actúen cada día, en gracia, con bondad, humildad, gentileza y paciencia el uno con el otro.

Estoy aquí para contarles que no siempre te agradará tu esposo/a. Y ella o él no tendrá siempre la razón. Y ella o él no siempre estará equivocado. Esos son tiempos en los que deben tener cuidado en vestirse con el amor que han llevado por tanto tiempo. Llévenlo puesto. Y permítanle que cambie sus corazones para que ambos continúen creciendo para acercarse el uno al otro así como al Señor.

Vístanse de amor, mis amigos. No es barato, Pero vale la pena. Todo el día, todos los días. Gracias a Dios. Amén.

I am not the only one who thinks that's a snappy hat!

I am not the only one who thinks that’s a snappy hat!

Mr. & Mrs.!!!!

Mr. & Mrs.!!!!

Instead of place cards at the tables, the crowd was called out to stand for a photo with the couple, then ushered to their seats.

Instead of place cards at the tables, the crowd was called out to stand for a photo with the couple, then ushered to their seats.

The wedding ceremony started at 9 p.m. We arrived at the reception venue just prior to 11 p.m., and the party lasted until 5 a.m. Lucia made it until about 3 a.m.

The wedding ceremony started at 9 p.m. We arrived at the reception venue just prior to 11 p.m., and the party lasted until 5 a.m. Lucia made it until about 3 a.m.

But…But…But…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 22 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to the treatment of  “the enemy” as found in Matthew 5:38-48. In addition, we considered one of God’s commands to the Israelites as found in Leviticus 11:44-45.

It has been a hard, hard month for this planet. An African poet named Warsan Shire has expressed it this way in her work titled “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

 

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

worldterrorIn case you’ve been under a rock, I’m talking about the terror attacks in France, Lebanon, Kenya, Mali, and a dozen other places. I’m talking about the millions of people who are running for their lives, seeking refuge in other towns, cities, or countries. I’m talking about the ways that we have engaged in fear-mongering and name-calling and race-baiting and other such mutually-destructive tactics.

We have not seen humanity at its finest…

And yet here we are, doing what we’ve done for the last couple of thousand years… we come into a room, and we sing a few songs, and we take a look at some ancient texts, and we ask where God is now… we ask what Jesus might have to say, if anything, about a world like ours in times like these.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012 Used by permission of the artist.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012
Used by permission of the artist.

And coincidentally, we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, a message that has been hailed as one of the greatest expressions of ethical living in difficult times. In each of the last four readings, we’ve heard Jesus compare teaching of old with a new ethic. He has lifted up topics like anger, sexuality, marriage, and honesty and led his followers through a series of reflections contrasting the “things that everybody knows” with a glimpse of God’s intentions for his people. And, as you’ve already heard, today we consider the last two of those comparisons, each of which deals with how we treat the enemy.

As we begin to look at these texts, it’s important to note that for Jesus, the enemy is the one who seeks to harm us. You will find nothing in the Sermon about the people whom we seek to harm, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus leaves no room to even consider whether His followers have any basis for wishing harm to someone else.

In the New Testament our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility, for Jesus refuses to reckon with such a possibility. The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother…His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus…[1]

That’s a lot to consider, and I’d invite you to think about that the next time you hear someone claim that, as a “Christian Nation”, the USA is morally bound to “bomb those people back into the stone age”. Jesus, it would appear, does not seem to allow for the possibility of my working for your annihilation.

Quite the opposite, in fact, Jesus offers a series of behaviors emphasizing non-resistance. He calls for us to forgo the temptation for revenge and instead to offer what we have – our coats, our energy, our money – to those who ask. And then he proceeds to flesh that out with a series of imperatives that end Matthew 5.

Now, listen to me: we call ourselves Christian. We claim to follow Jesus. We say we want to be his disciples – that we want to be like him. And if there is any place in our lives where we all walk into a room saying those things, and then hear the Gospel, and then say, “Um, nope. Not gonna do that, Jesus”, well, it’s this place. This could be one of the most unreasonable things that Jesus ever said, and frankly, we don’t want to hear it. And so we look at the text and say things like, “I wonder what Jesus really meant? After all, he couldn’t have wanted us to take that literally, could he?”

I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at three specific words in our text in the hopes that we can understand what, in fact, Jesus meant in saying what he said that day.

By the time we get halfway through verse 43 in the Revised Standard Version, Jesus has used 997 words to convey what a disciple’s life ought to look like. One word that he has not chosen to use, at least until we get to 998, is “love”. In Greek, it’s agape. For the first time in Jesus’ primary treatment of ethical living, he tells his followers to love.

Love who? Kind-hearted older people? Adorable grandchildren? Cuddly puppies?

Nope. The first imperative to love in the Sermon on the Mount is directed towards the enemy – the one who wishes you harm.

But how can I love that person, who has sought to destroy me? How can I love this one, who has brought so much pain and death? I’m just not feeling it, Jesus!

Fortunately for us, the kind of love to which Jesus calls us is not based on feeling. Agape means that we act for the welfare of another. It is not a feeling, but rather a pattern of behavior that recognizes the humanity of each person and that moves towards justice and mercy. Jesus isn’t asking me to feel all warm and fuzzy toward you or anyone else; he is directing me to treat everyone – especially the one who seeks to harm me – the way that he has treated me.

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

In my last message I mentioned Corrie Ten Boom, whose family harbored Jews in the Second World War. They were eventually caught, and sent to the concentration camp called Ravensbrück, where she watched her sister die. Two years after the war ended, Corrie was invited to preach in a Munich church. She writes of a man who approached her afterward and stuck out his hand in greeting. She recognized him immediately, but it plain that he had no recollection of their ever having met:

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there…But since that time… I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.

Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.[2]

Corrie Ten Boom knew, far better than I ever will, I suspect, that forgiveness is a posture and a behavior that is rooted in love that comes, not from doing what I feel like doing, but from treating the other as God has treated me.

The second word that leaps out at me from this part of the text is one translated in verse 47 as “more”: “if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

The Sermon on the Mount is a contrast on the ways that followers of Jesus are called to do “more” – in Greek, perisson, whereas the rest of the world does what Jesus dismisses as “the same”.

The world would be happy to live by the old “eye for an eye” rule, where if you push, I push back, and if you hit, I hit harder. But here Jesus states explicitly that his disciples are bound by a higher calling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

…the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the perisson. It is this quality which first enables us to see the natural in its true light. Where [the perisson] is lacking, the peculiar graces of Christianity are absent. The perisson never merges into [the same]. That was the fatal mistake of the false Protestant ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness…Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak. For him the hallmark of the Christian is “the extraordinary”.[3]

Do you see? It is in striving for the perisson – the extraordinary treatment of the other – that we participate in the Divine nature. It is in treating others with love that we become more like the One who made us in love.

Which leads me to the third word I’d like to consider this day: Jesus’ call to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holy smokes, if Jesus is expecting moral perfection from me, then he’s got another thing coming. Is this another instance where Jesus is holding out an impossible ideal? Nobody is perfect, right? How can he even ask that?

The word that we have here is teleioi, and it does mean “perfect” – but perfect in the sense that “it’s all done – it’s complete – it needs no further refinement or change.” In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out as he breathed his last, “tetelestai”, which we have translated as “It is finished”, and which comes from the same root as teleioi.

If you were to attend a session of Congress, or some other body where Parliamentary Procedure is observed, you might hear someone make a motion. Then, someone else might move to amend that motion. What happens next is that the motion is “perfected”. That doesn’t mean that it’s the greatest motion in the history of motions: it means that the people talking about the motion are getting it to say what they really need it to say. They are “perfecting” it in the sense that they are giving it the direction and integrity it needs.

SermonOnTheMountIn this last teaching in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to be people who have been perfected: people of integrity and wholeness. We cannot be perfect if we desire that only some hungry children are fed, or only some torture stops, or only some homeless find shelter. That kind of thinking is “the same” – it’s what got us where we are.

Jesus invites us to imitate, not the world, but the Father. Leviticus calls us to “be holy, as I am holy”. That is, to refuse to walk by what we can see right now, and to hold on to a higher righteousness. The Hebrew slaves could have given into the temptation to become just as evil as the Pharaoh had been to them, but instead they are called to a lifestyle of integrity, completeness, and dedication.

I don’t know how I’d feel if my sister had been murdered in the concentration camp, or if it was my child’s body that washed up on a foreign beach after we were forced to flee our home, or if I had to live in a city where bombs rained death from the sky. I don’t know how I’d feel. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to listen to Jesus or anyone else talking about love for the enemy, or the “extraordinary”, or being perfect.

But I hope that I know enough about Jesus to be able to extend love to the people that I can today; I hope that my walk with the Lord thus far has equipped me to pray and to do “the extraordinary” that love requires, even when it involves those who would wish me ill. I hope I can remember that fear is of the devil, and fear-mongering is deceitful.

I hope that in days like these, I am able to act with integrity and completeness, in enacted love, as God in Christ has acted toward me.

This has been a hard, hard, month for the planet. As followers of Jesus, are we making things better for those who suffer the most? May God be merciful to us as we seek to follow in his steps. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (MacMillan paperback 1963), p. 164.

[2] Guideposts Magazine, November 1972. Found online at https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1

[3] The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 169-170.

The LBJ Principle

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

On August 10, 2014 our readings came from Matthew 10:1-31

Think, for a moment, about your passion. What do you love – I mean, really love? Running? Cooking? Sports? Do you remember the day that you fell in love with that hobby?

A Malachite Kingfisher

A Malachite Kingfisher

In 1998 I was traveling through Machinga, Malawi, in Central Africa. My friend, Pastor Mnensa, and I were on our way to the Chikhale CCAP, and were crossing a little “bridge” about 20 kilometers from the nearest paved road. As we came near to the bridge, Ralph began to tell me about a wonderful little bird he had seen near that stream on an earlier trip. We stopped and waited for a moment, and I was delighted to see a Malachite Kingfisher – the most beautiful bird I think I’ve ever seen.

Later that same year, I was sitting in my friend Dirk’s living room in Pretoria, South Africa, and I noticed all the birds that were flocking to his feeder. Of course, to my mind, they were all exotic. I was in Africa, after all. I said something to the effect of, “I can’t believe you have so many cool birds here. If we had nice looking birds in America, I might start watching them there. But all we have are boring birds.”

Fortunately for me, and perhaps unfortunately for anyone who gets stuck in a conversation with me, I have since discovered that we have some amazing birds in the 412 and across our continent.

House Sparrows

House Sparrows

However, at the time, I was thinking about all of the LBJ’s that flock to my feeder every day. An “LBJ” is a “little brown job” – one of those small, undistinguished creatures with dull plumage that seem to be everywhere. There are at least 35 species of sparrow in North America, and by and large, they are (at least from a distance) LBJ’s.

I know, I’m committing some sort of ornithological heresy by saying this, but I don’t see the excitement in watching a flock of a hundred small brown birds looking for the one with a different color eye stripe or bill color. Once in Texas, I talked with a man who had followed a flock of sparrows around the wildlife refuge for an hour because he thought that in and amongst the House Sparrows there was, in fact, a Lincoln’s Sparrow. And there was. And it’s hard for me to envision a scenario whereby that photo would be worth an hour of my time, but…

A Lincoln's Sparrow.  I know - this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

A Lincoln’s Sparrow. I know – this is sooooo much better than a House Sparrow, right?

The House Sparrow is a much-despised bird, even among serious birders. There are articles that talk about how to create an environment in your backyard that discourages these LBJs from crowding out the feeder. There are about 150 million of these birds in the United States, and not many people like them.

In fact, in the late 1800’s there was a movement called the “Great English Sparrow War”, wherein this bird was called a foreign invader who was lazy, immoral, and harmful to native songbirds as it stole their food and habitat.

Publicity poster for Mao's "Four Pests" campaign.

Publicity poster for Mao’s “Four Pests” campaign.

Half a world away, a couple of generations later, Chairman Mao named the English Sparrow as one of the four pests that had to be eradicated from China for the country to succeed – again, calling it an immoral and lazy bird who stole food from the native inhabitants. For hundreds of years, people have spent a good bit of energy hating the sparrow.

And yet Jesus says that God actually cares about the sparrows. Billions of sparrows in the world, living, breeding, dying, hatching…and God actually cares for them. God knows what is going on in their lives, if we can trust Jesus on this one.

God gave me one child. I love Ariel, and now her daughter, Lucia, with my entire being. I am not exaggerating when I say I love them more than life. Sometimes I look at my friends with 2, 3, 4, or more children and I say, “How do you do that?” Not so much, “how do you manage to get everyone to school on time, or in dance classes or little league or those activities?”, but “I know how fiercely I love my one child. How do you love that many children as much as I love mine? Isn’t it exhausting?”

Loving people wears you out, doesn’t it? It’s nerve-wracking and annoying – you worry about people making bad decisions and getting caught up in someone else’s bad decisions and…

I am a hover-er. Ask any of the kids in the youth group, and I bet they will tell you, “I know that Pastor Dave loves me, but he sure asks a lot of questions. And he hugs me a lot.” At this moment, I am as drained and spent as I have ever been because of the ways that I have tried to love the kids from this community who have served on a Mission Team for the past week. I would walk across broken glass for them, but I am beat.

But as noble as all that is, I am not that good at loving and caring, at least compared to God. My world is so full…and my head hurts and my heart aches and sometimes I just throw up my hands and sigh.

And yet there is something in the divine nature that loves and treasures even the House Sparrow. These little creatures, which Matthew tells us are sold two for a penny, are noticed and valued by God. When Luke gets around to this part of the story, we see that he must be shopping at Walmart, because he finds them five for two pennies.

They are as close to worthless as they can be. And God cares for them.

What does this mean? It means that in the divine economy, there are no Little Brown Jobs. God refuses to look at some part of the creation and say, “Oh, that? Meh. It’s not my best work. I’ve done better.” God knows, values, and cares for everything in creation.

By extension, therefore, it would seem as though I, made in the image of God, am called to a similar level of attentiveness and care. I am not free to disregard or despise that for which God cares.

Which leads me to some thoughts about the current crisis on our nation’s southern border…or the educational system in our inner cities…or the famine in South Sudan…or the warfare in Israel and Palestine.

It seems to me that so much of what is truly evil in all of those places comes from the way in which one group of people looks at another group of people and says, “Them? Meh. They’re nothing special. Just some little brown jobs. Don’t bother with them. You can’t do anything. They’re lazy, and immoral. They don’t belong in our world. You’re best off trying to find a way to get rid of them.”

Beloved, this is the truth: that kind of reasoning is more prevalent than we admit, and that kind of thinking will kill not only “them”, but “us” as it removes their humanity and tarnishes the image of God in us.

BOrderChildrenSince October of last year, more than 63,000 children have been caught crossing the border alone. Many of these children have run right to the Border Patrol officers. These children tell stories about being sent on this harrowing journey by their parents who have said, “Look, this is the best choice we have right now. Sending my seven year old daughter, by herself, through Mexico and into the USA is the best way I can think of to protect her from sexual predation or murder.” These are parents who love their children as much as I love Ariel.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. How bad must your range of options be if that is the best idea that presents itself? If you would like to explore this a little further, watch the movie Sin Nombre some time. It is harrowing and disturbing.

But back to these 63,000 children. Look, I’m not sure what we are supposed to do with them as a matter of national policy. I don’t know enough about immigration law and the situations in their own countries to be able to pretend that I have a great idea as to how to “solve” this crisis.

But I’m not preaching a sermon because I want to sell you my ideas about solving the crisis. I’m preaching this sermon because I am sure that we are not free to disregard or despise those children. You don’t have to agree with me or anyone else as to which policy is most effective at stemming the tide of children who fear for their lives. But I’m pretty sure that the gospel forbids the church of Jesus Christ from looking at any child of any ethnicity and saying, “Oh, for crying out loud. What are we going to do with all of these stinking LBJ’s?”

This is what I realized last week: I cannot think of a single one of my friends who, if they went down to get their morning paper and found a naked, cold, nine-year old who appeared to have been violated in some horrific way, would turn that child away. I know rich and poor people of all ethnicities. I know liberals and conservatives, crunchy-cons and libertarians, socialists and anarchists. But I cannot think of a single friend of mine who would look at a child like that and say, “Tough luck, kiddo. I think you’re on your own,” and then take the paper and go indoors.

I don’t know any of my friends who would shoot a neighbor for being in the wrong place.

But many of us are content to look at situations on the border or in the Middle East or somewhere in the world and say, “You know what? Let’s get rid of them all. They bother me.”

We wouldn’t say that. But we employ institutions to say that for us. We are fundamentally good people who are kind and generous who find ourselves asking the government or someone else to be ruthless on our behalf. There is an inconsistency in that which threatens our ability to live faithfully.[1]

Jesus says that not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Not one escapes his notice.

Debbie Blue says this in Consider the Birds:

Can you love songbirds and still be compassionate to the house sparrow? Can you have an incisive critique without a hardening of the heart? Maybe it’s tricky, not completely easy, a little complex, but we of all species are especially equipped to handle a little complexity.

The house sparrow is not necessarily dull and uninteresting. In Australia, they’ve learned to open automatic doors. Some hover in front of the electric eye until the door opens. Others…sit atop the electric eye and lean forward until they trip the sensor…

Our hearts beat seventy times a minute; the house sparrow’s beats eight hundred. At rest, we breath about eighteen times a minute; a sparrow, ninety times. I like thinking of them breathing so fast – all this breathing out in the world, all this heartbeating.

Love your neighbor. It’s the most brilliant instruction. It’s wise and wonderful and something we need.[2]

Complexity is difficult, but we can handle complexity. I have to admit, I don’t know how to make love the cornerstone of our social policy. I am not sure what the best way to care for these children is. But I do not want to live in a nation where indifference or vindictiveness is the rationale around which we set up our systems and institutions. I don’t know how to help those children or our Border Patrol or anyone affected by this. I don’t know.

But I don’t want to not help. So I guess I’ve got some learning to do.

Consider the sparrow. There are no LBJ’s in the Kingdom.

Consider your neighbor.

Love – even when it wears you out.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

A Savannah Sparrow, whose song, heart, and breath matter to God.

[1] South African theologian Peter Storey has said, “American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion and caring of most American -people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good -people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among -people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.” (this was in an “Open Letter” to the people of the United States, written not long after September 11, 2001)

[2] Consider the Birds (Abingdon 2013), pp. 147-148.

The World is (Hazel) Nuts!

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The message for July 21 centered on Julian of Norwich and her message of peace and love in a time of fear and uncertainty.  The scriptures for the day included Isaiah 43:1-7 and I John 4:1-6, 13-18

On the evening of May 13, 1373 a thirty-year-old woman lay dying in the village of Norwich, England.  That this was occurring would have caused no significant alarm amongst her neighbors… in the span of a few years, three-quarters of the population of that region had died, mostly because of the plague we know as the Black Death.  This woman had already lost her husband and at least one child.

The Christ crucified of Cardinal Baronius, Tiberio Calcagni,  c,1564

The Christ crucified of Cardinal Baronius, Tiberio Calcagni, c,1564

As she lay on a bed in her mother’s home, the parish priest was called in and gave her the last rites.  Her breath was ragged, but other than that, there was no sense in which she was responsive or even alive.  As he prepared to leave, the clergyman held a crucifix before her and commanded, “Daughter, I have brought the image of thy savior.  Look upon it and comfort thyself.”  People in the room were startled when she focused her eyes on the cross and would not look away.

The priest left, and the cross remained, and the young woman spent hours gazing at the image of the crucified Lord.  All night long, she lay there.  In the morning, her mother could no longer hear her breathing and supposed that she had died.  She put her hands in front of the woman’s face to close the eyes, and when she could no longer see the cross, the young woman started awake – and realized that she had seen a vision of Christ.

In the next few days, she regained herself, and in the following years, these visions, rather than fading from her memory, grew stronger.  She spoke, guardedly, about them – first with a spiritual advisor, a Friar who followed in the way of Francis of Assisi (about whom we heard last week), and then with a small group of trusted women with whom she would study and pray for more than two decades.

Eventually, this woman became what is known as an “Anchoress” .  An anchorite (male or female) was a person who chose to live alone (like a hermit) and had not taken religious vows (like a priest or a nun).  The key difference between an anchorite and a hermit is that hermits would go off to the desert or somewhere else to be alone, and anchorites chose to live in confined quarters in the midst of populated areas. Typically, an anchoress’ cell would be built in the wall of the local church, and it was a room with three windows.  One window, called a “squint”, looked into the church so that the occupant could participate in worship and receive the sacrament.  Another was used to allow an assistant to bring food and drink and to remove refuse.  And a third usually opened onto a porch, where people could come and seek counsel from the anchoress.

Julian of NorwichThis woman is known as Julian of Norwich.  That might be because her name really was Julian, or it might be because the church where she eventually lived for many years was called St. Julian and Edward’s.  At any rate, Julian had a profound influence in her community.  She chose to anchor herself in the midst of town, and challenged people to grow in their own faith.  In that age, one was either “a religious” or one was not.  The “religious” were the ones who joined a monastery or a convent or were in some way or another “professional” Christians.  Everyone else was encouraged to think about God as little as possible, because they’d probably screw it up somehow.  Julian, however, called her neighbors “even Christians”, and taught them to grow deeper into God’s purposes for their lives.

During this time as an anchoress, Julian recorded her visions in a book which has come to be known as The Revelations of Divine Love.  It is believed to be the first book ever to be written in English by a woman.

As she lay dying on that day in 1373, Julian’s mind had been focused on one primary issue: the problem of sin.  How could God allow sin to go on for so long?  She said that she spoke to Christ on the cross, saying, “Why did you not prevent sin from occurring?  If there had been no sin, all would be well.”  The answer she received in her vision was, “It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

In this series of visions, Julian came to see that the power of God is primarily the power of love.  Now, I hope that you are not too surprised to hear that, but you need to know that in her day and age, that was astounding and unusual.  If you were to go into a typical church in the 14th century, you’d see the walls and ceilings covered with images of judgment and hell. Every time Christians came to worship, they were reminded that God is really, really angry about the fact that people sin, and that this God sends terror, disease, and warfare to punish people for their sin.  And when they succumb to disease or war, then they go into purgatory or worse, everlasting damnation, because God is so mad at us.

In Julian’s life, her village suffered three bouts of the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Revolt and the Great Schism…and they had been taught, by the church, that these things were all punishments sent to them by an angry God. And yet, in the midst of these cataclysmic and terrifying events, Julian came to see that God’s intention, in a single word, was ‘love’.

And one might be tempted to say, “Well, sure, it would be easy for her to say that, locked away from the ‘real world’ in an anchorage, with people waiting on you…”

Except for the fact that the very church in which she was locked away was a part of the culture of fear that was shaping the world at that time.  The Bishop under whom she served would regularly behead those people in the Diocese who were caught using the English language to speak about spiritual matters.  Those who possessed English-language bibles were burnt at the stake as heretics.

And yet this brave woman wrote a book for her “even Christians” in the common English language of her day in the hopes that they might come to see and believe that God intends each of us to grow to be like God.  As she wrote, “faith is nothing else but a right understanding and trust of our being, that we are in God and God, whom we do not see, is in us.”[1] I would suspect that it might be a lot more difficult to burn someone at the stake if I thought that there was a chance that God might be in them…

Beloved, listen to this…if the powers that be in the 14th century found that simple message of hope and trust to be threatening, how much more will they oppose it today?

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

We live in a culture that is driven by fear of the other.  Someone – one of those people­ – is coming for you.  One of those people is going to take your guns, or your job, or take money.  This would be a great country if it wasn’t for them – the welfare cheats or the Republicans or the lobbyists or the gays or the religious fundamentalists.  If it wasn’t for people like the Muslims or the pro-lifers, we’d be all right.

We are afraid of aging.  Afraid of dying.  Afraid of being unpopular, or fat, or smelly, or weird.

How much of what we do is motivated by fear of one kind or another?

To use a very contemporary example, how would our world be different if people like George Zimmerman offered people like Trayvon Martin a ride?  How would our world be different if people like Trayvon Martin felt free to walk toward someone like me and say, “Hi, my name is Trayvon…”?  How different would our world be if people didn’t feel the need to clutch their purses in the elevators, or lock their doors while driving past certain groups on the sidewalk, or avoid eye contact with someone of another race, gender, or ethnicity?

What would happen if we confronted our fears and decided that they would not rule over us?

From the Anchoress' cell at St. Julian's Church, Norwich

From the Anchoress’ cell at St. Julian’s Church, Norwich

Listen to what Julian wrote:  “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love… He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’”

Isn’t that the same message that Isaiah had put out thousands of years previous?  He did not say that God would be with us “if” the floods, or the fire, or the difficulty came.  The prophet assures us that “when” these things happen, we can know the heart of God.

We do not have to act as though the thing that we fear is more powerful than the life we’ve been given.

“Ahhh, Dave, now you’re just being too idealistic.  Maybe you’ve been in your anchorage too long.  This world is a nutty place, Dave.”

Julian saw that, too.  During one of her visions, the Lord asked her to hold something small – it seemed to her to be the size of a hazelnut.  As she turned the tiny delicate object over in her hands, she asked what it was, and learned that it was the entire universe.Julian-of-Norwich-hazelnut

I looked at the hazel nut with the eye of my understanding and thought, what can this be? I was amazed that it could last for I thought that because of its littleness it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding. It lasts and always will, because God loves it, and thus everything has being through the love of God.  In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.

What if – humor me for a moment – what if that could possibly be true?  What if God’s love is the strongest force in the universe?  What if God is crazy about you and about the other?  What if all shall be well and all shall be well and every manner of thing shall be well?  What if a small group of committed Christians in the 21st century decided to anchor themselves in a community and then to live as though God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us?

Julian saw this – in the midst of a world filled with war, disease, persecution, danger, and, most importantly, with fear.  Can we?

Can we fix our eyes on the cross and ask God for a vision of love and peace and security that rests not so much on protection from them or those people, but more on God’s commitment to the Creation?  Can we ask God for a vision like that?  And if we can, can we ask God for the courage to live it out in our own century?

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…”  Great God, shape us, your people, to live in that perfect and fearless love.  Amen.


[1] Quoted in Amy Frykholm, Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press, 2010)

Each week, I try to have a one-page handout with some information about the subject of the morning’s message.  Here is the information I shared on July 21, 2013

Faces at the Reunion: Julian of Norwich (1181-1226)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Julian was 30 years old when she received a series of powerful visions.  These came to her whilst she was so profoundly ill that she’d been given the last rites.  She recovered, and over the next four decades would reflect on these visions and eventually record them for the encouragement of the church.  Her book, The Revelations of Divine Love (or The Showings) is widely regarded as the first book to be written in English by a woman.

From The Revelations of Divine Love

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second, that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness. We need to have knowledge of this, so that we may delight in despising as nothing everything created, so as to love and have uncreated God. For this is the reason why our hearts and souls are not in perfect ease, because here we seek rest in this thing which is so little, in which there is no rest, and we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise and all good, for he is true rest. God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for everything which is beneath him is not sufficient for us…

What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? 
Know it well, love was his meaning. 
Who reveals it to you? Love. 
What did he reveal to you? Love. 
Why does he reveal it to you? For Love. 
Remain in this. And you will know more of the same.

 In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

In preparation for this week’s message, I read Amy Frykholm’s Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (Paraclete Press, 2010). It’s a brief book and very inspirational.  The Revelations of Divine Love can be found in many places; there are several e-reader versions for under a dollar. Other resources on the life of this “older sister” in the faith can be found here: http://www.julianofnorwich.com/t_resources.php