The Long and Winding Road

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights have been walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On April 23, we watched as David (now almost 40 years old) was anointed as king by the elders of Israel… decades after Samuel had made a similar anointing.  Our texts included II Samuel 5:1-5 and Philippians 1:3-6.  To listen to the audio version of this sermon, please use the player below.

One afternoon in 1968, a 25 year-old man paused to take stock of his life. For a decade, he had been climbing to the top of the world. Since he was 15, he and his friends had played in a band that had gained some real success, but now their worlds were crashing in around them. Tensions between the lads were high, and what had once seemed effortless and carefree was now a morass of conflict and miscommunication.

That day, young Paul sat down at his farm in Scotland and plinked out a melody on his piano. He later said, “I was a bit flipped out and tripped out at that time. It’s a sad song because it’s all about the unattainable; the door you never quite reach. This is the road that you never get to the end of.”[1] The result of that afternoon’s labor was a ballad entitled “The Long and Winding Road”, which was released a month after Paul’s band, The Beatles, broke up. It sold 1.2 million copies in the first two days of its release, and was the last #1 hit The Beatles ever had.

My hunch is that you know this tune, but to refresh your memory, here is a portion of the lyrics:

The wild and windy night

That the rain washed away

Has left a pool of tears

Crying for the day

Why leave me standing here

Let me know the way

Many times I’ve been alone

And many times I’ve cried

Any way you’ll never know

The many ways I’ve tried

Paul recorded a demo version of the song, and was unhappy with it, and left it. Later, John Lennon gave that recording to a producer, who added strings, horns, and a female choir. Paul was so incensed by these changes to his work that when the hearing over the dissolution of The Beatles took place, he listed the treatment of this song as one of his chief grievances. It’s a sad, sad song.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

If you didn’t know better, you might imagine King David singing this song at some point in his life. The reading we’ve had for today from II Samuel announces a significant change in David’s life. Here, at age 37 or so, he is crowned as the King of all Israel. Prior to this, he’d spent seven and a half years as king of the tribe of Judah in the village of Hebron. That was preceded by two years running a band of 600 guerrillas out of Ziklag. For eight years before that, he’d been hiding out as a fugitive from Saul and the army of Israel. That was preceded by time serving on Saul’s staff as a royal musician and part-time Philistine fighter. He had risen to prominence as a teenager when he killed the giant, Goliath, but he first attracted our notice when he was called in from tending the flocks of his father’s sheep in Bethlehem and anointed, as a boy, by the prophet Samuel.[2]

If anyone had a right to sing sad songs about long roads that go nowhere and friends who say one thing but do another, it would be David. For virtually his entire life, he was bounced around and searching for some way to live into the call that had been extended to him. More than once, I’m sure it must have been tempting for David to think of life as a twisted, directionless trek that left him alone and powerless against the world.

This is not, however, the song that David chose to sing. Instead of seeing himself as the victim of an unfeeling universe, David opted to see himself as one who had been invited to cooperate with YHWH and to participate in joyful and energetic response to the ways that God had been moving in the world around him.

We have noted several times that David was a mere boy when the prophet Samuel pulled him aside and told him that God would establish him as the king. For the better part of three decades, young David continued to act upon that promise even when he couldn’t see how it was coming to fruition. God had appointed him to lead, and so he sought to do that as best he could. Even the staunch traditionalists in Israel offer testimony to the same thing on this, the day of his coronation.

In verse 2 of our reading, these men come to David and say, “In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns.” This is a tacit affirmation of the fact that even while Saul was wearing the crown, it was David who as acting as a King should act. The further Saul descended into his own madness, the more David took it upon himself to do the work of the king – keeping the people safe from their enemies, working for justice, and so on. The people of Israel are able to see in David’s actions that which had only been promised, and now they ask him to step into that role.

Coronation of King David, Paris Psalter 10th C.

In doing so, we see that there is a beautiful symmetry to David’s life. Here, at his coronation, the elders remind David that YHWH has called him to be their shepherd. The one who as the eighth-born son of a poor farmer was out tending to the flocks in the field has now become the leader of all of Israel. In choosing this vocabulary, they are reminding David to take advantage of the lessons he’s already learned about caring for the weak and vulnerable and to apply them in his office as King.

The other bit of vocabulary that jumps out of this verse is the next term that the elders use to describe David: he is called to be not only the “shepherd” of Israel, but their “ruler.” The Hebrew word here is nagid. The statesmen could have said, “David, be our melek, or “king”. But that’s the kind of ruler Saul had been. David is charged to be nagid, which can mean “ruler” but is often translated as “prince”.

Think, for a moment, of the implications of coming into office as the “shepherd” and “prince” of Israel. Although the word is often attached to him, this passage makes it clear that David is not to be “king” in the same way that Saul had been king. A prince is someone who rules in collaboration with a greater authority. YHWH is the King; David is a prince. He has come to realize that true strength will often come through submission, sacrifice, and service – attributes with which Saul appears to have been unfamiliar.

There is no reason to suspect that Paul was thinking about David’s willingness to hold on to the promises of God even when outward circumstances seemed to argue against it, but this story would have made sense to the people who formed the church of Philippi.

Philippi was on a busy highway, the via Egnatia, between two important towns. It was officially a “colony” of the Roman Empire, meaning that life here was to reflect as closely as possible the circumstances of those in Rome. This includes, presumably, worship of any number of Roman gods, participation in an economy that is driven by a multitude of slaves, peasants, and service-providers all of whom were there to cater to the whims of the Roman soldiers and former soldiers who ran the place. The church in Philippi had not gotten off to a promising start – there were very few Jews in town, and so the Christian community appears to have been formed by a rag-tag group of marginalized folks. When confronted with the pomp and circumstance of the Roman Empire, I suspect that there were days that the members of First Church, Philippi, looked around and thought, “Am I really able to believe in the call of God to this place?”

Paul says in no uncertain terms, YES! “I am confident of this: that the One who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ comes.” Paul encourages the struggling congregation not to give up on that which they’ve received, but instead to hold fast to the promise of God.

He reminds them of the ways that God has been moving in the past, and encourages them to look for God’s hand at work in the present. Furthermore, Paul says that this group of careworn believers can march confidently into an uncertain future knowing of God’s purposes for the Creation.

It was good enough for David. It was Paul’s advice to the folk in Philippi. How’s it working out for you? Are you able to live into, or to lean on the promises of God’s presence and power in your day-to-day life?

I know you well enough to know that many, if not most, of you have had at least one occasion to throw your hands up in the air and say, “Seriously? Are you for real, God? You expect me to believe that you are moving in and through this circumstance? Where are you, God?” How well do you see God’s movement in the world around you? How confident are you that God will see the work in YOU through to completion? And how can you get better at those things?

For generations, God’s people have made use of a spiritual discipline known as examen. Quite simply, this is the practice of setting aside some time – ideally each day – to unplug from the what do I have to do next and when is it supposed to be done by rhythm of life and spend some time reflecting about who and how and where you have been in the day and how and where God might have been present in your day or the moments of your day.

Now, here’s the deal when it comes to examen. The goal is to think objectively enough to see the whole picture, and not to simply obsess about the best or worst five moments of the day. I learned this week about a tool that the National Football League uses that is not available to the ordinary fan. Each game is recorded using a system of cameras called the “All-22”. These films allow the coaches to see the entire field of play for the duration of the game. When you and I watch the Steelers play we are forced by the good people at CBS Sports to see how tightly the quarterback grips the laces or how many fingers of the defensive lineman’s right hand are jammed into the facemask of the running back. On the other hand, the All-22 is designed to show the coach how the entire system functions during each play. That way, the coach can see how the guys who don’t have the ball are behaving away from the play. They have a much broader view of the ebb and flow of the entire contest.

Too often when I stop to think about my day, it’s either to beat myself up for that incredibly stupid thing I did right in front of everyone at 11:27 a.m. and how I’m such a moron for doing it OR to think about the fact that I didn’t get a speeding ticket when I blew through the speed trap so it was a great day after all.

A better approach would be to try to give some thought to the movement of the entire day and see where things went well and where I struggled. Sometimes I’ll ask my wife or a friend to check me on something – I’ll say, “This is how I experienced that… what was your sense?” While I don’t usually have an “All-22” view of myself, it’s helpful to listen to someone I trust and make sure that I’m not being either too hard or too easy on either myself or God.

Of course, another way to make sure that I’m attentive to the presence of God in the world around me is to train my eyes and ears to pick up on that. And for me, one of the best ways to do that is to spend time reading the Bible and being present to God in prayer – because if I can see what it looked like when God was moving in the lives of people like David or Paul, maybe I’ll be better equipped to catch a glimpse of him in mine.

It’s not unlike bird-watching, to be honest. That is to say, I’m working with my granddaughter so that she knows that just about every red bird she sees at my house is a cardinal. The yellow ones are goldfinches. As she gets older, we’ll get a little deeper and talk about the differences between juncos and titmice, and if she really goes crazy, she’ll learn about the 35 varieties of sparrow that can be found in North America. The more she looks, the easier it will be for her to discern what she’s really seeing.

In the same way, I can train myself, through prayer and scripture, to be better able to spot God in action. When I catch a glimpse – even if it’s only momentary – it’s easier to remember and live into the promise.

I began this sermon with a love song about looking for company on a road fraught with difficulty, and I’ll close it with another. This one wasn’t written by a kid from England, but rather one from the Middle East. It’s a song about walking in trust with God towards a future that is almost always unknown but is never uncertain, and it describes the fact that security is possible, even in the midst of the storms.

Christ as the Good Shepherd, image from the 4th century catacombs in Rome

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

he refreshes my soul.

He guides me along the right paths

for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me

in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil;

my cup overflows.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One of the things that allowed David to enter into the role of shepherd and prince of Israel is the fact that he never, ever forgot – not while he was afraid as the rapids of life threatened to inundate him; not while he was unsure as to where the path was leading him; not while he was forced to spend time in the valley of the shadow of death; not while he was surrounded by his enemies – he never forgot that he himself had a shepherd and a King. As do I. As do you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (MacMillan, 1998, p. 539)

[2] This chronology is summarized in Leap Over a Wall (Eugene Peterson, Harper-Collins, 1997) p. 137.

The Day Aziz Learned to See (A Christmas Story)

Every year I write a story to tell the congregation during the Christmas Eve Candlight service.  Often times, it’s an angsty, middle-agedy, reflective piece.  As we have so many children in worship, though, I wanted to try to help the kids see Christmas through new eyes.  So here is the 2014 Christmas story, featuring a talking dog who, coincidentally, is just a bit angsty and reflective (hey, as the great theologian Popeye once said, “I yam what I yam…”

“It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.”

(Helen Keller)

GraydogIf you saw Aziz, you would not think that he was a beautiful dog. He was about three feet high and covered with shaggy grey fur that grew longer each winter. He was nervous, and his ears were always alert, listening for sounds of danger or for a chance to get a treat from the shepherd boys who worked with him. His eyes – well, it was hard to see his eyes because they were hidden behind a tuft of gray. And, really, it didn’t matter very much because Aziz couldn’t see anyway.

When he was a puppy, Aziz could see fine. He used to love running through the pastures with the other dogs and the sheep, leaping over rocks and playing in the streams.   But all of that changed on the day the darkness came.

It was a bright, sunny, day, and Aziz was watching his father try to bring a few wandering lambs back to the flock. Suddenly, they heard a cry of panic and they saw Rachel, a lamb that was about Aziz’s age, being carried off by a lion! While the other sheep ran, panicked, Aziz’s father went straight for the lion. It was terrible. There was a lot of barking and roaring and snarling and fighting. Aziz watched his father go after the lion again and again until the lion dropped Rachel. But when the lion released the lamb, it attacked the dog – and it held Aziz’s father by the throat!

Even though he was only a puppy, Aziz knew that he had to do something – and so he dove towards the lion, trying to help his father. The lion hit the puppy with a big paw – right in the head – and sent him flying. Everything got dark for Aziz right then.

All of the noise attracted the shepherds, who came and threw rocks at the lion and chased it until it went away. But when it was all over, Aziz’s father was dead and Rachel, the little lamb, was missing a leg. And when Aziz woke up, he couldn’t see anything at all.

For Aziz and for Rachel, it was the worst day of their lives. Aziz was lonely after his father died, and Rachel had to learn how to walk with only three legs. You might not be surprised to know that as they grew up together, Rachel the lamb and Aziz the dog turned out to be best friends. Everyone thought it was a good match – the three-legged sheep and the blind dog. The rest of the flock helped them, and the shepherds seemed to take extra care as well, making sure that both Rachel and Aziz were close by.

One day, they were just laying in the hot sun and Rachel was telling Aziz about the bird that she had just seen. It was beautiful, she said: the wings were striped black and white, and the head was a brownish color with a fancy kind of a crown on top. It had been flying through the field looking for bugs to eat.

Hoopoe“Oh, that sounds wonderful,” said Aziz. “I’m glad you told me about it, but I wish that I could have seen it.” He sighed heavily.

It was quiet for a while, and then Rachel asked, “Does it hurt?”

“Does what hurt?”

“Does ‘blind’ hurt? I mean, inside your head – does it hurt when you can’t see?”

Aziz thought about it for a while, and then he said, “I – I don’t think so… No, it doesn’t really hurt. Sometimes my face feels, well, tired, I guess. And sometimes I get scared when I hear something I can’t see. But it doesn’t hurt.”

Rachel nudged a little closer to her friend. He liked having her near. He felt that her face was getting really close to his. He could hear her gentle breathing.

She asked, “Are there marks? I mean, on your eyes?”

Aziz shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I really don’t remember anything at all after…after that day. I just remember that it got dark – very dark. And sad.”

Even though it was quite warm, the sheep climbed even closer to the dog, and Aziz could feel her breath on his nose. She was quiet for a moment, and then spoke again. “Can I look?”

The dog, without thinking about it, said, “Sure. But you have to promise to tell me what you see.”

So Rachel the sheep sat back and using her one good front leg, she pushed aside the hair that covered Aziz’s face. She looked intently for a while, and then she said, “OK, now open your eyes so I can see them.”

Aziz shook his head and said, “They are open.”

“No, they’re not!”

“YES, they are!”

Rachel put her foot back on the dog’s forehead and said, “You asked me to tell you what I see, and I’m telling you that your eyes are closed! Just open them!”

Aziz sounded really angry and he shouted, “I can’t open them! I can’t see anything!”

Rachel tried to use her front foot to open one of the dog’s eyes, but you know that sheep don’t really have very good fingers for that kind of thing. She couldn’t really do much to try to open the eye, but she tried. It looked like one of the eyelids moved a little bit.

For Aziz, there was one tiny pinprick of light. It was a burning, white, hot feeling inside of his head.

“AHHHHHH!” The dog yelped in pain. “Stop! It hurts! It hurts!”

Rachel moved away very quickly. For a while, Aziz just sat there, crying. Rachel said, “I am sorry for hurting you. I just want you to see what I see.”

Aziz sniffled and said, angrily, “Well, you know that I can’t see. Just stop.” But what Aziz did not say to Rachel was that he did see the bright light, but that when he saw the light, he also remembered the bright sun on the day that his father died. And so he didn’t say anything, because the hurt inside was too deep.

They didn’t say anything else that day, and for the next few weeks, everything was back to normal. The winter was coming and the days were shorter, but Rachel and Aziz did what they always did – Rachel would tell stories about what she saw, Aziz would tell jokes, and they would both stay pretty close to the shepherds.

One night, Aziz woke up to the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. It was like he walked into a whole house that was made of sound. It was singing – beautiful, amazing, wonderful singing!

angels“Rachel! Rachel! RACHEL!” he said. “What’s happening? What is it?”

The sheep was whispering. “Oh, Aziz! They are angels, and they are beautiful. Look at them! Open your eyes and look!”

Aziz said quickly, “I can’t see. You know that.”

Rachel replied, “I think you won’t see. Open your eyes, quickly! They are leaving!”

Aziz said “Just tell me what they look like! I can’t see.”

But it was too late. Aziz knew it when the music stopped and he heard the shepherds talking excitedly. It sounded like they were getting ready for a trip.

And that’s what happened! The shepherds left one young boy to watch most of the sheep, but they gathered up Rachel and a few of the others, along with Aziz, and went down the road to the town of Bethlehem. Aziz and Rachel knew that it had something to do with the angels, but they were not sure exactly what.

When they got to Bethlehem, they came into a stable, and the shepherds began talking with a man and a woman. Aziz’s nose was working wonderfully, and he could smell that something important had just happened. He thought he smelled a new baby – right there in the stable!

Aziz nosed around and found the woman, who was sitting on a bed of straw. She was really tired. The men kept talking, but she fell asleep.

Aziz had never, ever, felt happier in his entire life. He lay there next to the woman and his heart was beating and his tail was thumping and he was warm and dry and safe and sound and he just felt wonderful laying in the hay next to Mary. And then, he heard the baby start to cry. The baby’s mother was so tired that she took her baby, wrapped in a blanket, and held him between herself and  Aziz’s soft furry coat, saying,  “Here, little one. This old dog is warm and happy. Maybe the way he wags his tail will rock us both to sleep.”

The next thing he knew, Aziz was touching the baby. And everything was so quiet. He really, really, wanted to know what the baby looked like – but Rachel was all the way across the stable, and it was so quiet. He thought to himself, “If only I could see! What would he look like?”

Then he thought, “What if I can see?” But he was afraid to try, because he thought it might hurt again. But he was so happy that he didn’t think that the hurt could touch him there.

So right then, in that stable, with a baby named Jesus leaning against him, Aziz opened one eye very carefully. And then he opened the other.

Do you know what he saw?

jesus-birth-nativity-star-outside-bethlehem-stableThe first thing that he saw was not the baby or his mother. The first thing that he saw was the brightness of the night – there was a star shining into the stable that was brighter than any star anyone had ever seen. And because the star was so bright, Aziz could see everything. He saw the baby. He saw the mother. He saw the shepherds. And across the stable, he saw a three-legged sheep that he knew was his friend, Rachel. In the light of that star, Aziz learned how to see again.

A couple of hours later, the shepherds and the man said good-bye to each other and the animals followed the shepherds back to the fields. Rachel came over to help Aziz, since she thought he was unable to see. The dog surprised his friend by running to her and licking her face again and again and again. “It’s me, Rachel. It’s Aziz! And I can see! I can see you! I saw the stable! I saw the baby! I saw the star!”

The two friends went with the shepherds back to the fields, and they stayed up all night talking and looking in the light from that star.

The next day, the black and white and brown bird flew past again, and Rachel began to tell Aziz about it but he interrupted her: “I know! I know! It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Just then, Aziz’s keen ears heard a rustle in the grass a few feet away. He turned, and there in front of him was a lion! And it was heading right towards Rachel!

The first thing Aziz did was close his eyes and hide in the darkness. And then he heard his friend cry out, “Help!”

And so that day, Aziz opened his eyes and he ran right at the lion and he barked and barked and barked as loudly as he could. And because he wasn’t a puppy anymore, but he was big and fierce-looking, the lion stopped, and roared.

Aziz got closer and closer to the lion, barking as loudly as he could. The lion roared, and charged right at Aziz and Rachel – and then the lion fell over, dead. Aziz turned around and there was a shepherd boy, holding a slingshot. He had killed the lion and saved the sheep and the dog.

Aziz and Rachel lived a long, long time after that, but they never heard anything more powerful than the song of the angels, and they never saw anything more beautiful than the baby, laying in the manger in the starlight. And Aziz and Rachel told their children and their grandchildren about how they were part of the first Christmas ever.

Following are the comments I made after we lit our candles and sang “Silent Night”:

You know the light in which an object is viewed affects the way that we are able to see that thing. When I was young, all of my friends had “black lights” with special posters that looked one way most of the time, but really awesome when viewed with the special bulb. Walking on the beach by moonlight is different than going at noon. You know that about light.

And you know that light can be very attractive. When you’re out walking in the woods and you see a campfire, it attracts you. It calls you in, unless there is a six-year old holding a flashlight at the campfire, in which case, light that is on you becomes light that is at you, and you are driven away.  

You may know that looking at you in this light is the highlight of my year. I don’t necessarily mean the warmth of the candlelight, although there is something to be said for that. But what I’m really talking about is the light of Christ. We have just stood and as gently, as humbly, as meekly as possible, and said the truest thing any crowd has ever said: “Christ the savior is born”. Well, we didn’t actually say it. We sang it. We didn’t shout it: we proclaimed it.

There is a gentleness in the light of Christ that is always on you but never at you. For four or five minutes out of the year, we stand in this light and we look at each other in it. I wish I had a giant mirror so that you could see yourself in this light. More than that, I wish that I was better at seeing you in this light on Monday afternoons or Thursday evenings. I wish we could learn how to see ourselves in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those we love in this light all the time. I wish we could learn how to see those with whom we disagree in this light. I wish we could learn how to see those we call “other” in this light.

One day, pray God, we will.

Until then, we gather here for reminders about how beautiful this light can be, and how much better we can see because of it. And we hope. And we worship. And we proclaim: Christ the savior is born. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Who Let THEM In?

In Advent of 2014 we looked at the shepherds who led us towards the stable: previous entries explore Abram, Moses, and David.  On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we take at look at the only shepherds who were actually there – the shepherds of Bethlehem mentioned in Luke 2.  Isaiah 56:3-8, although not specifically about shepherds, is instructive here as well.

There are a lot of times when I look at my life and think, “Holy smokes…I can’t believe I did that.” Sometimes, those are words of regret – I’m filled with remorse at doing something unthinkable. Other times, I’m in awe of some great privilege that was extended to me. And some times, I just can’t figure out how my parents let me do something that I’d never let my own child do.

CircusFor instance, when I was a teen, I spent several weekends a year working with the Shrine circus when they rolled into town. I was there, my parents thought, to put on my clown makeup and suit and assist wheelchair-bound children as they experienced the show. And I did that. But they let me sleep in a trailer with five or six other teens on the circus lot. We got there early, and watched as the carnies set up the big tops. Late at night, after the crowds went home, we’d wander up and down the lanes, where I saw more bad teeth, hip flasks, tattoos, and what I might politely call “adventurous behavior” than I thought possible. When my parents came to see the show, they saw the fresh-faced college kids who’d been hired to take the tickets and operate the side show bannerschildren’s rides. I liked watching the rough assortment of humanity charged with setting up the tents, clearing away the elephant dung, and running the sideshow. These weekends did more to enlarge my vocabulary, my understanding of human nature, and my appreciation for human anatomy than anything I ever saw in National Geographic, I can tell you that.

I thought a lot about carnies – the rough-edged men and women who travel with the circuses and shows – this week as Sharon and I set up our Christmas decorations. You may know that my bride collects nativity sets. We’ve got several dozen scattered around the house now, and more in the basement. All of them have at least Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus. Some have the wise men. And most have a few shepherds and some sheep.

shepherds-angel-nativity-setMostly, when we think of the shepherds to whom the angels sang about the baby’s birth, we think of simple, gentle folk who must have enjoyed a tranquil, pastoral existence as they tended the little lambs under their care. I would imagine that many of us think about shepherding as a noble profession and an accepted vocation. I mean, “The Lord is my shepherd”… Abraham, Moses, and King David all spent time with the flocks. And look at the shepherds in our nativities – the strong, silent, types. It’s pretty easy to think about one of these fellows grabbing his son and pa-rum-pa-pa-pum-ing it all the way into the stable, right?

Those might be the shepherds that you see on my coffee table, but they are not the men invited to the stable on that first Christmas Eve. At the time of Christ, shepherds were people on the fringe of society – that’s what brought the carnies of my youth to mind as I decorated this week.

sheperd-300x204Shepherding was a despised and lowly occupation in first-century Palestine. Those who were hired to do this work were without rights or any stature in society. Jewish law forbade them from testifying in court, which means that if someone attacked you in broad daylight in front of a dozen shepherds, each of whom could identify your attacker and knew him by name, nothing would happen – because, by law, no one could believe what a shepherd says.

The Mishnah, which is the written record of the Jewish oral law, refers to shepherds as “incompetent”, and says that if you happen to encounter a shepherd who has fallen into a pit, you are under no particular obligation to help him out. In fact, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk, or a kid from a shepherd because that would be equivalent to receiving stolen property.[1]

Shepherds were considered to be ritually unclean, which meant that they were not able to present themselves for worship in the Temple.

Whereas my mother would have been horrified to find her oldest son sitting at the feet of circus carnies like the contortionist woman or the elephant keeper, a good Jewish mama two thousand years ago would have done everything she could to make sure her son steered clear of low-lifes like shepherds and lepers.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes 1480

And yet, those who are, by definition and understanding, called “unclean” are invited to worship by the angels themselves. The ones who are prevented from entering into the Temple for worship are now called to the feet of the Lord himself. People who are not “good enough” to watch the priest make the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement are summoned to greet the One who represents God’s greatest, and most deeply self-sacrificial, gift.

Here in the second chapter of Luke, the illiterate bumpkins who are presumed to be untrustworthy and unreliable now find themselves in the position of telling other people in the village about the new thing that God is doing! Before any king gets word of the Messiah’s birth, it is these transients and oppressed, these “undesirables”, who are given a glimpse of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like. People who have been told for their entire lives that there is just no place for them in civilized society have a privilege and a responsibility with which none can compare.

If that’s true – that is to say, if in fact, shepherds were as despised and mistrusted and ill-treated as the literature suggests that they were; and if, in fact, those shepherds were actually called to the scene of the holy birth by an angelic choir in the manner that Luke records – then I have three questions for our consideration this morning.

Who are you to think that somehow you are not “good enough” for God to use in a meaningful way? I mean, sure, if all shepherds are to be held to the standard of Abraham, Moses, or David, then we have the right to be a little intimidated. But the angels didn’t invite any of those men to witness Jesus’ birth – just the group of outcasts who were pulling the night shift in Bethlehem that week. And if God decides that God can use people like that, then how dare you take it upon yourself to say that you, of all people, are just not up to God’s standards.

You’ve got baggage, I’ll give you that. The things that happened to you when you were little. That massive amount of debt that you’re sitting on right now. Your secret sin – that brokenness that you’ve managed to hide so well for so long. I get it. You’ve got baggage. Do you think that the people sitting in front of you don’t? Do you think that you alone are supremely unqualified to participate in that thing that God is doing in the world?

Look: if God can use first-century Palestinian shepherds, and God can use me, and God can use people like that guy just behind you…God can use you. Who are you to say otherwise?

And before you turn around to look at the person behind you, let me ask my second question: who am I to judge you? What gives me the right to think that because of the way that you look, or speak, or walk, that somehow the image of God is clearer and more pronounced in me than it is in you?

Now, listen to me: obviously, there are certain areas of life in which we expect there to be some qualifications present. I mean, there is a reason that the doctors hang all those diplomas on the wall. Certain tasks require specific expertise. I get that. But for me to look at another person and determine that someone like that is too far gone even for God to mess with? That kind of thinking has no place in the Christian walk. I have been incredibly blessed by the wisdom of dirty, barefoot men – men who didn’t look like much, but who walked with God. My spirit has been revived by the prayer of a smelly, clumsy, schizophrenic woman. Who am I to call “unclean” those whom God has called to himself?

And the final question that comes to me from the mute and rough faces of the shepherds in Bethlehem this morning is this: who are we to tolerate, or, even worse, to actively participate in systems that contribute to the tendency to render another faceless or voiceless?

When the people who wrote the Bible talked about Jesus’ birth, only one person mentioned the shepherds being present. Do you know why? Because no one else saw them. Not that they weren’t there – they were invisible. They were only shepherds, after all.

It seems to me that, increasingly, our way of life is built on rendering gifted, beautiful people of God into anonymous objects. We used to get the things that we needed from the people who were close to us. We made them, we borrowed them, or we bought them from the guy at the corner store. But increasingly, we turn on a machine, click a few buttons, and the things we want show up on our front porches. How? Who knows. Where did they come from? Who cares. Were the people treated well? Not my problem.

It used to be that we had real relationships with real people. Today, more people will use their computer to click on porn sites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Because the people on the porn sites are always beautiful, always available, and never demanding.

Who do you see when you go through your day? The people who wash your dishes? The ones who clean the bathrooms at work or school? The farmer who grew your food or the trucker who brought it to the store? Who do you see? And who sees you?

The miracle of Christmas is that God became one of us and moved into the neighborhood. He has a face. He tells his story, even to outcasts and those who other people think are invisible. But by this very act of becoming enfleshed and sharing that news with those on the margins requires us to honor all flesh-wearers and seek out especially those who have been marginalized.

Is Pastor Dave telling you it’s God’s will to send your kid on the road with the carnies, or that everybody is always good and there’s no reason to fear? Absolutely not.

What I am asking is this: who are you to be so quick to assume that God isn’t interested in using you? And who am I to presume that I’m better than those folks over there? And who are we to participate in systems that dehumanize and depersonalize those humans, those persons for whom Christ came at Bethlehem?

Today, let me ask you to embrace Christmas by standing for the dignity of those who have been given the gift of being made in the image of God. Start with respecting yourself. Remind me to respect the other people we know. Get yourself to that stable and offer who you are, right now, in worship. And don’t be surprised who else shows up right next to you. Amen.

[1] http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/#ixzz3MHA2M1Ab

There Will Be Giants

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the third Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother David and his battle with Goliath.  The scripture was from I Samuel 17 and Philippians 4:12-13.  

david-versus-goliath1Goliath was big and mean and, at least to Jewish eyes, ugly. Twice a day for forty days this behemoth came out to taunt the people of God, daring them to send someone up against him in battle. Earlier in chapter 17, we discover that he is either seven or nine feet tall, and that his armor alone weighed more than 126 pounds. The tip of his spear weighed at least fifteen pounds. He was, truly, larger than life. A giant.

saulSaul, the king of Israel, was no slouch. As we talked about on the youth retreat last month, he was chosen by the Israelites as their leader, at least in part, because of the fact that he stood “a head taller” than anyone else. Saul is the the biggest, baddest, giant-est guy that Israel knows. And he is scared to death of Goliath.

And David is a young man, the eighth-born son of an insignificant family. He’s not even shaving yet. He’s not a king, he’s not in the army – he’s a shepherd.

DavidtheShepherdBoyWe know he’s a shepherd because he tells that to Saul and anyone else who cares to listen. As he describes himself, we learn that he thinks that his experience as a shepherd might be an asset to him as he opposes Goliath.

You see, in his role as a shepherd, David had come to understand a few things. First off, he knew that he was not a sheep. I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine that they probably cover that in the first day of shepherd school – making sure that the prospective candidates are able to differentiate the herd, the value, the symbol of wealth and life itself – from the hired help.

And probably in the same lesson, David learned that he was not the master. He was a representative of someone greater than he who bore the ultimate responsibility to protect something valuable.

When he gives his resume to King Saul, he points out that in the course of his duties as a shepherd, he had come up against big, ugly, scary foes. In fact, he says, he “delivered” the flock from the beast. He goes on to elaborate, saying that the reason he was able to “deliver” those lambs from harm is that he himself had been “delivered” from the predators. It was, he says, God who delivered him. Here, in the thirty-seventh verse that tells us the story of Goliath’s taunting of the Israelites, someone finally gets around to naming YHWH, the God of Israel. And it is David, the shepherd boy.

ISamA

 

It seems as though the entire nation of Israel was focused on the fact that our tall guy wasn’t as tall as their tall guy, and therefore, we were doomed. The kid that nobody’d ever heard of shows up and reminds them that God is the one who delivers, and that the creator of height and strength is not always impressed by crude displays of them.

David prevails on Saul and wins the opportunity to oppose Goliath, who disdainfully boasts that he will make mincemeat out of this little kid.

David gives as good as he gets here, and says, “Look, there’s going to be a lot of mincemeat today, but it won’t be me!” He sounds an awful lot like Goliath in his boasting, with one extremely significant exception: in verse 45 he declares that he has come, not in his own strength, but in the name of YHWH, the God of Israel. In verse 46 he says that YHWH will “deliver” Goliath to David and that, as a result, “all the earth may know that there is a God…” Because of what YHWH will do.

ISamB

As we continue our Advent observations of some of the shepherds in our story, we are called today to consider the reality that the news in today’s scripture is not that there are giants afoot in the land: the core message is that God chooses to use people so that the whole world can see something of God’s intentions for life and health and wholeness.

David and Goliath, lithograph by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

David and Goliath, lithograph by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

God uses David to triumph over Goliath, not so that we will learn something about David – but rather, so that we might learn something about God. So this morning, we look at David – and we learn about God. And as we learn about God, we learn something about ourselves and our place in the world.

One of the things that has not changed is the truth that there will be giants. There are always giants that stand between us and God’s best for the world. Some of these brutes are incorporeal – that is to say, faceless and internal. I know that many of you have struggled against giants named depression, or fear, or anxiety – hideous monsters that sometimes only you can see. Other giants are more visible, but no less scary: many of us stare down beasts like a broken marriage, a child who is lost to us, or savage treatment by a trusted brother. We know that other people can see these villains, but it seems as though their malevolence is focused entirely on us.

And, of course, in addition to the deeply internalized or personal giants who threaten to tear us apart, there are demons like racism or environmental destruction that threaten not only us, but the entire community as well. Make no mistake, beloved – the world is as full of giants as it was on the day that David and Goliath stood against each other. There have always been giants.

David and Goliath, Arsen Kurbanov (Russian, b. 1969) Used by permission.  See more at http://academart.com/Kurbanov.htm

David and Goliath, Arsen Kurbanov (Russian, b. 1969)
Used by permission. See more at http://academart.com/Kurbanov.htm

And, at the risk of speaking something of which you are already aware, your pastor would remind you that you are no giant. And because you are not a giant, you have nothing to gain by pretending that you are, or can be, one.

In our scripture reading, for instance, even after Saul agreed to allow David to face Goliath, he tried to make this shepherd a little more gigantic. While Saul’s armor was not quite as good as Goliath’s, it was still pretty impressive. Saul ordered the boy to put on his bronze helmet and iron mail and everything else – only to discover that the kid could not even walk with them on. Saul’s mistake was in trying to turn David into a copy of Goliath, but at the end of that attempt all he could see was a shabby imitation of the Philistine warrior.

When we face the giants in our lives or our world, we have to remember that we cannot prevail against them on our own, or with the weapons that they have brought. When we are verbally abused, it is tempting to say, “Oh, she thinks she’s so funny? Wait until she hears this!” When someone smacks us hard we want to rear back and smack them harder, not realizing that, as Gandhi pointed out, the problem with ‘an eye for an eye’ is that sooner or later everyone is blind. We are here this Advent trusting in a God who sought to equip us to overcome the giants of our world, not by sending a huge military or angelic force to do a little butt-kicking, but by coming himself in the form of a powerless and vulnerable infant. We cannot defeat the giants in our midst by trying to out-giant them, lest we become them.

So to review, what I’m saying is that every single day for the rest of your life there will be giants that threaten you, us, and all you love. There are always more giants. Furthermore, it is at best unwise and probably impossible for you to stand against these giants using the same tactics with which they seek to destroy you.

If that’s true, then two things can happen. One, you may live to see the triumph of good over evil. Your marriage may survive, your child might come back home, your cause may be vindicated. Hallelujah for that!

Seriously – you may be given the opportunity, like David, to stand over an enemy that you have personally vanquished. Like David, you may find that God delivers you from the giant. Like Nelson Mandela, you may emerge from an unjust prison sentence and declare victory in ways that had seemed unimaginable a decade ago. Like the story line of so many great movies, you may find that you emerge from your battle with depression or fear or betrayal or grief or molestation or poverty and be able to say, “Thanks be to God, I’m still standing. Here I am, world. That giant is powerless over me now!”

I hope that is what happens. I hope that you emerge from this battle victorious and aware of the God who delivers in your time, in your life, in your circumstance. I know that God, and can point to some giants in my own life from which I have been spared.

But the reality is that you may go up against a giant in battle and die trying. Unlike David, the Apostle Paul, who wrote those incredibly encouraging words from our New Testament lesson, was himself beheaded by the giant that was the Roman Empire. In fact, only one of the original twelve followers of Jesus died a natural death. More than that, though, our world is full of people who have not been healed of their blindness, whose babies died even after we prayed, who are still threatened by others simply because of the way that they look or walk… Sometimes, it seems to me, Goliath wins.

There are some giants that I will not live to see defeated. Sooner or later, one of the giants in my world will probably get to me.

But thanks be to God, it’s not about me or you. Every one in this room will be dead within a hundred years, and most of us a lot sooner. Your life, no less than the shepherd David’s, is not intended to stand on its own – you and I are here to point to the exact same truth to which that young boy pointed twenty-five hundred years ago: that there is a God who claims this world and all of its people as his own. And that God has not only beautiful intentions and glorious hope, but overwhelming power to bring those intentions to fruition in his own time. In the mean time, the way that I live and the way that I die will point to the God who stands against giants and who promises, in the end, to disarm them all.

Let’s go back to the scripture reading one last time. What is the worst thing that could have happened that day when Goliath taunted the people of God and roused David into coming out for battle? What would be the absolute worst outcome of that day? Would it be the defeat of David?

I don’t think so. It’s possible that Goliath could have come through on his threats to make bird food out of David. But worse than the idea of David being killed is the thought of David going out there and wearing Saul’s armor. David trying to be Goliath, using Goliath’s tactics. Because as soon as we start trying to be the giant, we’ve lost sight of the One who came to subdue the giants forever.

We are in the in between – we know Christ has come and given shape and purpose to his people. And we confess that there are still too many giants on the loose, and so we point to his second Advent. Something is going to kill me in the next few days, years, or decades. I hope I die pointing to the truth that our brother Isaiah spoke about twenty-five hundred years ago:

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrong;

I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.

Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:8-11)

When I face the giants, I want to be wearing God’s equipment, not Saul’s. I want my life to be an arrow that points to how big God is, not the fact that I’m three inches taller than you or a foot shorter than him. I want to be a part of that garden that will bring forth righteousness and praise. That’s Advent. That’s courage. That’s being a shepherd. And, by God’s grace, that’s what we’re here to do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Starting Over, Again

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the second Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Moses.  The scripture was from Exodus 3:1-10 and I Corinthians 9:19-23

reagan-Who-announcerDo you know this guy? He broadcast the Chicago Cubs games to the audiences at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, from 1933-1937. Later, he achieved a measure of celebrity status as an actor in such classics as “Bedtime for Bonzo”. He ended his career working for the government.Reagantigger-dance-10

You may recognize this character: Tigger appears in chapter 2 of House at Pooh paul_winchellCorner and, like Mr. Reagan, found a home in filmdom. This man, Paul Winchell, is not as recognizable – but if you heard him, you’d know him as the voice of Tigger. Interestingly enough, Paul Winchell is also the first person to patent an artificial heart designed to be implanted in the human body.

Charlie BatchThis profile is familiar to anyone who’s been a football fan in Pittsburgh in recent years. For two decades, Charlie Batch has been a football player – in fact, the only quarterback with a longer tenure on the Pittsburgh Steelers is Terry Bradshaw. IMG_0647But when we had dinner with him a few weeks ago, he told Carly and I that he was turning 40 this week and he was ready to discover what the rest of his life would hold. The old definition – quarterback – won’t work any more. He’s got to find a new identity.

As adaptable as all of these fellows are, I don’t think that they can hold a candle to Moses. He was raised as a prince of Egypt. He became a fugitive who eventually wound up as a hired man and then a shepherd. At the time of our reading this morning, he was already 80 years old and he receives his call to be a prophet. He would go on to add public speaker, community organizer, tour guide, and caterer to his resume.

Moses and the Burning Bush Byzantine mosaic at St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai.

Moses and the Burning Bush
Byzantine mosaic at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.

When I was thinking about Moses earlier this week, the word “pliable” came to mind. The first definition of that word means, “able to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking.” He spent his entire life adapting to the situations in which he found himself and demonstrating the capacity to re-invent himself time and time again.

The second definition of the word “pliable” is “too easily influenced or controlled.” Interestingly enough, I don’t think that there are any situations where we might see this use of “pliable” as relevant to Moses’ life. Surely the Pharaoh and the people of Israel were not likely to describe him as “too easily influenced.”

What’s the difference between “able to bend without breaking” and “too easily influenced or controlled”? For Moses, I think, it was a willingness, if not always an eagerness, to put himself in a place where he could be used by God. The key phrase from this morning’s Old Testament reading is from verse 10: “I will send you.”

In Advent 2014, we are spending time with the shepherds. We will watch them as they watch their flocks in the hopes that we might learn something of importance. Last week, we talked about Abram, and the ways that this old shepherd found his way to establishing a covenant with God.

This morning, we’re taking a look at Moses. If I were to ask you to tell me something about Moses, I would imagine that very few of you would have used the word “shepherd” to describe him. Yet that is exactly what he was doing when he received the most important message of his entire life – God’s call through the burning bush.

Because Moses was watching the sheep, he saw the bush. And because he saw the bush, he explored the call. And because he explored the call, he listened to God. And because he listened to God, he led the people from slavery to freedom.

PaulGamalielOh, this kind of re-invention is not unique in the scripture. Our New Testament reading comes to us from the pen of a man who had been given the name Saul at birth, but who is better known to history as Paul. He was trained as a rabbi by Gamaliel, one of the most important teachers in the history of Judaism. Saul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee – a young man with a promise. And yet some years after this training was completed, he found himself in jail cells in places like Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome; he was shipwrecked and threatened with the death penalty six times (only one of them was successful!). I have to wonder how many times he woke up and asked himself, “Is this what I wanted to be when I grew up?”

Moses, Paul, Peter, Mary, Esther, Noah, Matthew, Ruth…you can’t name very many Bible characters who did not find themselves having to re-invent their identities in a new light, with new circumstances and new challenges. Our story is the story of a people who continually wake up in strange places and search for ways to use what God has given us to do what God calls us to do in that spot. Our identity is given: we belong to God. Our task is to understand what it means to belong to God in this place and at this time.

WaitingSendingWe are in the season of Advent. Much of the literature surrounding the season describes Advent as being a time of waiting and a time of anticipation. You’ve heard me say that a hundred times.

The problem is that when we think of “waiting”, we think of that as a very passive pursuit. People say that they hate waiting because “there’s nothing to do”.

But what if Advent is not passive?

What if Advent is our preparation for being sent somewhere or to someone?

What if we were further able to understand that we are being sent somewhere or to someone right now?

What if when we encountered that elderly person having difficulty in the grocery store, or that buffoon making racist comments in the office, or that kid being bulled at school, we thought of ourselves not as bystanders, not as witnesses, but as sent to that spot on a mission for a purpose?

What if the places you have been and the experiences you have had are preparing you for what is coming next?

What if the place where you live, or work, or go to school – the place where are are currently engaged in some advent waiting – is no accident?

 

Richard Halverson was one of the most influential pastors of the 20th century. He preached for nearly a quarter of that century in the Fourth Presbyterian Church outside of Washington DC. When Sharon and I were teenagers, we participated in the ministry of that congregation, and were deeply impacted by the discipleship ministries that came out of the Fourth Church. After preaching there, Halverson was the chaplain to the US Senate for another fifteen years.   He is most widely known now for what has become known as “the Halverson Benediction”. In fact, Halverson indicated that sharing this benediction was the most important thing he did in his ministerial vocation. Every week he would tell his people as they prepared to leave the room,

You go nowhere by accident.

Wherever you go, God is sending you there.

Wherever you are, God has put you there.

He has a purpose in your being there.

Christ, who indwells in you, has something He wants to do through you, wherever you are.
Believe this, and go in His grace, and love, and power. Amen!

I have to say that I wish I could stand here and say, “you know, I heard Halverson pronounce that benediction…” While that might not impress you too much, it would give me some great “pastor cred” in the theological world. “Wow – Pastor Dave was with Halverson.” But I can’t honestly say I remember hearing him say that to me.

 

And it doesn’t matter…because I know that my life was molded by people who believed that, and who taught me to believe that. The fact that I can’t remember Halverson ever saying that to me is irrelevant, because a community of God’s people helped me to see that God had something to do in me and through me. The important part was not who said it over me – but rather, who showed me how to live as if those words were true and could be lived in my own experience.

 

Dear people: the events of these past weeks show us that now, as much as any time in history, the world needs gifted, pliable people who are convinced that God can use them – and that God will use them – in the places to which they are sent – even if those places are surprising, like when a movie actor becomes President or when a cartoon voice invents life-saving technology. The world needs people – pliable people – like that here. And now.

 

The good news is that I know where to find people like that. I believe that they are sitting right in front of me.

 

And you say, “Oh, well, not so fast, Pastor. You see, there’s more to my story than you realize.”
Of course there is.

 

“I’ve got some issues that I need to work through. There are some doubts.”

 

Go on.

 

“Well, it’s just not that easy to jump in and be all, well, Christian right now.”

 

Yes, I don’t recall either Moses or Paul mentioning the easy part of the story, but then again, I haven’t read the whole thing lately…

 

Look, I’m not asking you to invent anything. And I’m certainly not expecting you, me, or anyone to be perfect. All I’m saying is that since the first Advent 2000 years ago, we confess that the person and spirit of the Living Christ is present on the earth. And what I am asking you to do is leave this place every week prepared to look for those places where the spirit of the Living Christ is active – look for the lives of the broken that he would mend, the mouths of the hungry that he would feed, the chains of the oppressed that he would break, and listen for the cries of the wounded to whom he would tend.

 

And when you see or hear those things, walk toward them. Because I promise you that you will find Christ there. And when you show up, it may be that those who cry out will discover the presence of Christ as well.

 

And here’s the deal: you’ll probably screw up. I mean, you won’t get it right every day. Big deal. Get up the next day and start over. Again. Because the world needs something, and God is sending you. Whatever room you find yourself in tomorrow, whatever situation you encounter next Wednesday, you didn’t get there by yourself, you know. And you won’t be alone. Just remember that you can bend. You are pliable. And faithful.

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Outlandish Trust

This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story.  “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me.  On the first Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Abram.  The scripture was from Genesis 13:1-18.

My friend and neighbor Jessalyn would say that this is a “first-world problem”. But I’m here to tell you, it really chaps my hide.

Five spots.  Don't screw it up.

Five spots. Don’t screw it up.

The distance from the corner of Earlham Street to the fire hydrant in front of my house is about a hundred feet. If you do it right, there’s plenty of space for five vehicles. If you screw it up, you can park two there.

Nothing gets under my skin more than driving home after a long day and discovering that some idiot has ruined two or three parking spaces in front of my home because he couldn’t be bothered to learn how to parallel park. I’m driving up Cumberland Street, and I wonder – will there be enough space to park? I mean, come on, people, I pay my taxes, I take care of the place, and I don’t have any place to park my car?

And some kind person might say, “Well, Dave, why not park around back?” “What are you, crazy? I can’t park there! That’s where I keep the boat…” Oh, yeah. Rich people’s problems.

You see what’s happening here, right? This is a great illustration of a concept with which we’re all familiar, and on which too many of us base our lives: the concept of scarcity. All the economic systems of the world are based on the ideology of scarcity: communism, capitalism, it doesn’t matter – all of us are trained to see the world through the lenses of scarcity. We believe – we know – that there is not enough to go around, and so we need to figure out a way to get what we want. Now. If there were five parking spots and only two interested cars, you’d just take one and be done with it. But if there are more cars than spaces, and we all want to park as close to our homes as possible, who ends up with the prime location? You see? Scarcity. We know the ideology of scarcity.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham.  Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

The Parting of Lot and Abraham. Mosaic from Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, c. 430 AD.

Our reading this morning from Genesis points us towards an example of scarcity and its implications. Abram and his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, had been in Egypt where some rather unusual things had gone on (more about that in a moment). They are called from Egypt northwards – back to the land that had been promised to Abram and Sarai and their descendants. And as they show up near Bethel, the drama of scarcity plays itself out before our eyes.

Abram and Lot have each done pretty well for themselves in recent years. They’ve got sizeable herds and more than a few employees. It turns out that the “promised land” doesn’t have enough water or grass to keep everyone happy. Tempers are short. Conflict erupts. And here we see, according to theologian Walter Brueggeman, the tension between the ideology of scarcity and the power of the promise.[1] God has already promised this land to Abram and his descendants. Abram could say, “Well, Lot, it was good to be with you. Good luck with the herds and everything – I guess you’ll be needing to make your own way in the world now, so I can save all of these resources for my descendants. I hear that Lebanon is nice this time of year…”

But you know that’s not what happens! Instead, Abram opens up the land to Lot. “Go ahead, son, you choose.” How can he do that? Because Abram has a trust in the promise that trumps his fear of scarcity. As a septuagenarian who is depending on God to make a great nation out of his unborn children, Abram is saying to Lot, “Look, it doesn’t matter. If God can keep the promise of a great nation out of my withered old body, then he can do it on any land. Just pick, and let’s not fight.”

That attitude from Abram brought a question to my mind: where did he learn to believe like that? How did he trust so completely? Well, in chapter 12, God promised the land to Abram and Sarai . However, their first experience in that place is one of famine. Turns out the “promised land”, at least on first glance, wasn’t everything that these old folks thought it might be. So they leave the land, and, facing a scarcity of food and a time of insecurity, they come into Egypt. And there, in that climate of worry and doubt and fear, Abram responds by lying to Pharaoh. Pharaoh has a crush on Sarai, and Abram doesn’t do anything to discourage it. “Did I say she was my wife? Ohhhh, must have been a mistranslation…She’s my sister. My sister.” Fortunately for everyone, God intervenes in a remarkable way, but the lesson is learned. Even when Abram was careless with the promise (after all, how was Abram going to come by all these descendants apart from his wife?), God remains faithful. God’s promises do not depend on human situations – God is not a believer in the ideology of scarcity and God reunites Abram and Sarai and sends them back to the land he’s pledged to give to them and their children.

And, as you read, the result of Abram’s faith, trust, and generosity is that, as Frederick Buechner puts it, “Lot took over the rich bottom-land and Abram was left with the scrub country around Dead Man’s Gulch.”[2]

But that’s not all he’s left with. There in the desert of Canaan, God renews the promise. And whereas in Genesis twelve, God mentions “offspring” or “seed” only once, here we see that word three times in verses 15 and 16. Abram’s children will be countless, God says. You can’t see them yet. They’re not here yet. But there is seed. And then God calls Abram to get up and take a survey of the land; Abram builds altars to worship the Lord and continues to live in tents.

It’s interesting to note, too, what didn’t happen. When Abram gave Lot the good land, there wasn’t any great declaration of gratitude on Lot’s part. The children that God promised didn’t come immediately. There was no mass outcry from the local population for Abram to come and live with them. Abram and Sarai were not given the “keys to the city” anyplace in this promised land. Abram was, in the eyes of the world around him, pretty irrelevant and insignificant. Just a crazy, lonely old guy who trusted God and obeyed him. That’s how Genesis 13 ends.

So what is the word for us today? Where is the call of God in our lives from this passage? Allow me to suggest that this scripture invites us to explore the areas in our lives where there is a conflict between what is easy and what is right; between what is convenient and what is just; between what is good and what is best.

Think, for instance, about the fact that the grand jury in Ferguson, MO, decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mike Brown. I was not on that grand jury, and so I can’t speak to whether they did the absolute right thing or whether they blew it big time. But I do know that many of my African American friends are experiencing this as a season of grief and fear, rather than of Thanksgiving. It is very easy for me, as a white adult male, to say, “Well, that’s too bad. I’d rather have seen that go the other way”, and then switch channels and hope that the Steelers can pull it out today. I do not fear for my safety. I do not believe that the system is rigged against me.

Some of the community who disagreed with the verdict reacted with rage and hate. You saw the images of the flames. That’s not good. It’s easy to understand, in a way, why that happened, but it’s not good.

Abram’s nephew Lot saw the easy money and he took it. I probably would have done the same thing.

Abram remembered the promise and lived it – even when it didn’t look all that strong at some points. He depended on God in the gray areas of his life, and he did not let his fear dictate his actions.

It seems to me that the life of faith looks at the situation in Ferguson and refuses to take the easy way that says, “well, those people are never going to change. You can’t make them ­­­_________! It’s no use.” I think that allegiance to the promise requires us to engage the reality of our day and to listen for the story – and the promise – as heard by the other.

Three weeks prior to his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of a crowd at the Grosse Point High School and talked about his concern for the prospect of racial unrest in the upcoming summer. He said,

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Dr. King speaking at the Grosse Pointe High School

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[3]

Is that true? Am I more concerned with tranquility and the status quo than I am with justice? If that’s the case, there’s something wrong.

And you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave! Brown men are shot by the police way too often in our country. That’s a problem.” And you’re right. And then you say, “Um, hello, Pastor Dave, there are way too many riots in our country.  That’s a problem.” And once again, you are one hundred percent on target.

I believe that the Christ who invited us to this communion feast fully intends for there to be enough – enough grace, enough justice, enough hope, enough joy, and, yes, even enough parking in the world. More than that, I believe that there is enough of all of that.

seedThe difficulty is that too much of it is still in the form of seeds. The difficulty of Advent is that too much of what God intends is waiting to germinate…and God seems to expect us, like the old shepherd Abram, to care for and nurture the seed into bearing fruit.

The call of Advent and the call of Christ is to not throw up your hands in despair, nor to give in to rage or helplessness. The call of the Gospel is to engage, to advocate, to speak for those whose voices are muted and to care for those who have lost their way. To trust that the Spirit continues to enter silently and secretly and to do all that you can to proclaim God’s intentions of enough for all.

When you hear the news, how do you pray? Are your prayers based on the presupposition of scarcity in which we’ve all been trained? Have you accepted as fact the notion that God can’t possibly be interested in keeping his promises of justice and love, so you’re better off simply looking out for yourself?

Or can you, like Abram, remember that you are a people of promise. God promised Abram that through him, the world would be blessed. God is calling you to be a part of the answer to that prayer – God is calling you to be a blessing in the life of someone else today. There is enough of you to be a blessing in someone else’s life today. And, thanks be to God, you can do that. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Genesis (John Knox, 1982), p. 131.

[2] Buechner, Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row, 1979) p. 4

[3] “The Other America”, delivered at the Grosse Pointe High School (Michigan) on March 14, 1968.

A Good Shepherd, I Am Not…

On April 6, the folks at Crafton Heights continued to think about what it means to hear Jesus say “I Am…”  This morning, we considered his claim to be the Good Shepherd, as found in John 10.  The Old Testament reading came from Ezekiel 34

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” You know, a lot of times, Jesus says stuff that makes total sense to us. But sometimes, he says things that seem to be totally removed from our experience. How much do you know about shepherding?

Look at those legs...and don't forget the white K-Swiss, standard shepherding gear, from what I've heard...

Look at those legs…and don’t forget the white K-Swiss, standard shepherding gear, from what I’ve heard…

As it turns out, I have some history in the field of livestock management. While I have never listed “shepherd” on my resume, it turns out that for a week about fifteen years ago, I was “the Goat Guy” at a Bible school that our youth group facilitated in Western New York.

The reason I do not list this on my resume, though, is that I am not a very good shepherd. I was given some rope, one sheep and two very willful goats and I spent the better part of five days chasing these loud and smelly creatures through the little village they’d set up. It was not my finest moment. I didn’t know what I was doing.

And that’s what sort of gets me about our scripture this morning. We’re walking through the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and we’re looking at the times and places where he says, “I am…” And mostly, when he says that, we have an image that we can deal with , don’t we? I am the bread of life… OK, I know bread, I’ve seen bread. I am the light, I am the door – we know about light and doors. But I am the good shepherd? What’s that about? How do we know if that’s a good thing?

CattleDriveLet’s talk for a few moments about shepherds. Actually, since I’m pretty sure we don’t know that much about shepherds, I’ll start someplace where we’re on a little firmer ground. Jesus did not say, “I am the good cowboy”, did he? Think back to your Zane Grey novels or your John Wayne movies. What do cowboys do? Well, they get out there on their horses, and they drive the herd, right? They are hired to ride along beside and behind the herd of cows – someone else’s cows – pushing that herd where they want it to go. If the herd moves to slowly, then out comes the whip, right? One of the cows starts to stray, and what happens? The rugged cowboy chases off after it, ropes it, ties it up, and brings it back to the herd. The goal of the cowboy is to chase someone else’s cows from one place to another, and at the end of the journey, the herd is slaughtered and the cowboy starts all over again. The cows are a means to an end, a job, a necessary evil, if you will.

ShepherdShepherds, on the other hand, are different. In the Middle East, when the shepherd wants to move his flock of sheep, he gets out in front of them and calls to them. They follow him. Since they belong to him, they know him, and he knows them. He protects them from predators, and if one goes astray, he leaves the flock where it is, collects the one that’s missing, and then they move on together. Whereas the herd of cows is a job for the cowboy, the flock of sheep is a way of life for the shepherd. The sheep provide wool to clothe his family and milk and meat to nourish his children. If a sheep wanders off, then that means that there are fewer lambs next year, less milk and meat and wool. It’s not an inconvenience, it’s a tragedy for a family to lose a sheep.

Do you remember in the movies what happens when two groups of cowboys get to the watering hole at the same time? The herds of cattle both rush to the water. They mix together, there’s a lot of confusion, and days, or maybe weeks are lost trying to separate one herd from the other. Two groups of sheep can approach the same waterhole, and this is what happens – it’s a true story. Each shepherd brings his flock down close to the water, and then has them wait. The shepherds go and drink themselves, and maybe wash up. Then each shepherd calls his flock over and waters them. When they are finished, the shepherd simply calls his flock and they follow him, knowing that he will lead them to good pasture.

Although we in the USA have glorified the image of the cowboy in many ways, and celebrate the independence and the ruggedness that cowboys typify, the scriptures refer to the Lord as being a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 describes in detail God’s promise to be the shepherd for his people. He talks about the fact that those he has sent to take care of the flocks have failed – that they’ve looked after their own needs, and sought their own gain at the expense of the flock. Because the leadership failed, the flocks scattered, and many of the sheep became lost, ill, or disoriented. But there is a time coming, says the Lord, when he himself will lead, care for, and protect the flock that has become weak and lost.

Christ as Good Shepherd, c. 225

Christ as Good Shepherd, c. 225

And that’s what Jesus was talking about in John, when he said, “That’s me. I am the good shepherd. I am not another religious leader who’s come to take you all for a ride and enrich myself at your expense. I have come to know you, to call you together, to care for you, to protect you, and to offer you security. That’s my mission. That’s why I’m here.”

In the last few weeks, friends, we’ve heard challenges from the Word. If Jesus is the bread of life, then we are called to receive the nourishment from that bread and go out and tell our story – to invite our friends to know that there is a place where they can receive that which has sustained us. If Jesus is the light, then we are to walk into that light and let it expose us so that we can correct what is wrong and move further into what is right. If Jesus is the door, then we are to walk through that door into lives of mission and service. The “I am” statements of Jesus can be significant challenges to us, as we not only listen to their truth, but act on that truth in our world. This week, as I studied Jesus’ claim to be the good shepherd, it occurred to me that this is the “I am” statement that may release us to live into the other statements more fully.

Because here’s the deal, beloved: if Jesus is truly the good shepherd, then there are at least three things that are true in your life and in mine.

First, there is a shepherd who knows your name. And remember, in this culture, knowing your name means knowing you. The fact that Jesus is my shepherd means more than the fact that he will never, ever, call me Dave Carter. Or Don Caver. Or … well, you get the idea. Jesus knows my name. He knows who I am. In so many ways, he knows me better than I know myself. Jesus knows your name. He knows what you’re capable of. He knows what you can do. When Jesus calls your name, he’s not some cowboy cracking the whip, wondering why in the world you aren’t moving any faster and angry that you’re somehow slowing up the rest of the group. No, when the Good Shepherd calls your name, he is speaking to the full reality and totality of your existence. Someone knows your name.

The shepherd not only knows your name, but knows your needs. As you move from one day after another, one task to the next, the one who has called you knows what you need to move forward. A good shepherd knows where to find nourishment for his flock. He knows where the clean water is. He knows when the flock needs to rest, and when they must move further to escape harm’s way. There is not a hole in your life that Jesus doesn’t know about. There is not a need that you have of which the Good Shepherd is ignorant. He knows what you need.

And this Shepherd who knows your name and who knows your needs is where? Ahead of you. The good shepherd is leading his flock. Which means that there is no place that you will ever be – no place that you can ever be – where Jesus hasn’t been there ahead of you. Think about the gift that that is for us – there is nowhere we can be that is apart from his care and presence.

So far, so good, right? Who wouldn’t want to be known, cared for, and accompanied by the Good Shepherd? But then comes the part that had me confused for the better part of the week. Jesus says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life on behalf of his sheep. Now, I don’t know everything there is to know about shepherding, but it seems to me that there’s a flaw in this logic. If the shepherd is protecting the sheep, that’s great. But if the shepherd puts himself in a position to get killed by whoever or whatever is attacking the sheep, then what’s to keep the sheep safe after the shepherd dies? I mean, wouldn’t it be better for the flock to lose a few sheep to whatever marauder is out there than for the shepherd to die and leave the whole flock exposed?

Think about it: in what circumstance would it be a good idea for the shepherd to sacrifice himself on behalf of the sheep? If a shepherd were to get himself killed AND lose the flock besides, there’s no good in it, is there?

It seems to me that the only way that it would make sense for the shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep is if the threat to the sheep becomes neutralized by the shepherd’s death. If somehow in the act of dying, he is able to secure the flock and get them to safety, then the shepherd’s sacrifice makes sense.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I will protect you from ultimate harm at the cost of my own life. I will ensure that you will never be devoured by evil. I will protect you.”

That is the promise of today’s scripture, my friends. That is the good news of the gospel.

Image: Picture dated October 1935 of the GoldenWhat do you think of when you think of San Francisco? I know you’ve seen pictures on TV or in the movies of the Golden Gate Bridge. Isn’t that the symbol of that city? It is huge, isn’t it? It’s –1.7 miles long, and 746 feet high. It was begun in 1933 and completed in 1937- but did you know that it was done in two stages? The first stage got off to a good start, but then the work moved slower and slower. Eventually, the project came to a standstill. Do you know why? Because when they first started working on the bridge, the rule of thumb was that there would be one worker fatality for every million dollars of construction – and it was a $35 million project.

SafetyNetAs those men were high above the earth, working on cables or iron or whatever, they would look down and see the Bay, and they would think about the expectation – that many of them would die during construction. Some men became paralyzed with fear. Nothing was getting accomplished. It looked as though it might never get finished. Then someone got a bright idea: maybe there should be a net. So they put together, for the cost of $130,000, the largest net ever made. And when that net was hung below the bridge, work started again. And when the second stage of construction began, men fell off the bridge. 19 men were saved because of that net. Was it scary when they fell? I imagine that it was. Did they lose their tools when they fell? Sure they did. Did they lose their glasses, or their watches, or their lunches? Of course. But they did not lose their lives. And the work on stage two went 25% faster than it had on stage one – because workmen were not in fear for their lives, and so were free to work on the bridge. In fact, a couple of men were so enthralled with the netting that they had to be disciplined for jumping into it voluntarily![1]

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” That’s saying something about him, to be sure. But it is also saying something about us. Because we have a shepherd, we can be sure that God knows our names, knows our needs, and walks ahead of us. But more than that, we can be sure that our ultimate safety is assured. Because Jesus laid down his life for us, we who follow his call can be sure that our hope is eternal – that there is no power on earth that can separate us from God’s purposes for us in Jesus Christ.

Because we have a shepherd, we are free to do what God calls us to do. Just as the workmen on the Golden Gate bridge were free to do their jobs after the net was installed, so are we free to hear and follow through on the challenges of the gospel – we can tell our friends about the bread of life that will sustain them in times of spiritual famine; we can move into the light and examine our lives; and we can invite the world to know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.   Because this is true, we can act on all of the imperatives that Jesus puts before us – because he’s guaranteeing that we will be able to do what he asks us to do. Jim Eliot, missionary to South America in the middle of the 1900’s, put it this way in his journal: “I am convinced that I am immortal until God’s has accomplished his purpose in me.”

Our world is full of cowboys – loners who don’t take any guff from anyone else, who do a job and bring the herd into town on time, and are willing to live a rough and solitary existence cracking the whip over those around them. And our world is full of posers – folks who, like the “goat guy” that I was twenty years ago, willing to dress up and wander around pretending to know more than they really do, but not getting anything of substance done.

But today, I’m glad to say that I’ve found the shepherd – or, to be more accurate – I’m glad the shepherd found me. And I’m not leaving, because he has what I need – and in the strength of his presence and protection, I can do anything he wants me to do. Amen.

[1]  See http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2006/february/5060213.html, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/goldengate/, or http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/goldengate-safety/ for more information.