The King of Glory

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered on Sunday March 26 to consider the truth that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We spent some time on the boat with the disciples in the midst of the storm (as recorded in Mark 4:35-41) and remembered the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 24.

It’s 1000 BC in the ancient city of Joppa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Canaanite children are being tucked into bed, and as they are, they hear stories of the gods of their people.

They may listen to scary stories, such as those having to do with the deity named Moloch. Moloch, they say, demands that the lives of children – particularly first-born children – be offered to him. Those who take their children to be passed through the fire, as it is called, are promised large families and financial security.

Or maybe tonight they’ll hear the story about the battle between Baal, who is said to be the god of the storm, and wind, and rain, and Yamm, the god of the sea and the rivers. Yamm wanted more power, and so he challenged Baal; when he lost, he was cast into the deeps and forced to limit his trouble-making powers there.

Transportation of the Ark of the Covenant Containing the Tablets of the Law, Luigi Ademollo, 1816

About 30 miles away, there are some Israelite children being sung to sleep by their mothers in Jerusalem. Perhaps they are singing one of the Psalms that they’ve sung in worship at the Temple Mount – songs that talk about their God, YHWH.

These kids have heard the stories about Moloch and Baal and Yamm, but they don’t need to be frightened because they know the truth about YHWH. They know that these local deities are no match for the God who has called to them, and in fact compared to YHWH these other so-called gods are nothing. It’s all in the song that their mothers are singing to them tonight: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world and all those who live in it…

That’s a statement of ownership. If YHWH is the rightful owner of all, then nobody else can be the owner. If God is in control, then anyone else who claims to be is simply lying. Moreover, the song goes on to declare that when YHWH built the world, he built it on top of the waters. YHWH, not Yamm, rules the sea. The power of YHWH, not Baal, is in the heart of the storm.

The song of the faithful that those children may have heard that night three thousand years ago and you surely heard five moments ago goes on to say that YHWH invites all to come and worship – and to come with clean hands and pure hearts (which is to say, having done right by our neighbor and been humble before God). Those who come to the Temple to worship will receive not a spirit of fear, but rather a blessing and deep comfort. And the song ends with an entrance liturgy that declares YHWH as the source of all power and might in the world – YHWH, and no one else, is “The King of Glory.”

Christ and the Storm
Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Now, a thousand years later, we find twelve men who had grown up singing Psalm 24 all their lives sitting in a fishing boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. They’ve been following a Rabbi who has indicated the rather curious intention to go across the Sea to where “they” live – the non-faithful, the ones who are not like us. It’s odd, because this Rabbi and his followers have been attracting large crowds; apparently, though, the teacher from Nazareth wants to leave the throngs behind and venture into the unknown. I’m not so sure that this man’s followers are totally sold on the idea.

To make things worse, they find themselves in the midst of a terrible storm. In fact the word that Mark uses for it, lialaps, is the same word that is used for the “whirlwind” in the Book of Job. These are not gentle showers…

In a panic, these men turn towards the Rabbi – one of the few, incidentally, who is not a professional fisherman – and find him asleep in the boat. They shake him awake, and then he calms the storm before their very eyes.

Now, pay attention to what you’ve heard, and note this: that these men were surprised that Jesus was able to speak into the intensity of the storm. The wind and the waves obey him! Who knew?

Because Jesus calms the storm and then challenges the disciples’ apparent lack of faith, I’m tempted to read this passage as if the disciples are upset with Jesus for not saving them from the storm. That’s not the case.

The disciples never ask Jesus to save them. The reason that they are frustrated is not because he’s not saving them – there is no indication from anyone that they think that’s even a possibility. Listen: are you mad at me because the Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl last year? Of course not. How could you be angry with me because the Steelers didn’t make it to the big game? I had nothing to do with that – that was totally beyond my control.

In the same way, I think, we can’t presume that the disciples are irritated with Jesus for not stopping the storm. There’s no evidence to support the idea that they think Jesus could even come close to stopping the storm.

But it’s clear that they’re agitated. Why?

What’s the question that they ask? “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

The disciples are angry with Jesus because he is not as afraid as they are. They are running around the boat screaming, “Arrrrrrgh! We’re going to die! We’re all going to die!”, and they are irritated because Jesus is not running around the boat screaming. “What’s wrong with you, Jesus? Can’t you see this?????”

“Of course,” he may have answered. “Of course I see it. And I remember a song that my mom used to sing to me when I was little. She sang a song she learned at the Temple about the One who made the whole earth and established it on the waters; my mother sang about the One to whom every storm is accountable.”

Jesus calms the sea and quiets the storm and in that very moment the disciples are reminded of the truths of Psalm 24. In the same instant, they are brought face to face with the reality that all of the power, majesty, and authority of YHWH is present in and available to Jesus of Nazareth.

We have the advantage of 2000 years of history, as well as the fact that we are sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a balmy day. It might be fairly easy for us to look back at our older brothers, the apostles, and think, “Wow, you guys really missed that one, didn’t you? I mean, sure – Jesus acts with the authority of YHWH. Come on, everybody knows that! Relax. He’s got this.”

But what about when we’re not sitting on dry seats in a warm building on a spring day? What about when we find ourselves in the middle of the whirlwind? I find it hard to believe that there’s a person in this room who hasn’t at one time or another looked heavenward and asked, “Hey! Jesus! Do you see this? Don’t you care that this thing is happening over here?”

And if for some reason you have not yet asked this question, I predict that you will.

Does Jesus care about the particular whirlwind in which you find yourself lost today? I guess it depends on where you think Jesus is. I’ve already noted that think it’s premature to ask the disciples if they believe Jesus can do anything to fix the situation – they do not appear to believe that he even gives a darn. Because, after all, he’s sleeping. He’s not freaking out, the way a “normal” person might.

Peace, Be Still, Arnold Friberg (1913 – 2010)

But pay attention to one thing.

Where is Jesus?

During this whole story, where do we find Jesus?

He’s in the boat, isn’t he?

He may be silent – but do not ever mistake the silence of God for the absence of God.

It’s the same for you and me, you know. I’m telling you friends, Jesus is in your boat. And I don’t care whether it’s been smooth sailing since day one or if you’re currently dealing with an “All hands on deck!” kind of moment. Jesus has not left the boat.

Do not ever, ever presume that simply because Jesus does not share your anxiety about the current circumstances that he does not care about you, or your pain or your fear.

And some will say, “I hear your words, Dave, but I can’t swallow them. I mean, after all. That person’s storm was stilled. Her baby lived. His job was not lost. Their marriage was saved. They made it through the storm, Dave. But didn’t God care about my child, or my job, or my marriage? What’s that Dave? I can’t hear your answer because the storm is too fierce. Are you trying to tell me that God cares about this mess?”

The short answer is, “Yes. Yes he does.”

Why is it that YHWH is not acting in the way that you desire? I do not know. Why does it seem as though Jesus is sawing logs right next to you while your world is being turned upside down? I cannot say for sure. And that breaks my heart.

But this thing I know: He is the King of Glory. The earth belongs to him. And while he may be silent, he is sitting right next to you.

The best and wisest thing that your pastor can tell you in this situation is that if you find yourself in the midst of a storm and Jesus seems to be sleeping right through it, reach out and hang on to him for all you’re worth until he calms the storm.

It’s who he is. It’s what he does.  Thanks be to God!

Watch Your Step

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights marked the fourth Sunday of Advent 2016 by giving some thought to what it means to be a people of peace in a culture that seems riven by conflict.  Our texts included Isaiah 2:1-5 and Luke 1:67-79.

Do you like hockey?

I do. I mean, I really do. I’ve been watching more and more of it in recent months. 20 years ago, you could say that I had a passing interest in the game. That grew to the point where 10 years ago I might have been called a “mild” fan. Now I find myself watching most of the games on TV, and I even go to a few. I love it.

rondaveA couple of months ago I came across a pair of tickets and so my neighbor Ron and I went to see the Penguins take on the Sharks in a rematch of this year’s Stanley Cup finals. Early in the second period, the Sharks scored and that quieted the fans down a bit. Not long after that, it appeared as though Hornqvist put one in for the Penguins, but the replay showed it was a bad goal, and so it was disallowed. And then the Sharks scored again.

By the end of the second period, we were down 2 – 0, and in addition, two of our defensemen were injured and out of the game. During the intermission, Ron turned to me and said, “OK, this is all right. They’ve got a two-goal lead. That’s the most dangerous lead in hockey.”

I looked at Ron as if to say, “Nice try, neighbor. But let’s go get some nachos or something to redeem this evening.”

In the third period, the Penguins scored three times in seven minutes and ended up winning the game. I like hockey – in part, because it’s possible for my team to come back in a big way.

Believe it or not, there’s an Advent connection here.

Today is “peace” Sunday. We’ve talked about the ways that Advent leads us toward hope, love, and joy; today we are considering the notion that peace is reflective of the Lord’s intentions for his people.

advent-candle-flames-1200x450If you have any access to any kind of device that is capable of relaying any information about the world outside of these walls, you will know that this has been a tough week for the team that follows the One who is sometimes called “the Prince of Peace”. Just on my phone – a three inch screen – I’ve seen…

  • the most recent devastation of Aleppo
  • The next steps toward genocide in South Sudan
  • I had a friend call and describe how the house across the street from him had been shot up in a drive-by
  • We saw the anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings and heard the verdict in the trial of Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people in a Charleston church
  • There was a shooting on Barr Avenue – five or six blocks from here – over a parking place
  • Another friend about whom I care deeply received word that a loved one had attempted suicide

Sometimes, I just don’t get it – we come in here and we read these words about swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, but I don’t know, man. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Jesus – I’m a big fan… But when I look around at what’s going on in the world – even in my little corner of it, which is a pretty sweet little corner… it seems like we’re in a really tight spot. This is worse than a 2-goal deficit, if you know what I mean.

I just don’t see how Team Peace can pull this one out. There always seems to be more hatred, more violence, more death. It’s hard. I mean, it’s just really hard some times.

I said I like to watch the hockey games. And at least once a week, I do. But when I watch them, I use the amazing little feature called DVR – that allows me to skip the commercials and, more importantly, the intermissions. I turn on the game at 8 or 8:30 and I watch it straight through.

Usually.

On November 16, the Pens went down to Washington and played the Capitals. It was horrible – they wound up losing 7-1. I can guarantee you that I didn’t watch that whole game. I mean, we fall behind 4 – 0, 5 – 0… it’s time to let my wife have the remote control. I don’t have time to watch that kind of performance.

Why? Why do I give up like that?

There are at least two reasons. First, I give up because I can. Look, it’s a hockey game. If a bunch of well-paid, enormously-talented young men want to spend a couple of hours crashing into each other, loosening teeth and creating bone-jarring collisions long after the outcome has been decided, well, they can be my guests. But I’m not interested in that kind of a “contest.”

And secondly, I stop watching because I’m well aware of the fact that I have no impact on the outcome of the game. I’m a fan. I’m not even in the same city, often. What can I do about it?

But if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor a bit, I’m not merely a fan of Team Peace. Like you, I’m one of the players. I have a stake in the game, and I have a responsibility toward the other players and the team.

Look at the reading we’ve had from the Old Testament. After Isaiah tells the people what the Lord is going to do, in verse five he looks at his audience and says simply, “so let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

zaechariah-and-elizabeth-with-johnIn Luke 1, the old man Zechariah sings a song we know as the Benedictus. He starts by recounting what God has already done: God has redeemed, raised up, showed mercy, and remembered. The next verse is about what his son, the one we would come to know as John the Baptizer, will do: John will prepare the way for the messiah, and he will tell the people of God’s saving love and forgiveness. And the final refrain describes what is going to happen as a result: the tender mercy of God will come upon us, and it will shine on those who are in the darkness and under the sentence of death, and it will guide our feet in the paths of peace.

In both of these passages the implication is unmistakable: God has acted, God will act, and there is a role or a responsibility for us. There is a path that we must take – the work that is before us is to walk the pathways of peace.

OK, so what does that mean? How do we live in such a way so as to prepare for a reality in which swords and spears are superfluous? How do we live in a way that recognizes the fact that our God is a redeeming, raising up, merciful, remembering God?

It means that we get out there and we live the faith that we talk about. We walk in the light. We move through the shadows. We stay on the path.

And how do we do that? Well, here’s a clue: the paths of peace do not begin and end in this room.

Let’s go back to hockey. What’s the part of the telecast that I hate the most? What’s the reason that I use a DVR to watch the games?

The fact that NHL games have not one, but two intermissions. From where I sit, an intermission is 17 minutes of bad commercials, useless commentary, and talking heads. There is no action at all.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a little like worship – an artificial interruption of real life where a couple of people do a lot of talking, sometimes someone tries to sell you something, and not much appears to be going on. Maybe Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was right when he said in a 1996 interview, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

Exactly. This? This is not very efficient.

carlyle-practice-620-thumb-620xauto-357815But listen to this: in the NHL, the intermission does not exist for the spectators or the fans. When that horn sounds and the teams traipse off to their locker rooms, that’s a chance for the players and coaches to get together and see how things are going. They look at who’s hurting. They talk about strategy. I can imagine that someone might come up to Sidney Crosby and say, “Look, #43 has been trying to ride me up the boards all night. What if we faked a breakaway and you gave me a pass a step behind him?” The players and coaches use those 17 minutes to take a breather, to hydrate, to adjust their equipment, and to reflect on what’s working and what’s not.

Nobody connected with the NHL thinks for a minute that intermission is the reason to sell tickets or play the game. But successful teams realize that it is crucial to use these breaks from the action to reflect on where they have been, to correct or adjust strategy, and to choose how to move forward into the time that remains.

And here’s the problem: many churches, Christians, and pastors act like the hour we spend in worship every week is the primary means by which we follow Jesus Christ. And that’s just not true. It’s a load of hooey, in fact.

The path of peace brings you by here now and then – but you’d better be walking in that path 24/7/365.

When I was growing up, I thought that 11 a.m. on Sundays was the time when Christians played the game. I thought that was the most important hour of the week. That worship was where the action was – it was what counted.

I was wrong. This? This is intermission. This is where we all stop our running around and beating ourselves and each other up and we come in here and we catch our breath for a bit. This is a sanctuary – but it’s also a locker room.

And I gotta tell you, team… it looks like we’re getting beaten pretty badly right now. Team Peace is taking it on the chin.

What are we going to do?

We could quit. Forget trying to do anything meaningful about the pain, suffering, and dis-ease around us and focus in on the things that we like. We have great coffee hours. And the kids seem to enjoy each other. Maybe we just re-think where we’re going.

I suppose you could call in the substitutes. Maybe you want to get a new coach? I hope not. I kind of like it here… and besides, no matter what you do with the lower management, the Ownership is not likely to change any time soon, if you know what I mean…

So how do we respond to the fact that we are living in a world that is by many measures more violent and less peaceful?

What if we got ready to take five key young leaders and immerse them in a cross-cultural experience that will not only knock their socks off, but just might screw them up for the rest of their lives in terms of their ability and inclination to fit into a materialistic and violent culture?

What if we took a couple of thousand dollars and bought a new furnace for the Open Door on Friday morning and then hosted a party for 200 neighbors on Friday evening?

The ministry down at the Table, where we offer a hot meal and warm fellowship to dozens of people who need it, seems to be taking off. How about we recruit a few extra folks to staff that?

We could prepare a group of twelve adults to travel to the southern border of this country, where they could learn about issues of poverty, justice, and immigration while helping churches in that area reflect the love of God through the provision of adequate housing…

Do you see what I mean? You don’t come in here because this is the place where you act like a Christian. You come in here because this is the place where we catch our breath; we talk to the team; we listen for some new direction or fresh ideas; we revisit the basics; we share our heaviness and our joy – before heading back out to where the action is.

Come Saturday night (Christmas Eve) we’re not going to stand around and sing old songs and light candles because we think that kind of nonsense actually accomplishes anything in our ongoing battles with addiction or depression or ISIS or materialism or fear or war-mongering or greed or racism…

We engage in those practices because they remind us that at the end of the day, light does shine! Peace will reign. We are not here to offer a little mumbo-jumbo that somehow erases all the pain; we are here in order to be shaped and challenged and refreshed in our attempts to live lives of peace all week long!

So rest this morning, saints. Catch your breath. In a few moments, we’ll have the choir sing a little number. I think you’ll like it – it’s a real toe-tapper.

But that’s not the point. The point is getting you equipped, getting all of us ready to get back out there and continue walking in the paths of peace, even when it seems rough.

God is doing a new thing. Not just now, but tomorrow morning and on Thursday and yes, on Saturday night. Remember that, and move toward that all week.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Interview with TIME Magazine, January 13, 1996

Malawi 2015 #7

SSclappingSarahToday our team learns of one of the realities of partnership as well as conflict. One of our members, our sister Sarah from South Sudan, will have to cut her participation in this journey short and return to South Sudan today. The reason for her departure is that she needs to attend a memorial service for a dear cousin (“more like a brother”). This young man was amongst the thousands of people who “disappeared” during the earliest days of the conflict that began in December 2013. Her family has finally decided that to move forward in their journey towards peace and wholeness, they need to accept the fact that he is gone and punctuate that with a service.

As you can imagine, prayers for Sarah and her family are appreciated; pray also for her disappointed Malawian hosts, and, most of all, for peace to come so that there will be no more “disappearances” in any of our homes.

Most of our team learned of Sarah’s loss at an amazingly informative briefing that the South Sudan delegates led for our team yesterday morning at the lake. We spent well over an hour getting some of the history and context for South Sudan and Sarah’s family’s experience made the horror of the conflict all the more immediate. Gregg Hartung was able to video record the entire presentation and we look forward to making that available to anyone who is interested in the months to come.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

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

The series continued on July 13 with readings from Habakkuk 1:5-11 and Luke 22:24-30.

To see a live view from this cam, visit http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/

To see a live view from this cam, visit http://www.pixcontroller.com/eagles/

This morning at 8:30 a.m., there were 269 people watching one of the most popular webcams in the city of Pittsburgh. Since January, computer users have taken nearly 3.5 million opportunities to visit the bald eagle nest on the Monongahela river in Hays. The eagles’ Facebook page has more than 15,000 “likes”. In recent weeks, when I have put my boat in the water, the most frequent request from visitors has been, “Can we see the eagles?”

We love us some eagles, don’t we?

US-GreatSeal-ObverseOf course, the bald eagle clenching 13 arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other is the national symbol of the USA, but did you know that the eagle is also featured on the flags and crests of dozens of other nations from Albania to Zambia? And, as I mentioned last week, the eagle is the number one mascot for sports teams in American schools.Montenegro.svg Mexico_(reverse) Egypt.svg Albania.svg

 

 

 

And, really, what’s not to like or admire about the bird? Oh, sure, Benjamin Franklin famously charged the bald eagle as being a “bird of bad moral character”[1], but he’s clearly in the minority. Those birds are just amazing.

bald_eagle_hunting_by_Ilovevore1The golden eagle has been clocked in a dive at 120 miles per hour. The eagle’s brain is small – about an inch cubed, but its eyes are the same size as yours – and 3.6 times more powerful. Of course it uses that eyesight to find prey, which it will snatch and grab with its amazingly powerful leg muscles and sharp talons. The razor-sharp beak will pierce the fur of a victim and often snap its neck.

As a hunter, the eagle is ruthless and efficient. In fact, many eagles are hunters from birth: the first hatchling in the nest will often murder the smaller, weaker newborn as the parents look on. Eagles will eat and attack just about anything: their diets are varied by species, but around the world you will find eagles who eat fish, small mammals, birds, wolves, and antelope. The Steller’s sea eagle has the ability to carry fifteen pounds of meat while flying. A 1929 newspaper account told the story of eight-year old Jim Meece, who was picked up and carried two hundred feet by a bald eagle on the hunt.[2] In the course of researching this message, I came across accounts of eagles attacking full-grown humans, hang-gliders, and even airplanes.

There is one other tidbit that will tell you how fierce these birds are. One well-known reference book on raptors includes this passage: “They have at least one singular characteristic. It has been observed that most birds of prey look back over their shoulders before striking prey (or shortly thereafter); predation is after all a two-edged sword. All hawks seem to have this habit, from the smallest kestrel to the largest Ferruginous – but not the Eagles.”[3] That is to say, the eagle is sure that nobody – nobody – is going to mess with it.

The F-15 Eagle

The F-15 Eagle

For those reasons, and more, I’m sure, our most powerful and threatening weapons are called “eagles”. There is the F-15 Eagle fighter plane, one of the most lethal weapons ever employed by the US armed forces (and now exported to many other countries around the world). A single BAe “Sea Eagle” missile is powerful enough to destroy an aircraft carrier. The “Desert Eagle” is one of the world’s most common semi-automatic handguns. The “Gray Eagle” drone can carry deadly Hellfire missiles and stay aloft for more than two days.

Eagles – both biological and mechanical – are remarkable killing machines, and we find that fascinating.

Last week we mentioned that the word that is often translated as “eagle” in our bibles, nesher, probably refers most often to the vulture, rather than the bird of prey we imagine. However, eagles themselves do appear in the bible from time to time, and then, as now, they are most often used as a symbol of Empire.

Our reading from Habakkuk, for instance, describes the Chaldean military force as one filled with “shock and awe”, characterized by might and strength. When the eagle does appear in scripture, it’s not usually good news – in fact, it’s often accompanied by the word “woe”. Eagles are fierce, terrible, punishing forces that are unleashed upon those who are powerless to resist them.

But we love them.

We want to be them.

We long to be the fearless titan at the top of the food chain who doesn’t even look back when striking; who will go where it wants when it wants doing what it wants without interference.

From the Anheuser-Busch logo on our beer cans to the symbol of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle to American Eagle Outfitters to Giant Eagle grocery, we (pardon the pun) flock to this image of power and success and freedom. The way of the eagle is attractive and seductive.

washingFeetIt is a mistake, though, for us to consider that as our identity. Because the way of the eagle, however alluring it may be, is not the way of Jesus. Oh, they tried to make him into an eagle. The Zealots, in particular, sought to make the presence and cause of Jesus into the symbol of their nationalistic pride. Jesus, however, refused to carry that mantle.

He chose to be weak and vulnerable – starting in a stable and finishing on a cross. He called us to measure our power by different standards than does the world.

That’s not to say that Jesus was – or is – powerless, weak, or ineffective. Indeed, I can think of no force greater than that which he embodies and shares – the force that healed the sick, that challenged the mighty, and that opened the grave.

But that is not the power of arms, wings, talons, or weaponry. It is the power of love, service, and vulnerability.

Parents know more about this than most others. What happens when your seventeen year old stays out late and drives the car without permission? You use the power that you have: you throw down the gauntlet and begin to tell that child what he or she will and will not do. If you’re not careful, you get into a spitting contest, as each side in this conflict becomes increasingly entrenched: you ground your son and he goes out anyway; you take the keys and he finds the extra set; you yell “no” and he yells louder.

We know it, we see it all the time – in our own homes, in our neighborhoods, in the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians or along any nation’s borders. Bombs become more powerful. Stones are met with bullets are met with rockets are met with jet fighter strikes. Fences get taller, detention cells get bigger, and the power of ME gets louder and louder.

Martin Luther said that there was such a thing as “right-handed” and “left-handed” power. Right handed power is the kind of power that the eagle uses, the kind of power that we find to be very helpful when pushing a load of barges up the river, or trapping the groundhog that has been tearing up our garden, or pulling a toddler away from busy traffic. But that kind of force is not usually effective relationally. “Because I’m the boss…” is not a great way to build cohesion at work; yelling louder is not usually the best way to “win” an argument, and so on. Left-handed power is intuitive and paradoxical; it is strength that often looks like weakness and force that sometimes sounds like invitation.[4]

Earlier this week I read an account by 20th-century sculptor Barbara Hepworth. In talking about her technique to bring beauty from stone and wood, she said,

Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

My left hand is my thinking hand. The right is only a motor hand. This holds the hammer. The left hand, the thinking hand, must be relaxed, sensitive. The rhythms of thought pass through the fingers and grip of this hand into the stone. It is also a listening hand. It listens for basic weaknesses of flaws in the stone; for the possibility or imminence of fractures.[5]

WashingSculptureJesus of Nazareth, of course, is the ultimate practitioner of left-handed power. He modeled, and then called for his followers to adopt, the role of the servant. He made himself the vulnerable one. The Lord of all creation died as he forgave us on the cross.

And I can hear you and our world, and you make sense as you cry out: “But that’s foolish! That’s no way to get ahead! That’s no way to get where you want to get! How are you ever going to stop evildoers, teach someone a lesson, or establish the rule of law with that kind of power?”

You won’t, of course – no more than Jesus stopped those who were asserting their power and strength over him. Jean Vanier puts it this way:

Trusting people are vulnerable and can be easily crushed, as Jesus was crushed. A community which trusts in God rather than in the righteousness of its ‘cause’ can always be crushed, but from that crushing will come resurrection. There is a hidden strength in being vulnerable, open and non-violent, in being a people of the resurrection, knowing that we are loved and that God is guiding us, in all our fragility and littleness. We are not a people who think we are better. We are not an elite. We are people who are poor, but who have been drawn together by God and put their trust in God. That is what a kingdom community is about: a community that knows it has been called by God in all its poverty and weakness, and that God is love.[6]

Just to be clear, I love the eagles. If we’re out on the trail or on the river, I’ll show them to you. They are majestic creatures…but they are not helpful to me as a model of faith or behavior. If I seek my identity in the might of the eagle, I am making a terrible mistake. In her consideration of this bird in the book that has inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue hit on one way that the eagle can be a model for those who seek to follow Christ.

She points out that although this ferocious predator has few natural enemies, it was almost wiped out a generation ago by the use of certain chemicals and pesticides. Pittsburgh’s own Rachel Carson was writing about the ways that this avian superpower was vulnerable to forces outside its own control. In the early 1700s, there were more than 100,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the contiguous states. By 1963, the species was on the verge of extinction with only 487 pairs.[7] The immense prowess of this raptor was no match for the factors in the world that proved dangerous to it.

And yet, we chose to act. The environmental movement was launched, we learned about the power and danger of synthetic pesticides, we established sanctuaries and protections for these birds. And the species has rebounded, as you can see while walking the South Side on a clear day.

Debbie Blue writes,
Maybe the eagle is a good national symbol after all. Not because of its capacity to do violence or to fight. Not because it’s such a good, strong killer, but because it shows how when we pulled together we helped bring something back from the brink of extinction. It turns out to be the symbol of what we can do when we work together – the resurrective value of cooperation. Maybe we can do this again.
We nurtured what was vulnerable as a nation and brought something beautiful to life again. I say, let’s embrace the eagle as our symbol after all, to represent not our allegiance to power, but our commitment to hope.[8]

We follow a Rabbi named Jesus who said that the greatest people are those who serve, and that love is stronger than death, and that forgiveness is more powerful than our ability to destroy each other. Together, we saved the bald eagle from being wiped out. What if we chose to use the power of love, service, and humility in bringing reconciliation to South Sudan, or the Middle East, or along our nation’s borders, or in our political discourse, or in our own homes? My prayer is that in my life, and in our lives together, we might be found to be faithful to Christ’s call to serve, to love, and to forgive. For the sake of the world, may it be so. Amen.

 

[1]http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/holidays/2013/11/benjamin_franklin_turkey_symbol_why_he_hated_the_bald_eagle_for_the_great.single.html

[2] http://www.somerset-kentucky.com/features/x962125601/A-Harrowing-Tale-that-Indeed-is-True

[3] Hawks in Flight: The Flight Identification of North American Migrant Raptors by Sutton, C.; Dunne, P.; Sibley, D. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1989).

[4] Robert Farrar Capon discusses the notion of right- and left-handed power eloquently in The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985).

[5] Quoted at http://www.quotes-famous-artists.org/barbara-hepworth-famous-quotes

[6] From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p. 51.

[7] http://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/recovery/biologue.html

[8] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013), pp. 102-103.

What Have You Got To Lose?

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 World Communion Sunday, we considered one of the most terrifying, and least-likely to be included in Children’s BIbles, texts – the story of Deborah, Barak, Sisera, and Jael (excerpted below).  Our Gospel reading was John 12:23-26.

         If you have not been following along, you need to know that we are working our way through a study of the Book of Judges.  This morning’s reading, like most of that volume, is a bleak and difficult story, especially if we take it at face value.  As we begin, let me remind you about a couple of things.  First, the overall purpose of Judges, as we’ve described it, is to help us see what happens when there is no sense of order and purpose in society.  Several times the text says, “In those days, there was no king in Israel”, and I am taking that to mean that Judges paints a picture of a people who have forgotten the Lord and His purposes.  And secondly, I’d like you to remember that the theological theme of Judges is that God calls his people to replace systems of repression and slavery with structures of release and liberation.

metal-and-stone-spiral-staircaseIn reality, reading through Judges is like following a circular stairwell into a deep, dark basement.  We seem to be going around and around, and instead of getting easier and brighter, it’s getting harder and darker and colder.  And if you think what we’ll read today is bad, well, just wait until March.  This week, I had the sense that a lot of these stories full of violence and bluster are the campfire stories of a culture that needs to hear something of God’s purposes and deliverance, even if they sound unbelievable.  It’s a lot like whistling while you walk past the graveyard in the dark, I suppose.

Let’s begin this fourth chapter, the story of Deborah and Barak, Sisera and Jael.

 

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, after Ehud died. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who dwelt in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the people of Israel cried to the Lord for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years.

You see the cycle, right?  The last Judge, Ehud, dies, and there is peace.  And then we forget, and we do what is evil.  And then God allows us to experience the consequences of our actions, and then we cry out to God…

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

From the Temple of Ramses in Abu Simbel, Egypt

But wait a second.  It says we’re oppressed by a king…and what is the distinctive feature of this particular king?  He’s got chariots.  I seem to remember another king with chariots who tried to stand in the way of God’s purposes.  Do you remember Pharaoh?  Can you see how this is being set up as a story of God’s delivering God’s people?

The story continues:

 

Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm of Deb′orah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the people of Israel came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak the son of Abino-am from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, gather your men at Mount Tabor, taking ten thousand from the tribe of Naph′tali and the tribe of Zebulun. And I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the river Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

DeborahBarakLast week we looked at the meaning of the names in the story.  This week, we’ll see some more of that.  We’re told that Deborah is the “wife of Lappidoth”, and that may be.  But “Lappidoth” is also the word for “torches”.  So she may be “Mrs. Lappidoth”, but she may also be “the torch lady”.  She lives into that name, because she sure lights a fire under Barak!

And “Barak” is the word for “lightning”.  When you hear the rest of this story, I hope you’ll see that perhaps this is a bit of a joke, like when you call a bald man “Curly” or a 350 pounder “Tiny”.  This guy is surely not quick, powerful, or brilliant.

But Deborah, the “torch lady”, is a prophetess.  That is, she is called by God to tell the people the truth.  And the truth she reveals is that God will save us from Sisera:

Barak said to her, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”

Barak is doubtful and even cowardly.  He chooses to see the size of the problem, rather than the power and the purpose of the savior. “I can’t do it…you’ll have to come.  You be my ‘good luck charm’.”  Earlier in this passage, I suggested that the chariots were to remind us of Pharaoh.  Can you think of another man who was told by God to lead his people to freedom, and who tried to get out of it?  Doesn’t Barak sound just like Moses here?  Moses said that he wasn’t a good enough speaker, that he wasn’t powerful enough.  Barak said he couldn’t do it alone, either.

Deborah gives him his answer:

And she said, “I will surely go with you; nevertheless, the road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.” Then Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 And Barak summoned Zebulun and Naphtali to Kedesh; and ten thousand men went up at his heels; and Deborah went up with him.

Here’s the truth: God does not punish people for an inability to believe, but I am sure that people who cannot trust or believe are unable to see all of God’s best. That’s the situation for Barak, at any rate.  God will do what God will do, but you’ll miss out on some of it, Barak. 

11 Now Heber the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses, and had pitched his tent as far away as the oak in Za-anannim, which is near Kedesh.

OK, that’s a little bit random.  Why do we need to know about Heber and the Kenites?  Isn’t this a story about Deborah and Barak?  Yes, it is.  But here we are reminded that the Kenites, even though they are from Canaan, usually play for our side.  Going all the way back to Moses, we’ve had pretty good relations with them.  Moreover, this verse explains why this particular group of Kenites found themselves in Kedesh.  They are usually much further south…but for some reason, there are a few of them around here.  I wonder what they are doing?

12 When Sisera was told that Barak the son of Abin′o-am had gone up to Mount Tabor,

Wait!  Sisera found out about Barak’s army?  How did he do that?  Who told him? Heber!  Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.  I thought we were friends!  But now you’ve ratted our guy out to the enemy.

13 Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the men who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the river Kishon. 14 And Deborah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day in which the Lord has given Sisera into your hand. Does not the Lord go out before you?” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 And the Lord routed Sisera and all his chariots and all his army before Barak at the edge of the sword; and Sisera alighted from his chariot and fled away on foot. 16 And Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim, and all the army of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword; not a man was left.

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The Wadi Nachal Paran, Israel

The scene shifts now, to what the RSV calls “the river Kishon.”  The word that’s used, though, is “Wadi” – “Wadi Kishon.”  A “wadi” is a riverbed that is usually dry, packed and firm.  However God defeats the army of Sisera in the Wadi Kishon.  Chapter 5 (verse 4 and 21) describe a battle occurring in a thunderstorm – the dry wadi became a raging torrent, and Sisera’s army was thrown into a panic.  In fact, the word for “panic” that is used here is the same word that describes what happened to Pharaoh’s chariots in Exodus 14:24.  Can you see the echo of a liberation story here?

God does in fact use lightning to defeat Sisera – but it’s actual lightning, not Barak.  Once again, we see that God’s hand is more powerful than the enemy’s chariots.  That’s fantastic!  Let’s see how this story ends:

17 But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Ja′el, the wife of Heber the Kenite; for there was peace between Jabin the king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite. 18 And Jael came out to meet Sisera, and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. 19 And he said to her, “Pray, give me a little water to drink; for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him. 20 And he said to her, “Stand at the door of the tent, and if any man comes and asks you, ‘Is any one here?’ say, No.” 21 But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, till it went down into the ground, as he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died. 22 And behold, as Barak pursued Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went in to her tent; and there lay Sisera dead, with the tent peg in his temple.

23 So on that day God subdued Jabin the king of Canaan before the people of Israel. 24 And the hand of the people of Israel bore harder and harder on Jabin the king of Canaan, until they destroyed Jabin king of Canaan.

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Jael and Sisera, Jacopo Amigoni (1739)

Seriously?  A tent peg through the skull?  Look, you can read through the Bible and find a lot of places where you think, “Somebody needs to be wearing a WWJD bracelet here”.  This is not the best and finest part of our story, folks.  What’s going on here?

Well, for starters, let’s consider a couple of things that “everyone knows” – that is, what would be really obvious to hearers of this story that might slip past us?

Sisera, the enemy general, went straight to the tent of a woman.  In that culture, that’s a serious breach.  He ought to be presenting himself to the master of the property, the man.  In a time when the “taking” of “war brides” and forced sexual advances was common, a soldier walking into the tent of a woman is a real threat.

Furthermore, he asked for a drink.  Everyone knows that a good guest doesn’t ask, he waits to be served.  This is very forward and, again, threatening.

Finally, this guest commands his host to lie for him. 

The chapter concludes with Jael finishing the story, all right.  She deals with this threatening stranger and along the way, she undoes her husband’s treachery (remember that it was her husband, Heber, who alerted Sisera to Barak’s presence), and she declares God’s victory and liberation.

So what’s the good news here?  What can we learn from this difficult story?

The Good news is that here in Judges, just like in Exodus, God acts to save his people who cry out. God’s power brings liberation and release.

Deborah and Jael see this, believe it, and act into it.  These strong women take the steps that they can, using the tools they have at hand, to create a future consistent with God’s intentions for peace and freedom.

The men?  Well, not so much.  Both Barak and Sisera seem very intent on saving their own skins.  Barak, at least, is mildly interested in what the Almighty has going on, but it is clearly secondary to self-preservation. He can’t believe what Deborah says and will not move forward into God’s promise without the “torch lady” lighting a fire under his bum.  Sisera leaves his army, hides in a woman’s tent, and lies about that.

If we were to interpret this chapter in the light of our reading from John, we could say that each of the men sought to save their own necks by playing it safe.  They withheld trust and faith, and it ended up costing each of them.

So the women are faithful and able to walk into God’s purposes, while the men shrink back.  That leads me to another question: How do I respond to the call of God? How do I move forward into a future characterized by the intentions of a liberating, empowering, releasing God?

I know.  I know.  The story in Judges 4 is a nasty, brutish narrative.  It’s written by a people who knew far less of God’s intentions and presence than you do.  Nobody here had the Psalms or the Prophets, let alone the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  Every one of you sitting in the pews this morning knows more about light and life and God’s purposes than anyone in this story ever did.  You have more light than they did.

What are you doing with it?

Barak looked at Deborah, and then at the size of the enemy army, and said, “No way.  I am not going in there.  At least, not alone.  I’m only going if you will come with me, Deborah.”  And she becomes his token, his good-luck charm, his idol, his crutch.

CryOutWhat are you afraid of?  What do you look at and say, “No way.  I can’t do it.  Not gonna happen…”? Is it taking charge of your financial affairs?  Getting clean? Are you afraid of aging or dying?  Do you lack boldness in a relationship?

What do you insist on taking with you into the presence of fear?  Barak took Deborah. Do you take a drink instead of facing your fear directly?  Do you medicate your problems with shopping, or seek to anesthetize them with gambling or television or hiding out in the bedroom?  Do you find that you simply can’t move because you feel incapable and overwhelmed?

I’ve got good news.  In a few moments, you’ll be invited to sit at the Lord’s table.  You’ll have the opportunity to receive the sacrament that more than anything else is a tangible sign of God’s presence with you.  A reminder that God’s intentions are for you.

As you come to the table, you can let go of your good luck charm, your idol, your fear, your crutch.  You can walk toward the future, knowing that God is there, that God is in control.  Barak thought he was helpless unless he had Deborah with him.  Sisera thought he was safe hiding in a lie.  Both of them were wrong.  There is nothing else we need to bring, and no reason to hide.  Come into the light.  What have you got to lose?  No, seriously, I’m pretty sure that most of us need to lose something.  What have you got to lose?  The good news is, you can lose it, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

The World is (Hazel) Nuts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

The Last Judgment, Raphael Coxcie, ca. 1540

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

Edvard Munch, The Scream of Nature (1910)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

From The Revelations of Divine Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mirror of Christ

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. The message for July 14  focuses on the ways that Francis of Assisi helps us to understand the ways that Jesus calls us to consider, and ask, some serious questions.  The scriptures included Psalm 24 and Romans 8:18-25.

Tree_SparrowThink, for a moment, about all the amazingly great ideas in the history of the world that have simply backfired.  For instance, in 1958 the Chinese government decided that since the Eurasian Tree Sparrow population of the country ate more than 10 pounds of grain per year per bird– enough to feed 60,000 people, it would be smart to get rid of the birds.  Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the sparrow became virtually extinct…and then the problems started…because while sparrows do eat grain, they also eat insects.  LOTS of insects.  Because there were no birds to eat the bugs, the bugs ate the plants…and thus began the Great Chinese Famine in which an estimated 30 million people died.

saintsofthechurchAnd the effects of a backfired great idea can last for centuries…like when the church decided, sometime around the fourth century, that while all of us are called to live faithful lives, some people do such an amazingly great job at it that they ought to be recognized…and we started to call people “saints” – people who are such great role models for us that we should notice their lives.  But what happened was that we started paying attention to only the good part of those people’s lives…and when we compared ourselves to them, we think, “Wow, I’m a really lousy Christian compared to the virgin Mary or Augustine… I guess I’m no saint.” And then we let ourselves off the hook, because, after all, only saints can be super holy and really faithful, and so the result is that we wind up compartmentalizing or “taming” some gifted Christ-followers and diminishing our ability to be faithful.

Perhaps no one person, at least to Protestants, is a better example of this than Francis of Assisi.  Have you heard of him?  A 13th century Christian leader who has become associated with a love of nature and animals?  Do you know that prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”?  Yeah, he didn’t write it.  So far as we know, that was written in a French magazine in 1912.  So the one thing that most Americans associate with St. Francis is not accurate…but I am here to tell you that this brother of ours has something to teach the church in the 21st century.

Italy_mapFrancis was born to a wealthy family in Assisi, in central Italy, near the end of the 12th century.  Before we say anything about Francis, let me remind you of the state of the world at that time.  The so-called “dark ages” were ending, and the Renaissance was just around the corner.  Humans were leaving feudalism and barbarianism behind and experimenting with democracy and new freedoms for many.  The church at this point was old.  One writer has put it this way:

The Church was already a good deal more than a thousand years old… And she looked old then; almost as old as she does now; possibly older than she does now…The Church had topped her thousand years and turned the corner for the second thousand; she had come through the Dark Ages in which nothing could be done except desperate fighting against the barbarians and the stubborn repitition [sic] of the creed… The Church looked old then as now; and there were some who thought her dying as now…The freshness and freedom of the first Christians seemed then as much as now a lost and almost prehistoric age of gold…[1]

FrancisSoldierInto this world, Francis was born, and he lived what has been described as “a high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man”.  He trained as a soldier to fight in Assisi’s army, and was captured and held hostage for more than a year.  His father paid a ransom and he returned, although in ill health.  After recuperating, at least somewhat, he prepared to set out for battle once more – but the night before he was to depart he had a vision calling him to a life of simplicity and poverty – and in that vision, he was told to rebuild the church.

At first, he assumed that meant to rebuild the church in his hometown, which was suffering from neglect and in sore need of repair.  Francis sold all of his possessions to buy building materials, and when that was not enough, he sold some of his father’s, too.  His father, none too pleased, had him arrested and hauled into court.  The judge was trying to make it easy on Francis, and said, essentially, “Look, apologize and give the money back and there’s no harm…”  But Francis was resolute, and turned his back on his family and his wealth – he stripped his clothes off and left them on the courtroom floor, vowing to never again owe anything to any man.  He began to beg for building supplies, and then came to see that perhaps he was being called to rebuild the church as a whole, rather than the church building.

Benozo Gozzoli, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (1452)

Benozo Gozzoli, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis (1452)

To this end, he attracted some followers and he founded three orders of Christian service.  The first of these, “The Little Brothers”, or “The Order of the Friars Minor”, consisted of men who slept on the ground and ate what they could find as they preached the gospel of peace and reconciliation.  “The Order of St. Clare” was begun for women who experienced a similar call, and later on, the third order allowed for a world-wide following of Francis’ lifestyle.

Francis was known for his commitment to creation and the environment.  There are scores of stories that point to his preaching to the animals and his connection with nature.  In fact, Francis is credited with being the first person to ever set up a nativity scene in which the animals welcomed the birth of the Christ child.

The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, Fra Angelico, 1429

The Trial by Fire of St. Francis before the Sultan, Fra Angelico, 1429

As he aged, Francis became increasingly concerned with the rising conflict in the Middle East.  In 1219, he went to Egypt where the Christians from Europe were attacking the Muslims from North Africa.  He begged the Christian commander to stop the assault, and he was refused.  Unarmed, he walked into the Muslim camp and found the Sultan, al-Kamil.  He said to the man, “I am sent by the Most High God, to show you and your people the way of salvation by announcing to you the truths of the Gospel.”  He said that he would stay with the Sultan and teach him about Christ.  While the Muslim was reputed to have said, “If all Christians were like this, I would most certainly become one!”, in the end, he wavered.  At this point, Francis issued a challenge: light a big fire in the midst of the city, and Francis and one of the Muslim imams would walk into the blaze – Francis was convinced that he would survive unharmed and thus prove the truth of Christ’s claims.  The Sultan turned down this offer, but offered Francis money, which he refused.  Eventually the Sultan asked Francis to leave because he was afraid that his men would be attracted to the Gospel that this funny little Italian was preaching.

Francis returned to Italy and worked to lay the foundations for his religious orders.  As his health diminished, he handed leadership of the movement to others and sought increasing times of solitude and silence.  He died in 1226, leaving a legacy of thousands of followers.

As we look at the life of Francis in our own context, it seems to me that there are several challenges that he might bring to the church and the culture of the 21st century.

The first of these, and perhaps least-surprising given his legacy, is the affirmation brought to us in Romans 8 that the creation matters.  As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of stories about Francis and the animals.  One of the most famous involves the town of Gubbio, which was being terrorized by a vicious wolf that was so ravenous that it ate not only farm animals, but people, too.  The townspeople took up arms and went into the forest to kill all the wolves.  Francis begged them to stop, and went into the woods to find the beast.  He is said to have made the sign of the cross and command the wolf to lay down, and he said, “Brother Wolf, I want you to make peace with the townspeople – you must each stop harming the other.”  The wolf somehow indicated to Francis that he needed to eat, and so he killed.  Francis led the wolf into town, and made the townspeople promise to feed the wolf as they did their own dogs.  Supposedly, the wolf “shook” with Francis and lived among the people, going door to door, for two years until it died of old age.[2]

FrancisStatueIf you see a statue of St. Francis, I can bet he’ll be holding a bird.  And it’ll be in a garden.  We connect Francis with nature.  I wonder what this Christ-follower would say about our culture’s relationship with the environment?  What would you say are the theological implications of genetically modified seeds that are changing the way that the planet eats?  What would you say are the theological implications of the factory farms on which most of our meat is produced?  You may have noticed in the news that our nation’s largest producer of pork, Smithfield Foods, is being bought by the Chinese, and that’s setting off a political firestorm.  What would Francis say about the condition of those pigs, and the people who raise them?  Does God’s care for the creation extend to hogs who are confined to crates in which they cannot move, force-fed antibiotics, and create a sea of sewage that is toxic to anything in its path?

I’m not interested in arguing about any specific issue here – but I do want to note that the church of the 21st century needs voices like Francis who will help us think critically about what it means for us to exist with creation, and to steward creation in such a way so that when we are called to account before the Creator we will have a leg to stand on.

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337),  St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)

Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), St Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)

The other area in which I find a significant challenge from the life of Francis is echoed in the reading we heard from Psalm 24, about the earth and all its people belonging to the Lord.  I mentioned Francis’ travel to Egypt in response to the carnage that we call the Crusades. You may know that, at the end of the day, “our team” lost, and the Muslims retained control over the Holy Land and much of the Middle East. You may not know, however, that the leaders of Islam reached out to the Franciscan orders and invited them to come and be present in the Holy Land – the only western Christians permitted to remain – because they remembered, and were grateful for, the way that Francis himself treated Muslims with respect and love.

Now, this is crazy talk…and I promise, I’m not intentionally trying to get anyone angry this morning, but let me ask a foolish question.  What do you think would have happened if on the morning of September 12, 2001, we announced that we were going to send one million teachers, nurses, civil engineers, and missionaries to Afghanistan?  What if our campaign of “shock and awe” in Iraq was focused, not so much on the superiority of our weaponry as the depth of our love?

I know, I know, I’m a nut job or a whacko or un-American or something terrible for asking the question.  It’s a crazy question, isn’t it?

MQ-9 "Reaper" Drone

MQ-9 “Reaper” Drone

Why?  Who determines that to be so crazy? Why is that crazier than attacking them militarily?  Right now, an MQ-9 Reaper drone costs $12,548,710.60.  In the last five years, we’ve had at least 60 drones crash in Afghanistan and Iraq and a hundred worldwide[3].  For comparison’s sake, the cost of a single drone will provide 110 people a four-year scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.  What would happen if we said, “instead of bombing the daylights out of your country, we will give every one of your children a quality education?”

We will never know, of course, because we can’t even ask that kind of question in our world.  I’m a fool to have brought it up.

But Francis walked from Italy to Egypt in the middle of the Crusades because he apparently thought that we might more closely follow Jesus in seeking to make more Christians, rather than destroying all Muslims.  Not every crazy idea is Christ-like, just because it’s crazy.  But I’m here to say that the church of Jesus Christ will need more people in the 21st century who are willing to ask disturbing questions and to walk behind those questions in service to God.

G. K. Chesterton, a British writer and philosopher from the last century, called Francis the “mirror of Christ.”

Saint Francis is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible. Exactly in the same sense Saint Francis is nearer to us, and being a mere man like ourselves is in that sense more imaginable. Being necessarily less of a mystery, he does not, for us, so much open his mouth in mysteries…[4]

Francis of Assisi has given many people amazing insight into the life of faith.  He retraced the footsteps of Jesus by seeking to honor the earth and all those whom God made.  Some people who could not see Jesus at all came to love him because of something that they saw in Francis.  The question for the church today is, “Can I follow him, who followed Christ?  Can I follow him in such a way that people might see Christ in me?  Can I live gently in this world that God has made?  Can I love even those people whom I find to be offensive, or who have harmed me?”

474px-Saint_Francis_of_Assisi_by_Jusepe_de_RiberaThose are crazy questions.  Maybe it won’t surprise you to know that one of Francis’ nicknames is Le Jongleur de Dieu – which might translate as “God’s jester” or “the fool of God”.  He called his followers the Jongleurs de Dieu because he claimed for them both innocence and jollity – whilst holding them to telling the truth.  The church needs more fools like that in the 21st century.  I would encourage you to give it a try – to come up with some absolutely crazy questions in the week to come…and to ask them of Christ…and to see where they lead you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Each week during this series, I’ll be providing a one-page handout at the church to help illumine the person considered.  Below is the material that was available on July 14.

Faces at the Reunion: Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

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

Francis (from Italy) was the first Christian to set up a nativity scene!  He was a model to the church in terms of taking the words of Christ seriously and seeking to live them in his daily life.  He is widely referred to as both “the mirror of Christ” and “God’s fool”.  He strongly believed in the importance of laypersons reading and studying the Bible in their own language, and he usually wrote in the local language himself.

The Canticle of the Sun by Francis of Assisi

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
 all praise is Yours, all glory, honor and blessings.
 To you alone, Most High, do they belong;
 no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.

 We praise You, Lord, for all Your creatures,
 especially for Brother Sun,
 who is the day through whom You give us light.
 And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,
 of You Most High, he bears your likeness.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars, 
in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

We praise You, Lord, for Brothers Wind and Air, fair and stormy, all weather’s moods,
 by which You cherish all that You have made.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and pure.

We praise You, Lord, for Brother Fire, 
through whom You light the night.
 He is beautiful, playful, robust, and strong.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Earth, who sustains us 
with her fruits, colored flowers, and herbs.

We praise You, Lord, for those who pardon, for love of You bear sickness and trial.
 Blessed are those who endure in peace,
 by You Most High, they will be crowned.

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death,
 from whom no-one living can escape.
 Woe to those who die in their sins!
 Blessed are those that She finds doing Your Will.
 No second death can do them harm.

We praise and bless You, Lord, and give You thanks, 
and serve You in all humility.

Other quotes from Francis:

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.”

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.

He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.

He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

For a detailed booklet on St. Francis written by famous curmudgeon G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), visit http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/stf01010.htm   It is a long read, but fascinating.  Other resources on the life of this “older brother” in the faith can be found here: http://www.paracletepress.com/books-spirituality-franciscan.html