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.

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…