Anybody Want a Sandwich?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/scene1_2018-04-22_11-28-31_t001_in1.mp3 into your browser.

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

I drank a lot of coffee here back in the day…

Years ago I was having lunch with a group of pastors down at LaVerne’s Diner in the West End – a place that, sadly, is no more.  It was one of the shiny-on-the-outside, Art Deco on the inside places that featured lots of formica, good coffee, and simple food. As LaVerne herself came to take the orders, she asked what I wanted.  I said, “LaVerne, it all looks good.  You decide. Give me your best sandwich.”

She said, “Well, what do you like? How do I know how to make it?”

I said, “There’s no ingredient on this menu I won’t love.  You make me the one you like best.”

So she went back to the kitchen and pushed the cook, John, out of the way.  Every now and then she would yell to me through the window separating the counter from the kitchen: “Will you eat onions?…What about cheese?…” and so on.  Each time, I simply responded, “LaVerne, make your best sandwich.”

She came out with our four plates and put them down in front of us.  I picked up mine, which was essentially a glorified cheeseburger, and took a bite.  “Mmmm,” I said, “Outstanding!  This is delicious!  What do you call it?”

And LaVerne got a little red in the face and looked down and said, “Well, it’s the ‘Big L’.” Because of the look on her face, and the way that she treated me every time I went into the restaurant after that, the “Big L” was my favorite sandwich.

What’s the point of a sandwich, anyway?  It’s a simple dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for some different kind of food. Of course, having the bread makes the delivery of the other food a bit easier (can you imagine ordering a grilled cheese and then saying “hold the bread”?).  But the best sandwiches rely on an interplay between the bread and the filling.  You can’t have, for instance, a Monte Cristo sandwich unless you use French toast.  Can you make a gyro if you use a croissant instead of a pita?  Of course not…it’s just a lamb sandwich.  The bread and the filling go together to make the whole package – which is often more than the sum of its parts.

Our scripture reading for this morning is a peculiar bit of storytelling that the theologians call “a Markan sandwich”.  At least eight or ten times in his Gospel, Mark will start off by telling us one story, and then just when that one gets going, he’ll switch his theme.  When he’s finished interrupting himself, he’ll get back to the original thought.  Now, you know as well as I do from personal experience that when someone does this in conversation, it can be frustrating and difficult to follow.  However, when Mark does it, it almost always provides us, as hearers of the gospel, with a chance to look at how the stories connect with each other.  In fact, often times the “bread” of the story will serve as a commentary on the “meat”, and vice-versa.

So today, we have a typical Markan sandwich for our worship meal.  The outer layer is a story about a wealthy, powerful man named Jairus, and his sick daughter.  The filling is a story about a poor woman who was herself sick, and who in fact had nobody besides Jesus to whom she could turn.

Do you remember where we were when we last saw Jesus in the gospel of Mark?  He had taken us over to the region of the Gerasenes, where we had to spend the night in the graveyard with a demon-possessed madman, surrounded by pigs and pig-farmers.  You may recall that we thought that the disciples were not all that happy to be there, so you can imagine their relief when, upon coming home to “our” side of the lake, they are met by Jairus.

What a contrast between the wealthy, respected, learned, distinguished leader of the community and the total loser with whom we had to spend the night among the tombs. I’m sure that the disciples followed this conversation between Jairus and Jesus with great enthusiasm: “OK, Now we’re getting somewhere!” They have to be thinking that this conversation with Jairus is an indication that Jesus is wising up and that things are going to get better for him, his ministry, and for them.

But no sooner had they started off towards Jairus’ home when Jesus stops the procession.  In the crush of the crowd, someone has brushed up against him.  Jesus stops, and demands to know who it was.

The Woman With the Issue of Blood, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Do you think that the first disciples of Jesus ever snapped – if they ever looked at Jesus and said, “What are you, nuts?  Give me a break!”  Well, that appears to be what happens in this morning’s reading.  “Come on, Jesus, there have to be 200 people around you. How can you even ask a question like that?”

It was more than simply an issue of Jesus feeling as if his personal space was invaded. Virtually every adult Jewish male in that day would have worn a prayer shawl while walking around – and surely a Rabbi such as Jesus would have had his on.  The edges of these shawls were woven in such a way that they ended in four tassels, called tzitzit.  The prophet Malachi, writing about four hundred years earlier, said that the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”.  The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that was a prophecy about the coming Messiah – that he would be so Godly that even if one were to touch his “wings” – his tzitzit, that one would receive healing. When this woman reaches out and receives healing in this way, Jesus allows her to confess her faith that he is, in fact, the messiah.

I am unaware of the name or artist for this work. i would appreciate it if someone could teach me those things!

Meanwhile, Jairus has to be thinking, “Look, I’m not opposed to healing or theological conversation, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a race against time here…” And in fact, while Jesus is still speaking to this un-named woman, they get word that they are too late.  The girl has died.

Yet as you have heard, that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus takes Jairus and his family home and raises the little girl, much to the amazement of the mourners who had gathered.

So there you have it – the sandwich.  Mark could have told us about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and then said, “and the cool thing was, there was this other healing while Jesus was on the way…”  But he doesn’t.  He wraps them together, and in so doing, he invites us to compare them. So let’s do that now – let’s take a look at the different healings that comprise this “sandwich”.

Jairus’ Daughter Woman who was bleeding
Powerful, wealthy family with many resources Unknown, unconnected, un-named woman who had “spent all she had”
A public appeal to healing based on status A secret approach made in fear
12 years of joy-filled living with a beloved daughter 12 years of isolation and shame – living as one “unclean” and unwelcome
She was a precious child She was nobody’s child (she is never named or acknowledged until Jesus himself calls her “daughter” in v 34)
A public approach results in a private healing A private approach results in a public healing
Jesus risks being labeled as “unclean” by contacting a dead body Jesus is rendered “unclean” by being touched by a woman who is bleeding

Note that in both cases Jesus – just as he did with the fellow who roamed amongst the tombs and the pigs – risks “crossing to the other side” to be with folks who matter to God.

When LaVerne made me that “Big L”, she took special care to combine the meat and the condiments and the bread.  I learned something about her in the choices she made, and in the way that she made that sandwich and served it to me.

When Mark uses a “sandwich” to tell us about a Jesus who heals both Jairus’ daughter and this sick woman, he tells us something about that Jesus.  What can we learn from this passage?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remember that not every interruption is a negative thing.  I get my day all planned out and think that I have all my ducks in a row…and then something else happens.  If I’m paying attention to Jesus, I can learn that sometimes some incredibly important things can happen when I least expect them.  What would happen if I were to treat each “interruption” in my day as an opportunity to learn more about God’s purposes for the world or for myself?

Planning is a good thing, and I’d encourage you to do it.  But I’d warn you to not get so lost in your plans that you miss the chance to see God at work in the unexpected each day.

But more than a lesson about scheduling and planning and interruptions, this is a story that speaks to me about hope.  There is hope for everyone, Mark says.  Even if you feel as if you have suffered for a lifetime – did you notice that the woman’s illness had lasted as long as the little girl’s life? – there is the possibility that God will make his presence known to you, or through you, in amazing ways.

And this hope is available to everyone – even to “outsiders”.  The woman who had been bleeding suffered from more than a flow of blood.  The cultural law mandated that for the health of the community, she had to refrain from contact with any other human being as long as she bled.  She was in a hell of loneliness and isolation – she was outside of any group you could think of.  Yet this is the one that Jesus calls “daughter”.  He blesses her.  In naming her healing publicly, he restores her to her life and to her community. There is hope for those of us who feel as though we are on the outside looking in.

When we are feeling “on the top of our game”, it’s easy to suffer though a tough time.  But when we feel unworthy or unclean, it’s a little easier to feel that anything bad that is happening to us is simply judgment – I’m just getting “what I deserve”.  This sandwich reminds me that there is hope for healing and joy in everyone’s life – not only those who are pure, but for those who are struggling and for those who feel like we’ll never be good enough.

And lastly, as Jesus confronts the evil of death in this passage, we learn that it’s never too late for hope.  The little girl’s parents must have felt a little foolish when Jesus went in and took the hand of their daughter and spoke to her corpse…yet Jesus restored her to them.

Is there a part of your life where you have given up hope?  Is there something in you that you feel is too far gone?  Let me encourage you not to laugh at Jesus with the other mourners, but rather to allow him and his disciples to enter into the deepest and most painful part of your grief…to enter into the place that you think might even be dead…and to allow him to speak to that.

The sandwich that Mark fixes us this morning reminds us of the truth of the Psalm: “The earth and everything on itbelong to the Lord; the world and all of its peoplebelong to him.”  If the healing and hope of Jesus does not include both the unnamed woman and the rich man’s daughter as well as both the disturbed man who roamed amongst the tombs and the eager disciples who gave their lives to the Lord, then it’s not really hope at all.  It’s a reward for people who are in the right group at the right time in the right place. Yet this is a bold claim that in fact, the promises of Christ are open to all, and the presence of Christ is universal. My prayer is that this will nourish you and sustain you and encourage you to move forward in your journey of faith with the one who is the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.”  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Here We Grow Again

Statistically, January 1 is less likely to occur on a Monday than on other days.  Why? I have no idea.  But that means that we don’t have the chance to end the year in worship on 12/31.  In 2017, we did just that, and thought about the nature of time, and what it means for us to be creatures who are called to inhabit time, but who may also live beyond time.  Scriptures for the morning included Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and Luke 13:6-9.   

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

Don’t answer this out loud, but think for a moment… What is your first thought upon awakening on a typical day? Not that groggy, in and out, half asleep stuff, but the first moment that your YOU is present… what fills your mind?

I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum… there are occasions when we find ourselves sighing, resignedly, “Well, here we go… another day in paradise… Same stuff, different day…” And there are, presumably, some people in the room who wake up delighted with the prospect of spending another day circling the sun, full of hope and purpose for the hours that lay ahead… “A whole new world…”

Or do you even think about those kinds of things? How important is time to you? Do you need to know what day, what hour, what minute it is? Are you always early, or chronically late? Do you feel as though you have to be doing something – you have to be productive all the time?

And how do you see yourself in the midst of time? I have a hunch that many, if not most of you, see yourselves as following a certain chronology… That could be a daily thing (“Hmmmm, well, I have to be to work by four, so that means that I’ve got to finish the shopping by three…”), or it could be expanded into a longer view (“Yep, I’d better purchase that 2018 fishing license now…” or “Yikes, it’s time to clean those carpets again…”).

I’m walking around the edges of this relationship that you and I have with time at what I perceive to be an opportune moment. My hunch is that there are not as many times in the rhythm of our lives when we are as apt to say something like, “Oh, we always do such and such…” as we are around the holidays. We always buy a real tree… Grandma always makes the gravy and the stuffing… she always visits the cemetery on Christmas Eve…

Oh really? Are those things that, in fact, always happen?

I could say that I always spend time with my brother and sister around Christmas. And, in a way, that’s true. I mean, photos don’t lie, right? Here we are – late December back in ’63, and then again on Friday evening of this week… Yet is this the same thing? In what ways is this “always”? I mean, how many people are there in those photos? Are there three people on the screen? Or six? Obviously, the good-looking kid on the right is me. Or was me. But is the child the same me?

I mean, you think about this kind of stuff long enough and your head starts to hurt, doesn’t it?

I suspect that a part of the conundrum that we experience when we seek to think about and relate to the passing of time is the fact that we are, in some ways, bound to the passing of minutes, hours, days, and weeks. And yet in some very important ways, we are designed to transcend that.

British theologian and writer C.S. Lewis put it this way in his classic book The Screwtape Letters:

Humans are amphibians…half spirit and half animal…as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation–the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.[1]

This inbetweenness – sometimes feeling lost in eternity and other times feeling gripped by the moment was captured in an old Far Side cartoon by Gary Larsen:

We are, each of us, always, in both places. We are near to eternity, and we are stuck having to remember that garbage collection is delayed a day this week due to the holiday. And that is precisely why we sometimes find ourselves singing “A Whole New World” even while we’re muttering “same stuff, different day” under our breath. In some way, both are true. There are things that we have always done, but the we who have done them are different every single time, aren’t we?

I not only use time, keep time, spend time, save time, waste time… I am affected by time. I live within time. I am shaped by time. And, in some way, I am called to shape the times in which I live.

I’m preaching all this, of course, because today is the first time in eleven years that New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday. In our culture, we think a lot about time on December 31. We look back at the year that has past, and we anticipate what is to come. Some of you, no doubt, are hard at work crafting your list of New Year’s Resolutions…

Are we, waiting and watching for the beginning of another year, different than we were last year?

Well, yes and no.

How do you view time? A casual reading of Ecclesiastes might lead you to the conclusion that time is circular: we do this, and then we do this, and then this, and lo and behold we find ourselves back to the beginning again. It really is just the same stuff on a different day…

You’d be hard pressed to prove different by looking at our church calendar: there’s advent, then Epiphany, ordinary time, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, ordinary time, and Advent… It does seem as though it is circular.

Yet when we remember that we are always moving, always changing, and always being given the opportunity to grow, we confess that time is not merely circular, but rather, it has a structure and a movement that may bring us around to similar places, but not the same place. I like to think of the rhythm of the year like those ramps at Heinz Field or any other stadium. They are built in a circle, and as you get closer to the nosebleed seats, you’ll find that you have several opportunities to be looking North, East, South, or West… but when you get to “that” spot again, your vantage point is a little different because you are thirty feet higher than you were the last time around.

Ecclesiastes does say that the seasons come, and go, and repeat… but a careful reading will also indicate that they are not the same – because we are not the same. The landscape, and our perspective on it, changes as we mature and, well, encounter more and more seasons.

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Which brings me to December 31 and the parable of the fig tree in the vineyard. Allow me to make several brief observations about these verses as we worship together for the last time in 2017.

First, let us note that in all likelihood, the central figure in this story – the landowner – is supposed to remind us of God the Father. And what do we note about this landowner? His main business is the vineyard. That’s the way that he describes his property. And yet growing in this vineyard is a fig tree. The figs are not this man’s main interest. They are a hobby. They, for some reason, occasion his interest or even his delight. He doesn’t need the figs. He wants them. He is eager for them.

The landowner’s central concern is, of course, fruit. He is not interested in the fig tree for the sake of the lumber or shade or the quality of leaves it may or may not provide. No, he looks at it and he wants to know if it is bearing fruit. If it is, in fact, doing that which fig trees ought to do. Is it blessing him or others? Is it bringing forth richness and nutrition and, well, delight? At this point in the story, of course, it is not.

And yet there is a profound sense of patience, and hope, or at least tolerance on the part of the landowner. His servant – whom I would identify as the Christ-figure in this parable – has an eye to the future and an awareness of the fact that things can and do change. The gardener convinces the landowner to care more about the tree, and to invest it with the special attention and other conditions that are likely to result in the appearance of some fruit. Interestingly, the verb that the gardener uses when beseeching the landowner is the Greek word aphes. In our translation here, it is rendered “let the tree have another year”. Aphes – “leave it be; let it alone…” – is also translated as “forgive”. In fact, the One who told this story, Jesus, would use that same word on the day that he was killed – and he looked up to his Father and said, “Father, aphes – forgive; let them alone – they don’t know what they’re doing. Give me time here…”

Here’s my point: somehow, against all odds, you and I have survived another year. That is to say, we’ve lived through 2017 (so far!) and we’re still speaking to each other. We got out of bed this morning – maybe singing, maybe mumbling. We’ve got today. We are not the same people as we were 365 days ago, and yet many of us are in the same place… What are we supposed to do with that?

In 1999, Annie Dillard thought about the significance of the changing of a millennium and wound up writing a wonderful book entitled For the Time Being. In it, she challenges us to consider who we are as creatures who can only exist in and through time. Listen:

Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is? —our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations, our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other….

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture. Purity’s time is always now.[2]

I think that the point is this, and simply this: thanks be to the grace of the landowner and the love of the gardener, we have everything we need. As we stand on the brink of 2018, we are able to do that for which we have been created: we can bear fruit in the place we’ve been planted and the season we’ve been given. Let us, therefore live and move in these days as those who are interested in producing fruit of love, grace, hope, and peace. It’s who you are. It’s why you are. Thanks be to God, it’s the reason you’re here and now. Amen.

[1] MacMillan publishing (1942, chapter 8).

[2] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999) pp. 30, 88-89.

David’s Greatest Sin

In July of 2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are concluding a year-long adventure in listening to the stories of David as we try to make sense out of them for our own journeys. On July 9, we considered what some have called David’s greatest failure: his census of Israel.  Our texts included II Samuel 24 as well as Philippians 4:1-13. Thoughts on counting, pride, and forgiveness in this week’s message.

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

What do you know about Alphonse “Scarface” Capone? That he was a gangster and the leader of the Chicago mob that was responsible for the “St. Valentines’ Day Massacre” in 1929? A bootlegger, murderous thug, and career criminal? Do you know the crime of which he was found guilty and sentenced to prison? Tax evasion.

I bet that a lot of you remember Jack Lambert, who at 6’4”, 220 lbs. was one of the fiercest men to ever wear the uniform of an NFL team. He was renowned for his ferocious hits on opposing ball carriers, but he was driven from the game he loved by an injury: turf toe.

King David, Adam Tadolini (Rome, 19th cent.)

I bring up these big men who were taken down by seemingly small opponents because we’ve come to a part of the David narrative with which many of us are unfamiliar. This is the twenty-second sermon I’ve preached about David in the last year, and if I were to ask you what was the one thing that threatened David’s reign and legacy the most, how would you answer? The adulterous, murderous episode that led to Bathsheba becoming his wife? His suspected collusion with the Philistines? The instructions he gave to Ahimelech, the high priest, that ended with the deaths of all the residents of the town of Nob? His failure as a father?

Nope. The closest David came to blowing it, big time, was when he issued an executive order mandating a census throughout Israel.

Seriously? A census? How does counting the population rise to a level of offense commensurate with the other tawdry episodes in David’s past? Well, this is no ordinary counting: it is a preliminary act for the institution of a military draft and a massive taxation. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: “This census is much like that of Caesar Augustus. It is not a benign act of counting but an act of bureaucratic terrorism…The purpose is to mobilize military power. David has yielded to the seduction of state power.”[1] David’s greatest sin is not about the math… it’s about the pride that threatened to undo him in a way that nothing else had.

King David’s Census, Illustration from Treasures of the Bible, Henry Davenport Northrop (1894).

He’s nearing the end of his life. He’s survived several attempted coups and assassinations; he’s weathered a lot of storms, and, frankly, he’s starting to roll the credits. II Samuel 22 contains an amazingly beautiful song of praise to God. II Samuel 23 allows the monarch to recount the list of “David’s Mighty Men” – several dozen soldiers whose amazing exploits and feats of strength and bravery were simply astounding.

Perhaps the old monarch simply got caught up in the moment. As he considers all of his oldest and most trusted companions, it would be tempting for him to say, “You know, we were pretty darned tough. I mean, we did some serious business back in the day… But what about now? What else is there for me to do? Who else can I conquer? What if there are bigger things in store for me or for this nation?”

In short, David begins an exploration of nationalism and exceptionalism that nearly costs him – and his people – everything.

We’re told in the beginning of the passage that “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel…” Why? Well, it doesn’t say, but I have an idea. Do you remember the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods before me.” Do you remember the first sin in the Garden of Eden? The humans refusing to accept the authority of God. It is God who establishes, God who reigns, God who rules… and in our reading from II Samuel, as well as these prior incidents, the humans (David in this case) reject God’s primacy and put themselves on top.

It’s interesting to note that this same exact story is written down in I Chronicles 21 – with a significant difference. In the reading for today, we’re told that God incited David’s heart; in I Chronicles, the idea for the act is credited to Satan. In either case, the result is the same: David chose to order this census. Nobody made him do anything he didn’t already want to do. He calls up Joab, his loyal general, and tells him to get the thing up and running. And even Joab, the traditional strongman for King David, says, “Um, look, your majesty, are you sure about this? I don’t this this is your best idea ever. Maybe you want to sleep on it…”

David flat-out ignores his advisor and the census begins. It takes ten long months to come up with an answer; when the numbers finally come in, David realizes what he’s done. He gets the answer for which he’s been looking, and then he grasps the implications of the questions he’s asked… and he cries out for forgiveness. The David in verse 2 is strong, purposeful, resolute, and full of pride. The one who speaks in verses 10 and 14 is as broken as he’s ever been. David realizes the depth of his willful arrogance and rebellion. He sees his pride for what it is and falls on God’s mercy.

The extent of David’s repentance can be seen in the curious conversation that he has with the prophet when Gad brings him news of God’s judgment. The Lord offers David a choice: what kind of punishment does he want to receive? Three years of famine across the whole nation? Three months of intense attack from his enemies? Or three days of pestilence and plague on the nation?

When David is at his best, he fears God. When David is at his most faithful, he trusts God. Here, in this dark, dark hour, he cries out asking for God, not humans, to deal with him. He knows that if there is any mercy, any relief, any hope to be found, it will come from the hand of the Lord.

In the next three days, seventy thousand people die in Israel. To put that in perspective just a bit, that is more than the total number of US military deaths in the combined six decades of our involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. David sees the weight of this carnage and cries out, “Enough! Look, God, if you want to kill someone, kill me. Leave these people out of it! I am the sinner here!”

The prophet then commands David to go and worship by building a worship site on a threshing floor belonging to a man named Aruanah. There are a few observations I’d make about this worship.

First, the king treats this farmer fairly. The David of verse 2 would have walked into town and declared “eminent domain” on this poor man’s property. He might have said something like, “I need this for the good of the nation. Step aside, citizen…” But the David who shows up in verse 24 pays a full and fair price for this land, knowing that he has the ability and the responsibility to do so

This comes, of course, from the David’s awareness that he, and all he has, belongs to God. David will not “thank” God with other people’s money.

A threshing place in modern Santorini, Greece

And the last thing I’d like to point out about the location of this reconciliation is that it is on a threshing floor. You probably don’t have one of these at your house… or in your city, but it was a site of tremendous importance to this pre-industrial agrarian culture. The threshing floor was an elevated, hard, level surface where the crop would be placed and beaten or trod upon so that the edible grain would be separated from the worthless chaff. The threshing floor was the place in which that which gives life is separated from that which is useless. David puts himself in this place and says, “Lord, make me… make us pure and useful…”

This is the last story in the books of Samuel. The narrative which contains the selection of a young child to be the king, the defeat of a mighty giant, military campaigns, palace intrigue, significant defeat, and astounding victory… ends with the old monarch on his knees in a strange place, crying out for forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. There’s more than enough smiting, fighting, sleeping around, and even the occasional happy episode thrown in. What’s the point? Why does the narrator of Israel’s history choose to end the book of Samuel with David’s prideful attempt to count his fighting men and implement a tax plan?

Well, for starters, I’d think an important lesson we can take away from this passage is the fact that it’s foolish to spend too much time and energy reading or believing your own press clippings. One of the worst things that David did was to insulate himself to the point where he was unable to see how his bureaucratic power grab was an affront to the Lord. When you and I rely too heavily on our own feelings, or on the perception that we’d like to cultivate in others, we are similarly unable to perceive the truth. When you are “up” and doing well, remember that you are in danger of falling. And when you are broken, do not forget that you are made in the image of God. You might not feel like a child of the Most High, but that doesn’t change your reality.

In a few moments, we’ll sing Forgiveness by Matthew West. Some of the lyrics we’ll proclaim are “Show me how to love the unlovable/ Show me how to reach the unreachable/ Help me now to do the impossible/ Forgiveness.”

It may be that you’re at a place in your life where the greatest challenge in your walk will be to look at other people as you sing that song. You mentally picture the one who has wounded you so deeply or regarded you so callously, and you pray for the grace to be humble and Christlike toward her or him. But it’s just as likely that you need to remember those lyrics the next time you look in a mirror. You’ll remember the thing you said to your child or your parent; the lies you told to avoid embarrassment; the way you compromised your integrity in order to feel “liked.” In those cases, then, perhaps the “unlovable” and the “unreachable” is not someone else… you may think it’s you. And you are, of course, wrong.

Ask the Lord to give you a good vision of yourself, and others, and God. Pray for a realistic view of what is, and what can be, and how you fit into it.

The Philippians passage that we read this morning contains perhaps one of the most frequently misquoted verses in the Bible, at least in the context of American Christianity. Whether we’re talking about winning the Super Bowl, finding a parking spot, or getting a date to the prom, millions of us find ourselves chanting “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” We use that verse as though it is some sort of mantra that guarantees our success, and makes Jesus our lucky charm.

St Paul the Apostle. Claude Vignon (1593-1670)

Paul’s life was as complicated and erratic as David’s in its own way. He had grown up as a member of the educated elite, and he’d made a career as a renowned teacher and scholar. In his younger days, Paul was the one you hoped might be called in as a guest lecturer; he had all the right contacts and influence. Yet at the time of this writing, he’s been beaten and imprisoned. He’s stayed at the Hilton and in Medium Security… traveled first class and been shipwrecked… and here he shares the fact that the only meaning and purpose he’s ever found in his life comes through his ability to be content in the knowledge that he is never alone because of the work of God in Jesus Christ.

Being a person of faith doesn’t mean that you can get the job you want, or run a marathon without training, or pass your test without studying. That’s not the “all things” Paul is talking about in this passage. What he is saying is that through the grace of God, you and I can find the ability to be content, to know peace, to find an inward centeredness that is not dependent on our outward circumstances. We can do that through Christ who gives us strength.

My hope and prayer for you this morning is that today and each day you might join your brother David on the threshing floor of your life. That today, you might sit in the presence of God, resting on a firm and solid foundation, knowing that within your life right now are the elements necessary for significant fruit. Ask God to help you blow away the chaff and the things that distract you, and seek to find your center in Jesus Christ. Whether you are on the cusp of a significant opportunity or on the brink of an incredible challenge, look for the contentment and peace that can only come through Jesus Christ. If we can start the days like that, we will find, I trust, that we can get through anything in the power of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Interpretation Commentary on First and Second Samuel (John Knox Press, 1990), p. 352

Waiting for The Dough

On January 5, we observed the Day of Epiphany (a day early – so sue me!).  We read from Matthew 2:1-12 and Isaiah 60:1-7.

         Since the last time I’ve preached, I figure I’ve logged about 1500 miles behind the wheel of my Toyota.  Most of that has been on the PA Turnpike, and that’s given me, according to Mapquest, approximately 23 hours and 40 minutes (according to current traffic conditions) of time to observe the driving habits of the American public.  In addition to keeping an eye out for texters and tweeters, I like to look at the bumper stickers.  It’s interesting to think that we’d spend ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand dollars on a new car and then we hustle off and plunk down another 99¢ so that we can share our philosophy of life with those who must wait behind us at the toll booth.  And what a variety!

You’ve got stickers that are somewhat tame, like “Beat ‘Em Bucs” or “Greetings from Sixburgh”.  There are a litany of notes from past elections.  Some are sarcastic: “My Other Car is a Mercedes”, or “I May Not be fast, but I’m ahead of you.”  Some offer friendly advice for hard economic times:  “Hungry?  Eat your imported car!” or “If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.”  And some are simple statements of belief. You’ve been invited to “Honk if You Love Jesus”, and then that was upgraded to “If you love Jesus, tithe – anybody can honk.”  And some are out of control…

I don't even know what to say about this one...

I don’t even know what to say about this one…

And there are a number of stickers that seem to reflect a pessimistic philosophy.  Many of them are not entirely appropriate for sharing in this venue, but the idea is that “Life is hard, and then you die”

Life stinks, and then you die.  That must be a hard load to carry around every day.

waiting-for-godot1   When I think about that sentiment, I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting For Godot.  This play, which premiered on this date in 1953, was voted “the most significant English-language play of the 20th century.”  It is a classic statement of the despair and hopelessness that  characterizes much of modern life.

The central figures of the drama are two unwashed, nearly helpless tramps named Vladimir and Estragon.  They seem to have come from nowhere in particular and have no place else to go.  They are waiting in the midst of a bleak landscape sitting, chewing carrots, awaiting the arrival of someone named Godot.  As these two hapless men wait in idle conversation, they are interrupted several times, most notably by a young man who arrives to tell them that Godot will not come that night, but will certainly come tomorrow.

The next day the two tramps are again waiting, and again engage themselves in conversation that reveals them to be people without any real hope or purpose in life.

Again they watch the traffic on the road, and again the young boy arrives with a message from Godot, who assures them that he will come tomorrow without fail.  Frustrated, Vladimir asks, “Shall we go?” and Estragon answers, “Yes, let’s go,” but neither one moves a bit as the curtain falls and the play ends.   Samuel Beckett has produced a drama that masterfully states his belief that the human condition is one of paralysis; that we are powerless spectators in a life that is full of pain, and that the only release is death.  Life stinks, and then you die.  Remember, that’s “the most significant English-language play of the 20th Century.”

But not everyone believes this, of course.  That’s just one person’s philosophy of life.

There are many others.

Agrippa_I-Herod_agrippaKing Herod, for instance, had a different philosophy of life.  He was no idle bystander.  He was not waiting for anyone or anything.  And I don’t suppose that if you looked in his stable you would a chariot bearing a sticker reading  “life stinks and then you die.”

Herod was a man with power over his destiny.  He was the king.  He was in charge.  He surrounded himself with the finer things in life, and generally got whatever he wanted.  What he didn’t like, though, was when someone threatened his power or his lifestyle.  So when word reaches him of a baby who has been born to be the king, Herod takes more than a passing interest in the situation.  He calls the best minds together and presses them for information about this infant messiah.  He claims that he wants to worship, but his intentions are obviously elsewhere.  After all, Herod’s got a kingdom to run.  He’s got interests to protect.  And he’s not going to let any kid get in the way of the life that is his to enjoy.

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The Journey of the Magi, by James Tissot (c. 1894)

The visitors from the East, the wise men who had brought this news to Herod, had quite a different philosophy of life.  They are sometimes referred to as “Magi”, from the Greek word, “magoi”.  Sometimes this term refers to men who are magicians, but it’s most likely that in this instance, the travellers are astrologers.  These are men who believe that there is some source of power outside of themselves, that there is an unseen force who directs the stars and who orders the lives of men and women.  The Wise men are on a journey because they believe that they have a clue about who this power and what this force is.  For them, life itself was a pilgrimage – they looked for truth and then sought to incorporate that truth into their lives.

When they entered the place to which this star had led them, they fell down and were amazed by the presence of God in that room.  They offered the baby gifts that were appropriate to royalty.  They worshipped him.  They listened for the voice of God in their dreams, and they went home by another way.  They went home changed.  Although they would have disagreed with Herod in many ways, these men would also have little patience with Mr. Beckett’s view of life.  Their own lives were hardly a journey of pain that would end in death – no, they were always growing, always searching, always seeking the heart of the universe.

For six weeks of Advent and Christmastide, we have met in this room and we have talked about waiting.  We have read about peace, about love, about hope, and about joy.  We have confessed that we long for those qualities to be a part of our lives.  We have read the prophets, and felt their sighing for a world that is so warped by sin that it can’t recognize its creator.  We have prayed for God’s presence in our own lives, and have asked for help on our own journeys.  We have sung “O Come O Come Emmanuel” as well as “Joy To The World.”

There have been times in these past weeks that we have looked a lot like the Wise Men.  We have taken advantage of the opportunities for service or for celebration that we have been given, and our lives, as well as those around us, have been enriched because of it.  We have brought our gifts to the Christ Child: offering food to the hungry through our food pantry, singing carols to the lonely, listening to the troubles of a friend, or lending a hand when it’s been needed.

We’ve made statements of faith, including bringing our estimates of giving for 2014 to be dedicated and holding a single candle against the darkness of the night.  Yes, there have been days when we felt like the magi, when we worshipped, when we were attentive the journey to which we have been called, and when we tried to have hope in the darkness.

And, I suspect, if we’re honest, we’ll realize that there have been days when we have resembled King Herod.  We have heard the proclamation of Christmas joy and have been interested to know more about this new king.  But there have been too many times when we have been willing to run to Jesus as our savior from sin, but have rejected his right to rule in our lives.  We have heard an invitation to change as a threat to the way that we live right now.  We have been tempted to reject those who are poor or on the margins of our world.

If I know you like I think I know you, I would imagine that there have been times these past weeks when we have felt the despair of Vladimir and Estragon – moments when it seemed as though there was no joy in our lives, no purpose in our actions, no relevance to our existence.  We have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use!  Nobody cares if I’m even trying….” Yes, there have been days when we have felt hapless and helpless, when we have struggled to believe that there is anything worth waiting for.

communion_elements On this day, though, we are not like the Wise Men, Herod, or Beckett’s characters, because we have gathered to celebrate what for them was at best a distant hope.  On this day, we gather at the table of our Lord to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – the visible demonstration of God’s promise to be with us in all of our days and in that time when days cease to be.

People of God, this meal that is laid before you, this simple combination of flour and salt and water and yeast, this dough is the symbol that reminds us that Christ has come, and that he has broken death’s hold on you and on me.

This meal is what we have been waiting for.  All of the scripture and all of the stories in the world would be irrelevant if we didn’t know that God is here, that God is with us.  And the power of this sacrament is that it provides us with the assurance that our longing is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that Christ is here, and that he is calling us into a journey that will last our lifetime.  This is what we have been waiting for.

So, beloved, arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.  Your journey has led you here, and God will lead you away from this table into the places you will be needed in 2014.

Your waiting is not in vain, and your hope is not far off.  Jesus, who has loved you and called to you since before you were born, is waiting for you.

Your story has meaning because it is woven into the story of the People of God.  What are you waiting for?  Christ is waiting with and for you.  What are you journeying toward?  Christ is journeying with and toward you. Let us enter this new year committed to following the star and eager to worship the King who has come that we might live.  And let us pledge that this commitment will not be a hollow sentiment or a holiday feeling, but a way of life that will challenge us, bless our neighbors, and change our world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.