Return To Sender

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 10 I Corinthians 10:11-13 and Isaiah 43:1-7.

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

In 1962 Elvis Presley made a fairly forgettable movie entitled Girls, Girls, Girls in which he sang one of his best-selling songs, Return to Sender. I bet that many of you have heard this little ditty, which presupposes a reality wherein one party attempts to give another a message or letter, but the second party refuses, saying that she wants nothing to do with either the message or the one who sent it.

That song and phrase came to my mind as I was considering the theme of this week’s message. I don’t know about the stuff that you have to worry about when you go into work. I suppose that it’s an occupational hazard for construction workers to have debris fall on them, or for a fisherman to fall overboard, or for a nurse to get accidentally stuck by a needle. One of the occupational hazards of being a pastor is that you have to smile blandly through all kinds of terrible theology.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been walking with someone through a situation that is simply horrible – a devastating medical diagnosis, the sudden death of one who was greatly loved, the loss of a job… and some well-meaning person comes alongside and says, “Well, just remember… God won’t give you more than you can handle…”

And maybe it’s because it’s September and football season is upon us, but when I hear that I want to get out my little yellow bandanna and yell, “Flag on the play! That right there is a theology foul. You’re not allowed to say anything else for fifteen minutes!” Have you heard that one before? In keeping with our September theme of “Half Truths”, there is something that is vaguely spiritual and maybe even true-ish about this, but really, there are just so many reasons why this phrase is wrong…

Before we get to the theological foul, though, let’s consider where it might come from. Why do people say it, and how might they think that it’s connected to the Bible?

Romans During the Decadence, Thomas Couture (1847)

When God called the Apostle Paul to share the good news of Christ’s love in Europe, one of the places that Paul went was the Greek city of Corinth. Corinth was an important center of shipping and commerce, and a real “melting pot” of the Roman Empire. There were all sorts of people with all kinds of ideas from all over the world who had gathered there. In many ways, Corinth was a “Navy Town” – a lot of sailors in and out, many of them looking to have a good time while they were ashore. In fact, in 50 AD if you were to say that someone was “living like a Corinthian”, you meant to imply that they were drunk and promiscuous.

In this context, Paul tries to launch a little church. He writes to those who had come to believe that they are to live lives centered in the holiness of God and the love of Christ. They respond, apparently, by saying, “Um, Paul, do you remember what it’s like here? How in the world can we stay faithful in a place like this? There’s no way we can be the kinds of people God wants us to be when we are surrounded by this kind of decadence and decay.”

Paul reminds them that it is possible to say “no”, and that, in fact, “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength…” In other words, the Apostle is saying, when you are going about your daily business, you can always do what is right. God will not place you in a position where it is impossible for you to be a disciple.

And somehow, “God won’t send you to a place where it is impossible to be faithful” has shifted to “Anything that happens to you is from God and he will pull you through it.” That is, essentially, what we are saying when we say “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, right? If you wake up one morning and you have this huge ball of ugliness staring you in the face, this is the “truth” to which many would have you turn: You have to get through this… after all, God won’t give you more than you can handle, right?

Just think about that for a moment, and then think about this week’s news, or your life. That hurricane that just wiped out your town… That unspeakable event that occurred when you were nine…and eleven…and thirteen… Those cancer cells that are tearing apart your loved one’s brain… Are they “gifts” from God? Did God send them to people? Did God give them?

If we say that “God won’t give me more than I can handle”, then we’re saying that any and all pain and struggle and dis-ease I might experience is, in fact, a gift from God.

And if hurricanes, abuse, and cancer are sent… do we have the option of simply refusing delivery and saying, “Return to sender….”? Can we say, “That is not acceptable. I want a different life, please…”

I suspect that some of you have tried that strategy. In the words of the famous theologian, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Here’s the truth: I often turn to I Corinthians 10 when I am faced with a moral choice, or when I want to give up in the face of adversity. These verses are really helpful to me – as they were intended to be to the original recipients – when I am trying to chart a course of moral behavior in the midst of confusing times. This message from Paul is a great reminder that you and I have the power to choose how we might respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.

But when I need to make sense of a situation in which some part of my world is apparently going to hell in a handbasket, I find that Isaiah 43 is more useful. Here, the prophet is speaking to a group who have witnessed and lived through the unspeakable. They are returning from an exile in a foreign land, and they see the devastation of their homes. They have to be asking themselves and each other, “What’s going on here? Is YHWH really in charge? Or are the gods of Babylon and Assyria more powerful? What has happened? What are we going to do?”

Isaiah begins by anchoring his message in who God is – God is sovereign and mighty. God is the force behind all that is – God is the creator. More than that, YHWH is a God of power. He calls us by name – we do not have to invent ourselves, God tells us who we are. And then, after we understand who God is and who we are, the prophet tells us where God is. God is with us, it says in verse 3. Do you remember the phrase that Isaiah used earlier to describe the presence of God? Immanuel. God with us.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and our God – is not a deity who sits on a lofty throne, scoffing at the creation, occasionally tossing lightning bolts at people when they get out of line. Far from it.

In fact, Isaiah names the fears that these vulnerable people have: the rising flood waters, the burning flames – elements that will consume us in a heartbeat – and says, “When (not IF) these things happen, I am with you.

Why? Why would YHWH, why would our God, act this way? The answer to that comes at the very center of today’s reading, verse 4: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I want to show you a graphic that I made up while I was studying this passage. I know that it’s a lot of words, and it’s a little nerdy, but remember that I was an English Major in college, and that you love me. I want to show you how the shape of Isaiah 43 reinforces the meaning.

This passage appears to be written in the form of a chiasm – that is, a literary style where there is a key point that is surrounded by a series of mirrored phrases or themes. If I’m right about this, then the core message of Isaiah 43:1-7 is that you are loved and cared for by God – the God who promises to be with you, who calls to you, and who has in fact created you. This passage starts and ends with the power of God in creation, but is centered on the notion that wherever you are, God is right there with you.

If that’s true, then, the promise is not that “God won’t give you more than you can handle”, but rather “Whatever mess you find yourself in right now, you can get through, because you are not alone.” You can have strength for the battles you fight every day; you can have endurance and stamina for the daily grind; and you can have hope for the days and situations that you cannot yet see.

I began this message by citing Elvis Presley, and suggesting that there might be times where we wish we could take some portion of our life and mark it “return to sender – no such number…” Perhaps the message of this morning needs to be a reminder that it is, in fact, we who are being “returned to sender”. Could that be what is being said in the last few verses of our reading from Isaiah? That God will call all that he has made, everything that bears his name, and that he will give an ultimate place, context, and home to the creation?

Hear me, people of God – I do not want to get all “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye” on you. I do not want to say, “Oh, come on, you can make it – I mean, it won’t matter that you’re suffering now because heaven is going to be so great.” That is not what I’m saying here.

However, we must realize that there is always more to our lives, the workings of the world, and the movement of the creation, than we can see. We confess that our perspective is limited and finite, but that God’s is neither. I think that means that we come to worship trusting in the ultimate and eternal intentions of our creator even as we do our best to face the challenges of any particular day.

So to those of you who are feeling as though you are stuck in a place of unspeakability right now – those of you who find that it is difficult to see much of anything in terms of God’s eternal purpose and design… let me simply encourage you to hold God to his promise. Here’s a prayer you can use: “God, you said that you love me. You said that you’d be with me. How are you with me? Where is your love?” Ask God those questions.

And to those of you are are not stuck right now, but live in a world that is filled with horrible places, let me encourage you to ask God how you might be an answer to the prayers that his children are calling into the darkness. If you have the presence and love of God, you can share that love and presence. And when you’re in the grip of terror or pain, sometimes just being with someone who can bear witness to the presence and love is enough. So please, beloved, ask God where you need to show up in the days to come.

God doesn’t “give” hurricanes, or drunk drivers, or abuse. And yet our lives are interrupted by those things in ways that seem horrible. Thanks be to God that God does give us each other. And thanks be to God that God does promise his love and his presence. May we share those things in abundance as we encounter the trials of this day, this week, and this year. Amen.

Who, and Where, and Why…Thoughts on the Presence.

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 13 October, we began to hear the story of Gideon, the most prominent figure in that book.  Our scriptures included Judges 6:11-24 and John 20:26-31.

OK, I’m not going to make you raise your hands on this one, but if I were to take a little survey this morning and ask people who had ever even heard of the book of Judges prior to the beginning of this sermon series, I’m betting that many, if not most of the hands would be up.  But let’s be honest.  How many people have heard about Eglon and Ehud?  Who tells their children about Jael and Sisera?  This is a part of our story that we don’t often read.

GideonCartoonBut there are portions that some of us recognize.  I’ve mentioned Samson as a “Judge” about whom a lot of people have heard.  This morning’s reading introduces us to the person who gets more ink in the book of Judges than anyone else: Gideon.  There are a number of stories in Judges that help us to understand who this man is, and how he points to the intentions of God.

I have to warn you, though, about what we said last week: we are continuing to descend into a dark and cold period in the story of God’s people.  Things are not as they should be.

We know that right away because when we meet Gideon, he is threshing wheat in a wine press.

grumpyNeighborWhen I was a kid, my brother and I loved to play stickball.  We’d get a broom handle and a tennis ball and play every day that we could.  Most days, we’d be down at the corner.  Home plate was the sewer grate near the Wiener’s house.  A ball hit in the air over the Hultberg’s place was an automatic home run.  A ball hit into the windows at the Hultberg’s place was trouble.  And any ball into the yard that comprised foul territory along third base was just lost – that guy never gave our balls back.

garageBut some days, we’d want to play, and it would be raining.  So we’d play in the garage.  We made a line about three feet high, and anything below that line was an out.  Anything into the ceiling was also an out.  But there were a couple of sweet spots that, if you could hit them, were worth a lot of points.

Can I tell you that it usually went better for us when we played outside?  Fewer holes in the wall, less paint spilled on the floor, and no broken light bulbs.  You could play stickball in the garage, but if my mom or dad caught you doing it, you’d get the point that it just ain’t right.  Like threshing wheat in a wine press.

A Threshing Place in Santorini, Greece

A Threshing Place in Santorini, Greece

Theshing wheat was done outdoors.  You need a big area, a wide floor, and ideally, a little breeze.  To thresh wheat by hand, you hold the stalks and slam them against the floor, or you lay them on the floor and you swing a flail at them.  The grains of wheat fall from the stalk and you throw the stalks away and sweep up the grain.

A Wine Press

A Wine Press

A wine press was a small, contained pit that was out of the wind – usually below ground.  The grapes would be thrown into the pit and then stomped until the juice was released. Clearly, the smaller, more contained the pit was, easier collecting the juice would be.

But here in Judges 6, Gideon is playing ball in the garage.  He is hiding in the press, doing his level best to make sure that nobody – especially the Midianites – sees him preparing a harvest.  The beginning of the chapter, which we did not read, tells us that every harvest time the Midianites would cross over into Israel as thick as locusts and devour the harvest – so people like Gideon are forced into hiding their produce from the marauding enemy.  And if that means threshing wheat in a winepress, well so be it.

winepress-threshingHave you ever been there?  Have you ever found yourself so confused, so threatened, so isolated, so afraid, that you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing?  Here’s what I mean: I think that when people look for hope in a lottery ticket, that’s like threshing wheat in a winepress.  When you whip out the credit card at the mall for that next thing that’s going to make you feel better about yourself, or when you wake up in bed next to someone you don’t really know or love, but who has told you things about yourself that you hope are true but are afraid to believe – that’s threshing wheat in a winepress.  There is nothing wrong with wanting hope, or contentment, or love.  But where are you looking for those things?

Here’s another thing: when Gideon is trying to thresh the wheat in that winepress, do you think it’s working all that well?  Of course not.  He can’t do it well in that space, and it also says something about the meagerness of the harvest.  He’s doing a bad job with a small amount.

It’s the same with us.  When we start looking for hope, or contentment, or love in the wrong place, we don’t really expect to find much.  But we live with the illusion of those things until sooner or later we either start looking in the right place, or we give up altogether and say that there is no such thing as hope, contentment, or love. We come to the point where we have an altered view of reality, and we accept our own experience as authoritative for everyone.

Just like the disciple Thomas, Gideon can’t believe the goodness and presence of God because he thinks he hasn’t seen it.  And he can’t see it because he doesn’t believe it.  The reality is that he is sitting in the presence of the Divine. But he cannot process that truth.

In verse 8, we’re told that God sent a “prophet” to speak the truth to God’s people.  In verse 11, we meet an “angel” who comes to speak with Gideon.  And in verse 16, we’re told that it’s “the Lord” himself who is doing the talking… And still, Gideon can’t believe in the presence of God.  Even though God is right there!

So now our morning’s reading contains a narrative wherein God has to provide some ID to Gideon to prove that He is who He says.  One wintry day in 1993 I was moving my family from the temporary residence we had on Clearview into our new home on Cumberland.  I had just finished packing the truck and literally everything I owned was in the back of the U-Haul when I got a call from my friend Bill telling me that his wife had had some heart trouble and was over at Allegheny General Hospital.  I left the truck and went to the ICU, wearing my tattered jeans, stained t-shirt, and flannel.  When I got into the room, as Doris was giving me a hug and a kiss, the nurse came around the bend and looked at me in shock.  “Who are you and what are you doing here?”  Doris said, “It’s ok, that’s just Dave.”  I said, “I’m clergy.”  The nurse put herself between Doris and me and said, “I’m going to have to see some ID.”  When I dutifully produced my little clergy badge, she looked me up and down and sniffed, “well, at least wash your hands before you get anywhere close to my patient…”

Sometimes, we don’t believe what is right in front of us, do we?

Another time, I was at a meeting in Chicago.  I had one of those big plastic nametags on that says who you are and where you’re from.  As I walked into the conference room, a man with whom I had been corresponding for years, but never met in person, looked at my name tag, and then at me, and then at my name tag again.  He said, “You’re Dave Carver?”  “Uh-huh.”  “From Pittsburgh?”  “Yup.”  “You’re Dave Carver from Crafton Heights in Pittsburgh?”  “Um, yeah… It’s good to finally meet you.”  He looked at my tag again, and then at me, and finally said, “Wow, man, it’s good to meet you, too.  Sorry for my slow reaction, but, wow, man… I always thought you were black…”

Not sure how to respond to that one.  I’m just me.

The core of our passage today consists of God seeking to convince Gideon that God is who God says he is.  God has to pull out his ID and flash his name tag in order to get the man’s attention.

Gideon’s Sacrifice, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674)

Gideon’s Sacrifice, by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674)

In God’s case, the common method of getting one’s attention, Old-Testament style, involved some fire.  Remember the burning bush, or the pillar of fire by night?  Well here Gideon sets a feast in front of his Visitor and – shazaam! – it is consumed by flame. Turns out that God is who he said he is, and he is where he said he’d be – right with Gideon.

Let me tell you something, friends.  You could make an argument that what God says and does here is in fact the central message of the entire Bible.  God is with us.  Time and time again throughout the scripture, God looks at someone and says, “I am with you.”

In fact, let me help you do a little Bible memorization exercise right now.  I’d like to stop the sermon and help you memorize a dozen Bible verses. Can you say this with me: “’I am with you’, says the Lord.”  Now, repeat it.  Have you memorized it?  What does it say?

Congratulations.  You’ve just memorized the key phrases in Genesis 28:5 and 46:4, Exodus 3:12, Deuteronomy 20:1, Joshua 1:5, Isaiah 43:5, Jeremiah 15:20, Haggai 1:13, Matthew 1:23, Matthew 28:20, John 13:33 and Acts 18:10.  And there are more.  You really are a bunch of Bible scholars.  A dozen verses before noon.

God is with you.  Isn’t that great news!  But did you notice Gideon’s reaction?  Right after he says, “Yeah, well, I can’t really believe all these stories about God because, well, God hasn’t really ever shown up around these parts in my experience…”, God goes ahead and proves that it is, in fact, the Almighty there in Gideon’s winepress.  And Gideon’s first impulse is to cry out, “Oh no! God is here!  I’ve seen God!  I am in such trouble now!”

Wait! Isn’t the presence of God good news?  It sure ought to be.

Unless I have given up looking for the holy and am happy just to be hiding out in my wine press.

godwithusYears ago I was in a mentoring relationship with a beautiful young woman who had experienced great pain in her life.  She loved Jesus.  She yearned for his presence in her life.  But she was in such fear and pain that she believed the only way that she could support herself was by working as a stripper at a “gentleman’s club.”  I went to the city where she lived and we visited for a couple of days, during which time I tried to convince her that she had other gifts and skills and that God would make a way for her.  She replied that God had given her this body and there was nothing wrong with what she was doing and my problem was that I was too uptight.

One afternoon as she was heading out the door, I gave her a pad of paper and I said, “Do me a favor and write the address of the club where you work.”  She jotted it down and said, “OK.  Why?”

I folded the paper and put it in my pocket.  “You’ve convinced me,” I said.  “You’re right.  Nothing wrong with what you’re doing.  And I’ve decided that I don’t want to hang around here all evening by myself, so I thought I’d stop down to the club for a snack and a drink.  I’ll see you in a bit.”

She got a panicked look on her face.  “Oh, please, Dave.  No.  Don’t come.”

“Why?  It’s all about beauty and grace and celebrating God’s gifts, isn’t it?  I’m ready to accept your view of reality.”

“No…Dave, please.  I don’t want you to see me like this.  I don’t want you to see me there.  I can’t take you to that place.”

And I simply said, “I don’t see why my presence would create a problem.  After all, you take Jesus there every night.”

You see – the presence of God can be terrifying and unsettling if we discover that we are in a place that is outside of God’s best.  The reality of the presence of God as described in this morning’s reading, along with the other dozen verses that you’ve memorized, is that such a presence can and should prompt a change in behavior or outlook.  My young friend, for instance, realized that the presence of God everywhere meant that she needed to leave the exotic dancing profession.

How can you take advantage of your neighbor if God is there with you and the neighbor?  How do you continue to tease and mock and bully someone at school if God is sitting between the two of you?  How can we demonize those with whom we disagree if God is a part of the conversation?

You see, if I am sitting in the wrong place, or doing the wrong thing, or looking in the wrong direction for hope or contentment or love, well then I may be uncomfortable when the true source of hope and contentment and love shows up and I continue to look elsewhere for those things.

But if I can believe in that presence…If I can trust that God does provide those things, and more, to those who follow…then maybe – just maybe I can change.  I can grow. I can be released from fear.

Beloved, God is trying to convince you of something this morning.  What is it?  What if it is true? How would your life be different this morning if you knew that God was with you?  How could your life be different?  How should it be different?

Nobody here, to my knowledge, has actually spent much time threshing wheat in a winepress.  But plenty of us know something about holding back and hiding out.  Plenty of us know something about an inability to believe that maybe, just maybe, this God is who he says He is – or, more importantly, we find it hard to accept the fact that he is where he says he is.

One of my supreme joys as your pastor is to invite you to consider the glorious truth that God is with us. With you. Here.  Now.  There.  Then.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.