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


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).

Mixing It Up

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 her 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 began on June 15 with readings from Mark 1:9-13 and Genesis 1:1-5.  On this day, we celebrated two baptisms and also commissioned the Summer ministry staff at the church.

What is the best-known collection of Jesus’ ethical teachings? The Sermon on the Mount, right? I mean, everyone has heard something about the Sermon on the Mount, and many people, even those who profess to have no faith in Christ, would say that Jesus is on to something in those verses.

One of the most famous passages of that scripture contains Jesus’ advice to “consider the birds”. Do you remember that? “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (MT 6:26)

That’s what I do, folks. Jesus says “Consider,” and by golly, I will. I watch them…feed them…crawl up rocky trails for hours…endure unwarranted criticism about my allegedly erratic driving whilst certain feathered creatures are nearby… Hey, I’m just trying to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Persecute me if you must…

Consider-the-BirdsI love the birds. And I love Jesus. So when I saw a new book by Debbie Blue entitled Consider the Birds: a Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible, well, that just seemed like a good excuse for a little continuing education that I could not pass up. And when I read this volume, I knew that I wanted to share some of her insights with you, sprinkled in with a little of my own thought.

If you’d like to purchase a copy of the book for your own pleasure or edification, I have a few of them here and, of course, they are available in stores or online.

Consider the birds for a moment. If God were a bird, what kind of bird would God be?

Almeida Júnior, Batismo de Jesus, 1895

Almeida Júnior, Batismo de Jesus, 1895

Oh, jeez, Dave, that’s a softball. God would be a dove. Most often in scripture, when we read about some description of God as a bird, he shows up as a dove. It’s right there in Mark 1. In fact, early on – the Genesis reading – says that “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.” In the Jewish tradition, the Talmud adds the words “like a dove”.

And really, if you’re going to assign an avian identity to the creator of the universe, why not go with “dove”? After all, what do doves signify? Peace, purity, sacrifice, gentleness…

El Greco - The Immaculate Conception Contemplated by Saint John the Evangelist (c.1585)

El Greco – The Immaculate Conception Contemplated by Saint John the Evangelist (c.1585)

Remember when Noah wanted to see if there was any hope for the inhabitants of the Ark? He sent out a raven first, but everyone knows you can’t trust those birds. Then a dove, right? In all the paintings of the Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception, how is the Holy portrayed? With a dove!

Of course, the twenty-first century has continued the historical identification of the dove with the holy. Look at all the places that little dove sticker has shown up – on cars, tattoos, clothing, backpacks – you name it, and there’s someone willing to sell you a dove symbol to slap onto it in the name of “evangelism” or “testimony”.

Before going further, I have to say that as much as I like birds, I find that to be a little irritating – as if the Holy Spirit was a fragile, delicate, even dainty presence. As if Christians, like Noah’s dove, are too good for the “real world”.

At any rate, would you agree that often, we see the attributes of God in the image of a dove? Yes? Let me ask you, then, whether your concept of the divine would change if Mark said, “he saw the heavens open and the Spirit descending on him like a pigeon…”?pigeon

The truth, as you may know, is that the family Columbidae consists of 310 related species that are called, interchangeably, pigeons or doves. There is no standard rule as to which label to put on which bird. “Pigeon” is from a Latin root that apparently refers to the peeping of the chicks, and “Dove” is of Germanic origin, and refers to the diving flight pattern these birds share.

I learned that these words are used interchangeably while on a trip to Malawi some years ago. I was visiting a very poor village, but one man seemed to be doing all right. He had invited me into his home for dinner, and I asked what he did for a living. He indicated that he was a farmer and a breeder, and he raised doves for a living – that they were a very good source of meat. “Well,” I thought to myself, “that sounds really interesting…” And, I will confess to you, I felt a little sophisticated that evening, sitting in his home, thinking that I was dining on freshly-harvested dove.

And then, after dinner, he took me to the rear of his home and showed me his coops – small cages, filled, not with the holy, innocent birds of my imagination, but with pigeons.

Flying rats. Pests. Dirty, dirty birds.

But the scripture says that the Spirit appeared like a peristeron – a word that is sometimes translated as “dove” and other times as “pigeon.” Is God like a pigeon? Seriously? Well, what do you know about pigeons?

Maybe you know that pigeons, or doves, are used as tools for communication. Three thousand years ago, the Greeks used homing pigeons to deliver the results of Olympic races. The outcome of the Battle of Waterloo was first delivered to England by means of a carrier pigeon. Thirty-two pigeons have been awarded medals by the US military for carrying important information across enemy lines. Before the advent of drones, both the German Nazis and the American CIA fitted pigeons with little cameras and sent them aloft to gather information about the enemy.

Pigeons are everywhere. The only places on earth without some form of pigeon inhabitant are the extreme polar regions. Otherwise, however, you will find these birds just about anywhere that human beings can be found.

And, interestingly enough, while some birds are quite shy and are apt to take flight if they sense the presence of humans, pigeons are the opposite: they actually prefer living in an environment that is well-populated.

Think of that: pigeons carry news, they can be found just about anywhere, and delight in the company of humanity. Aren’t all of those things attributes of the Holy? Isn’t God like that? I mean, the Holy Spirit brought a message in Mark: “You are my son, my beloved, and I am deeply pleased!” Psalm 139 reminds us that there is no place on earth we can go to escape God’s spirit. And of course the Bible is full of references to the delight and love that God shares in his creation of human beings. Maybe God is like a pigeon.

No, no, no! Doves, I can take. Pigeons are disgusting vermin. God is not like that. Pigeons are unclean. The Holy Spirit, and God moving through Christ – that is clean and pure.

Don’t be so sure.

The Annunciation and Incarnation announce the truth: God is enfleshed. The Almighty has become one of us. Do you believe that?

pigeonsAnd you know the truth: that to be human is to experience, endure, and even to cause some measure of unpleasantness. There are smells and wrinkles and sounds of which we are not (or at least should not be) proud. You know what I mean: you people, in all of your human-ness and fleshiness and embodiment can be, well, disgusting at times.

And yet God the Father has sent God the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to be one of us. God chose to participate in human-ness. And human-ness can be a messy business!

Just look at the Gospel reading for today. What is the first thing, according to Mark, that Jesus does when he’s starting off his ministry? He undergoes baptism. The all-powerful, all-pure, holy and obedient Son of God walks into a ritual that symbolizes death and renewed life, and commands us to do the same. That’s a funny way to launch a religion. Debbie Blue refers to it this way:

There’s something about the story of God becoming human, entering the body fully, touching all over everything unclean – eating, defecating, suffering, dying…that seems to be the thrust of the narratives.
Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized…a symbol of death and renewed life…Gods don’t generally die – nor would they stoop to being baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary.
To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. John the Baptist says he saw it descend as a dove – a pigeon. It lands, hovers, plunges, and coos; coming again and again, leaving its droppings on our sleeves. We can hit it with a stick all day long, but it keeps racing to us, desirous that we might open our hearts.[1]

Listen: the Spirit of God is hovering, like a pigeon, in your world. The good news of the dove-ish, pigeon-like God is that no place is too messy, and no person is too impure, and no part of your life is beyond God’s reach.

Ask Jason and Kelly, or Jason and Amanda, or any of our Cross Trainer staff if they awaken every day to see only sweetness and light, unadulterated joy and innocence, or beatific and delightful aromas coming from the children that they have been given to love for a lifetime or for a season.

That is not likely.

There is a lot of spit-up, poopy diapers, body odor, and general grossness involved with coming alongside of people in their human-ness. I am reminded of the time a few years back when one of the Cross Trainer staff come to me and said, “Um, Pastor Dave, will you come and take a look at this? Because this one little boy’s hair is, well, um, moving. I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that.” Yeah. Lice at the summer camp.

Being human is not for the rosy-eyed optimists, the unsullied idealists, the faint of heart, or those who are afraid to enter the “real world” for fear of being polluted.

And yet, God in Christ has identified with us so completely in our humanity that he undergoes a baptism.

Thanks be to God for his willingness to enter fully into where we are, and who we are, and what we are so that we might better glimpse where, who, and what God is.

In a few moments, you will be called to leave this sanctuary and enter into the messiness, the impurity, the ordinariness of life in your world. Don’t be afraid to mix it up with the messiness of life and love, and with people who are not as “pure” as you wish they were. Don’t be surprised when you discover that you are not as “pure” as you’d like your pastor to believe you are. God is, no matter how difficult you may find it to believe, with you.

[God] lands, hovers, plunges, and coos; coming again and again, leaving its droppings on our sleeves. We can hit [God] with a stick all day long, but [He] keeps racing to us, desirous that we might open our hearts.[2]

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013) p. 18

[2] Blue, p. 18.

The Light of the World

This Lent, the folks at Crafton Heights are continuing to look at the “I Am” statements of Jesus.  In Isaiah 42, God says that he is calling his servant to be a light to the world, and in John 8, Jesus says, “I Am the Light of the world.”  Some thoughts about what that means to disciples today…


Ariel and I wait for the “Night Drive” to begin at Kruger Park in August 1998.

Let me tell you about one of the most memorable nights of my life – it must be memorable, because it took place more than 15 years ago when Ariel was only 9, but it seems like it was only last week. Sharon, Ariel and I were staying in the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  This is one of the most famous animal refuges in the world – home to every kind of creature imaginable in the African savannah.  It’s a huge park – imagine the State of Massachusetts with a fence around it, filled with all manner of amazing beasts. We had the opportunity to get seats on a “night safari” – a four hour ride in an open jeep through the scrubland. On that ride, I learned at least four things about light.

We got into the truck and took our places near the edge.  Since it was winter, and since we were close to the equator, it was really dark really early.  By 6:15 p.m. it was pitch dark.  The ranger approached the group and told us the ground rules for the trip.  We’d be driving slowly, and the cab and each side of the truck would have a light like thisHandheldSpot. The idea is to sweep the light across the landscape, and when we see something, yell out.  The truck would stop, all lights could focus on what was seen, and we’d be told about whatever it was that we were looking at. She went on to say that if we saw a large animal, we were to be sure to avoid shining the light directly into the animal’s eyes so as not to cause any alarm.  Any questions?  Great! And off we went.

Well, we were about ten minutes into the trip when I learned the first thing about light. I want to be in control. I’d see a shadow move over there, I’d hear a noise over there, and that knucklehead four seats over had the light. “Hey buddy,” I’d whisper. “Over there.”  Did he ever shine the light where I wanted him to? No way.  I wanted to have the light – I wanted to be the one who was directing the beam, seeing what I wanted to see, when I wanted to see it.

African Cape Buffalo at night...a surprising and dangerous sight!

African Cape Buffalo at night…a surprising and dangerous sight!

Not long after that, I discovered the second truth about light that would become important to me that night. We heard a commotion in the distance, and got closer to it.  The lights were sweeping back and forth (of course, I wasn’t holding one) – but all we could see was dust.  Then, in the midst of the cloud, a pair of eyes and a set of horns – it was a herd of African Cape Buffalo. It was cool, because these are some of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive.  But it was disconcerting, because this herd of the biggest, strongest, most majestic beasts alive was down at the bottom of a gully. If we’d not have had the lights, we’d have driven down into it and not gotten back out.  I learned that light is helpful because it can reveal dangers in our paths.

AFR1 766A couple of hours into our journey, we came upon a couple of beautiful lionesses – right by the side of the road. They were no further away from me than the front row is right now.  There they were, just sitting by the side of the road.  The first light shown on the one who was awake and looked interested. And then the second. And finally the third light came. Right in her eyes. She blinked, and moved. So did the lights. She shook her head. The people holding the lights (all of whom, I might add, were sitting behind me in this open truck), said things like, “wow!” and “isn’t this amazing?”.  She continued to show irritation with the light, and roared.  The people behind me said, “Oh, my!  Wonderful!”  I grabbed my nine-year-old daughter a little closer and said, “Do you remember what she said about not shining it in their eyes?  Let’s not get these lions angry, now.”  At which point the people next to the people holding the lights said something like, “For crying out loud, Bill, don’t you remember? Turn that light away!” And thus, we are still here. But I learned that light can often bring agitation or fear.

GirSunriseAnd most importantly, that night I learned that light can reveal great beauty.  I’d been over those roads in the daytime – but here at night it was like I was in another place.  The animals were different.  The shadows had character.  And time after time, the light revealed some hidden landscape, majestic animal, or curious sight to me.  The lights showed what was there in the midst of the darkness.

So let me tell you why I’m bringing this to you now.  Because in some ways, that trip is for me a parable about light, and a means to understand this passage in John wherein Jesus claims to be the Light of the World. Listen:

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he insists on being the one to define reality.  He calls the shots.  He decides, if you will, where the spotlight will shine.  And the people who hear him in John’s gospel don’t like this any more than you do – because we all want to be in control. We want to call the shots. But we don’t.  And we can’t.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he reveals danger.  If the people continue to act and believe as they have, they are headed for certain death, he says.  A huge part of what it means to follow Jesus is to be attentive to the things that he says about right living, and truth, and appropriate behavior. I know from personal experience that time after time after time, I could have avoided great pain and suffering simply by doing that to which Christ calls me.

When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he brings fear.  His listeners in John were sure that he was possessed by a demon. There’s a fire in his eyes that is alarming –a quality of his speech that can be simply frightening to those who want to keep things the way that they always have been.  In fact, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day insist that if people were to believe Jesus, then they’d be in danger of eternal damnation because, after all, he’s a blasphemer.  That’s why they tried to kill him – because they knew that Jesus was a dangerous man of whom they were deeply afraid.

And lastly, when Jesus calls himself the Light of the world, he shows the world for what it is. He reveals those who are genuinely seeking truth and those who are seeking glory from others; he shows the difference between honest questioning and tricky reasoning.

Yes, in the ways that Jesus defines reality, reveals danger, frightens the powerful, and illuminates the hearts of men and women, he truly is the Light of the world. And this is disconcerting to nearly everyone who hears Jesus preach that day, because he is not what they are looking for.

In his study on John, Gerard Sloyan points out that  people were disappointed in Jesus for two closely related reasons.  Either they believed too much or too little about him – in either case, they did not take him at his word.  It was as if everyone that day had a cartoon Jesus to whom they’d rather relate, rather than a living, breathing carpenter from Nazareth.  Some were anxious to make him God in a man-suit; that is, a being that looked to be human, but clearly was not, and could not be. How could God become flesh? Impossible.  But God could seem like a human – and so for some, Jesus was simply God in disguise – God pretending to be human.

For others, though, they believed too little.  They believed that Jesus was the quintessential “nice guy”, a prophet like Moses who would bring them what they needed in a miraculous fashion – but no more than that. Surely not divine.

space-sunriseAnd to these people, and to you and me, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  I am the timeless revealer and Son of God. I am the means by which you can see and experience the fullness of God.  I am the light that illumines your world.

So what does that mean to us?  How relevant is that today? What difference might that make in your life?

For some, it means that we must recognize the fact that there are flaws and blemishes in our own lives. I think that I’m speaking now to those of you who have been Christians for a while.  People sometimes come to see me and they speak of some sin, some error, some evil in their lives as though they are surprised to find it there. New believers don’t have this problem as much – we see sin in our lives and say, “all right, God, there’s another clump of it – get it away from me, please!”  But those who have believed for a while will come to me and say, “I can’t believe I’m struggling with selfishness right now.  It never bothered me before.  Why am I dealing with this now?  Shouldn’t I have moved past this?

Friends, think of the light.  Before you walked in the Light, you were in darkness.  You couldn’t see very far in front of your face, could you?  If there were blemishes or blotches or stains, you sure didn’t notice them, because you were in the dark, and you couldn’t even distinguish them. But as you get closer to the light, the imperfections stand out, don’t they.  What didn’t look so bad from way back there looks pretty rough when Jesus shines the light on it, doesn’t it?  Living with an awareness that Jesus is the light of the world means remembering that each step of your spiritual journey is a step that must be accompanied by forgiveness and reconciliation – because each step we draw closer to the light we discover new scars and blemishes – new places in our lives that don’t quite measure up to God’s best for our lives.

For some of you, living as though Jesus is the Light of the world means that you recognize that you’re not the one holding the spotlight.  You’re not in control, are you?  It would be nice if you could get to where you wanted to get right away; it would be nice if you could choose the path that you were taking.  But the fact of the matter is that there are some seasons in our lives when we’re going to be led someplace that we aren’t all that excited about going.

When you say that Jesus is the light of the world, it means that when you enter into the scary places of your life – the medical diagnoses that frighten you, the relationships that fail, the jobs that let you down – you can be sure that you are not alone in those places.  Is it all right for you to wish that you weren’t there?  Sure, I suppose so.  But the reality is that the only way out of those places is to follow the light one step at a time, trusting that you’ll come to the place where God wants you to be.

And for some of you, living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that you remember that it is he, not you, not me, who truly illumines the landscape around us. It means that we look through the lens of his life and see the beauty and the majesty of our own lives – the ways that God has blessed us time and time again – even when we have been unaware of his walking with us.  Some of us are so worried about moving ahead that we forget to stop and look up every now and then, remembering that he is the one who is in control, not us. Living as though Jesus is the light of the world means that the natural posture for a believer is gratitude and thanksgiving for all of God’s blessings.

Earlier this week, the participants in the Confirmation Class sat with these verses from John and we noticed something else about what Jesus said.  There is a lot of legal language here – Jesus is reminding his hearers that he can be trusted because he will back it up; he’s not just talking to hear himself talk; he is saying the truth that he will demonstrate.

But how do we prove what he said?  How do we know that he is the one who can illuminate the path and direct our steps and define reality appropriately?  The same way that I learned on the jeep in South Africa: we get on and go for a ride. We trust in him. We look where he tells us to look and follow his instructions.  He said that he was the light of the world. Nobody made me get on that jeep fifteen years ago – but it was one of the most magnificent rides of my life. This week, friends, let me invite you to hop onto this ride – the ride of Christian discipleship – and learn to see the world in the light of Jesus.  You won’t regret it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Worst. Story. Ever.

On March 9, the good people of Crafton Heights sat through my fifteenth and final sermon in a year-long study of the book of Judges. For many months, it had been on my heart to work through this book, and I am deeply grateful for the chance to have done so with such a wise and loving congregation.  This final message, encompassing the last three chapters of Judges, is an exploration of how bad it can truly be.  The New Testament passage that was read for the day was Romans 1:18-25.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of nights riding (as an invited passenger!) in the back of a City of Pittsburgh police car.  It was an effort to get to know the neighborhoods and understand what some of the problems are.

After we were summoned to a home, one of the officers with whom I was riding said, “I hate these calls involving a domestic dispute.  You never know what’s going to happen; you’re not sure who the ‘bad guy’ is, it’s hard to think that you’re really going to make any difference, and at the end of the day it could all just blow up in your face.

This morning, we are here to read what could be the worst story ever.  I am sure that this is the first time I’ve ever encouraged you to get your young children out of the room before we start reading from “the Good Book”.  And our reading starts, fittingly enough, with a domestic disturbance: Judges, chapter 19

The Levite and his Concubine in Gibeah, Jan van Noordt (1620-1676)

The Levite and his Concubine in Gibeah, Jan van Noordt (1620-1676)

In those days Israel had no king.

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. After she had been there four months, her husband went to her to persuade her to return. He had with him his servant and two donkeys. She took him into her parents’ home, and when her father saw him, he gladly welcomed him. Judges 19:1-3, NIV)

Like most domestic disputes, it is a long and difficult story.  And because I’m not sure that you have the time to hear all three chapters, and I know that I don’t have the stomach to read all three, we’re going to move through them and I’ll tell you the story.  You can follow along through Judges 19-21 if you’d like.

It starts with a Levite – a member of the nation of Israel who is charged with reminding the people about God’s best for them.  The Levites were not given specific territory in the Promised Land, but instead, all the other Israelites were supposed to be looking our for them and alert to hearing the Good News from them.

So this Levite “takes” a woman – and I want you to note the violent word that is already here.  She is unfaithful to him, and they split up. Four months later, he decides that he misses her, or he looks bad, or whatever – and he chases her down.  The woman’s father is eager to avoid the messiness, expense, and shame of a divorce, so he does everything he can to convince the Levite to make things right.  After five days of partying, the Levite is convinced and they head for home.  Unfortunately, they get a late start because of the intensity of the night before, and they don’t make it very far before the sun starts to go down.

The Levite’s hired man suggests that they head into Jerusalem and find a Holiday Inn or something, but the Levite won’t trust that town because it’s filled with foreigners.  So they press on and by dark, they make it to the town of Gibeah, in the territory of the Israelite tribe of Benjamin.  And the situation that they find there is not good.

Judges 19:15 says, They went and sat in the city square, but no one took them in for the night.” Uh-oh.  In the ancient near east, when there’s no one to offer you hospitality, you’re in a bad place.  It says something terrible about Gibeah and Benjamin that a group of strangers would sit in the town square at nightfall and not receive help.

Rembrandt, The Levite and the Concubine with the Field Laborer in Gibeah, ca. 1648/49

Rembrandt, The Levite and the Concubine with the Field Laborer in Gibeah, ca. 1648/49

But wait! Help does come – from an old man, another stranger in town, who says to these travelers, “What are you, nuts?  You can’t spend the night here!  Come and stay with me.”  The tension heightens.

And after dark, it really gets bad. The men of the city start to pound on the door of the house, and demand that the visitor be sent outside so that they can rape him.  This is not about sex, it’s about a city that is intent on humiliating and debasing a guest.  The old man shouts through the door that he’s not about to let his guest be treated this way, but if it’s sex they want, they can have his daughter and the Levite’s wife in order that the crowd can “violate them and do with them what seems good to you.” (19:24 ESV) Then the text tells us that the Levite “seized” his wife and threw her out the door…and then he went to bed.

Look.  I really wish that was the worst part of this story.  Because it is awful.  In what kind of universe does this even make sense?  But it gets worse.

Rembrandt, The Levite Discovers the Body of His Dead Concubine, ca. 1655/56

Rembrandt, The Levite Discovers the Body of His Dead Concubine, ca. 1655/56

The man gets up the next morning and starts to leave the house, and there is the woman laying across the threshold.  “Get up,” he says.  “We’re going home.”  But she does not answer.  Is she alive or dead?  The Bible doesn’t say.

What it does say is that he put her on his donkey and carried her home, and when he got there, he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent a hunk of his wife to each of the twelve tribes of Israel as a means of complaining about the way that he and his property were treated by the people of Gibeah and Benjamin!  Each tribe receives a messenger who says, essentially, “Can you believe this?  What is this world coming to when this kind of thing can go on?”

And I really wish that this was the most disgusting part of the story.  But it’s not.

The Levite Declares His Wrong, Charles Joseph Staniland (British, 1838 - 1916)

The Levite Declares His Wrong, Charles Joseph Staniland (British, 1838 – 1916)

Chapter 20 opens with a big meeting of all the tribes of Israel.  Evidently, this message had gotten through, and the people are of one mind on this.  In fact, the narrator of Judges uses the words “all of Israel” five times, and “as one man” another three.  Finally, God’s people are going to do something, right?  They ask the Levite to tell his story, and he does, more or less.  I mean, he doesn’t express any sadness at the death of his wife and he makes himself out to be the victim, but at least he’s got their attention.  And they decide to act.

Eleven of the tribes of the Israelites turn to the folks from Benjamin and say, “This is outrageous.  Those folks from Gibeah ought to be punished.  Hand them over.”

But the Benjamites say, “Nope.  That’s not gonna happen.  They are our people, and nobody touches them.”  The people of Benjamin refuse to deal with, or even to acknowledge, the sin and brokenness that is in their midst.

The rest of Israel gets pretty worked up about this, and says, “What do you mean, you’re not going to listen to us?”  Well, one thing leads to another.  First off, they all make this silly promise that nobody is going to let their daughter marry a Benjamite ever again, but that doesn’t seem harsh enough, and before you know it, you’ve got a civil war, where 400,000 men of Israel are prepared to go up against 26,000 from Benjamin.  There is all kind of treachery and violence, but by the time we get to the end of the week, 40,000 Israelites have died along with 25,400 Benjamites.  This is how chapter 20 ends:

Six hundred men [from Benjamin] got away. They made it to Rimmon Rock in the wilderness and held out there for four months.

The men of Israel came back and killed all the Benjamites who were left, all the men and animals they found in every town, and then torched the towns, sending them up in flames. (Judges 20:47-48, The Message)

Now let’s just stop and take a look at what is happening here as a result of this “domestic dispute”.  Do you remember what comes before the book of Judges in the Bible?  The Book of Joshua.  What is the event that leads us to Judges? The release of the people from Egypt.  For 400 years, God’s people are held in a hostile and violent place.  They are enslaved and treated as property and murdered and abused until finally, God’s voice comes to Moses and calls them to a new way of life.  And he leads them to the Promised Land and he says, “Look, come in here and do things differently.  Don’t tolerate the systems that seek to own or destroy.  Get rid of anyone or anything that stands in the way of your true worship of me.”

And the people fail miserably at that.  The book of Joshua is filled with story after story indicating that the people of Israel failed to drive out the Canaanites who opposed them.  But here, in Judges, we see that they succeed in doing it to themselves!  They couldn’t get rid of the Hittites or the Amalekites or the Philistines, but they wiped out the entire tribe of Benjamin.  Every man, woman, and child; every donkey, every cow, every house – killed or burnt.

It is terrible!  And I wish that this was the worst part of the story.  But it’s not.

You see, next, the Israelites get to thinking about how there should be twelve tribes in Israel, and what have they done by going and killing all the Benjamites and someone says, “Hey, no, there are still 600 of them left!  They’re all hiding out over by the rocks in Rimmon.”

Eventually, someone states the obvious and says, “Look, all of those Benjamite soldiers are men, and unless they find someone to marry, the tribe of Benjamin is going to perish.”  But because they made this oath about not allowing their daughters to marry a Benjamite, they are stuck.  And then some sharp thinker says, “Wait, did we all promise not to do this?”  And it turns out that there was one town, Jabesh-Gilead, who did not send anyone to the big meeting.  So the people of Israel, in the name of God, decided that the way to ensure the survival of the tribe of Benjamin (which they had wiped out) would be to attack Jabesh-Gilead.

The Benjamites Take the Virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Doré, 1866.

The Benjamites Take the Virgins of Jabesh-gilead, Gustave Doré, 1866.

So the congregation sent twelve divisions of their top men there with the command, “Kill everyone of Jabesh Gilead, including women and children. These are your instructions: Every man and woman who has had sexual intercourse you must kill. But keep the virgins alive.” And that’s what they did. (Judges 21:10-11, The Message).

In wanting to preserve their own integrity and be seen as “people of their word”, the Israelites said that they couldn’t possibly break their oath about marrying the Benjamites, so they commit an act of genocide against an entire community.

As bad as that was, it turns out that there were only 400 women who survived the slaughter, and they needed two hundred more in order to give every Benjamite a wife.

So they came up with a plan that, well…they came up with a plan.  They knew that the Israelites who lived near Shiloh had a big festival at this time of the year.  And as a part of that festival, the young women would go out into the vineyards and dance.  So they told the Benjamites to go and hide out in the vineyards and when they saw the girls from Shiloh coming out, they could pick one they liked and take her home.  Their reasoning for this was simple: if the girls were kidnapped, raped, and forcibly married, then it wasn’t like anyone was actually breaking his oath.  No one was allowing these marriages.  They just happened.

This is, as I have said, the worst. Story. Ever.

I’d like to make a few observations about it.  We see here how sin and brokenness clearly amplifies itself. We go from a troubled marriage and an adulterous affair to the rape and murder of a single woman to civil war and finally to state-sanctioned genocide, kidnapping, and mass rape.  The last sentence in the book of Judges says it all:

In those days there was no king in Israel: everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

The Concubine of Gibeah 3, by Janet Schafner (1998). Used by permission. For more, including a fascinating description of the wolf as a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, visit http://janetshafner.com/biblical-visions/The+Concubine+of+Gibeah+3.jpg.php

The Concubine of Gibeah 3, by Janet Shafner (1998). Used by permission. For more, including a fascinating description of the wolf as a symbol of the tribe of Benjamin, visit http://janetshafner.com/biblical-visions/The+Concubine+of+Gibeah+3.jpg.php

The story of Judges is in the Bible to set up the books of Samuel and Kings.  It’s there to tell the people why they needed a king – because when we didn’t have a king, do you see what kinds of trouble we got ourselves into?  One writer puts it this way: “In a society where people pursue their own self interest rather than the purposes of God, everybody eventually stands to lose.”[1]

Theologically, Israel needs a king.  They need someone who will bring justice and truth and righteousness.  A king, as best understood in the Bible, is the one who comes in and sets up the world the way that God wants it to be.

The trouble is that the King of Israel is going to be, well, from Israel.  Saul, the first king? He was from Gibeah.  You’ve heard what kinds of standouts that community is capable of producing in this morning’s reading.  The second king?  He’s associated with Jerusalem, the place where the Levite was afraid to go before he went to Gibeah.  In other words, the only people available to be kings in Israel are the same sorry lot that gave us the book of Judges.

And I could wander down the path of historical reflection a little further, but here’s the truth: it’s not just the people in the first half of the Old Testament who need a king – who need someone to help them know right-ness, someone who can orient their world. Haven’t we seen how time and time again in our own experience the incredible violence and harm that comes when my desire to do what I want to do becomes a selfishness that leads to an idolatry that encourages me to make myself (or my people or my country…) the highest authority?

Just think about the beginning years of the 21st century!  Our nation is attacked on 9/11 and that leads to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan…throw in Abu Ghraib and Benghazi and car bombs and drones…look at Russia and Ukraine and Syria and Sudan…

Doesn’t our world give testimony to the fact that when every person does what is right in his or her own eyes, it’s bad news?

And let’s make it even more personal.  How many times has my life, my world, gone from bad to worse because I was not willing to allow anyone to speak truth to me?  How much pain and suffering have I undergone or have I caused because there was no room in my world for anyone to speak for righteousness or justice? How quickly do our bad decisions pile up?

What about the guy who has a bad day at work and decides that he owes it to himself to stop off at the Casino on the way home and, because he’s a little irritated, winds up losing his month’s pay?

What about the kid who is so angry at her mother that she decides to take the car without permission and drive like a maniac, forgetting to notice the stopped school bus?

What about the person who didn’t prepare for the project at work or at school, and instead of coming clean about it goes in and makes stuff up, and then finds himself in a deeper hole than he was before?

Do you see how in our lives, and in our world, just like in the book of Judges, one choice leads to other choices that leads to a breakdown?

I called this message the Worst Story Ever not because it’s so stinking filled with violence and destruction and inhumanity, but because it keeps happening again and again and again.

We need a King!

Individually, we need a moral compass, a center, an authority who is greater than we.  One who can teach us how to live in ways that please God and serve our neighbor.

Collectively, we need to realize that there is Truth, that we are a people and that God has a purpose in this world.

It is not up to us.  We dare not attempt to live by doing what is right in our own eyes.

And we do not have to.

crown-of-thorns-hung-around-the-easter-crossThis is Lent.  And we are through the book of Judges.  And we have a king.  In the back of a room, there’s a banner that has the image of his crown.  It’s made of thorns, because he’s not like any King the world has ever known.  And now, we have the chance to walk with him, and to learn to walk like him.

Thanks be to God, the King of Kings has come to us.  Let us open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, to Jesus – the King of kings, that we may be faithful followers this Lent and always, to the end that we might be found doing what is right in his eyes.  Amen.

[1]  J. Clinton McCann, Interpretation commentary on Judges (John Knox, 2012) p. 133.

Baptized Dust

Psalm 103

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.

The Lord has established his throne in heaven,
and his kingdom rules over all.

Praise the Lord, you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
who obey his word.
Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts,
you his servants who do his will.
Praise the Lord, all his works
everywhere in his dominion.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

 Do you remember starting a new job, and how you want to make sure that everyone likes you, everyone thinks that you are competent, and more than anything, you just don’t want to be the person that makes a mistake and draws attention to yourself?

So I had been a pastor for a few months and found myself in the position where I was to conduct the funeral for one of the saints of that congregation.  The local funeral director was a deacon in our church, and I was eager to show him that the new pastor had the right stuff.  We got through the service all right, and headed out towards the cemetery, where we’d be interring my friend Bob’s ashes.  As we walked out of the funeral home, I already had my coat on, and he gave me an armload of things to hold as he put on his coat and then buckled into the driver’s seat of the hearse.

Acting incredibly nonchalant, I said something like, “You know, I can’t remember the last time I did an interment like this.”  I looked into the back of the empty hearse.  “How are Bob’s ashes getting to the cemetery?”

The Funeral Director looked at me with some surprise and said, “All that’s left of Bob is in that little box on your lap…”

Fortunately, I was able to control my “bwuah!” response enough to ensure that Bob remained in the box and was not scattered all over the floor of the hearse. But I remember my utter shock at the fact that I was holding all there was.  “Keep the ashes in the box, Dave.  Ashes in the box…” I kept saying… Because my secret, inner fear was that if I didn’t carry that box exactly right, then that somehow, some of the ickiness of the ugliness called death might rub off on me.

You know the truth, I think: you can’t keep the ashes in the box.  Oh, we got Bob, or at least what was left of him, out to the cemetery without any incident.  But the reality is that the ickiness of death and the ugliness of that rubs off on me – and on you – all the time.

We’ve known this for a long time…Since God looked at Adam in the Garden of Eden and said, “you’ll get your food the hard way, Planting and tilling and harvesting, sweating in the fields from dawn to dusk,
 until you return to that ground yourself, dead and buried; you started out as dirt, you’ll end up dirt.” (Genesis 3:19, The Message).

We heard it again when Abraham encountered God face to face:  “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27, NRSV).

And Job brought back that same refrain as he contemplated the mystery of the holy, complaining that God has “cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes…” (Job 30:19, NRSV)

This is the truth: I have spent a good portion of the last five decades trying to convince myself that whatever Adam’s, or Abraham’s, or Job’s experiences were – that was not me.  That was simply not true.  I am alive!  I move.  I accomplish.  I travel.  I talk.  I do, for crying out loud.  I want to think that somehow, I am different.

But I am not.

I am Job.  I am Abraham.  I am Adam.

dusttodustAnd every day, I, like they, must remember, that I am nothing but dust and ashes.  That I, no less than they, came from the dirt and am heading to the dirt.  I must remember.

And fortunately for me, it’s not just me who remembers.  God remembers, too.

Listen to this: two years ago, on a trip to Texas, a friend of mine showed up in the kitchen with the mystery of mysteries: a pie (which I love) made out of grapefruit (which I love).  I had never considered such a thing, and I tasted of this rare and delicate dish with gratitude.

And then again, last year, my friend showed up with more pie.  More awe.  More wonder.  And more boldness: because I carried some of that Texas Ruby Red grapefruit home with me and I made myself a grapefruit pie that was every bit as delicious as the one my friend had shared.

And earlier this week, I set to work in my kitchen and I made not one, but TWO grapefruit pies with the fruit that Steve Imler schlepped through the airports.  And I was disappointed.  Because the pie was not as good.  Why? Because I had forgotten the recipe that I’d used.  I did not care enough to remember.  It was grapefruit pie.  It’s not a big deal.  Lord willing, I can try again some time…

I forget how I make things all the time.  Who cares?  But God? Not so much.  “He knows how we were made.  He remembers that we are dust.”

Isn’t that liberating?  God knows how he made me.  He remembers.  And every time he looks at me, he thinks, “Yup.  Dust.”

So I don’t have to fake my way through some sort of an act whereby I am trying to impress you or anyone else that I’m something that I’m not.  I can be myself.  There is no shame!  Because the Creator remembers me.

Think about that word: remember.  Usually, we take that to mean that we call something to mind:  do you remember that day when Dave was preaching and we got out before noon?  Usually, we think that the opposite of remember is what? Forget.  “Did you remember to stop and get milk?” “Nope, I forgot.”

But what if we consider it in another way?  What if remember is re-member?  What if the opposite of re-member is dis-member.  If I dismember someone, what am I doing?  I am taking them apart.  I am destroying them.  I am denying them.  The world seeks to dis-member.  Death seeks to dis-member.  But God?  My creator? He re-members.  He is in the business, not just of calling you to mind every now and then (“Dave?  Dave Carver? Likes to fish? Talks a lot? Sure, yeah, I got you…”) – but of putting you back together, and of making you whole.  God is in the business of reversing dis-memberment.

Back to dust.

I don’t know what you talk with your friends about, but a few of us pastors were on the internet today and Pastor Susan asked whether we would be having communion first or doing the ashes first.  There was a lot of back and forth until Pastor Howard said that he was going to do the communion first so that his hands wouldn’t be all ashy when he went to break the bread.

And that’s when it occurred to me that the ashiness of my hands is directly connected with the purity of these baptismal waters.  I can break the bread tonight with these hands that have touched the ashiness of death – but only after I wash them in the waters of the baptismal font.

What happens to the ash when I wash my hands?  Does it disappear?  Does it cease to exist?

Of course not.  I’m merely transferring the ash from my skin into this water.  The waters of baptism do not change the ash – but they surely encompass it and envelop it.

Tonight, I stand with Adam, with Abraham, and with Job, and I confess that I am dust and ashes.

But I am baptized dust.  I am ash that has been suspended and upheld and maybe even lost in the waters of baptism.

My dustiness, my ashiness, my brokenness, my death does not get to define who I am or what I am.  I am defined by the fact that I am made by God the Father.  I am loved by Jesus Christ the Son. And I am sustained daily by the Holy Spirit.  Because God remembers me!

I may be dust.  But I am baptized dust.  And so are you. Thanks be to God!  Amen.


The Restless Heart

During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully.  As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it.  The message from Jly 7, “The Restless Heart”, took as its texts Acts 8:9-25 and  Romans 13:8-14.

dusty-bibleThe conversation went something like this: “So, the Bible is done, right?  I mean, nobody is adding anything else to it, are they?”

“Um, I would find that highly surprising…”

“And nobody has really added anything to those stories for about two thousand years, right?”

“Essentially, sure.”

“Well, what if Jesus doesn’t come back for another two thousand years?  What stories are we going to use? Won’t the Bible seem really old then?  How will people know how to live in their own time and place?”

And that question – beautiful in its simplicity – got me to thinking about the fact that when we have been at our best, the church has, for two thousand years – been trying to help people do that very thing.

And I thought about a trip I took one time to a little town in New York, where we were going to celebrate my grandparents’ wedding anniversary.  I had grown up thinking that I knew my family: 1 brother, 1 sister, 1 mother, 1 father, 4 grandparents, 19 cousins.  But at this event I kept seeing strangers go over and kiss my mother or worse, come and start tugging on my cheeks.  And I realized that I most certainly did NOT know my family…

So this summer, I’m going to invite you to a family reunion of sorts.  You won’t meet any of my cousins, but we’ll find a few sisters and brothers that you might not have met yet – but who have worked hard to help our Christian Family have a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus faithfully.

hippoOn November 13, 354 AD in the town of Hippo in what is now Algeria, North Africa, a Christian woman named Monica and her pagan husband had a son, whom they named Augustine.  This boy, raised in the cradle of the Roman Empire, turned out to be one of the most profound influences on your life…and your faith.  After his conversion to Christianity, which we’ll hear about in a moment, he rose to a position of great prominence and influence.  He was one of the most important people who helped turn Christianity from a “movement” into an “institution” – that is, his preaching and writing gave shape to the church at a crucial time in her life.

For instance, Augustine was the first person to really define what a sacrament is.  People had been having worship for three hundred years, but nobody had been able to put into words exactly what was happening.  Augustine put it this way: “The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself also a kind of visible word.”[1] Augustine taught us to distinguish between the sign (say, the pouring of water) and the thing that is signified (say, the forgiveness of our sin).  It sounds like “Christianity 101”, but hey, someone had to help us figure out this stuff – and more than anyone else in the first few centuries, it was Augustine.StAugustineRestless

The two works for which he is best remembered are Confessions and The City of God.  The latter book was written after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410.  For as long as anyone could remember, Rome had been synonymous with strength and stability; for a hundred years, Rome had been a “Christian” Empire.  Now the Goths had overrun the world’s city and the culture was changing.  There would be new rules, new customs.  People were dying to know – how can we still be Christians if the world around us is changing…I know, that sounds crazy to us, who live in a time of such great global and cultural stability when things don’t ever change, but trust me, nations rise and fall, empires change, and so do cultures and behaviors.  Augustine wrote The City of God to help believers explore how to live lives of faith in the midst of change.  And he did it 1600 years ago!

His earlier work, Confessions, is regarded as the first work of autobiography, and it contains a memoir of his conversion to the Christian faith.

He begins by describing his childhood, and how he had been raised in comparative wealth.  His great intellect was obvious to anyone who knew him, and he was educated at the finest institutions.  He became involved with the cult of Manichaeism, a belief that denied the reality of a loving creator and instead taught that humanity and all of creation are a result of a curious conflict between good and evil.  The human being – body, mind, and spirit – is simply a battleground on which the forces of good and evil wage war.

During this time of adolescence and young adulthood, Augustine experimented with all sorts of behavior.  In particular, he became engrossed with sexuality.  As he descended deeper and deeper into what he would later see as sinful brokenness, he was increasingly uncomfortable – but he did not have the strength to leave it behind.  In fact, one of his most famous prayers is this: “O Lord, make me chaste…but not yet.”

I think that some of you know how that feels – that there is some behavior – some anger, some lust, some substance, some pride – that you think is probably not right, but you are not yet convinced that you want to give it up.  You have prayed, “O Lord, save me from this thing…next week”.  Because we love our secret sin, don’t we?

At any rate, when he was 31 years old, he was reflecting on his situation – one that he termed as having “a restless heart”.  Listen to his own words:

conversionI was asking myself these questions, weeping all the while with the most bitter sorrow in my heart, when all at once I heard the singsong voice of a child in a nearby house. Whether it was the voice of a boy or a girl I cannot say, but again and again it repeated the refrain “Take it and read, take it and read.” At this I looked up, thinking hard whether there was any kind of game in which children used to chant words like these, but I could not remember ever hearing them before. I stemmed my flood of tears and stood up, telling myself that this could only be a divine command to open my book of Scripture and read the first passage on which my eyes should fall.

So he grabbed his Bible and it fell open to the passage we heard a few moments ago: Romans 13:13-14, which reads So behave properly, as people do in the day. Don’t go to wild parties or get drunk or be vulgar or indecent. Don’t quarrel or be jealous. Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as near to you as the clothes you wear. Then you won’t try to satisfy your selfish desires.”

In his own words:

I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.[2]

He knew the truth, and he would later reflect on it this way: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

This experience is crucial to understanding Augustine and his impact on our church and on our faith.  He knew what it was like to wrestle with sin.  He had been broken.  He knew what it meant to do things that he didn’t really want to do, and to be unable to do things that he knew he really should do.  More than any other church leader before him, Augustine came to see that Christians fall into sin time and time again, and that the only response possible is to throw oneself onto God’s mercy and trust in God’s forgiveness.  A sinless life, he said, is impossible – so trust God.

Peter's Conflict with Simon Magus by Avanzino Nucci, 1620

Peter’s Conflict with Simon Magus by Avanzino Nucci, 1620

In my preparation for this message, I did not find anyplace where Augustine preached about Simon the Magician in the book of Acts, but I am convinced that this would have been one of his favorite stories.  In Acts 8 we heard the story of a pagan charlatan who used smoke and mirrors to impress the public and enrich himself…but he seemed to know that there was more.  When he heard the apostle Philip preaching the Good News of Jesus, he believed!  He received baptism, and he became a disciple who followed Philip around seeking to soak up as much as he could…

Until his old demons came back and he started to think about all the money he was throwing away by following Jesus…and all that he could make if he could just bottle up a little of that “Holy Spirit” and pour it out at will.  When the Christians rebuke him for this, and name the sin in his life, then he confesses his sin (again!) and seeks to be faithful.

And it’s not just Simon, nor Augustine.  How many of you know what it’s like to be here, to be committed, to be ready…and then to screw up big time?

Augustine was monumental in helping our Christian family understand that to live faithfully, we need both personal decisions and communal accountability.  Too often in some congregations, we seem to expect only one or the other of those things.  Some churches teach that “we’re all in this together.  Come on in, get baptized, join the club, and we’ll take care of it as a group.”  Others seem to say, “Look, it’s all about you, and whether you’ve made a decision to follow Jesus.  Have you asked him to be your personal Lord and Savior?  Good.  Then you’re over the line and your work is done…”

828augustineAugustine shows us that the personal decision does matter – a great deal.  Our decisions matter.  But it’s not just one and done – say the magic words and get into the company of the faithful, end of story.  No, we need to be converted.  And then, together, we are re-converted.  And re-converted.

I had a friend who played football for Pitt when Pitt was national champion in 1976.  Just after graduation, he became a Christian, and made a decision to follow the Lord.  Three weeks after that, he got married.  The guys on the football team thought it would be funny to take him out and get him really drunk, and then they brought a stripper in.  When she had done what she came to do, she was in an adjoining room getting herself dressed and they stripped my friend down to his boxers and threw him into the room with her.  He stood up, swayed a little bit, and stammered out, “Listen…you don’t have anything to worry about from me…last month, I became a Christian!”

The woman eyed him up and down and said simply, “No kidding?  I’ve been saved four or five times myself!”

Listen, I’m not holding out my drunken friend or his bachelor party entertainment as models for Christian growth…but I am here to say, with Augustine, that sin happens.  We orient ourselves.  We decide that we want to grow, we want to follow, we want to be faithful.  And then, sooner or later, we screw up.

Augustine would say, and I would agree with him, that the question is not really “will you struggle with sin?”  Rather, the question is, “how will you react to your struggle with sin?”  When you blow it, will you be ready to wake up and trust God in the morning?

If you have not yet trusted God to direct your life – if you are still holding back somehow and have not sought to open your restless heart to God’s healing, why not?

And if you have trusted in the grace of God, but are not growing in your ability to live faithfully, what’s holding you back?

And if you struggle with sin and brokenness in the process, well, then, don’t be surprised.  Confess it, and teach your restless heart to rest in God’s amazing grace.  And live your faith, again, tomorrow.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Homilies on the Gospel of John, quoted in Bernhard Lohse’s A Short History of Christian Doctrine (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 137.

[2] Confessions,  Book VII, Section 12

The material below is a copy of a handout that I shared with the people who were in worship on Sunday.  It contains a little more information on Augustine as well as some of his writing.  I pray that you enjoy it!  

Faces at the Reunion: St. Augustine (354-430)

During the summer of 2013, we will be looking at the Christian Faith through the eyes of some of the servants of God who have preceded us in this walk.  These men and women left behind a witness that has formed us, whether we know it or not, and in our worship we will have a “family reunion” this summer as we engage in their stories and gain from their experience.

Augustine (from North Africa) was one of the most influential Christian thinkers, writers, and pastors of the early church.  Some have said that apart from the Bible, his Confessions is the most widely-read book of all time.  He grew up as an unbeliever, had a dramatic conversion experience in his 30’s, and went on to shape the church as we know it today.

From The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book I (Translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey )

Oh! that I might repose on Thee! Oh! that Thou wouldest enter into my heart, and inebriate it, that I may forget my ills, and embrace Thee, my sole good! What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it. Or what am I to Thee that Thou demandest my love, and, if I give it not, art wroth with me, and threatenest me with grievous woes? Is it then a slight woe to love Thee not? Oh! for Thy mercies’ sake, tell me, O Lord my God, what Thou art unto me. Say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. So speak, that I may hear. Behold, Lord, my heart is before Thee; open Thou the ears thereof, and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation. After this voice let me haste, and take hold on Thee. Hide not Thy face from me. Let me die- lest I die- only let me see Thy face.

Narrow is the mansion of my soul; enlarge Thou it, that Thou mayest enter in. It is ruinous; repair Thou it. It has that within which must offend Thine eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? or to whom should I cry, save Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy. I believe, and therefore do I speak. Lord, Thou knowest. Have I not confessed against myself my transgressions unto Thee, and Thou, my God, hast forgiven the iniquity of my heart? I contend not in judgment with Thee, who art the truth; I fear to deceive myself; lest mine iniquity lie unto itself. There- fore I contend not in judgment with Thee; for if Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall abide it?

From The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book X (Translated by Henry Chadwick)

Late have I loved you,
beauty so old and so new,
late have I loved you.

And see, you were within,
and I was in the external world and sought you there,

and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely things
which you made.

You were with me, and I was not with you.

The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you they had no existence at all.


You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness.

You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness.

You were fragrant,
and I drew my breath and now pant after you.

I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you.

You touched me,
and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.


For more information about Augustine, see http://www.reasons.org/articles/augustine-of-hippo-part-1-of-2-from-pagan-to-cultist-to-skeptic-to-christian-sage