Weaponizing the Gospel

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On February 10, 2019, we met yet another new group of men who had banded together in an attempt to entrap Jesus – the Sadducees.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 12:17-29.  Our epistle reading was, much to the discomfort of the adolescent boys in attendance, Romans 2:17-29 (the text of which mentions the word “circumcision” at least half a dozen times!). 

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

 

I don’t know if anyone else remembers this or not, but about five years ago CNN and other news outlets covered the story of a bus driver in Dayton, OH, who was shot twice in the chest at close range. As it happened, Rickey Waggoner survived because he was carrying a Bible in his breast pocket, and the Bible absorbed the bullets.

That reminds me of the gentleman who was strolling down a Manhattan street and noticed a bullet laying on the ground.  He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and continued on his way.  A block or two later, he passed by a home that seemed to be the scene of a horrific argument – there was yelling and screaming and as he stopped to take it in, he felt a burning sensation in his chest and lost consciousness.  A few moments later he awoke, and realized that he was essentially unharmed.  He pieced together what had happened: in the midst of the fracas inside, someone had thrown a Bible with such force that it shattered the living room window and came right for him.  His body suffered the full impact.  Fingering his chest, he found the bullet he’d picked up earlier and discovered that it was now grossly misshapen.  “Wow,” he said to himself.  “If it hadn’t have been for this bullet, the Word of God might have entered my heart…”

I’d like to invite you to think for a few moments this morning on the Bible, the Word of God, the Good Book… what it’s for, and how we use it and are shaped by it.  We’ll be guided by our old friend, Mark, as well as Paul’s words to his friends in Rome.

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

For several weeks we’ve been looking at some of the incidents that took place in the last week of Jesus’ life.  On the day we call Palm Sunday, he rode into town and was greeted by the crowds.  On Monday, there was a confrontation with the chief priests and the scribes as he cleansed the Temple, and on Tuesday we’ve overheard those same folks challenge Jesus on the nature of his authority.  Last week we considered the conflict he had, also on Tuesday, with the Pharisees and Herodians as to the payment of the poll tax.  Today we learn of yet another group who sent someone forward to challenge Jesus: the Sadducees.

Well, who are these people?  The author of Mark tells us that they are a group who does not believe in the resurrection. And you might think that’s the source of their name: they have no hope for eternal life, and that is why they are so sad, you see…  While that may be true, we also know that this was a group of very conservative men within the Jewish culture.  In fact, unlike the Pharisees and the Essenes, the Sadducees did not accept the writings of the prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or literature like the Psalms or Proverbs, to be the word of God.  As far as the Sadducees were concerned, the only Bible was the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And even though they didn’t get along with either the Pharisees, the Herodians, or the Essenes, the Sadducees were similarly committed to stopping Jesus. So when the other groups fail in their attempts to silence the new teacher, these men give it a try.  They, too, come in an attempt to discredit Jesus, and they attack him using theology and Biblical interpretation as a cover.

Jesus calls them on it even faster than he challenged the other parties. Twice in the span of four short verses, he says, “You are wrong.”  In fact, he concludes by saying, “you are badly mistaken.”  The reason that they are wrong, according to the Savior, is that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.

The accusation that they didn’t know scripture must have stuck in their craw a little bit.  Like Jesus, the Sadducees were critical of the Pharisees and their willingness to contort Scripture.

The Pharisees had gotten to the point where they had taken the Bible and boiled it down to a rule book.  Then they looked at those rules and added layers of meaning and interpretation so as to make sure that they could be the ones to announce exactly who was pleasing to God and who wasn’t.

If you’re a football fan, you know that the NFL has done this in some very frustrating ways.  When I grew up, if you threw me a pass, I either caught it or I didn’t.  Now, according to NFL rule 8, section 1, article 3,

“A forward pass is complete (by the offense) or intercepted (by the defense) in the field of play, at the sideline, or in the end zone if a player, who is inbounds:

  1. secures control of the ball in his hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground; and
  2. touches the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of his body other than his hands; and
  3. after (a) and (b) have been fulfilled, performs any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”
    BUT

“If a player, who satisfied (a) and (b), but has not satisfied (c), contacts the ground and loses control of the ball, it is an incomplete pass if the ball hits the ground before he regains control, or if he regains control out of bounds”

And that’s why the games are four hours long…

The Pharisees did the same thing to the Scripture. Do you remember the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy…”  Well, the Pharisees added 39 laws to the fourth commandment so as to ensure that one could, in fact, keep the Sabbath perfectly and, just as important, know who was NOT keeping Sabbath.

Now, while the Sadducees and Jesus both rejected this kind of scriptural tomfoolery by the Pharisees, they did so for different reasons.

The Sadducees said, “God has given us a word, and that word is in the Law of Moses. As long as we know that, keep that, and use only the specific written and sometimes even archaic language of those five books, we are in good shape.  We can master that word and know exactly what to do in any situation.”

Jesus said, “Listen, you cannot divorce the word of God from the power and movement of God.  Scripture is a living, breathing attempt to convey the meaning that is at the heart of God, and is never to be used as a personal proof text to build up what you like and tear down what annoys you.  What was intended to be a vehicle to give humans a glimpse into the beauty of the Divine intent ought never to be used as an implement of death or disfigurement.

The recent film Boy Erased tells the story of a young man who is sent to Conversion Therapy after having been outed as gay to his fundamentalist parents.  There is one particularly horrific scene where one young man is surrounded by his peers who are then instructed to literally beat the sin out of him with their bibles.

The Apostle Paul, writing to his friends in Rome, said that those who claim to be somehow better than others because of some external attribute, or practice, or custom, and hide behind scripture while doing it are in fact guiltier than those that they attack.

In some ways, both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were guilty of what might be called “bibliolatry” – taking the words in the Bible more seriously than we take the One who gave us the Bible in the first place.  Bibliolatry is what happens when we worry more about making sure that the person sitting across the table from me has the exact same understanding of the Bible as I do than about whether I am living into the heart and meaning of the One to whom the Bible points.

You’ve seen this.  In our own day, how common is it to approach a dilemma, a question, or an issue and then think, “Hmmm… what do I think about this thing?” and then go to the Bible for statements that appear to back up whatever I want to be true?

In discussions on issues ranging from human sexuality to child rearing to immigration to the environment, we find it easy to pick and choose the verses that remind us about how right we are.

And when we do this, we fall into the trap of separating the Word of God from the Power or Presence of God.  When we weaponize the Gospel – when we take words, phrases, chapters, and verses and throw them at each other, hit our neighbors over the head, or wave them at other in a menacing fashion, then we repeat the errors of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

And you say, “But Dave, we read the Bible all the time.  We acknowledge the scriptures.  In fact, in order to be elected as an officer around here we have to say that we ‘accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word’ to us. Just how are we supposed to read the Bible, to rely on the Bible, to use the Bible, but not to be guilty of weaponizing it or of worshiping it?”

A number of us spent some time recently immersed in a book entitled A New Kind Of Christianity,[1]in which author Brian McLaren makes a compelling case that we might rightly view the writings of the Bible as a God-given community library.  Instead of presenting a single narrative or undisputed set of facts, his readers are encouraged to view the sacred texts as a record of actions, conversations, and interpretations that are vital, informative, authoritative, and yet not divorced from our own experience.

This idea is pursued further in Rob Bell’s What is the Bible?[2], wherein he encourages readers of scripture notto ask “Why did God say such and such?” Instead, Bell argues, some of the prime questions we bring to the scriptures ought to be, “Why did people write this down?  Why did they tell it to their children?”  To that I would add my own interpretation, which is namely, “How is it that God has allowed this story to be preserved for us in this way?  What is there to be gained from reading it in our own day?”

Mark told his first readers, and they recorded it for us, that Jesus said “God is the God of the living.”  If that is the case then it is incumbent on us, the living, to engage with the scripture as we have received it.  We must seek to uncover, recover, or discover the Divine intent to the end that every part of our lives and every aspect of our behavior puts us closer to the place where we can honor God.  We do not read it in order to satisfy some sort of self-approving checklist; and we dare not read it in order to cast judgment on our neighbor, or with the intention of bringing shame on another.

I think that what is happening in this story is that Jesus is inviting the Sadducees, his disciples, and us to the difficult task of attending to each other and participating in the life of the world around us that recognizes our rightful places as those who have been created in the image of God.  We are called to live in such a way as to point to a reality beyond where we are now: a reality in which love, life, grace, hope, and indeed resurrection are normative.

I know, I know – it’s tempting to take it easy and fall back on the bumper stickers, the memes, the ball caps, and the slogans… but the reality is that none of those things are sufficient as we seek to identify as Christians who have been given an appreciation for the living, powerful Word of God.

May God protect us from using the Bible to harm others, or to devalue ourselves, or to diminish life.  May God instead grant us courage of conviction, freedom of trust, and a willingness to engage each other, the Scripture, and our neighbor in a quest to live authentically under the reign and rule of the living God.  Amen.

[1]A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith(HarperOne, 2010).

[2]What is the Bible? (HarperOne, 2017)

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.

Save Me From Myself

On January 29, God’s people in Crafton Heights continued to walk through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  We heard the story of his encounter with Abigail (referenced in the text below) and compared it with a confrontation between Paul and Peter as described in Galatians 2:11-14.

 

The last time we saw David, he and his men had returned to their hideout in the wilderness. As you may recall, David refused to act violently against King Saul and was content to let God write the next chapters of that story. So he finds himself in the “hill country”, or the wilderness of Paran. There are about 600 men with him, and in our reading for today, we’ll see that hiding out from a delusional king is a) not a full-time job and b) doesn’t put food on the table.

The wilderness can be a dicey place. I’ve been in the area where David was on that day, and I’m here to tell you that that part of present-day Jordan is bleak indeed. Even now you can go for miles and miles without seeing much of anything, and there are plenty of cliffs and caves in which ne’er-do-wells and miscreants can hide. In fact, when Jesus told one of his most famous stories, he pointed to the danger of the wilderness. Do you remember the parable of the “Good Samaritan”? The man who was on his way to Jerusalem who was beaten to within an inch of his life by the bandits on the road in the wilderness?

Apparently, while David and his men were hiding in the wilderness, they set up shop as a sort of security force for the Israelites in that region. All winter long, David and his men are in and out, back and forth with the various shepherds, making sure that everything is well.

One man in the area seems to be particularly wealthy. Hebrew speakers can see where this is going, because the man’s name, “Nabal”, is the Hebrew word for “fool”, or one who is senseless.

At any rate, near the end of the sheep-shearing season, David sends a small group of about 10 men to Nabal’s estate. They ask for anything he has “on hand”, knowing full well that with four thousand head of livestock who’ve just been shorn (and are presumably just about to give birth), well, there are plenty of liquid assets around. David’s men remind Nabal that had they not been there to secure those assets, he’d have a lot less on hand.

Nabal, however, treats David’s men – and by extension, David – with contempt. “David? Never heard of him. He’s nothing. He’s nobody…”

And for some reason, something in David snapped when this happened. When his men report the treatment that they’ve received from this Fool, David gathers 400 soldiers and heads out to Carmel, where he intends to murder Nabal and his family.

This is the same David we saw last week, by the way: the one who was relying on God to avenge the wrongs that King Saul had brought into his life; the one who was content to wait on God’s justice; the one who expressed deep and abiding faith in God’s provision… Do you remember that David? That was a guy who was acting like we want a king to act.

And, unfortunately for Nabal, that David was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we see a hot-blooded, angry, calculating man bent on destruction, revenge, and murder… In other words, the David of I Samuel 25 is acting a great deal like King Saul has been acting.

La Prudente Abigail (Giordano Luca) 1696-97

La Prudente Abigail (Giordano Luca) 1696-97

There is, however, an interruption. Nabal’s shepherds do an end-around and go behind their boss’s back to his wife, a woman named Abigail. They tell her what David’s men did for them all winter, and they inform her of Nabal’s callous treatment of their protectors. Without her husband’s knowledge, Abigail prepares a feast for David and his men. She whips up a party platter that includes 200 loaves of bread, 5 roasted sheep, and piles of grain, raisins, figs, and wine. She rushes out to meet David, and when she does so, she apologizes for her husband’s foolishness. Then, she issues a word of prophecy about David. Listen for the Word of the Lord in 1 Samuel 25:

“Please forgive your servant’s presumption. The Lord your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the Lord’s battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the Lord has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the Lord your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant.”

Essentially, she says, “Look, David, you are a good man. You are called by God; wrapped in God’s plan, God’s love, and God’s purposes. You are doing what God wants you to do; God is protecting you already. If you visit this punishment on Nabal, you will do evil; you will depart from God’s best for you and disqualify yourself as a moral leader for the people of Israel.”

And, just like that, David snaps to his senses. He blurts out, “Wow, thanks! I really needed to hear that. You’ve saved me from myself, and I’m grateful.” And just as Abigail had said that God was acting in and through David’s life, now it’s David’s turn to recognize the hand of God in Abigail’s actions and words. Listen:

David said to Abigail, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak.”

Then David accepted from her hand what she had brought him and said, “Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request.”

When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the Lord struck Nabal and he died.

When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Praise be to the Lord, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept his servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal’s wrongdoing down on his own head.”

Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, “David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife.”

She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, “I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord’s servants.” Abigail quickly got on a donkey and, attended by her five female servants, went with David’s messengers and became his wife.

And, as you heard, Abigail went home and explained what she’s done to her husband. And whereas the truth enlivened David, it actually killed Nabal. Once more, David sees not just human history, but the hand of the Lord at work. He senses that it’s a good idea to have a truth-teller around, and so he marries Abigail, and she becomes a trusted confidante of the man who would be king. After all, she had prevented him from compromising his integrity and his very purpose in life. David was quick to recognize that Abigail had empowered him to be more faithful to his God, his calling, and his community than he might have chosen to be on his own.

Paul Rebukes Peter (Guido Reni), 1609

Paul Rebukes Peter (Guido Reni), 1609

Our New Testament reading contains much the same story. Peter had heard a clear word from God regarding the inclusion of Gentile believers in the community of the Church; he had supported the expansion of the body of Christ and had in fact acted toward these “outsiders” with grace and acceptance. He did all of that – until the pressure from the hard-line conservative Christians tempted him to act in a fearful and exclusionary fashion. He starts to treat them as second-class members until the Apostle Paul shows up and opposes him publicly. Paul’s aim here is not to shame Peter, nor to win an argument in which everyone comes to agree that Paul’s a better debater than Peter. Paul calls Peter out by saying, “Look, Peter, you are better than this. You know the truth, for crying out loud. Keep your integrity, and preserve the power of your witness.”

 

comfortablelie1There has been a lot in the news lately about the phenomenon known as “confirmation bias”. As you may know, this refers to “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.” (Wikipedia) If you want to see this in action, bring up “gun control” or “abortion” or “global warming” in any conversation, and watch how people filter reality – or in some cases create what we now call “alternative facts” – to demonstrate how any sane, right-minded person must obviously agree with them. Confirmation bias is simply our tendency to hear what we want to hear and to surround ourselves with people who are willing to tell us exactly what we want to hear.

Who saves you from that? Who does the opposite of that for you?

That is to say, do you have anyone in your life who is not content to simply tell you how wonderfully correct you are, but who instead calls you to be a better self than you currently are?

Now, pay attention to me. This is important. I am not sending around a sign-up sheet asking “Who wants to be an Abigail or a Paul, and go out telling people what’s wrong with their lives and where they need to improve?” I’m not encouraging any self-appointed prophets to go out and straighten out the political views, solve the personal problems, and rectify the incredibly poor financial decisions of the people around them.

I am asking, in some ways, the opposite question. Who will you trust enough to invite into your life so that you might know more of the truth about yourself? How are you designing relationships so that when you need to hear the truth, there is someone who is close enough to speak it to you?

Our natural tendency is to surround ourselves with sycophants – so-called “yes men” who tell us exactly what we want to hear about ourselves and the world.

The problem is that these people disappear when times get tough and leave you to wallow in your own mess. We need someone who will love us enough to tell us the truth. We need people in our lives with whom we can be honest so that our integrity – our moral compass – is protected.

Some of you know that every other Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. I sit with a group of seven other pastors in the room back there. You might think that all we do is drink coffee and laugh. Some days, you’d be right to think that. But on our best days, we allow ourselves to talk about the stuff that really matters. We give each other permission to ask difficult questions. We trust each other’s perceptions. We don’t all agree theologically, politically, or socially. But we love and trust each other, and rely on each other to be honest reflections of ourselves.

A few of you might say, “Hey, who needs a group like that? I’ve got a spouse who does that for me.” And if that’s how your life is, that’s great. Sharon and I have found that sometimes we are too close to each other or to the situation to be objective enough to tell the truth in this way.

In recent years, I’ve made a habit of spending regular time with a few people in a one-on-one context wherein I’ve been given permission to ask some important – and sometimes intrusive – questions. These are people who don’t want to stay where they are, and think that having someone like Pastor Dave interrupt their lives from time to time might be a good thing.

My point is this: David was an incredible man of God. For a long time, it was obvious that God was going to use him in some very significant ways. But in his life, as in mine, there were landmines and potholes. Every single day, David’s anger, pride, lust, or insecurity sought to get the best of him. Every single day presented David with choices that provided a tremendous opportunity either strengthen or undermine his witness; to enlarge or diminish his integrity; to accentuate or compromise his effectiveness for the greater good.

David needed to let someone into his life so that he might be protected from himself. And on that day, in the wilderness, that person was a woman named Abigail.

I need to let someone into my life so that I might be protected from myself.

So do you.

Your task for this week is simple: ask yourself if what I’ve said this morning about David is true. See if you think it might be true about me. And consider whether it applies to you.

And then?

Well, then you act. Who tells you the truth – even when the truth is the last thing that you want to hear? What, if anything, needs to change in your life so that you are more likely to be open to relationships like this? How can we help you get there?

Amen.

In light of the controversy surrounding the recent Presidential Order concerning immigration and refugees, I offered the following comments in the context of our morning prayer time:

I suspect that many of you were anticipating that I might say something in the sermon about the political firestorm that is brewing as a result of the fact that the President of the United States of America has issued an executive order that severely restricts immigration from seven war-torn, predominately Muslim nations, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Some of you may have been disappointed that I made it all the way through a sermon which seems to be focused on a person who is called to greatness and rooted in goodness who is tempted to act in a way that is beneath his faith and contrary to his God.

Others of you may have been relieved that I didn’t get all political in a message.

The bottom line is this: if you were waiting until today to hear me say something about the call of the church to advocate for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead; if you are still wondering what I think about the response that Christians ought to have to those who are running for their lives; if you’re not sure what I believe about what the Scriptures have to say about welcoming the stranger and caring for those who bear the image of God… then, well, I’ve been doing it wrong for 23 years.

This is not the hour for a political meeting or a policy strategy session. This is the time for us to stand in prayer and solidarity with those who are vulnerable; to ask God’s blessings of wisdom and discernment and prudence in the lives of those who have been tasked with leading our nation; and to ask God’s mercy on us as we, who have so much, must now choose what to do with it.

I have made available a statement made by the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, who is Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’ve met J. Herbert on several occasions, the first of which was in the city of Juba, South Sudan, on a day in which I had been tasked to be the preacher in a United Nations “Protection of Civilians” camp housing 35,000 internally displaced people. It was overwhelming… mile after mile of people who had been driven from their homes by ethnic or political terror – clutching to what remained of their lives in structures made from plastic tarps and bamboo sticks. J. Herbert was on his way to the camp that I just left – and I cannot imagine a place on earth that is closer to the despair of hell than that camp. I would encourage you to read that letter.

I would encourage you to read Matthew 25, about the care for “the least of these”; and Leviticus 19, about our charge to deal well with the poor, the foreigner, and the refugee; and Luke 10, about knowing who is your neighbor and how to treat that neighbor.

I’m not here to drive you to any particular action or political strategy. You, as a congregation, pay me to encourage you to read and respond to the Word of God. So I’m doing what you asked me to do – pushing you, encouraging you, inviting you to take the words of Jesus seriously. This stuff about loving neighbor, exposing ourselves to risk, walking with the most vulnerable – I’m telling you, it’s not my idea. I learned it from Jesus. Pay attention to him! May God have mercy on us because we do so – or fail to do so – at our own peril.

Some ‘Splainin to Do

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  On October 23, 2016 we looked at the problems that developed as neither Saul nor David was able to treat Michal as a person in her own right… and we wondered how much of what we “know” is really true.  Our scriptures included I Samuel 19:8-17 and Luke 13:10-17.

 

It is a fixture of my childhood. I remember sitting on the sofa with my grandma watching reruns of I Love Lucy. If you remember Lucille Ball, you’ll remember her character as the good-hearted but clueless woman whose antics often put her and her friends into awkward situations. And do you remember her husband calling on the phone or stepping into the apartment, discovering her shenanigans, and then calling out, “Luuuuuucy! You got some ‘splainin to do” in his rich Cuban accent?

lucyIt was funny – really funny. Her character is clearly a ditzy woman who is hopelessly inept who cannot help but leap out of the frying pan and into the fire in episode after episode. Fortunately for her, she has a husband who can come in and sort things out, help her cover over her mistakes, and make things right again. Do you remember that? I Love Lucy was the most-watched show in the 1950’s, and really shaped American culture for years.

As we continue our exploration of the life of the biblical hero David, we find ourselves in the midst of a story where a woman is being called on the carpet by a man who has power and authority over her. In today’s reading, we meet a young woman named Michal.

At the end of chapter 18, we learn that the daughter of King Saul had fallen for young David in a big way, and that gave Saul an idea as to how to get rid of his rival. Saul lays out a trap for the young lovers: he tells David that he’s willing to “give” his daughter to David because, after all, there’s no way that a poor shepherd boy could afford the marriage price that was customary for a royal wedding. The only thing that David has to do is go out and single-handedly slay 100 Philistines, the sworn enemies of Israel. Saul has got to be thinking, “Oh, wow, this is too easy! After all, nobody kills a hundred Philistines! They will wipe the floor with him and I’ll be rid of him forever!”

David confounds the plan, however by slaying not merely the requisite 100 enemy soldiers, but by overcoming 200 of them. He wins the girl and Saul’s hatred and fear of David only increases.

Today’s reading takes place after the wedding, and if you think you’ve got problems with the in-laws, well, just be glad you’re not David. Michal was there to save David’s life, and if you read the text just right, you can hear Saul calling Michal into the house, yelling, “Michal, you got some ‘splainin to do!”

Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.

Illustration from the Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.

Michal’s answer is a little puzzling at first. In verse 11, she’s warning David to get out of Dodge as fast as he can, and yet in verse 17 she looks her father in the eye and says, “What could I do, daddy? That mean man threatened to kill me!” That only makes sense if the backdrop to this story is a culture wherein women are essentially powerless to stand up to the men in their world. What else could she say? He was the King, he was her father, and he was a he. Her hands were tied.

One important thing that this part of the David story reveals to us is that Michal loves David so much that she saves his life. Michal keeps David alive so that he is able to live into the promises that God has for him. What would have happened, do you think, to Israel if David had not been warned and therefore was murdered that night? How would the Bible and the story of God’s people be different if, instead of showing up in all the Psalms as well as the books of Samuel and Chronicles, David was just a three paragraph mention – a potential rival who was quickly dismissed?

What if Jesus was not the Son of David? How would history be different?

Michal’s bravery and quick thinking led her to take action that averted such an alternate history. She kept David alive and therefore kept the promise alive. And for that, people of faith should offer thanks.

Allow me to pause for a moment and invite you to reflect on this. My sense is that nobody in this room has had your life saved by a spouse who stood between you and a murderous father-in-law, then helped you climb out the window, and then made up a pretend you and hid it in the bed. This part of the story has little in common with our experience.

However, I would suggest that each of you knows someone who has believed in you when you didn’t or couldn’t believe in yourself. You know someone who has kept the promise of hope alive in your life when you couldn’t see it for yourself. There is someone who has stuck their neck out for you, challenged you, loved you, saved you, and in fact has kept you so that you were free to become a better person. Am I right?

Who is that person in your life? Take a moment to give thanks to God for those who have carried us, believed in us, held us up when all we were able to do was sink down.

And you think, “Yes, Dave, that’s nice. I do have those people in my life, but you’re still getting off track here. This Bible passage is whack. Saul and David have no right to shuttle Michal around like she’s yesterday’s double coupon deal at the Giant Eagle. This is a horrible way to treat someone.”

It is. And it seems even worse when we are immersed in a culture like our own, where women are subjected to abuse or unwanted contact with all manner of television personalities and athletes and politicians and business leaders. We read the newspapers and we cringe; we open the Bible and we see the same behaviors, and it’s just hard to take.

It is. Because Michal was treated wrongly. There is no justification for treating another human being like a piece of property or a pawn in a chess game.

One of the reasons that I know it’s so wrong is because I can compare the way that Michal was treated by the men in her life with the way that Jesus treated the women in his. Our reading from Luke contains the story of a woman who had suffered horribly for 18 years. The day that she met Jesus, she was set free by an act of miraculous healing. When this occurs, she does the exact right thing: she praises God for the movement of the Spirit and celebrates her restoration to the fullness of her own life. It is a beautiful thing, and everyone there agrees…

Jesus Heals The Woman With a Disabling Spirit, From the so-called "Two Brothers Sarcophagus", mid-4th century.

Jesus Heals The Woman With a Disabling Spirit, From the so-called “Two Brothers Sarcophagus”, mid-4th century.

Everyone, that is, except the men who are in charge. Their reaction is the exact opposite. The leader of the synagogue immediately begins to shame the woman for being healed. Instead of celebrating her restoration to a vibrant life, he calls her out in front of the community and attempts to publicly humiliate her for having the nerve to be healed on the wrong day. He does everything in his power to remind her that she is nothing, she is no one, she is insignificant.

But Jesus… oh, sweet Jesus… Jesus shut that man up and put an end to the man-splaining of the day. He named the gifts of relief, release, and healing, and proclaimed that these things were always in order, and therefore not to be bound by any human regulation or timing. And, then, best of all, he turned to the woman and he called her out.

And did you hear what Jesus called her?

“Daughter of Abraham”, he said. In the presence of these men who puffed and preened and as Pharisees and Sadducees and Doctors of the Law were so proud to call themselves “Sons of Abraham”, he called her a “daughter of Abraham”. For the first time in the entire Bible, a Jewish man (Jesus) looks at a Jewish woman and says, “You are a daughter of Abraham. You belong. You matter. This is your place, too.” The phrase “Son of Abraham” shows up in many places in scripture, but this is the only place in the entire Bible where that phrase is used – and that is incredibly significant.

And note, too, that Jesus did not call this woman “the” daughter of Abraham. No, she is “a” daughter. Because there are others, don’t you know?

It is a statement that is incredibly empowering to that woman. It is equally infuriating to the men who think that it is their job to control and corral the women. And it is liberating for the crowd of onlookers who have been raised to think that there is such a thing as a first class follower of God and a second class follower of God; all their lives they’ve been led to believe that there is a hierarchy within the faithful, and men are on top and women are not. And here, Jesus says, “no. That’s not it at all.” Jesus repudiates the culture of Saul that would treat women as objects to be owned, trinkets to be adorned, or vessels for male pleasure or satisfaction.

You, woman in the synagogue: you are a daughter of Abraham. And you, Michal, daughter of Saul and wife of David: you are a daughter of Abraham. And you, every female child to come forward during the children’s sermon: you are a daughter of Abraham.

The Good News of the Gospel today is that God’s promises are for all of us. The covenant includes us equally. That’s the truth. That’s always been the truth.

I opened this message by reminding you of that famous phrase from the I Love Lucy show: “Luuuuuuucy! You got some ‘splainin to do!” I’m just curious: how many people in the room, like me, remember Ricky Ricardo calling out to his wife like that? I didn’t see you sitting on the sofa with my grandma, but do you remember that?

No, you don’t.

You can’t remember that, because he never said it. You can comb through all the episodes of I Love Lucy and you will never hear Desi Arnaz’ voice uttering those words. It’s just like people who “remember” Darth Vader saying “Luke, I am your father”, or Rick Blaine saying to the piano player in Casablanca, “Play it again, Sam.” Some psychologists call this the Mandela Effect, and it refers to a large number of people who share the same false memory. None of those things ever happened, even if you are sure you “remember” them from the movie.

And it struck me this week that if I can “remember” something that didn’t happen, then it can only follow that some of what I “know” is wrong. And therefore, perhaps, some of what “everybody knows” is also wrong.

Let that roll around in your brain for a few moments. How much of what you “know” is not true? Because we are shaped by a culture, because we are children of an age and inhabitants of a particular world-view, it is very probable that we think we “know” things that never happened and are not true.

For instance, as you were growing up, what were you taught about other races, or other nationalities, or other religions? What did you “know” about Latinos or Asians or Irishmen or Muslims? And in the circles in which you walk and spend your time, what does “everybody know” about those groups, or about Jews or elderly people or feminists or homosexuals or Presbyterians?

You see, in David’s day and in Jesus’ day, some of what “everybody knew” was flat-out wrong. Women are not subservient or second-class. There is not a “pecking order” or hierarchy when it comes to participating in the grace of God.

This week, ask God to help you see what is really true: what is eternally true; what is God-honoring, neighbor-loving, sin-defeating, wall-destroying, prejudice-dashing, scapegoat-freeing, life-giving truth. And may God correct us in our mis-remembering and bring us to a deep awareness of and appreciation for the other; may God give us the willingness and the strength to stand up for and stand alongside of those who have been wrongly silenced or marginalized. May all our remembering point us toward the One who called himself the way, the truth, and the life. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Beware!

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. On May 22 we listened to the words of Jesus as he warned about the dangers of, well, people who use words inappropriately.  The text was Matthew 7:15-23 and our epistle reading was I Corinthians 13:1-7.

 

Assorted Magnetic WordsI like to talk.

Wow! Tell us something we didn’t know, Dave! Wake the kids – call the neighbors! Dave likes to talk!

All right – this isn’t really news. You like to talk, too. At least some times, you recognize the value and the importance of the spoken word. You can get a lot done with words, can’t you?

You can ask for directions when you’re in a strange part of town. I can call my insurance agent when I’ve suffered a loss. Without words, we wouldn’t have the chance to share that great joke. And you can bet that I use words when my granddaughter calls me and shrieks, “Grampy’s available!”

In many, many situations, there is simply no substitute for talking. You just need a face to face conversation when you’re covering important relational ground, don’t you? Who wants to break up via text message, or hear second-hand about a friend’s plans to move? Sometimes, you have to just sit down and talk – use words to express what is really happening in and with your life. We have to talk.

And yet, as you well know, talk can be cheap, too. This is really easy to point to in this year of the primary elections. How many times have you heard someone say, “My opponent is the biggest nincompoop in the history of nincompoopery! I would not trust him to change the light bulb in the janitor’s closet! I could not warm up to her if we were cremated together…” You know what I mean, right? I mean, they are attacking each other. With words.

blahblahAnd then two or three weeks later, the same person will say, “My esteemed opponent has clearly demonstrated the kind of vigor that makes our community great, and I am happy to endorse her… I am honored to be considered as his running mate…”

Who are you?  What happened to the nincompoop? How easy is it to change our tune so quickly? The words are meaningless here.

Or consider when politicians or preachers rail against greed or pornography or some other wickedness, only to be caught six months later in some sordid affair or deep shame of their own. Their words say one thing, and yet they act in a manner that is the direct opposite. And we shake our heads and say, “Well, talk is cheap.”

Sermon on the Mount, Karoly Ferenczy (1896)

Sermon on the Mount, Karoly Ferenczy (1896)

This morning we near the completion of our study of some of the greatest words ever recorded: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For several chapters, the Lord has given some concrete instructions as to how to live as a faithful follower in difficult times. Several weeks ago, we heard him discuss the “Golden Rule” and talked about the fact that discipleship can be a tough row to hoe.

As he approaches his conclusion, he looks at the twelve disciples and, with increasing seriousness, continues to use words to point to a great truth. And the words today are those of warning. Beware! Watch out! Danger ahead!

The threat to which the Lord points most vividly here in Matthew 7 is that of false prophets. If we’re going to consider that today, we need to remember what a prophet is in the world of the Bible.

A prophet is someone who tells the truth; a speaker who uses words to reveal something of God’s intentions to the world or to a community. While we often think of the prophet’s job as to foretell the future, the reality is that more often than not prophets in scripture talk about the paths that God’s people ought to follow as well as the outcomes that our current behaviors and decisions are likely to produce.

In the bible, people like Jeremiah and Isaiah speak the truth of God in their prophecies, urging people to care for the poor, to stand up for the marginalized, to stay faithful to God, or risk the consequences. John the Baptist called people to turn their lives around and to embrace the reconciliation that God offers to those who seek it. The book of Acts tells of a man named Agabus who is called a prophet because he predicted a famine would encompass parts of the Middle East and he urged people to help those who would struggle.

Each of these men is revealed to be a “true prophet” because he tells it like it is and allows us to glimpse something of how our present behaviors intersect with future conditions and they offer us ideas as to how to plan our behaviors accordingly. That’s what prophets – true prophets – do. They tell the truth. And then they live the truth.

And as he nears the completion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions against a number of false prophets who will appear. Given our understanding of what makes someone a “true” prophet, then, I think we can understand that a falst prophet is one who does not reveal truth, or who provides horrible advice about dealing with the truth, or who speaks contrary to the intentions and purposes of God.

Think with me, for a moment, about the astounding number of false prophets at work in the world and in your life today.

  • What about the financial planner who takes it as a given that your number one priority in life is to take care of number one? Who insists that it is impossible to have “enough” and who encourages you to invest your money in schemes that will indeed amass wealth – but only as a result of unfair treatment of workers or risking the health of the environment? Isn’t that person a “false prophet?”
  • What about the so-called “friend” who sees you going through a tough time and shares your pain for a while, and then invites you to escape that pain with just one little rush of heroin?
  • What about the co-worker who insists that you have nothing to worry about – because “everybody cheats on their time cards”?

Each of these, and a thousand others that you could name, are indeed false prophets – that is, they are people who pretend to know something about how the world works and offer you advice as to how to engage that world with your life. But as bad as these people are, they are not the targets of Jesus’ warnings here.

Jesus calls for particular vigilance when it comes to those who claim to be religious, who seek to speak for God, and yet whose character reveals them to be disconnected with the intentions of God in the world. The church leader who advocates humility but who craves glory; the preacher who thunders on and on about “family values” but is revealed as an adulterer; the person who uses gossip and innuendo and fear to breed doubt and distrust and racism among the body of Christ…

This is a little awkward for me to talk about right now, but I think that Jesus is saying that while you are listening to me or anyone else ramble on and on about what Jesus might say or where the Holy Spirit is moving in your life, you need to be taking some time to think about whether I am a true or a false prophet.

When my mother was presented with a tidbit of information that she found to be either unsettling or implausible, she would simply say, “Well, consider the source…” She was not interested in taking advice on successful relationships from Elizabeth Taylor or Hugh Hefner, for instance (if you don’t know who those people are, think of Kim Kardashian or John Mayer). My mother taught me to look for evidence of character in the lives of people to whom I pay attention, and that advice has served me well over the years.

Who are the people to whom you listen when no one is looking at them? Do the things that they say line up with the things that they do? And if there is a consistency in their saying and doing, does that in fact point to the heart of God?

The bottom line is that, as you know, talk is cheap. Before you allow someone to influence you and your actions, pause to “consider the source”. Is that person someone with credibility and integrity? As that person speaks to you about what God wants you to do with your life, your energy, your money – is there any sign that he or she is being faithful with his or her life, energy, or money?

As he wraps up the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Look, I’m using words – a lot of them – to try to emphasize the way that life is, or should be. When we get up from this mountain, watch me. Look at the fruit in my life. See how I live this life. Am I someone who can be trusted? Do I live into this ethic that I’m asking you to follow? If I do, then don’t seek merely to follow me or to be attentive to me – seek to know me. Don’t just listen to me. Don’t just repeat what I say. Come with me. Be like me. Know me.  Love me.  Love like I do.”

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in the reading you’ve heard from his letter to the Corinthians. I know that when you hear this passage, it’s most often at a wedding, but it’s not about marriage, you know. It’s about the people who claim to be part of the body of Christ but who do not act that way at all. The mark of a true Christian, says Paul, is love. I may talk a good game; I might have a slew of impressive receipts listed on my tax returns; I may be the most gifted person in the history of gifts… but if I don’t live into any of that with love in my heart, then not only am I useless – I clearly know nothing of Jesus.

So by all means, beloved, consider the source as you listen to the ending of this week’s sermon. Look at my life and see if you can discover evidence of love or grace or faith or hope or – most importantly – Jesus. And do this, not only with me, but with everyone else that you listen to, so that you might avoid false prophets.

But know this, dear friends; beware and be alert! The people who listen to you talk about what you believe and who you worship… they’ll be doing the same thing. They’ll want to know, before they listen to a word you say, whether you are moving in the direction towards which you are pointing. Or is it just talk?

Listen. Follow. And love. For God’s sake, people, Love. Love Jesus. Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Show the world that you – and the One whom we are here to worship – can be trusted. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Truth or Consequences

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 15 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to oaths and vows as found in Matthew 5:33-37  while also reading from James 5:12.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 2.43.47 PMIf you were to drive south on route 25 from Albuquerque to El Paso, and at about the halfway point you felt the need for a comfort stop, you might find yourself pulling into the Shell filling station in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

If you did this, and asked the attendant how in the world a town in New Mexico came to be called Truth or Consequences, he would tell you that in 1950 one of the most popular entertainment programs in the nation offered to air its broadcast from the first hamlet in these United States that was willing to change its name. Hot Springs, New Mexico leaped at the opportunity, and ever since then has been legally known as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the county seat for Sierra County.

truth-or-consequences-radioTruth or Consequences was the first game show to ever air on television, and it was broadcast on television or radio from 1940 until 1978. On the show, each contestant would come onstage and be given approximately two seconds to answer a ridiculous question. If the contestant could not answer in that time, “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded and the contestant would be forced to participate in some sort of a crazy stunt or get a pie in the face.

Although the program was called Truth or Consequences, the premise and humor of the show came from the fact that the host created a situation wherein it was impossible to tell the truth. The questions were so awkwardly worded or trivial that it was a virtual certainty that no truth would ever be told – and the audience got to laugh at the contestants as they rode unicycles or sang with seals or other such nonsense.

For a couple of months now we’ve been exploring Jesus’ teaching as found in the Sermon on the Mount. After laying out the “ground rules” for faithful living in the Beatitudes, Jesus has begun to outline a series of expectations for his followers. In so doing, he calls them – and us – to a life that is shaped by humility, service, and a refusal to manipulate other people to serve our own ends. Today, he lays out the importance of telling the truth.

Verses 33-37 are evidently a response to some teachings of the religious leaders of his day about which vows were considered “sacred” and which were not. In other words, there was some discussion about which oaths and promises had to be kept and which were free to be discarded if they became inconvenient. In which circumstances is it permissible to go back on one’s word? Which oaths are iron-clad and unbreakable?

In response to questions like that, Jesus simply says, “None of that for you. There are no oaths and no vows. Swear nothing.”

IntegrityWhy would Jesus say this? Because an oath can only exist in the presence of the possibility of a lie. If I say, “seriously, I promise – this is the honest-to-goodness-truth,” then I am allowing for the reality that at other times, when I open my mouth what comes out is something other than the honest-to-goodness truth. “I swear on a stack of bibles” or “I promise you on my mother’s grave” are merely ways of communicating to you that much of the time, I may be dishonest and unreliable, but now, I really, really, really mean it.

Using oaths and vows in the way that Jesus’ contemporaries did is a way of shaping reality so that I am in control; I manipulate the truth to my own advantage in precisely the ways that Jesus forbids the manipulation of people.

Some Christians have read these verses and taken them quite literally. These believers refuse to take oaths of any sort – and in fact the constitution of the United States guarantees people the right to “affirm” rather than “swear” in at least four different places. Whether it’s offering testimony in court or being sworn in as President of the USA, many people have been unable to say “I solemnly swear, so help me God.”

Other people have taken these verses to mean that any form of deception at any time is a clear violation of God’s intentions for humanity. In her book The Hiding Place, a Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom describes her family’s practice of hiding Jews and other fugitives from the Nazi storm troopers. She recalls the day that her niece answered the door and when the Gestapo asked about whether there were any fugitives in the home, the young girl stammered a bit but eventually told the Nazis that those whom they sought were under the kitchen table. She did so because, she said, it was a sin to lie – even to Nazis.

Someone else might employ this same logic today in this fashion: you’re at a party and one of the guests is clearly drunk out of his mind. He staggers over to you and says, “Do you have my car keys? Where are they?” A literal reading of this part of the sermon might lead you to feel as though you are obliged to hand the keys over to the one who is intoxicated, simply because he asks you if you have them.

On the other hand, however, a quick glance through scripture reveals a number of places where a lie is celebrated or rewarded. When the Egyptian Pharaoh commanded the Hebrews to kill all the baby boys, for instance, the midwives named Shiphrah and Puah report that there are only girls… and are blessed by God for that. A Canaanite woman named Rahab lies about the presence of Hebrew soldiers in her home and is rewarded in a significant way. And when the three wise men showed up to worship the infant Christ, King Herod made them promise to come and tell him where the baby could be found – a promise that they did not keep when they discovered who Jesus really was.

What is Jesus’ intent in these verses? Would he condemn the midwives, or Rahab, or the wise men as being dishonest? Or is there a deeper ethic to which he invites us?

It seems to me that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to give shape to a community that is trustworthy. Jesus is giving us practices that will create people who know that they can rely on each other and who will act towards what is right. This is a community wherein the manipulation of truth for personal gain is unknown.

As is made clear in the Beatitudes, Jesus’ conversation here is rooted in the presumption that people are in a covenantal relationship and are committed to treating each other as God intends. If that is the case, then, we do well to remember that Jesus’ summons for truthfulness is rooted first and foremost in the ways that God’s people treat each other as we seek to live as a community that is shaped by covenant and integrity.

Having said that, then, I’d like to make a few comments about truth and its consequences.

One of the things we need to remember about truthfulness is that it is a gift and not a weapon. When I speak the truth to you or about you, it ought to be a benediction – literally, a “good word”. That doesn’t always happen, does it? Too often, followers of Jesus use the cloak of “truth” as an excuse to attack someone else. We hear mean and derisive comments followed by a shrug and someone saying, “Hey, it’s only the truth…” Such conversation has no place in the Christian community.

There will be times when I have to tell you some hard things about yourself or our world, but when I do so, I need to make sure that you understand that the reason I’m telling you those things is to encourage you and to build up the community.

Another way of saying this is that I am called to be true with you and true for you and sometimes true to you – but never true at you. Can you imagine yourself hurling a gift at me – throwing it in my face and saying, “Here you go, Dave – enjoy this!”? In the same way, it is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus to walk up to someone and unload a whole bellyful of truth just to make yourself feel better. We are each called to assess our motives in situations like this: if we are setting out to nitpick and criticize and feel superior about ourselves, then we ought to simply shut up. Yet if the ultimate goal is the enhancement of relationship and mutual growth, then I can offer even difficult comments in a spirit of generosity and humility, risking myself even as I ask you to be vulnerable to me.

Another thing we’ve got to remember about the truth is that as an offering, it is voluntary. That is to say that a posture of truth requires me to answer questions that you have not asked as often as I respond to those you have. Another word for this is “transparency”: a part of living truthfully is that I am unwilling to hide anything.

There have been times when I have gravely hurt other people not so much by outright lies, but by a refusal to share the entire story. When I manage the information I have concerning my thoughts, my feelings, my time, my hopes, then I am being less than truthful with you. There have been times when I have sought to justify myself by saying something like, “You never asked me about such and such”, but I’ve only done so because I was looking for a way to avoid speaking falsely; there’s no way that you can call that kind of manipulation of words truth-telling.

There are many times in interpersonal relationships where the truth requires an initiative and a sharing; an openness and vulnerability. If I find myself paralyzed by a fear that’s come up after a visit to the doctor’s office, or profoundly irritated by a situation at work, or deeply troubled by an event in the community, then I am being less than honest if I do not find a way to offer that part of myself to someone in the community.

Truthful speech of this nature produces the fruit of dependability in our lives. When we are honest about what we say and how we say it, people are more likely to see us as reliable in other areas. When we establish a pattern of integrity, those with whom we are called to serve are better able to open up to us. Truthfulness leads to dependability and then dependability brings us to a place of significant trust.

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission.  More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://laurajamesart.com

When Jesus sits on that hillside and invites his followers to be truthful, he is calling them and us to engage each other at a deep level. We are invited to become a community that is unflinching in our commitment to seek the welfare of all; a people who – with our neighbors – are open to an earnest consideration of what it means to be created, called, and commissioned by God as we speak for justice and compassion.

The only way to become that kind of community is be trustworthy and dependable. Any testimony that we offer is valued only as we demonstrate ourselves to be persons of integrity.

Reliability. Trustworthiness. Integrity. There is only one way to get those things: by telling the truth, over and over and over again. By offering the truth as a gift and seeking to be transparent in our dealings with others.

I know, I really do, that it’s possible to live otherwise, but the consequences of that are far worse than a pie in the face.

The first and one of the longest-running game shows on television created a reality wherein everybody knew that it was virtually impossible to tell the truth.  Nobody every watched that show thinking that there was any chance that there would be truth. That’s how we live far too much of the time.

If we are serious about living life the Jesus way, it will be impossible not to tell the truth. When Jesus was speaking about himself to these same people in John 14, he said that he was the way, the truth, and the life. If he is the truth, and I am called to be as he is, then what option do I have but to seek to live gently and truly in the place where he puts me?

The Way

On Palm Sunday, the members of the Crafton Heights church continued to think about the times that Jesus said, “I Am…” in the Gospel of John.  This week, we considered Psalm 118:19-29 and John 14:1-11.  My thoughts in this message are deeply influence by Eugene Peterson’s work, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way.

Survey time…I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but let me ask – what’s the best way to get to Disney World in Florida? Driving? Flying? Take the train?

maps-icon-location-iphoneWhat’s the best way to get to PNC Park for a Sunday afternoon game? Noblestown Road to the West End bridge? Or take the bus to the subway? Which way would you go? Or would you tell me to get out my spiffy new smart phone and say, “There’s an app for that, Dave”?

When I ask you about “the way”, in our culture that usually means that I am enquiring about the route. I want directions to be followed or steps to be taken so that I can arrive at the end goal quickly and reliably. “The way” is simply the means to the end.

Which makes one of the oldest and corniest jokes we know funny: “What’s the best way to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”

Contemporary comedian Demetri Martin has put a new spin on this one when he ways, “I want to have an apartment that’s near Carnegie Hall so that when somebody asks how to get to my place, I can just say, ‘Practice, practice, practice then make a left.’”

path-less-traveledThat humor points us to the reality that when we talk about “the way” we mean not only the fastest or most efficient route from A to B, but we mean the journey itself. When we stop to think about it, we realize that “the way” means the method, the path, the mode that we take as we move along from point to point.

And our culture is full of examples of that realization. In 1920, Robert Frost talked about “The Road Not Taken”, and how the paths we choose matter as much as the destinations for which we hope. Maybe you grew up watching “The Wizard of Oz”, and came to see that the Yellow Brick Road was not the most efficient or effective way to Kansas, but being there was important to Dorothy ending up where she did, back at Auntie Em & Uncle Henry’s farm. Nat King Cole got his kicks on Route 66, and Paul McCartney told us of the bane and blessing that was “The Long and Winding Road.”

Eugene Peterson gets to the truth of this when he writes,

Way: a simple noun designating a road that leads to a destination, but then opening up as a metaphor that ramifies into many and various ‘ways’ – not only the way we go, as in the route we take, but the way we go on the way whether by foot or bike or automobile. The way we talk, the way we use our influence, the way we treat another, the way we raise our children, the way we read, the way we worship, the way we vote, the way we garden, the way we ski, the way we feel, the way we eat…And on and on, endlessly, the various and accumulated ‘ways and means’ that characterize our way of life.[2]

Soooo…when I ask you what’s the best way to get to PNC Park, you have permission to look at me blankly, and then ask what I’m really asking…because I clearly think too deeply about a lot of things…

FaceofChristExcept today. It’s Palm Sunday. And we just read from the Gospel of John, where Jesus looks at his friends and says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me.”

Because if we accept that “way” means only the quickest and most efficient route somewhere, then we might come to think of “truth” as meaning only a set of ideas I can accept and “life” as the opposite of death. None of that is wrong, of course, but it is very incomplete.

In reality, Christians in North America appear to be better at accepting Jesus as the truth than we are at accepting that he is the way.

It’s fairly easy to go to someone and say, “This is my set of ideas that I believe about Jesus. It is the truth. I used to believe this other stuff, but now I believe this. If you cannot believe what I believe, you do not have the truth.

You see, it’s far simpler to decide on a goal or an outcome than it is to acquire the skill or means necessary to get to that place.[3] If I ask, “What do you want for dinner?” or “What would you like to be when you grow up?”, it’s easy to say “I’d love to have steak and potatoes and please, can I be the chief justice of the Supreme Court?”

But how do we get the dinner or that dream job? What’s the way to that? Isn’t that the harder question? Jesus is the truth and the life, but first he is the way. He’s not merely an answer.

triumphant-entryOn the first Palm Sunday, if you were to poll the denizens of Jerusalem, asking “What do you want?”, you’d get an earful. “What do we want? We want to get rid of the Romans! We want to go back to the good old days of Kings David or Solomon!” The Gospels are pretty clear about the fact that much of the time, we are far more interested in a rearrangement of the external furniture than we are a realignment of our internal priorities and practices. Which might be at least one reason why Luke points out that after everyone went home on that first Palm Sunday, Jesus wept for the city of Jerusalem. He knew that then, and now, we just don’t get it.

Take a look at what so many churches are selling these days. We ask ourselves, “What do you want?” And the answers are many and varied: “I want a job…a healing…a baby…inner peace…a new car…” Then we say, “well, let’s ask Jesus. He is the way to get that.”

No. No he is not.

jesus-the-magician-1Because if that is true – if the way that Jesus is “the way” is that Jesus is the means to our ends, then he’s nothing more than the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain; he’s only a magic man doling out blessings and bonuses to those he likes best.

But Pastor Dave, you’ve prayed for all of those things with us! And you said that Jesus is the way.

I have. And he is.

WashingOfFeetJesus is the way. An since he is the way, we do with him what we do with the other ways in our lives – we follow that way. We live like him. Which means, I think, that if he was tested, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or ill-treated, then we should not be surprised when we find ourselves being tested, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or ill-treated. That appears to be the way.

Did Jesus serve, tell the truth, forgive, and challenge others with the intensity of his love? Then we ought not to be shocked when he declares that servanthood, truthfulness, forgiveness, and extravagant love are cornerstones of the way of life to which we are called.

If Jesus is the way, then we live like him. And we live with him.

Following Jesus is not a skill that we acquire so that God will like us better. It’s not a reward that we get so that people can see how blessed we are.

Following Jesus means taking a path through life that is characterized by love for God and others and worship of God.

For about 1900 years, people who follow Jesus have been called “Christians”. Do you know what we were called in the decades immediately following his death and resurrection? Before we were called “church” or “Christians”, we were known as “the way”.

Think about that. If you wanted to align yourself with the movement that Jesus started, you were not invited to “join a church” – to add your name or identity to an institution. You entered into the way. Your whole life took on a subtle, yet fundamental shift. You still had the same job, the same family, the same responsibilities…but the manner in which you performed those roles – your way – was different.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus of Nazareth was a rock star. He was the one with whom everyone wanted to whip out their smartphones and take their “selfies”; the one on whom everyone was placing the burden of their expectations. On Thursday of that same week, he was branded a criminal. On Friday, he became a corpse.

And in the years since, he has become the most written about, admired, celebrated, killed-for, sought-after man in history. You can’t go very far without finding someone who is saying something about Jesus.

It’s just that he’s not very often followed.

jesusfeet3This week, I’m not asking you to go to Jesus. I’m saying that it’s important for us to go into the world with Jesus – to follow in and enter more deeply the Jesus way.

This week, ask for grace and strength and resolve to follow where he leads each day, each circumstance, and in each relationship. I’m pretty sure that it looks more like a dirt road than a wide superhighway. But I’m pretty sure that it’s the right way. May we have the grace to follow in that way, because he is the Way. Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

 

[1] The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is The Way (Eerdman’s, 2007) p. 22

[2] See Peterson, p. 27.