Friday, July 30, 2021

The Art of the Bitch...


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

From what I have read, the “fleshpots of Egypt” made the school cafeteria food I had when I was a kid seem like a gourmet feast. God knows what “flesh” (if any) was in these big pots of stuff the Egyptians were feeding the hordes of Israelites they were enslaving to make bricks for the Pharoah’s building projects. Think prison food from the 18th century, or the gruel fed to African slaves as they were being “shipped” to America. Found a few rats? Throw them into the pot. Water from unclean runoff? Sure, why not. Spoiled plants and vegetables? Yep. Moldy bread? Most likely. These people don’t deserve better. Israel couldn’t wait to escape from both the labor and the larder.

But now, after just a short time after being freed by the hand of God, and journeying through the wilderness, these ungrateful people began to long for those big cauldrons of slop. Or worse yet, for death, back in Egypt. Why? Because they were hungry. They complained to Moses and Aaron, but in actuality, they were bitching at God, for they knew it was God who delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians. The Bible tells us several times in the Exodus narratives that Israel was a “complaining” people, but that’s being nice. They knew how to bitch, and bitch they did—to Moses and Aaron, to each other, and even to God.

Have you ever known anyone like this? People who just are never satisfied with what they feel are the cards they were dealt in life? Rarely is their misfortune at all their fault—it must have been someone else, or something else, or even God Almighty who has left the to “starve” in the desert of deliverance. Some sort of “Eeyore out,” proclaiming “Woe is me, I’ll never make it!” or becoming aggressive with their gripes, complaints, and bitches, actively blaming, shaming, or slandering those whom they believe responsible, including the Divine Presence. These can be tiresome folk—excruciatingly hard to listen to for more than a few measured minutes, and at worst, even beginning to cause even civil folk to question their plight as well. The veracity and venom of their bitching is something to behold. I’ve seen it in stores or restaurants, aimed at clerks or waitstaff, or in public offices, railing against underpaid public servants. It’s irritating at least, and depressing, at most. And sometimes the bitching starts very early, prompted by the bitchers’ dissatisfaction with what they perceive as the too-slow pace of the bitchees’ in their effort to solve their problems for them.

Now, if I were God, these people would get a “charge” out of the bolts from on high I would send raining down. Ingratitude at such a velocity and volume would be rewarded by a reprise of a few of the plagues sent against Egypt. Hungry? Here, have several million frogs to fricassee! I’m afraid I would be a bit reserved in my ability to offer much grace in the midst of the grandiose gripe.

Of course, as my wife regularly points out, I am not God, and that is a good thing for all of humankind, including me! (You see, I can be pretty hard on myself, sometimes.) So, what does the God of Israel do in response to the Big Bitch? Not what you would expect.

Yahweh sends food from heaven—a mysterious substance dubbed “Manna”—to feed them. The sweet, white “bread from heaven” would appear like the morning frost, and they were allowed to harvest as much as they could eat that day. Hoarding it was not allowed, but a family could eat their fill. How did Israel respond? They bitched that they weren’t getting any meat. Did God zap them thistime? Nope, God sent the quail in the evening, and again they could eat their fill.

There are two lessons here. First of all, I have to suggest that grateful living is so much more pleasant to others around us, and it must be sweeter to God, as well. If you have been around people who are grateful for all they receive, they are edifying and energizing, rather than tiring or irritating. Studies have shown that “thankful” people are also healthier people, because they are not consumed by the constant negativity of bitching! This critical vitriol encourages bile and stomach acid, and when really cranked up, releases the bitter taste of adrenalin in a bitchy one’s mouth, and can lead to prolonged worry over even simple slights, as they perceive reality. Secondly, this just can’t be pleasant to God, who is the ultimate source of our being and our blessings. As believers, we are encouraged to praiseGod for God’s provision and God’s goodness, and I have observed that there is a power in this kind of gratitude-based praise of the Divine Presence. The more I am thankful, the more I seem to receive to be thankful for. 

It is so important to see in this narrative, however, that God offers grub and grace as a response to the griping. How amazing is that? Does God really love God’s people this much, that God would “reward” our bitching with the blessings that sustain us? This, my friends, is Amazing Grace! As Christian believers, we see this same unmerited favor in the Christ event. Christ came proclaiming love and forgiveness, and humanity responded with hatred and murder. We killed the messenger. But again, God responded with pardon, partnership, and provision, with nothing due on our part but a simple “yes” to the invitation!

In the lectionary epistle passage today from Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul states:


Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

The apostle advocates for the Christlike behaviors of “quit your bitchin’,” blessing rather than grieving the Holy Spirit, engaging edifying rather than evil speaking, and forgiving one another and being kind to one another. This is where I’m coming from in this message today. I wish I could say that it is where I’m actually coming from, personally, but believe me, even at age 66, and as an active Christian for 48 of my 66 years, I’m still a work in progress. I would say I’m generally a grateful person. I am grateful not only for God’s blessings, but for the incredible people God has brought into my life, and with whom I have had the privilege of living with or working with over all of this time. I’m pretty good with saying “thank you” and showing appreciation. But I bitch. Too much. About stupid things.

But thanks be to God that God even hears my gripes and acts on them with love instead of sending the lightning down. If I could only learn to send my gripes to God as prayers, instead of saying them out loud around people who are powerless to fix the problem. Friends, I challenge us all to get with the program and pulverize the pessimism. Let us exchange the bitches for blessings, and the gripes for gratitude, in the name of Jesus, who modeled it for us and makes it possible. Amen!


Friday, July 23, 2021

Sinful Things...

John 6:1-15

New Revised Standard Version

Feeding the Five Thousand

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.


So, this is a miracle story. When we were visiting Christ Church College, Oxford—John and Charles Wesley’s alma mater—years ago, the docent who was giving us a tour had a wonderful story to share with our group. As we were standing before a huge fireplace with whimsical andirons in the great dining hall (picture the one in “Hogwarts” from Harry Potter, as it was filmed in this one at Oxford), the story was told about a young Oxford Don who would gather the children of the school faculty around the big fireplace after dinner and regale them with fanciful stories he would literally make up “on the fly.” One night, a professor suggested to the underclassman that his stories were quite good, and that maybe he should write them up to share beyond the hearth. The student—Lewis Carroll—did just that, committing his latest yarn called “Through the Looking Glass” to paper. As they say, the rest is history.


In Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, Through the Looking-Glass, Alice protests to the White Queen that she can’t believe impossible things.

The Queen replies, saying Alice just hasn’t had much practice at that. She goes on to say, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

As one commentator puts it, “Such is the attitude of some to miracles. In truth, they are far more complex than simply impossible things for the credulous to believe in.”

With the Olympics on most everybody’s mind this week, I googled one of the great moments—some say it WAS the greatest—from the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. I watched the final moments of the semi-final round of the hockey tournament between the Soviet Union’s juggernaut team and the mostly amateur team of misfits from the U.S.A., just to hear Al Michael’s heartfelt cry in the last five minutes of that match, as he screamed: “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES!” The U.S.A. had won, and would go on to win the gold medal over Finland in the final.


So, DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? I, for one, do. And I don’t feel the need to find a scientific reason as to what actually happened. If we believe Jesus was the Divine Presence incarnate, how hard is it to believe he performed a few miracles? Why, the very definition of a miracle is the “suspension of natural laws.” And sure, we can explain the miracle in today’s text—the “Feeding of the 5,000”—by saying that Jesus’ challenge to the disciples to feed the crowd “shamed” people into bringing forth the lunches they had packed, and sharing them with others around them, but why? I have no problem believing that Jesus “multiplied” the young lad’s snack of five small barley cakes and two small fish to produce enough to feed the large crowd AND have “twelve baskets full” of leftovers. After all, if the Divine Presence was able to call the cosmos into being with a word, ginning up bread and fish to feed a crowd should be small potatoes. Sometimes even a little “miracle” goes a long way toward reminding us of the Divine Presence. Besides, the REAL miracle here is that a giant “covered-dish” dinner was shared by a flock of Christians and they weren’t even METHODISTS!


So, where does SIN enter the picture here? Two things: After hearing the teachings of Jesus, witnessing a couple of healings, and then enjoying a banquet for 5,000-plus from a kids meal, their response was to WANT TO MAKE HIM KING! Why would they want to do that? One explanation: SELFISHNESS. If Jesus were king, he could wipe out all of the other “royal” powers who oppressed them, spend his day doing miracles FOR them, and offer them all tickets to eternity. Apparently, “the crowd” hadn’t been listening to what Jesus was telling them. They just got caught up in “the big ‘I’,” the Zambelli display of healings, and the grand parlor trick of feeding them all on his dime. Their response could have been words or acts of gratitude. God appreciates those who appreciate. I suppose they could have thought that making him king was kind of compliment, but since they didn’t really LIKE the leaders they had, putting Jesus in their place would be to THEIR benefit, more than that of Jesus. What do you do with the goose that lays the golden eggs? Capture it and make it do your bidding.


It is worth noting that the related passage from the Hebrew Bible to this story in John from the Common Lectionary is from II Samuel 11—the story of David and Bathsheba. In THAT story, David uses his position as anointed king to cross a bunch of boundaries and snare Bathsheba, the object of his lust. While I won’t profess to knowing the wisdom of the editors of the lectionary in pairing these texts, it DOES seem to indicate that there is something about that “king” thing, as well as the selfishness involved in both stories.


What IS sin, anyway? Some will say “anything that separates you from God,” or that sin is when we break the “laws” of God, but I think it needs a better definition. As I study the Bible, what I see in the things labeled “sin” are those things that: break relationships, or make them near impossible to sustain; things that focus on the “I” rather than the “we”; and things that either make community more difficult, harm it, or even outright destroy it. Things, thoughts, or actions are sinful NOT just because “God says so,” but because they produce highly negative “cause and effect” relationships.


Let’s take a quick look at the “Top Ten.” Using this latter definition, it’s easy to see how NOT honoring your father and mother is bad, as well as murdering, coveting a neighbor’s stuff, or stealing it. But what about the “Thou shalt nots” concerning God, such as “no other gods,” “don’t take the name of God in vain,” and “no idols or graven images”? God knew that it was their faith in Yahweh that kept God’s people Israel together—the fulcrum of their community. Other gods and/or their images and veneration of them would at least dilute the power of legitimate faith to hold them together, and at worst, would separate them into disagreeing, even waring, camps. Rather than explain the theology behind it, God gave the “Top Ten” to Moses, and the rest is history. However, “Because God said so” is not an adequate “mature” understanding of why sin is sin.


At the individual level, sin is that which separates us from our supportive community, and/or that which causes harm to others and myself. Using this more biblical definition of sin, there are things we quickly brand as “sin” which are really not, and many things we DON’T call sin that really are. Racism—whether individual or institutional--for example, is a sin because it breaks down community with all of God’s people, or makes it impossible to achieve, equitably. An intimate relationship between two committed adults is not, as long as they are both equally committed, and that neither is using a position of power to “influence” the other, such as what King David was doing with Bathsheba. 


To those who say “sin separates us from God,” I would want to argue that instead, sin separates us from God’s people, and THAT separates us from God. Sin such as personal abuses against our own body, mind or spirit ALSO separate us from God because God wants us whole, joyful, and connected. 


As mature Christians, it is important for us to ask the theological question, “What makes something sinful?” Children are told “NO” to touching a hot stove, and they learn that “NO” means “NO.” But as they grow and mature, they acquire more information that indicates that touching a hot stove results in harm to themselves, and they no longer have to be told “NO.” This principle is just as important for the maturing believer—we should be learning WHY God said “NO” to immature “children,” and to move away from sinful engagement on our own. The resulting “sound mind” and losing the “spirit of fear,” in the words of Paul, builds a firmer foundation in our relationships with God and others. 


“Conviction” is an important word maturing Christians should know. I may be “convicted” that some things are wrong for me—at least at this point in my life—but should not be broadly labeled “sinful” for all. Many years ago, the evangelist Billy Graham was a guest on Phil Donahue’s talk show. Donahue asked Graham if drinking was a sin, to which Graham answered, “No.” After the audience swooned with a collective sigh of unbelief, Graham said, “But it’s a sin TO ME,” explaining that God has convicted him that he should personally not imbibe, so as not to be a stumbling block to weaker souls he wishes to engage and with whom he seeks to share his faith message. Donahue asked several more “Is this a sin?” questions, and in most cases, Graham used the personal conviction explanation. 


Committing adultery is a sin, pure and simple. Multiple parties are negatively affected, such as what happened with David and Bathsheba. Of course with these two who “tangoed,” things got much worse, especially for poor Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband who wound up at the wrong end of a shooting gallery to cover David’s little “faux pas.” Sin digs holes; grace digs us OUT.


Here’s another angle to consider for why Jesus went AWOL on the plan to make him king: not all solutions are political, and not all political solutions are adequate. However, let’s not make the mistake of saying that people of faith should never be political. Some changes must happen at the societal level, and must move beyond the personal human heart. As a pastor, I could almost make book on the fact that when I preached about injustice, whether the topic was racism, sexism, or economic inequity, I would receive some amount of negative feedback. There would always be some whose political viewpoints were not so “affirmed” by the biblical and theological message, and that stings. If the message is biblical and truthful, it may, from time to time, call into question our personal or political positions or assumptions. That’s a fact. 


My wife recently shared something from a survey article she had read that said that the LEAST quoted section of the New Testament was the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus. Why? Because he is redefining “sin” in a way that causes us ALL to question our personal assumptions, and he defines “blessedness” in a way that may render our self-centeredness QUITE uncomfortable! 


As maturing Christians, we will be better served by using the biblical texts and teachings of Jesus to understand what we can do to bring about the true, just, and loving “Kingdom of God,” and to understand what actions, behaviors, or thoughts are counterproductive to this aim. For me, I’ll go with the self-correction, as much as possible, as when things get to the point where GOD has to do the correcting, it’s usually not pretty. However, remember that God even FORGAVE David for his sinful behavior and used him as an important leader for God’s people. Unfortunately, though, David paid a personal price for his sin.


But for now, we have a hungry crowd, and only five barley cakes and two small fish. Let’s get to work!


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Led Astray...

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”


Having spent a couple of days (years ago) on the island of Iona, taking photographs while among a flock of sheep grazing around the historic abbey there, I can say that when people in the Bible call us sheep, they are not necessarily being complimentary. While “safe” and rather docile animals, they seem to be easily led, and pretty much were focused on eating the best grass they could find. And while they “tolerated” one another, if a section of lush pasture got too crowded, some got annoyed and moved away from the pack. I was reminded of Yogi Berra’s supposed quote: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”


Here’s what one biblical commentator wrote about the biblical characterization of us as sheep (referring to this Jeremiah 23 passage): 


We are sheep in the sense that we have a tendency (individually and in “flocks”) to get lost without guidance, to get into dangerous situations from which we cannot rescue ourselves. Shepherds provide protection from human and animal predators, guidance to adequate grazing and water, rescue from precarious circumstances, and healing from wounds. Even David, the youth-shepherd, mighty warrior general and king of Israel, knew that he needed the Lord to be his own shepherd (Psalm 23). God’s human shepherds were to provide good guidance for God’s people, but frequently failed to do so. 


This passage is specifically addressing the poor kings who had done a lousy job of “shepherding” God’s people, but we can find other biblical references to humans being compared to sheep and lousy religious leaders or other “rulers” being called poor “shepherds.” Why, one of the most famous passages of prophetic prose—Isaiah 53—says: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way…


Sheep go astray and bad leaders—shepherds—do little to protect them, and may even LEAD them astray. This seems to be the gist of the biblical reference.


On the positive side, sheep are kind of cool animals. They don’t get “huffy,” and a person hanging out with them in a pasture is not in danger. They provide wool that keeps us warm when turned into sweaters, and if raised for their meat (and if you happen to like lamb), they can be a source of food, too. You can appreciate sheep, when they aren’t putting themselves in danger or fighting among themselves for the best grass.


And, on that same more positive side, bad leaders may not want to be bad leaders. Often, that assessment is after the fact, and let’s be honest, even the most well-meaning leaders make mistakes, especially when managing in the middle of crisis. When the “danger” has passed, almost any look back will surface less than wise decisions that were made in the moment, or times when the leader/shepherd didn’t take—or even hear—wise counsel offered. Still, they often mean well and do their best in the circumstances. I can say from personal experience, being a lead pastor in a large church during a global pandemic that pretty much shut down the world and “poisoned the pastures” for all of the sheep, was no fun, indeed. I find myself going over and over some of the decisions we made during COVID, and wishing I had had the benefit of hindsight. Still, overall, our over-the-top cautiousness kept our “sheep” safe, and for me and my leadership team, that was the paramount issue.


Even though these “positives” are worth examining, it still brings us back to the reality that well-intentioned or not, bad things can happen to good people—or sheep and kings. If the intentions are good, and the two parties are able to stay within their job descriptions, a way out—or at least a safe harbor—can usually be found. But bad things can and do happen. I get a kick out of some of the memes on Facebook or other social media that “preach” the idea that trusting God or obeying the Bible “guarantees” success or even safety. It just isn’t so. Even the scriptures tell us The rain falls on the just and the unjust…


But let’s turn our attention to the times when the sheep just go home to the “big I,” and make it all about themselves. When sheep get selfish about good pasture, they can get mean with those who want a piece of it. I saw a cartoon the other day wherein a young girl was asking an adult, “How does ‘trickle down’ theory work?” The adult responds, “Well, first most of the money and opportunity goes to the top 1%.” The little girl asks, “Then?” To which the adult pensively responds, “That’s about it.” When human beings—which according to scripture and to Jesus himself are “communal” creatures, created to thrive in cooperative community—go all “ME” postal, bad things happen, and the intentions causing them are NOT good. Here’s another problem with this selfishness on the part of the “sheep”: we can go so nuts looking for greener pasture we wander off and get lost. While not any expert on sheep, I can say for pretty sure that a lone sheep lost, especially in territory where there are predators, is in jeopardy. I don’t think sheep have much in the way of defense mechanisms, at least not what I have seen. I think they just sort of DIE in these circumstances. 


Similar bad things happen when the shepherds get uppity. Maybe they are frustrated because they are thrust into the role of “protectors” or “servants” to a bunch of smelly, thoughtless sheep, or maybe they just get greedy, but when these leaders lead from the perspective of “What’s in it for me?” or “How can I build a bigger flock?”, things can go awry in a hurry. Of course, I can only speak from the experience of a pastor, but since we are some of the ones most frequently compared to “shepherds” in the Bible, mine are probably valid views. As a pastor, if most of my time is spent “appeasing the sheep” so they will gladly follow me, I may be offering them spiritual junk food. I once knew a pastor whose “successful system” of growing a church was best summed up by the thought, “Give them what they want, and they will come.” And they did. Or, even worse, a pastor may cater to the base instincts of her or his “flock” by preaching TO their prejudices, bad theology, and dime-novel, “shoot from the hip” interpretations of scripture, affirming these as legitimate. This, too, will bring in a flock of people like lush grass attracts sheep in a field. The bad pastor/shepherd then even amplifies the message, suggesting that his church or his flock have the right doctrine, while the others “out there” are ignorant, at best, and apostate, at worst. This “us versus them” message WILL preach, and it WILL bring in folk off the street, because in our most primordial instincts, we want to believe we are right and the others—those NOT like us—are dead wrong. Again, this goes to the question of motivation. I read an article recently about a famous political pundit on TV whose story from early childhood was one of feeling “persecuted” or not being taken seriously by “the other side,” so this person worked hard to build a following of “sheep” who would side with him, as an adult. The “realm” he built now worships him, and listens to any “truth” he sends their way. While his childhood trauma may explain his harmful rhetoric and “mean flock” building, it doesn’t atone for the damage he is doing in the name of “winning.” Pastors, unfortunately, may work out of a similarly damaged psyche.


Now for the good news—God can find the lost sheep, and heal the misdirected shepherd! Especially if the original intent of the ones who are troubled was not just evil, God will proactively reach out to those needing God’s redemption, healing, and restoration. And those of us who are aware of these “needy” ones should both pray for them, and reach out to them, ourselves, offering our assistance in ways that aren’t either putdowns or patronizing. Of course, in the way of true servants, doing so may require us swallowing our own pride (especially that pesky “I told you so” attitude) and subjecting ourselves and our own motives to the cleansing love of God. From a Christian perspective, Jesus truly DID offer himself and his service to the “least, the last, and the lost,” and he worked as hard to accept and redeem his own chosen disciples, who were as unruly a bunch of “sheep” as one could find in that day. Jesus declared himself to be “the good shepherd,” and when he had “sheep in another fold,” I’m pretty sure he meant that his offering of redemption was for people “his people” would not consider worthy of saving. Even Jesus said, “he who is not against us is for us,” a statement that seeks to build bridges and open doors, as opposed to drawing lines between the “us” and the “them.”


I would be remiss, however, if I were not to remind us that if our original intentions are evil, the only way to be reconciled to God—and to others—is to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they may present themselves,” as our United Methodist vows of baptism and membership say. We must eschew the evil we are doing and repent. When bad things happen to either the sheep or the shepherd because their intent is evil, healing cannot take place until the evil is exorcised. Jesus’ most nasty words were for the religious leaders who were simply acting out of the evil intent of maintaining their status and power, to hell with the “sheep.” He didn’t offer them much hope, frankly. The strong words of the prophet in today’s passage from Jeremiah 23 rang true for this group in Jesus’ day, and they do today as well, for any who have adopted the evil intent of “winning,” instead of winning the hearts of people to God, through and by the grace of God. Jeremiah reminds us that “living your best life now” is not about you.



Thursday, July 8, 2021

Raiders of the Stored Ark...


2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

David Brings the Ark to Jerusalem

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.  David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.

They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes. 

David wanted something to unify Israel after their subservience to the Philistines had come to an end. The late, great Ark of the Covenant had been warehoused at the home of Abinadab, and David and thirty-thousand of his “besties” set out to retrieve it and bring it to Jerusalem. The various commentators say these thirty-thousand men were not an army, but a carefully-selected bunch of “politicians” friendly to David’s objectives. And while this must have made for one of the largest group of “strange bedfellows” in history, they must have certainly seemed like an army to any bystanders. Try to get the overall image of this story: thirty-thousand “escorts,” the mysterious, and long-time hidden gold-covered Ark riding on an oxcart, and David, dancing like a frenzied fool before it. This would have made the news even in ancient Israel. Just a few paces into the processional, they stopped and offered an animal sacrifice, too, which added to the puzzling pageantry of the pious parade. 

And if all of that wasn’t enough to pepper the story with journalistic interest, the lection reading from II Samuel cuts out the part about Uzzah trying to steady the Ark on the oxcart when it hits a prehistoric Pennsylvania pothole. He dies, instantly, upon touching the magic Box of God, thus proving it hasn’t lost any of its mystique nor potence while stored in Abinadab’s attic. This little anecdote brings an important question to mind: why, when historically the Ark was only man-carried by members of the Levitical priesthood while being transported, was the Ark now being ferried on a common oxcart? This may be meant as a commentary on David’s desire to “use” the Ark as a “tool” of political unification. Did David not respect the Ark’s heritage as the very presence of Yahweh among God’s people? Did David’s little “moving company” lose track of the importance of the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of law contained within, in his haste to transport it to Jerusalem, his new center of power? Uzzah’s death may have been a “sign” to remind Mr. David that God is in charge, not he, and that disrespecting the Ark by throwing it onto an old oxcart was a warning to anyone who may want to turn God into a political tool, or use faith as a leverage to get people to vote the way you want them to.

Then there is the question of David’s dancing. In biblical history, dancing before the Lord as an act of praise to celebrate God’s presence and God’s favor, was not uncommon. But since this whole scene in II Samuel may be a bit fishy, smelling more of political provenance than proper praise, his dancing could have been more of an act, sort of like how the evil archeologist/nemesis of Indiana Jones dons liturgical vestments and priest’s mitre to “ceremonially” open the Ark in the popular movie. 

Why are we asking these critical questions about what appears on the surface to be a celebratory story of a good guy—David—bringing back an important artifact—the Ark of the Covenant—to Israel? Maybe because modern events in the church have given birth to all kinds of rhetoric, that while on the surface appear to be authentic, have too often been about masked power-plays.

Take the church’s struggle with and now emergence from the threat of the global COVID-19 pandemic. When the “great shutdown” occurred the weekend of March 15 of 2020, many in the church cried foul, decried the Coronavirus to be a hoax, and acted out their grief in various ways. Some refused to close their churches and curtail their activities, and a spate of news accounts ensued of people infected by the potentially deadly virus while attending church to worship God! The irony of this “rebellion” sounds a bit like Uzzah’s “death touch” in today’s story. The deadly “power” was real, and unfortunately, some who played loosely with the official warnings paid with their health, and in some cases, their lives. As the pandemic wore on, the church continued to be striated by varying medical and political “opinions” about how to be safe and yet “be” the church. In II Samuel, David seemed to have very specific views about how to unite the nation and “restore” God’s rule to the people. So it was in the church, as some leaders resisted the counsel of the “real” infectious disease experts, and either contrived their own, which they often professed as being rooted in “trusting God,” while others bought into the political chicanery perpetrated by those in power. 

Over the course of the many months of curtailed activities in communities of faith, most folk eventually accepted the reality of the pandemic and found creative ways to “meet” and “do ministry.” A great variety of faith communities, including the congregation I was serving at the time, dipped their toes into “livestreaming” on the Internet for the first time. This turned out to be a generally good thing with several novel discoveries. Anyone could “join” your church service, and in many cases, “anyone” did! Out of state church members tuned in as did “new” people who had a fresh spiritual hunger brought on by questions raised by the pandemic and millions dying around the world. And it wasn’t just churches, by the way, as several times I was able to tune in to watch the Friday family observance in our nearby synagogue, led by a Rabbi friend. “Livestreaming” is now here to stay for most of these bodies, which could be both a blessing and a curse. While the Internet has become a new addition to the "parish,” personally piped-in services may also entice long-time church members to “watch church” on Sundays while relaxing in their “jammies” and munching on a donut, in the comfort of their family rooms.

As the church emerges from the pandemic, ever cautiously in most cases, answering the question of how to do it effectively and whether it is more important to “reactivate” or better to “reinvent” the church, going forward, will become most crucial. Most every active pastor, priest, rabbi, or other religious leader will be doing pretty much what King David was doing in the story today—dancing her or his backside off, trying to “please God” and whip up the interest of God’s people again. It is a dance of praise, to some degree that the church (the Ark) is back, but mostly it is a dance of “hope so” prayer and political purpose.

David’s raiding of the stored Ark worked out pretty well for him and for Israel, although the tenuous relationship between legitimate faith and political power would never dissipate. It still hasn’t--for Israel, and for the “New Israel” of the Christian church. Every pastor finds her or himself “gambling” about how to “resurrect” the community of faith. A new phrase has been born—“in-person worship”—and how it plays out in its new-found tussle with “virtual worship” remains to be seen. Maybe we all should dance a little harder…

And some skeptical “Michals” will most assuredly be watching from the cheap seats, waiting for a stumbling Uzzah, or for us “Davids” to suddenly lurch into a version of the Elaine Benes two-step instead of the graceful “bless God” dance, either of which could halt the procession of the reentry into religious prosperity.

As is often true of narratives from the Hebrew Bible, the overarching truth is that God loves, forgives, redeems, and restarts the stumbling, lurching community of faith because that is who God IS, and this is what a reconciling God does. Today’s story is case-in-point. This should be encouraging to the Body of Christ as it exits the exile of COVID-19. Maybe now we truly can do something we’ve talked much about: Discern where GOD is leading and follow that lead, “dancing” along the way! Maybe we can shed the trappings of “we never did it that way before,” or the heavy anchor of eschewing change, just because that’s what WE do! 

The Ark dragged from Abinadab’s attic was a symbol of getting back to core values but with new leadership and new ideas. The church that arises from the dust and death of a global pandemic may be “the Ark” for our time. After all, Christianity is a faith that emerged from a tomb in the first place. Amen.

Thursday, July 1, 2021


Mark 6:6b-13


Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.



This text has always had special meaning for me. Long before completing my college degree, and two graduate degrees from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there was Arizona. 


Some of you have heard my “Aldersgate” story of how, as a first-year college student, I had a “shake up” from God. As a church-honed, young “Christian” who believed in God, Jesus, etc., I found myself having an unsettling one-on-one with what I assumed was God, one late evening in my college dorm room. And no, I had not been drinking, nor had I had any “whacky tobaccy,” either. The “conversation” was pretty one-sided, with God complimenting me on being a good church “Christian” who prayed a list of “God-bless-its” and the Lord’s Prayer each evening, but who had pretty much taken the planning out of my life into my own hands. I would ask God to “bless” my decisions, but really never asked God’s advice, much. And now, I was being “corrected” for this oversight. “The Talk” really DID shake me up, but it also started my faith life onto a very different—and extremely engaging—path. I ended the evening a bit confused about whether I had been called into the ministry, or something, but knew that if so, the “call” was incomplete. I took a bus home that weekend to confer with my home pastor, the Rev. Hugh Crocker. He was most helpful, after hearing my story, first by affirming the possibility that God “might” call me, as he saw my leadership and involvement in the church youth group as good signs of this. However, he also heard my assessment that if it was a call, it wasn’t clear. I remember him telling me, “Give it time. Don’t rush God! If God IS calling you, God will make it crystal clear—in time.” I found that comforting.


Later that year, I met up with a church friend whose faith always seemed more “active” and “everyday” than mine. He was attending a very strict Christian college, and was home on Fall break. When I told him about my “chat” with God, and how this had seriously activated my own faith, which now included voracious Bible study and much more planned and “reactive” prayer on a daily basis, he was beyond intrigued. Over the next few months, every time he was home, we would get together to compare notes. A close friendship developed, and I dare say it was one of “discipleship,” and not just fellowship.


Fast-forward to the Spring of 1973. My friend not only came home from college for the Summer, but thanks to a bit of a “backslide” and getting himself In a bit of teenage trouble at a school that didn’t abide such things well, he was told he was suspended for the Fall term. If he cleaned up his act, and wrote an apologetic narrative showing how he was “revived” in his faith and ethics, they may welcome him back for the Spring term of 1974. Well, he DID, in fact, get his act together, and we began spending time with other local teen Christians going to Bible studies and Christian “rock” concerts, and other faith-based youth gatherings. It was during this time that “Arizona” began to happen.


Yours Truly felt God leading me to drop out of school for the Fall term and “head West” on a kind of faith/ministry pilgrimage. Since I would just be turning 19 in the Fall, this sounded pretty strange to my parents, but since they were happy that I was spending my time in Christian activities and fellowship, rather than going out on weekend benders like some of my other friends, they kept open minds. I spoke to my discipleship friend about this, and he was soon excited about “the mission,” as well. His very strict parents took a Summer’s worth of persuading to allow him to join me on the quest, but by the end of the Summer, they were on board, too. Our faith-based wanderlust seemed strange, but again, it was a Christ-centered endeavor, and our parents and other close friends had come to see how serious we were. Now all that remained was the where and how.


Take a look at the Mark text. Jesus tells the disciples—who were being sent out two-by-two—to trust God to prepare the way. My good friend and I took this text very literally (something that was usually part of our “Jesus People” faith in the early 1970s), so we prayed for a direction and a way to get to it, as neither of us owned a car, and this was a time when most middle-class families owned ONE car, if they were fortunate to have one at all. 


For two young “disciples,” the answers came fast and furious, and sure seemed like God-ordained miracles to us. An older friend from my hometown, who had himself entered a close relationship with Jesus Christ while in college, was now teaching in a small town in Arizona. He was home for the summer, and when he heard of our plans, offered us a ride with him back to Arizona at the end of the Summer. My friend suggested we aim to go to Scottsdale, Arizona, at that time a suburb of Phoenix. His family had lived there for a few years when his father was completing a graduate degree at Arizona State, and they had friends who would be willing to host us for a week or so, until we could find our own place to live and acquire jobs to pay the rent. Both of us pretty much sold all of our possessions so we had a cache of cash, and our large hoard of teenage Christian friends gave us a big sendoff and promised to keep us in prayer. We still didn’t know why God was “sending” us, but we now had a vector and a way to get there.


To keep this story from getting as “epic” as it could, let me just say that the whole adventure was amazing. We really experienced God working out every detail of “the mission.” We had a glorious trip with our teacher/friend, were lovingly hosted by a family my friend had known from before, and within a week, had settled into a brand new, furnished apartment, and each of us had landed jobs just perfect for our vocational interests. Now, the question of why we were here remained. The answer came on Sunday.


We attended a Baptist church that some of my friends past acquaintances attended, and discovered that a delightful, young couple who had served as the volunteer youth leaders for a large and growing group of high-schoolers, had just announced they were moving to California. Upon hearing that my friend and I had been leading Bible studies, teaching Sunday School classes, and had served as Christian camp counselors, they asked if we might take the job. The pastor called us in for a “get to know you,” for who knows, we could have been Manson gang people, or whatever. But after about an hour-long interview, he was convinced we had “the spark,” and might be good for the youth group. 


Again, to try to condense the story, we had an unbelievable experience in the Fall of 1973. We bonded with that youth group and led them in all kinds of activities, all while they showed us all over their part of Arizona. We went on retreats with other Christian groups we met, served as prayer partners for a giant concert by one of our favorite, nationally-known Christian rock bands of the day (“Love Song”), and met some of the most interesting people in the world. Our great adventure was “destined” to end by the beginning of December, as our apartment was originally built for the “snowbirds,” and our rent would be increased by a factor of TEN, as of December 1. Besides, my friend had redeemed himself with his college, thanks to our “mission,” which he detailed in a long letter to the administration, and he had been invited back as of the first of the year. We had a celebratory Thanksgiving dinner with all of our Arizona “family,” and with the money we had saved, bought two tickets to fly home in time for Christmas with our families and friends back in Pennsylvania.


We really felt like we had lived out the Mark 6 story. Metaphorically, a lot of “demons” were cast out, not only in our faith experiences, but any that would ever cause us to doubt what we could accomplish, with God’s call and God’s provision. Now, I don’t know if God watched over us so well because we were two, young and na├»ve teens, or whether God really DID send us on “the mission,” but we were both forever changed, and we both eventually entered full time Christian service. We heard from the Arizona group that a number of them, too, had answered God’s call to some form of mission or ministry, which confirmed for us that our “mission” was not just a pipedream. I can honestly say that my life has been very different, thanks to the Arizona adventure. About that trip, I could say something similar to what the writer of the Gospel of John says near the end of his text, that “all the books in the world” couldn’t contain all of the stories about what Jesus did. Similarly, this short message can’t begin to chronicle our myriad stories of Arizona!


I chose to share this personal experience story as my exegesis of the Mark 6 passage this week, because I really think it captures the gist of Jesus’ call to a step in faith, with no guarantees. I do NOT advocate that this is for everyone, but when God calls you to step out on faith and to TRUST God to lead and provide, don’t miss the opportunity to put Mark 6 into practice! You will never be the same! Amen!

What's Next?

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