Who Is It?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Nathan Admonishing David, Rembrandt (1650-55)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Giant Who Defeated David

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

May 14, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

David, Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1408)

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

Until today.

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

David And Bathsheba (Marc Chagall, 1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes you any different from King David?

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Told You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who told you? And why?

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

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

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

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why we confess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

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

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

Desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Common Quail

The Common Quail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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…

Kruger1998

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.