How Do You Know You’re In Love?

A message about one of the central themes of Advent as preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on December 4, 2016.  The texts for the day included Deuteronomy 10:12-19 and I John 4:7-12.  

 

A couple of months ago I set up the preaching schedule for the year decided to key in on the stories surrounding David, the shepherd who killed Goliath, became the greatest King of Israel, and fell hard for Bathsheba. It seemed wise to me to set aside a couple of breaks from that soap opera and all of its violence, intrigue, and general seaminess.

So we’ll get back to all of that after the first of the year, but for now, we’re going to consider some of the great Advent themes: hope, love, joy, and peace. These seem better suited to our preparation for Christmas than some of that other material; the words themselves conjure up muted pastel shades of nativity paintings, silent nights, and warm candlelight. That’s what we want right now. That’s what we need.

sweetbabooAnd when I knew I’d be away for the first Sunday of Advent, I thought, “When I come back, I’ll take ‘love’.” I mean, I’m coming in from a family vacation, we’ll have been spending time with a community’s wedding celebrations – heck, there’s no better theme for me this week than that of love.

To be honest, it’s not an uncommon topic for me – especially as I am in relationship with young people or others considering attachments of the heart. “Dave, how will I know when I’m in love?” is a question I’ve heard many times. Generally, the information being sought is essentially, “how do I know when I have found the right person?” The question is usually framed in the context of romantic love, accompanied by tenderness, affection, and an overwhelming feeling of bliss or joy.

There’s nothing wrong with romance, but Advent is a good time to remember that romantic love is only a small sliver of the full expression of love in which God’s people may walk.

Advent is a time for love.

In his letter to the earliest believers, the church leader named John says that love is the true mark of every Christian. The old apostle realizes that in many ways, “God” can be an idea, or a construct, or a theory. After all, he says, nobody can see God. Nobody’s met him. How do we know who or what God is?

Well, we can look at what God did. God showed himself by love. God showed the love in which he holds the creation and each of us by sending his son to be present with and for us. In the person of Jesus, says John, we came to understand who and what God is and the love that God bears for us. This kind of love is not a feeling or an emotion – it’s a verb. Love – and God – is a “doing” thing, not just a “thinking” or “feeling” thing.

In his letter, John is building on one of the most important pieces of the only Bible that the first Christians had: the Old Testament. Here, he echoes a passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Moses Teaching the Israelites, illustration from the Bible of St. Charles the Bald (9th Century)

Most of the earliest Christians would know that the book of Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon, or a collection of sermons, in which Moses speaks to the Israelites about what has come before and what lies ahead of them. He speaks to a community that has been living for generations in slavery and fear as captives in Egypt and yet has been granted the privilege of release and redemption as they journey to the land of the promise; they are increasingly free to follow God’s intentions for themselves and to demonstrate those intentions to others. And the reading that we’ve heard today is essentially a summary of the first 1/3 of Deuteronomy.

Moses pauses in his sermon and he says, “OK, folks, because of all that God has done in us and with us and for us, what is our response to be? What should we do?”

He talks, not surprisingly, about loving and serving God. He reminds his hearers that God moved toward them in love a long time before they were even aware of God. And he offers them a very tender and insightful description of the ways that God has behaved: in verse 15 he says, “Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them…” The words that are used there are fascinating to me. God “set his affection on” them – the Hebrew is chaw-shaq, and it can be translated as “to delight in”, or “to cling to” or even “to join”. And next, God “loved” them; the word is ‘aheb, and can mean “to have affection for”, or “to like”. It carries with it the idea of acting like a friend to the other. There are echoes of tenderness and vulnerability here.

What is happening in this verse, then, is that Moses is describing the love of God in the lives of the Israelites as One who moves toward the other in friendship, affection, and sincerity. That’s what God does. That’s who God is.

Given that, says Moses; since this is true… then there are two imperatives for the rest of us.

The first command sounds a little odd in our ears. “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” When we read that, we think, “Well, first of all, that’s kind of gross, and second of all, it’s just impossible.” Physically speaking, that’s true. But let’s consider what the act of circumcision was about for those people. Generations before, in a covenant with Abraham, God had instructed the males of Israel to bear the physical sign of circumcision on their bodies as a reminder of the fact that they were a people who had been called out for service and to bless the rest of the world. This outward sign was, in many ways, a reminder of the fact that they were to be purified to and dedicated to God. It was intended to be an identity-forming act that gave shape and meaning to the lives of the people who were called to serve God.

The danger with any outward sign, of course, is that it can become separated from the inward reality that it’s supposed to signify. Think of the person who steps forward for baptism because he wants to keep his parents happy, but has no real intent to live as a Christ-follower; or maybe the person who puts on a wedding ring to symbolize eternal love and faithfulness but who pockets that ring when traveling out of town on business… We know that it’s possible for the sign to become just a show – a hollow act that does not really reflect the inward reality of one’s heart.

Moses warned against that, and said “don’t let the circumcision be only an outward symbol. Quit insisting on your own way all the time, and don’t be so stubborn. Live into that reality by acting like God does.”

OK, great. So how does God act? He “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing…” To make it crystal clear, Moses goes on to give the second imperative: “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

In this context, it’s plain to see that loving the stranger is not a plea to cultivate a warm and fuzzy feeling, but rather a command to turn our hearts, minds, attention, and even our wallets in the direction of those who we perceive to be “other”. Alien. Stranger.

In short, Moses says that because God is God, and because God chose to act in love towards us, the only correct response is to return that love to God and to pass it on to the strangers and neighbors around us.

Which means, I think, that the test of our Christmas spirit is not how many gifts we give or receive; it’s not how elaborate our displays are or how many nativity sets we put out for our friends to see in our home.

The test of Christmas is this: are we engaged in actively displaying the incarnate presence of God on earth right now by living with circumcised hearts and walking in love for the stranger? Are those around us surrounded by love? Do they know that they are “in love” – by which I mean to say, do they sense that there is a palpable reality of care and concern surrounding them? And do they know that it comes through us?

img_5751Look. This is Lucia. She is my granddaughter. I may have mentioned her once or twice or a thousand times. She is the light of my world these days. She melts my heart. News flash: I love her.

aleppoAnd this is Aleppo. It is a place to which I’ve never been, but I understand that it is remote and dangerous right now, surrounded by death and filled with people who would give anything to be anywhere else at this very moment.

pittsburgh-skyline-through-the-trees-on-the-west-end-overlookAnd this is Pittsburgh, the geography in which I am most often to be found, the place where I live and move and shop and vote and play and worship.

If God is expecting me to feel the same way about people in Aleppo or Pittsburgh as I feel about my grand-daughter, well, then, God’s looking for the impossible. I can’t see how that is going to happen. Fortunately, I don’t think that’s what God expects or demands.

I believe that the message of Advent is that while I feel crazy in love towards this three year old from Ohio, God is crazy in love towards not only this beautiful child but her dad and her grandfather. And not only that, but towards the people of Pittsburgh and Aleppo. And while I can’t possibly feel all of the feels for all of those people, I am called to show these people, to the best of my ability, the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

maryandjesusAnd I should point out, as obvious as it may be, that while my world may appear to revolve around a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired child living in a stable home in a free country, that’s not how Jesus chose to show up when he came to bring us the fullness of the embodied love of God. Jesus of Nazareth was an impoverished member of a religious and ethnic minority in a culture that was controlled by a militaristic empire. He began his life as a refugee, seeking shelter in a foreign land; an unwanted stranger who most likely could not even speak the language. Which means if my love is enacted only, or even preferentially, towards blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned people, it will more than likely miss the Son of God.

You know the truth: it is definitely God’s will for me to love my little girl. Yet I am a man with an uncircumcised heart and a stubborn will if I only love my granddaughter. My job and your job is simply – and excruciatingly difficultly – this: to show the love of God in Christ to the people whom God loves.

Even the ones who do things I don’t understand.

Even the ones whose practices I find abhorrent.

Even the ones who treat me poorly.

Even the ones who do not accept the love in which I am sent.

The challenge of Advent is NOT to “get ready for Christmas” by sending the right cards and making sure I’ve bought all the right gifts. The challenge of Advent is to make sure that the people who see me have every opportunity to know that they are, right now, in the love of God.

Dorothy Day was a journalist who lived an pretty dissolute lifestyle until she became convinced of the love of God in her own life. She converted to the Christian faith and launched a movement of non-violence and social justice. She wrote,

In Christ’s human life, there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The wise men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand’s breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child’s life. For they brought gold, the king’s emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe, and he was wounded from head to foot and no one bathed his wounds. The women at the foot of the Cross did it too, making up for the crowd who stood by and sneered.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. [1]

This week, let us go forward and seek to immerse the people to whom God sends us in the love that has been present from the beginning of time. Let us show them the truth of the God we worship by the way that we treat them. And may God have mercy on us and patience with us as we do so. Amen.

[1] On Pilgrimage, Dorothy Day and Peter Day (A & C Black, 1999), p. 35.

A Whole New World

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 17 brought us to the end of the story in Ruth 4 as well as Paul’s statement about the redemptive work of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-17.  

 

Did you hear the debate? It was quite a while ago, but – WOW – was it powerful! I wanna tell you, it was a real scorcher.

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The fellow on the right – the old guy with the white beard – he made a strong case for what we might call “traditional values”: you know, a return to the things that made the country great back in the day. He was particularly tough on immigration and what we might call “multiculturalism”, and he was campaigning on a platform that proposed legislation that would not only prohibit marriage to foreign-born people, but would declare any such marriages to be invalid and would immediately deport the foreign wives and any children from such marriages.

It’s all there in the Old Testament book of Ezra, chapter 10. Ezra, and his buddy, Nehemiah, said that the anger of God had descended on the nation because so many foreigners had come and led people away from the truth. The legislation that they proposed won in a landslide – there were only four people who went on record as opposing their action. And so they built a wall and sent the immigrants packing.

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

But then the woman started speaking. It was hard to understand her because of her accent, but she talked about the idea that there is no single perspective that can capture the entirety of God’s majesty. She didn’t say this in so many words, but she sort of implied that if anyone thought that he or she had God fully figured out and understood God completely, then that person had to be wrong because God is so much more than any human mind can comprehend.

She went on to say that we are better off when we walk together toward the truth, and that when we are vulnerable to each other and those around us in love and humility we are more likely to be able to hear the ways in which God might direct our steps. One man, hearing what she had to say, summarized it this way:

[God’s activity in the world is amplified as people go] beyond the limits placed upon them by society. The social definitions of ethnicity and gender are not only unhelpful but they block the successful solution of life’s problems. Inclusion and the violation of role limits become the proper ways of living out one’s faith in the midst of a pluralistic world.[1]

To be honest, the woman didn’t speak nearly as much as the man did in the debate, but she sure showed her intentions and her heart in the ways that she acted. She demonstrated her heart for God and for God’s people in the way that she lived.

This was not, of course, a “real” debate – at least, not one that we saw in person. On the right, as I’ve mentioned, we have the historical figures of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of Israel’s leaders who brought the nation back from a punishing time of exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah understood, rightly, that much of what had led people into the place of exile and separation from God was the pagan practices that they had learned from their neighbors as they gave up on following God and instead followed the selfish desires of their own hearts. They reasoned that much of what had led God’s people to engage in such pagan practices was their willingness to enter into marriage with non-believing, foreign-born spouses, and so the solution that they proposed was simple: ban foreigners, end mixed marriage, and thus stay pure as God’s holy people in God’s holy land. As I mentioned, you can read a lot more about where these folks are coming from in the books that bear their names.

The author of the Book of Ruth gently counters this logic by reminding people that if it weren’t for foreign women, Israel would not have the greatest leader it ever knew, King David. This man who captured Israel’s heart and who led the nation into new places of obedience and success was at least 1/8 Moabite. In David’s story, we find a stunning bit of irony, in fact. A strict interpretation of the law as found in Deuteronomy 23:3 would declare Ruth’s marriage to Boaz invalid, and that any descendants of that marriage (up to the 10th generation) were to be excluded from participating in the worship of God. Since King David was Ruth’s grandson, that means that he should not have been allowed anywhere near the tabernacle. And take a look at the Psalms – the hymnbook that we’ve carried around for 3000 years: all of the best songs were written by someone who, according to the strict reading of the Law, wasn’t even supposed to be here.

What do we do?

Let’s look at Boaz.

Boaz' Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 - 1260)

Boaz’ Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 – 1260)

Boaz’ role in the Book of Ruth is to serve as what is called a “guardian-redeemer”. This role is well-defined in Leviticus 25 and other places in the Law. When an Israelite man dies, it falls to his brother to take responsibility for the man’s widow and to do everything that he can to ensure the survival of the family, even to the point of providing a son who will continue the dead man’s legacy. If there is no brother, then the next closest relative is responsible to make sure that the widow is cared for and that the line continues.

In the book of Ruth, we have seen a young woman, poor and humbled and despised for her status as a foreigner, come to Boaz and ask him to fulfill the role of “guardian redeemer” in her situation. Even though Ruth represents a family that has acted against the strict interpretation of the Law, Boaz acts in grace toward Ruth and Naomi and so presents to them, and to us, a picture of the face of Christ. Boaz sees these widows as those who are forced to contemplate a life of poverty, fear, exclusion, and homelessness and who then takes steps to offer himself to them in the hopes of correcting that.

As you might imagine, not everyone can do that. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, there was a man who was, legally, more responsible for their care than was Boaz. He could have, and perhaps should have, said “yes” to their plea, but he did not. He passed the torch to Boaz and said, “If you would do this, you’ll not only be helping these women, you’ll be helping me, too.” And, as you saw, Boaz was able to act in the interest of Naomi, Ruth, and the entire community by offering himself.

Many scholars have looked at the way that Boaz embraced the role of “guardian redeemer” and have seen an example of Christ. One writer puts it this way:

Through his actions, Boaz communicates Christ. His person and character illustrate the incredible hesed (compassionate loving-kindness) that Christ possesses for his people, as well as the great measures he is willing to take to redeem his bride. Though Ruth arrives at Boaz’s bed empty-handed and humbled to the core, Boaz treats her with respect and kindness (3:10-13). Disgraced by her position and despised for her ethnicity, the young Moabite woman appears to have little to offer. Yet, despite all this, Boaz views her as a worthy woman (3:11). Though Ruth comes from a family that has turned their backs on the Lord, the Lord turns his face towards Ruth and reveals himself to her through Boaz. Boaz foreshadows Jesus Christ, the ultimate kinsman redeemer who will redeem a bride for himself—the church.[2]

Jesus, like Boaz, took on a problem that was not his so that we could have a chance to become what we were created to be.

In this way, I’d suggest that Boaz and Jesus ended any debate between Ezra and Ruth. Each of them acknowledges the truth that when we leave God’s intentions, we can die; when we seek out less than God’s best, we are diminished. It is possible, but surely not wise, for us to pollute ourselves and our world by embracing things that are counter to God’s purposes. Yet as they call us to remember this truth, they also remind us that it is God, not us, who gets to define those purposes. It is God, not us, who sets the boundaries for the world.

The solution for Ruth and Naomi and Boaz was not to build higher walls, to spark more violent protests, or to shout louder than their adversaries. That was clearly not the solution for Jesus, either. And that makes me wonder why I would imagine that it’s a solution that would work well in my own life.

It would seem to me as though this story of Ruth invites me to look across at someone whom I might identify as being “other” and do my best to discern in what ways I am called to walk – with that “other” – into the intentions of the One who created us both.

I think that there is a word here for the protester and for the policeman… for the light-skinned and the dark-skinned… for the one who trumpets adherence to “family values” (however that one chooses to define that term) and to the one who wears all the colors of the LGBTQ rainbow… to the one who just got off the boat and to the one whose great-great-great grandfather was born here… To the born-again, sanctified Christian and to the Muslim as well as the Jew and the atheist… It seems to me that the key is not to push against each other and yell and scream more loudly, or, worse, to blow up more of theirs before they have the chance to blow up yours… but rather to walk in the steps that God has laid out for you in the hopes and in the expectation that God knows God’s heart, God’s purposes, and God’s intentions and that if we are able to submit to those things we will discover how to live more Christ-like lives ourselves.

Can we embrace the concept of redemption? Can we acknowledge that things are a red-hot mess in the world right now, but that the best hope through this mess lies not in violence and the extermination of the “other”, but in the transformation of each of us? Author Anne Lamott posted something incredibly true on Facebook Friday morning:

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. it will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.[3]

I know that this sounds incredibly idealistic. I know that you may think me to be naïve; and yet it is apparent to me that the way of Boaz and Ruth and the way of the cross requires me to choose to act first out of love and humility and inclusion rather than in hostility or revenge. I confess that my heart is not pure, and that one way for me to make it purer is to learn to sing some of the songs that were written by the descendant of a Moabite woman. I want to offer the strength of my arms and my back and my legs, not to wreak havoc or inflict judgment or mete out revenge, but to protect the weak and restore the broken and search out the lost. And I’ve come here, to this congregation and to the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, to meet with those who, like me, are called to walk in the way of the cross. May we remind each other, and the world around us, that grace does bat last. That the game isn’t over. And that love always, always, always wins. Thanks be to God for the One who sought to reach out to us when we were so far away. Amen.

[1] Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, A Social and Historical Approach, Fortress Press, 1995, pp 223-225.

[2] Stephanie Van Eyk, “The Ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer” in Ligonier Ministries blog: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/ultimate-kinsman-redeemer/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/894203970709247

The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.

 

A Fruitful Risk

What does it mean when Jesus says, “I am the vine?” Or that we are the branches?  Some thoughts on the occasion of Maundy Thursday 2014.  The text was John 15.

JesusTeachingFor the past few weeks, we’ve been listening to Jesus preach. And in his preaching, he’s made a number of statements that begin with the words, “I am…” And always, the formula for Jesus’ sermons has been, “I am the …” and then he would name the thing. I am the bread of life, the gate, the light of the world, etc.

Did you notice what he said this evening? The formula has changed a little bit. “I am the vine…and you are…”

For the first time, Jesus explicitly states what we are. He uses a metaphor to describe, not just himself, but us as well. And it seems to me that this description is really the culmination of all of the other “I am” statements that we’ve heard. Because Jesus is the savior, the bread of life, the light of the world, the Door, the Good Shepherd – because he is all of those things in our lives, we are then free to relate with him the way that a branch relates to a vine. Because of all that Jesus is and does, we are free to participate with him in an intimate, organic, relationship.

Think about it. In the last few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus call himself a lot of things. Usually, we understand those things, at least in part, by what they are not. I am the light (not the darkness). I am the bread of life (not something that will not last). I am the way (not a maze in which you get lost). I am the good shepherd (not the hired hand).

And sometimes, when he uses a metaphor to describe himself, we learn something about ourselves, too. If he is the good shepherd, then obviously that implies that we are sheep. Unless you are profoundly vision, hearing, and smelling-impaired, there’s not much challenge in telling the two apart.   Shepherd – sheep. You know which one is which, right?

grapes71But the Vine and the Branches? That’s a bit tougher, isn’t it? Next time you’re at my house, stop into the back yard and look at my kiwi plants. If you go right to the ground, you can see clearly – that large brown thing – vine. No problem. And if you go to the other end, wispy leafy thing – branch. No problem. But in the middle, it’s pretty tough to tell one from the other. Where does the vine stop and the branch begin?

Oooooh, I get it, Pastor Dave! Our relationship with Jesus is designed to be so close that we are totally immersed in Him. We grow into him… or does he grow into us? I don’t really know…Some days it’s kind of hard to tell.

Have you ever heard people talk about their relationship with God like this? They describe a closeness, a warmth, a sense of togetherness that is really appealing, don’t they? You hear some people talk about the ways that they and God spend time together, the kinds of feelings that they have about God, and you think, “Wow, that’s someone who must be really close to God. There’s someone who must be a branch that’s well-connected to the vine.”

And if we’re honest about it, that’s what we want. We want to have that intimacy – that sense of knowing and being known. I might say that it’s a sort of spiritual security blanket – the sense that Jesus is right here with me and nothing’s going to happen.

That is a good thing to desire, and a great thing when it happens. But it’s not the point. Jesus never talks about intimacy with God as something to be desired in and of itself. This connection between the vine and the branch is not the end – it’s a means. A means to what? To the fruit that is supposed to be growing at the end of the branches.

It’s very possible that you have come into worship in the previous weeks and gotten the impression that you were created to be in a life-changing, joy-filled relationship with Jesus. It’s possible that you’ve gotten that impression because that’s what I’ve said. However, we need to be clear about the fact that the joy-filled relationship where you feel fed and nurtured and forgiven and shepherded is not an end in itself, but rather the means by which God intends to use you to shape the world according to his purposes for it.

Or, to put it another way, that intimate, organic relationship with God for which you were created is incomplete until it bears fruit. There is an expectation clearly set forth in John 15 that if we allow ourselves to relate to Jesus in the way that he intends for us, then things will happen.

Jesus is the vine. He promises that he will give us everything necessary to produce fruit. And he promises that he will come looking for fruit in our lives.

Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. We exist to bear fruit. In fact, look with me at the progression that exists in this conversation. In verse 2, he commends the branch that bears “fruit.” That quickly is modified to read “more fruit”. Then in verses 5 and 8, he talks about “much fruit”, and by the time we reach verse 16, we understand that he is looking for “fruit that will last.”

How does the plant go from being fruitless to bearing not only fruit, but much fruit that will last?

It is tended and cared for. It is pruned.

PruningMost fruit-bearing trees and vines have two prunings. In the dormant season, the gardener removes all of the branches that are obviously dead. John 15:2 says that the vinegrower takes away every branch that does not bear fruit.

Literally and metaphorically, this is a pain in the neck, but it’s not so hard to wrap your head around. I walk out to my garden, and I see some dead raspberry canes or a rotten limb on the apple tree, and it’s fairly painless to whack it off. I know it has to be done.

In my life, where I see rot developing, where I sense hatred growing, where I am made aware of an evil that threatens my life, my joy, my purpose – then I can ask God to take that away. Oh, sometimes I experience it as a loss, but it’s not too bad. I generally come away thinking, “well, that just had to happen.” It makes sense, somehow, even if it doesn’t always feel good.

pruningliveBut there’s a second pruning that takes place during the growing season. If I’m on my mark as a gardener, once those branches have set some fruit, I have to go out and thin the plant, and remove shoots that are clearly living, but have no fruit on them. I do this because I didn’t plant my cherry tree to grow wood – I planted that cherry tree because I would like to see cherries in my pantry and freezer. If I remove those branches, the tree can put its energy into growing bigger cherries – and less wood.

And in my garden and in my life, I don’t like that pruning. I don’t like to cut into the pretty greenery. It’s hard to rearrange the shape of the tree. And even though a particular branch may be fruitless, I may get some measure of satisfaction, or shade, or beauty from that greenery. But if my goal is fruit, it’s got to go.

This Maundy Thursday evening ask God, and ask yourself: is there some secret attraction, some trivial pursuit, some fruitless distraction that ought to be removed from your life?

Maybe it’s obvious. Maybe there is an addiction that you know is killing you; an unhealthy relationship that consumes you. Sometimes the dead wood is easy to spot.

But my hunch is that for many of us in the room this evening, the second pruning is what needs to occur. There is something that looks healthy and alive, but is simply not fruitful for us. It may be a behavior that is rewarded in some circles: a devotion to work that seems commendable to many, but then you realize that you haven’t known Sabbath rest in far too long. An awareness of your diet and need for fitness that makes you critical of other people to the point of cruelty. A practice of saving that is rooted, not in a biblical understanding of stewardship, but a deep fear that you do not now, and will never have “enough”.

Ask for the grace to make you want the fruit more than you want this other growth. Ask God to show you how the fruit that he desires is better than the things that have held your interest or distracted you.

Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

Jacopo Bassano, The Last Supper (1542)

And let’s talk for just a moment about that fruit. In John’s description of the Last Supper, it’s pretty clear what kind of fruit Jesus is talking about. Love. Love is the fruit that grows from a life rooted in the Father’s intentions and sustained by the Spirit’s care.

Let me remind you that love is not warm and mushy feelings. Love is not being nice to the people who are nice to you.

In fact, in John, there are two measurable criteria for the kind of love that Jesus says God is looking for. First, love means obeying God. And second, love means being willing to lay down your life for your friends.

I’m pretty sure that could mean that if you love me, you’d be willing to take a bullet for me, or throw yourself on a grenade if one got flung into the room right now. But more probably, I suspect that kind of love means that you are willing to act for my good, even when it is inconvenient for you. That kind of love means that you are willing to help me grow into what is best for me, even if it costs you somehow.

It is, in short, a kind of love that is not altogether attractive or valued in our world. And frankly, it’s not the kind of love that we usually look for at church. Listen:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of Him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.[1]

Here is something that occurred to me this week. What is it that is between the vine and branches and the fruit? The blossom, right? The flower. Every branch, every vine, every plant in my yard that produces fruit does so by extending a blossom. And that blossom – every blossom – is a risk. I’ve got a little cherry tree in my back yard. I get nervous when it starts to blossom. I’m excited, because I can think about homemade jam and cherry pie. But I’m scared, because what will happen if we have a freeze? Even a really gusty day can blow the blossoms off the tree. And if they freeze or fall off, then no matter how green the leaves, how deep the roots, how nicely the tree’s been pruned – there’s no fruit. The blossoms are a fragile risk that my cherry tree makes each spring. And if for some reason you need proof of the great gamble that spring blossoms are, then take a look at that very sad-looking, brown magnolia tree in our front yard – thousands of blossoms that were simply frozen on Tuesday evening.

Tonight, we commemorate the ultimate risk. The sinless Son of God who loved his friends enough to lay down his life for them.

doubting-thomasIncluding Thomas, who would later doubt that Jesus was who he said he was.

 

 

Including Peter, who would later deny even having ever met Jesus.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Denial of St. Peter, (c. 1620)

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Denial of St. Peter, (c. 1620)

 

 

Judas Accepts the Bribe_Arena Chapel_Padua_1300-05Including Judas, who had already sold Jesus out to the authorities and was arranging his arrest.

 

 

 

Tonight, as we remember this risk, know that this Jesus knows you, calls to you, and loves you with this kind of love. He desires a deep and intimate relationship with you, as the vine has with the branch. And if you are not in that kind of relationship, then let me encourage you to walk towards that tonight – to ask Jesus to enter more fully in to your life and heart and purposes.

Jesus-on-CrossAnd if you are in that kind of relationship with Jesus, then let me challenge you to grow in your ability to love with the kind of love that he seems to expect from us. I know that I am advising you toward a dangerous prayer – that I am asking you to pray for pruning and tending and shaping that could be inconvenient or painful. After all, look at what that kind of love got Jesus.

But know, too, that you are not alone in this love, you are not alone on this vine, and you are not alone in this risk. It is why you exist. You came into being for love, and you are to dwell in and act in love. May God be gracious to us as we learn it…again and again and again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] $3 Worth of God, Wilbur Rees (Judson Press, 1971)

A Left-Handed Compliment

God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  This week we heard the story of the first real “Judge” or deliverer for Israel – a sly Benjamite named Ehud.  I know, I know, Othniel came first, but he didn’t have much of a story.  Our texts for the day include Judges 3:12-30 (included in the text below) and I Corinthians 1:20-25.

         Samson-Delilah-poster-1020458735This morning we are going to continue to read through the Book of Judges, a volume that is probably not familiar to many in the room.  Oh, I imagine we’ve seen stories of Samson and Delilah or Gideon in the children’s books, but as we’ll discover in a few weeks, those are pretty poor characters to be introducing to our kids.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Judges is, essentially, a collection of campfire stories, and this morning’s reading fits that description perfectly.  And if the accounts of Samson or Gideon are likely to be found in traditional children’s Bibles, then I’d suggest that today’s story is more likely to be found in books put out by The National Lampoon or The Onion.Deuteronomic Cycle 1

12 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 13 He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amal′ekites, and went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. 14 And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

Just about as soon as we can, we turn our backs on what is right and start looking for trouble.  And that winds up with King Eglon from Moab coming in and taking over a portion of Israel.  I should tell you that it seems as though “Eglon” is a made-up name.  It comes from the Hebrew word that means “bull” or “round”.  In the next paragraph, he is described as being “fat”.  “Eglon”, then, is here to represent the “round, fat bull”, the guy at the top of the food chain.  He’s a “fat cat”.  Eglon is, here, “the man”.

This is not Eglon.  But this is probably how most of the original hearers of Judges would have pictured him.

This is not Eglon. But this is probably how most of the original hearers of Judges would have pictured him.

So “the man” takes over a part of Israel, including “the City of Palms”.  Now, wait a minute!  “The City of Palms” – that’s what the Bible calls Jericho.  And didn’t Joshua destroy Jericho as a symbol of the powers that oppose God?  And didn’t Joshua say “Don’t anybody rebuild this city!  God’s curse is here!” (Yes, he did.  Joshua 26:6 if you don’t believe me)?  So what we learn in this introduction to the story is that Israel, in direct opposition to their leader, went ahead and ignored God’s best intentions for their lives and instead, chased after what they wanted.  Wow, what a strange concept…I wonder what it feels like to ignore God and do only what I want to do…Oh, yeah, that’s my struggle every day…

The story continues:

15 But when the people of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he girded it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man.

This is not Ehud.  But this is probably how the original hearers of the story would have pictured him.  If they had access to the mythology of the American West, that is.

This is not Ehud. But this is probably how the original hearers of the story would have pictured him. If they had access to the mythology of the American West, that is.

Here we meet the other main character, Ehud.  Like Eglon, this name has a meaning: it is related to the word for “one”.  Ehud is a loner.  He’s the Lone Ranger.  And, interestingly enough, he’s left-handed.  Why do we need to know that?

In ancient folklore, left-handed people were considered tricksters, outcasts, and misfits.  Ehud is no exception to that rule, and he makes himself a special blade that can be strapped to his inner right thigh where it would likely be missed by the TSA and the Border Patrol.  Most men, you see, wore swords and weapons on their left side.

Can you see where this story is going?  For Israel, at any rate, it’s a comedy.  In this corner, you have the solitary outcast.  And in that corner, we see “the man” – evil personified…the good guy wins, the bad guy dies, and it’s really funny to boot.

Ehud volunteers for the job that nobody wants – it’s time to deliver the “tribute” to Moab.  That is, it’s time for someone to take some of our hard-earned money, cross over the Jordan River, and hand it to our enemy in the hopes that he won’t get irritated and wipe us out.  That’s what needs to be done, and Ehud does it.

It starts out like a typical delivery, but then Ehud puts his plan into effect:

18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people that carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And Eglon commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him, as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly; 22 and the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber upon him, and locked them.

You see: after presenting the tribute to Eglon, Ehud evidently goes back as far as the statues to the Moabite god, Chemosh, and then he sends his friends back home, saying, “Oh, man!  I forgot something.  I’ll catch up…”

One depiction of a statue of Chemosh

One depiction of a statue of Chemosh

He rushes back to see the King – who knows that Ehud would be passing the Moabite god, and says, “Hey, your majesty…I have a message for you…”  Once again, the Hebrew translation is tricky.  The word for “message” is also the word for “thing”.  Eglon, perhaps hoping for a word from his god Chemosh, tells everyone to leave so he can get the news in private.  They go upstairs into the king’s private chambers, where Ehud does in fact give him the “thing” – the blade that goes all the way through.  In the part of the story that has appealed to adolescent males for 3,000 years, we’re informed that the blade is so effective and so sharp that it pierces Eglon’s bowels and “the dirt came out”.  Ehud has, quite literally, beaten the crap[1] out of Eglon and, leaving him to die in his own waste, he locks the door and beats a hasty retreat.

24 When he had gone, the servants came; and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were utterly at a loss; but when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them; and there lay their lord dead on the floor.

An anonymous woodcut from Martin Luther's Bible depicts Ehud's escape.

An anonymous woodcut from Martin Luther’s Bible depicts Ehud’s escape.

As he’s heading out, Ehud mentions to the staff that the King really enjoyed his lunch and that maybe they want to give him a minute.  Not long afterwards, they walk upstairs and they smell the bathroom, and say, “Hoo, boy, it’s not a good day to be King!  You better lay off the knishes, Eglon.”  And they wait some more (what is the appropriate amount of time to wait when someone else is in the bathroom?), and they finally go in and see that he’s been killed and they raise the alarm.

Meanwhile,

26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Se-i′rah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of E′phraim; and the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. 28 And he said to them, “Follow after me; for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed not a man to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

Ehud, the left-handed loner, crosses the border and recruits an army that whips the Moabites and drives them out of Israel.

ehudeglon1ceCan you imagine that for hundreds of years while they were getting beat up with some regularity by the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the…well, can you see that it was probably with some glee that God’s people told and retold the story of the loner, the misfit, the outcast, the trickster who walked right past those false gods and sacrificed a “fat bull” to YHWH?

Listen, the story of Ehud and Eglon is slapstick, but it points to a deeper truth.

How can it be that a single man – a left-hander, at that – defeated a king?  Everybody knows that in order to win, in order to be successful, in order to get ahead, you have to be strong and ruthless.  You have to be the man.  There is no place for weakness, no room for the underdog.

Except here, in Judges, we learn something about God.  We see his preference for the weak and the marginalized.  We understand that he is opposed to systematized repression and institutional violence.  And remember, my reading of this book is that it is not so much an historical account about who is wiping out whom, but rather an exploration of what happens when God invites his people to oppose the evil structures that surround them and create a new way of living.

And the hint of these things in this crazy story from Judges is stated explicitly in I Corinthians, where Paul talks about Jesus as “the foolishness of God”.  Jesus, who went to the heart of the religious and political treachery of his time, and stood up for the ones who were being beaten down.  Jesus, who opposed violence with suffering, disease with healing, death with resurrection.  None of it makes sense.  Except all of it does.

And we could stop now, and everybody could go home chuckling a little bit at the image of old “Lefty” sticking it to the man in the bathroom…and maybe even being glad for the ways that Jesus teaches us to see life a little differently…

Or we could go a little deeper and look for ourselves in the story.  If I am right, and this is a story about the intentions of God encountering the systems of this world, perhaps we need to ask ourselves in what ways we participate in those systems.

Look, I’m a Christian believer.  I am a member of the dominant religion and the majority race, a citizen of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 21st century.  Let’s be honest: if most people in our world are telling this story, they don’t look at people like you and me and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the underdog.  Those are the marginalized.” No.  We are not them.

But where is God in the story? With the underdog.  With the marginalized.

So I need to reflect: in what ways do I relate to systems of power and oppression?  In what ways to I relate to the bully and the one who is bullied?

Do I stand with those who suffer?

Do I stand on top of those who suffer?

Do I stand by while suffering occurs and do nothing?

Where is the Good News here?

Look, when I started this message, I was hoping for a few laughs at the fat guy’s expense.  This is bathroom humor – literally. But the more I read this story, the more I realize that on some days, in some ways, I am the fat guy.  Given half a chance, almost every one of us would choose to be the king, rather than the oppressed.  And we often instinctively look for ways to increase our advantage.

So today I want to simply pause and thank God for this story that reminds me that I can stand in the foolishness of God and walk with God’s children who are on the edges.  I am grateful that God continues to invite me away from the idols of our day and into the lives of those who are on the margins.  This week, I’d like to encourage you to look for people who are experiencing repression – maybe they are getting bullied at school, or mistreated at work; maybe they are the workers at the place where you’re doing business; maybe they’re protesting something down the street or half a world away…but look for them.  And then pray, “God, where are you in this situation?  Where are you acting? Where are your hopes being revealed and shared? Where are your intentions expressed?”  And then, when you get a sense of where God is, go to that place.

Here’s a hint: it probably won’t be easy.  It wasn’t for Jesus.  That’s ok.  Go there anyway.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] I am indebted to J. Clinton McCann’s treatment of this passage in many ways, particularly with this phrase borrowed from his Interpretation Commentary on Judges (Louisville: John Knox, 2002).