Can’t We All Get Along?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series concluded on December 22 as we read someone else’s mail: Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter/sermon in which Paul invited the church to take responsibility for healing in relationships.  Our scripture consisted of Philippians 4:1-9 as well as Psalm 122.

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

Not long ago I attended a worship service to mark the installation of a colleague as pastor of a local congregation. To be honest, it was a tough day for me, and I was mostly going because I’d promised I’d go.  When I saw that my friend Saleem was the preacher for the day, I perked up.  And when he made a point in the sermon, and then said something like, “my friend Dave Carver is a wonderful example of this kind of living”… Well, let me say that it was humbling, affirming, and really turned the whole day around for me.

That’s a “shout out”.  You know, when you’re in church (or some other crowd) and you’re sort of daydreaming along and the preacher mentions you by name and everyone smiles and you are lifted up as a positive example.  That feels pretty great.

How about the other end of the spectrum?  Instead of a “shout out”, have you ever seen a “call out”?  You know, the pastor is up there preaching a sermon entitled something like, “Stupid Things That Horrible People Do” and then you hear your name lifted up as an example? Yikes.  That does not feel too good… Nobody wants to be called out in the morning’s message.

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn (1633)

The Apostle Paul is in prison, probably in Rome, near the end of his life.  He gets news from a church that he started some time ago in Philippi, and he takes the time to write a letter.  When that letter is delivered, it is, in all probability, read to the community as a whole – it is the morning’s sermon.  It is, by and large, a lovely message.  He seeks to put his friends’ minds at ease by assuring them of his own welfare; he encourages them to grow in humility and grace and to follow the footsteps of Jesus, and he warns them about the dangers of false teaching and heresy.

And then, about three-quarters of the way through the morning message, Pastor Paul drops a bunch of names in what becomes a “daily double” of both call out and shout out.  First, he names two women who are apparently having some sort of a conflict and says, essentially, “Look, Euodia and Syntyche – you can do better than this…”  And then he mentions another name, Syzygus, which is often simply translated as “loyal yokefellow”, and then offers another man named Clement a shout out in dealing with difficult situations.

Wow.  I don’t know how often I’ve ever called out anyone from the pulpit, but I can’t imagine that would feel good.  And that’s just in this little church in a small neighborhood.  What would it be like to be called out by the guy who wrote half of the New Testament?  And for us to be reading about it two thousand years later?  That seems kind of harsh.

How do you like hearing your name when you’re in a crowd?  When would that make sense?

I think in this case, Paul is naming a situation of which everyone in the congregation is aware, and then he’s making a very simple point: that the church ought to play a role in bringing about the healing and reconciliation that is needed.

Paul mentions these folks by name, not in order to shame anyone, but to compel the church to action.  It’s as if the old apostle is saying, “Listen up, church: you know these people, and you love them.  You need to help them find a way to work through this pain.  What we have here is not good for anyone.”

So who are these people? This is the only time in the Bible that we read these names, and on the surface we don’t know much about these folks.  But we can say this: both Euodia (which can mean “pleasant journey”) and Syntyche (which translates roughly to “good luck”) are respected leaders in their community.  On Paul’s first trip to Philippi, an account of which is contained in the book of Acts, we find him preaching to a group of women gathered outside the city.  Paul’s usual practice was to preach to the Jews in a town first, and to do that, he’d go to a synagogue.  Most scholars believe that the fact that he goes straight to a gathering of women indicates the fact that the Roman colony of Philippi did not have ten adult men who were willing to identify as Jews, and therefore Philippi did not have a synagogue in which anyone could preach.

While some of the men were apparently reticent or simply absent, there is a rich tradition supporting the leadership of women in this congregation. The first person in all of Europe to respond to an invitation to hear more about Jesus was a businesswoman and entrepreneur named Lydia.  She welcomes Paul and his companions into her home and circle of friends, and it seems logical that the first church in Europe, there in Philippi, grew from that gathering.

In his letter to that community, Paul commends – he offers a shout out to – Euodia and Syntyche for the fact that they “contended with me for the Gospel”.  That’s the exact same phrase that he used earlier when he was describing the importance of the ministries of his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus.  Using language that is parallel at every turn, Paul emphasizes the fact that the church of Jesus Christ would not exist without the selfless service and valuable leadership offered by women such as Syntyche and Euodia.  And more than being leaders, they are his friends, and he laments this brokenness in the fabric of relationship in the household of God.

Paul goes on to invite a particular person, Syzygus or “loyal yokefellow” to work with these two women in reconciling their differences.  In doing so, Paul is putting this person in a difficult spot – literally inserting him in the midst of what is now a public conflict.  Why would Paul do this?  It seems as though the only explanation is that Paul believes that this person has the tools, the skills, and the relational capital to help move this situation towards health.  While he is in prison and therefore unable to deal with this himself, Paul deputizes Syzygus to lead the church in bringing healing – because his core belief is that the current state of affairs isn’t good for anyone.

In the past three weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to look at some fairly detailed biblical narratives of people enmeshed in conflict.  In the lives of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the “Prodigal Son” and his family, we saw several ways in which conflict can eat away at the bonds of family and friendship. I hope we also noted some ways in which we can take steps to effect reconciliation and healing when we’ve been wounded.  This morning, I’d like to invite you to consider the ways in which you might be called to be Syzygus in the lives of those around you.  It’s pretty simple: Paul implies that even those who are not directly embroiled in pain are called to help lead the community out of it.  How can we assist other people in times of conflict?

We can do that by remembering who we are.  We are Syzygus. Are we, in some way, equipped to encourage a healthy resolution to a nagging problem?  Note that even as he calls these women out, Paul avoids anything that even looks like gossip.  He presents each party in a very positive light and emphasizes the gifts and integrity of each.  He does not take sides nor encourage Syzygus to do so. If there is an attack to be launched, it is on the problem at hand, and not the people involved.  At the end of the day, it is not about demonstrating who is “right” and who is “wrong”, but rather how we can get to a place where everyone is contributing toward the ministry of Christ.

In addition to remembering who we are, we do well to remember where we are.  I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who notices things like this, but in these nine brief verses, Paul reminds those who are struggling that they are “in the Lord” three times and “in Christ Jesus” once.  You might say that’s just a literary device, but I will suggest that it’s an important way of remembering that the landscape is different when we are actively dwelling “in the Lord.”

Many years ago I was learning how to drive a car in Africa.  Now, I’d been driving for more than twenty years in the USA before I ever took the keys anywhere else.  But here’s the deal: in South Africa and in Malawi, traffic proceeds on the LEFT – as in England, it’s the opposite of the way we do things in the USA.  And I remember driving down a deserted street in Johannesburg South Africa with Erin in the car, turning left onto a divided road, and being so confused that I stopped the car and called for a vote as to which side of the road I was supposed to be on.

When we are navigating tricky situations, it’s important to remember where we are – in what context are we having these discussions? Our perception of what should be done and who can do it might change when we are able to center ourselves with a proper perspective.  When we are “in the Lord”, our own personal agendas and ideas can and should often take a back seat for the greater good.

Similarly, those of us who are called Syzygus and thereby seeking to help community through conflict will find it essential to reflect on why we are here.  If you follow any kind of social media, you are familiar with the phrase or the meme, “I’m just here for the comments.”  Someone has posted a message that has made a stringent point, and another person has found fault with that post, and then the comments light up!  People attack each other’s credibility, politics, family structure, educational background – you name it – and lots of us follow along not necessarily because we care about the issue raised by the original post, but because we want to be entertained by the conflict that ensues.

We are here, Paul would say, to point to what God is doing in the world.  We are here to do what we can to move the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ forward in the world.   As we do so, we are called to do all that we can to dispel anxiety, to rebuke harshness, and to speak against fear.  Last week I asked our confirmation class to read this passage and tell me what I should say to you about it.  One of the most cogent comments was this: “It’s right there, Pastor Dave.  ‘The Lord is near.’” Everything else needs to be understood in light of the fact that God is close to us and those who are currently struggling.  It may very well be that the reason we are where we are right now is to remind those who struggle that they are close to the heart of God.

And lastly, we have to remember what we are doing as we stand with those who are conflicted.  As the church of Jesus Christ, we who are in the Lord are called to embody the unity that God intends for all creation.  In a few moments you will find a phrase rolling off your tongue without a thought: you will join me in praying that the fullness of God’s presence and authority might be shown “on earth as it is in heaven.”  Who do you suppose is responsible for the “on earth” part of that sentence?  The world needs us to have our acts together – if we are constantly picking at each other, or standing idly by while others in our community are hurting, then our entire witness toward “peace on earth and goodwill to all” will be meaningless.

The reading from the Psalms really emphasizes this point as over and over again we are told to ‘pray for the shalom of the community’.  I love the way that song ends: “For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’  For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.”  We are not commended for simply staying out of conflict; we are not invited to ignore one another.  No, the model is clear: we are to seek one another’s good.  We are here to actively promote healing and wholeness, wherever the dis-ease began.

As our new members began their study of what it means to be the church, we considered the call of Abram and Sarai, and we emphasized the fact that since then, those who have understood themselves to be called by God are called out for service; we are called out in order to be a blessing to the world around us; we are called to give all that we can in order that the world might be a better, healthier, more just, and loving place as we seek to give away that which we have received in abundance from our God in Christ Jesus.

Beloved in the Lord, let me encourage you to live into the calling to be one who promotes peace by doing your best to create a scenario whereby everyone can realize that same call.  It starts, as it must, with each one of us. With Syzygus. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

And Then What?

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 15 with an exercise in “holy imagination” based on the story of the Father with two sons, found in Luke 15:11-32.  We also heard an encouraging word from Psalm 34:1-3.

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

“OK, stop me if you’ve heard this one…”

Do you know someone who begins stories or jokes that way?  Have you ever heard that phrase used? In my experience, it’s wasted air.  Hardly anybody actually interrupts and says, “Yeah, Dave, you mentioned that twice already…” Instead, when someone starts to repeat a story with which we’re familiar, it’s easier to simply disengage.  We think we know where the punchline will be, and we allow our minds to wander.  We’ve heard it before.  Got it.  Thanks.

Here’s another phrase you may have heard: “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Yes, you think, that’s what we’re saying.  When someone tells us the same story over and over again, it gets bothersome, and even irritating.  During one of the darkest days in early World War II, England’s Winston Churchill summoned General Montgomery and suggested that the General do a review of logistics.  Bored, Monty replied, “You know what they say: familiarity breeds contempt.”

Churchill waved him off and said, “I would like to remind you, my friend, that without a degree of familiarity we could not breed anything!”

I mention all of this because we’re going to look this morning at one of the most familiar stories that Jesus ever told: the one about the headstrong son who wished his father dead, squandered his inheritance, and still received a hero’s welcome on his return home.

We do this in the context of an Advent journey that invites us to consider various aspects of reconciliation and forgiveness.  Perhaps you were here two weeks ago, when we saw in the story of Jacob and Esau that a movement toward God’s best for our lives would be irrevocably tied with a drawing near to the brother or sister from whom we might be estranged.  Last week we delved into the same family tree and listened in on Joseph and his brothers.  In doing so, we thought about what it might mean for us to take concrete steps toward healed relationships even when we have been wounded.

This morning, we look at a story that features someone who might be the poster child for forgiveness.  We call this account “The Prodigal Son” or “the Loving Father”, and we love it.  You’ve heard a hundred sermons about it, and maybe you recognize the very end of this passage as being the root of what is arguably the most popular hymn of all time: Amazing Grace! I once was lost, but now am found…”

And it is a favorite passage for a reason.  We do well to remember the story of a son who hit rock bottom and who found his way home again; we ought to celebrate and learn from the astounding love that this father had for his sons as he refused to let pride and circumstance stand in the way of a right relationship.

The trouble is, however, that we’ve heard this story so frequently that when Karlena stands up here and reads it to you again, it’s a little too easy to button up the story, to put it away, and start wondering what hymn we’ll be moving onto next.  And when we do this, we fail to realize that Jesus didn’t tell us how this story ended.

Fred Craddock, who was one of the most important preachers of the last century, talks about the ending this way: “He what? He threw a party for the rascal? I can understand letting him back in, but after what he did he ought to come through the back door and eat in the kitchen for a while. He ought to be put on probation, a trial period, maybe work off some of the money he took from the old man. That boy ought to learn a lesson or two. But a party? Where’s the lesson in that?”[1]

The Prodigal Son, He Qi, 2013

And if we’re paying attention, we usually agree that the lesson winds up being that God loves us as we are, and welcomes us home, and that’s just how God is.  And we’re glad.

Except that when Jesus finishes the story, not everyone is glad. There’s one person who is still out on the back porch stewing about the situation.  This morning, I’d like to think about this not as the story of the Prodigal Son, or the account of the Forgiving Father.  No, for our purposes today I’ll title this the Tale of the Presbyterian Brother.

If you’ve been around here more than thirty seconds or so, you might have noticed that we call ourselves a “Presbyterian” church.  If you ask the right person, that person will tell you that in the Greek language in which the Bible was written, “presbuteros” means “elder” – and since we’re a church governed by elders, we’re a “Presbyterian” church.  Luke uses that same word when he’s talking about the first son of the loving father.  He’s an elder.  He’s Presbyterian, through and through, and if we’re not careful, we’ll wind up repeating some of his mistakes.

I’d like to offer a few observations about the Presbyterian in this morning’s reading.

First of all, did you see how offended he was by the party?  I mean to tell you, he would not set foot inside that house as long as that idiot brother was there! He would not dignify the proceedings by making an appearance.

What we don’t realize is what a breach of etiquette this would have been in an ancient Palestinian village.  In a social situation, no matter what else is going on, the host – particularly the male host – has a supreme obligation to greet the guests even if the host is compelled to spend most of his time doing something else.  A number of you have been in an African home where something like this has happened.  You show up for a meal somewhere and all of a sudden a bunch of people come out of nowhere, shake hands with you, and disappear.  They may have jobs to do, responsibilities to attend, but they will stop all of that at least for a moment and recognize the visitors.

But not here. The Presbyterian brother pouts in the back yard and in failing to greet the guests, he publicly insults both them and his father.  It was a clear signal to all involved that he was standing in judgment over them all.  In this, I think we can see that the older son’s rebellion might be less flashy than the prodigal’s, but it is no less serious.  It points us to a broken relationship.

Another thing we might notice about this Presbyterian brother is that he is inflexible and filled with pride – especially when compared with his dad.  In verse 26, we hear that this irritated older brother “called to one of the servants”.  The root of that word is kaleo.  There are all kinds of forms that this word can take, and when the Presbyterian brother speaks to the servant, the word used is proskaleo – it’s a summons to appear before someone more powerful than you.  When the father goes out to speak to the son, you’d think that the same word would be used – it is a father calling to his child, after all.  But the father approaches the son with love – and Luke uses the word parakaleo – the prefix para meaning, “alongside”.  The Father is saying, “Son, look at things my way. See them how I see them…” But the older brother responds, not in the language of relationship, but of duty.  When his father speaks to him in the language of love, the Presbyterian son replies by saying, “I have served you like a slave… and have obeyed your commands…”

Do you see what’s happening here? He is using transactional language: I did this, and you have to do that for me.  His claim is not one of love or grace, but rather worthiness – worthiness that he is clear to point out does not extend to his worthless younger sibling.

The other thing I’d like to point out about the behavior of this older brother is this: that nothing about what he does or says seems to allow for the possibility of a healed relationship. He cannot even see the guest of honor as a brother: he calls him “this son of yours” instead of “my brother”, and then he goes on to make up a story about how the younger brother must have burned through his inheritance.  He invents a narrative about prostitutes… who said anything about that before? Not Jesus, not Luke, not the younger brother… But in his zeal to be seen as a fine, righteous, upstanding person who is clearly holier than anyone else in the room, the Presbyterian brother has to attack and demean his younger relative.

Not only that, but he implies that he’s taking this principled stance against what he thinks is improper living because the father is too weak to do so himself.  He’s being so tough, he seems to indicate, because everyone knows that the father is too soft and will let the young boy get away with murder.  Someone’s got to take a stand, and it’s going to be the older brother.

So what happens next? After this exchange on the back porch… how does the scene resolve?  Jesus doesn’t tell us.  The parable ends.

Home – The Invitation, Seiger Köder (contemporary)

What do you think?  What will happen between this Presbyterian and the rest of his family? Do you remember a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure?  In each of these books, the reader assumed the role of the main character and made choices that determined the outcome of the plot.  Let’s play.  Choose an ending:

In his groundbreaking work The Cross and the Prodigal, Ken Bailey suggests that the most logical ending would consist of the older brother attacking and beating the father.  The brother can’t bear the shame of being in a family where such poor behavior is tolerated or even encouraged.  In Bailey’s understanding, the younger brother is seen as an enemy and the father, as one who gives aid and comfort to the enemy, must be attacked.  The story ends in bitterness, isolation, and death.

Perhaps you’d prefer a different ending.  Maybe the older brother was eventually won over by the father’s love, and went into the party and had a blast.  He greeted the guests, he took over at the grill and made hamburgers for everyone, and a year or so later, served as the best man at his little brother’s wedding.  Maybe confession and repentance won the day and the whole clan was able to live into this storybook ending.

But, because the brother was a Presbyterian, after all, my hunch is that this story ended somewhere between patricide and “awe, golly, shucks”.  I mean, Presbyterians are nice, after all.  We don’t have many enemies.  In fact we think of “enemy” as a rather distasteful word.  There are certain people one avoids, if possible.  For everyone’s good, after all.

My suspicion is that this story ends without an explosion and yet also apart from the storybook.  I suspect that in the days to come, the characters involved simply pretended that none of this happened.  They moved stiffly, they did their duty, they avoided eye contact and did their best to stand on opposite sides of the room when it came time for group photographs.

In other words, I think that the ending of this story is that the Presbyterian son continued to deny his father the gift of a restored relationship within the family unit; that there was no pattern of interactions that could be characterized as loving, forgiving, or reconciled because the older son simply could not bring himself to be placed in that position.

In other words, this story is a tragedy.

Here’s the challenge of Advent, my friends.  Once again, I’d like to invite you to consider your web of relationships.  Last week, I asked those who were in attendance to pray about their specific situations, and about relationships in which they were involved wherein grace and forgiveness were needed.  Do you remember that?  Can you think of a situation like that?

Can we engage in an Advent discipline that would allow us to

  • Allow God to take the lead; one where you and I seek to follow and act toward the other as God is acting?
  • Resist the temptation to take it as a sacred duty to somehow defend God’s honor or reputation by punishing or vilifying someone else? To commit to telling the truth about the other, and to striving to believe the best about each other?
  • Find it in ourselves to wish for happiness and even joy in the life of the person with whom we have been in conflict?
  • Look for a way to crowd into the party realizing that at the end of the day it has always been about God, God’s love, God’s kindness, God’s abundance. The farm is God’s, the robe, the ring, the prize cow – they are all God’s.  Therefore, any insistence I have on setting ground rules, or proving myself to be worthy, or seeking to act in such a way so that we all know that God likes me a little more than God likes you… that all of that leads only to a diminishment of the party for everyone?

The Psalmist sang, “O magnify the Lord with me! Let us exalt God’s name together!”  I don’t know if I can envision an ending to the parable in which the older brother grasps the younger and says that.  And it really breaks my heart to say that, because the people of God should be able to do better than that.

Can we? Can we do better?  Can we lay down our posturing and our pride and, in this instance, anyway, be a little less Presbyterian?  Can we move toward grace and rejoice when our siblings do, too?  Oh, beloved, I sure hope that we can.  If our relationships with each other are not characterized by this kind of generosity of spirit, why would anyone care to know about our claims to have a relationship with the Divine? Thanks be to God for our siblings in Christ, and for the opportunity to walk with them even on difficult days.  Amen.

[1] “Party Time”, in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock (John Knox Press, 2011), p. 173

Speak Kindly

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series continued on December 8 with an exploration of the healing of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.  This can be found in Genesis 50:15-26. We also considered Paul’s call to reconciliation in II Corinthians 5:16-21

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

Last week, we began to talk about the ways that Advent is a season for reconciliation – healing in our relationships with each other as well as with the Divine.  Maybe you were here when we talked about the relationship between Jacob and Esau.  Well, if you thought things between Jacob and his brother were difficult, wait until you get a load of how things were between Jacob’s sons.

Maybe you know what happened in that family, but here’s the skinny: Jacob had twelve sons.  One of them, Joseph, was so clearly the favorite that his brothers decided that life would be better without him, so they sold him off into slavery and told the old man that he was dead.  Joseph found himself enslaved in Egypt, where he spent decades being alternately reviled and honored and at the end of the day, he found himself elevated to the position of, essentially, Prime Minister. As luck (or God) would have it, his brothers come cringing to him to save their sorry skins in the midst of a famine, and he does, and so Jacob and all the boys move to Egypt.

In today’s reading from Genesis, we hear a description of what happens in Jacob’s family after the old schemer dies.  Look at the ways that the brothers are described.  What are some words that you might use to describe these eleven men?  Afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, guilty…  These guys are not at their best right now, are they?  I should hope not!  They are small, they are petty, they are obsessed with the past.  So far as we can tell, they’ve been stewing on this for two decades.

Joseph Recognized by His Brothers, Leon Pierre Urbain Burgeois (1863)

Now, think about some words that you might use to describe Joseph.  Confident, comforting, generous, reassuring, forgiving… Joseph clearly is at his best, isn’t he?  I mean, this kid has been through a lot: he was born into a tragic and dysfunctional family; he was attacked by his brothers, sold as a slave at 17, spent at least a decade in involuntary slavery or as a prisoner, and finally ends up as the vice-governor of Egypt.  Amazing!  He is not at all worried about the past, is he?  He’s at peace and looking ahead!

Another question.  If you got to choose…if you could be afraid, nervous, anxious, worried, like the brothers….or confident, generous, forgiving, and at peace like Joseph, who do you want to be?  What kind of character do you wish you had?  Who do you want to be like?

While you’re mulling that over, let me throw out a couple more examples:

Mahatma Gandhi was on a speaking tour across India, as part of his non-violent struggle for independence from the British.  At that time, the only affordable mode of travel across the country was by rail. When there were no whites waiting for a train, the British rail company, in an effort to save the expense and time of actually stopping at the station, would merely slow the trains long enough for passengers of color to run along-side and hop on. (This racist policy was part of what Gandhi was protesting…)  One day, Gandhi was running to get on a train, and as he jumped up, a sandal slipped from his foot. Though he reached, he ended up watching helplessly as it fell behind him on the tracks. Quickly, he grabbed the other sandal and threw it back down the tracks towards the first shoe.

People who saw this thought perhaps Gandhi had taken leave of his senses. His response to their mystified expressions was: “At least now if a poor person finds my shoe he will soon come across its mate and end up with a good pair of shoes.  A single sandal does neither of us any good.”  There you have it…Ghandi’s character coming through.

Do you remember the day about a decade ago when a man went into the West Nickel Mines School and brutally slaughtered five innocent Amish schoolgirls?  Before the blood was dry on the floor of that building, the parents of one of those girls sent a message of forgiveness to the shooter’s family.  Within twelve hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were visiting and seeking to care for the children of the murderer.  When the assailant was buried Amish mourners outnumbered non-Amish.  And the Amish established a fund for the assassin’s family.

How to you get to be like that? Joseph appears to be genuinely surprised and hurt that his brothers even thought that he might be harboring revenge in his heart.  He hears their doubts – and he weeps!  If Gandhi had waited another moment he would have lost the opportunity; what poor person would continue for miles along the tracks in search of a matching shoe? For the Amish to extend forgiveness on the spot – and think it normal?  To have such an immediate reaction, a person has to reach such a place that behavior is not a thought out process; it’s almost instinctive. How can the average person aspire to reach such a level of human behavior? That’s the kind of person that I want to be…but how do I get there?

It reminds me of the old joke that is supposedly true:  master violinist Jascha Heifitz was hurrying along a sidewalk in New York City when a man yelled out of a cab: “Hey, pal, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”  And without breaking stride, Heifitz is said to have replied, “Practice”.

How do you develop the kind of character that shows up in people like Joseph, or Ghandi, or the Amish?  Practice.  Or, to be more precise, practices.

In recent months, I have tried to use the time I’m afforded in your pulpit to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.  There’s not a person in this room who is unacquainted with estrangement in one way or another.  If we are going to follow Christ, we are going to have to learn how to forgive and make for healing.

But lots of times, we don’t want to forgive, and we think that it’s only someone else who needs healing.  We’re not interested. Or maybe we think it’s impossible – we just cannot do that.

Which is, of course, one of the fundamentally hard things about trying to live like a Christian.  We are essentially trying to be, or at least become, something that we are not.  How does that happen?

Some years ago I had the chance to spend some time with pastor and author Brian McLaren.  He said this to a group of us at the Pittsburgh Seminary as we were wrestling with this very problem:

Spiritual practices are actions that are within our power which we do to train ourselves to do things that are currently beyond our power so that we can become people we are currently incapable of being. 

You see, faithful behavior does not come automatically once we sense that God is calling us to be people of faith… Some of us might say that our hearts were changed instantly by Jesus, but all of us have to learn how to act like Christ-followers, don’t we?  We need practice.

Joseph was shaped by his whole life story.  He didn’t ask to be born into a family torn apart by jealousy and favoritism.  He didn’t ask for those amazing dreams, or to be sold as a slave, or to be cast into prison, or even to be elevated into a post in Pharaoh’s government.  That stuff happened to him.  But the ways that he responded to those things and the practices that he adopted allowed him to be shaped in such a way that he became a person of grace and forgiveness.

From everything we can tell, Joseph was a listener.  He was humble.  He was a learner.  He sought God.  And he did that wherever he was: in the fields with his father’s sheep, in Potiphar’s home, in jail, and in the royal palace, you get the sense that Joseph had a series of practices that kept him centered: prayer.  Hard work.  Service to others.  Submission to God.  And what was the result?  At the end of the day, he was confident, comforting, generous, peaceful, forgiving…all of those words we mentioned earlier.  His daily practices shaped and made him who he was.

The same, of course, is true of Ghandi or the Amish.  It’s not like the Amish live day to day full of anger and trying to cheat each other, but when the worst thing ever happens, they say, “You know, let’s try something different now…”  No.  Their lives are shaped by the daily pursuit of grace and forgiveness.  The non-violence with which Ghandi conquered the British Empire was borne out of hundreds of decisions that he made every day and that came to bear fruit in his life.

I want to speak further about the implications of these practices, but first let me make two further observations about forgiveness as we see it in the Joseph story.  One of the things that we can see plainly here is that reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers was not dependent on a confession.  Did you hear what his brothers said?  Nobody said, “Wow, we were pretty harsh, dude…”  Nobody apologized.  Instead, they came up with this crazy story about something that their father told them before he died.  Yeah, they threw the dead guy under the bus so that they could patch things up with their brother… and it didn’t matter to Joseph.  He treated them with grace.

Similarly, we can draw from this that forgiveness is not always dependent on a shared understanding of the past.  I suspect that Joseph and each of his brothers would tell a different version of the things that had happened.  Nowhere do we see them coming up with a timeline to which everyone can agree.  Rather, they decide that hashing through the sequence of events is not as important as living into the days that remain.

So what about those practices?  I hope that you are convinced that you’d like to dive more deeply into them, but as we do so, I wonder why you want that.

Let’s say that there are two men who decide that they’d like to get in a little better shape.  They can’t walk from here to Giant Eagle and back without getting winded and so each one says to himself, “Wow. I’ve let myself go.  I’ve got to get back on track.”

The first man does so because he wants to shovel snow for his elderly neighbor, to play with his grandchildren, and to be more fully alive in the world around him.

The second man embraces the exact same regimen of workout and diet, but these things do not come from a place of strength and hope.  Rather, he is ashamed of how he looks, and as he gets healthier, he is more and more pleased with what he sees in the mirror.  He becomes vain, and begins to make sarcastic comments to his friends who are not as fit as he.

Do you see? Each of these men is doing what is fundamentally a good thing, and engaging in sound and wise practices, but one of them is acting far more ethically than the other.

In our day, there is a narrative about forgiveness that relates to this example and leads to an unhealthy exaltation of the self.  You have suffered some great wound; you have been wronged greatly; and in response, you declare publicly that you are going to be the better person, and have a bigger heart.  You engage in a campaign in which you do all you can to ensure that everyone knows how deeply you have been wounded, and how Ghandi-esque, how Christ-like you are because you are willing and able to forgive even a loser like that person…

That is neither true forgiveness nor reconciliation because it keeps your neighbor in your debt, it perpetuates pain, and it builds your pride and ego at the expense of your neighbor’s shame.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in love and trust in God’s provision.  We see that in the narrative about Joseph, when he goes so far as to envision a new reality with his brothers and their families.  He invites them to make a promise to him!  He holds out the possibility of renewed trust.

Authentic forgiveness and reconciliation are rooted in proper understanding of who we are and who our neighbor is.  In II Corinthians, Paul points out that we have to give up scorekeeping.  There is no sense, he would say, in trying to come to a consensus as to who is the “bigger person” because none of us can really measure up.

Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, put it this way: when it comes to living the Christian life, we are all mere beggars showing other beggars where to find bread. The path to true reconciliation begins with the acknowledgement that the only way I can even contemplate forgiveness is by recognizing that I have learned it from Jesus.  We seek to be reconcilers not in order to inflate our own ego or reputation, but because reconciliation is the arrow that points the universe toward God.

This is Advent.  This is the time when most of us prepare for Christmas, and in so doing, we engage in a number of practices.  We shop.  We send out greetings.  We plan hospitality.  This year, I’d like to challenge you to include one more Advent practice: practice forgiveness.  Practice reconciliation.  Spend some time each day asking God, by the power of the Spirit, to show you – “how can I give this gift of reconciliation away?  How do I practice forgiveness in my daily life so that I get good at it?”

And in particular, let me invite you to hone in on one particular area: look at your speech.  What do you say to and about other people – in real time, or online, or through social media?  Genesis sums it up by saying that Joseph “spoke kindly to his brothers”.

For Christ’s sake, friends – truly, for Christ’s sake, not mine or yours – can we seek to grow this week in our ability to speak kindly to and about one another? Thanks be to God for the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation we have received in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Me, My Brother, and God

Advent began on Sunday, December 1.  Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world.  During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us.  The series began with a telling of the healing that took place between Jacob and Esau.  Our scriptural focus was from Genesis 32-33.

To hear this message as preached in worship on Dec. 1, 2019 please use this media player:

So, do you have a sibling?  Do you know what it’s like to be irritated, offended, misused, or let down by your sister or brother?  Maybe you heard the story of the pregnant woman who was in a car crash.  She was in a coma for a week.  When she woke up, the nurse told her, “Congratulations!  Not only are you going to pull through from your injuries, but you’ve had twins!”  The woman said, “But who’s taking care of them?  I’m not from around here.”  The nurse said, “Oh, that’s no problem.  Your brother has come, and he’s here helping out.  He’s even named the babies.”  “Oh no!,” the woman thought.  “My brother is a moron!  What are their names?”  The nurse said, “Well, the girl is named Deniece.”  “Oh, I like that,” said the new mother.  “And the boy is named Da Nephew…”

As we begin Advent this morning we’re going to spend a little time talking about brothers and other people who are close to us – morons or not – and how we are called to remain in and repair relationships with them.

Perhaps you remember something of the saga of Jacob and his brother, Esau.  Genesis describes the way in which Jacob took advantage of Esau and connived his way into receiving the blessing of the first-born son.  Not surprisingly, the next episode featured Jacob running for his life when Esau discovered the deception and set out to kill his brother.  Much of season two of that miniseries focused on Jacob’s life in the country near Paddan Aram – a long way from home.  You could say that he was trying to save his own skin.  Esau was a big, strong, angry man.  You could also say that Jacob was waiting for God to keep God’s promises: God has promised him many descendants, and that his descendants would be a blessing, and that his descendants would inherit the land that he had left behind whilst running away from Esau.

Karlena has set up today’s episode pretty well.  In chapter 31, Jacob hears from God that it’s time for him to go home and claim the land.  He leaves his father in law and begins the journey of 500 miles or so.  As Jacob and his wives and his children pack up, he must be filled with fear.  However, he has done a pretty fair job at irritating the folks back in Paddan Aram, and so he’s got to keep going.

The good news is that as Jacob neared his old hometown, he met messengers from God.  That gave him an idea. Look at what’s next – he wants to butter up his brother:

Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau, toward the land of Seir, the open country of Edom. He gave them these orders: “Say this to my master Esau. This is the message of your servant Jacob: ‘I’ve lived as an immigrant with Laban, where I’ve stayed till now. I own cattle, donkeys, flocks, men servants, and women servants. I’m sending this message to my master now to ask that he be kind.’”

The messengers returned to Jacob and said, “We went out to your brother Esau, and he’s coming to meet you with four hundred men.”

Jacob was terrified and felt trapped, so he divided the people with him, and the flocks, cattle, and camels, into two camps. He thought, If Esau meets the first camp and attacks it, at least one camp will be left to escape.

Immediately after the message from God, Jacob sends a messenger to Esau, who replies with a messenger of his own.  Do you see how things tie together?  Already, eight verses in, and we are seeing an interconnectedness between me, my brother, and God.

What happens next is unique.  Genesis 32:9-12 is the longest prayer recorded in Genesis.  Think about all of the things that happen in the first book: The Garden of Eden.  The Flood.  The tower of Babel.  The call of Abram.  Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  Yet for some reason, this encounter between Jacob and Esau is the occasion for the longest prayer recorded in the book.  I’d say that’s significant.

Jacob said, “Lord, God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I’ll make sure things go well for you,’ I don’t deserve how loyal and truthful you’ve been to your servant. I went away across the Jordan with just my staff, but now I’ve become two camps. Save me from my brother Esau! I’m afraid he will come and kill me, the mothers, and their children. You were the one who told me, ‘I will make sure things go well for you, and I will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, so many you won’t be able to count them.’”

Jacob Returns to Canaan, Attributed to Charles Amédée Van Loo (18th c.)

Did you hear what Jacob does in this prayer?  He owns the covenant – that is, he puts himself in the midst of God’s promises.  As he does so, he remembers that he is an unlikely recipient of God’s grace – as the second-born, he knows he is not worthy, that he is the “least”.  He asks for God’s help and protection, and announces that he will hold God to the promises that God has already made to Jacob. That’s a great prayer!

Next, Jacob stops praying and starts doing what he’s best at: he plots and strategizes.  He’s just prayed indicating that it’s all up to God, but now he’s planning as if it’s all up to him.  He splits up his flocks and his family and thinks that if Esau is really angry, at least he won’t be able to destroy everything.  And, having prayed and planned, he continues to walk towards his brother.

A funny thing happens, though, before he gets there.  When he got to the Jabbok river, he was overcome by the desire to be alone.  He took his wives and his children and set them up in a campsite, and then he spent the night alone – except as he tried to sleep, he was set upon by One whom he came to understand was God.  They wrestle all night long, and as day breaks, Jacob is left with a limp – but also with the Divine blessing.

Jacob, on his way to reconcile with his brother, first wrestles with God.  Although he isn’t named as God in the text, when Jacob names the place “Peniel”, he says, “I have seen the face of God.”  Before Jacob gets to Esau, there’s some business that he has with the Lord.

This is a crucial theme in the book of Genesis, and all of scripture – the idea that our relationship to the brother (or the sister) influences our relationship with the Lord.   We can see this as we look back at Cain and Abel, or at Noah and his sons, and next week we’ll consider the ways that Joseph and his brothers treat each other.  One of the first and most important lessons in scripture is that we cannot separate the ways that we relate to each other from the ways that we relate to the Lord.

So all night, Jacob and the Lord wrestle with each other.  In the midst of that, what happens?

First, Jacob is re-named.  All his life, he has been known as “Jacob”, which means “the grabber” or “the trickster”.  Now, he’s told that his name is “Israel”, which means “God strives” or “God rules” or “God protects”.  His identity is changing – no longer is he known as the one who relies on his own wits; instead, he is known as the one who demonstrates the presence of God.

Another thing that happens that night is that Jacob receives a wound.  For the rest of his life, he is different somehow.  I think you know something about being changed as you are wounded, don’t you?  You have encountered the Holy in a death or through a surgery or at some other part of your life and you are different.  Some of you cry more easily now than you ever did before.  Some of you are more generous.  Some of you find it easier to let things roll off your back.  Whatever it is, you know what it means to have been changed by an encounter with the Holy One.

And almost as an afterthought, Jacob receives a blessing from God.  He has been blessed before, of course, but here at Peniel he finds that blessing strengthened and renewed as he revives himself by the banks of the Jabbok.

And in the morning, we find Jacob/Israel, limping along, finally ready to meet his brother after having been worked over by God all night long.

Jacob looked up and saw Esau approaching with four hundred men. Jacob divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two women servants. He put the servants and their children first, Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went in front of them and bowed to the ground seven times as he was approaching his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept.

Jacob and Esau, woodcut, Jacob Steinhardt, 1950

What are these passages in Genesis about?  Are they about the long-awaited reconciliation between to brothers?  Yes, partially.  Are they about the terror and power of God, the mystical being who has the ability to heal and to bless and to wound and to re-name?  Yes, partially.  But mostly, I would suggest, they are about the fact that you cannot separate healing with the family from an encounter with the holiness of God.

Professor Walter Brueggemann puts it this way in his comments on the passages at hand.  He notes that Jacob is concerned with seeing Esau’s face in 32:20, and having seen God face-to-face in 32:30.  Then, in 33:10, Jacob says that seeing Esau’s face is exactly like seeing God’s face.  Brueggemann says,

It is hard to identify the players.  In the holy God, there is something of the estranged brother.  And in the forgiving brother, there is something of the blessing God.  Jacob has seen the face of God.  Now he knows that seeing the face of Esau is like that.  We are not told in what ways it is like the face of God.  Perhaps in both it is the experience of relief that one does not die…the crippling is not to death.  The forgiving is not unqualified.[1]

Jacob, in his attempt to be faithful to God, has got to reconcile with Esau.  And Jacob, in his efforts to reconcile with Esau, has got to encounter God.  In each case, there is deep fear – because Jacob knows that both God and Esau can hurt him very badly.  And yet he knows that to be fully himself and to realize the promise, he’s got to move toward both God and Esau.  And, more to the point, it would seem that he cannot divorce his pursuit of God from his relationships to those who surround him.

Who are we, brothers and sisters?  Aren’t we the heirs of Israel?  Aren’t we here to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  We have been called, and blessed, and changed, and wounded.  We are on our way towards an encounter with our brother or sister.  This is a story about us, my friends.

How can we do this?  How can we be this Word of the Lord?  It depends on where you are in the story.

Some of us don’t know what it is to encounter the Holy One – to wrestle with God about something huge.  Oh, we’ve got problems all right.  We sense them nagging at us, weighing us down – but we’re reluctant to spend time alone with them and God.  Maybe you need to camp out on the Jabbok for a few days.  I’m not suggesting that you need to relax, or that you need a day off, or that you should send the kids someplace and pamper yourself and get some “me time”.  I’m saying that you might be in a place where you need to intentionally engage in the presence of God.  Spend a day or two in fasting and in prayer.  Take some time away and disengage yourself from the details of your everyday life.  In my life, that can mean spending a couple of days and nights out of town in a boat or on a cabin; it can also mean skipping lunch and sitting at the Aviary for a few hours.  Maybe you need to rent a room at the Holiday Inn for a night.  If you need some ideas as to where you can go to be alone in the  presence of God, I’d like to help you think that through.  In any case, I hope that you’ll do that – that you will make space for the wrestling to begin.

And some of us simply need to get on the road.  The one constant in these chapters is that Jacob AND Esau are walking slowly and deliberately towards each other.  Think about that.  They didn’t “need” each other at all.  They both had a fistful of wives and children; they were both financially well off.  They had what they needed to get by…except, somehow, they needed each other – and so they walked the road of reconciliation, because they knew that the only way to experience the fullness of God’s call and presence was in a healed relationship.

From whom are you estranged?  With whom do you need to be reconciled?  And what does it look like for you to walk towards that reconciliation?  Do you, like Jacob, need to lower your head and swallow your pride?  Do you need to acknowledge a hurt, and then act with a generosity of spirit?  Do you need to write a letter – or two – or twelve?  Do you need to make a phone call or visit?  Think right now of a relationship that is not the way that God wants it to be… What will you do to move towards wholeness in that relationship?

The Last Supper, Timothy Schmaltz (contemporary).

Because here’s the deal: It’s not just about you and your brother (or sister), you know.  If you want to get close to God, you’ve got to sit next to other people.  There aren’t any other options – you can’t escape it.  When you come to the Lord’s table, “private dining” is not one of your choices.  You’ve got to crowd in here with the rest of us.  May God bless you.  May God make you limp.  May God bring you home.  Amen.

[1] The Interpretation Commentary series on Genesis (John Knox, 1982) p. 272-273.

Walking the Path

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 10, we considered The Apostles’ Creed and sat with the Word of God as found in Matthew 28:16-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4.

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

What do you think of when you I say the word “footpath”?  What are the mental images that brings to you?  I’d like to ask you to pause for just a moment now and get a picture of a footpath in your mind – a trail that you have known.  Think about what footpaths have done in your life.

It seems to me that footpaths can fulfill one of two main functions.  There are a number of us who have been thinking of paths that we have followed as escapes and adventures.  We’ve been driving down a main road and at some point, it seemed like a good idea to get out and walk.  Many years ago I was a passenger in a car that Don Prevost was driving.  We were going over the hills in West Virginia, and it was just beautiful.  But then someone saw a little trail leading from the edge of the road, and Don found a place to park.  We clambered out of the car, and followed the path only to discover an incredible vista of huge boulders looking down onto a pristine valley.  Our children – much younger then – discovered wild blueberry bushes, and we spent a couple of hours – unplanned, unanticipated hours – leaping around in the sun, picking berries, and enjoying the world God has made.  The footpath got us there – it led us to a blessing we’d have missed otherwise.

But maybe you are thinking of a different sort of path altogether.  Maybe you remember a camping trip or a hike of some sort, when you got lost in the woods. When you were ready to panic, you saw the blazes painted on the tree nearby and that led you to follow the path that led you to safety.  When you to think of paths, you think of trails that were there to safeguard you from getting lost, to protect you from the dangers that lurked off the beaten path.  I’m remembering a trail that we walked along while in South Africa, and there were crocodiles, hippos, and leopards in the neighborhood.  Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice that it was a bad idea to leave the marked trail – I stayed on that path like nobody’s business – because I believed that the path was the key to my survival.

On the one hand, then, we can think of footpaths as guides that can serve to introduce us to certain aspects of life or our environments that we’d never have a chance to see.  On the other hand, those paths can also serve to protect us from getting overwhelmed by some aspect of our surroundings that could potentially threaten us.

Now I want you to picture a new footpath.  It’s in a cave.  It’s dark.  There are a few torches here and there.  It’s dank, and it smells like there’s not been any fresh air for a while.  You are a part of a procession of Christians going into the catacombs – the caves that surround Rome.  It’s time for worship, and you know that the Emperor has recently murdered several of your friends for the “crime” of confessing Jesus as Lord.  Nevertheless, there are several people with you tonight who are eager to follow in The Way.  They want to declare their faith in Jesus.  Because they are new, it’s the first time that they’ve been into the catacombs with the other believers.  When the worship begins, the leader brings them to the front of the group and asks them to answer publicly the questions of faith: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” he asks.  The converts answer with one word:  “Credo”, which is the Latin word for “I believe.”  “Do you believe in Jesus Christ His Son?”  “Credo”.  And so it goes.  Each element of the church’s teaching is affirmed by the converts as they embrace the truth of the Faith.

Last week we began a series of messages on some of the Creeds of the church.  Do you see why we call them the creeds?  How does the Apostle’s Creed start?  “I believe . . .”  And how would you translate that into Latin?  “Credo”.

The Apostles Receiving Inspiration from The Holy Spirit, illustration from Somme le Roi, a 13th century manuscript.

This morning we’re going to consider the Apostle’s Creed as a footpath to faith that the Christian Church has used for centuries. Unlike the Nicene Creed, which we discussed last week, the Apostle’s Creed did not come out of a single crisis in the church, but rather was developed over a period of about 700 years.  There’s a legend which states that this Creed was authored by the Apostles ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, but that is not the case.  The Apostle’s Creed, like the Nicene before it, was an attempt by the church to come together and provide some uniform statement of belief that could be shared by a number of churches.

For many of us, it’s a well-known pathway.  Some of you probably had to memorize this statement in order to join a church; some of us learned it along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you’d like to look through the faith as I discuss it, you can find it on page 35 of your hymnal.

When the creed was being developed, it served to guide people to a deeper understanding of the faith.  In the early days of Christianity, most of the world was illiterate.  There was no such thing as FaithBuilders or youth group – people learned the faith from one another through relationships and practice.  The creed came to summarize the orthodox faith of the church, and gave people a memorable statement of what was true.  Early Christians thought that the creed helped them to fulfill the command of Jesus in Matthew 28: to “baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded”.

Benediction of God the Father, Luca Cambiaso, c. 1565

As you look at the Apostles’ Creed, you can see it as a pathway that’s deepened people’s understanding of God.  Just the very first line, for instance:  “I believe in God, the Father almighty.”  I have a friend who, upon hearing that line, said, “Wow, that’s a lot of gender right there!”  For some people, referring to God as “Father” raises a real difficulty: we think of “father” in contrast to “mother”, and so we wonder: is the purpose of this sentence to affirm the masculinity of the Divine?  But the early church, along with the cultures who produced the writing that led to the Bible presumed a patriarchal structure.  When the first Christians said that God was “Father”, they were not claiming a gender for God, but rather affirming that the Creator was a personal being who had a parental affection over and involvement in the Creation.  For them, “father” stood in contrast, not to “mother”, but to a distant power or impersonal entity!  The creed begins with an affirmation that God is as close as a loving parent.

The Apostle’s Creed is a footpath that is well worn for many of us, and surely for our predecessors in the faith.  Like some of the best paths you’ve been on, it didn’t develop in a day, or even a week, or even, as was the case for the Nicene Creed last week, in fifty years.  For generations, Christians recited something that sounded a lot like this document, and from time to time as the church needed to, it was edited in order to make sure that nothing important was left out.  For these folks – and for us – the creed is a living document that will help us express what we believe in a changing world.  Let’s talk about a couple of those changes.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661 – 1669.

The earliest versions of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed did not have the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”.  That clause was added in the second and third centuries.  Now, don’t get me wrong – the church has always been about forgiveness!  However, in the early days of our faith, when confessing Christ was considered an act of treason against the Roman emperor, it was not uncommon for individuals to flee the church or deny the faith during a time of intense stress and persecution.  Later, some of those folks returned to their community and said that they wanted to re-claim the faith and to reassert its primacy in their lives.  Church leaders added the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” because every believer needed to know that forgiveness is the air we breathe – it is who we are!

You know, if you were to walk up the stairs behind you and stroll through the Preschool area, you’d see a lot of art hanging on the walls.  If I told you we had a vast art collection upstairs, and you ran up to find something amazing, you’d be disappointed.  Why? Because most of that isn’t, by any objective measure, very good.  It’s not like something you’d expect to find hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or in the Louvre.  Of course it isn’t – because it was made by three and four year-olds.  Those are the people we have in the building, making art in this place.

Similarly, if you walk into this place (or any church) expecting to see only perfect models of faithfulness and forgiveness, you’re going to feel let down.  Why? Because the only people you’re going to find at the church are people who know that we are good at sinning and in need of forgiveness.  We have to affirm a faith that knows a liberality of forgiveness because we know the prevalence of brokenness in our lives and in the world. When the church says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” the church is saying that there is always room for people to come home to the church.

And that leads to another modification that was made a couple of hundred years later.  The church in Africa added the phrase, “I believe in the holy catholic church” because they were, at that time, engaged in a vigorous discussion as to who actually could be considered a “member” of the church.  Was the Body of Christ an elite club, reserved for those who had achieved some real distinction in matters of faith and doctrine?  A “who’s who” of faithful superheroes?  Or is the church an inclusive group made up of any who can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

As those sisters and brothers wrestled with that, they came to understand that the church is, by definition, “holy”.  That is, it belongs to God, not to any human.  It is comprised of those who have heard God’s call, not who have been able to pass some sort of theological examination.  And more than that, it is “catholic”.  By this, they meant that it is universal.  It is for all people, in all places and cultures. It does not belong to us.

Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-1499.

The last edit that I’d like to mention this morning is one that still may catch a few of us off-guard: in the fifth century, the words, “he descended into hell” were written into the creed.  There were a growing number of people who came to be known as “Docetists” that were speaking into the church.  The Greek word dokein can be translated as “to seem”; dokesis can be understood as “an apparition”.  This sect taught that while Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be a regular guy, in reality, he was simply God wearing a man-suit.  The reason he could pull off all those miracles and eventually rise from the dead, the Docetists taught, was that he wasn’t really human to begin with.  He was Divine, and appeared to be a normal guy, but don’t let that fool you.

And when they said that Jesus “descended into hell”, the word for “hell” that is used in the creed is not the word for “Gehenna”, or a place of torture to which unsavory dead are consigned for punishment.  No, the word here is sheol in Hebrew or hades in Greek – a word that reflects the state of one who is physically dead.  The church affirmed that the death Jesus entered into was not a “near” death or an “apparent” death, but rather a “really dead” death.  Jesus of Nazareth, who as the letter to the Hebrews affirms is the reflection and image of God the Father, died a real death.  The implication of that is that there is no place, including my own death, where the love of Christ is not present.  Even in the most bereft, the darkest, the most anguished of places – the Light of the World is apparent.

So having heard all of that, let me ask you a few questions: Do you believe in God the Father?  If so, simply follow your ancestors of the faith and say, “Credo”.  Go ahead, use the Latin word!

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, who descended into hell? (“Credo”)

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin and in one holy catholic church? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that God has blessed your life? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that we are called to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? (“Credo”)

And do you believe, like me, that God is longing to use the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights to reach people and to change lives? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that YOU can be a blessing to others? (“Credo”)

Then please, beloved, please, stay on the path that’s been trodden before us.  Live as though you believe what you’ve said.

Go out from this place and live as though you believe that forgiveness is normative.  Act like someone who has needed it, and who has received it.  Practice giving it away.  Join with the church of all ages in remembering that the world, and you, and me – it’s all broken.  And that the world, and you, and me – it’s all made whole in Jesus.

And go out from this place remembering that it is not “yours”.  That you and the rest of these people are not somehow “better”, or holier, or closer to God’s love than the folks who slept in this morning, or who somehow felt unable to be here.  We are a group of seekers whose chief qualification for membership in this place is that we are great sinners in need of a deep healing and we have responded to God’s call by being here.

And go out from this place committed to carrying the light of Christ into the dark corners of your world.  Jesus himself descended into hell… surely you and I can make it through the rough patches that next Tuesday or a week from Thursday might bring to us.  We can know and affirm that here – but you may be the means by which one of your neighbors discovers that there is nothing so dead that it cannot stand in line for resurrection.

Thanks be to God for the pathways that lead us to hope and love because of Jesus, the Christ!  Amen. 

Deciding to Love

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 6, World Communion Sunday, we considered the call to practice kindness.  Scriptures included Deuteronomy 22:1-4 and John 13:34-35.  

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

Demetri Martin is a comedian and author who has what I consider to be a particularly keen eye for human behavior and our foibles.  In one of my favorite routines, he talks about getting dressed in the morning.  In it, he says, “I think vests are all about protection. You know what I mean? Like a life-vest protects you from drowning and a bullet-proof vest protects you from getting shot and the sweater-vest protects you from pretty girls. ‘Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m cold just right here?’”

Or this observation: “I think that when you get dressed in the morning, sometimes you’re really making a decision about your behavior for the day. Like if you put on flipflops, you’re saying: ‘Hope I don’t get chased today.’”

I’ve been thinking about clothes lately because we’re in the midst of these sermons that I’m calling “The Dress Code”. I hope that you were here a couple of weeks back when we read from Paul’s letter to his friends in Colossae.  As he was helping them through a particularly difficult time in their life together, he said this: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  A couple of weeks ago we talked about the practice of “compassion”, which can be literally taken to mean “suffering with”.  Today, I’d like to think about what it would mean for us to be a people who practice clothing ourselves with kindness as we present ourselves to each other and to the world.

Often, we use the word “kind” in a very vague, non-specific way.  When we say someone is “kind”, it’s like saying that they are “nice”.  It can be a way of damning someone with faint praise.

Yet the word at hand in today’s reading is the Greek chrestotes.  That word shows up ten times in our New Testaments, and always carries with it a sense of moral goodness and integrity.  In fact, it is used in Ephesians, Titus, and Romans, to describe the ways that God has acted toward us.  Chrestotes is a word that refers to a root conviction, an attribute, or a decision that of necessity displays itself in action.  So, rather than being a vague compliment, this word is used to imply the following: God has acted toward us with goodness, kindness, and integrity.  We are made in the Divine Image.  Therefore, it is only sensible that I am called to choose to treat you well.

And perhaps you say, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll buy that… but what does it look like?”

Think with me about the passage you heard from Deuteronomy.  It describes a mundane scene of rural village life: you’re out walking around, minding your own business, and you see a stray animal.  You recognize it to be your neighbor’s.  What do you do?  Well, three times in those four verses there is a simple imperative: “do not ignore it”.  The scripture is clear: you cannot know about something bad that happens to a neighbor and choose to ignore it.

Aw, geez, I hate scripture sometimes!  I know that I’m not the only one who, on some days, could pass for a professional ignorer!

You have a friend who has experienced some real trouble.  You don’t know what to do, or how to do it, and all of a sudden you see them at the grocery store or the bus stop…and you are tempted to run into the next aisle or duck behind a building.  Please tell me that I’m not the only one who thinks that those are viable options…

And yet there it is, right in Deuteronomy.  In fact, the word that is used means literally, “do not hide yourself”.

CRAP!

That’s what we do, isn’t it?  Think about when a fellow student drops a tray in the school lunchroom, or a server spills a plate at the restaurant. We look away, and pretend it didn’t happen, don’t we?  There’s a kid with a world-class temper tantrum going on in the drugstore, or a person sitting by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Homeless – anything can help”.  We avert our eyes.  We pretend not to see anything.  We repeat, “Not my circus, not my monkeys…”

And that, my friends, is a problem, especially as we seek to live in community with one another.

If you were a part of the All-Church retreat last weekend, you may remember the conversation we had about the fact that the only name for God that is given by a human being is when the Egyptian slave-girl Hagar is met by God and she says, “You are El-Roi – you are ‘the God who sees’”.  The fact that God is a God who sees is great news for Hagar, for Ishmael, and for all who struggle.  It is reassuring to know that God sees you – that God cares for you – that God is aware of the pain in which you find yourself.

And, at risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again: one of the cornerstones of our theology is this: we are made in the image of God.  If God sees, then we see.  If the seeing nature of God is held up as a positive attribute of the Holy One, if we worship a creator who is beneficently observant, then it only follows that we are called to be those who are similarly motivated to notice what is going on around us.

This seems like a simple truth, beloved in Christ, but I think it is one to which we need to be re-oriented time and time again.  As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to put on kindness in our dealings with each other.  We are implored to be ready to see the lives of those around us and to act daily in love for and with the people around us.

This kind of behavior is not reactive – at its best, it is anticipatory and pro-active.  A couple of weeks ago Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas.  People were fleeing the islands.  But a man named Jose Andres, a professional chef, was busy taking people and food and water to that nation.  With members of his organization, World Central Kitchen, he pre-positioned himself in Nassau.  When asked why, he said, “We are learning that pre-positioning yourself in a hurricane buys you precious time. You know…we’re in the business of feeding people after a hurricane. Sometimes in some parts people obviously they can be OK one, two, three days later. But for some people, sometimes three days is way too much. Some people don’t have any food at home or if they had, they lost it because the hurricane.”[1]  This man planned to love – and he lived kindness by taking food to a place close to where it would be needed so that it would be available sooner.  We can do that – we can plan to be kind even before we know what specific kindness will be needed.

The Last Supper, Hyatt Moore (2000)(for more – or for Moore – visit https://www.hyattmoore.com)

When Jesus was talking with his disciples – at the meal we commemorate this morning – he put it simply: “A new command I give you, that you love one another.”  And when you heard that, you nodded and you said, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”  But think about it for a moment.  “Love one another”?  Isn’t that all over the earlier parts of Jesus’ teaching?  Isn’t that infused throughout the Hebrew Bible?  Where does Jesus get off saying that this is a “new command”?  Is this first century Fake News?

“Love one another” is not a new command.  Keep reading.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He is not saying, “Hey, fellas, here’s a new idea: love each other.”  The new part is what comes next.  “Love each other the way that I have loved you.  Do love the way that I do love.  Do love in the feeding, healing, foot-washing, forgiving, reconciling way that I do love.

Back to the dress code: put on kindness.  That’s not a way to say “be nice” or “don’t offend people”.  It’s an imperative to actively seek ways to bring about love in the world.

  • Take a moment more to listen before you speak.
  • Offer a gift before it’s requested or needed.
  • Be a person who offers forgiveness and seeks reconciliation.

You know this! The reading from Deuteronomy was clear: you can’t leave a neighbor’s donkey in a ditch – it doesn’t matter how it got there: if you see it, you’re called to help lift it out.

Does the Lord care about people any less? If your relationship with a sister or a brother is in the ditch, you are not free to ignore that, or even worse, to make the ditch deeper.  You are called reach out.

I say that with this caveat: you are not called to return to an abusive relationship, and your pastor is not saying that you ought to continue to enable a destructive person.

Having said that, though, I will say that you don’t get to decide to leave someone else in a ditch because you disagree with them or because they irritated you.  We are called to follow Christ in the practice of chrestotes – of living toward, and acting toward, and loving toward other people.  As those who bear the name of Christ, we are expected to let go of our past resentment and become living reminders for the world of the hope that is love.

The world is a painful place.  Paul, and Jesus, and Moses, seem to expect that the church should be less painful.

Demetri Martin, like most good comics, told the truth: when you get dressed in the morning, you are making a decision about your behavior for the rest of the day.

Have you decided to wear kindness today?  If so, you will find that it’s harder to hold onto a grudge, or nurse a resentment, or feed a rumor.  You can’t do those things while you are wearing kindness any better than you can run while wearing flip-flops.

I’m here, as your pastor and friend and neighbor, to ask you to make a decision about what you’re going to wear.  To ask you, as did our brother Paul, to put on kindness.  For the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the person you see in the mirror each day, put on kindness.  Thanks be to God, for God’s kindness toward us. Amen.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/09/04/757420239/chef-jose-andres-is-in-the-bahamas-preparing-to-feed-dorian-victims

Is That What You Call It?

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

When I was a kid, I remember hearing people older than I talking about going to the church or the funeral home because they wanted to “pay their respects”.  Usually, that phrase was preceded or followed by something like, “It’s the least we can do.”

That phrase was always curious to me.  I knew what it meant to pay for a ticket to see a movie, or to pay the piper when I’d been caught misbehaving, but the idea of “respect” was so amorphous that the entire enterprise seemed so vague to me.  And why would it matter if it was your “least”, anyway?

I was, in many ways, a difficult child.

If you’ve known me long, you know that I’ve matured into a difficult adult.  Which is why I asked my wife to celebrate my 59thbirthday by accompanying me in a rental vehicle down some of the most mind-numbingly jarring dirt roads that Western South Dakota has to offer.  I was looking to pay my respects.

In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to walk with many of our young people on Mission Service trips with the Seneca Nation of Indians in Western New York and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.  As these pilgrimages have taken place, they’ve affected me deeply; in seeking to help the young people hear stories that are “other”, I find myself listening keenly and eagerly.  In North Carolina we learned of “the Trail of Tears”; in New York we heard from those whose land had been taken from them for the construction of the Kinzua Dam in my own state.  But for years, I’d heard snippets about what happened in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and this Sabbatical gave me the chance to explore.

Here’s a short version: in the late 1800’s, it was clear that the Native Americans were getting put onto smaller and smaller pieces of less and less desirable land all across the nation.  A previous post discusses the events of Little Big Horn/Greasy Grass in 1876.  By the late 1880’s, most of the Lakota/Sioux people were crowded into a tiny percentage of the land that they’d been promised by earlier treaties.  Many of these people began following a prophet called Wokova, who taught a form of worship called “the Ghost Dance”.  This was an entirely peaceful dance, but it was tremendously unnerving to the whites. The local press, along with the military and settlers, began to talk about it as a dance that would lead to an uprising and a slaughter of the whites.

A map showing the land area granted for Native Americans to inhabit from 1492 – 2000.

As the US Army gets more and more nervous, the local Reservation Agent decides that one way to quell any thought of rebellion would be to arrest Chief Sitting Bull and exile him to the Dry Tortugas Islands off Florida. However, when his men go to do this, they wind up killing not only Sitting Bull, but his teenage sons and six other Sioux. Six of the Reservation Police are also killed.

A few days later, Chief Big Foot learns of Sitting Bull’s murder, and decides to turn himself in to the US Army at Fort Bennet.  Before they can get there, however, they are intercepted by the US Army.  At this point, Big Foot is likely dying of pneumonia and is carrying a white flag of truce.  The Seventh Cavalry surrounds his band, and orders them to encamp at the Pine Ridge Reservation.  On December 29, 1890, the cavalry troops, including mounted cannon, surround the Indian encampment.  At dawn that day, the Lakota men are ordered to surrender any weapons – and the camp is searched not only so that guns are taken, but knitting needles, awls, and more. Apparently, one Lakota – a deaf man – doesn’t want to give up the rifle he paid so much for – and in the struggle, a shot rings out.  When that happens, the worst occurs.

The US Army refers to what happened next as “The Battle of Wounded Knee”.  The Lakota call it “The Massacre of Big Foot”. The results are the same: once the big Hotchkiss cannons are employed, within ten minutes most of the Lakota men are killed.  Indians are fleeing every which way.  The US Cavalry hunts them down, chasing people as far as three miles – shooting men, women, children, and even infants at close range.

Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles, Commanding General of the Department of the Missouri, would say,

“Wholesale massacre occurred and I have never heard of a more brutal, cold-blooded massacre than that at Wounded Knee.  About two hundred women and children were killed and wounded; women with little children on their backs, and small children powder-burned by the men who killed them being so near as to burn the flesh and clothing with the powder of their guns, and nursing babies with five bullet holes through them…”

Mario Gonzales, a Lakota author and lawyer wrote in 1980,

“What I mean to say about the Laramie Treaty of 1868 is that it was a treaty for the cession of Lakota territory…What I say about the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 is that it was a crime against humanity for which the United States must be indicted.”

I couldn’t do anything about what happened in 1890.  But it was only two years before my grandfather was born.  It’s within the realm of my imagination.  I know, or have known, people who were alive in the 1890s. Whereas most of the “cowboys and Indians” play of my childhood was related to some distant imagining of an impossibly far-off past, 1890 does not seem so terribly remote.

I am saddened by what happened.  I’d change it if I could.  I wish that folks were not rounded up and sent to their death by relentless gunfire, misunderstood cultural beliefs, and simple arrogance.  But, as I’ve mentioned before, it happens.  It happens far too often.

The Wounded Knee Memorial sits in the Lakota Cemetery in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. It is on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

 

So today I went to pay my respects.  It wasn’t the least I could do.  It was ALL I could do.  And as I sat and looked at yet another mass grave, I remembered the words of the prophets:

 

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
    Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
    so that justice is perverted.

I will stand at my watch
    and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
    and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (Habakkuk 1 and 2, excerpts)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21)

So that’s how I spent my birthday, and my wife has loved me long enough and well enough to follow me into some of these places.  I paid my respects.  It was all I could do.

Except for telling you. If you didn’t know this story, you do now.

There’s a post-script here – and I may invite you to join me in taking a symbolic step of action. Nearly twenty US Soldiers received The Medal of Honor – the highest military award our nation can offer – for their actions on December 29, 1890.  Some of the Lakota people have begun a petition calling for those medals to be rescinded in an effort to not only recognize this atrocity for what it was, but to make sure that those who have received it since are recognized as true heroes.  You can learn more about this petition by clicking here. 

Disorderly Conduct

One of the highest privileges I’ve received is that of serving as Pastor for the community of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights for the past 26 years.  In 2010, this group granted me a four-month Sabbatical from my ministry for a time of recharging and renewal.  In 2019, they extended that offer again – so I’ve got three months to wander, wonder, and join in life in a  different way.  These entries will help to describe that experience – the sermons return in September.

The Custer National Cemetery in Montana (a place where current and former servicemen are buried).

I suspect that I spend more time in cemeteries than most folks.  Some of that may be occupationally-related.  I’m sure that I go to more funerals than the average American. And if I helped teach you to drive, you will remember that some of the early lessons take place in the graveyard (not only does it give me a great  context to talk about the dangers of inattentive driving, it’s also a pretty safe bet that no pedestrians will get hurt!).  If you were in the Youth Group with me, you might have taken a field trip to the cemetery during conversations about death.

In some way, I like cemeteries.  They are quiet and peaceful places that can offer me the chance to think about what’s important, to re-align my priorities, and to focus on developing a sense of gratitude in life. They are often places of great beauty – there is often elaborate sculpture and, believe it or not, there are fine opportunities for bird-watching on these hallowed grounds.

And yet their quietness and their beauty belies the intrusiveness of death.  I feel that incongruence more in military cemeteries than anywhere else. Young men and women who have died prematurely, violently, and painfully might be startled to find their final resting places to be neat diagonal rows of crisp white markers on a perfectly manicured lawn. You must admit: it’s incongruous to say the least.

On June 18, I had the chance to visit a military cemetery that was stunning in all the ways that it was not neat, crisp, or manicured.  Sharon and I visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana.  Many Euro-Americans know this as the site of “Custer’s Last Stand”, while Native Americans remember this place as the Battle of Greasy Grass.  On a couple of miserably hot days in June of 1876, more than 250 solders, translators, and other people related to the army of the United States were killed by an assembly of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.  This was, in many respects, emblematic of the armed conflict between Native Americans and their efforts to defend their way of life (particularly on the Great Plains) and European-Americans and the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” that propelled them/us to take possession of the whole of North America.

To say that it was messy would be an understatement.  For starters, just eight years prior to this event, the US Government had signed a treaty with the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other tribes in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. In fact, Lt. Col. George Custer himself had said in 1869, “I will never harm the Cheyenne again.  I will never point my gun at a Cheyenne again.  I will never kill another Cheyenne.”

But not long after the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, someone discovered gold in the Black Hills, which by treaty belonged to the Indian Nations.  When the cry of “there’s GOLD in them thar hills” went out, thousands of eager and greedy settlers moved into the Indian land in direct violation of the treaty.  To be fair, for a time the US Army tried to keep them out, but, well, you’ve seen Wal-Mart on Black Friday.  It’s what we do.  The Native Americans got tired of these incursions, and so they began making raids on those who infringed on their domain.  There was inter-tribal conflict as well – the Crow, for instance, wanted to get the Cheyenne and the Arapaho off “their” land, and so Crow and Arikara Indians cooperated with Custer and the 7thCavalry.  And, at the end of the day, almost 300 white soldiers and their allies lay dead alongside of 60 – 100 Indian warriors.  Because the Indians were victorious in the battle, they had the opportunity to remove their dead and honor their bodies in traditional ways. Three days after the battle, US troops gained access to the battlefield and hastily buried Custer and his soldiers in shallow graves where they fell.  In 1890, the US Army erected 249 white headstone markers all across the battlefield to show where the soldiers had died, and, in 1999, the National Park Service began to install red granite markers at places where there were known Cheyenne and Lakota casualties.

Stones mark the places where Custer and many of his men were killed

The countryside is strewn with such markers indicating the intrusiveness and disorderliness of death.

My point is this: nobody’s hands were clean.  You can read volumes about what happened, but this is what struck me about the day that George Armstrong Custer clashed with Sitting Bull, Lame White Man, Red Feather, and other Indian warriors: the arrangement of the grave markers is a telling reminder of the fact that death and violence are not neat, never orderly, and by no means beautiful.  The monument along that ridge in Montana reminded me that too often our own conflicts turn deadly when we allow greed and pride to rule the day, when we can’t be trusted to keep our word, and when we want what the other person has more than we respect life.  It was sobering for me to walk amongst those hills and see another, and another, and another death – not manicured, not tidied up – but strewn across a landscape that will forever bear those scars.  I am grateful for the ways that the US Park Rangers helped me to understand some of what had happened in that June so many years ago, and I am also grateful for the way that the design of these memorials themselves helps me to remember not only the disorderly and violent ways that we so often choose, but also the opportunities that each of us has to seek peace and life.

A sculpture marking the memorial to the Plains Indians who fought here.

Wisdom from the past…may it guide our future.

We started the day in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which straddles the border between Wyoming and Montana.

The Canyon is home to a refuge for wild mustangs!

After looking at the water so long, you KNOW we had to get up close and personal!

Crossing the Bighorn Mountain range at an elevation of close to 10,000 feet. Yep, it was cold!

It was a great day for spotting moose, though!

And we saw many, many Prairie Dog “Villages”!

Deal Gently…

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David and trying to make sense out of them for our own journeys.  June 25, we rejoined that narrative and considered the ways that David reacted to the rebellion of his beloved son, Absalom.  The text was from II Samuel 18:1-8 and we also considered John 13:34-35.

 

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

 

Do you remember being in a place or time where you saw something happening that you thought was just terrible, but you felt as though you were powerless to stop it because you were too young, or too recently hired, or too inexperienced, or something similar? Maybe you were playing in a youth ball game and the coach totally belittled a player who’d made an error, and you thought, “When I get to be coach, I’ll never do that!” It could be that you watched your parents relate (or fail to relate) with each other and you made a vow that if you ever got married, things would be different in your house. Or maybe you had just been hired and your supervisor threw you under the bus at the budget meeting, causing you to vow, “When I’m in charge, this will not happen!” Does anyone remember something like that? More to my point, can you think of something you do now, consciously, as a result of such an experience?

“Saul Wishes to Slay Jonathan” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

I’m asking because as we return to our year-long study of King David, I’m pretty sure that the events of this part of the story are framed by David’s experiences as a young man. Perhaps you’ll recall back in October, when we listened to the part of the story that took place prior to David’s installation as king of Israel. He was living with Saul, the acknowledged king, and more than anything, Saul wanted his son, Jonathan, to be king after him. Jonathan and David were best friends – like brothers, really – and while Jonathan could see God’s hand of blessing on David, and the future of a Davidic kingship, Saul was blinded with rage. In fact, not only did Saul repeatedly try to murder David so as to ensure that Jonathan would succeed him, when he thought that Jonathan was helping David he actually tried to kill his own son, too. I can only imagine a young David thinking to himself, “If and when I make it to the throne, I will never, ever treat my son like that…” Those experiences had to have left some vivid scars on David!

“Absalom Leaves David To Start a Conspiracy,” from Maciejowski Bible (12th C)

The last time we heard from this story, David’s oldest son, Amnon, had been killed by his younger brother, Absalom. Following that, Absalom fled the country and even when he returned after three years, his father wouldn’t speak to him for two more years. David is apparently overwhelmed with depression or lethargy or something, and Absalom decides that he’d really like to be king – even if the office isn’t vacant yet. The prince wins the support of the military and many of the people of Israel, and then declares war on his father. Absalom has the advantage of numbers, perhaps, but David is more experienced and has a much better network and strategy.

II Samuel chapters 15 – 17 describe the lead-up to the battle that everyone knows is coming, and so it seems a little anticlimactic when the entire conflict is summarized in two verses you heard earlier – David and his men put down the rebellion.

What strikes me about today’s reading, however, is the conversation that David has with his key leaders on the eve of the battle. He proposes one strategy, and they make a counter-proposal that he humbly accepts. Then he issues a direct order: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”

David has thousands of men assembled to go out and protect him from this son who is trying to kill him… and he says, “Deal gently…” David remembers a father who sought to slay his own son, and he wants no part of this – no matter what Absalom has done. One translator renders this verse as “For my sake, be sure that Absalom comes back unharmed.” (CEV) Let’s unpack this phrase and consider some of its implications for us today.

The first imperative is, of course, “deal”. Absalom has created a huge problem, and that problem has got to be dealt with. David is unwilling to simply roll over and pretend that he’s not king anymore. Absalom has made a serious threat to David and the entire nation, and that has got to be named, taken seriously, and resolved.

But there’s an adverb – a word that is used to express the means by which the imperative is to be carried out. By all means, deal with the situation – but do so gently. Do not be harsh or cruel to the young man…

And the order ends with what the grammarians call a “subordinate clause”. The dealing that needs to be done, and the gentleness in which it is hoped to occur, are to be carried out “for my sake”. Of course, David recognizes that Absalom is dead wrong here. But David hopes that the breach is not beyond repair. “Don’t give Absalom what he deserves”, the king says. “For my sake, treat him better than that…”

So what can we learn from this for our own lives today?

Well, again, let’s start at the top. Deal. You and I encounter a host of issues in our lives every day. Most of them, thankfully, don’t rise to the level of having one of our children try to kill us in cold blood, but each of us faces challenges, slights, wounds, and attacks from others. Many of these are not significant enough to bother with – and you can walk away and let them roll off your back without causing anyone any damage.

But, beloved, you know that there are some attacks, some offenses that have wounded and continue to grieve you. If you pretend otherwise, you are simply allowing an open sore to fester and become infected with resentment and perhaps lead to a greater disaster in the days ahead. After all, David sought to ignore the difficulty with Absalom for years – and found that his son’s resentment grew every day.

Look at your life, look at your situations, and seek to discern what it is that you need to deal with. What is there that is happening to you or around you (or maybe because of you) that cannot be excused or ignored and must, instead, be named and dealt with. If you are being mistreated by a colleague at work, or in an abusive relationship, or otherwise being marginalized or diminished, it may be time for you to come up with a plan to address and improve this situation.

When you see that, make sure that your plan for correction includes humility. Deal – but deal gently. How can you move towards healing and changed relationship in a way that doesn’t do violence to someone else? Not long ago, I had to ask a friend to write a letter to a pastoral colleague in another state. The reason I had to do this was because many years ago, an issue developed between the two of us. I was quick to name the issue, and I spoke truth to the person who was in the wrong. But listen to me, people of God: even though I spoke truth, I did so harshly and clumsily. I wounded my colleague to the extent that she ended our relationship. Because of my arrogance, a friendship was broken unnecessarily.

As you seek to address the situations in your lives with humility and honesty, know that you need to do so for your own sake. Even the boss that is mistreating you, or the spouse who abuses you… if you do not find a way to let go of the pain or resentment, it will become a cancer inside of you that will overwhelm you. You may be 100% correct, and have all the virtues of truth and justice on your side… but if you do not seek to overcome the pain or work through the grief, you will be weighed down forever. Any resentment that you harbor will ferment into toxicity. A few of us were talking not long ago about a quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that it will kill your enemies.” No matter who was at fault, no matter where the blame lay – if you cannot find some way to deal with it, pain and bitterness will eventually consume you.

“David and Absalom,” Marc Chagall (1956)

Deal gently…for your own sake. That sounds pretty easy. Six little words. But how do you do that when the problem is as big as an abusive relationship or an addiction that is sucking the life from an entire family? How do you do that when you are filled with shame or depression or fear?

We can take another lesson from David here. In the chapters leading up to our reading from II Samuel, there is an account of the ways that David and Absalom prepared for this clash.

Absalom was hungry for power; he told people what they wanted to hear, and he surrounded himself with those who did the same for him. He made as though he was going to worship the Lord, but he did so only as a ruse – for Absalom, faith, humility, and integrity were foreign concepts. Life was a show, and as long as the spotlight was on Absalom, things were good.

We’ve talked enough about David to know that he, the people of Israel, and anyone else knew that he wasn’t perfect by any stretch. He was deeply flawed; he both gave and received significant pain. Yet on this occasion, David sought to surround himself with people he knew and trusted were committed not only to him, but to the Lord. Some of these people had been with him for years, and he’d trusted them with his life on many occasions – men like Joab and Abishai. But others were newcomers who had impressed him with their faithfulness and wisdom. In fact, the third commander that David entrusted on this day was Ittai, a Philistine man who had only been in town for a couple of days – but David recognized that he had gifts and wisdom that would help the nation. And when these three men heard David’s plan, they helped him to see the flaws in it and he allowed them to re-shape the strategy that wound up allowing his monarchy to survive despite being desperately outnumbered.

Beloved, are you surrounded by trustworthy companions who will help you do what you need to do? Are you humble enough to hear the thoughtful encouragement and good counsel of others? Is there someone in your life who can tell you not just what you want to hear, but the truth?

Moreover, is there someone who will walk with you into the difficult places when you’re not sure you can get there on your own? If you are trapped in an abusive relationship, who will help you be strong enough to leave it? Who loves you enough to not only tell you the truth about the damage that addiction is doing in your family or circle of friends, but to go with you to an AA or Al-Anon meeting? Is there someone who will care enough for you to sit with you in the midst of your depression or anger and then not leave you there all alone?

The story of Absalom’s rebellion does not end well for anyone, really. Absalom is caught up in his own scheming and pride, and eventually Joab runs him through without blinking an eye; David was restored to the palace in Jerusalem, and sought to make peace with those who had rebelled – even issuing a general amnesty. It was a painful time, and we’ll talk more about that in weeks to come. For now, I want to emphasize the fact that each of us have situations in our personal and professional lives that need to be dealt with and addressed with gentleness and humility so that they will not overwhelm the things that God is trying to accomplish in and through us. We seek out good counsel from old and new friends and hope to find a way to live into that which is best.

Jesus showed us how to do this. On the night that he was arrested, he watched his friend Judas get up from the table and embark on his traitorous mission. And then he looked his followers square in the eyes and said, “Listen: the only way we’re going to get anything done is if you love each other the way that I love you. The only way any of this is going to make sense to anyone else is if you can put aside all of your fears and failures and give yourselves fully to each other and to the work I’ve put before you. Love each other.”

At the end of the day, Absalom lay dead and the old king’s heart was nearly broken. David cried out, “Oh Absalom, my son! If only I had died instead of you… my son… my son.” As Frederick Buechner points out, David meant every word of that. “If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes a God.”[1]

In David’s love for both his people and his son, we see something of God’s love for us and for our world. Let us learn from that love, and let us share that love in the days we’ve been given. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Peculiar Treasures:A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 6

Who Is It?

In 2016-2017, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been listening to the stories of David (shepherd boy, slayer of Goliath, friend of Jonathan, King of Israel, “Taker” of Bathsheba…).  On May 21, we heard the prophetic follow-up to the episode involving Bathsheba, and considered the importance of truth-telling and community in our own lives.  The text was from I Samuel 12.

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

 

As we continue in our exploration of the life of King David, let’s take a quick look back at the story we encountered last week. Those who were here will remember that David – who had been called the nagid of YHWH – the “prince of God” – abandoned that role by making quick work of at least four of the Ten Commandments. As he lay around the palace one evening, it seemed, for some reason, like a good idea for him to “send” for and “take” a vulnerable young woman. In the process, he breezed right through coveting and lying en route to an adultery that wound up in murder. It seems like a far cry from the earnest, prayer-filled, justice-seeking shepherd who was willing to go up against Goliath thirty years ago.

As we begin II Samuel 12, the scene shifts. Whereas in chapter 11, it was David who did all the “sending” (at least four times, by my count), this part of the story begins with YHWH sending the prophet Nathan to visit the king. They’re not in the temple, but David is going to church, I can tell you that. The preacher starts in with a story, and the audience of one is compelled to listen. I mean, Nathan’s story just draws David in. The monarch eats it up.

Why? Because it’s about someone else. Who doesn’t like coming to church and hearing the pastor really lay it down all over those other people? You know what I mean: we love getting ourselves worked up in a lather over what President Trump said on that bus or how President Clinton behaved with “that woman”; we can’t wait to show our contempt for the ways that George Soros or the Koch brothers spend their billions… but who in this room wants all of your dirty laundry made public? Who’s ready to share your browsing history, your tax returns or checkbook, or publicly reveal the conversations you thought to be private?

David, along with most of us, prefers that old time religion – where we get all fired up with righteous indignation about what the other guy is doing.

Nathan Admonishing David, Rembrandt (1650-55)

And, apparently, Nathan obliges. He dishes up a story about two men. The first man is simply a stock character – a boorish, boring tycoon who has everything and more. The second man in the prophet’s story is the picture of tender-heartedness. He loves his pet lamb so much that he lets it use his own plate and allows it to curl up on the sofa with him as they watch the hockey game together. Well, as you heard, the rich man wants to organize a little barbeque for a visitor so he sends for and takes the lamb that belongs to his poorer neighbor. You may have guessed this, but the word for “took” that is used in verse 4 to describe the action of the wealthy neighbor is the same one used in chapter 11 to tell us what David did to Bathsheba.

David is blinded by self-righteous anger, though, and it boils up inside of him. He is appalled, indignant, and ready to make things right. He’s the king, for crying out loud, and he’s going to give that wealthy and powerful man what’s coming to him! “Take me to this guy!”, David screams. “I’ll settle this!”

Nathan continues to speak for YHWH, and now it is his turn to raise his voice: “You want to know who that man is? I’ll tell you – You are the man!” Two simple words in Hebrew – ’attah ha’is– bring David the most potent accusation he’s ever faced.

Before we consider David’s actions or reactions, think for just a moment about what Nathan has done here. He walks into a private meeting with a leader who has unbridled power and only recently has had several men put to death for inconveniencing him; he’s played fast and loose with his authority and power in so many ways. Nathan could have been, and should have been scared to death… but he tells David the truth about himself anyway… Because of his great love for David, his great love for YHWH, and his great love for the community, Nathan tells the truth.

And you heard how he lays out YHWH’s case against David. I anointed you, says YHWH, and you acted like you were in charge. I gave… and you took. And now you have set into motion a series of events that are all connected – they are all consequential – and the dominoes will fall one after another. It will be neither pretty nor easy. You will face shame and pain and your family will not be spared either. This is a hard, hard truth that the prophet is sent to reveal.

The Sorrow of King David, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

And just as Nathan brought the accusation with two words, now the king slumps in his chair and utters two words that tell us a great deal about who he is and who he wants to be. “Hata’ti lyhwh.” “I have sinned against the Lord.” It may sound cringeworthy, but believe it or not, this is the Gospel story showing up in David’s narrative today.

Often, we think of confession as a devastating and humiliating act of groveling and self-loathing. “I know, I know… I’m a terrible person who does horrible things… I’m so ashamed… I’m nothing but dirt… I’ll do better next time…” But I think that David’s confession – and that yours and mine, too – can be so much more than that.

In the fifth century, a man named Augustine was teaching about Christianity in North Africa. As he considered the impact of sin and brokenness in the world, it struck him that if not for his sin, he would have no reason to have turned towards his savior. The more he thought about that, the more excited he got until he scribbled down on his scroll the phrase Felix culpa – “O happy sin!” Augustine says that when I see and recognize my own sinfulness, I am in a position to turn to God and seek the healing that I have always needed, now that I am more deeply aware than ever of my desperate situation. For example, let’s say that you fall and break your leg. That’s horrible. Until you get into the hospital and they give you the whole work-up and discover that not only do you have a broken leg, but you have an aneurism that’s about to burst and there’s a shadow on the x-rays in your chest. Nobody wants a broken leg, but if you don’t break your leg, you don’t seek treatment and somebody finds you laying dead on the sidewalk in a week. Sometimes, breaking your leg can be a good thing. Felix culpa.

This is an important truth for us to consider today as we baptize young Marshall into the faith. Today we acknowledge as publicly as we know how that he has been born into a world of sin, hurt, fear, and pain. Some of this he’ll inherit as a result of choices that his parents, family, and friends have made or will make. Some of Marshall’s experience of these things will come from participation in a world that is too often characterized by sins such as racism or violence. And, you can be sure, Marshall will be pretty good at finding sin, hurt, fear, and pain on his own – we all do.

Fully aware of this, the church of Jesus Christ welcomes Marshall today and speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation – even to his infant self – because he needs to grow into an identity that is rooted in the awareness that those things are possible.

We hear this story in the 21st century because we need to remember that the life of discipleship is not built around doing our level best to make sure that we never sin: that would be impossible. Instead, we are here to remember that the life of faith nurtures us to recognize sin and teaches us how to respond when we see it.

Listen: we dare not attempt to raise Marshall nor any of our other children with the expectation that they will make it to adulthood sin-free. We are not training them to tiptoe around the edges of the world, stridently avoiding sin and always doing good, making sure that they measure up to the standards of perfection and flawlessness that some image of God might demand. If we do that, we are creating a climate of judgmentalism and shame and fear; worship will become an exercise in moralism or condemnation, at the heart of which lies an inability to be honest with ourselves or each other… “if those people knew what I was really like…”

But, thanks be to God, or maybe I should say felix culpa, I have the gift of confession. I see sin and I name it, which leads me to a place where I can remember (again) that I am not God and that I have not been called to moral or ethical perfection. I am, instead, called to obedience and faithfulness.

In the isolation and fear and shame that moralism brings, I want sin to be about you, or about anyone other than me. His greed. Her promiscuity. Their violence. There is something in me that wants you to be worse than me so I’m not all that bad by comparison.

But that’s not helpful. And it’s not the truth. And it’s not the Gospel. When Eugene Peterson writes about this story, he says,

This is the gospel focus: you are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done.[1]

The gospel – and truth – is painful, but it leads me to grace, reconciliation, and healing that would be impossible without the recognition that God is God and I am not.

As we hear this difficult scripture this morning, I would ask you to remember at least three things.

Remember that your primary identity is not that of shame or fear. We see sin, and we are called to remember that our deeper identity is hidden with God in Christ. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are shaped in the image of God. We are participants in the Divine nature. That’s who we are. What we do? Well, sometimes what we do doesn’t match up with who we are. When we notice that, we are called to lay those things down and begin anew in reclaiming our birthright as children of God.

And because none of us has perfect perspective, we all need to remember the importance of having a Nathan in our lives. Who will tell you the truth about yourself, even when you don’t want to hear it?

Some years ago I got a call from a friend who lives about four hours away. “I really need to see you, and soon,” she said. “What’s going on?” I replied. “I can’t really talk about it on the phone, but it’s important. Can you get here?” Well I love my friend, and I’d do anything to help her. She needed me? I was in the car within a week. I rushed into the coffee shop where she was waiting for me. “What’s the problem?” I asked, in my best and most concerned Pastor Dave voice.

And she laid it on me. I mean, she went Nathan all over me. She told me some unpleasant truths about myself – and she told them to me in a way that made me glad to have heard them, if you can believe it. And because she loved me enough to tell me the truth, I was able to recognize my sin and step into what was more clearly the light of grace.

Do you remember that you need someone like that in your life? Someone who will help you identify the landmines that you unable to see or willing to ignore? I’m pretty sure that’s a prime reason we are called together, beloved… to learn how to be in relationships that allow us to hear those things about ourselves…

And the last thing I’d like you to remember is that you need to be willing to bear truth into the lives of those who are around you. Now, there are some important warnings with this. First, don’t presume to think that you can speak truth into someone else’s life if you are unwilling to admit anyone into your own. That’s a recipe for failure. And just as critically, remember that truth shared in this context is always a gift. Truth pointing to reconciliation and forgiveness is always a benedictio – a “good word”. I do not dare speak a word of correction or advice or truth to you, nor you to me, unless we recognize that it is a blessing: a holy and beautiful, if heavy, gift. You are always true with someone you love, or for them. You are never true at them or on them.

David’s sin brought him to the place where he could realize that what he needed more than anything else was the love of God in his heart and the hand of God in his life. He needed that more than he needed the power and prestige of the kingship. He needed that more than he needed to look good and strong and holy in front of the community. He needed that more than he needed the companionship of Bathsheba or his dominance over Uriah. David needed to know that God was close. That God was forgiving.  That God was already in the future, reconciling all things to himself.

David’s sin taught him all of those things, and more. And it launched him toward the grace of God.

So the next time you wake up feeling as though you have done the unimaginable; when you are feeling lower than low because of a situation you have brought upon yourself, may you, too, learn to see God in Christ moving toward us in the places of our brokenness so that we are free to live into our best, God-created, identities. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Leap Over A Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (HarperCollins paperback 1998, p. 185).   I am deeply indebted to Peterson for his treatment of this entire passage.  Anything good and helpful in the message has probably come from Peterson’s insight.