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.

Practicing Hallelujah

 

 The saints at the Crafton Heights Church celebrated Easter on April 16 as we concluded our Lenten study of the Bible passages used to frame Handel’s Messiah.  Our readings for the morning came from John 20:19-23 and Revelation 19:4-8.  An audio link to the sermon is immediately below this text.

I was raised in a home that, while wonderful in many, many respects, did not have a great deal of disposable income. There were times when our family struggled financially. That might explain why I have such vivid memories of the “gifts” that my dad would sometimes bring home from work. He’d show up with a paperboard drum from the plant and say that now we had a brand new container for our baseball bats. I remember how happy I was to get a pile of stickers from his work – sure, they all said things like “fragile” or “load this end” or “packing list enclosed” – but you know what? They were stickers, and they were mine, and it was awesome.

But there was one thing he brought that gave me, the middle child, a queasy feeling. It was a motivational poster that warned, “If you a not part of the solution, you are part of the problem!” I know his intentions were good, but why would you give that sort of thing to a nine year old?

My nine-year-old self read that and was terrified. I mean, money was tight, which led to parents arguing, which led to fear and uncertainty that only a middle child who desperately wants everything to work out and nothing to be his fault can understand. I didn’t want problems. And I most certainly did not want to BE a problem. No sir. Not me.

There is, believe it or not, a theological application to this. Hear me out.

In certain circles of American Christianity, there is a school of thought that might be summed up by saying, “You! You are a sinner. You are dirty, evil, and destined for ruin. On your own, you are nothing and nobody. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. But, thanks be to God, Jesus is a problem-fixer. He can clean you up, and make you acceptable, and is even willing to save your soul so that you can make it to heaven when you die.” To be honest, some of our best-loved hymns carry this line of thought.

Look, I don’t want to deny the reality of sin and brokenness. And yes, there are some really terrible things that you’ve done (me too.). But a theology that has as its deepest affirmation something along the lines of, “Wow, I was horrible and then Jesus said, ‘Hey, man, relax. I’ve got this’, so now I’m just chilling over here waiting for heaven…” is a horrible, insufficient theology. For one thing, it’s a gospel of shame; and for another thing, you can’t simply say that Jesus’ main goal was to keep your sorry butt out of Hell.

And when I put it like that, you, being the kind, sophisticated and genteel people that you are, would say, “Oh, heavens, no! Of course, Dave! That’s not the kind of theology we’re interested in.”

Um, well, not so much.

A kinder, gentler version of this line of thinking is that you are not necessarily the problem, but let’s be honest, you do have a problem. A big, ugly problem. I’m fundamentally a good person, but I just need a little help taking care of this one thing over here… there is some sin in my life – an addiction, or greed, or lust, or whatever – but when Jesus comes and stands next to me it’s all good. Everybody knows that nobody really wants to be a jerk, but sometimes it happens. We accept the forgiveness that we have in Christ and it’s all good.

The difficulty I have with those variations of theology is that neither one of them is really adequately supported in scripture.

Jesus Appears to the Disciples After the Resurrection (Imre Morocz, 2009)

I mean, let’s take a look at how Jesus behaved in what John said was the first face to face meeting that took place between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples. You heard that in the Gospel lesson a few moments ago. The disciples are all hiding out, afraid that they’re going to get what Jesus got from the religious leaders and the Romans. They’re sure that they’ve let Jesus down, they’re not sure what they can do, and are pretty much paralyzed. And then, into that room walks their resurrected Rabbi.

If the most important message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was that you are a horrible person who needs to be filled with shame about what you’ve done and where you’ve been, and the only way to make anything better would be for you to come groveling back and then go over there and stand in that line of people waiting to get into heaven, well, this would be the ideal time for Jesus to lay that one on them.

Clearly, the disciples had disappointed Jesus. The past few days had been filled with betrayal, abandonment, denial, and cowardice.

But what does Jesus say to this group of losers?

“Peace. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”

What? No dressing down? No 37 Choruses of “O! Precious is the flow that makes me white as snow; no other fount I know: nothing but the blood of Jesus”?

Nope. Not here. He settles them down (because they think they’ve seen a ghost) and then he tells them that he’s sending them out.

And how is he sending them out? In the power of the Holy Spirit, as he himself was sent. As practitioners of forgiveness. In this, the first concrete example of what life in the kingdom of the resurrected Son of God will look like, we discover that the hallmark of the early Christian community is forgiveness – forgiveness that is modeled and shared and lived.

Jesus looks at the disciples – and, by implication, at you and me – and says, “You – you are not the problem. And, while you may have problems, it’s not really all about you and your problems. The reality is that the entire cosmos has a problem. It’s why I came. And it’s why I’m sending you out in the way that I was sent, so that you can continue the work of resurrection in the places you go.”

The first thing that the resurrected Jesus told his followers was that they were agents of and ambassadors for reconciliation.

This is my point: that the resurrection is not a little agreement between you and God wherein the Lord looked at you and said, “Wow! That’s ugly! That’s a problem. Look, here’s a way out of that mess.”

No, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the next step in the expression of God’s intentions to reconcile not just those disciples, or you, or me to himself, but rather to reconcile all of creation to itself and its Creator.

And there in that dimly lit upper room, the disciples are given the task of modeling, sharing, and living forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.

Of course, there is a profound brokenness in my life and in yours. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it’s bigger than us!

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation cries out for restoration. John writes in Revelation that he can see a “new heaven” and a “new earth”. In the commission of Christ to his disciples, we participate in that restoration as we take seriously our call to be stewards of the planet. The Church of Jesus Christ does not need “Earth Day” to motivate us. We proclaim reconciliation and we live resurrection whenever we act as though we care about the devastation of strip mining, or overfishing, or toxins leaching into our water table. God created humanity to live as caretakers of the garden, and that task is still ours! The way we treat the earth is a statement about what we think God is like and expects from us.

The Golden Rule (Norman Rockwell, 1961)

The early Christians embarked on a pattern of behavior and relationships that meant that the church was never intended to be a haven for one particular kind of people. Instead, the book of Acts describes how wall after wall of exclusion and intimidation was destroyed leading to a vision of a church that was truly reflective of the vast diversity of humanity. John writes in Revelation of people from every tribe and language singing around the throne… that’s what the restored Kingdom looks like.

We participate in that reality as we are willing to risk leaving the safety of our own desires or cultures or homes in order to learn how to be fully present to someone else. We find a way to greet them in a language that makes sense to them; we open our homes to those who are unlike us, and we work to ease the suffering of refugees or victims of war and famine. Why? Because conflict and hunger are not a part of God’s intentions. We have been sent to announce that reconciliation is the goal – and to do what we can to effect that.

The resurrection can and should have great meaning for you and for me personally – but not simply because it means that we’ve got a great fire insurance policy that kicks in when we die.

The resurrection gives us our marching orders as we prepare for and practice living in such a way that the great Hallelujah of which John writes in Revelation makes sense. We are called to walk in, to live in, and to share freely the reconciling work of God in Christ to the end that all creation will echo with the joy for which God intends.

Listen: in a few moments, a dozen or so of us are going to come up here and do our level best to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. We’ve been practicing it for a month. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, and I don’t want to disrespect my fellow singers, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be the best version of this piece that you’ve ever heard.

On the other hand, I’m almost certain that it will be the best version that any of you have ever heard in this room. I bet that you’ll be singing along and tapping your toes. Great.

But here’s the deal: when we finish that song, it’s up to you to go out and be the best version of the Hallelujah Chorus that the folks in your house, on your bus, in your home room, and at your office have heard on that day. We are called to go out and practice Hallelujah so that the world might know that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Amen.

Well, we did sing the Hallelujah Chorus, but unfortunately we didn’t video it.  You’ll have to be satisfied with this version from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and trust that the 14 singers from Crafton Heights sounded about like this…

You Don’t Have To…

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On January 22, 2017 we considered the tremendous power that our own desire has over us… and the ways that we are free to choose otherwise.  Our texts included I Samuel 24 and Romans 12:14-21.

This week we will return to our year-long exploration of some of the stories surrounding David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be the greatest King that Israel ever had. When we last saw David, he was in a difficult spot: King Saul was breathing down his neck and the residents of the town of Keilah as well as the inhabitants of Ziph had just thrown him under the bus by telling Saul exactly where David and his men could be found. Just as Saul and his army were closing in, however, there was an attack from the Philistines and Saul had to leave David to attend to that matter of national security.

David Spares Saul, illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

David Spares Saul, illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c.1250

Our reading for today begins with a description of a renewed manhunt by Saul and 3000 of Israel’s elite fighters. They’ve come into the wilderness to put an end to David once and for all. The problem is that David and his men have had time to hide in the caves that dot that part of the countryside. During a lull in the search, Saul ducks into the nearest cave to take care of some urgent business. As fate would have it, the cave that he chooses for his toilet is the same cave in which David and his men are hiding out.

While the king squats in what must have been an extremely vulnerable position, David’s men goad him to action. “Now’s your chance!” they say. “Time to do what you want to this so-called king!”

Emboldened by his men, David creeps up on the unsuspecting Saul and cuts off a corner of his robe. The reason for this is unclear: he may want to toy with Saul a bit, or scare him, or even emasculate him by demonstrating the amount of power he has over the king. But something happens. There is a change of heart. We read that David was “conscience-stricken” and says to himself and his men, “No! I’m not going to do this. I want to – but I won’t! I’m supposed to be better than this…”

David takes it a step further when he calls out to Saul – “My lord, the king”, he says. He tells Saul what he did, and what he wanted to do, and then he says, “But may the Lord be our judge.” In doing so, David casts himself onto the Lord’s care. He refuses to trust either his own judgment or his own sword.

Saul is challenged and humbled by this and takes his army home. At the same time, David chooses not to chase Saul, and he does not proclaim victory – he simply returns to “the stronghold”. I take this both physically and metaphorically. On the one hand, it’s clear that he and his men returned to their hideout – back to the place where they’d be able to defend themselves from further attack. But on the other hand, I think it’s a way of saying that David continued to dwell in the safety of God’s promises to and about him. He did not attempt to hurry God into anything, but rather was content to wait with God until the time was right.

I believe that this part of David’s story contains an important word for Christians in the twenty-first century.

In a general sense, I think that this is a compelling and refreshing reminder that you don’t have to do what you want to do. I mean, here is Saul spending all his time telling lies about David, attempting to kill David not once but time and time again, and generally making life hell for David. He’s interfered with David’s closest friendship (Jonathan) and David’s marriage (Michal). All that Saul has done in recent years is seek to diminish or disable David. And so when David’s men say, “Now’s your chance, boss! Do what you want to do!”, well, David wanted to kill Saul.

But he chose not to do that.

Don’t each of us face situations like that all the time? Oh, sure, it may have been a while since your father-in-law stalked you into a cave in the wilderness with 3000 commandos intent on taking your life, but don’t you know something about having to decide whether or not you’re going to act on your first impulse or wait it out so that you can choose something better?

In many ways, you do this every single day: you decide whether to set an alarm or not; you decide whether to get up when it rings; you decide to jump in the shower, have breakfast, and go to school or work… even when you don’t want to do that. You want to stay up late, eat more pizza, watch a couple more episodes on Netflix, and skip work or school. But most days, you choose to do, not what you want to do, but what you ought to do.

Years ago a woman shared with me how messed up her life had become. She had been deeply hurt, and in an effort to anesthetize that pain, she wound up piling bad choice upon bad choice, which led to doing great damage to herself as well as to those who loved her. After we sat for a while, I simply said, “What would happen if you just didn’t go out like that every weekend? You know, if you called a friend and stayed home?”

She sat for a moment, and then said, “Wait… are you saying that I don’t have to do what I want to do?”

Of course not. As you contemplate putting that post on social media, making that sarcastic comment, starting that affair, eating that next donut, or choosing to give into the despair that you fear may be swallowing you whole… you can remember that you don’t have to do any of those things, even if you find that you would really, really want to do them in the moment. You have the power, with God’s help, to make other choices.

Now, having said that, I find that I am drawn particularly to the exchange that David and Saul have here. Not only does David choose to do something other than that which he really wants to do, but in so doing he claims a significant victory over someone who has wounded him personally and deeply. There are many people in the room this morning who have struggled with pain as a result of someone else’s actions or incompetence. It seems to me that there might be a word of release for us in this conversation between the faithless, yet powerful king and the humble and vulnerable young man who is called to replace him.

When David speaks to Saul, he cries out both to and against the king, and then he declares his freedom from that pain as a defining characteristic of his life. David does not allow Saul’s evil to drive himself into a deeper, darker place. Instead, David points out to Saul – in the presence of his men – the fact that Saul has brought great harm into David’s life, and then he trusts in God to bring Saul’s story to an end. It is not David’s role or responsibility to deal ultimately with Saul. David chooses instead to invest himself in hope, trust, and faith.

I thought about this in connection with the recent sentencing of Dylann Roof, the 22-year-old white supremacist who murdered nine African-American worshipers in South Carolina in June 2015. One of the survivors of that attack, Felicia Sanders, addressed Roof after the judge sentenced him to death. In a burst of honesty and vulnerability shaped by her Christian faith, she said, “Yes, I know you. You are in my head. I can’t hear balloons pop. I can’t see the fireworks. I can’t hear an acorn fall out of a tree… Most important, I cannot shut my eyes to pray,” she said. “I have to keep my eye on everyone around me.”

Did you hear that? This brave woman stared the one who tried to kill her – while she was shielding her 11-year old granddaughter from the hail of bullets – and named the pain he had caused her. And then she gave him over to God. After her initial comments, she showed those in the courtroom her battered and torn Bible, the same one she carried to that Wednesday night Bible study. The pages had been cleaned of blood, she said, but the words remained intact.

“You can’t help someone who don’t want to help themselves, and that is you,” she said to Roof, adding, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was slain in the attack, stared at Roof and said, “Dylann, I was very vocal about you not getting the death penalty… I still don’t want you to die. I want you be to be able to sit in that cell.”[1]

Doesn’t that sound like what David said to Saul? “I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.”

Again, I realize that there’s no one here who has been falsely accused of treason and hunted down by a mentally unstable monarch; I don’t believe that any of us have been put in a situation where we’ve had to lay between our grandchildren and the bullets of a psychopath. But I know you. You have been hurt. There was a parent or grandparent or other trusted adult who abused you in some way. You have suffered greatly at the hands of someone you thought was a friend you could trust. You have been betrayed by a sister or brother or colleague. You have felt the ravages of an attack from an enemy.

What did you do? What will you do?

Let me encourage you first, if you’ve not done so already, to get out of that situation. Put yourself in a place where the evil cannot reach you – hide yourself in a cave like David if you must, but do anything you can to diminish that person’s ability to inflict suffering into your life.

And if you’ve done that, then seek healing for the wounds which have been received. This is not a selfish act – instead, you have the responsibility to care for yourself so that you do not unwittingly become a perpetrator of pain in the life of another equally innocent person.

And in doing that, I beg you to not allow yourself to be consumed by the thirst for revenge – as tasty as that sounds in the moment. Give your pain – and the one who caused it – to God. No matter how much you want to do otherwise, choose to be better than the one who harmed you.

We do that by following in the way of David. After this confrontation, Saul called his army and headed for home. David did not chase after him. Instead, we are told simply that “David and his men went up to the stronghold.” When you have done all you can, then hide out in the stronghold of God’s mercy. Invest yourself in the things that bring life and wholeness to other people.

One of the great truths in this life is that we are not prisoners of our own desires. Each and every moment, we are filled with tremendous want. When you sing the last hymn and get up to leave this morning, you’ll have lots of opportunity to give and receive offense. You do not have to do what you really want to do. You can choose to act differently. Look to God, stay with your community of faith, and hide in the stronghold of grace. Thanks be to God for the gifts that allow us to become better people than we really want to be. Amen.

[1] Quotes from “’Justice Has Been Served’, Families Say to Dylann Roof” in USA TODAY, January 11, 2017.

Calling and Being Called

On Ash Wednesday 2016, God’s people in Crafton Heights listened to the Word of God as it comes through Isaiah 58.  Unless you’ve got that passage memorized, it’ll be worth your while to click that link above and read the passage prior to considering the following.

 

I’m going to ask you to do something – and it might be a little tricky for you to do here tonight. I’d like to ask you to imagine that you are somewhere else – you are not in Pittsburgh, and it’s not the 21st century. In fact, please do your best to enter the world of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s the sixth century BC. There is a global shift taking place – the one nation that was apparently the world’s super power, Babylon, is waning. Persia is on the rise, but there is great instability. For a century, much of the globe has been shaped by terrorism, especially as Babylon’s armies made yearly visits to their colonies ensuring compliance with the policies of the empire.

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 - 1327, National Gallery, London).

The Prophet Isaiah, by Ugolino di Nerio, (c. 1317 – 1327, National Gallery, London).

As the sixth century was coming to an end, a large number of refugees took advantage of this shift in power to flee their enslavement in Babylon and make their way to “home”, wherever that was. In many cases, and certainly that of the Jews, they found a “home” that had been damaged by decades of war. There was violence at every corner, the economy was a shambles, and personal safety was an issue.

Some of God’s people tried to worship faithfully, but they were surrounded by those who worshiped other gods – particularly Marduk or Nebo, the gods of Babylon. There were increasing numbers of people who didn’t know who, or what to worship.

At this time, Jews looked at each other and said, “How are we supposed to be faithful in this kind of world? What kind of spirituality is acceptable?

A lot of the religious leaders said something like, “Well, the problem is that we have to get back to God. We’re going home, and we’re going to take our country back again.” And there were public worship services and sacrifices; there were banners and rallies and religious spectacles.

The political leaders fell in step with this kind of thinking, and each one tried to appear more religious than the others. Men and women of prominence – celebrities, if you will – made it a point to be seen going to and from worship on the special days.

And yet for all of this, the common sentiment held that God was silent. The people claimed that God didn’t hear them, and that their situation was getting worse, if anything.

And then the prophet Isaiah brings the Word of the Lord. Spoiler alert: God is not happy.

The Lord says, “Do you think that’s what’s bothering me? Do you think that somehow I don’t find you to be religious enough? Give me a break!

“Your fasting, those choirs, the prayers – they are all perfect! The calendar looks great – you’ve got all the right holidays.

“The problem is not that you’re not religious enough – the problem is that you have come to see religion as somehow limited to your own particular and private expression. You’ve tried to make your religion all about you and me,” says the Lord.

“That story I gave you? The Law? The Prophets? That was supposed to be an identity – a way of life by which the world – the whole world – was to be changed and healed and reconciled to me. The richness of faithful practice, the rhythm of your life, the communities in which I placed you – all of that was supposed to become the fabric of life – a lifestyle that revolved around me and you being my witness in the world.

“And somehow all of that has become a game to you – or a part-time hobby. You go to worship in order to be seen going to worship; you take part in practices that I gave you to provide you with life as though you are doing me a favor. Your religion has no connection with your real life.

“You look great when you’re all dressed up for worship, but you forget that slaves made those clothes you’re wearing. Your offerings of olive oil and grain are simply beautiful, but did you remember that they were harvested by people whose children are starving? That building committee you’ve got going down at the Temple has got some great ideas, but have you noticed the homeless and the refugees in your streets – people who need a safe and decent place to live?”

According to Isaiah, God is just getting warmed up here.

“Don’t come in here to worship and crow about how much you love me – or even worse, complain about how disappointed you are in the fact that I seem to be ignoring all your wonderful religious activity and slogans.

“Stop griping about it and go out there and live like the story I gave you is true! Honor your neighbors. Help the poor. Turn away from oppression and violence. Spend yourselves on behalf of others. If you do that, THEN I’ll be pleased; if you do that, then you’ll be called ‘The Repairer’ or ‘The Restorer’. If you do those things, you’ll have light and life.”

Oh, come on… who am I kidding here. This is all ancient history. I mean, it took place 2500 years ago. How can anyone in this room possibly imagine a reality such as that? Isn’t that simply out of your experience?

Wait a second, Pastor Dave, you say. Some of that looks familiar to us, too. Maybe the world hasn’t changed all that much in two and a half millennia.

I know that God hasn’t changed.

In Isaiah – an ancient text – God provides a way for people to participate in what God values. In that time, God calls those he loves to a lifestyle and a way of interacting with their world and with each other that will allow them to be called names like “Restorer” and “Repairer”.

Maybe the call hasn’t changed. Maybe that’s our call, too. Could it be?

If so, then try this: the next time you get all excited by hearing some politician stand up and say something like “It’s time to take our country back!” or trumpeting “God bless America” like it’s an order, rather than a prayer of humility… the next time some millionaire athlete or celebrity stands up holding a trophy and saying, “I just want to give all the praise and honor to the Lord…” – the next time that kind of stuff happens, well, go ahead and applaud or say “Amen” or re-post or whatever you want to do.

But listen to this, beloved: do not for one second confuse your applause or “Amen” or re-posting with actually doing anything that God calls you to do.

Life isn’t a pep rally where professional religious people come out and bark about what we ought to do to whom and where; the life of faith is an identity into which we are baptized and through which we grow slowly, oh so slowly. Sure, applaud and “amen” and post all you want – but claim your identity as a forgiven sinner called and sent by the Lord into a world that looks every bit as shaky as the one to which old Isaiah was sent.

AshesToAshesIt’s Ash Wednesday. I hope you’ve taken some time to think about your life, and the places you’ve done all right and the places you’ve fallen short. As you think about that life, God’s call, and the time and energy you’ve been given, here’s what I’d like you to do in the next twenty-four hours.

First, think about one relationship in which you have behaved less than honorably. Is there at least one person of whom you can think where you have allowed things to slide? One relationship that has been damaged, or is breached in some way?

Remember that you are called to be a repairer of the breaches. In the next twenty-four hours, take one simple step: a text. A postcard. A prayer. And move toward that person in love and reconciliation.

And secondly, think about one practice that you can adopt for the next six weeks that will help you honor your neighbor or seek God’s justice for the poor or the vulnerable in our world. It may have to do with the way that you shop or the things that you choose to eat or the ways that you raise your voice in the public arena; it might be the fact that you make a decision to do some intentional reading about a particular issue, or that you engage in a regular service or volunteer opportunity – frankly, I don’t care what you do… but in the next twenty-four hours identify one habit or practice or behavior that you will adopt for the next six weeks that will put you in a place where you’ll be better able to glimpse God’s best for you and for your neighbor. And then start doing that thing – whatever it is.

And finally, twenty-five hours from now, when you’ve reached out to mend a broken relationship and you’ve figured out what you’d like to do to walk in God’s way a little more faithfully this season, just tell me. Text me a name and a habit. Email me initials and your new practice. Tell me in worship.

I promise not to get all up in your face about it. I’m not going to make you talk about anything or explain something you’d just as soon not get into – but I am here to tell you that my practice for Lent will be to pray for you. So make me work, people. Let me be closer to the man God intends me to be by allowing me to support you in the work that is before you.

Remember what Isaiah said: “If you do this…then your light will rise in the darkness…then you will find your joy in the Lord.” Let us be the people God meant us to be, and let us be the people our neighbors need us to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.