Peace and War: Son of Jesse

Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, just as Jesse had directed him. And he reached the encampment as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines, army against army. Then David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the ranks and greeted his brothers.

As he was talking with them, behold, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and he spoke these same words again, and David heard him. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.

Now the Israelites had been saying,  “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? Surely he comes out to defy Israel. The king will reward the man who kills him with great riches and will also give him his daughter in marriage and will make his father’s house free from taxes in Israel.”

Then David asked the men standing near him,  “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he has taunted and defied the armies of the living God?” So they told him, “That is what will be done for the man who kills him.”

When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard what he said to the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “What are you doing here? And who is watching our few sheep in the wilderness back home? I know you—you are overconfident and your heart ain’t right; for you have come down only to see the battle.” David cried, “Now what have I done? Was it not a harmless question?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 

Now, when the words David said were heard, the men reported them to Saul, and Saul sent for him.

David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”Saul replied,  “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep.  And when a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the lamb from its mouth, and when it rose up against me, I seized it by its whiskers and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has taunted AND defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head.  David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk, but he could not, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.”  So he took them off. 

Then he took his shepherd’s staff in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag. And then, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

The Philistine came and approached David with his shield bearer in front of him.  And when he looked and saw David, he derided and disparaged him, for he was just a young man, healthy and handsome.  He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?”  And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field!”

David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the corpses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, so that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel, and that this entire assembly will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will hand you over to us.”

As the Philistine rose and came forward to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.  Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone,  he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him, grasped his sword and drew it from the sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled. Then the men of Israel and Judah stood with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as the entrance to the valley and the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the way to Shaaraim, even as far as Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.

Then David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.

As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”The king said, “Find out.”

As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

1 Samuel 17:20-58

Well.

That is quite a story.

A story that, I suspect, you have heard mannnny times. Perhaps the single most recognizable story about David that a person is likely to know.

It feels like something out of a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, this hero story of David, the someday king of Israel, and his magical ability to fell a big bad guy with nothing but a rock and a sling.

Who wouldn’t love a guy like that? As a story, it is utterly seductive.

There are some interesting things, however, going on in this story, right under the surface, that I would like to unpack together on this World Communion Sunday, a day when we mediate on words from scripture like those that David uttered when he said “that it is not by the sword or the spear that the Lord saves.”

Let’s begin by orienting ourselves. Remember that, in this moment, Israel already has a king. King Saul, the first King of the Israelites. And King Saul’s first task has been to take the fight, as it were, to the enemies of Israel. 

And it isn’t going so well for Saul. Sure, his army is encamped against the dreaded Philistines. But they are all shaking in fear at this great warrior, Goliath, who scripture tells us is raining down terror with a mix of self-confident taunting and a rather intimidating appearance.

What was that that scripture told us just last Sunday? That God looks not at what is on the outside, but on what is inside the heart? Well, the army didn’t get that memo. Goliath looks terrifying, and they believe him when he says he will utterly destroy them. They are shaking in their armor.

And along comes this–how does the story say it—handsome, un-battle tested youth. The reason they keep calling him handsome, here, by the way, is to emphasize that he doesn’t “look” like a warrior. Not enough battle scars. David, the son that was left behind while the big boys went to war. Someone had to bring supplies to the front, and take care of the sheep. Someone, in other words, had to keep things going while everyone else picked up a sword.

Somehow David, is the only person who *isn’t* incapacitated by Goliath. This young man who doesn’t hide with the baggage but runs to the front, isn’t cowed by words from a giant of Gath. And yet his reaction—we have to *do* something about this—is met with anger from his brother, and dismissal from Saul. They are all convinced that the only way to solve this problem is with more force. But when they look at David, all they see is weakness.

We hear this story on a Sunday in which the church traditionally focuses on our call to peacemaking. Which feels, at first glance, a little incongruous. What could this story possibly have to teach us about peacemaking?

What if stories like this are EXACTLY why we need to talk about peacemaking? Whether we like to admit it or not, the stories of the bible are marked by violence—the violence of war, the violence of conquest. The violence of the cross. 

When we talk about peacemaking, it is really important that part of that conversation include a reckoning with our own tendency toward violence. We cannot pretend that we do not stand on the wreckage and ruin of countless bloody wars and conflicts that brought us to where we are. As Christians, as Americans. Chris Hedges once wrote “war is a force that gives us meaning,” and if we are to be peacemakers, we must reckon with that truth.

Because the truth is that we are *not* peacemakers, not most of the time. We are far more like David, gaping at the battlefield, or like the Israelite army, either caught in the midst of it and filled with fear or lust for battle. We must reckon with the fact that we live in a world that glorifies militaristic conquest, and enshrines it in the national story that we tell. That leans less on the wisdom of God, and more on the power of those who wield weapons.

The call to make peace must also reckon with the fact that, even if we are creative and imaginative in avoiding violence, this violent world will still find us. We cannot run from the violence of the world. And if you don’t believe me, believe the witness of the cross. 

So what, then, does it mean to transform a violent world with peace? What is all of this reckoning for?

Perhaps for the same purpose that these stories exist in our bible at all. The remind us where we have come from. Of the moments of greatest triumph, but also of our greatest mistakes. To reckon with our history is the gateway to choosing another path. Perhaps, if we are lucky, even a better one. 

I first moved to Philadelphia in 2008 for a summer pastoral internship. The other seminary interns and I had been attracted to this worshipping community because its mission was, in part, to work to transform the city through solidarity and hospitality to the marginalized and the oppressed. But before we got there, one of the first things that the pastor who was our mentor asked us to do was to read a book. It was called “A Prayer for the City” by Buzz Bissinger, and it told the story of Philadelphia in the late 90s. As a California Girl with absolutely no context for understanding Philadelphia, that book became a sort of compass—it helped me get to know my adopted city, and to understand some of the things that made it the way it was. It helped me to see the ways in which the problems that city faced were larger than just what was in front of me—violence, homelessness, poverty, racism–all of these problems have roots stretching back into the past, and if we want to be a part of the solution, we have to be willing to do the work to understand where they came from. And so it is with the work of peace as well.

So this World Communion Sunday, let us not speak as though the work of making peace is easy. It is not. It is likely the hardest thing we may ever strive for, and in the broad span of history, we may make but the smallest difference. But let us also commit ourselves to knowing the barriers that stand in our way, so that, like David, we might be creative in slaying the giant that stands before us.

Lessons Learned

Sermon based on text from Luke 14:1, 7-14

And it came to pass that Jesus was going to the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the sabbath to break bread, and they all were watching him closely.

He began to tell a parable to those who had been invited, 

remarking how they were choosing the best places for themselves, saying:


“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, 

do not recline in the best place, 

lest someone even more honorable than you might have been invited, 

and the one who invited you both might come to you and say to you, 

“Give your place to this man,” 

and then you should with shame take the lowest place.

But when you are invited, go, recline in the lowest place, 

so that when the one who invited comes, he might say to you, 

“Friend, come up higher!” 

Then you will be glorified before all of those reclining with you.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, 

and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Then he said to the one who invited him, 

“When you make a meal, whether in the morning, midday, or evening, don’t call 

your friends, 

or your brothers, 

or your relatives, 

or your rich neighbors, 

lest they return your invitation, and you would be repaid. 

But when you make a feast, 

call the poor,

The crippled,

The lame, 

The blind… 

and blessed you will be, because they have nothing.

They cannot repay you.

And you will be repaid in return at the resurrection of the just.

Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table.  You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in.  But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

My mom says that it is because she is a good southern woman, and that it just is poor table manners, but I think really it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument.  Because we don’t all think the same things, do we?  In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to republicans, sitting next to self declared socialists.  So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion.  Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties.  Let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about.  In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties, I think.  Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town.  

And like my mom, the ancient people had their own rules when they got together.  Most of those rules are pretty common sense–

What are the dinner party rules?  Guests are polite, right?  When I go to a party and I’m the new person, usually that means milling about quietly near the refreshments.  Maybe saying hi to a few folks.  And if we get to talking, what are people usually going to ask you about?  What do you do? Where do you live? Etc etc etc.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

It all starts with a sick man.  There is a man at the party with Dropsy.  Anyone know what dropsy is?  It is severe edema.  Probably caused by severe heart failure.  The man is swollen up like a balloon.  Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath.  He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath?  What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done.  He just can’t help himself.  He moves on to the guests themselves.  All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists.  He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party.  Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules.  Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite.  He is going to speak truth.  To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful.  Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

That’s the gift, friends, that Jesus gives us. The truth. So often, we worry ourselves sick over the impact that the truth might have—whose feelings it will hurt, how it will land, what the damage might be. And so we settle for pleasantries and half truths. We paper things over to make them sound better, and we do ourselves no favors. It feels safer, but there be dangers in these waters. We create for ourselves sinkholes and no go zones that impact not just us, but our children, and the world that they inhabit.

And that is not the world that Jesus wants for us. Jesus wants us to live honestly, and he models that in his every word and deed. So the question for us, today, I think, is this: what is the truth that we need to hear?

I wonder whether perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.  

A friend of mine shared with me once that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status.  For her, this just seems wrong.  Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time.  If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median. 

Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us.  That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter.  That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family.  So he did.  He got a job, and he lived at his job.  Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for.  He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control.  We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick.  Can’t you just get a job?  Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself?  How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control.  We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that.  For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party.  All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house.  If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters.  And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue.  What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together.  What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by. 

You know, earlier this week I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and I went for a run. And while I was running, I started noticing all of this trash on the side of the road. Cups, bags, half eaten fruit, scattered everywhere along the freeway. Honestly, it was a little bit disgusting.

And I found myself thinking as I ran along, how often I look past the trash on the side of the road. How often I accept that as the price of admission for living with other people. How often we all agree that we will just pretend it isn’t there, or pay someone else to deal with it.

But then there’s that one person. In my experience, they are usually someone you never would have noticed. In my neighborhood growing up, it was an elderly immigrant from Vietnam. Every afternoon, I would see her walking along the side of the road that I passed almost daily, picking up the trash. Taking the time to pay attention. Noticing what was wrong and setting it right.

That is the goal, friends. Not a peaceful dinner table where we never talk about the issues that trouble us. Not a society where we look past the suffering of others. The table of grace is one where we notice what is wrong, and endeavor to set it right. Where we are willing to take the time, even if it gets our hands dirty, even if nobody notices, even it it seems like it doesn’t change a dang thing.

Why? 

Because we worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus. THAT guy at the table.

And that is enough.

Yet He Could Not Escape Notice…

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. 

Yet he could not escape notice. 

But a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him,
and she came and bowed down at his feet. 

Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. 

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 

He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go.
The demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child thrown on the bed, and the demon gone.”

Mark 7:24-30

“Sunday Morning” by Norman Rockwell

Some mornings, I wake up, and all I want in this life is to escape notice. On those days, I want to wake up when I am ready, walk downstairs into the kitchen on my own time, make myself a strong cup of coffee, and catch up on the news in peace. In my mind, this magical morning resembles something out of Norman Rockwell, with children playing quietly and peacefully while Alex and I gather ourselves together to meet another day.

Of course, that is nothing like our actual lives. Most mornings, one or both of us are jarred from sleep when one of our beloved children comes in our room to announce that THEY ARE AWAKE. Or, someone awakens the whole house to a concert featuring one of their favorite Christmas songs sung at the top of their lungs. And then there are the times that the dog awakens us early, eager to get outside to chase a squirrel or a rabbit. Domestic bliss!

You know, I went looking for a picture that might capture the fantasy in my head of an ideal morning. I figured there would be dozens of options to choose from—Norman Rockwell was, after all, a prolific artist. But I couldn’t find any.  Instead I found pictures that looked a little too close to how I feel on my most stressed out days, which, in COVID, let’s admit, are more frequent than usual. Most days, I feel like the man in the picture above—slouching down in my chair, hoping that I will, for however briefly, escape notice.

Over the course of the pandemic, researchers have described a phenomena in which people were so desperate to be alone with their own thoughts that they were stealing that time late at night. Instead of going to sleep, which is the definition of a restful activity, they were scrolling the internet, binging television shows, hiding from friends and family and doing their best to escape.

In other words, we all know what it is like to want to disappear for a while. But most days, it turns out that we cannot escape notice. We cannot escape the reality that there are others—our children, our pets, our neighbors, the world outside—that need us to show up and be there for them. That remind us that we have responsibilities to one another.

Perhaps we can relate, then, to Jesus when he sets off for a little time alone.

You know, it’s interesting. It would seem that Jesus is trying to take a vacation in our scripture lesson this morning. He’s had a rough week—his hometown rejected his ministry, and then the religious authorities showed up at his door questioning his credentials. No wonder he wants to get a way for a bit. So he slips away from the boundaries of his community and into Tyre. Tyre is an interesting choice, I have to say, for someone like Jesus to be sneaking away to.  Just 130 years before Jesus was born, the community of Tyre had assisted King Antiochus in the siege of Jerusalem and desecration of the Jewish temple. 130 years is not that long. A Jew hearing this news about Jesus might have sucked in her breath, shocked to imagine that he, of all people, would be naïve enough to end up in that kind of neighborhood.

If Jesus were American, it would be as though, after a long and hard season of ministry, he woke up one morning and decided he needed to get away and clear his head. And so he jumped on a plane and landed at Kabul airport. Or in Tehran. Or in Sinoloa. Or any other number of places populated by people around whom we have reasons to be guarded. To go there seems reckless. He would have been alone, alright. Alone, and exposed.

There is a whole genre of literature that explores the urge to be alone. Into the Wild tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a man who disappeared into the Alaskan bush to find himself. Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild pulls her life back together by testing her limits on a life-changing hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Jon Krakauer documents the relentless and dangerous pull of Mt Everest in Into Thin Air. There is an endless supply, it seems, of novels and memoirs that document the stories of people who felt that they needed to “escape notice” from the world in order to understand themselves more fully.

What is interesting in these stories is what happens when “the world” passes away, and the characters at the center of the story are stripped down.  What will they  do with this precious opportunity? And I would suggest that the same is true for Jesus.

When he slips away into Tyre, we cannot know what Jesus expected to happen. But we know what DOES happen: Scripture tells us that he cannot hide. Even here, far away from the people with whom he shares a culture and a religion, there are people hurting and crying out for relief. People who look nothing like him. Who believe differently than he does. People whom he may even have reason to distrust. People who are foreign. Other. And yet, they have heard of him and what he does. And so they find him. The Syro-Phoenician woman bows at his feet, lowers herself and begs for him to heal her daughter.

And for the first and only time in his ministry Jesus will say no to someone who comes to him seeking healing.  But it is more than that—Jesus doesn’t just say no. He goes further, insulting the woman and calling her a dog.

Christians have twisted themselves in knots over the centuries trying to explain this behavior. “Perhaps Jesus is not saying what HE thinks, but what the disciples were thinking. Perhaps he is trying to expose their own prejudice.” Perhaps Jesus said one thing with his words, they suggest, and another with his eyes.

The truth is that we can’t know for sure. What we can be certain of is this: this is not an easy story to square with the Jesus we think we know. However his eyes looked, his words don’t seem compassionate or kind. He seems less holy, and more holier than thou, callous and indifferent to the suffering of the woman before him. 

Perhaps its just that I don’t want to believe that Jesus could be as human as I know that I am. For I know that I have hardened my heart in the face of suffering. I know that I have made judgements about other people, people I have decided are not like me. I have seen the struggling, and instead of reaching out to help, I have thought to myself, ‘there but for the grace of God, go I,” and I have gone about my business without doing a thing. I have convinced myself that I need to compartmentalize, to decide that some suffering is more worthy of my time than others, because otherwise how could I possibly function in the world?

But not Jesus. I want Jesus to be better than that because I want to believe that, God willing, I can be better than that. Surely, when we affirm that Jesus is utterly human, just like us in every way, we cannot mean that he is as callous as we have the ability to be to one another. Because isn’t the fact that he is also utterly divine supposed to make him better than us?

You know, it’s easy to forget, but, according to the scriptures, there are times when God changes course. Times when God was prepared to mete out punishment, or withhold grace, and then is convinced to do otherwise.  In Exodus, more than once, the people of God complain to Moses, and God decides right then and there to do away with the lot of them. And do you know what happens? Moses convinces God that there is another way. And God listens to Moses! In 2 Kings, when scripture tells us that the wickedness of Israel led God to send invaders to siege Jerusalem, King Hezekiah’s prayers of penitence convince God to have compassion on the city and to save the people once condemned. In the book of Jonah, the repentance of the people of Ninevah leads God to spare them from destruction, even though they are the enemies and oppressors of God’s chosen people.

Do you see what happens? Time and again, God erects a boundary, or pronounces a judgement, only to change course. To choose mercy. 

So why would we believe that this encounter with Jesus and the woman is any different? For when Jesus judges her, calls her a dog, she does not respond in anger. Instead, she absorbs the insult, takes it in, and in the tradition of Moses and Hezekiah and the people of Ninevah, she makes her case.  Am I not God’s child too? Do I not deserve God’s grace?

Let me ask you: do you believe that those whom you mistrust, or who have hurt you, those you have judged wanting, are worthy of God’s grace? Jesus found it in within himself to see the Syro-Phoenician woman in a new way that transformed an enemy into a neighbor, a stranger into a child of God. In the process, he opened the door for gentiles, people like you and me, to experience the goodness of the kingdom of God for themselves.

I can’t imagine it was easy for Jesus to change course, but then again, isn’t that part of the experience of being human? Science tells us that our brains are amazingly plastic, that they can actually reorganize themselves by forming new connections as we take in new information. The way I understand it, that means that the very part of us that many people think makes us who we are is inherently flexible. God made us to be flexible. 

This morning, Christ shows us that, when we are wiling to embrace our inherent flexibility, it is possible to see in a new way. That it is possible to open our hearts to people and places that might once have seemed beyond God’s reach. That is possible for strangers to teach us something important about the character of God. The truth is that we are capable of so much more than our worst instincts. And that is what gives me hope right now. That, I believe, is the best of Good News. Because ours is a world that is aching for faithful examples of what it looks like to live as though the ability to be humble and flexible and open to change were the expectation, not the exception. 

I want to leave you with one final story. 16 years ago, you may remember, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, killing nearly two thousand people and displacing over 100,000 students. At the time, I was a senior at the University of Southern California and a resident advisor in the honors dorms. I can remember how it felt to watch the news of what was happening in Louisiana, and how far away it felt from me and my world. I cared about their suffering, but what could I possibly do? 

A week later, Ms. Brevard arrived in our dorm. She was a student from one of the Historically Black Universities in New Orleans that was flooded by Katrina. She and nearly 100 other students arrived at USC with nothing—nearly everything she had was lost in Katrina. She told us about how, at her college, the floodwater line reached up the wall of the dorm, knocking out the power and the generators, and that even when they mopped up the water, it didn’t matter because the mold and mildew covered every surface. 

I cannot imagine how hard it was for her to leave a place that was home and find herself in Los Angeles, surrounded by a bunch of well-meaning, sheltered, mostly upper-middle class Californians who had no concept of what a hurricane was. And I am certain that we were imperfect in our support and our friendship of her in what was certainly a traumatizing time. But here is what I also know: Katrina became personal for us when we met her. When she arrived, we could no longer pretend Katrina was happening somewhere else. We could no longer escape notice. 

That’s the thing about our faith. Our call is to follow where Christ is leading us. Sometimes God is revealed to us in the expected places, and sometimes we discover the face of God where we did not expect it. Sometimes God grabs our attention and makes us see the place were weren’t looking, where God was all along.

Let us walk humbly, and follow closely, that our Lord and Savior might lead us in the way that leads to life. Amen.

You Are Enough

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.


Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 1:8-14 ; 3:1-15

A  couple of weeks ago, I was going about my  business as usual, and preparing to preach on Sunday, when something happened that changed everything.  You see, as a pastor and a public speaker, there are a lot of variables that I have to consider when I prepare to speak–what will I say?  How will I grab the attention of my audience?  How will I convey the emotional force of God’s Word?  But there is one thing that I always take for granted: my voice.

But one morning i woke up, and my voice had left me.  Like Paul, or Zechariah, I found myself unable to depend upon my own body to do what I needed. For two, three four, five, six days, I found myself deprived of the one thing I could count on—make that two things—my vocal chords. Every morning, I woke up, expecting my voice to “show up.” And every morning, for over a week, I was disappointed.no_voice I wonder whether this is what the Israelites felt like in Egypt. In our last conversation, we heard the story of Jacob wrestling a divine being, of a God who was so close we could practically touch him, but a lot has happened since then. The people of Israel have found their way out of their own land and into Egypt, where they have been treated as welcome guests. But over the generations, the welcome becomes less warm. The Egyptians begin to fear these “foreigners,” even though many of them were born there.

Slavery_In_Egypt_1153-21-Vol_2As our Scripture picks up here, we find the Israelites with their back up against the wall, as their welcome in Egypt turns sour. But they cannot simply pick up and leave, for the Egyptians have conscripted them into heavy labor. Their bodies have been colonized, and even Hebrew children find that they aren’t safe here any more. It is as though the Israelites have lost their voice. Where is God in all this darkness?

For what a dark time this must have been. To live in a world where to be born is to be put at risk. To live in a world where your body is treated like property. Where you were prohibited from worshipping your God freely. Where you had no access to adequate water, or food or rest from your labor. To live in a world that does not seem to want you.

And yet, we live in a world that is exactly like this. This very second, thousands of men and women and children just like the Hebrew people find themselves at risk: of being enslaved, of being murdered, of being starved, imprisoned, of being stripped of their dignity and their voice. The only difference is, the people who at risk are not us. We find ourselves in a position of security, looking out into a world that is populated by people near and far who are suffering, hurting, and in need of hope.

Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 21 August 2015. Macedonian police clashed with thousands of migrants attempting to break into the country after being stranded in no-man's land overnight, marking an escalation of the European refugee crisis for the Balkan country.  EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, 21 August 2015. Macedonian police clashed with thousands of migrants attempting to break into the country after being stranded in no-man’s land overnight, marking an escalation of the European refugee crisis for the Balkan country. EPA/GEORGI LICOVSKI

So where can we find ourselves in this story in such a time as this? Certainly we aren’t like Pharoah. For we have not made the policies. Our fingers are not on the trigger. And we aren’t his army—I haven’t noticed any Ivylanders out there enacting violence on behalf of the state. I wonder if perhaps, instead, we are like the thousands upon thousands of Egyptian people, or perhaps their neighbors down the Nile, who looked on, who heard the cries of the Hebrew people, who watched their bodies break and their children starve as they cried out to their God.

Consider the fact that currently millions of refugees across the globe are crying out for freedom. Even more are captive in countries where their children are fodder for drone attacks and mortar shellings, where those who survive are promised inadequate medical care and poor access to food and education. Even our own children are not safe: we were reminded this week that not a single week has gone by this year, or the year before it, or the year before that, in which there wasn’t a mass shooting on a school campus.

And though not a single one of us is launching missiles or building walls to keep refugees out, though none of us are consciously depriving others of the right to worship or to live safely, or educate their children, the truth is that we have stood by as others do. We have seen their faces; we have heard their cries. We cannot claim that we do now know we are far from God’s Kingdom. And our silence becomes an answer that echoes in the ears of the oppressed, saying “You are not our problem.”

Moses knew something about this. You see, when he was confronted with his own heritage, his own identity as a child of the oppressed, of the foreigner, of the outcast, his first instinct was to get angry. So angry that he lashed out in violence against the enemy, an Egyptian soldier. His reaction so frightened him, and his fear of justice was so great, that his second instinct was to run far, far away, as far as his legs could take him.

burning-bush-2But fortunately for us, Moses learns that no hideout is so distant that God cannot find you. In the land of Ur, far from any Egyptian or Israelite, God reveals himself to Moses. And in a moment of brilliance, the light of God shines upon this wandering child of God and reveals to him a third way, a new opportunity to bear witness to God’s justice in the face of a dark dark world.

God shows Moses right there in the middle of nowhere that sometimes the bravest thing that we can do is to turn around and dare greatly, to bear witness to the suffering of our brothers and sisters with our greatest weapon: our testimony. Even at the risk of our own life.

Of course, Moses isn’t sure at first. “Why me?” he cries, or rather, “Who am I?”

To which God answers: “Why Not you? Who else?” Perhaps Moses has forgotten that he is in fact the perfect person for this task: as the adopted son of the Pharoah’s daughter, he is both an insider and an outsider to Egypt. Moses is perfectly positioned to bring the voice of the oppressed to the seat of power. And yet, in the face of God’s call, he falls mute.

But God will not accept Moses’ weak excuses. If you do not speak, who will? When God calls us to speak into the void of injustice, who are we to say no? To call ourselves unfit to the task? To say, “This is not my problem…someone else can handle it.”

Friends, when you have found that your conscience is set ablaze by the devastation of today’s reality, pay attention. It may be that it is God’s voice speaking to you. When you see the suffering of the other, and recognize it as your own, as the suffering of God’s creation, that is God speaking to you. That is God saying: “This is your problem. Go do something about it.”heres-your-sign

Perhaps our problem is we are so afraid of the risk, that we have forgotten our fear of God. We have forgotten our story: that once upon a time, we were foreigners, we were outcasts, we were slaves, and we were brought in and given a family in the Kingdom of God. We have forgotten the strength of a God who has the power to set our hearts ablaze with the fire of God but not consume us. We have forgotten the awesome power of the one whom the cross could not kill and the grave could not hold.

And it is to us, In the face of a world filled with fear, that God offers a simple message to us all:

Turn, and follow Jesus. Follow Jesus into the world, in all of its suffering, in all of its pain. Bear witness to the light, with your testimony, with your body, with every gift that you have that God has given you. Pay attention to the ground one which you stand, for when you do this, you may find yourself standing on very holy ground, indeed.

God would have us remember that God doesn’t need much to change the world. All it takes is one person willing to take a stand, whether it is a woman shielding her baby, or a man speaking truth to the Pharoah. Perhaps all God needs are the souls in this room. We are enough.

Enough for what, you may ask? Enough for a revolution of love. Enough to speak to the eternal truth that all of of the God-created beings of this world deserve care. Enough to shine a beacon so that others might see: this is holy ground on which we stand.love1

Who are you? You are God’s instrument. And that, brothers and sisters, is enough.

God is in the Struggle

“That which does not kill you makes you stronger” is one of those “power sayings” that often get bandied about in polite society, a sort of talisman against the challenges of daily life.

In fact, the phrase has its origins in the work of Freidrich Neitzsche, who includes it in a list of aphorisms in his work entitled Twilight of the Idols.  In fact, the phrase in its entirety reads thus:

Out of life’s school of war: What does not destroy me makes me stronger.

In truth, there are many things in this world that can destroy us, and those that do not succeed do not necessarily strengthen us. That which doesn’t kill us has the power to alter who we are, not only for better, but for worse. It may not kill us, but it may embitter us. Or we may find ourselves immobilized by trauma and fear and scars that will not heal.

There is much in the world to be afraid of, and that which threatens us physically is just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider this story of Jacob from the book of Genesis:

22 The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man[b] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[c] for you have striven with God and with humans,[d] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[e] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

In Genesis 32, we encounter a lonely man, agonizing on the edge of his homeland. For here Jacob finally finds himself face to face with the past from which he has been running all of his life: a past in which he earned his name, which means “trickster and supplanter,” by stealing his hard-working older brother’s birthright and tricking his father while he was on his deathbed. A past in which he tricked and cheated his way into wealth and riches. But no amount of games and trickery can save him now, for if he wishes to come home, he must face what he has done.

Pen and Ink "Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God" by Jack Baumgartner, 2009
Pen and Ink “Jacob Wrestling the Angel of God” by Jack Baumgartner, 2009

Poor Jacob! How great is his sense of dread! He cannot possibly know that the same brother whom he once shamed with his games, the same Esau who pursued him to the limits of their land seeking vengeance, is a different man. Jacob cannot possibly know that something in Esau is softened. That his anger has ebbed, that forgiveness is possible. All that Jacob knows is his violation. His fear. The adrenaline that coursed through his veins as he ran from his brother. His conviction that he deserved to be chased, to be hunted, to be condemned.

Jacob, who has made a life for himself, who surrounds himself with evidence of his own success, suddenly seems not to feel so strong. No amount of wives, or children, or goats can still the rushed beat of his heart.

Because no matter how much wealth or family he amasses, he cannot change his reality: He is a hunted man. He cannot shake his past. And he can scarce imagine a future in which he will make it through this reunion unscathed.

And so he does what any shrewd person would do: he plans. He schemes to protect his family, to dull the edge of his brother’s rage with gifts and displays of power. And then he does what all of us do when we feel we have nothing left: he prays. Out of options, Jacob lies vulnerable on the dirt with his heart opened to heaven and begs for mercy.

That sleepless night, waiting for the morning light of justice to shine on his life and determine his fate, Jacob discovers that sometimes our demons are right there with us, when we least expect us.

At least, we think it could have been a demon. We do not know. Perhaps it was Esau himself, come to meet his brother under the cloak of darkness. Or perhaps it was a numen, an ancient divine power brought up from the deep of the river itself. We could spend our whole lives wondering and never discovering the truth of exactly who this stranger is.

But whomever it was who rose out of the darkness that fateful evening, it is Jacob who finds himself locked in a battle between life and death, light and darkness, curse and blessing on the banks of the Jabbok, a river whose name means both “a place of passing over,” but also “to struggle.” The very geography bears witness to the spiritual battle within Jacob—he has chosen to face his past, to stop running, to turn and face the consequences of his own making, and now he must struggle with what that means.

Because that is what this story is about. It is about a man who, from his first breath, was defined by his flaws: he was a supplanter, a trickster, a heel. He was the one who stole, who cheated, who knew how to look for loopholes and exploit them with abandon. And now, this one has chosen the more difficult path of accountability, of reconciliation, of struggle.

It is a choice that will both mark and bless Jacob for the rest of his life. As the dawn breaks, he emerges, not exactly victorious, but marked by a new sense of who he is—no longer is he Jacob the trickster—he has become Israel, the one whom God protects.

Jacob does not emerge unscathed—changed, but also wounded, crippled, forever marked. It is what Fred Beuchner called, “The magnificent defeat. A defeat because he limps. Magnificent because he prevails. And he limped every day afterward to show others (and himself) that there are no untroubled victories with this Holy One. He lives, with new power, but also new weakness.” God answers his prayers, but in ways that he could not possibly have expected.

I wonder if perhaps the news that we need to hear at this moment, in this place, is that our faith in God will not grant us victory in all things, nor will God promise that we will not emerge wounded from battle. Perhaps, instead, we are meant to understand that even when we struggle, even as we enter the thresholds that separate our past from our present, even as we are wounded, or wracked with fear, that God is with us. And that God is not only present, but that God bears witness to the power of these moments to change us so fundamentally that we emerge with a new identity, a new sense of who we are and what we can endure.Joshua1-9

How could Jacob have known what would happen when the light blessed his bruised and shaking body? Even so, perhaps that struggle, interior and exterior, gave him the courage to trust that God would be with him as his brother Esau rushed to greet him, wrapped him in his arms, and called him beloved, brother, and friend as tears of blessing fell upon them both in the light of a new day.

May it be so for us, as well.

South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo get emotional as they met during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again. (AP Photo/Korea Pool, Park Hae-soo)  KOREA OUT
South Korean Park Yang-gon, left, and his North Korean brother Park Yang Soo get emotional as they met during the Separated Family Reunion Meeting at Diamond Mountain resort in North Korea, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. Elderly North and South Koreans separated for six decades are tearfully reuniting, grateful to embrace children, brothers, sisters and spouses they had thought they might never see again. (AP Photo/Korea Pool, Park Hae-soo) KOREA OUT

Que Será Christians

In my family, my parents liked to give each of their beloved children a “theme song.”  And so it was that, growing up, my sister was haunted by family members singing “Rocky Raccoon,” and I found myself treated to regular group-singings of Doris Day’s mid-century hit, “Que Será.”

I found myself thinking about that song this week as I contemplated this week’s installment of our “Ask Anything” sermon series on Predestination. For a lot of people, Predestination sounds an awful lot like the unsung 5th verse of that song—

When I was just a little child, I asked my pastor: where will I go?

Will it be heaven, will it be hell? God is the one who knows…

Que será, será whatever will be; the future’s not ours, you see.

Que será, será, what will be, will be.

A very informal poll of some of my colleagues in ministry across the denominations revealed that for most of them, predestination is an unsavory doctrine that the Episcopalians and Lutherans were quick to blame on us Presbyterians. Which is funny, because technically nearly all of the Protestant denominations affirm this doctrine. In the early years of the Reformation, Martin Luther spilled far more ink on the subject than John Calvin, and both of them were simply quoting another ancient thinker, Augustine, who was writing on the subject in the 5th Century. Nonetheless, it is a doctrine that has come to represent, and for some, even define, the DNA of the faith that we as Presbyterians share with the worldwide Reformed church.

So what is it? And why does it matter?

The basic idea behind predestination is this: it is a doctrine that speaks to the will and intention of God as the driving force behind human destiny.

To understand it, we need to consider some other, far more important, ideas about God.

  • The Sovereignty of God

The Westminster catechism states that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” The sovereignty of God affirms what we see in the Bible—that the God who created us is, in the words of St. Patrick, not just with us, but “before and behind us, in us, beneath and above us, at every side, with us when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, there is nothing that can happen in this world that God doesn’t know about. Because God is sovereign.

  • Election

When we hear the word election, most of us tend to think of ballot boxes and political parties. We associate elections with choosing someone to be our leader.  The biblical doctrine of election is a similar idea, and it is directly related to the notion that God is sovereign.  The Doctrine of Election teaches that the initiative in matters of faith and human destiny is always God’s initiative. Our relationship with God isn’t like buying a car– we don’t go into the sacred supermarket and pick a God for ourselves.  Rather, our faith (and our beloved-ness in God’s eyes) is a gracious gift from start to vanish. It is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited. In originates in God, and finds a home within us.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we have been taught in American culture. I grew up surrounded by people constantly telling me to “make something of myself” and affirming that “I could be anything” as long as I tried hard enough.  Well, according to the Bible, there is at least one thing that I can never do for myself, and that is deserve the grace I receive. Election reminds us that, at least where our faith is concerned, there are no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up by. We are not masters of our own fate or captains of our own destiny. We cannot buy, or educate, or negotiate our way into salvation. Instead, “Twas grace that taught our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieved.”bootstrap01-1

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on how election works.  Basically, there are three major camps that seek to make sense of how God claims humanity:

  1. Universalism: all are included–none of us deserves it, but God chooses everyone, because God is love and God would never say no to one of God’s creations.
  2. Pelagianism: This approach to election attempts to affirm God’s action but makes it contingent upon our accepting the grace God offers us.  Which, when you think about it, sort of threatens the idea that God is sovereign, doesn’t it?
  3. Double predestination: some are included and some are excluded.

This is the view that Calvin took—and there are a few things we need to know about this.  First of all, this doctrine was the source of great discussion and argument in Calvin’s day.  Calvin observes in the beginning of his own discussion of it that “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination very confusing and even dangerous” (3.21.1).  Why so dangerous? Because this doctrine has to do with the mind of God, and none of us, by virtue of our humanness, has full access to God’s mind.  We cannot probe its depths, nor can we make any definitive claims about it.  We can only look to Scripture.

Second of all, we have to understand that this was a doctrine intended to comfort the afflicted and persecuted church. This is a hard thing for those of us who enjoy the privilege of worshipping without fear of losing our home, or our church being burned, or our lives being forfeit. But for early Reformed Christians, who saw their brothers and sister martyred and murdered all over Europe, it was a way of making sense of the carnage and suffering that followed their decision to follow Jesus in this way. It was something to cling to: God choose me.  God loves me.  I am not suffering for nothing.  But there was just one tiny problem: time went on and reformed Christians stopped being martyred, their perspective on this doctrine changed. You know how, when you are a kid, you might have a favorite blanket, or a soft, stuffed rabbit, something that brings you comfort, that you hold to help you go to sleep at night? Well how many of you have noticed that those same objects of comfort can, in an instant, become a weapon against a sibling? I know for myself, and I know in my home, that there is a fine line between a blanket as a blanket and a blanket as a hammer. Well that pretty much sums up this doctrine: Some Christians stopped seeing this doctrine as a blanket, and started using it as a hammer against other people.bbe1738a6187d68058f02ffeb6160113

Finally, I think it is important to point out that even John Calvin found this doctrine difficult to accept at times.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the notion that God might “give to some what he denies to others” (Institutes 3.21.1)  However, as a reformed thinker, Calvin privileged the Bible as the source of information and wisdom about God, and when he looked to the Bible, he saw both evidence of God’s mercy and of God’s judgement.  For him, this was evidence that God must have the freedom to choose.  However, he framed this theology in the context of the salvation of God.  At the end of the day, predestination had everything to do with the gift of God’s grace received in Christ.

In all of this talk about God’s sovereignty, and God’s election, perhaps it has occurred to you that there may be a problem, and that is this:  I don’t know about you, but I look around me, and it is hard to ignore the evidence that people seem pretty free in many of the decisions that they make.how do we reconcile human freedom with the sovereignty of God? How do we affirm that God is all powerful and the ultimate author and arbiter, while also affirming the importance of Human decisions?

And here is the truth that we would probably rather not hear: we are less free than we like to think. There is a lot of research being done these days exploring the line between nature and nurture, and it turns out that much more of our lives than we might like to admit depend upon things we have no control over: where we were born, the wealth and education level of our parents, our race. And so much of our experiences and our perspectives, it turns out, are shaped by forces beyond our control: DNA researchers point to epigenetics or the way our genes are expressed, sociologists point to community cultures, psychologists explore the realities of persistent bias. All these and more play an incalculable role in the way we see the world and the way that other people see us. We may be the land of the free, but what is freedom, really?

Now, the Bible affirms the importance of human freedom—on the edge of the promised land, Joshua calls the people to choose whom they will serve. In our scripture this morning, God does not direct, nor can he prevent, David’s choice to commit adultery with another man’s wife. The truth is that we are “called to make significant faith choices that grow out of the character and moral fiber of our lives. We make a choice to follow Jesus. But our choice is secondary to the decision that God has already made in Christ to love us and call us to service.” We love, says 1 John, because God first loved us.

At the end of the day, I wonder if perhaps the doctrine of predestination can help us understand the paradox of both our freedom and our lack of it.  Because, at the end of the day, predestination affirms the notion that, while we may not be free, in God we find freedom from the constraints of the world. In God we discover that all of the things that limit or define us in contemporary culture are wiped away. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither woman or man, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”s-1

In Presbyterian theology, this comes down to the notion of “freedom within constraints.” Have any of you ever gone to a restaurant and they handed you the menu and there were about 2 thousand options? And the freedom to choose anything—it turns out that it is difficult to make any choice at all. A menu with only 5 options turns out to provide the most freedom of all—we are able to make the choice that works for us, and enjoy our meal. The doctrine of predestination just takes a few options off our menu, constrains us with the “sovereignty of God” and the knowledge that God’s choosing us came first. Within that framework, we are more free than ever to follow Christ.

But what about other faiths? So often predestination quickly moves from being about us to being about “them,” the other who doesn’t worship God like we do.  Helpfully, our reformed heritage has some pointers for the usefulness of this doctrine in addressing the Other.  In his classic Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie offers these three guiding principles:

  • God’s Love: just because some people don’t live as thought God loves them doesn’t mean we can decide that God has written them off. We ought to remember that we know something about them that they do not: that God loves them too.
  • God’s Judgment: we must acknowledge that as long as there are forces out there which oppose God, there must be love expressed as judgment against them. But that does not give us license to judge others. God alone is judge.
  • Our Responsibility: we need to share what we know without judgment. Not so that they will love God if they believe and obey, but because God already loves them.

Which leaves us with one question:  what about us? Predestination frees us from the notion that we can earn salvation, or find confirmation of our saved-ness in ourselves. We can instead spend our lives wrapped in the blanket of grace that we have received in Christ Jesus as a gift. You know Linus from Peanuts? We can, like Linus choose to bring our grace blankets into community with others, because we know that sometimes, blankets are best shared—and when you are willing to share your blanket, you are building community. Finally, this blanket marks us—we have become those called to take our grace blankets out into the world. We aren’t in some special club—our blankets are markers of exclusivity. They are instead an invitation for all. They are a reminder that we have been chosen to serve. And we are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world.

Ask Anything: Why Don’t Presbyterians Kneel When We Pray?

When you pray do you:

-pray a prewritten prayer, like the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23?

-did you have to learn how to pray, or did you always know?

-do you follow a pattern or use a specific order?

-do you say whatever is on your mind?

-do you say anything? Or are you quiet?

-how do you situate yourself? Are you standing? Sitting? Lying down?

-when do you pray?

vendaprayersWhen I was in seminary, I knew people who used prayer wheels, people who prayed out of a book, people who believed the only true prayers were ones made of your own words, people who insisted that the ancient prayers of our faith were the ideal, and people who believed that the prayer that was pleasing to God was one offered in the holy tongue of angels.

I knew people who believed that prayer was something you could learn, like Spanish or Math, and advised others to take their handy four-week course in order to learn how to pray, and people who believed that prayer was a natural language, a spiritual gift beyond words and therefore beyond teaching.

What is true about prayer is that people have been doing it as long as there have been people. Whether you believe in one god or many, or simply in the ingenuity of the human spirit, it would seem that the human tendency is towards looking beyond what is, and speaking into the mystery of the universe in which we are guests.

And like anything important, prayer is one of those practices that humanity has spent a lot of time and effort arguing over how to do right.

Three preachers sat discussing the best positions for prayer while a telephone repairman worked nearby.

“Kneeling is definitely best,” claimed one.

“No,” another contended. “I get the best results standing with my hands outstretched to Heaven.”

“You’re both wrong,” the third insisted. “The most effective prayer position is lying prostrate, face down on the floor.”

The repairman could contain himself no longer. “Hey, fellas, ” he interrupted, “the best prayin’ I ever did was hangin’ upside down from a telephone pole.”

GPL-1Which gets me to our question today: one of you all was curious: why don’t Presbyterians kneel when we pray in church? It is a good question, one that I suppose could have as much to do with comparing our practice to other traditions as it might have to do with wondering whether there is a right or wrong way to pray in our tradition.

So let’s talk about it.

When the question was posed, I initially thought to myself that there very well may be an “argument against kneeling” in our history. I often hear kneeling referred to as a “catholic practice.” The reformed church, which had its beginnings nearly 500 years ago in Europe, spent many of the early years distancing itself from the Catholics, with whom they split. And like any disagreement, there were moments when the church went ugly, and spent its time arguing about why Catholics were wrong instead of wondering about how to be faithful to God.

So when I turned to John Calvin, the founding father of Presbyterianism, I will admit I expected to find some “anti-Catholicism” rear its ugly head. And instead I was pleasantly surprised.

Here is something we need to remember about our theological roots: one of the most important insights that John Calvin contributed to the church was the insight that we ought to let Scripture guide our practice. If the reformation had a slogan, then it was sola scripture, the idea that what mattered most about being Christian was fidelity to God’s Word, which required that we know it.

So when he gets to prayer, Calvin first turns to the Bible, and what it says on the subject. And according to John Calvin, the Bible is totally cool with kneeling, or raising your hands to the sky, for that matter. Our scripture this morning, at least, should be a reminder that there are at least as many ways to pray as there are people in scripture. The test of any prayer position, according to Calvin, is this: does it help you focus your attention on God? Does it bring us closer into communion with the One we have come to know as our Savior in Christ? Or does it draw attention to yourself?

Prayer: also known as conversation.
Prayer: also known as conversation.

Turns out the early church had no problem with what it called “ceremony” or exercises of piety, as long as it was used to deepen our relationship with God. Which meant that people were given the freedom to respond to God in the ways that seemed appropriate to them. Which also meant, for the most part, doing away with the requirement that a congregation kneel in prayer. If it brings you closer to Christ, he says, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t sweat it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that other Presbyterians haven’t railed against practices like kneeling. The Scottish reformer John Knox famously preached a sermon before King Edward the 7th of England in which he stridently argued against kneeling during worship, especially before communion, because he worried that in kneeling the people might be tempted to worship the elements of bread and wine rather than the God who gave them in Christ.

All of this is to say that what is important to remember, I think, is that our history, our legacy as Presbyterians, leaves a lot of room for freedom in prayer. We may not have a whole lot of rules about how one ought to pray, but this should be an opportunity to allow for diversity and freedom in our prayer life, rather than uniformity. At any given time, anyone in this room could find themselves brought to their knees or moved to lift their hands, or faithfully to remain still in the presence of God. All of these responses are and can be faithful when they draw us closer to God.

Which leads me to the question that has been bugging me: if we are so big on freedom, and on the ability to choose your own way in prayer, why is it that we all feel so much pressure to conform to what the other people in the pews are doing?

I remember when I was in college I attended two different faith communities: a campus ministry, and my local Presbyterian church. At church, I would sometimes feel so moved by music, or in confession, that I felt compelled to get on my knees. Except. I was embarrassed about what other people might think about me. I was afraid of drawing attention to myself. So I didn’t. I sat motionless in my pew and struggled with the conflict between how I felt and how I was. And in campus ministry, everyone was always raising their hands and swaying to the music, which often made me feel pressure to do the same. I worried that if I didn’t, I might be missing out on something.

I know I am not alone. We all feel the pressure to conform to the “rules,” and in the absence of rules we make our own. I told myself that the rules dictated that I had to stay in my seat like everyone else. But in the process, I deprived my soul of an opportunity to draw closer to God in prayer. In both of these situations, it was easier to submit to community pressure than it was to follow my own sense of what practices might draw me closer to Christ.

So the question for us is this: what kind of church are we? Last week we shared our ideas about our dream church with one another, and one of the qualities that was mentioned over and over again was welcoming and inclusive. For many of you, the church at its best is a place where people from every kind of background can gather together as a community, as a family, and feel like they belong. And I am so proud to be the pastor of a place with dreams like that. Because that means that, if we live into our dream for ourselves, we should feel free to pray in whatever way feels honest. We should feel free to be ourselves in the presence of God and one another, without fear of breaking some unspoken rule.

In the words of Calvin: love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify. If we let love be our guide, all will be safe.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray with love, and let us be a house of prayer, with hands raised, knees bowed, hearts inclined toward God, our Rock and our Refuge.

Gratitude: A Christmas Eve Reflection on the Lukan Story

It doesn’t start off sounding like a particularly special or noteworthy story—“In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus, that all the world should be registered.”  No warning that this story is THE story, just information, a setting, a time and a place.  A map, if you will, of the various pieces and parts that make up the landscape of this particular tale.  No warning that this story, of nothing notably “God-centered,” but rather a political requirement for registration, one likely to result in a greater tax burden for the people, is the context into which God breaks into the world.

And yet, here we are, listening to this tale of God’s working in a decidedly political world.  Of a man and woman, Joseph and Mary, who are compelled to travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, a trip somewhere on the scale of 100 miles.  A trip made more dangerous because it required that they detour Samaria, a country with tense relations to Israel at the time, all in order to fulfill the requirements of a foreign occupying state during the final term of an unplanned pregnancy.

To take this trip must have been a frightening prospect in the final weeks leading up to Christ’s birth.  I wonder how Mary must have felt, knowing that her child might very well decide to be born during a journey far from the safety of home and family.  How scared she must have been to realize that her time had come in a foreign town where her and Joseph were strangers.  To realize they had no friends, no familiar faces to help them in the uncharted territory of this new birth.

What courage it must have taken to persevere through the realities of a birth that the Scriptures describe in all of two verses—“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”  To be so desperate to protect their young child that Scripture tells us they welcomed their first child in the darkness amidst barn animals.

How alone they must have felt in those hours, fearing the immanency of parenthood coupled with the knowledge of this child’s Otherness.  The expectation of how drastically their lives would change with this life.  To wonder if they would ever find welcome in such extraordinary circumstances.

And as they experienced these fears, these questions, the reality of Christ’s birth, Scripture tells us that God was working to provide them welcome and hospitality in this strange and foreign place.  The angels of the Lord, who came to Mary and to Joseph, come to strangers in a field, proclaim the birth of Christ much as the birth of Kings was proclaimed in that time, but in the upside-down Kingdom of God these words are proclaimed not to nobles and dignitaries, but to shepherds at work in the field, shepherds whom we are told drop everything, leave their flocks in the fields and go “with haste” to find the family, to see what God has done in the world and to offer hospitality and welcome company in the midst of all that has happened.

Much is silent in this story—the details are left unsaid.  But at the end we know one thing, and that is this:  That ultimately, this is a story of gratitude and joy—the gratitude of Mary and Joseph when ONE PERSON was found who was willing to make room for them to welcome their child, their gratitude to be in a warm and safe space in those vulnerable and scary moments of new birth and new parenthood, joyful gratitude to God when their child arrives safely into this world, for a manger in which to lie his head.  Gratitude for the strength to persevere through the fear and unknowing, for strangers, shepherds who come seeking to welcome them and offer hospitality in a strange town.   Mary and Josephs’ gratitude that the improbable truth of their Son’s origin is known of and marveled at by others.  And the gratitude and joyful amazement of the nameless angels on this earth—the shepherds and other lowly, ordinary people, who find themselves welcomed into God’s presence by no less than God’s messengers and a holy family.

And it is a story of our gratitude, as well.

Our gratitude Christ is born in Bethlehem, that he was born in the midst of love and thanksgiving, that angels sang and shepherds rejoiced, that light conquered the darkness of those moments, that we too can add our voices to the song as we proclaim, “Christ is born!” in this season and in this place.   That we are welcomed to Mary’s side to behold the Child of God, and that this child is for all of humankind.  Gratitude, that this tiny, new child will one day grow up and change everything, will change us, if we would but make room for him to do so.   That on this silent, holy, and strange night, “Christ, our savior is born.”

May we, as did the nameless innkeepers and shepherds, Mary and Josephs, make room for this child, this savior, to change our lives this Christmas season.  Amen.

2 weeks left.

This morning is my last sermon at Clarendon Hill, and it feels weird.  It feels weird to realize that the year is almost over, that my middle year at seminary is drawing to a close, and that I feel less prepared for ministry than ever.  This year has taught me so much, but especially has taught me that ministry is a fraking mess most of the time, and that most people have NO CLUE what they are doing, and that I have NO CLUE what I am doing, but that people still look at me like I do because I am the “seminarian.”  Ha, if only they knew.

If only they knew that there are less than 2 weeks between me and the last due date for my finals, and that I am freakin’ out a bit because I don’t know if I can get-er-done..  Granted, I only have to write 40-ish pages, and granted that is not nearly as bad as some of my friends, but it still feels like a lot to knock off before next Thursday.  And you could ask me why I am not working on it now, but the truth is this– I don’t know what to say.

I have been wrestling with some serious mental roadblocks lately, mostly because I realize that there is so much I could be saying and so much I want to think about, but I feel as though I don’t have enough information to do it.  I feel like I should read more, but the more I read the less confident I feel about what I want to say.  I am seriously all over the place.  And as I have come to recognize, this is not a good sign.

So prayers would be nice this week.  Prayers would be good.  Prayers for sanity and for inspiration.  Hopefully, that and a little coffee will get me through the insanity that is finals, so that I can take a quick breath and start all over again.