Is He Talking to ME?

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. On November 18, we heard one of the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings: his call to the wealthy man to Go, Sell, Give, Come, and Follow.  What does that mean to us? Our gospel reading was  Mark 10:17-31.

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

Ah, Jesus.  I love Jesus. And I listen when he talks.  Don’t you?  Doesn’t everybody?

Have you noticed how easy it is to take some of Jesus’ words literally and truly?  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  You bet Lord. I’m working on that.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent!” and “Let the little children come to me.”  Oh, yeah, we love those sayings of Jesus.  We hear them, and we try to do them.  They make sense.  “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Yep!  You say it, Lord, I’m working on it.

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, come, and follow me.”

Wha??? Um, Jesus, what are you talking about?  Are you talking to me?

Let me tell you something, friends.  I’ve been in a lot of places around the world – places in Africa, or South America, or the Middle East – where people have sat in rooms like this one and read these words of Jesus, and they have said, “Amen.  Wow, that’s great stuff!  Good news!”

But so often, when I hear this read in the United States, which is, by the way, the richest place in the history of places, the comment I most frequently hear is, “Hmmm.  Well, obviously, Jesus did not intend to be taken literally here.  What do you think he could possibly have meant?”

Today, we’re going to continue in the Gospel of Mark, and we’re going to look at another of the hard teachings of Jesus.

The Rich Man Approaches Jesus (European, 16th c., artist unknown)

As Mark tells the story, it appears as though the man is an earnest seeker. Some of the other folks who ask Jesus questions appear to be doing so just to trip him up, or to get him in trouble.  But this man begins the conversation after having participated in the very undignified practice of running up to Jesus and stopping him.  Then, he gets on his knees and speaks in the most respectful of tones. He seeks to honor Jesus in a way that seems legitimate, and Jesus responds to his initial query by listing the second tablet of the ten commandments:  “You know what to do,” Jesus says.  “Everybody knows.”

Again, the man appears to be sincere in his conversation with Jesus about his neighbors and his treatment of those around him.

Once more, Jesus appears to be impressed with the man, and Jesus then does two things.

First, he “looks” at the man.  In some of your bibles, it might say he “beholds” him. The word that is used there is a word that is apparently special to Mark, and it is used intentionally.  In fact, he uses it in verses 21, 23, and 27. Each time, it is meant to convey the fact that Jesus was completely attentive to the one in front of him.  His eyes reflect his full engagement; he is wrapping the person with the entirety of his presence.  I hope you know how it feels to be looked at this way: intimately, with focus, kindness, warmth, and affection.

We know that this is what Jesus meant to convey with that look because the next phrase in the Bible tells us that Jesus “loved” the man. And when you read that, you might say, “Well whoop-dee-do!  Jesus loved him. Isn’t that what Jesus does?” And you’d be correct, of course; Jesus does love. However, the Gospels only speak directly of Jesus loving a very few people: Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha; the apostle John, and the twelve disciples as a group.  This man is the only person outside of Jesus’ inner circle who is specifically named as one whom Jesus loved.

So, friends, whatever Jesus is going to say, we ought to be aware of the fact that he is saying it while being fully attentive to the one in front of him and in a spirit of deep love for that one.

Jesus then utters the five imperatives you’ve already heard this morning: Go, and Sell, and Give, and Come, and Follow.  You may be interested in knowing that this is the only time that Jesus looked someone in the eyes and said, “Follow me”, and the other person said, “um, nope.”  This is the only “call” story that ends in a refusal.

Jesus saw something in this man’s relationship to and fascination with his material wealth that was troubling, and he called the man on it.  And then, he turned to the disciples, and looking at them(note the same piercing, loving gaze), he turns it into a teaching moment.  Some scholars have pointed out that when Jesus has an interaction like this with a specific person, and then Mark tells us that he pulled the twelve in closer around him, that this is Mark’s way of helping the early church be attentive to a specific command from Jesus.

If that’s the case, well, it was surely effective in this instance. The earliest Christians believed strongly that Jesus intended to be taken literally here.  All of them thought that he would return to earth imminently, and so it was a common practice among the first Christians to do exactly this – to sell all their possessions and support those who were suffering.  The more that these believers realized that Jesus might take some time before his return, the easier they found it to do other things with their money – build churches, save for the future, buy a second horse… whatever.

Do you remember last week when Jesus was so angry because his followers were hindering the children from coming close to him?  I think that in this instance, Jesus recognized that the man’s money was a hindrance – that his wealth stood between him and Jesus in a way that made an eternal difference.   And just as Jesus forbade the disciples from getting in the way of him and his love for the children, here he laments the fact that this man’s money stands between him and God’s best for him.

As I look around the room this morning, I see that there are a lot of people here who have travelled with me to places where life and culture is, well, different than that to which we’re accustomed.  Some of these places are remote and difficult to reach, like Malawi or South Sudan.  Others are closer, but are definitely different: think of our visits to the Native American reservations.  Maybe we’ve traveled to one of the hollers in the Great Smokey Mountains or some other part of Appalachia together; heck, some of you have even been to Ohio with me. You know, someplace where things are just done differently.

So let’s pretend now that we’re going to a place we’ve never been before.  Let’s call that place Walla Walla Washington.  Now, as I say, I’ve never been to Walla Walla, so I’m just making this up.  This is an example.

So let’s say we get off the plane in Walla Walla, and we meet people who seem friendly enough.  We get to talking, and we happen to bring up that we are people of faith. We talk about what it means for us to follow Jesus, and to worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And let’s say that our hosts beam excitedly as we talk about our spiritual lives and they exclaim, “Hey, us too!  We’re religious!  We worship God, too!  But we don’t call him Jesus.  We know God as Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG.”

At this point, our faces look, well, like yours look now. “Whaaaaat?” we croak out.

The Walla Wallaites sense our confusion and they say, “Look, would you like to come to worship with us?  It will make things much easier to understand.”

So off we go – and we find ourselves entering a large room that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a laundromat.  As we arrive, there is a woman wearing a very crisply starched white dress standing in front of the room reading from the book of Isaiah the prophet: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out,says the Lord:though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be like snow;though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Then she steps aside and she puts what appears to be a load of laundry into a washing machine.  Everyone says “Amen” and begins to do what looks like prayer to the washing machine.

We are confused and baffled, until one of you says, “So, wait… are you saying that your god – Electrolux, Whirlpool, and LG – that your god is a washing machine?”

And our hosts say, “Yes, Amen.  Blessed be the name!”

And then we say, “Well, wait – does everyone in Walla Walla believe this way?” And they laugh, and say, “Well, of course not everyone believes exactly the same.  There’s a group of Amish who pray to a slightly different God…;

and to be honest, we Presbyterians are the only ones who believe in pre-sorting, but, well, yeah.  Most of us believe essentially the same thing.”

And you want to yell and scream and shake someone and say, “Oh, come on, people! For the love of Pete! That’s a machine! You’re pouring your worship out on a TOOL, for crying out loud!”  But we are polite and respectful and, well, Western Pennsylvania Presbyterians, so we don’t say much.

Now let’s say that a few days after we get home, you see your dad putting a load of laundry in (because, well, it isMonday).  Do you fear for his soul?  Do you throw yourself in front of the washer and say, “Father, no! Stay away from this demon!”?

Well, probably not.  You lament the way that sometimes the world is a place where people find themselves bringing supreme honor and reverence to that which is undeserving of those things; you are saddened by the thought of people attributing Divine characteristics to a creature. But you don’t stop using a tool just because someone else is using it wrong.

Vintage Postcard, artist unknown

I hope you can see where I’m going with this, beloved.  What is your attitude toward money and possessions?  Are they an object of worship?  Is having the right amount of money in your wallet, the right car in your driveway, or the right clothes in your closet the thing that is going to save you, or make life all better for you?  Is that the thing that is going to bring you ultimate happiness? Is that what tells you who you are?

Because if you look to those things for your identity – if we see our money and possessions in this way, then they are indeed hindrances to our ability to follow Jesus. They are in our way no less than they were in the way of that man 2000 years ago.

But is it possible that you have some of these things: you have some money, you have some possessions, but they do not have you? Are you able to see the money that you have and the things that you own as tools that actually help you to follow Jesus, to be faithful, and to share love?

Ah, but HOW do we do that?  How do we ensure that while we may have money, money does not have us?

Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher and theologian who wrote about the relationship between humans and money in a book creatively entitled L’homme et L’argent(which, translated means, Man and Money).  In it, he describes the best and most appropriate way to protect our hearts and lives from the destructive power of money and possessions.

When money is no more than an object, when it has lost its seductiveness, its supreme value, its superhuman splendor, then we can use it like any other of our belongings, like any machine. Of course, even if this relieves our fears, we must always be vigilant and very attentive because the power is never totally eliminated. There is one act par excellence which profanes money by going directly against the law of money, an act for which money is not made. This act is giving.[1]

In the 36 years of our marriage, Sharon and I have sought to limit the ability that money and possessions have to rule over us by seeking to set aside a percentage of our income and dedicate that to the Lord’s work. When we got married we were able to give 10% away, and by God’s grace that number is higher now.

In a few moments my friend Ron will stand up here and talk with you about your ability to join Sharon and me in the joys of supporting this congregation financially.  I think that my job today is, well, to be like Jesus.  To look at you, to love you, and to tell you the truth.  And Mya already did that, when she read from Proverbs: “Sometimes you can become rich by being generous or poor by being greedy.”

This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Money and Power, Jacques Ellul (Wipf and Stock Publishing, 2009), p. 110.

Giving More Than You Get

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 16, we jumped to a new book as a source for these stories: I Chronicles 29 served as our primary source, and we also sought to be attentive to selected verses from Romans 12.  Thoughts on facing challenges, responding to persecution, and leaving a legacy in this week’s message.

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

So, how do you want to be remembered when you’re gone? And, in a related question, how do you want to go? What’s the last story you want people to tell, or hear, about you?

Jim Heseldon, the inventor of the Segway, died when he accidentally drove his Segway off a cliff. The first man to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel died fifteen years later after complications resulting from a fall when he slipped on an orange peel. Then there was the lawyer in Toronto who was so fascinated by the safety ratings of the windows in his skyscraper that he used to hurl himself against them, demonstrating to anyone who cared that the glass was unbreakable. In July of 1993 he threw himself at the window in his 24th story office and, sure enough, the glass did not break. The frame, however, popped out and the man fell to his death.

You and I can think of a million ways that we’d NOT want to die, and we hope that if we get caught in some embarrassing situation, that’s not the last story that gets told.

“Study of King David”, 1866 photograph by British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron

Last week, we read the last story about David that gets told in the books of Samuel. I’m not sure that David – or the rest of Israel – wanted people to remember his pride and the ill-conceived census he ordered as his final achievement, though. For that reason, we move today to the book of I Chronicles. I and II Chronicles contain many of the same stories that we find in the books of Samuel and Kings. They are written by a different author, and to a slightly different purpose. The name that these books have in the Greek translation of the Old Testament may give us some insight into that purpose: they are called paraleipomena, which means “the things that were left out” or more literally, “the leftovers.” It’s as if the authors are saying, “Look, don’t forget that this happened, too!”

For almost a year, we’ve walked through David’s life. Here, I’d suggest that even his “golden years” are behind him and he is making plans for his own death. Of utmost importance to him, as it is to many kings and politicians, is the line of succession. Who will replace him? In no small part because of his own sinfulness and failures as a parent, the normal process of naming the first-born as king is not available to this family. Adonijah and his brother Absalom have already been killed in family warfare. It will be one of his sons, but it won’t be the “leading candidates.”

Furthermore, perhaps as an acknowledgment of his own brokenness and sinfulness, David is increasingly concerned about providing the nation with a legacy of faith and worship. He wants to build a grand and glorious temple as the site for worship of YHWH.

“King David Presenting the Sceptre to Solomon” (detail) by Cornelus de Vos (17th c.)

The authors of Chronicles tell us in chapter 21 that David had a vision wherein he was told, firstly, that the Lord would not permit him to build the temple himself because he had too much blood on his hands, and secondly, that his son Solomon should succeed him as king. Solomon, not David, would build the temple that would glorify the Lord.

And so in the reading you’ve heard from today, David addresses these two issues publicly. He names Solomon as the one who will replace him and he charges Solomon to build the temple to the Lord. He further states that he’s providing Solomon with the financial and material support necessary for such an undertaking.

Where did this come from? I mean, where did David learn this kind of stuff? His life had been so messed up in so many ways for so long… plucked from the fields as a mere boy and anointed as king in a secret ceremony; resented by his older brothers; mocked by his peers and his adversaries; threatened, persecuted, and then hunted down by Saul, his predecessor as king…

And his own ascendance to the kingship was simply horrible! After Saul and Jonathan were killed, most of Israel looked at David and said, “Him? No thanks…” It took another seven years for the nation to unite under David’s leadership.

This man, now seventy years old, who has been raised in uncertainty and surrounded by those who question his authenticity is doing anything he can to seek to save Solomon and the kingdom from all the grief that he himself went through. In publicly declaring Solomon’s ascendancy and praying for his rule and providing him with the resources necessary to gather the people together in worship of YHWH, David is clearly giving to his son and to his people far more than he ever got from those who preceded him.

In some ways, this is not surprising. You saw how David sought to provide the vulnerable with protection and security even while he himself was on the run. You know how he sought out Mephibosheth and honored him for his father’s sake. So on the one hand, you might have seen this coming.

But on the other hand, the notion of going above and beyond, of giving more than you got, goes against the norms of David’s day and ours own.

We are much more likely to live by creeds such as “You get what you pay for” or “You get what’s coming to you…” We say things like, “Well, what did you expect? After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it?” What about, “You can only play the cards that you’ve been dealt, right?”

Now listen: there is a nugget of truth in all of these old adages. I’ve said them all, for crying out loud. But they are NOT, thanks be to God, the Word of the Lord.

David, for some reason, got more than he paid for. He was an apple that fell a long way from the tree. And he demonstrates here that on at least some occasions, he was able to play way better cards than he was ever dealt.

How is this possible? Because of an even greater wisdom and greater truth that we know simply as grace. David knew that the world would love to operate in a simple math problem: garbage in, garbage out. An eye for an eye. That’s all neat and tidy.

And deadly. It’s an equation nobody can live with. As a man who has sinned so frequently and so publicly, David realizes that he has not gotten what he deserved, and that he will therefore seek to give to others better than what they’ve earned.

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

In the first century, a follower of Jesus named Paul wrote to a small group of Christians in the city at the heart of the Roman Empire. These women and men, who met in secret for fear of persecution and betrayal, were told in no uncertain terms that the life of faith means following the example of both Jesus and David in giving more than you get.

I want to point out the fact that Paul was writing to a group of people who were persecuted because that is a sentiment shared by an improbably increasing number of Christians in the USA. In a recent survey, 57% of white evangelical Christians said that they sense discrimination against Christians in America. Only 44% of those same people feel as though Muslims are discriminated against. And an amazing 75% of whites who call themselves evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians is as great or greater than that which is leveled at blacks or other racial minorities.[1]

If those statistics are accurate, then I would have to assume that there are those in the room who identify with that – who feel threatened or persecuted. And if that’s the case, then the words of Paul and the context in which he uttered them are of great significance to the church in the USA. Do you think you face discrimination because of your faith? Are you feeling worried about the negative repercussions that could arise should someone discover that you’re a Christian? Then let’s listen to the man who writes to people who are facing the reality of being thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, or public floggings in the square. Let’s pay attention to the man who would himself be beheaded because of his faith in Jesus Christ. What does Paul say?

Live graciously.

Give better than you get.

I’d like to suggest that there are three concrete ways in which everyone in this room can respond to the charge of Paul in light of the example of King David.

We can do this financially. What do you have? What can you anticipate? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Too often we think of our spending and consuming as aspects of life that are just not going to go away. I have to make this car payment; I need the new smartphone; I can’t stand to stay home and cook again tonight… And yet we think of the gifts we bring to the Lord as afterthoughts. We look in the wallet when the plate is being passed and hope that we’ve got something small to toss in. It’s a little embarrassing, after all, to try to make change from the offering plate when it’s going past…

David gave his wealth for the building of the temple; he set aside a significant portion of his material well-being so that the people of God would have a place in which to encounter God’s truth.

Do you have a will? Does it include provision for the Work of the Lord? I can tell you that I have a will and then when it’s my time to shuffle off this mortal coil, there’s something in it for this church. I should also warn you that there’s probably not enough in it to warrant anyone tampering with my brakes this week, though…

How does your discipleship determine your spending? If the answer to that is “Um, I don’t know…” or “It doesn’t”, let me encourage you to take some time this week thinking about what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus as a citizen of the wealthiest society this planet has ever known.

Another area in which we can easily give more than we’ve gotten is that of investing ourselves in future generations. In a few moments, we’ll be baptizing little Karalynn. You’re going to like it. I’ll probably cry. Her parents are going to make a few promises, and then it’ll be your turn. You’ll be asked whether you intend to live a life of faith on which she can model her own. You’ll be asked whether you intend to make available to her resources that will allow her to grow as a follower of Jesus. We’ll ask you all of these questions in the context of the baptism of Karalynn.

But here’s the deal: this particular little screecher lives in Akron, Ohio. So when you’re asked these questions, you might be tempted to think, “Sweet! There’s no way I’ll be asked to really follow through on these. She’s not my problem!”

Except, of course, that you’re not only speaking for yourself in these moments. You’re speaking as an agent of The Church of Jesus Christ. Her parents are promising to put her in a place where The Church can see her. You, on behalf of The Church, are promising that there are believers who are interested in and concerned for the lives of babies who have been baptized elsewhere – or not at all.

You are saying that a part of being a Christian means that we take an active role in the spiritual nurture of other people’s children. And, to be honest, with the ministry of the Preschool and the Open Door, this congregation does this better than most… but what is your investment in this practice? How are you blessing the next generation as it seeks to learn what it means to be fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God?

And finally, each of us can give more than we’ve gotten as we seek to live lives of grace and gratitude. In our every day decisions about how to invest our energy, what to get excited about, where to put our worries… can we just be thankful? David thought about his death, and then turned around and thanked God for life. Paul saw the conflict and fear that faced early Christians throughout the Roman Empire, and said, “Well, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with everyone.”

You, beloved – you can do this. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When the yahoos cut you off in traffic, let them in. Buy someone else’s lunch. That little thing that your spouse does that just gets under your skin? Let it go. Turn off the social media and the talk radio and news every now and then. That horrible thing that happened to you? Don’t make that the most important part of who you are.

About fifteen years ago, modern American poet Scott Cairns penned this brief verse entitled “Imperative”, and I keep it in my Bible to remind me of the call to live a life of grace. Listen:

The thing to remember is how

tentative all of this really is.

You could wake up dead.

Or the woman you love

could decide you’re ugly.

Maybe she’ll finally give up

trying to ignore the way

you floss your teeth as you

watch television. All I’m saying

is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,

and she’ll probably keep putting off

any actual decision about your looks.

Could be she’ll be glad your teeth

are so clean. The morning could

be full of all the love and kindness

you need. Just don’t go thinking

you deserve any of it.[2]

Beloved, we’re getting close to the end of David’s story. We may be close to the end of mine or yours. At any rate, let us commit ourselves to being people who give freely what we cannot keep forever in the hopes that in so doing, we’ll learn how to hold on to that which we cannot lose. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/perceptions-discrimination-muslims-christians/519135/

[2] From philokalia, ©2002 by Scott Cairns. Used by permission of the author.

Wonder vs. Worry

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 April 17, we returned from our Lenten/Easter hiatus from this message and considered Jesus’ charge to be worry-free.  We did so by listening to the Word contained in Matthew 6:25-34 as well as Proverbs 3:5-8.

 

Some people call it “quote-mining” or “contextomy”. You may not be familiar with either of those terms, but I know you’ve seen this practice in action. I’m talking about the ways that we pick and choose what to repeat to others to make sure that our message, our presumptions, our prejudices come across in the best light possible.

SevenPosterFor instance, when the film Se7en was released, Entertainment Weekly printed a pretty harsh review, noting that the best part of the entire move was the opening credits: “The credit sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psychoparaphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia.” When they printed a movie poster, however, it read glowingly, “a small masterpiece!”

In 2013, the British daily paper called The Guardian ran an article about the wisdom of touring Sri Lanka. The author said, “Sri Lanka has the hotels, the food, the climate and the charm to offer the perfect holiday…It’s just a pity about the increasingly despotic government.” Yet within hours, the official Sri Lankan news agency provided a highly-edited link to the article, proclaiming “Sri Lanka has everything to offer the perfect holiday”.[1]

You might wonder why this matters today, here… It’s simple – people do this all the time in church. We find a little nugget that we like in the Bible, and then we memorize it and we repeat it and we sell it on t-shirts or inspirational posters. It doesn’t always work well, of course. Try quoting Hosea 1:2 at the next seminar for Christian singles: “Go and marry a prostitute who will bear illegitimate children conceived through prostitution.” Without the proper context, this verse is at least misleading if not dangerous.

Similarly, how many times have you heard someone quote Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength”? So often we take that to mean that you can literally do anything: run a marathon, win the Super Bowl, solve a Rubik’s Cube… because Christ will give you the strength to do whatever you want. Of course, when Paul wrote that sentence, he was talking about his own imprisonment and difficulties, and what he really meant was that he could get through or endure anything in the knowledge that Christ was with him. Context matters.

SermonMountI say all of this because we return to the Sermon on the Mount today, not having been here since January. And the reading that you’ve just heard represents some of the most beloved, most familiar language in the entire Bible. You’ve seen these words on greeting cards, on wall décor at the Christian bookstore, and in a thousand memes that come across social media.

And very few, if any, of these instances include the first word of the reading: “Therefore” (in Greek, dia touto). When someone says “therefore”, it is incumbent on us to read what has come before – that provides necessary context and information. “Since all of this is true, then…” So before we get to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field we need to remember what Jesus has already said.

Throughout the message, Jesus has indicated repeatedly that the life of a disciple is difficult because we engage the world on different terms than do those who are not followers. More specifically, he has just finished a statement about accumulating wealth and the dangers that arise when we build our lives around the service and worship of Mammon rather than God. He says that if we want to serve Mammon, or wealth, we can do so – but in seeking to orient our lives that way we will invariably be saying “no” to the life of faithfulness that he expects from his followers.

Having said all of that, then, he says “Therefore… If you want to serve God, and if you want to de-throne Mammon from your life, you can start by letting go of worry.” Worry, Jesus says, can get in the way of faithful service to God and neighbor, and has no place in the Christian life.

Which sounds good in theory, but the truth is very few people will confess to enjoying worry; most of us wish we had fewer worries; and when someone tells us “Hey, don’t worry”, that’s about as helpful as having a friend tell you to “Cheer up” or “don’t be mad”. “Don’t worry about tomorrow.” As my niece reminded me this morning, “Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.” Thanks, Jesus. Short of putting Xanax in the drinking water, how are we going to do this?

Fortunately, Jesus has a concrete suggestion or two. “Look at the birds”, he says. “Consider the lilies”.

And we think now that maybe Jesus is guilty of a little decontextualization. Consider the birds? Are you crazy, Jesus? Didn’t you see that news story about die-offs that are occurring these days? Last week, dozens of starlings were found dead in Fairfax County, VA. Before that, villagers in Bangladesh found 5000 dead robins, mynahs, kingfishers, and nightingales in the wake of a storm; last month they were picking dead Northern Gannets off the shores of Florida. If you want us not to worry, I’m not so sure that this is a great example, Jesus…

Relax. Jesus’ point is not that every bird lives an idyllic existence and dies happy of old age. His point is that it is not in the nature of birds to define themselves by their ability to acquire or store material objects. Birds and flowers and other living things are, Jesus said, dependent upon that which is beyond them to satisfy their daily needs and engage in any kind of meaning and purpose.

So when Jesus says, “Look at the birds!” or “Look at the flowers!”, what he’s doing is advocating the spiritual practice of wonder, which almost always, in my experience, leads to the fruits of appreciation and joy – the opposite of worry.

In a world that is obsessed with efficiency and productivity and acquisitiveness and making sure that I have mine, disciples are called to live with the freedom that says that it is not up to us. We are not the first movers, the prime actors, or the ultimately responsible parties. We are followers. We are servants. We are companions. We learn this as we engage in the joy of exploring and wondering – by simply looking at that which surrounds us and seeking to be filled with awe as we contemplate its existence and joy as we see where it leads.

If you know much about me, you know that I have found the ability to engage in the discipline of wonder through immersing myself in the natural world. When I am able to slow down and remember that I am surrounded by a creation that is not mine to control, I am able to be grateful for that gift and to the One who is the Author of such a creation.

A friend passed along a little book entitled How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, and the British author captures my sense of wonder and awe well in this description of his encounter with a drab little bird in his backyard. Listen:

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow - a "Little Brown Job", or "LBJ" if ever there was one in the birding world!

A Dunnock, or Hedge Sparrow – a “Little Brown Job”, or “LBJ” if ever there was one in the birding world!

…I came in from a hard January frost and a feeble winter sun. The sun didn’t do much for me, but it stirred the soul of a dunnock. A dunnock is perhaps the drabbest bird in Britain… a dunnish, brownish, smallish, skulking little thing… And he, ignoring the cold, was filled with a sudden excitement about the coming of the warmer weather. In that iron frost, he felt the tug of spring; and he sang his heart out as a result. It’s not a great song, compared with that nightingale on Walberswick marshes. It’s not a special bird, in terms of peak experiences; I’d come in telling everybody about my hobby, but I wouldn’t take up anybody’s time with a dunnock moment.

But there he was against the cold blue sky, every feather picked out by the low winter sun as he sang his song of spring and gave it absolutely everything. It was a song that made the whole day better. A common bird; a rare moment.[2]

Do you see? I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “Consider the birds” – look for ways to be engaged with the world that point you to wonder and awe.

As I’ve said, for me, that means taking a walk or working in the garden. Maybe that helps you wonder, too. If not, here are a few other ideas:

  • plant a seed, preferably with the assistance of a child. Watch. Wait. Repeat.
  • turn off the talk radio and the 24 hour news channels, which are entire industries built on instilling worry and anxiety in people like us.
  • try your hand at baking a loaf of bread
  • take some photos – or just look at some
  • the next cobweb you find – look at it carefully. Consider how intricate, how frail, how temporary – how wonderful – it is.
  • if you have access to a pregnant friend, look at her belly. Touch it. Marvel at the gift of life (warning: make sure that this person is a) a really good friend and b) has given you permission. If you don’t, it’s at least really, really creepy and probably illegal as well!)

In short, stop to consider all of the breathtakingly amazing stuff that happens every single day for which you have absolutely ZERO responsibility and over which you have no control.

KidneyYou may recall that math and science are not the things at which I’m best. In fact, most of my teachers spent a great deal of time suggesting that I major in English or Social Studies of some sort. And yet the single best lecture I’ve ever heard was in my required biology course at Geneva College, where Dr. Calvin Freeman spoke for three hours on the topic of “The Renal Cell Structure as it Reflects the Glory of God.” In that talk, Dr. Freeman spent two afternoons describing for us in painstaking detail the ways that the cells in our kidneys were structured and how they functioned. His point was that if we never had the book of Genesis, if we never read a word of the Creation, even then we could ascertain the power and majesty of the Creator simply by looking at and learning from the Creation. Dr. Freeman taught me about wonder, and I’ve always been grateful for that.

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

Christ in the Wilderness: Consider the Lilies, Stanley Spencer, 1939

When we wonder, we are more free to be involved in and interested in this thing that is greater than we are; when we consider that for which we are not responsible, we are better equipped to do what we can to participate in the world that is bigger than we are. As we discover the work, the care, the beauty of the source of all life, we are increasingly free to seek God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness – two other things that are not ours to manipulate or purchase.

Consider the birds… Look at the lilies… In admiring and appreciating that which is not ours to control, command, produce, or achieve – it becomes easier to use what we do have and who we are becoming in ways that are congruent with God’s purposes for us, our neighbor, and the world.

You’ll see a lot in the next few days, I suspect, about “Earth Day.” You’ll hear about the weather. You’ll probably rejoice in or complain about it. The pollen will have you sneezing or itching. The birds are on the move. Notice this, people of God. Notice it. And give thanks. And live like it matters, not just to you, but to your neighbor and to the One who gave it to us, and the One who takes great delight in it and in you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] These and other instances of quote-mining can be found on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallacy_of_quoting_out_of_context#cite_note-7

[2] From How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, Simon Barnes (Pantheon, 2005). I don’t have a page number because my copy has gone missing; this quote was found here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1176663883

Gratitude: A Matter of Life and Death

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

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

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

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

God helps those who help themselves

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

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

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

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

You ought to give your money to the church.

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

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

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

The Worship of Mammon (1909) Evelyn De Morgan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Cumberland St. castle for the last 21 years…

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

Artist's representation...

Artist’s representation…

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

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

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

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

These people love me.

These people love me.

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

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

Listen for it, people…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at what God has done.

Love God.

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

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

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

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

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

Careful What You Wish For!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do” justice. What does that even mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s what they are. Words.

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

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

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

How’s the Water?

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to listen for our story in the stories of the Book of Judges.  On January 26 we sat once more with the disturbing character of Samson, perhaps the greatest and undoubtedly the worst of the Judges.  Our text included selected verses from Judges 14 as well as I Peter 2:9-12.

TwoFishDid you hear about the two young fish who were swimming along and encountered an older fish?  “Morning, boys!  How’s the water?” he said as he passed them.  He went on his way.  After a few moments, one of the pair turned to his friend and said, “Water? What the hell is water?”[1]

I love that little story because it reminds us how easy it is to forget the fact that we exist in a culture.  Every day, we make decisions and choices based on what we, or what “everyone” knows.  This morning, as we continue to explore the book of Judges, we see how the story of Samson illustrates for us the ways in which it is so easy to allow someone or something else to define our environment and expectations.  When that happens, rather than looking towards God’s best, I am simply swimming thoughtlessly and often faithlessly along with the tide.

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

The Fountain of Samson in Kiev, Ukraine

Let’s think about what we know already from last week’s reading.  Why was Samson born? “To begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5)  God is sending this person into the world so that God’s people might have an alternative way of living – so that they can reject the slavery, oppression, violence, and greed that characterize the cultures around them and live into the purposes of God.

So Samson is going to begin this.  How?  What is distinctive about this baby?  He is called to be a Nazirite.  One who is set apart, or consecrated.

OK, do you remember what a Nazirite looks and acts like? Are there rules for this sort of thing?  Of course.  Samson is not to allow his hair or beard to be cut; he is to avoid contact with anything related to grapes; and he is to avoid becoming unclean by contact with the dead, or by eating anything unclean.

That’s what we learned last week, and when we left chapter 13, young Samson was beginning to experience the Spirit of the Lord.

In chapter 14, which we did not read, he falls in love with a Philistine woman. Yes, that’s right.  The one who has been sent into the world in order to “deliver us” from the Philistines now finds himself drooling at the thought of marrying one.  That’s a funny way to deliver us…like sponsoring a “Gambler’s Anonymous” meeting at the casino.  But, well, you know…young love…

And so on his way to visit this young beauty, he has an encounter with a lion as he is taking the shortcut through the vineyard.  An observant reader such as yourself might think, “Self, I thought Nazirites were supposed to avoid contact with grapes.  Why is this Nazirite hanging around vineyards, let alone sponsoring a seven-day feast “as was customary” at the wedding?”

Hmmm.

This sounds like a lot of grape wine.

At a Nazirite’s wedding.

To a Philistine girl.

The author of Judges reveals Samson as one who time after time receives the blessing or the empowerment of God, but who takes that blessing lightly.  More than any other character in this book of Judges, “the Spirit of the Lord” comes to Samson, but nearly every single time he uses the benefit of that encouragement and strengthening to vent some petty, vengeful, selfish rage.  The impression one gets is that Samson is a shallow hothead, and if we are honest, we see that the one who was born to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines is, in fact, acting just like them.

Remember, my theory is that the book of Judges was given to describe the choices we make, and to consider in what ways we are willing to embrace God’s intentions of justice, freedom, and joy.

How’s the water, Samson?

In the passage you heard this morning from chapter 15, we discover that the leaders of the nation of Israel are turning Samson over to the Philistine authorities.  Why? Because evidently, they fear the Philistines more than they trust God.  Did you hear what they said to Samson?  “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us?”  Last week, we noted that the people of Israel didn’t cry out when they were suffering the oppression of the Philistines.  Here, we see that they take it as normal.  It’s just the water that they’re swimming in, that’s all.

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

Samson Slaying a Philistine, Giambologna (1560)

The leaders of Israel cave in to the purposes of their Philistine rulers.  Samson hides out in selfishness and anger, and when he is finally brought face to face with them, the Spirit of God comes upon him.  And when the Spirit of the Almighty fills him, our hero, the Nazirite, grabs… the jawbone of a donkey.  A dead donkey.

Nazirite rule #1 – no grapes.  Gone.

Nazirite rule #2 – no contact with the dead.  Gone.

And in spite of that, Samson overpowers the enemy and slays a thousand men.  With the jawbone of a dead donkey.

And then, for the first time in his life that we can see, Samson cries out to God.  Do you remember how many times the book of Judges contains the phrase, “and the people cried out to God to save them from their enemies…”?  When the people realized how weary they were of sin and death and slavery and idolatry?  Do you remember when the people prayed BIG prayers and said, “Lord, save us”?

And here, the people don’t pray.  The people have given their leader over to the enemy.  One man prays.  And he doesn’t even pray a big prayer.  He asks for a drink of water.

Do you see how the faith is being diminished here?

Yes, God responds – because God’s grace is amazing.  But doesn’t this whole set-up seem wrong?  This can’t be what God had in mind when he brought the Children of Israel to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey – to a life characterized by God’s presence and God’s purposes.

It’s not.  Look at the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson “led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.”  Do you see?  God’s people.  God’s hopes.  But Philistine days.

How’s the water?  It’s Philistine water.  And what has happened in the last fifteen chapters is that our people have become increasingly defined by the purposes of others.  We have lost sight of the Lord and accept as truth conditions imposed by powers in our world – powers that defy the truth and beauty of God.

We believe lies, and we live as though we can’t change them.

And this is what is so frustrating and disappointing to me on January 26, 2014: that the people of God in so many ways continue to live in the days of the Philistines.  We continue to accept as truth the lies of the enemy, and to pretend that there is nothing we can do to change that.

We see that in our world.  This week, Oxfam released a report indicating that the world’s wealthiest 85 individuals have a combined worth that equals that of the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people.  One group of people, who could ride in a single Megabus (as if that is ever going to happen), are richer than the number of people who currently live in North and South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and Europe.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

I took this photo of an heroic woman and her daughter (see that little foot!) carrying 100 pounds of food home during the famine relief effort in Malawi in 2013.

When that statistic came out this week, there was a collective yawn.  A few folks talked about “class warfare”. Some raised questions of justice.  But mostly, the people I talk to said something like, “Well, what are you going to do?  That’s the way that the world is. The rich get richer.”

They do.  We do.  But although these are the waters in which we are currently swimming, they are not the waters of God’s intentions for the earth.  I do not deny anyone the right to work hard and to benefit from his or her labor.  But as George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

I don’t know how to fix it, but I would suggest that a world in which wealth and power flow increasingly from the many to the few is a world that looks more like the slavery and oppression of Egypt rather than the justice and sufficiency of the Promised Land.  The Church of Jesus Christ worships a savior who was born in poverty, raised as a refugee, lived as a homeless man, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  We don’t need to attack the rich – but we dare not forget the poor and work for justice.

GunDrawing001In our own nation, we live in the days of the Philistines.  Every year, more than 30,000 human beings are killed in the United States by guns.  Every day, 32 Americans are murdered with firearms.  Every day, 8 children die of gunshots.

Now hold your horses, Second-Amendment Sally.  And don’t get all worked up, Gun-control Gus.  I don’t want to start an argument about strategy right now.  What I hope is that the people of God in the USA in 2014 can think about those numbers – 30,000 deaths in a year, 32 murders in a day – and say, “You know, that’s too many.”

Can the NRA and the people from the Brady Campaign agree on much? Nope.  But can the church of Jesus Christ say that it is not acceptable to simply say, “Hey, it happens.  People die.  Nothing we can do.”

Again, I don’t know what the answer is – I only know that this water is making me sick.  We will disagree on strategies and on policies and maybe even priorities.  If we knew that once a year, somewhere in the USA, a building the size of PNC Park was going to be wiped out, would we want to do something?  I hope so.  In the same way, I hope that we can begin to think that maybe losing 30,000 people a year to gun violence is preventable – that there are solutions that honor individual rights and responsibilities.  People of faith need to be talking about how to end illegal gun sales.

following-the-crowd_thumbAnd it’s not just in our world or in our nation.  It’s in our own lives.  How often do we allow the culture around us to define who we are, or who we are becoming?  We cheat on the test.  We drive like maniacs.  We get drunk and act like idiots.  We participate in all kinds of behavior which is less than God’s best for us.  Why?  Because everyone else is doing it.

Listen, beloved – this is not a sermon on the distribution of wealth or guns or personal choices.  It’s a call to be the people who know that the place we live in isn’t always shaped by God’s intentions but who act like those intentions are still valid.

When we live like this, we refuse to throw up our hands in despair over the evils of racism, domestic violence, or anything else, saying “What are you gonna do?”

When we live like this, we refuse to behave as if these are the “days of the Philistines” and we seek to act reflecting the love and mercy and justice of Jesus of Nazareth.  When we live like this, we acknowledge that our lives point to a greater truth.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and he slew a thousand Philistines in a fit of rage.  And for doing that, he got his picture in the Bible coloring books.  He’s a hero.

But can we conceive of a reality where the Spirit comes upon Samson and instead of satisfying his personal vendetta he used the power he got from God to establish justice?  Could Samson have used that power from God differently?

To be honest, that’s a rhetorical question, and right now I’m not particularly interested in that.

What I do want to know, this morning, is this:

What will you do, in the waters where you are swimming right now, when the Spirit of God comes upon you?

In whose days do you live?  What makes you sigh and say, “What are you gonna do?”

And what are the intentions of the God that you worship and serve? And how do you point to them…even if no one else can see them right now?  And will you help me point to them, too?  Because unlike Samson, we are not in this alone.  Let us work together to discover and demonstrate the purposes of God in and for this place. Amen.


[1]  Adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College

The “F” Word

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. On 17 November, we heard the fourth and final installment in the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book (in terms of the amount of ink that he gets, anyway).  Scriptures included Psalm 14 and Judges 8:22-35.

Hey, did you hear the latest? Apparently, a politician was discovered to have been saying one thing, but doing something else.  Can you believe that?131010_john_boehner_barack_obama_ap_605

No, I’m not talking about the recent debacle wherein some of the folks who said they opposed a government shut-down actually voted to continue it.

BushAnd I’m not talking about a generation ago where a leader invited us to read his lips about tax increases.

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedI’m not even talking about the author of such amazingly powerful language such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” who in reality supported and practiced the buying and selling of human beings in chattel slavery.

Look, I know that I’ve left a lot of people out, and there are probably some folks who aren’t yet offended.  I’d give you more examples, but I only have 23 minutes…

I’m talking, of course, about this morning’s scripture reading and Gideon.

winepress-threshingWhen we first met Gideon, he was a man driven by FEAR.  Do you remember those days?  He was hiding out in the winepress, doing his best to thresh the wheat underground because he was afraid of the Midianite bullies who would come and take it.  He was afraid to move forward into God’s call, even when that call was reaffirmed on multiple occasions by miraculous signs.  Do you remember the fearful Gideon?

And then a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time getting to know Gideon as a man of FAITH.  Sure, he’d been nervous, but after the signs at the altar and with the fleece, he comes around to believing what he tells the people of Israel in the words of Judges 7:15 – “The LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.”  And, in fact, we witnessed a great victory, didn’t we? Do you remember God’s people defeated a swarm of 135,000 with a force of only 300 men?Shofar

I would like to pause here, and note that after this amazing victory, Gideon stopped to worship the Lord.  I’d like to point out that when the Midianites were routed like this, Gideon liberated the Israelites to live in freedom and peace and that the justice of God prevailed.

I’d like to note those things, but unfortunately, I can’t, because they never happened.  The beginning of Judges 8, which was not included in our morning’s reading, contains an account of Gideon’s pursuit of the defeated enemy.  Remember, what’s the name of the book we’re studying?  Judges.  And what is a judge?  A bringer of justice, peace, and security.

Gideon leaves that role aside and winds up acting in arrogance and cruelty, with petty vindictiveness.  This man who was called by God to greatness and righteousness tortures some of his opponents and slaughters others.  In a particularly vile act, he tries to get his son – who is just a boy, and unable to lift or wield a sword – to murder two rivals in cold blood.

This would be a good time to review what we said when we began the series on Judges – that just as much as this volume is a collection of campfire stories about specific people and places, it’s also a story contrasting the reign and rule of God with the human tendency to be selfish, to grab and abuse power, and to create structures that diminish “the other” and inflate the self.  You may remember that I’m claiming that the most important verse in the whole book, repeated four times, is “in those days there was no King in Israel” – and so everyone did whatever he or she wanted to do.

This chapter of the Gideon story bears that out.  Things could have gone from bad to better, what with the Midianites being defeated and all that.  Justice and faithfulness could hold sway.

But what actually happens?  Once again, the Israelites and those in power among them fail to act like God.  They escape oppression only to become the oppressors. They are delivered from idol-worshipers only to act like pagans themselves.  I want to note one particularly sad fact about today’s reading: in verse 28 we read that after Gideon’s victory, “the land had rest for forty years”.  Here’s the bad news… That’s the last time that phrase appears in the book of Judges.  From here on out, there is no rest for the land, no peace, no Sabbath.  I’m telling you, hold onto your hats because it’s going to get worse.

Let’s look a little further at today’s reading.  The Israelites ask Gideon to be their king and rule over them.  Why?  Because, they tell him, “…for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.”

Now I would very much like to pause here and say point out that Gideon corrected the flawed theology of his fellow Israelites by pointing them to the truth that we have already considered from Judges 7:15, and telling that “the LORD has given the host of Midian into your hand.”

I’d like to do that, but of course, I can’t, because Gideon doesn’t come close to correcting them in that manner.  He gives them a kind of an “Aw, shucks guys, it was nothing…I’m just glad I could help the team out” kind of a speech.  And then, he does something curious.  He says, “You know, if you’d like to show your gratitude, maybe just one small gold earring per person.  Nothing big, not a lot of bling, you understand…but a token would be nice, and I’d sure appreciate it. I’m sure that the Mrs. (or, in Gideon’s case, the Mrs.-s plural!) would like that too.”

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (1633)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, Nicolas Poussin (1633)

Uh-Oh.  Do you remember the last time we were in a jam, and a really big army came against us, and we got through, and the leader asked for a token from us?  Like when Pharaoh’s army was swamped in the Red Sea and Moses’ brother Aaron collected a few of our trinkets and put together…the golden calf?  Yeah.  When we ministerial types start asking for a little something on the side, it doesn’t usually end up too well.  Be warned, folks.  This is not a good omen.

Here’s the deal: Gideon says all the right things.  “Oh, no!  Heavens! Your king is God, you silly little Israelites!  Not me.  No, no, no…I would not ever want that kind of a job.” That’s what he says… But let’s take a look at what he does:

He collects all those earrings and uses them to make an ephod.  I know what you’re thinking: “An ephod?  Really?  Come on Gideon, don’t you have three or four of them lying around already?  What would you want with an ephod…”

EphodAn ephod, of course, is a piece of religious apparel that was worn by the person who was called to be the High Priest.  It contained some sacred stones that were used to determine God’s will.  Exodus talks about the fact that these vestments were to be worn by the one charged with consulting God on matters of importance to the whole nation.

And here, Gideon makes an ephod and brings it to his hometown – short-circuiting the role of the High Priest.  In doing this, Gideon is essentially saying, “Sure, of course, God is King.  Not me.  I’m just his errand boy.  In fact, if you have any questions about what God wants from you, just come to me and I’ll make sure that you know what God is looking for…”

And Israel absolutely loves this idea.  We read that the nation “prostituted themselves” to this garment – they worshiped it.  The clothing became an object of worship – and note that this language is very similar to that which describes the ways that the Jews went after the false gods of Baal and Asherah.

So Gideon makes an ephod.  What else does he do?  Well, how many kids does he have? Seventy.  And how many wives does he have? “Many”.  Hmmmm.  Seventy sons, many wives and concubines…who has families that look like that? Kings do!

And lastly, Gideon names his son “Abimelech”. Granted, it’s not my favorite Biblical name.  I’ve never baptized one of those…but here’s the deal on that: “Abimelech” means “My father is the king.”

Do you see what’s going on here?  On the surface, Gideon is saying the right things: “Look, God is in control, not me.  I’m just his humble servant…is everything all right for you guys?”  Yet in manipulating the religion of the people, and establishing a dynasty, and naming his children, Gideon is doing the opposite.

This man of FEAR who grew into a man of FAITH has now devolved into a man of FOOLISHNESS.

The Hebrew word for “fool” is “Nabal”, and you heard about fools in the reading from the Psalm: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God…’”  And look, please, at the way that the fool’s heart is revealed “…they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”

Foolishness, as defined by the Bible, is not primarily a problem of intellectual capacity or theological correctness.  The problem with a fool is what he does, not necessarily what he believes.

And Gideon, by this definition, is a fool.  He says all the right things – but he doesn’t act on any of that great theology.

It is tempting to stop here and walk around inside of Gideon’s story a little more.  I’d like to really consider the ways that Gideon blows it and plays the fool by acting like such a knucklehead around God and God’s people.

And if I were clever, I could go back to the beginning of this message and tie in a few more current politicians or cultural leaders and say, “Do you see how this one or that one is really screwing it up big time?  But hey, they are politicians… crooks… Democrats…  Whaddya gonna do?”

But I wouldn’t be much of a pastor if all I talked about was Gideon or failed religious leaders or Republicans.

I want to talk about you.

In what ways have you been delivered from fear into faith, only to start behaving as a fool?

You know all the right things to say: Jesus wants us to love the neighbors…God is in control, and will work it out…Grace is a gift from God, and I really need to share it…

But how often do I live as though “I am the boss of me!  Nobody, but nobody tells me what to do with my time, my money, my kids my energy my…mine…mine…”

Um, hello…

Doesn’t God get to tell you what to do with your time, money, kids, energy, and so on?

Every single day, we are tempted to live into our own rules – to tell stories in such a way so that the behavior that we have chosen is justified.  We claim the faith, but we act the fool – because we behave, time and time again, like Jesus is not who he said he was.  We, no less than Gideon and the ancient Israelites, live in a culture where there is no king, and everybody does what they want to do when they want to do it.  And if we have a little bit of doubt, we listen to the people who tell us what we want to hear so that our own prejudices and ignorances are bolstered.

A wise person, on the other hand, allows other viewpoints to be considered.  We’ve spoken of politicians this morning.  Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest President, achieved that prominence in part by surrounding himself with a cabinet comprised of intelligent people who disagreed with him in some key areas – a “team of rivals” who guarded him against the temptation to simply do whatever he wanted to do.

How do you know what to do with the time, money, kids, energy, and other things with which God entrusts you?  Who helps you to explore the core decisions of your life when it comes to school or child rearing or money and energy?  Do you have a community that comes alongside of you and helps you discern how best to move forward?

Or are you more likely to join Gideon and head out to the tabernacle you’ve built in your own backyard, strap on your own custom-made ephod, and do whatever the heck you want to do just because you can?

Beloved, if we are going to grow into the people God would have us be, I am sure it’s because we are willing to seek out wise counsel.  We are willing to pray with those whom we respect – some of whom might actually agree with us, while others might see things differently than do we.

The story of Gideon, at this point, is not an inspirational nugget designed to foster effective leadership practices at home and work.  It is a stark warning to a people who are too often in a hurry to play the fool by saying all the right things and somehow doing too many of the wrong things.

Beloved, let me encourage you this day to know and study God’s intentions.  That’s great.  But more than that, act towards those intentions.  Behave like someone who believes all the great stuff you believe.  Hold on to the promises, and act like they are true.

They are.  You can.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.