Rules Are Rules

 

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 4, we took some time to think about one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, the one regarding divorce and remarriage. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:1-12.  

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

As we begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to test your baseball knowledge.  Let’s say that I’m the starting centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, I’m still dreaming…). I’m up to bat, and Jon Lester of the Cubs throws two fastballs right past me.  I’m in the hole.  But somehow, I manage to stay alive and have an at-bat for the ages.  He throws me 17 more pitches, and I foul off 14 of them while three are for balls. Now, it’s full count, and I’m on the verge of breaking the MLB record for the longest at-bat ever.  On the 20thpitch to me, I swing awkwardly, and I manage to foul off yet another pitch, but in so doing I wrench my back horribly. After laying in the dirt a few moments, it’s obvious I can’t play any further. Clint Hurdle comes out and helps me off the field and you come in to replace me.  Lester eyes you up and throws a change-up – a grapefruit – right down the middle of the plate.  You watch it go by for strike 3.

When the records of this game are finalized, who has to carry that strikeout on his record? Me.  According to Rule #10.17(b), “ When the batter leaves the game with two strikes against him, and the substitute batter completes a strikeout, charge the strikeout and the time at bat to the first batter.”

But let’s say that you DON’T do that.  Let’s say that you come in and you take a pitch that is so, so close – but you let it go by for ball 4, and you head down to first base.  In this instance, even though I’ve endured the first 20 pitches of the at-bat, youget credit for the base on balls.  The same rule that makes me liable for the negative result gives you credit for the positive one – even though our actions are unchanged.  It doesn’t seem right.

Rules are rules. Most of the time, we want them. We need them to guide us.  We rely on them to help us keep things straight.

Sometimes, we ignore them.  Sometimes, we twist them to get what we want.  Oftentimes, we wish they were different.

Rules are rules.

The Pharisees and Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Our reading from Mark invites us to overhear a conversation between Jesus and some members of the Pharisees.  Although they have a bit of a bad reputation nowadays, I suspect that most of the Pharisees were good people, and I further suspect that Jesus had more respect for most Pharisees than he did for other religious groups in his day.  He argued a lot with them, but I think that’s because he thought that they were on to something – they were almost there – but they couldn’t quite see where Jesus was going.

More than anyone else, the Pharisees sought to codify what it meant to be faithful to God. Do this.  Don’t do that.

So these very religious folks come to Jesus and they have a question about the rules.  It seems like a pretty easy yes/no question: is a man allowed to divorce his wife?  That seems like a pretty cut and dried question.

However, a closer reading of the text would indicate that they were not interested in merely acquiring knowledge.  Mark says that they asked him this question in order to test him.  I suspect that they are looking for a way to put Jesus in a bad spot.  He has come through the Galilee into Judea as he is walking toward his death in Jerusalem, and they interrupt this pilgrimage by asking about divorce.  In King Herod’s back yard.  You may recall that the last time we read about divorce in Mark, it was when John the Baptist was beheaded for being critical of the fact that the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had divorced his first wife in order to marry his brother’s wife.  I suspect that in asking this question at this time, the Pharisees are hoping that Jesus might say something that would attract Herod’s attention in such a way as to induce the monarch to attempt to silence the Rabbi.

Moreover, at that time there was a significant disagreement within the community about the ethics of divorce.  As the Pharisees rightly pointed out, the rules (aka the commandments of God) allowed for divorce, but only a) if it is initiated by the man and b) if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Hillel and Shammai, Artist Unknown

Most of the faithful in that time agreed that divorce was possible. There was conflict, though, as folks disagreed about what “uncleanness” meant.  A very influential teacher named Shammai said that when the Law allowed for divorce, the only acceptable form of “uncleanness” was infidelity.  Adultery was the only permissible reason for a man to send his wife away.

Not long after that, another teacher by the name of Hillel said that “uncleanness” could cover a multitude of offenses, such as if the wife spilled food on her husband, or if she spoke ill of his family, or even if he saw someone who was more attractive to him than wife #1.  Any of these reasons, and a hundred more, were sufficient cause, according to Hillel, to dissolve a marriage.

I’ll give you one guess whose views were more popular amongst the men in that region at that time.  Hillel’s teaching was carrying the day, and divorce was rampant.

“Hey, Jesus? Can we get a divorce? Moses said we could!  Rules are rules, right?”

And I can hear Jesus sigh and say, “Yeah, Moses said that because he knew that you were a bunch of knuckleheads.”  He then offers a teaching that takes the discussion to a whole new level.

Jesus’ teaching about divorce makes the most sense in, and speaks most plainly to, a culture in which divorce is an issue of justice for the marginalized, rather than a straightforward legal procedure between two equals.  When a man sought to “send his wife away”, he was often condemning her to poverty, to shame, and to alienation.  Divorce in Jesus’ day was overwhelmingly an injustice to the woman, who was most frequently thought of as a “thing”, one who was subject to the whims of the male head of her family.

Christ and the Pharisees, Ernst Zimmerman (1870 – 1944)

In this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, and he talks to them about marriage. They were looking at problems.  He was looking at the plan, and reminds them of the creational intent for human relationships as found not in Deuteronomy, but further back, in Genesis.

Then, Jesus takes the disciples aside and elaborates.  “If a man divorces his wife,” says Jesus, “he commits adultery. And if a woman divorces her husband”, which was virtually impossible in that day and age, “she commits adultery.” Rules are rules.

But people are people.  I think that what Jesus was saying to the people in the room is that if a man attempts to discredit, disempower, or disenfranchise his wife (or injure his family) based on his own whims, then he becomes the one who is unclean or impure. Humans matter.  Relationships of intimacy are important – important for those who share them as well as for those who bear witness to them and who find their lives shaped by them.

So how do we read this in 21stCentury America?  What about divorce now?

Before I say anything, I want to recognize and claim the fact that I am speaking from a certain position.  I enjoy a number of privileges: I am white.  I am male. I am heterosexual, and have participated in one marriage.  Compared to many in this room, and many in the room with Jesus two thousand years ago, my life has been easy and uncomplicated.  I have to admit that if I had not committed to preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark, I’d probably have skipped this passage.

But here we are, listening to a first-century Rabbi try to encounter this difficult question in his day and age, and not only that, but seeking to draw some ultimate meaning and truth from it.

Here’s what I think: in answering a question about Moses with a scripture about creation, Jesus is indicating that relationships are a part of our creational identity, and therefore an invitation to practice godliness in everyday life.  In pointing to the way things were at the beginning, he is affirming that the ways that we treat each other (and ourselves) matter.  And he is pointing out that breaking troth with each other – practicing faithlessness – has consequences.

However, I would further suggest that Jesus does not allow any of us to be in a position to be sanctimonious or judgmental.  In some traditions, participation in a divorce, no matter what the cause, excludes people from full participation in the life of the community.

I had a friend who felt this way.  She was married at a young age to a man who seemed so much more sophisticated than she. They had a quick courtship and they were married.  He betrayed their vows on their wedding night!  She was heartbroken, and eventually he filed for a divorce (which she did not contest).

Not only did she never marry or seek a meaningful intimate relationship again, she spent the rest of her life feeling guilty at having divorced.  She was a hard-liner, and she was a hard-liner on herself as well as anyone else.  She saw her divorce as a great stain on her life, a sin that prevented her from full participation in the life for which God made her.

And there are those who might say, “Of course! How could she do otherwise?  Look at the scripture! Jesus says that those who are involved in divorce are equivalent to adulterers.”

Maybe.  But if you’re going to say that, you’ve got to be ready to take a look at how Jesus treated adulterers. The most well-known of the stories involving Jesus and one accused of adultery ended with Jesus speaking words of compassion, grace, and encouragement to the woman who lay before him.

My hunch is that most of my friends who are younger than me have a hard time understanding the perspective of my friend who felt stained by divorce.  For many in our culture, divorce is not a deal-breaker. It happens, they say.

These people, if they claim faith in Christ, are able to see Jesus in this passage as pointing toward the Divine intent of using our relationships to honor the other, and to set up truth and beauty and integrity and faithfulness as hallmarks with which we are to treat each other.

I am certain that Jesus is nottrying to beat up anyone in this teaching, and I would caution that anyone who would use this passage for that reason does so at their own peril.

What is the take-away that we can glean from this conversation?  That life and relationships are given as a gift.  We ought to seek to honor other people every chance we get.  We are called to treasure and esteem and value others in ways that reflect the creational norms.  We must resist every temptation to use, abuse, or commodify the other.

We are not free – in fact we are called to avoid – the use of the rulebook in order to beat someone else up.

This includes the one who has wronged you.

This includes the one who is different from you.

This includes the one whom you have judged to be “unclean”.

When it comes to the rules, I think that Jesus is saying, look first at yourself, and then at Jesus, and only through the eyes of Jesus at everyone else.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Because there were a number of visitors to the congregation, I felt obliged to explain why I chose to have the congregation sing “Good, Good Father” after the sermon.  If you are unfamiliar with that tune, you can access it by clicking the video link below. You might also be interested in hearing my two-minute commentary linking the song and the sermon.  In fact, if you and I have not met, or if there is any chance that you feel “beaten up” by my use of the rulebook in the sermon above, I’d ask you to please listen to the comments by clicking on the audio player below.

Lastly, in a surprise move, the Worship Team at our congregation commemorated this observance of All Saints Day by covering “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers in celebration of the life of our dear friend Ed Schrenker.  You can hear that by using the media player below.  As you listen, please remember that we are recording in a sanctuary, not a studio.  It was just beautiful, and I wish you’d have been here!

The Life Of The Party

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On January 28 we stood alongside the Pharisees watching Jesus live it up with with the “sinners and tax collectors”. Geez – talk about people who are frosted!  Yikes.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:13-22. For added context, we considered the prophecies of Isaiah 52:7-10. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Some of you may be aware of some part of this because of a rather celebrated posting I made on social media at the time, but I’d like to begin by sharing with you a memory of a recent car ride. I was driving a vehicle containing four generations, including a crying infant and a loudly-narrating toddler, four hearing aids, two functional hearing aid batteries, a retractable seatbelt that had retracted too far, a working GPS, and a co-pilot who made no secret of her disdain for the aforementioned GPS and its so-called “suggested route.” As the noise and confusion and general sense of anarchy in the car escalated, I said, “Do I have to stop this car right now? I’ll come back there and get things sorted out myself!”

Does anyone else have memories of hearing that phrase? My whole life, I’ve perceived it as a threat: “Do I have to stop this car?” “No! Dad, please, no! Don’t do it! I’ll straighten up!” No matter how bad things were in the back seat, not once did I ever perceive that it would be more pleasant for me if the pater familias had to make a visit.

It may be that others quietly pine for this sort of intervention. Perhaps my sister or brother remember the same ruckus in the rear of the old Ford and think, “Wow, it would have been so much better if Dad had ever once stopped and given David what he deserved…”

I’m thinking about that this morning because I remember that for hundreds of years, the Israelite prophets had lamented the fact that the world was in tough shape. People were simply not acting in accord with their best selves; they had left the intentions of God behind and were suffering because of it. But they continued to point to a day when God himself would sort things out. God would send the Messiah, who would visit the creation and bring about restoration, justice, and the rule of God.

Isaiah 52, which you heard a few moments ago, is not atypical. The coming of the Servant is described, and “our team” is urged to break forth into singing! Good news! And there is an implication that there are those for whom this will be less than pleasant: the Lord “bares his arm” and “all the ends of the earth shall see it…” Oh, they’ll see it all right. You just see what they will see…

And then the Gospel of Mark is written, and declares right there in the first sentence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. John attests to his power and authority, and Jesus demonstrates those things himself as he teaches, preaches, exorcises, heals, and forgives. These activities of Jesus raise no small amount of interest from his fellow Jews.

But there is something curious… the more he does that looks and sounds like the kinds of things that a son of God might do, the less likely he is to be publicly embraced by the status quo. In chapter 1, he is a guest teacher at the local synagogue; as chapter 2 opens, he’s preaching in a private home; and in today’s reading he’s actually out preaching in the open air. It seems as though the more Godly he acts, the less credibility he’s awarded.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

And then, in today’s reading, he meets up with Levi. Let me just tell you, this encounter does not bode well in terms of his popularity with the nation’s leadership team.

Think for a moment about those people who are so far under your skin that you have to relate to them as labels, and not people. I mean, you think of yourself as a fair-minded person, but seriously… you can only take so much, especially from people like THAT. Is it the illegals? The evangelicals? Those no-good (insert your favorite racial slur here)? Muslims? The gun-control or Second Amendment crowds? Are you irked by the gays, the child abusers, the folks from PETA? Who is it that you are likely to dismiss with a sneer of derision or anger?

I’m not sure who’s on your last nerve, but it’s pretty clear that in today’s reading, the folks on the outs are the “sinners and tax collectors.” We know that because three times in two verses, it’s pointed out to us that the presence of “tax collectors and sinners” has really gotten to the most religious folks in town. The language and the scene as described sets before us a real drama: if Jesus really is the messiah, the Son of God, and if the purpose of the messiah is to come back here and sort things out, well, then, how will Jesus treat the likes of them? If he is who he says he is, he’ll let them have it, right?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

So how amazing (or infuriating, I suppose, depending on your perspective) is it when his first word to one of these people is not one of condemnation, but rather invitation? He looks the old tax collector up and down and then says, just as he had to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me.” And he reinforces that by being Levi’s guest at dinner.

As that dinner progresses, we find that we’re on the outside looking in – just like the Pharisees. These are men who have spent their whole lives trying to figure out what it meant to be on God’s team, and here they are, watching this party, griping about the fact that Jesus was not giving Levi and his friends a good, solid theological butt-kicking. Not only was he not coming down hard on them, he was having a good time!

Here’s a question: to whom were the Pharisees complaining?

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Jesus’ disciples. The implication is that at least some of the people who had accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow were themselves unable to swallow the notion that the Son of Man would spend any time with people like… like… like those idiots. Some of Jesus’ disciples were not at the head table, and were apparently uncomfortable with how things seemed to be progressing here – and so they remain outside with the Pharisees.

As he so often does, Jesus becomes aware of the situation and reminds everybody that the Gospel is, by definition, Good News. Good News to everyone. And then he goes on to give a couple of folksy illustrations about patching clothes and making home brew – simple analogies that point out that he is not some sort of agent of Divine retribution here to settle old scores and whip deadbeats into shape.

All of which suggests to me that if, God forbid, Jesus Christ himself were to walk into our worship service this morning and greet us face to face, his first question to you or to me would not be any of these:
– who are you sleeping with these days, anyway?
– how could you possibly have voted for that person?
– why do you have so much (or so little) money?
– where’s your birth certificate?
– if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?
No, it seems to me that if Jesus were to show up in our lives, he’d act about as he does here: “Do you want to go somewhere and sit down for a few moments? You know, I could eat…”

Jesus isn’t here to flip out on you, and he doesn’t appear to be interested in dealing with stereotypes. Instead, he seems to be eager to engage you – your deepest you, the core of who you are.

So then today, as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ and as a broken person who is doing his best to keep up with the man from Nazareth, I need to say that if you have shown up at this church – or at any church – and been told that Jesus is not willing to waste his time on you because you are gay or rich or undocumented or republican or stoned or young or old… then I’m sorry. To whatever extent the church has rejected you, it has failed Jesus.

If you have ever gotten the message that Jesus is more interested in some character trait, habit, or condition that you display or practice, then please forgive the church for being unfaithful to our founder.

Image courtesy of http://www.LumoProject.com

Because it’s just not true. Jesus wants to sit down with you. And Jesus wants to sit down with those people.

And I realize that as I say this more than a few of us are sitting with the Pharisees, grumbling, “How can Pastor Dave say that? Does Jesus know what he’s saying? Does he know who they are? Does he care what they’ve done?”

Of course, Jesus knows all that. And we know that he knows that based on what he’s done so far in Mark’s gospel. He has been out teaching, because he knows that we are ignorant. He has been preaching, because he knows that we need to hear the Good News. He has been healing, because he knows our sicknesses; he has been exorcising, because he’s acquainted with our demons; and he has been welcoming because he’s aware of our estrangement. Jesus knows all that about us and comes to us time and time again… even when we can’t move toward each other.

Here’s the truth about the church in 21st-Century America: only 20% of people under the age of 30 believe that going to church is a worthwhile activity. 59% of young people who were raised in the church have dropped out. And a full 35% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 believe that the church does more harm than good in the world.[1]

So today, I have a word for those who are here, no matter why you may have come today. Can we join Jesus in remembering that the Gospel is good news for all people, and not a weapon with which we threaten those with whom we disagree? Can we remember that Jesus calls to us time and time again to invite our friends to come and see what he is up to, but never once commands us to go out and round up the sinners so he can give them the business? Can we join with Jesus in celebrating the notion that it is our deep privilege to share a word of reconciliation and hope and to seek to enlarge our world’s ability to participate in the Kingdom of God, which is at hand?

This week, as you encounter another – especially someone for whom you have reserved some pretty saucy labels – can you pray for the grace to see them with the eyes of the savior, to hear them with his ears, and to speak gently and truthfully his loving words of invitation?

And let’s remember the truth: when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or when the Son of Man himself looks at us and says, “Do I need to come there and straighten things out?”, the answer is always “yes, please.”

Thanks be to God for the Son who comes and meets us in our brokenness and calls us to follow in his steps. Amen.

 

Later in the same worship service, I sang Rich Mullins’ “Surely God is With Us”, which is, I believe, an excellent insight into the ways that Jesus was received (and despised) by his community.  You can hear Rich sing it here:

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V-hxhLVy6FD

My Neighbor is a Sinner

I have often been approached by people who have been wounded by well-meaning comments from friends and loved ones.  I was intrigued by a recent read, Half-Truths, in which Adam Hamilton examines some of these phrases which can be cancerous.  This month, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights  are considering some of those sayings.  The scriptures for September 24 included Luke 18:9-14 and I Peter 4:8-11.  


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

OK, Let me start this morning’s message by saying that I’m not sure what kind of dirt you thought you’d get on the Gielarowski family when you saw the title of today’s message, “My Neighbor is a Sinner”, but Jessalyn saw the signboard outside and sent me a certified letter containing a notarized copy of our Mutual Neighborly Non-Disclosure Agreement, so the only thing I can tell you about the residents of 1581 Cumberland St. is that their home is an unending parade of sunshine, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows. Isn’t that right, Ron? Are we good? OK.

But seriously, I’m thinking this morning about every time I have ever been interviewed, or conducted an interview, for a ministry position. There are questions about education, faith, previous work experience, and ideas for the future. And then, invariably, someone comes up with a question that asks the candidate to imagine a scenario where he or she is put into a situation where someone is in the midst of pain and brokenness. “Hypothetically,” the interviewer begins, “what would you do if you got this job and encountered a young person who did ________?” Usually, but not always, the question involves some sort of behavior involving either human sexuality or the use of a controlled substance. And usually, but not always, someone (sometimes the candidate, sometimes the interviewer) ends this portion of the conversation by saying smugly, “After all, you know, ‘Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin!’, right??”

And when I have heard that phrase quoted by those with whom I have interviewed, it almost always uttered with the same reverence and in the same tone as if it were a passage in The Sermon on the Mount. “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin.” It’s one of those things that “everybody knows,” right? At least, sincere, gentle, loving, tolerant, kind-hearted souls like us know it, right?

Except, of course, it is nowhere to be found in the Bible. More to the point, I’d suggest that this phrase is actually anti-biblical. There are a couple of reasons for that…

First, it presumes that I decide what sin is. Both the Hebrew word for “sin”, chata, and its Greek counterpart, hamartia, are terms that come from archery or spear-throwing. They mean something like “miss the bulls-eye”, or “fall short”, or “fail to achieve or connect as was originally designed or hoped.” We see that in some English words that begin with “mis” – like “misconduct” or “misappropriation”; or with words that begin with “dys”, like “dysfunction” or “dysrhythmia”. When something is chata or hamartia – when something is sinful – it is not functioning up to its design; a person is not behaving at or experiencing their best. When we understand it this way, we think of sin as being in a place that is other than God’s best for us. Sin is a condition, an experience, an attitude, or a reality in which I am stuck (sometimes voluntarily, other times as a result of choices that others have made).

And yet somehow, when we use a phrase like “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”, we stop talking about the condition or reality of Sin. Instead, we find it easier to talk about sins – a list of behaviors that I find objectionable or offensive, and over which I am the ultimate judge or authority. Often when we are stuck in conversations about sins, I find that what you do with your time, your money, your sexuality, your diet, somehow becomes mine to judge. When that happens, then, your falling short of the Creator’s intent somehow becomes my business, or an affront to me.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as Sin, or that you have to accept or ignore everything that I do, but when anyone says or does anything that would seem to put themselves in a place that is reserved for God, then that person is making a grave error. And “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” simply smacks of that sort of judgmentalism and condemnation.

Even worse than presuming to determine what Sin is, however, is the more dangerous implication of that phrase: namely, that it presumes I know what you are. You are a sinner. You are one who has failed. You don’t work right. You’re not quite as up to snuff as the rest of us.

Icon from Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia

When Jesus was active in his ministry, he attained a sort of celebrity status. There were all kinds of people who wanted to connect with him, or to see or be seen by him. And so the Gospels are filled with descriptions of him being welcomed by Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and other religious leaders; by wealthy and responsible people; by Roman soldiers and lepers and children; by tax collectors and drunkards and prostitutes. Jesus, it seems, would hang around with anyone. And he refused to dismiss anyone out of hand.

He, who bore all the purity of the Godhead, poured out his anger, scorn, frustration, and condemnation, not on the people who already stood in public judgment because of what they ate, or what they drank, or who they slept with…No, he reserved his harshest words for people like me…and maybe people like you: the religious elite who thought that they were better than everyone else.

The Gospel reading for today tells a story that Jesus told “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” It’s pretty plain in the story about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who the “good guy” is, and it’s not the person who is most likely to get elected as a Deacon around this place.

How dare I look at you, or something you’ve done, and say something like “well, Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”? How can I speak those words without putting you and me in different categories? How can I even think that without elevating myself and diminishing you?

Like some of the other “half-truths” we’ve been considering this month, this one is just too long. It’s about five words too long. What if we simply said, “Well, you know… love.” No exceptions.

What if we followed Jesus’ lead and treated each other, not as “sinners” who were more or less messed up than we are and instead simply as “neighbors”? What if we looked at the people who surround us, who disappoint or inspire us, who irritate or enliven us, as someone who, just like us, falls short of God’s glory, and errs, and “misses the mark” from time to time?

Peter writes to his community and says that we need to come alongside each other in love.

Look, I know that there are places in my life where I miss the mark. So how can you, in a spirit of love and truth, help me to apprehend and learn the will of God more adequately? Rather than dismissing me as some poor slob who just isn’t measuring up to your standards, what if you considered me to be your neighbor; one who, like you, is crafted in the image of God and formed for His glory?

Now, listen: if you observe anyone hurting someone else in their conduct; if you see someone who is careening through life in a blaze of violence – whether it is abuse, or racism, or anger, or more subtle forms of manipulation or control – you will need to call them on that. You may need to put yourself between the predator and the prey in some of those situations.

But the only way to engage another person in truly meaningful conversation such as any of these scenarios implies is to make sure that we all stay on the same level.

My mother used to respond to situations wherein someone was experiencing great struggle or disruption in their lives by saying something like, “Well, what can I say? There but for the grace of God go I…” When one of my pastoral colleagues saw his life and family ruined by a particularly ugly and salacious series of behaviors, a wise mentor of mine cautioned me against adding to the scorn that this man was already receiving by simply saying, “Look, Dave: what makes you any different than him? How is it that you are better than that?”

The prime message of Jesus, over and over again, was “the kingdom of God is at hand!”. And when he was pressed for a vision of what this kingdom looked like, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” And when he was pressed for a definition of who the neighbor might be, he told a story indicating the dangers of looking too far up at some people and too far down at others.

May we – each of us – have the humility and wisdom to be kind and gracious to each other as we seek to embody the Kingdom of God at work in our world.

Author Frederick Buechner was writing about how the sacrament of communion binds us together, and his words are instructive in this context, as well. He said,

It is…called the Mass, from missa, the word of dismissal used at the end of the Latin service. It is the end. It is over. All those long prayers and aching knees. Now back into the fresh air. Back home. Sunday dinner. Now life can begin again. Exactly.

[Our calling] is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need…for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.

The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, “Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. [Remember] that Christ died for thee.[1]

I’m here to say that you can’t do that, day in and day out, without starting to look at those faces and seeing your neighbors. And that’s a good thing. Remember who you are. Remember who they are. And remember who God is. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper, 1973), p. 52-53.

Who Is It?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Nathan Admonishing David, Rembrandt (1650-55)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giant Who Defeated David

Since September 2016 the Crafton Heights Presbyterian Church has been seeking to listen to, and learn from, the stories surrounding David.  On May 14, we considered his encounter with Bathsheba and the fallout from that.  You can read the story for yourself in II Samuel 11.  We also considered a few verses from I Peter 1

May 14, 2017

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

 

Lamia Airlines flight 933 crashed in Columbia in December 2016, and 71 people died. In June, 2009, Air France lost flight 447 and all 227 souls on board. A further 137 lives were lost when Germanwings flight 9525 plunged into the French Alps. In these and dozens of other airline disasters, what is the first thing that the authorities do? They look for the “black box”, right? Those things have been required in commercial aircraft for 50 years. They tell a story.

Here’s a trivia question for you: what color is the “black box” on an aircraft? It’s orange. And, appropriately, nobody in the transportation safety field calls it a “black box”; it’s known as the Flight Recorder. Generally, these devices consist of two units: the Flight Data Recorder and the Cockpit Voice Recorder.

Why do the authorities spend so much time and energy looking for these things after a disaster? Well, you might say that they tell us what went wrong – and if you said that, you’d be incorrect. But more about that in a moment. They do, in fact, often reveal clues about what went wrong in that disaster, but I don’t think that’s the ultimate reason that these things are sought.

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

Since September, our congregation has been watching the story of David’s call and rise to be the ruler of Israel. We saw him as a young boy when he was plucked from the fields by Samuel and anointed in front of his older brothers. We were there as he rose to prominence as the one who slew the Philistine giant, and watched as he was unjustly accused and hunted down by King Saul. We have seen him protect those who were vulnerable and seek to unify Israel, which culminated on the day that he was called the nagid – the “prince” – of God. We’ve noted that this has not been what you might call a “meteoric” rise, but slowly and steadily, David has been growing in wisdom, power, and faith. He has behaved as, and has been called, “a man after God’s own heart.”

Until today.

The reading this morning from II Samuel 11 describes a crash and burn which is no less dramatic than the crash of USAirways flight 427 here in Pittsburgh almost 25 years ago.

David And Bathsheba (Marc Chagall, 1956)

You’ve heard the story of how this gifted and faithful man, in relatively short order, manages to neglect his duty to his office, abuse a vulnerable young woman, order the murder of her husband and several other deaths which could be chalked up as “collateral damage”, and finally lie to both the nation and to YHWH about what he had done. The closing verse of this chapter is indeed an understatement: “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.”

Just as the flight recorders on airliners contain a lot of information that can clue investigators into seeing what went wrong, this chapter has a good deal of data that assist us in our investigation of how things went so badly so quickly.

The narrative begins matter-of-factly by asserting that in the spring – that is, during the wheat and barley harvest when armies were on the move… David was not. For all of his life, David had been on the front lines. When it was time to fight Goliath, he went when nobody else was willing to go. On other occasions, he led with bravery and distinction. But here, he is willing to send other people into harm’s way, but not to lead them there. Instead, he orders his nephew, Joab, to take charge while he remains behind in Jerusalem.

Not only is David unwilling to go to battle on behalf of the nation, he is also apparently disinterested in the affairs of state. The text tells us that one evening, David got out of bed and took a walk upstairs to the balcony. The leader of God’s people is evidently sleeping all day and prowling around, bored and distracted, at night.

In his choice of titles, the narrator gives us further clues as to what was happening with David. At his installation as king, and again when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, David was referred to as the nagid of Israel. The typical word for “king” in Hebrew is melek, but David is called nagid, or “prince”. This is an affirmation of the fact that when he was on his game, David functioned as the temporal agent of the real authority – God. As nagid, David was accountable to an even higher authority. Yet here in verses 2, 8, and 9, we see David called melek.

It’s easy to see why that word is used, too. Look at the verbs in verse 2. Unfortunately, not all of them translate freely from the Hebrew, but in fairly short order, David sent, took, used, and sent a woman away. That’s what meleks do. That’s what old Samuel tried to tell Israel all the way back in I Samuel 8 – that kings will take and use and discard. Clearly, that’s what David is attempting to do here.

Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (detail) (Rembrandt, 1654)

Let’s take the spotlight off David for just a moment and look at the poor woman who is, I suspect, unwillingly involved in this drama. We know (although not from David) that her name is Bathsheba. I suspect that she is quite young – perhaps a teenager, because she is old enough to be married but young enough not to have started a family yet. We know that she is religiously observant, and faithful to the laws of God. Because she is forced to bathe in the open air, I think that we’d be justified in thinking her to be a person who lived in poverty – after all, privacy has a price tag that the poorest cannot afford. And she is vulnerable. In spite of being told her name, David does not bother to use it. Throughout the narrative, she is “the woman” or “the wife of Uriah.” She is not granted her own personhood, but rather exists only to be defined by others.

Just last week, in II Samuel 9, we saw how David used Mephibosheth’s name to liberate Mephibosheth from anonymity; David sought an intimacy with the son of his friend that allowed him to build a relationship that was characterized by chesed – the loving, loyal, truthful presence and practice of friendship that led to a blessing that was passed down through the generations.

Today, David is only interested in satisfying his own pleasure, slaking his own lust, and solidifying his own power – a series of behaviors that leads to death and destruction that has generationally similar effects.

When he has used Bathsheba in the way that suited him and then she was found to be inconveniently pregnant, David fell to a new low as he tried to pin the conception on her husband. All weekend, David tries to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, but the soldier’s thoughts are only with his comrades and with the nation – he doesn’t have time for the distraction of family leave – he wants to get back to the front. And so you heard how in verse 15 David arranged with his nephew to set Uriah at the worst point of the fighting so that the Ammonites would kill him.

If you were here a couple of months ago, you’ll recall that this is the exact same strategy used by King Saul to get rid of David – in I Samuel 18, he asks David to attempt the impossible so that the Philistines will wind up killing David and Saul will not be to blame.

In short, David has become the melek that he replaced; he has become the very thing that he abhors; the very one about whom God’s prophet Samuel warned the people and that God himself disdains. It is a horrible sequence of events: evil took root in David’s heart, and that evil brought him to a place where he willingly sought to inflict pain and grief and misery on others; and that in turn led to a number of tragedies in the lives of Bathsheba, Uriah, the royal family, the nation, and of course David himself.   It is, as I have stated, a crash and burn.

At the outset of this message, I asked why we sought to be attentive to the information contained in the Flight Data and Cockpit Voice Recorders. When someone suggested that we did that so we would know what happened, or what went wrong, I said that I thought that was only partially correct.

The real reason we want to pay attention to that kind of data is so that we can avoid making similar mistakes in the future. We need to know what happened, of course; but more than that, we need to learn from it. We need to come up with some strategies or safeguards that prevent us from ever doing this again.

If I asked you to name the giant that David defeated as a young boy, you’d say, I hope, “Goliath”. And you’d be right. But if I asked you to name the giant that defeated David in his middle age, I’m afraid you’d say “lust” or “desire”. And I don’t think that’s correct. Oh, that may be what knocked him down. But the defeat started earlier with the ways that David nurtured a giant named complacency. Complacency was the one who convinced David to leave the doors of his heart and spirit unlocked, and lust was the one who happened to come in and ransack the place.

It’s obvious that David, at this point in his life, has grown smug and self-satisfied. He’s addicted to his own power and the lifestyle he enjoys – one that is drenched with luxury and ease. Amidst all of that, he has lost touch with his source of real power, purpose, and strength. He has become completely unhinged.

And it might be easy for us to say, “Well, of course. I mean, it’s a mid-life crisis for a wealthy man. He got drunk with his incredible wealth and power and this is what resulted.”

Except we can’t really say that. Let me be clear: everyone in this room is wealthier and, in some way, more powerful than King David could ever dream of being.

The average poor American – someone who makes, say, $25,000 a year, lives in a home that is climate controlled and equipped with a television and a telephone. He or she eats far more calories that necessary and is able to take those calories from abundant and varied food sources.

Although King David lived in a palace, he didn’t have access to running water; and with the threat of smallpox and tuberculosis and who knows what else, the average life expectancy for a man was about 45 years. He would have eaten well in comparison to his countrymen, but still would have been limited to seasonably available food from relatively local sources.

With your bike, your car, and these roads – to say nothing of a plane ticket – you can travel further in one day than David ever imagined possible. With your computer or television or smartphone, you have access to more enticing images of naked bodies than any of the ancients would have thought possible.

My point is simply that David did not have a rich person’s problem. He had a human problem.

David, the “man after God’s own heart”, chose to leave that heart unguarded, and that decision brought calamity to him and to all who surrounded him.

What makes you any different from King David?

What makes your discipleship any more reliable than his? What makes your integrity any greater? Your devotion any more passionate?

Nothing.

You and I are every bit as human as was he. And we are therefore called to be attentive to what we can salvage from his story in an effort to learn from it so that we might not fall victim to the same fate.

There is wisdom for us, church, in the letter that Peter sent to his followers. Peter – another fella who knew something about acting rashly and impulsively – writes to a group of believers scattered through Asia Minor. These are people who know all of the Jesus stories; they’ve said all of the right things and believe all of the important stuff. The translation you heard this morning reads fairly well in English. In it, Peter says, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” But the literal translation is even juicier: he uses the expression “gird up the loins of your mind.”

I bet you didn’t know your mind had loins, and if so, exactly how you would gird them. Here’s the meaning of that phrase: it has to do with ancient wardrobe practices and athletic prowess.

Image from theartofmanliness.com
Yes, there is a site by that name…

In the ancient near east, both men and women would have worn something loose and flowing – much like this alb I have on now. It works well in the heat, provides protection from the sun, and so on. But imagine how silly I’d look – and how dangerous it would be – trying to sprint up Stratmore Street dressed like this. So when it was time for some hard work or quick action, the wearer would have to get a lot of this extra fabric out of the way by hiking it up around the midsection and tying it off. If you knew that quick action or hard work was on the horizon, you’d “gird” yourself – be prepared – so that the wardrobe would not prevent you from doing what was necessary. In the same way, Peter says, we do that spiritually. We are alert. We are ready.

We do this by training ourselves to resist complacency. One of the most important conversations I’ve ever had with anyone occurred some years ago as I was talking with a trusted spiritual advisor. I must have said something that smacked of “Ah, I got this. No big deal,” because she grabbed me by the lapel and said, “David Carver, do not ever forget that you are seducible. I don’t know by what – it may be sex, it may be money, it may be popularity – but know this: you are seducible. Be on your guard.”

The memory of that conversation – probably fifteen years ago, now – is vivid for me as I seek to be moving forward in faith. The primary means of avoiding complacency is seeking to continue to grow in our faith. We cannot ever get to a place where we simply decide that we’ve “nailed it.” There is always room to grow, always something to learn, always a path that leads deeper. David got lazy, or weary, and he stopped looking for opportunities to grow stronger in his faith. That had disastrous consequences for him and for his community.

You and I are called to pursue holiness – to remember that God has something for us, and we are here to figure out how we can grow in our ability to steward that which God has given us.

Every plane you’ve ever been on carries a flight recorder – a “black box”. But I’d guess that none of the flights you’ve been on has needed to refer to the data from that recorder. Why? Because you haven’t crashed. Why haven’t you crashed?

In all probability, you haven’t crashed because the people flying the plane have completed the pre-flight checklist. They have gone over the list of tasks that are necessary for safe operation of the plane. I’m sure that it’s tempting for seasoned pilots in familiar aircraft to think that these are unnecessary; I hope, however, that they take it seriously every time. Just as we count on the folks from Southwest or American Airlines to check and double check the flaps, seals, and stops, so you and I do well to make sure that we are connected well to each other and to God every day; to be alert to and diligent about the small things in our lives that affect our integrity – so that when it comes to the big questions, we’re less likely to fail. Beloved, let us commit to staying focused on our faith, to being honest with each other, to practicing the disciplines of prayer and study and generosity and humility – so that when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, we might be ready to move through it without crashing and burning. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Who Told You?

We are looking at the various components of our worship – this week, it was confession.  What’s it for, and why bother?  Our scriptures included Genesis 3:1-11 and I John 1:5-10. This message is, incidentally, the first time in my life I have used the phrase “as the Good Book says” in a sermon, and I found 1100+ sermons on my computer this afternoon.  Hmmm.  Cliche much?

When I was an eager young pastor I was in the practice of making unannounced visits to congregation members. I walked up to one house, and the door was slightly open; I could hear the sound of the TV on inside, and I rang the bell. And then I knocked. I knew someone was home – but they were clearly ignoring me.

Eager to impress with both my knowledge of scripture and my willingness to get to know people, I took my business card and I wrote “Revelation 3:20” on it. That verse says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…”

On Sunday, my card was returned in the offering plate, and I noticed that there was an addition: someone had scrawled “Genesis 3:10.” That verse reads, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

OK, that never happened. But it should have. Maybe one day, it will.

This morning, we are continuing to explore the practices that we associate with the worship – and the Worth-ship – of God. You might recall the last time I was up here, we remembered that our public gatherings start with an announcement that we are a new people who come together in a new time and a new space – we “waste” our time in order to be fully present to the one who has created time and placed us within it. Today, we’ll talk about how we move more deeply into that presence by clearing the decks – by preparing our hearts, minds, and spirits to encounter the Word that is promised.

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

That is to say, this morning, we’re going to be talking about confession.

I know a pastor who sat with me for forty-five minutes one day and said, “You know, Dave, I just don’t get it. Why do you want a prayer of confession in your Sunday morning worship? I mean, we come in, we get together and sing a few great songs. We finally get to the point where we’re really “up” and feeling good about ourselves, and then you want to stop us and say, ‘I know, God, I’m a worm, I’m no good, please don’t be too mad at me…’ It’s such a downer, Dave. I hate that.” And so, to the best of my knowledge, this pastor does not have confession as a part of his regular worship services.

My own experience, on the other hand, is closer to the man who had been searching for a church in his town and couldn’t find one where he felt welcome. He came into one congregation as they were beginning their prayer of confession, and as the congregation intoned, “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed like lost sheep. We have followed too much the desires of our own hearts. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us…” he was able to relax and he thought, “Finally, a church I can relate to. These are my kind of people!”

One thing that I have learned in more than three decades of walking with people toward Jesus is that I hardly ever need to remind someone of the fact that they have screwed up. Oh, there are particular instances where I’ve helped someone to see that a particular action or comment was not right, but by and large, by the time they get to 11 on Sunday morning, most of the people I know are pretty well-prepared to own the truth that their lives are not what they are supposed to be. We know that we are broken. In theological language, we know that we have sinned. There is something that is not right about us. There is something that is not good within us.

So if we all know it anyway (which is a part of the reason my pastor friend didn’t like a prayer of confession – he said it was just a waste of time that we could use singing or preaching), why bother? If everyone knows that we’re sinners, why bother confessing?

Let’s go back to the questions from Genesis. The Lord discovers the man and the woman and he asks, “Where are you?” and, a little later, “Who told you that you were naked?”

Oh, for crying out loud, Lord, everybody in the garden knows what’s happened here. We feel bad enough already. What difference does it make who told whom?

I am unable to find the source of this image.  If you are aware of it, please

I am unable to find the source of this image. If you are aware of it, please let me know!

Listen: let’s say that I have a friend who is a 22 year-old woman. The honest to God truth is that she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. How does she know that she is beautiful? People have told her. Everybody tells her that she is beautiful. It is the truth.

One of the regulars at the restaurant where she works told her. He has told her many, many times, really. He keeps telling her, three or four times a week, as he complains that his son is a loser and his wife is emotionally dead and he himself is so lonely and my friend is so beautiful, so beautiful, and can he just buy her some dessert and coffee, or maybe something more some time…

One of her teachers told her she was beautiful. There’s an art professor down at the college who has her own photography business on the side, and she sells “stock” images for advertising and marketing to large corporations. She has told my friend several times that she is so beautiful, and does she want to sit for a few photos – nothing, much, really – and if she sits for the photos she can get extra credit, especially if the professor is able to sell those photos for a tidy sum…

Her little sister has told her. The younger sibling does not share the smooth, clear skin that her older sister has, and as she cries out over her acned face, my friend tries to comfort her, only to be told “What do you know? What do you care? You’re so beautiful! You have no idea…”

All these people, all day, telling her what everyone already knows: she is beautiful. But why do they say this to her?

And then, last night, a young man took her to dinner, and as they sat in the quiet restaurant he pulled a small box from his pocket that was full of a ring and the promises of a lifetime, and he told her she was beautiful.

Do you see? All of these people are telling the truth. This woman is beautiful. But why do they tell her that? I know, truth is truth…but how you learn it, and from whom, affects your ability to enter into it.

You and I both know that you are a wreck. You are a sinner. Like me, your life is broken and marred and incomplete. That is the truth.

Who told you? And why?

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

In Genesis 3 and in Revelation 12 and on just about every page of this Bible there is one who is called “the accuser” who stands with you as you look at yourself and who says, “Yes, you really are a screw-up. You never do anything right. I doubt you ever will. You are disgusting, and God is going to be so disappointed in you. You had better go and hide, you pathetic wretch…”

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And similarly, from start to finish in the Bible, we hear another voice, sometimes called “the Advocate”, who tells us the same truth: that parts of our lives are bent and twisted and we are deeply scarred, but who then goes on to say “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Both the accuser and the Advocate will tell you the truth – but how? And why?

There are good, moral, upright people who will look at the brokenness of our world and of your life and who will shame you. They will judge you. They will instill you with fear, saying things like, “Oh, for crying out loud, who do you think you are? Confess, you dirty sinner! Repent! Turn from your evil, or burn in hell forever.”

These people have, in some measure, a portion of the truth. They know who you are. And yet their voice is invalid because the truth that they claim to possess is truth that is aimed at you like a weapon. Truth, told thusly, is not gift. Truth like this brings fear, guilt and shame – and, ironically, more brokenness, more scarring, more running, more hiding.

When we confess in our morning worship, it’s not because anyone here is holding the answer key and is eager to demonstrate how you have failed. We confess because we already know the truth – and we need to release that knowledge, that fear, that shame so that we are ready to enter into the fullness of the Story that is about to be told. We have a prayer of confession in our worship because we need to lay down the things that we know about ourselves so that we’ll be ready to hold onto the hope and healing that are the proper fruits of truth.

We do not confess out of a posture of fear or shame, but in order to acknowledge the situation and then to let it go. In fact, the fathers and mothers of our church have indicated that a worship service may include or omit a prayer of confession. That’s an optional part of a Presbyterian worship service. However, they go on to instruct me that it is wrong for me to invite you to confess your brokenness unless I immediately follow that with an acknowledgement that the promise of restoration and forgiveness is bigger than your confession. If you ever come in here and are invited to confess, you had better leave here knowing that you are forgiven. A half-truth is no truth.

That’s why we confess.

How do we confess? You’ve already heard a significant part of that – we confess by sharing a unison prayer, standing together and laying our sin and disruption before the Lord. Almost always, we share a common prayer and a few moments of silent, personal prayer.

The congregational prayer of confession is difficult for some. I had a man call me once, very angry, because in his mind I was making him confess to all these terrible things by reading this prayer. “I don’t do that stuff!”, he said. “Why should I have to confess it?” I simply replied, “OK, that’s fine. Just tell me what kind of thing you do do and I’ll be happy to include it in this week’s bulletin.”

nakedandashamedWhen we confess as a congregation and in public, we are saying that this is a condition: we are a greedy, racist, selfish, fearful people. Oh, I get it – today, you may be a little less greedy, racist, selfish or afraid than you were yesterday, but by and large, our common prayer covers most of us. Our common prayer names the world we live in, and identifies the air we breathe.

The confession we share here on Sundays is a part of the confession we’ll need if we are to move forward in our discipleship. In addition to our congregational and corporate confession, I believe that we need to have a personal and private confessional. Such a practice is not generally a part of our public worship – unlike in, say, “joys and concerns”, I’m not likely to stand here and say, “Does anyone have a particularly juicy sin they’d like to confess before the body?”
Yet each of us needs to have someone who knows our particular brokenness, fear, and shame so that they are in a position to help us see the power of release and redemption and healing that is available. For some in the Christian family, that means going into a little room and sliding a screen and saying, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” For others, it means hiring a therapist and asking them to help us sort out the messy truth that is our lives.

For me, it means that once a week or so, I put myself in a position where I am with a trusted friend who loves me and who knows the truth about me. In this kind of friendship, I am able to talk about where I struggle, where I fall, and where I celebrate. Those people are the ones who help me to see the difficult truths about myself without shame or fear – and when I let go of shame and fear, it’s easier to hold onto the promise of God’s best.

As we walk through worship today – and most every week – we name the truth. We are sinful people. We are damaged. We have scars. And as we walk through worship, we are met by the One who made us, who calls to us, who Advocates on our behalf and says, “Yes, of course you are like that. I have known that about you for a long time. Let’s take care of those things…”

And once this worship service ends, as you go through the week, there will not be many days when you will fail to be confronted with the truth of your own brokenness. And you will need to remember that what is true in here is true out there – that it is possible to let go of that brokenness and walk without fear towards healing.

I have a hunch that most weeks, most of you can wrap your heads around that truth when you are here…but out there, you might not be so sure. If you find that you have a hard time believing that the truth – the whole truth – is a gift; if you find that you are more and more listening to the accuser, rather than the Advocate, then call a friend. Call me, or Pastor George, or one of your elders, and we will sit with you and remind you of the truth that is true FOR you.

Acknowledge that truth. And remember that the sinfulness and brokenness of our human condition is not eternally true – but the grace, and peace, and mercy of God are, as the Good Book says, from everlasting to everlasting. Remember that. And help your neighbor to do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

[2] Statue of the Fallen Angel, statue in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

[3] Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Desire

Some months ago I read Debbie Blue’s Consider the Birds, and for the first time in years, I felt compelled to share some of a book’s insights in the form of a sermon series.  To that end, the folks in Crafton Heights will spend ten weeks in the Summer of 2014 considering some of the insights brought forward in that volume and by the creatures and stories featured therein.  For the sake of brevity, let me simply say that if you read something that strikes you as profound and wise, it probably comes from her work.  If you read something that seems a little heretical, well, chances are that it’s from me. 

The series continued on June 29 with readings from Exodus 16:1-15 and Psalm 37:1-6.

There are, as many of you know, a number of reasons to love my friend David. He is a wonderful human being. I was struck by Dave’s thoughtful and reflective nature earlier this week, when a large group of people had gathered to watch a World Cup Soccer game. The cameras focused in on Cristiano Ronaldo who is the most highly-paid, and by most accounts, the best soccer player in the world.

David looked at the screen and said something like, “Look, I don’t care what kind a person you are or how you are wired, you have to admit that man is an attractive person. It doesn’t have to do with being gay, but he is just gorgeous.”

What a risky thing to say in a room full of people! Because almost always, when a man says, “that person is beautiful”, the presumption is that is a statement of desire, and if there is desire, the presumption is that the speaker would love to move towards a physical relationship.

As David (who gave me permission to share this story) pointed out, that’s not what he was saying. He was naming the truth: Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro, OIH has been blessed with an astounding set of chromosomes. Thanks be to God.

That conversation with Dave got me to thinking about the business of desire. Desire is defined as “a strong sense of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.” You could say that Clint Hurdle desires a pennant for Pittsburgh, or that the 1956 Thunderbird was Larry’s heart’s desire.

Desire is key in our lives. As a grown-up person in America, I am astounded at how many times I am involved in conversations where the biggest question is, “What do you want?” Sometimes that’s because I’m down at Hanlon’s and the server is inquiring about my menu choice, but I have asked that question of a couple in a struggling marriage, a woman seeking to overcome decades of addiction, or a child throwing a temper tantrum. “What do you want? What do you wish would happen?”

Billy Graham Preaching, Bible RaisedWhen I was a teenager, my mother was a big, big Billy Graham fan. She somehow obtained a written copy of a sermon he preached in 1972 entitled “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil” and compelled me to read it. I’m not sure what Billy Graham was actually saying, but this is what I took from that message: desire is a simple matter. You can want what God wants you to want, or you can go the other way. I spent most of my teen years desiring all the “wrong” stuff, and was therefore convinced that I was headed the way of “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Just about everything I wanted was pretty darn worldly, and I knew I would burn eternally because of that. It was pretty black and white to me.

For 400 years, the people of Israel languished in slavery. Generation after generation of Jewish children grew up and grew old and died as captives in Egypt. I don’t suppose that old Pharaoh was much for protest marches, but if they had them, I would imagine that the chant could have gone like this: “What do you want?” “FREEDOM!” “When do you want it?” “NOW!” These folks wanted to get out of Egypt. They wanted to live as God’s people. That’s pretty black and white, I think.

DesertSooooo, six weeks after they get that for which they’ve been longing for 400 years, how’s that march coming? “What do you want? “The Fleshpots of Egypt!” “When do you want them?” “NOW!”

Seriously? Six weeks? Six weeks of wandering in the desert, and they begin to long for the bread and the stew that they “enjoyed” while living in slavery?

This story gets told twice in the Old Testament. In the Exodus reading we’ve just shared, God’s response to their complaining is to send them bread and meat. There’s manna to be found every morning, and in the evening, the quail come blowing in and pile up in heaps. “You want meat? No problem, I’ll give you meat,” says the God of Exodus.

The common quail is a simple and easily domesticated bird. Although it can fly, it prefers to walk and scavenge along the ground, and will usually only take to the air as a means of avoiding a predator. Even quail that migrate, such as those mentioned in Exodus, are such weak fliers that if they have to go very far (like across a desert or an ocean), they will wait for a strong wind that’s going in that direction to help blow them along.

The Common Quail

The Common Quail

The first time I saw a quail, I marveled. I admired its plumage, I wondered at its ability to camouflage itself in its surroundings, and I chuckled at the way that it ran amidst the desert grasses. In following Jesus’ command, I considered the quail.

The Israelites of Exodus, though, had no such time for appreciation or consideration. They were hungry, they told God they wanted meat, and the evening breeze brought them a vast ocean of quail – not to wonder at, not to consider, but to eat.

The first time we read about these birds, in Exodus, the implication is that God is lavishly providing for his people. They long for the meat of their slavery, and he gives them the meat of freedom in abundance!

In the book of Numbers, however, the story is told from a slightly different perspective, and for many, the quail become a “last supper”. We’re told that God promises that they’ll eat the meat that they so desire – and in fact, that they will eat it until it “comes out of their nostrils”. Many die after gorging themselves on this quail that has literally been a “windfall”. Traditionally, we’ve understood this to be the biblical way of saying that God is punishing his people for having the wrong desires, as if God is saying, “Look, you miss the meat of your slavery? Fine. Here. BOOM! That’ll fix your wagons.”

OK, I’m pretty sure God never threatened to fix anyone’s wagon, but sometimes, in my head, God sounds a lot like my mom. My point is that we have often read the bit about the quail and the people dying as God’s way of getting even with us for wanting the wrong thing.

And if that’s not confusing enough, a couple of hundred pages later we get to the scripture from the Psalms, which promises that “God will give you the desires of your heart.”

DelightNow, put yourself in the place of a young Dave Carver, who is pretty sure that there are “good desires” and there are “bad desires”, and if you choose poorly, well, that’s an eternal bummer for you… And then the minister comes in and says, “Remember what it says in the Good Book: ‘God will give you the desires of your heart…’”

My response was “Noooooo! That would kill me!”

How often have you thought, “Thank God I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back there!” How often have you been willing to choose the thing that would kill you if you let it?

Think about that: what if you ate everything that you wanted to eat? What if you watched or surfed every show or site that attracted you? What if you actually said everything you ever wanted to say?

Do you see? It might be alcohol, it might be driving like a maniac, it might be doing mean things to your spouse with a stick – but there are times when we really, really desire and crave and want things that will just crush us. We long for things that will cause us and those around us great damage…and we want them anyway. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not just Israelites who long to be Pharaoh’s slaves.

So how are we to understand the promise that God will give us “the desires of our hearts”?

Let’s remember the whole passage. It starts with some commands: “Trust in the Lord!”. “Live right!”. “Live where God sends you.” “Do what the Lord wants you to do.”

Too often, we wake up in a world where we are taught to believe that our desires and our wants are the most important thing – or at least the first thing. We think about what we want, and then plan our day after satisfying that on our own terms.

But the scriptural approach seems to be the opposite: we wake up and we decide that we’ll let God order the universe and our lives. We’ll seek to be attuned to the things that God has or will do, and then, when we’re in that kind of rhythm, God will give us the desires of our hearts.

Listen: the world is filled with people who are as beautiful as Cristiano Ronaldo or George Clooney or Taylor Swift or Scarlett Johannsen. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that amazing! Can we praise God for beautiful creatures?

And the world is filled with delicious foods, and tasty beverages and shiny objects and gorgeous art. Again, wonderful! It is right and good to notice, to admire, and to appreciate beauty where you encounter it without presuming to manipulate that beauty or to allow your noticing of that beauty to lead you to an unhealthy wish to own, control, or use that beauty in a way that diminishes the creatureliness of either you or the other.

What do you want? And how will you get it?

Here’s a young mother who is stressed by the demands of her full-time at-home job and her part-time gig at the grocery store. The boss was yelling before she left work, the kids are crying now, she’s got a headache to beat the band, and she passes by the liquor cabinet. She wants a drink so bad that she can already taste it. Why?

Because she’s so tired of hurting and feeling inadequate and incomplete. What do you want, mom? I want to feel like I can do it. I want to know I matter. I want to experience life without thinking that someone is squeezing it out of me.

Those are huge wants, and deep desires. You know that a couple of shots of Tequila aren’t going to satisfy them, right?

Here’s a man who finds himself sitting at a meeting next to a stunning woman. She is beautiful, and his thoughts begin to drift towards all the ways that he might use or enjoy that beauty. He imagines a conversation – and more – that is based on how badly he “wants” her. Why?

Because he’s stressed. He’s a man, after all. He has needs.

And he does. He needs to know that he is not unlovable. He wants someone to tell him that he is not old or fat or ugly, and if someone that attractive would want to be with him, well, then he would, in fact, be attractive, beautiful, or worthwhile himself.

And when he stops to think about what he really needs, as opposed to what his first impulse is, he might realize that that’s a lot of pressure to put on a woman to whom he’s never even spoken before.

What would happen if either of these people would look to God and ask God to help them understand who they are as his children? What would happen if you or I were to look to the Creator, not a creature, to offer self-worth and validation?

In her excellent book that inspired this series of sermons, Debbie Blue points out that in the Bible, quails are signs of both God’s extravagant provision and the fact that our desiring and wanting need to be transformed and renewed.[1]

Today, in our celebration of and remembrance of baptism, we acknowledge the truth that we don’t always know what we want. Too often, we look in the wrong places, or we use a beautiful creature in the wrong way. As we baptize these infants, we name the truth that God’s grace is here, and that it has been since well before you or I knew to ask for it. As we baptize them, we indicate to them, and we remind ourselves, that there is a new way of living – there is a way to trust that God will give us what we need.

Beloved, the God who created and called and claimed you knows who you are, and he knows what you need. Bring God the things that you want. Ask God about what you want. And ask God to help you to identify the need that is behind that want. God in his grace is already there, helping you to transform the desire and appreciate the beauty that is present. Move toward and into that grace. Relax in that grace. Grow in that grace.   Name and celebrate all the beautiful things you see in your world, and ask God to give you the ones that you need. Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible (Abingdon, 2013).