Who’s Laughing Now?

 

 Palm Sunday 2017 brought the folks at the Crafton Heights Church together in celebration of Palm Sunday worship.  Our texts included Psalm 2 and Luke 19:28-44.

For your convenience, an audio recording of this sermon as preached on 04/09/17 is available by clicking on the arrow to the left, below.

I’d like to start this message by showing you one of my favorite photos that includes some of my favorite people standing in one of my favorite places in the world. This is the team that has recently returned from an amazing mission to Malawi, Central Africa. That large rock face behind us is known as the Mulanje Massif, and we’re about halfway into a hike that will take us to a delightful little waterfall. There are three things I’d like to tell you about this photo.

I love this bend in the trail because when you come close to the edge, you can see very, very clearly all sorts of places where you’ve already been. When you look back, you can see the path up which we’ve come. Look down into the valley, and the stream and the camp and the road are visible.

Jesus Enters Jerusalem and the Crowds Welcome Him, Pietro Lorenzetti 1320


As we enter Holy Week, and as we continue our Lenten journey, and as we live into what it means to be Christians alive in the USA in the 21st century, we, too, can look back. If we look back far enough, we can catch a glimpse of the Triumphal Entry – Jesus coming into Jerusalem. Wow, that was a day to remember! The waving of the palms, the enthusiasm of the children, the singing – heck, even the protest was kind of fun. Who could forget the so-called “religious leaders” who were so appalled by the things that Jesus said and did? I mean, here was Jesus, receiving and enjoying the praise of the people even as he carried their hopes on his own back, getting ready to enter into the most desolate time of his life.

There’s so much that happened on Palm Sunday, and yet from our vantage point, it’s easy to see that one of the central lessons of this day is simply that God, and not another, is in control. As we hear the echoes of the Hosannas, we can know that nothing – not even the events of that horrible week that was to come – is able to separate this creation from God’s intentions for it.

And yet, if we stand here long enough, we might also be able to hear Jesus weeping on that first Palm Sunday. We overhear his lament at the fact that we too often choose to act in ways that are contrary to the purposes of God, and we follow paths of isolation, estrangement, or violence… and Jesus weeps.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

If we stand here this morning and look a little further back, we might just be able to make out something very far off… Do you see in the events of Palm Sunday a shadow of Psalm 2? This song was written for a worship service in which a king would be crowned. It begins with a nod to the realities of its own day: there is political intrigue and conflict, and some are seeking to harm the Lord’s anointed one. The world, even then, is full of those who would thwart God’s intentions – the old translations say that “the nations rage”.

As we listen to Psalm 2, it’s instructive to note that this is the only place in the entire Old Testament where God’s messiah, King, and Son are mentioned in the same breath. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the early disciples remembered this Psalm as they talked about Jesus in Acts chapter 4. Jesus really became the son, king, and messiah of which the Psalm spoke, and they were able to look back and see that.

And in joining the disciples in reflecting on this Psalm, we can hear a sound that is even more distinct than the weeping of Jesus on Palm Sunday: the laughter of God. The Psalmist pictures the Lord considering the threat of the nations and finding it, well, amusing. As if the nations and their rage could threaten the eternal purposes of God. Please… The encouraging, comforting laughter of YHWH tells us that the universe is all right and that’s God’s care has not and will not fail.

So like those hikers in Africa, we can stand on the path and look back… and it’s good.

But let me tell you something about this photo. When this image was captured, I was about dead. The day was almost unbearably hot. I was irritated at carrying a backpack that seemed to have four people’s stuff in it. And, as much as it pains me to say it, I was out of gas. Every muscle in my body hurt and I was tired and achy and miserable. We took that photo because if we hadn’t stopped, the “Abusa with the big hat” wouldn’t have made it. I was overwhelmed, and so I suggested that we stop and take a moment to look around.

On Palm Sunday, 2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights will do well to pause and look around. Does anyone else feel as though you’re having a hard time? Have you felt this week or last week or sometime recently like it’s been really tough sledding? And I’m not just talking about your kidney stones or your sister-in-law’s job, I’m talking about the big picture. 3000 years ago, the Psalmist said that the nations were raging. 2000 years ago, Jesus walked right into a plot led by the religious leaders.

And this week, scores of innocent people were killed in a gas attack in Syria. Already this month, 43 Ethiopian children have been abducted from their villages by armed gunmen who killed 28 adults in the process. There are senior citizens in our own country who lack basic health care. Children in our neighborhood are going to bed hungry. Relationships are strained or broken. Many of us feel as though we are dwelling in uninterrupted pain or grief or depression. You think that maybe you heard Jesus weeping on Palm Sunday but in reality it was the not-so-stifled cries of the people around you. The nations have not stopped their raging.

We stop now, as we hide out here in worship, because we have to. We are threatened by the magnitude of the evil that we see on a daily basis. We come in and we talk about the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, but so many times that runs counter to our experience. It hurts. People are horrible to each other. If we can possibly hear the laughter of God, we’re not always experiencing it as comfort…there are days when it sounds as though even the Divine One is making a mockery of our very existence. We cry out in the midst of our pain and alienation, “Where are you now, God?”

Oh, we don’t always show it. I mean, look at that photo. I’m hiding behind the group. You can’t hear my wheezing. I look happy enough, but don’t believe it for a moment. Too often the rest of you do the exact same thing… you waltz in here and you’re dying on the inside but you won’t show it for a moment. The nations rage, and we feel it on the inside, even if we can’t show it…

OK, there’s one more thing you need to know about this photo and the place where it was taken: from where we are standing on the mountainside, we can’t see where we are going next. The path at this point disappears into some pretty heavy growth and winds around the side of the mountain. Oh, sure, the people who have been here before will tell you all about the waterfall that lies ahead, but you can’t see it or hear it from here. If you’ve never been there before, you can’t even begin to imagine the beauty of the spot to which we’re headed, or the way that those icy waters will refresh and invigorate even the weariest of muscles. Yet every single person in this photo turned to their right and marched into the forest, even though only three of us had ever been there before.

And truth be told, that’s a good metaphor for a lot of us in church now. We may be here because we’ve always come, or we may have a vague hope that somehow things will work out all right for us. Maybe we trust in the one who invited us into this part of the journey, or we believe that the path wouldn’t have led this far just to stop – I mean, it’s got to lead somewhere, right?

And so we keep walking. We hold on to the hope that Psalm 2 is true. We rely on the fact that the events of Palm Sunday are, in fact, a foretaste of what is to come.

Listen: I wish that I could stand here and tell you how you will experience the laughter of God in your own life. I long to give you the absolute assurance that you will receive healing in your own life; that your child will grow into a healthy, happy, and energetic adulthood; that your job will not be erased in the next sequence of downsizing. I wish I could say all of that for you, and you, and you…

But to be honest, I can’t see that far ahead on the path for you or for me; and, unlike that mountain in Africa, I’ve never been here before.

But what I can say is this: that I am confident of the path, and that I believe the one who called us to walk on it with him. I trust that in a cosmic sense, we are going to arrive at the truth that seems so far off right now.

The people frozen in that photo are in the in-between. They’re not where they started, but they can’t yet imagine how they’ll finish. Similarly, Palm Sunday is between the glory of the incarnation with all of the angels and the shepherds and the wise men and the astounding news of the resurrection… but with the pain of Holy Week on the immediate horizon.

Likewise, the death and resurrection of Jesus itself is between the unspoiled beauty of creation as described in Genesis and the ultimate healing that is put forward in the resurrection of the body and recreation of the world of which we spoke last week.

So, too, are we, right now, pausing to catch our breath, knowing that we are on our way. And since we don’t know what’s ahead, specifically, for any one of us, then for God’s sake let’s do our best to make the journey better for each of us.

Right before this photo was taken, I had set that heavy pack down. After our break, Joe picked up the pack and carried it for me. Our friend Keith walked with the team, and talked in a way that was encouraging and inspiring. Rachael saw that a couple of folks had emptied their water bottles, and she shared from her own.

I know. You’re not going to Malawi – at least not any time soon. But you can do all that stuff, you know. You have it in you to pick up someone else’s load for a while, even if he didn’t ask you to. You can stand next to your friend and tell her that you’re tired, or scared, or unsure. You can share what you have, even when you’re not sure that it will be enough. And you can keep on walking – walk right through the pain and betrayal of the upper room, into the darkness of Good Friday and the cold deadness of Holy Saturday. You can keep walking until you get a glimpse of the sunrise of the resurrection.

Maybe you can’t hear the laughter of God right now. But it’s coming. I promise you, it’s coming. And it is for you. Thanks be to God, it is for you, and for the innocents of Syria and the children of Ethiopia; it is for the One who rode a donkey into Jerusalem and for those who waited with him at his execution. In a real and final sense, the laughter of God is for the last, the lost, the least, the little and the dead. God laughs. And it’s good. Amen.

When The Shepherd is a Lamb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sacrifice of Isaac; Caravaggio (1601-02)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life Among the Philistines

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On February 5, we heard the story of his sojourn amongst the Philistines as found in I Samuel 27-30.  Our worship was further informed by a portion Paul’s note to his friends as found in Philippians 4:10-13.

 

When I was in high school, I looked up to a man who constantly belittled my friends who were not from the church. If I were to miss a church event in order to, say, attend a concert, he would invariably say something like, “So, the children of Israel are out consorting with the Philistines again, eh?”

For a long time, I thought he was just hopelessly behind the times. “Philistines? I never heard of those guys. No, I’m going to hear Blood, Sweat, and Tears.”

biblical_israel_and_philistiaPhilistia is the ancient name for a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Judean foothills. Today, we know that geography better by the Hebrew name, pelesheth, or Palestine. In modern usage, to call someone a Philistine is to imply that he is crude or unrefined and perhaps somewhat oafish – like the giant Goliath, perhaps. The Philistines that we meet in scripture are a group of people who descended from emigrants from one of the Mediterranean islands. They are known primarily for three things: 1) they are called “sea people” and are renowned as sailors; 2) they mastered the use of iron well before the nations around them, and the Israelites were forced to depend on Philistines for help sharpening their tools and weapons; and 3) they produced and consumed an amazing amount of beer. Although we sometimes hear the word as a disparagement, the reality is that in many ways, the Philistines were technically advanced in comparison to the Hebrews and the other cultures around them.

They were, however, the sworn enemies of Israel. In fact, for all of David’s life, the Philistines had been making things miserable for the Jews as they conducted raid after raid into Hebrew territory. In David’s time, any Israelite in his or her right mind sought to avoid the Philistines like the plague.

But there came a time, as you just heard, when David actually sought out the Philistines. Sick to death of the unjust persecution he was receiving from the hand of King Saul, David sneaks across the border into Philistia and applies for refugee status. He and his band of about 600 soldiers, along with their families, approach king Achish with a deal: “Look, your majesty,” David says, “we’ve been providing protection for folks in this area for a long time. We can help you out, too. You hate Saul; Saul hates me; why can’t we be friends? Can this be a win-win situation?”

Achish says “yes” and in fact gives David his own town, Ziklag, to use as a home base. For the next year and a half, David functions as a sort of double agent. He keeps assuring Achish that he is attacking Saul’s troops and positions within Israel, but in reality, he and his men are destroying communities that belong to the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. They are enriching themselves, raising their esteem among the Israelites in the border areas, and managing to avoid the armies of King Saul.

Now, listen to me: there is nothing savory or redemptive about this period of David’s life. He and his men are essentially free-lance mercenary soldiers on seek and destroy missions. David is acting as what scholar Walter Brueggemann describes as a “con man of the first order”. He is ruthless and cunning and calculating and cruel.

And it may be that David would say that he had no choice; if he hadn’t been being pursued by the maniacal king of Israel, he’d have been able to stay home and tend sheep. By all appearances, every single choice open to David at this juncture of the story is a bad choice. And so he lives on the edge for a while…

menofdavid…Until things went south in a hurry. David has made such an impression on Achish that the Philistine King announces to David that he and his men will be needed to take part in a surprise attack on King Saul and the Israeli army. David is in a jam, because he’s depending on Achish’s good will to preserve his life and property in Ziklag, but he’s sworn an oath not to lift a hand against King Saul. The apparent solution comes from an unexpected source: the other Philistine generals refuse to fight if David’s in the mix. They say that David is too faithful to Saul and to the Israelites; he can’t be trusted to work towards their defeat. David and his men return to Ziklag, thinking that they’ve dodged another bullet, but discover that something horrible has happened. Listen:

David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and everyone else in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way.

When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured—Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God.

Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelek, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?”

“Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.”

David and the six hundred men with him came to the Besor Valley, where some stayed behind. Two hundred of them were too exhausted to cross the valley, but David and the other four hundred continued the pursuit.

The Capture of Ziklag

The Capture of Ziklag

Things go from bad to worse for David in a hurry. He’s being hunted like a dog in his own country, so he crosses into enemy territory. He spends months earning the trust of his Philistine boss, knowing that at any time he could be discovered as a fraud and killed. He comes home from the day he almost had to choose between attacking his own countrymen or revealing the lie he’s been living for the past year, and when he makes it home, he discovers that everyone he loves has been kidnapped and his home is destroyed. If that’s not bad enough, his own men are finally angry enough at him that they’d like to knock his block off and some of them are talking about stoning David to death.

Have you ever had days like that?

Not only is nothing going right, but everything is going wrong. There are no good choices, and even the bad ones seem to be really, really bad. You’ve been trying your best, but everything you touch seems to turn to ash immediately. More than anything, you just want to go and pound on something or someone, but you have to be careful where to go because there is a growing line of people who are apparently eager to pound on you. Your only choices seem to be crash or burn. You don’t eve have the strength to cry any more.

I know you’ve had days like that; some of you have had weeks, months, or even years like that.

What do you do?

You may have noticed that our scripture readings for today skipped a few chapters of I Samuel. I did that because we’re primarily following David, but it might be helpful to note that I Samuel 28 records a day when King Saul was feeling that way. He was so down that in clear violation of Jewish law, he went to talk to a witch about his problems. The fact that the ruling king of Israel felt the need to do this reveals his isolation, fear, frustration, and spiritual bankruptcy at what’s going on in his life and his kingdom. To make matters worse, the witch informs him that not only is he going to die, but the dreaded Philistines are going to defeat the Israelite army. At the end of that episode, the once-proud, formerly gifted, powerful King Saul is left cringing and crying in the arms of this sorceress. In other words, Saul is simply unable to do anything that will reverse his fortune.

As he views the devastation of Ziklag, considers the abduction of his family, and comes face-to-face with his failure to live with integrity, David must feel the same way. Nothing has gone right.

And yet, somehow, David makes a different choice than did Saul. The best words in this part of the story come from David’s lips as he cries out, “Bring me the ephod!”

Do you remember back in chapters 21 and 22, when David went to get some help from the priests at the temple in Nob, and Saul was so irritated at the men of God for helping David that he wiped out 85 priests in a single day? There was only one man from a priestly family who escaped that day – a young man named Abiathar who fled to David for protection and came to serve as his spiritual mentor and advisor. And he brought along the ephod – the prayer tool used by the priests.

In his time of deep anguish, confusion, anger, and pain, David now says something that he hasn’t said in months: “Bring me the ephod!”

Whereas Saul, on the darkest of days, turned to a witch and sought answers in the powers of sorcery and evil, David sought the wisdom and strength of God even when he had no right to think it would accomplish anything.

Could David have turned to prayer sooner? Should he have? Where had Abiathar been for the past sixteen months? Was part of the problem that David was too in love with his perception of himself as a swashbuckling renegade? Was he so fascinated with his identity as a double-agent, or overconfident in his ability to strong-arm or sweet-talk his way through any problem?

Probably.

Could David have done things differently in the days leading up to this, the worst of them?

Of course he could have. But on all of those days, he didn’t call on God.

Today, he does.

When he is pressed between the armies of Saul on one side and Achish on the other while looking at the devastation of the Amalekites all around him, David sought to keep himself together by calling on the name of the Lord.

What will you do in the midst of your toughest trial? When you are squeezed flatter than a dime, beaten up, worn down, and pushed around… what will you do?

You can join with David and cry for the ephod. You can look to God for guidance and presence.

And I suspect that some of you now may be remembering that there was a New Testament verse read this morning, and you might think that this is where Pastor Dave pulls the golden cord and Philippians 4:13 comes raining down on our heads.

Having a tough day? Has your best friend’s dad tried to kill you, your boss threaten you, and your neighbors come in and kidnap your family while destroying your house? Just remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me…”

Have you heard that verse before? Have you ever thought, “What a load of hooey?”

I’m here to tell you that the way many Christians interpret it, it is a load of hooey.

Celebrity megapastor Joel Osteen, for instance, wrote this in his online devotional:

When was the last time you declared “I can” out loud? It’s not something people think to do every day. In fact, most people tend to magnify their limitations. They focus on their shortcomings. But scripture makes it plain: all things are possible to those who believe. That’s right! It is possible to see your dreams fulfilled. It is possible to overcome that obstacle. It is possible to climb to new heights. It is possible to embrace your destiny. You may not know how it will all take place. You may not have a plan, but all you have to know is that if God said you can…you can![1]

Star athletes show up for games with this verse emblazoned on their bodies or uniforms…as if chanting this phrase will stop the interception or get me the game ball… as if that’s the most important thing…

Do you think that’s what Paul’s getting at here? Do you think that it didn’t occur to David to just “name it and claim it” and grasp the victory and go home as king?

Paul didn’t write this note to the church in Philippi in order to motivate them to go out and beat the world; no, he wrote these words about finding contentment and hope in any situation so that they could have the courage to continue to walk through the tough places while the world was beating on them.

I’m not here to tell you that you are any different than David or Paul; you will face tough times, you will encounter difficult decisions, and some days the only choices you have will be horrible ones.   You will sense pain, or isolation, or frustration. That is not optional – it is the existence that we have been given in this, our life among the Philistines.

But which direction will that pain, isolation, or frustration send you? How will you respond to it?

Thank God for the ephod. Thank God for the encouragement and hope we can find when surrounded by even the most hideous of circumstances. Thank God that the story is not finished yet. Thank God that God has not left us, and promises not to leave us where we are now. Amen.

[1] “Today’s Word With Joel Osteen”, 1/21/2013 http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/2980275/posts

When the World Falls Apart

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we’ll be listening to the story found in the book of Roth.  Our text for Sunday June 19 was Ruth 1.  

 

If I heard it once, I heard it a dozen times last week as I shared vacation with my granddaughter: “Read me a story, Grampy.” And I did. You know I did.

Because we all love stories, don’t we? We like to hear them, read them, watch them, tell them… We use stories to entertain, instruct, inspire… we use stories to allow us to enter into a different reality – one that, if we’re lucky, allows us to understand our own a little better.

So this summer, we’re going to dive into one of my favorite stories of all time, a classic “once-upon-a-time” love story from the Old Testament that begins in tragedy and ends with “happily ever after”. It is, as you have heard, the story of Elimilech’s family – and more particularly, some of the women in that family.

Here’s a spoiler alert: if the story was really about Elimilech, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. If it was really about Naomi, or Ruth, or Boaz, it wouldn’t be in the Bible. Mostly, it’s in the Bible because of the ways that it points to the family that became King David’s family, and as you know, King David was a pretty big deal in the Bible.

More than that, though, it’s a story about the family that became Jesus’ family – also a pretty big deal in the Bible.

But as much as I’d like to tell you this story because it’s about Elimilech, or Naomi, or Ruth, or David, or Jesus… I think that the main reason we need to hear it today is because it’s about us. For the next five weeks, we’ll be listening to this old story and, I hope, being entertained, instructed, inspired, and challenged as we try to live lives of faith in 2016.

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

“Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab”, William Blake (1795)

The story begins with some amazingly horrible events. There is a famine in the land of the Promise, the land of Israel – and so Elimilech and his family become refugees in the land of Moab. Once there, however, things go from bad to worse, because only three verses into the story, Elimilech dies. It only takes two more verses for his only children, Mahlon and Chilion, to succumb, and now Elimilech’s widow is left with two foreign daughters-in-law in a foreign land. The first five verses of our story are about death, decay, and devastation.

Sounds like page one of this morning’s newspaper, doesn’t it? Shootings in Orlando, or Wilkinsburg, or Crafton Heights. Refugees streaming across borders in Turkey or Greece or Ethiopia or Germany or Honduras or… Families, many of which we know and love, who have been displaced by untimely death, or job loss, or the arrest of someone in the family, or unsavory landlords…

We don’t know what it’s like to move from ancient Israel into ancient Moab, but we know something about pain and loss and times when it seems like the world is simply falling to pieces, don’t we?

And when that happens, well, it can be easy to think that we are alone in the world. Nobody has felt pain like our pain. Nobody knows the difficulties we’ve been through. We are alone in our struggle against the universe, or God, or fate. And so in our reading from this morning, Naomi responds to the famine in her native land and the deaths of her husband and sons by sending away her daughters-in-law. “Don’t waste your time with me,” she says, “I’m a broken down wretch of a creature.” She tries to bless these women as she sends them back to their homes, but her heart isn’t really in it. Eventually, Orpah is able to leave her mother-in-law, but Ruth won’t hear of it. Four times, the old widow looks Ruth in the eye and says, “You don’t get it, do you? I’m alone. Beat it. Go home.” Because that’s what pain does, doesn’t it: it isolates you.

In his  “Ted Talk” on depression (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eBUcBfkVCo), Andrew Solomon says,

Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

“Naomi and Her Daughters-In-Law”, Marc Chagall, 1960

That’s what grief and pain and loss do to us, isn’t it? They make it seem impossible to grasp any kind of future. I’ve seen that in refugee camps in South Sudan. I heard it when my friend Kucho said, “the government of Sudan is bombing our villages in the Nuba mountains every week, and the world does not notice. Nobody cares. We are alone.” I have heard that in the plaintive cries of the lost and lonely and grief stricken here in our own community: “Go on home, Dave. You can’t do anything anyway. Nobody can.”

There are times, when like Naomi, we become convinced that not only is the world against us, but the Lord is too. “The hand of the Lord has turned against me”, she weeps. When the world is falling apart, it’s easy to think that you’re alone.

So our story tells us, so far, that horrible things happen and that when they do, we feel like we are alone. Another lesson from this chapter is that people who are in pain can be, well, unpleasant. Sometimes, people in pain act like real jerks. For instance, after Naomi is unsuccessful at getting her daughter-in-law to go back to her family, she returns to Bethlehem (accompanied by Ruth). Did you hear what she said when she got there? “My name isn’t ‘Naomi’ (meaning ‘pleasant’) anymore. Call me ‘Mara’ (which means ‘bitter’) from now on. When I left, I was full, but now I am empty and alone.”

Now when she says this, who’s there? The folks in Bethlehem, of course, but also Ruth. Here’s Naomi going on and on about how nobody loves her and all this horrible stuff has happened and she’s all alone in the world, and Ruth is standing there, helping to hold the old lady up, waiting to be introduced. The more that Naomi complains about being alone and bereft, the more Ruth has to be thinking, “Seriously? What am I, chopped liver? You know I can hear you, right Naomi?”

Remember Ruth had just made this amazingly beautiful speech about love and support and faithfulness – so beautiful, in fact, that some of you wanted to read it in your wedding services – and now Naomi is pretending that Ruth doesn’t even exist. What is up with that?

People in pain lash out – and often that winds up hurting those who choose to come close. I’ve seen that happen in a hundred ways: someone comes in to the church looking for a little help, and we go to the food pantry to pull a few things together. I come into the room where the person is waiting and explain that I’ve got some spaghetti and beans and peanut butter and whatnot and the person looks into the bag and says, “Strawberry jam? Seriously? I hate strawberry. Is this the best you’ve got?”

My first reaction is get defensive, and to proclaim, “Listen, Bub, you better check that attitude at the door because I’m only trying to help here… you’ve got no right to be angry with me.” And I realize, this person isn’t really angry with me. This person is ashamed at having to come to our food pantry, or devastated at the loss of a job, or otherwise incapacitated by the pain they’ve suffered, and I happen to be standing here at the time. That’s what happens when the world falls apart – we become people that we don’t want to be, at times.

So what do we do? We get it, Dave – the world is a hard place for lots of people on lots of days. What are we supposed to do about that?

The first and most important thing that we can do is to, pardon my language, give a damn. In a media cycle full of alligator attacks and celebrity divorces and gossip scandals and basketball finals… it’s easy to think of 49 people gunned down in Orlando as so “last week”, or to think that the nearly sixty million forcibly displaced people across the globe are someone else’s neighbor, not mine. You don’t like the news that’s in front of you? Change the channel. Turn the page. Play some Candy Crush or Trivia Crack. Who needs that negativity in your life, anyway?

I’m not asking you to care because it’s easy, or because it makes sense in your life right now. I’m asking you to give a rat’s ass about these kinds of things because I think that’s what the Gospel compels us to do. And if you are able to muster some discipline to care, at least a little bit, about the people whose lives are falling apart, then the next step is to look for a way to enter into some part of their story with them.

For the people who are close at hand, that’s a little easier. Our Cross Trainers Staff, for instance, will have the opportunity to brush up against some young people this summer whose worlds have been or are being turned upside down in all kinds of ways. You all will spend time with children who have been abused or neglected; you will engage with young people whom God loves dearly who carry incredible scars that might well be invisible. If someone opens up to you about some incredible pain, know that in all probability, you won’t be able to fix it. Fortunately, it’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job – it’s everyone’s job – to listen for it. To respect it. To enter into it. And then, perhaps in conversation with Brad or Jason or me or someone else, to help that child get to a place where she or he is able to envision a different reality for her or himself. The young people we’re hiring have the easiest way to respond to the message this morning.

stop-the-gun-violence-iconAnd if you’re not on Cross Trainers staff? Figure out a way to care. I don’t care if you are a gun owner or a pacifist, can we agree that it’s horrible when 50 young people are cut down while dancing in Florida? Can we agree that it’s not God’s intention for school children or office workers or worshippers to be mowed down by the blazing barrel of an assault weapon? Assuming we can agree on that, can we talk about creating some strategies for reducing the likelihood of that happening? This is a great week for that kind of discussion in all kinds of ways. There will be some discussion of action on a national level about legislation, and you might want to reach out to our senators or representatives. Offer your ideas as to what we can do to reduce the number of funerals at which we wring our hands and say “never again”.

But here’s the deal on that, from me, this week. If you are a Christian, you are not permitted to make this conversation about what you need to do to protect your rights and keep your options open. Frankly, as a follower of Jesus, you’ve already settled that: you’ve confessed that your rights are not the most important rights in the world – that you are here to serve others. I’m not saying you don’t have rights or shouldn’t value them – but that’s not the reason for this conversation. The reason for the conversation is to look for ways to staunch the flow of innocent blood. Talk about the people who will never experience another “right”, about the parents or spouses or children who sit across the breakfast table from an empty seat this morning. Obviously, any solution to gun violence will have to account for individual rights, yours included – but how about if we don’t start there? How about if we start by throwing around some ideas geared towards preventing gun violence?

REFUGEES-1And maybe, for some reason, you just can’t get your head wrapped around how to slow gun violence in our community or our world. Here’s another option. Did you know that June 20 is World Refugee Day? Every minute of every day, an average of 8 people are forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safer. On average, refugees spend seventeen years – seventeen stinking years! – waiting for whatever is going to come next: a return to their home, a resettlement somewhere else; seventeen years of uncertainty and vulnerability. Those people drowning in the Aegean Sea, or walking across borders in Hungary, or riding the trains north through Central America… they are children of God. They are our neighbors. We are called to do what we can do to make our world a better and safer place for everyone, not just us.

And again, please don’t come crowing to me about how we can’t really help these refugees because all they want to do is come here and take our stuff. As a follower of Jesus Christ, you’ve already said that what’s yours isn’t the most important thing, but rather, living in the footsteps of Jesus is what you want to be about. Your stuff, my stuff – it’s important (hey, I have a fence to keep the deer out of my garden) – but it’s far from the most important thing, and it’s not where we’re beginning this conversation.

I’ve offered a Resource Document containing a number of websites for you to check out on your own time this week. Some are related to gun violence, while others have to do with refugees. Please understand, the only action that I am actively endorsing is that you take the time to care about this stuff. I’m not saying we are going to agree on strategies – but I am saying that Elimilech’s story, and Naomi’s story, and Ruth’s and David’s and Jesus’ story – that our story – ought to drive us to the place where we care about what happens; and that place of care can lead us to a means by which to get involved.

This is our story. We are created as people in and for community. Can we choose to care, and to act together as we stand against violence and hatred and death? Thanks be to God, who calls us from death to life through Jesus his Son, Amen.

It’s the Story of Us

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the later service, shared below, were Job 42 (the final chapter of that work) as well as I Corinthians 15:20-28.

 

Ever since Valentine’s Day, we’ve walked with Job and his friends. That’s not nearly long enough to do anything like an exhaustive study, but we have gotten acquainted with this man, his world, his struggle, and his faith.

As stories go, frankly, there isn’t much action. We’ve met a few characters, most of whom are not developed all that well. By and large, this is a book filled with talking. Like a lot of things at church, Job seems to be populated by a bunch of folks who love to hear the sound of their own voices. We’ve heard Job, of course, and his wife; God and Satan, and more than we needed to from Bildad, Elihu, Zophar, and and Eliphaz.

Yep. Lots and lots of talking.  At church.  Who saw that coming?

And this morning, in the last chapter?

More talking.

But let me tell you something, because I bet you didn’t pick up on this. I know that I didn’t the first eight or ten times I read through Job. There is something profoundly different about the talking in chapter 42 – we have not seen this kind of speech anywhere in the book.

For the last 41 chapters, we have heard a lot of conversations. God and Satan get into a bit of an argument about why Job acts the way that he acts; Job curses the day of his birth, Job’s wife tells Job that he’s crazy, and he replies by saying that she’s not herself and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then the friends show up and do their level best to point out how Job and the other friends are mistaken, and Job consistently replies by indicating how wrong they all are. Finally, God shows up and says, “You know what? You’re all wrong. None of you know what you’re talking about – you just don’t get it.”

And here, in chapter 42, Job says, “You’re right, God. I don’t get it. You’re right.”

Chapter 42 contains the only non-combative speech in the entire book of Job. Job does not try to refute, rebut, correct, or criticize God. He just agrees, and confesses, and accepts.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image.  If you can help me find the artist, I'd be delighted to credit.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image. If you can help me find the artist, I’d be delighted to credit.

And because the tone switches from confrontational to confessional, and because it’s the only place in the book that this language shows up, well, it’s worth noticing.

For 41 chapters, we’ve heard all kinds of people talk about whether or not Job is a great guy, and how Job should or should not worship and serve God. In chapter 42, Job actually worships. It’s not language that talks about worship, it’s language that records worship.

Allow me to suggest that in a very deep sense, Job’s story parallels the entirety of scripture. In that way, the story of Job really is the story of us.

There is a beginning – in both Job and in Genesis – and it’s a spectacularly good beginning. Everything seems to be going along pretty smoothly for a while, and then that goodness is interrupted and threatened by something that is incredibly horrible. At first, the power of evil and the work of the Accuser seems to be to be overwhelming. Eventually, God promises to sustain those who struggle, and at the end of the story, in fact, God shows up and brings about renewal and restoration. We see that in the pages of Job, and we see that laid out across scripture from Genesis to Revelation, right? It’s the same story. There’s a great beginning, an incredibly hard and really long middle, and we are promised a fine end. Yay!

Having said that, I feel obligated to point out that as 21st – century enlightened American believers, we are at least uncomfortable with the basic outline of Job, and maybe downright offended by it.

In case you’ve not been here in the past few weeks, here’s a quick synopsis of Job. We meet him and find out that he’s a great guy – super religious, really faithful, and fantastically wealthy. He starts out with 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, many servants, 7 sons, and 3 daughters. Job is sitting pretty, to be sure.

And then all of that goes away – all 11,500 animals, all the servants, and most heart-breakingly, all ten children are killed. Job and his wife are totally bereft.

And it gets worse, when Job is afflicted with a horrible illness and becomes a pariah in his own community. His friends show up and try to convince him that it’s somehow all his fault.

Finally, though, in the reading that we’ve heard this morning, God shows up and seems to say, “You know what, Job? We’re good. It’s all good. So look at what I’m going to do for you: here, at the end of your story, you’ll have 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, 1000 donkeys, lots of hired men and women, and, of course, ten brand-new children!”

And for 3,000 years people have read Job and said, “Awwww, I love a happy ending…”

But we say, “Hold on just one minute! That’s a terrible story! How do we just pretend that none of that stuff in chapter one matters? Are we saying that the children that Job and his wife loved so deeply in the beginning of the book are so easily forgotten and replaced? Do they have no significance whatsoever? ‘Cause that’s just wrong!”

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that the pain and grief and suffering incurred by Job, his wife, and their family is insignificant. No one is pretending that these losses did not occur, or were not egregious.

The story of Job, and the story of the Gospel, and the story of us is that no one ever needs to pretend that suffering is not real and is not important. The point is not that we can ignore it, but that we will get through it. We are transformed by it. And it matters.

How do I know that it matters, according to the scripture?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

Well, think about the body with which Jesus was raised from the dead. What did he have in his hands? Holes. What did he have in his feet? Holes. What did he have in his side? A wound.

Note that, beloved. When our Lord was raised from the dead into a body that Paul says is “imperishable”, it was a body that had scars.

Which means, I think, that something of what happens during our experience of time and space has some eternal importance.

The idea of resurrection is not that what was once is now no more, and all has been erased and re-written. It would appear as though a more satisfactory understanding of resurrection is that we move through pain into something better; we are healed from that which is dead and restored to our intended status and purpose and function and form.

You see, much of the theology in both Job and in our current day seems to be centered around the mistaken notion that bad things happen to bad people and that good things happen to good people. Job’s friends were echoing time-honored thoughts when they said, “Hey, you know what? If you get sick, or if you find yourself experiencing an abnormal amount of loss or grief or devastation, you better look in the mirror. You’ve sinned somewhere. You’ve made some horrible decisions.” They also held to the opposite theory, which states that “if you get rich or experience profound levels of health and joy, well then, shucks, you must be doing something right for God to bless you like that! Congratulations, you clean-living, God-fearing, upstanding, morally-appropriate my-kind-of-guy!”

That brand of theology, not surprisingly, seems to be favored by rich, healthy, employed or endowed people.

It’s also not a biblical philosophy. If so, Jesus, as the sinless Son of God could not have experienced the things that he did. If you follow that line of thinking very far, you wind up thinking that all pain is punishment, that all suffering is not only deserved, but to be avoided, and that love only winds up hurting you.

A healthy understanding of the notion of resurrection, however, brings a different result. The Gospel story is that, yes, pain does occur – but there are times when pain produces fruit. Suffering is not always the result of bad choices or a sign of divine displeasure – there are some times when suffering is the means by which we become transformed.

When Paul was trying to talk about it with his friends in Rome, he used the analogy of childbirth. Having a baby, he says, hurts like nobody’s business. Frankly, from a male perspective, it just seems impossible and against the laws of geometry. It shouldn’t work, and it’s incredibly painful. And yet, at the end, there is a blessing to be found – and one that can only be brought as a result of the path of suffering.

Brene Brown is an author, researcher, and educator who left the church as a young adult, feeling as though it was irrelevant and didn’t meet her needs. Twenty years later, she suffered some incredible pain and she went back to the church, hoping that it would remove that pain. She expected that faith would act like an epidural anesthetic – that it would simply block all the pain she’d experienced. She says, “I thought Faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort’, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’” (Click here to watch Brown’s brief video developing this theme)

That’s resurrection thinking. Do not for one second pretend that the losses that Job incurred or those through which you have suffered are inconsequential. Of course your losses, your pain, your grief matter! Yes! But do not resign yourself to the thinking that says that those things are all that exist, either, or that somehow your grief and your losses will wind up as that which ultimately defines you.

This morning, if you showed up to worship on Easter feeling happy, wealthy, and wise, surrounded by good-looking men, strong women, and above average children, then I apologize, because the resurrection probably seems unnecessary to you and I’ve just wasted 18 minutes of your precious time.

But if you’re here trying to make sense of some deep pain in your life and you are longing for hope and healing… If you are wondering how in the world you can get through the challenge that looms in front of you, and what difference any of it makes anyhow… Well, then you ought to know that God’s word is a good word.

Do you think that Job and his wife could ever forget their first, or second, or third-born child? Do you think that when they got to number twelve or thirteen they said, “See, there, that’s not so bad! We’re ok. These kids are just about as good as the other ones…”?

You know that’s not what happened. Do you think that their relationship with the second set of children was shaped by the lives and deaths of the first? Of course it was.

The fundamental truth of Job’s experience of having, losing, and being restored is not “see, good guys come out all right in the end”, but rather that what we can see and what we are experiencing is not ultimate. We are all in the in-between. Where you have been matters – it matters a lot. And everything that is good and right and holy about where you have been – is eternal. Where you are shapes where you are heading – and where you are heading is into God’s ultimate good.

So to the three or four of you who are sitting pretty without a care in the world, have a great day. Enjoy the rest of the service. The last hymn is a real toe-tapper. And good luck with whatever is going so great for you.

And to the rest of us, the message of Easter is simple. You can hold on. You can trust. You can hope. Not because of who you are, but because of the One to whom you hold, on whom you trust, and in whom you hope. He is risen. Alleluia!

When Someone You Love is In Pain

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 13, we looked at the second wave of tragedy that besets Job as described in Job 2.  We also considered the wisdom from Paul in Second Corinthians concerning comforting each other in times of difficulty. 

 

Have you noticed that Christian leaders are saying some hard things about public figures these days? Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, has been all over President Obama for visiting a mosque. The leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has criticized Donald Trump for his comments concerning race and immigration. Pope Francis, of all people, has been hard on just about all of the candidates for President with the exception of the Jewish socialist who wants the job. Go figure.

But as tough as some of these comments are, I was flabbergasted when I read what some of the leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ had to say about a woman. One of these pillars of the church called her “the Devil’s accomplice.” Another referred to her as “a diabolical fury” and “an instrument of Satan.”

Who is this woman of great evil and questionable character that has the men of God so up in arms? Some Hollywood trollop? A porn star or morally-challenged athlete?

Nope. These comments came from St. Augustine, the pre-eminent scholar of the fifth century, and John Calvin, widely thought of as the father of Presbyterianism. The target of their scorn was an unnamed woman whom we know only as Job’s wife.

Job and His Friends [detail], Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930)

Job and His Friends [detail], Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930)

This woman, whom Augustine also called “the helpmeet of the Devil” speaks a total of ten words in all of scripture. The book of Job contains 1070 verses, and she speaks in one of them… and somehow, in her speaking, she has really gotten under the skin of these great Christian leaders. Why?

Let’s review where we’ve been with Job thus far. We’ve seen two different Heavenly Councils that point, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to the overwhelming power and authority of God. In addition, these discussions reveal the Satan’s desire to turn the creation against the Creator, and to sow discord and disharmony. Job’s integrity is repeatedly emphasized, as is his wealth. Last week we read where Job suffered an incredible loss: not only did he lose all of his property, holdings, and accumulated wealth, but every single one of his children was killed, presumably along with their families.

And perhaps I don’t need to say this out loud, but I will anyway: there is no loss that Job has suffered thus far that has not also struck to the heart of his wife. Although Job is clearly the leading actor in the earthy part of this drama, we dare not minimize the pain of his bride. So before we even get to the point of considering what she has to say in this book that bears her husband’s name, I will make a motion that we give her a break. We are about to consider a conversation between two people who have just buried all ten of their children and their families. And when you live through the funerals of ten of your own children on top of losing your entire savings account and income, well, you get a pass in my book. If that happens to you, I promise not to quote you for at least a year. So I will say to St. Augustine and to John Calvin, “Simmer down, boys. Give her a break!”

Let’s consider the text for this morning, shall we? Picking up with our reading from Job, chapter 2.

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

The Satan leaves the second Heavenly Council and does his worst, afflicting Job from head to toe with unspeakable pain. There are a couple of things that are noteworthy here. First, it’s as good a time as any to point out that while we often use “Satan” as a proper name, the Hebrew text reads ha-satan, which means, literally, “the accuser”. Sometimes we read of this creature accusing God, and other times he attacks a human or some other part of the creation, but we have come to call him by that which he does. I could be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that most of you in this room have felt the sting of his accusations. The one who asks Eve in the Garden, “Can you really trust God?”; the one who strolls in front of the Almighty here in Job, taunting God by saying that Job only loves God because of all the shiny stuff that God has given to Job; the one who came to Jesus in the wilderness and said, “If you’re just willing to soften a little on your stance concerning idolatry, I could make things so much better for you…” – that one has paraded through your life as well, troubling your heart and mind and spirit with doubt and fear and uncertainty and pain. You know the Satan. You have dealt with the accuser.

And here, the Satan goes out and finishes his work in Job’s life, and then disappears from the story. There are still 40 more chapters to go in the book, but the accuser bows out after verse 7 in chapter two, leaving Job and his community to deal with the disruption he has brought.

And if the pain that Job and his wife had undergone in chapter one wasn’t bad enough, here he suffers anguish in his body and mind. We see him sitting in the ashes – he has already torn off his clothing and shaved his head; now he regards himself as of such little worth that he takes himself out with the garbage. He lays in the dust of the earth and seeks to soothe the itching with a broken piece of pottery. Job is in a horrible place.

And then his wife speaks her only line in this entire drama:

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Job on the Ash Heap: Job Berated by His Wife Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1632)

Job on the Ash Heap: Job Berated by His Wife Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1632)

We’ve often said that when we get to the Bible, it is a beautiful thing to have the words in front of us – but we don’t know the inflection or the intent, do we? When she says that, is it a sarcastic jab? Is she kicking him when he is down, and belittling him for having faith? Is she tempting him into faithlessness?

Maybe. It’s possible, though, that this was not her intent at all. It might be that she was herself so upset by seeing her beloved suffer through this new round of afflictions that she was crying out to him to just let go of life. You’ve seen this before – a person is clearly in so much pain and distress that those who love him gather around and say, “It’s ok! You can go! I can’t see healing from where I sit. I can’t imagine wholeness…just make this pain stop however you can…”

In our previous conversations about Job, I invited you to be attentive to the creational language that comes out of this book. I said that a lot of the imagery and vocabulary sounds like Genesis. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Calvin and Augustine and other scholars have drawn a parallel between Eve’s behavior in the Garden of Eden and Job’s wife’s comments here. They read about Eve, the seductive temptress who led her husband into faithless behavior, and they saw an echo of it in Job’s wife’s comments.

We noted on Wednesday night, however, that one difference is that Eve was tempted by the thought that she would have the knowledge of good and evil – concepts with which Eve apparently had very little experience. Even a cursory glance at Job’s wife, however, will indicate that she knew more about the nature and power of evil than any person should ever have to know.

My sense is that Job does not share the scholars’ low opinion of his wife. Listen to his response to her lament:

He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Job does not call his wife “sinful” or “wicked” or “evil”. He looks at her, I believe, in love, and says, “You are acting like a foolish person.” In Hebrew, the word for fool is nabal. A fool, according to Psalm 14, is one who does not accept the rule or reign of God – someone who cannot see where God is or what God is up to in the world. So in essence, Job turns to his wife and said, “You’re not acting like yourself today…you are talking like someone who doesn’t have faith…” Job affirms the sovereignty of God and does not lose his integrity.

Our reading for this morning ends with one of the most beautiful images in all of scripture. When they hear of his troubles, Job’s friends come to see him.

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake, 1785.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake, 1785.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come on the scene to offer what help and encouragement they can. Look at the beauty that surrounds this group of friends: they arrive and immediately enter into the fullness of Job’s reality. They embrace his pain and his anguish. They sit with him in his shame and isolation – right there, amidst the ashes and the garbage – they are present with and for him.

They do not try to cheer him up or distract him. They don’t pretend that he has not just suffered unspeakably. They don’t – praise the Lord, they don’t start talking to Job about what their brother-in-law did when his child died last year and maybe you two should hang out or something… No, they didn’t do any of that. They wept with Job. They sprinkled ashes on themselves. And get this: they don’t try to explain things to Job (at least, not yet). Nobody’s trying to fix anything for Job. Just four men, sitting quietly, feeling the weight of the world on Job’s shoulders.

The Apostle Paul wrote quite a bit to the church in Corinth. His letters there contain all sorts of references to mysterious things: he waxes eloquently about the resurrection from the dead, for instance; he talks about forgiveness and freedom and what it means to be made strong in weakness. There’s a lot in Paul that we have to sit and think about.

But in the reading you had earlier from II Corinthians, he offers some incredibly practical and truth-saturated advice. We are best able to serve those in need, he says, when we are in touch with our own vulnerabilities. We are in a position to offer the greatest comfort and consolation to those who have suffered greatly as we are willing to re-enter, and to share, our own losses.

Someone you love is going to be in great pain. It may be sooner or it may be later, but something is going to happen that will find you walking into a room that is full of hurt.

What will you do?

Be there. Show up and shut up. Sit with them for a while in the ashes of their pain and grief. You can’t fix it, you can’t take it away, and you better not try to explain it. Sooner or later, like Job, you may find the opportunity to remind your friend that we don’t know how everything plays out, and then you can offer some concrete encouragement. When you do that, you become like Christ.

Last week we talked a little bit about the ways that the story of Job is an invitation to consider the suffering of God. This morning, take a look at these three men who come to enter into the reality of the one they called their friend. And then think about the way that in Jesus, according to John, God “became flesh and blood and lived among us”. Thanks be to God, who knows where we are, and how to find us, and who is willing to sit with us in the pain that most assuredly come our way. May we have the grace to offer that gift to each other as well. Amen.

 

When Bad Things Happen To Good People

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 6, we looked at the first wave of tragedy that besets Job as described in Job 1:13-22.  We also considered John’s account of the encounter that Jesus and his followers had with a man who had been blind from birth. 

 

Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

Jesus and his friends are on the way down the street and they see a familiar sight – a blind man sitting by the side of the road. Perhaps he was begging; perhaps he was just sitting quietly. Something prompts the disciples, however, and someone asks, “Lord, why was this man born blind? Is it because of his own sin, or that of his parents?”

The disciples see a man with an obvious disability and immediately assume that someone is being punished. The question is, whose fault is it? In that day and age, everybody knew that stuff like this doesn’t just happen, it comes from God. Why?

The disciples, like most Jews of that time, believed that suffering and pain were signs of God’s punishment. After all, they’d read in the book of Numbers that God does not leave the guilty unpunished, and that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. A narrow interpretation of that and other verses leads to a worldview that I might call transactional, or cause and effect. You do this, you get that. If you’ve got that, you must have done this. It’s neat and tidy and it makes sense to us. Good things come to good people. Bad things follow bad people.

That’s the kind of thinking that led people like Pat Robertson and John Hagee to proclaim that when hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it was the wrath of God being poured out on that city because of its exceptional sinfulness. And while some of us may snicker at that level of theological sophistication, when someone says, “Oh, wow… My dad has lung cancer…”, do you immediately ask, “Was he a smoker?” Because if a smoker gets cancer, well, maybe that person deserves it…right?

To be clear, there is a connection in the Bible and in real life between what we do and what happens to us. Choices have consequences, and often we do experience a great deal of pain because of our actions, or the actions of those who are close to us.

I saw this first hand when I was visiting South Sudan in the midst of their civil war, and often would pray with pastors from that nation who would begin a prayer with a time of confession in which they named to God the human tendencies toward greed and power-mongering and violence that had led this young nation down a difficult path.

But saying that war is a result of human sinfulness is not the same thing as saying your house was destroyed by a missile because you are such a pathetic sinner, isn’t it?

That seems to be Jesus’ point when he says bluntly, “Nobody sinned here. This man’s experience doesn’t have anything to do with an individual’s sin. This man was born to display the power of God.” Sometimes things happen that you don’t deserve.

Job Praying, Marc Chagall 1960

Job Praying, Marc Chagall 1960

This story from John’s Gospel reminds us of our ongoing experience with Job. If there is one thing we have learned in the past few weeks, it’s that Job is a good, good guy. He takes care of his children; he’s smart with his money – heck, even God almighty (someone who ought to know a thing or two about being good) is always bragging on Job.

And yet…horrible things happen to Job. You just heard about some of them. His oxen and donkeys are rustled away by the Sabeans, who also killed the hired men. The sheep and their shepherds were destroyed by a massive lightning strike. The Chaldeans swooped in and carted off all of his camels, killing his servants in the process. And if all of that weren’t bad enough, well, all of his children and their families perished when a great windstorm came and knocked down the house in which they had been celebrating.

And if the facts of these events are not enough, the author of Job emphasizes how bad it is by alternating his description of these tragedies: an invading army followed by a natural disaster followed by an act of war followed by a natural disaster. Job is hammered on every side – both humans and, it would seem, God, have turned against him.

Moreover, there’s another clue in the language of the book. On Wednesday night, we considered the references in the text to words and phrases associated with consumption: in chapter 1 we hear that the children are eating and drinking three times. The donkeys are feeding, and the hired men and servants are all destroyed by the “mouth” of the sword. The fire from heaven “consumes” the sheep and shepherds. For Job, it is as if calamity has been personified and is now coming to devour him.

What will he do?

Job 2, Oldrïch Kulhanek (1940 – 2013)

Job 2, Oldrïch Kulhanek (1940 – 2013)

Look at Job’s response to this outpouring of evil and suffering in his life. First, he embraces fully the grief that accompanies loss and pain. Following the cultural norms, he shreds his clothing and shaves his head. He laments the tragedies that have befallen him, and mourns openly and genuinely.

Remember that, friends, the next time that some horrible thing happens in your life and you feel like you just need to fall down and weep. You can do that. And if some knucklehead comes up to you and says, “Hey, hey, hey… remember ‘the patience of Job’? Come on, now, buck up, things will get better…” You can remind them that the first thing Job did when he suffered the affliction of his worst day ever was to fall to pieces in loss and in pain. There is no reason to feel as though you need to be ashamed of your pain or sorry for your grief. Own it. Express it. And move through it. It’s yours.

And after he cries out in grief and pain, then he falls on the ground and worships. “Naked I came on the day I was born, and naked I will be when I die,” he says. Note here that his first language of worship is subjective – it is about him. It is rooted in his own experience. That makes sense – it is the experience that he knows best. But then he leaves the subjective and moves into the objective realm: “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away… may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Job’s experience (which has changed over the course of his life) gives way to Job’s identity (which is fixed). Job is a child of God. Job is created in the Divine image. Job encounters suffering as he encountered joy – in the company of his heavenly Father.

In fact, I would suggest that in his suffering, Job knows more of what it means to be made in the image of God. Author Gerald Janzen points out that “the agony of Job, in body and spirit, is his participation in the agony of God” that is demonstrated in the first half of chapter 1.[1]

And you say, “Hold on a minute! It sounded like Pastor Dave just said that God suffers in the book of Job! I didn’t see that coming!”

Neither did Pastor Dave. But think about it. Who is the first person to suffer in the book of Job? It’s not Job. By the time that Job has gotten around to putting up “Lost Oxen” posters, cleaning up the ashes of his flock, and planning his children’s funerals, God has already experienced a number of losses.

The heavenly dialogues that we’ve already read tell us of creatures who turn their backs on the creator. They speak of a God who loved that which he had made so much that he was willing to invest it with a measure of freedom – and so the Satan is at liberty to wander through creation and cause disruption, turmoil, and grief. God loved the Satan enough to listen to him; God watched Job suffer; The Almighty opened himself up to questioning and doubt and risk and distrust – from those to whom he had given and for whom he had nothing but love.

Does God suffer in the book of Job? Look at it this way. Job’s children were snatched from him in death. That is horrible – and yet at least Job could console himself by thinking it was a tragic accident. Yet those whom God had created and loved – the Satan and his followers – spit on God and walked away themselves. It was no accident. It was willful disobedience, and surely cut right to the heart of the One who had given them life.

When Job suffered the loss of his livelihood and the death of his children; when Job entered into the deepest pain he might have imagined – then Job knew more of the heart and image of God than he had before. And at the same time, he flung himself into conversation with that God in the hopes of receiving solace and comfort from One who knew what it meant to experience grief and loss.

Why did Job suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? I’m not sure. But I believe that God’s presence is revealed in Job’s suffering just as much as Jesus said it could be revealed in the life of the man who was born blind.

I would further suggest that, at the end of the day, asking “why” bad things happen is not always the best thing we can do. Sure, it makes sense to approach some of the difficulties in your life this way: why did you lose your job? Was it because you were 15 minutes late every day and made crude comments at the holiday party? Then maybe there’s something to be learned.

Why did your girlfriend drop you? Was it the way that you ignored her or the fact you didn’t ‘feel like’ going to her grandmother’s funeral with her? When things in our world hurt, it makes some sense to reflect on them to see whether there may be some causality.

But a more important question is, “Now what?” The job is lost, the relationship ended, the diagnosis received, the funeral is over. What will you do as you look to tomorrow?

Perhaps we can learn from the example of a man called Martin Gray, who was in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and was one of only two people in his family to survive the Holocaust. After the war ended, he married and settled in France. Years later, his wife and children perished when a forest fire consumed their home. This renewed tragedy pushed Gray just about to the breaking point, but he found hope and comfort in creating a foundation that sought to prevent forest fires.

Many of his friends urged him to file lawsuits and seek to hold someone accountable for his grief. He refused, saying that such a course of action would only focus on the past, and on pain and sorrow and blame. Filing suit against someone else or the government would, he said, put him in an adversarial position – a lonely man becoming lonelier by seeking to hold someone – anyone – accountable. At the end of the day, he concluded that life has to be lived for someone and something, rather than against something.[2]

Who sinned that this man was born blind? Why did Job’s children perish? Why did those things happen to your mother, or at his job, or in that class? I don’t know.

But now that these things have happened, what will we do? Can we come together as God’s people in grief and lament, and approach God in worship? Can we learn from our brother Job?

I know that if you have not yet experienced significant loss, pain, and suffering, you will. You are human. Why do all of these things happen? I can’t tell you how to connect all of those dots. But I know Someone who is here to help you through it. Someone who knows something about loss and grief and separation and pain. Thanks be to God, that Someone is as close as your next prayer. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Job (Atlanta: John Knox, p. 41), 1985.

[2] From a story told by Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people/#