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The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away. 

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread.  Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.Matthew 16:1-12

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There’s an old saying about predicting the weather: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” In our reading today Jesus says something along these lines to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says:

“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

How true is this still in our own time?

Today’s reading from Matthew centers around two competing parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Life in Jesus’ time was different from ours in a lot of ways, but one thing we have in common with the people back then: religious and political differences could get nasty. And the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two parties to choose from back then. (Actually there was a third party, the Essenes, but they got about as much press in the Bible as our third parties do in the news today.)

Since we find ourselves today being torn apart by party politics, this passage is very relevant to us – and we can learn much from how Jesus handled the situation.

The first thing we notice is that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees missed the point of Jesus’ ministry completely. In fact, opposing Jesus was just about the only thing the two groups agreed on! So they got together and confronted Jesus by demanding that he show them a sign from heaven.

Now Jesus had just spent three days healing people, and feeding over 4000 men (plus women and children) with seven loaves of bread and two fish. What more sign did they want?  Truth is, they really didn’t want to see a sign; they were testing Jesus to see how he would react under pressure.

So what was it that made the Pharisees and Sadducees oppose each other?

It’s complicated.

But like most arguments of this kind, there were a few issues that kept bubbling up to the surface.

For starters, the Sadducees were stuck on the letter of the law. Whatever the issue at hand was, if it wasn’t written down in the books of Moses (that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, or Numbers) – if it wasn’t in one of those five books they didn’t believe it. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in an “oral tradition.” In other words, when God gave Moses the law, not everything was written down. God also spoke to Moses, and these words were passed down to the priests and the prophets by word of mouth.

Included in these oral teachings was the concept of the afterlife. The Sadducees did not see anything about life after death in the books of Moses, so they didn’t believe in resurrection. They believed when you died that was it. The Pharisees disagreed.

Jesus, by the way, took the Pharisees’ side on this issue. In a debate with the Sadducees, Jesus quoted the book of Exodus saying:

“Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what God said to you: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt 22:31-32)

The other really big difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees was cultural in nature – and these issues are still with us today.  The Sadducees were the “One Percent” of their day. They were the richest, best educated, most powerful people in the country. In a world where there was no ‘separation of church and state’ the Sadducees held both religious and political power. (However unlike the “one percent” of our day, the Sadducees were not business tycoons. There were no Bill Gates-es or Mark Zuckerberg’s back then. Their power was strictly in politics and religion.)

The Pharisees on the other hand, while they tended to be well-educated, tended to also have sort of blue-collar backgrounds. They were smart, and they worked hard, and they studied hard, and they achieved success through real effort. And for these reasons they were popular among the people. But because the Pharisees had an oral tradition of interpreting scripture, and there was more than one oral tradition, their theological debates could get really deep, and could easily veer off-course.

Jesus spoke some of his hardest words against the Pharisees, even though he agreed with them more often than He did the Pharisees. Maybe that’s because the Pharisees’ mistakes were more dangerous. Think of it this way: If something is half-true and half-lie, most people will say, “that just doesn’t sound right.”

But if something is 95% true and 5% lie, people will often swallow the lie along with the truth. (This is the real danger of “fake news”.) The Pharisees got it mostly right most of the time. This is why Jesus said “do what they say but not what they do.” With the Pharisees things could get just a little bit twisted sometimes and end up in a place that God never intended.

One other important difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees: the Sadducees, in spite of the fact that they were closely tied to the temple – you could almost think of them as being like the College of Cardinals in the Vatican (not that they were Catholics – these men were very Jewish!) – but the Sadducees served in the temple in the same way that Cardinals serve in the Vatican. They were officials whose job it was to lead or assist in worship.

In spite of these temple duties, in spite of their close proximity to the things of God, the Sadducees were head over heels in love with Greek philosophy. In Jesus’ day, the teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics were the ‘in thing’; Socrates and Plato were a few hundred years before, and still had some influence but not as much. Anyway, the Sadducees were far more influenced by Greek philosophers than they were by the scriptures. The Sadducees thought Greek philosophy was the height of sophistication and intellectual achievement. It was classy… brilliant… exclusive… the crème de la crème, befitting the minds and lives of the “one percent”. It didn’t matter to them that Greek philosophy was in no way related to what Moses wrote or what God commanded – and in some ways was opposed to both.

The Pharisees saw the Sadducees’ love of Greek philosophy basically as turning their backs on God’s word. And Jesus and the early disciples – particularly the apostle Paul – tended take the Pharisees’ side on this one.

So in Jesus’ day the Jewish people were being encouraged to divide and attack each other along these party lines – much as we are being encouraged to attack each other today.

Because of this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are as important to us today as they were to the disciples back then. When Jesus has a moment alone with them, he said to the disciples: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Notice Jesus does not take sides. And he doesn’t waste time sifting through their various arguments. He warns the disciples to stay away from both.

Jesus doesn’t explain the yeast remark, but I suspect it has to do with the possibility that mastering these complex teachings puts a person at risk of puffing up with knowledge the way yeast puffs up bread. At any rate the bottom line is: Beware of it. Steer clear of it.

So a few thoughts on how to do that in our time:

When you’re dealing with modern-day Sadducees – the “one percent”:

  • Be aware that the world’s philosophies may be attractive and may contain some truth, but their source is not God and at some point you’ll probably have to part company with them in order to be true to Jesus.
  • Be aware that anyone who loves church because it’s in a beautiful building – or who loves worship because it is a dramatic presentation that catches the emotions – is completely missing the point. The church is God’s people and worship is how we express our love for God.
  • Be aware that the Sadducees were wrong in thinking this life is all there is. The God of the Old and the New Testaments promises eternal life to all God’s children.

When you’re dealing with modern-day Pharisees:

  • Be aware that centuries-old traditions handed down from generation to generation may be meaningful, but they’re not on the same level as God’s word. And think of all the traditions that have been handed down for hundreds of years that we’re having to fix in our generation: hundreds of years of tradition in which black people and women were not allowed to pray or speak out loud in church. Hundreds of years tradition in which people thought forgiveness only comes through a priest and not directly from Jesus. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought that if you’re rich it’s a sign that God likes you, and if you’re poor it’s because you’ve offended God. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought all you have to do is believe and you’ll be saved – and it doesn’t matter how you live after that. Beware of traditions that cause harm to God’s people.
  • Watch out for hypocrisy. Do religious teachers practice what they preach? Do they preach peace and then go out and attack people who disagree with them? Do they preach giving but never give themselves? Do they preach sexual purity and then go off and have an affair? Do they preach God as the Creator of the world and then don’t care about the environment? I could go on…

All these things to watch out for cut across party lines: they did in Jesus’ day and they do today. Jesus never fits into anybody’s box, praise God. He’s not supposed to.

Our job, as people who love Jesus, is to listen to him and follow him as best we can.  And wherever the various parties of our day turn away from God’s goodness and the truth of our Lord Jesus, our job, if we can, as we can, is to help steer things back on course.

Our job is to be God’s people, first and always. No apologies and no compromises.

AMEN.

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“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There is kindness in His justice which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour; there is healing in His blood.” – hymn by Frederick William Faber
O Lord inspire our hearts today to know you and to trust you more, to your honor and glory. AMEN.

Heads up: Today’s sermon is going to be a little dark.  It kind of fits the weather today. And besides, we’re only a few weeks away from Lent, and this sermon goes well with Lent.

We’ll be looking today mostly at the reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:5-10) which leads off with the words: “Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…”

Jeremiah is speaking to the rulers of Israel, and through them to the people of Israel, during Israel’s darkest days: dark, because the nation was in complete and total rebellion against God.  Jeremiah’s task was to warn them that if they didn’t turn back to God, the kingdom would fall and the people would go into exile – which is exactly what happened not long afterwards.  Jeremiah’s listeners responded by making fun of him and persecuting him and saying “can’t you ever say anything positive???”

That’s the context of today’s reading. But today I don’t want to focus so much on ancient history as I want to talk about now, recent history, and present day, in a sermon called “Parched or Planted?”

Parched or Planted?

Jeremiah, sharing God’s word and God’s heart, tells the people ‘you have a choice.’ Your life can either be like a shriveled up little shrub trying to squeeze water out of what’s essentially a lava-field or desert sand, or your life can be like a tree planted near a fresh-water stream, never dry and always producing fruit.  And God says through Jeremiah what makes the difference between the two, is what direction the heart is pointed in: the dried-up shrub has a heart that is turned away from God; the fruitful tree has a heart that trusts God.

The President of Jewish Theological Seminary, Behar Behukkotai, recently pointed out that in the Hebrew language and in Jewish thought, God’s curses are related to drought and dryness and a failure of crops. He writes that the Law of Moses teaches us to live by faith in this regard.  The law says “Do not sow seed in the seventh year, as you do the other six.” Be confident that God will take care of your needs that year and the next. Buy and sell property knowing that, in the jubilee year, all property will revert to its original owners. Walk through the land… tak[ing] responsibility for its stewardship… follow[ing] God’s commands, and subordinat[ing] your will to God.”

Behukkotai sees a parallel between disobedience to these commands and idolatry.  And when he talks about “being confident that God will take care of our needs” in the sabbath year – this is the definition of what Jeremiah is talking about when he says “trust in the Lord”. This kind of trust is not just an intellectual thing; it means to rest in, to feel completely safe. And so the question comes to us today: are we trusting in human power, or are we trusting the Lord? Are we parched, or are we planted?

The answer to these questions may not be as easy as we think.  At the end of our passage in Jeremiah, God comments: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” This is not a change of subject; it’s a continuation of the earlier thoughts.  So in case we start thinking, “I know which direction my heart is pointed in,” God confronts us with the fact that we don’t even know our own hearts.

And this is where the message begins to get dark.

Even psychologists will tell us that we don’t really know ourselves; that all of us have at least some mild neuroses; and, as the saying goes, “‘Normal’ is only a setting on the dryer.”  In some ways we can only know ourselves by getting feedback from others, and that’s why intimate relationships and friendships with faithful people are so important. The apostle Paul tells us to “encourage one another and build up each other” (I Thess 5:11) and we can do this for each other because we are able to see things from different perspectives and help each other fill in some of the missing information.

But then we have to take into account that other people aren’t perfect either, and the fact is, we often hurt each other without meaning to. You may remember the old song “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. This is not some sado-masochistic theme song, it’s reality: only the people closest to us are in a position to hurt us deeply. And I know, for myself, my prayers of confession are incomplete; there are a lot of sins I’ve forgotten already, a lot of memories that have faded over the years, and a lot of things I’ve done that I can’t begin to explain. We really don’t know our own hearts.

By way of illustration: Over the past few months I’ve been reading a couple of books that bring the depth of our human lack of self-knowledge into brilliant focus. The first book was a best-seller back in the 1960s called Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, who was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest friends.  The second book is written by prize-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny, called Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth.

I should explain I was drawn to these two books by many conversations I’ve had recently with people who are afraid that Nazi-ism is on the rise in America today, and in the world in general. I think there’s a great deal that 21st-century people can learn from these two books, and I recommend both.

Speer’s book

Speer’s book is a memoir: an inside view of Nazi Germany, which he wrote while serving 20 years in prison for war crimes.  He tries to be as detailed with his memories as he can be, and he brings to life all the major characters of the Nazi hierarchy. The first thing that struck me as I was reading this book was that he is talking about people.  Today we make Nazis into monsters, which is a natural thing to do knowing what they did, and remembering all millions who died; but putting a human face on the perpetrators is necessary if we are going to say “never again” and make it stick. Because if the Nazis were not human, then Nazi Germany was just a fluke, and it never will happen again.  But if these people were human then we must remember, and we must keep watch, and we must say “never again” and make it stick, because the possibility is always there.

Speer as Hitler’s Architect

So Speer’s book is the confessions of one man who realized what he’d fallen into – but too late. He had served Hitler first as an architect, and then as Minister of Armaments, he provided all the materials the army needed for the war. He was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg because some of the factories he controlled made illegal use of prisoners of war and other forced labor.  But Speer is known to history as the only Nazi who ever said “I’m sorry.” Towards the end of the war, when they knew the war was lost, and Hitler was descending into suicidal madness and ordering a “scorched earth” policy for Germany, Speer traveled the country countermanding Hitler’s orders and telling the people “when the Allies get here, for God’s sake surrender. Don’t blow up the factories, don’t blow up the bridges, leave something standing for the next generation.”  And then… he risked his life to return to Berlin and tell Hitler what he’d done, and to say ‘goodbye’. There was something in Speer that could not let go of the charisma of this madman. And Speer can’t explain this; he finds that he doesn’t even understand himself.

Gitta Sereny’s book

So the second book I read is titled well: “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth”. Gitta Sereny spent 12 years of her life researching this book, including three years of interviews with Speer himself in which she becomes the most brilliant psychologist I’ve ever read, holding her own self out of the picture, and asking him questions that slowly tease the truth out of his memories, for 700 pages.

Speer being interviewed by Sereny

If you want to know her conclusions you’ll have to read the book. Or you could save yourself some time and read Jeremiah.  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…”  Nazi Germany was taken in by one particularly evil mortal, but any mortal will do to prove the truth of this verse. If our trust is in political leaders, economic leaders, even religious leaders, we’re going to find ourselves in some very parched places.

But! Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.  They shall not fear when drought comes; they will be like trees that stay green; they will not cease to bear fruit.

And Gitta Sereny’s book gives a brilliant example of this.

After spending 20 years in prison, from 1946 to 1966 – think about how much the world changed in those two decades – Speer was released and was faced with rebuilding his life. And one day he received a letter from a Jewish rabbi by the name of Aba Geis, a man who trusted in the Lord. He wrote:

Sehr geehrter Herr Speer,

In 1963 I read G.M. Gilbert’s Nuremburg Diary, and after that I thought of you time and again. You were different from the others accused at the Nuremburg trial and I found the sentence you were given too severe…

Not long ago I saw parts of two of your TV interviews and was again impressed by you. You will have to go on bearing your lot, as I and the survivors must bear ours. But I did want to tell you that even where I don’t understand you, I respect you.  But even more than that, as a devout Jew, I feel that there has to be forgiveness, and I am profoundly convinced that you are under the star of this forgiveness, for you are today an honest man.  I haven’t read your book yet, but… I didn’t want to delay until then sending you these few words.

With warm greetings, Raphael Geis

Speer commented to Sereny, “I think the day I received that letter was one of the most important days of my life.”  The two men became friends and remained friends until Geis’s death.

This letter contains the words of a man who is a tree planted by water; who knows the truth of human hearts, and who places his trust in the Lord. And with his trust in God, he turned the heart of a former Nazi.

Sereny quotes one other letter from Geis in her book that I think speaks very clearly to life in the 21st century, as well as illustrating the words of Jeremiah. Geis writes to Speer:

“When I was a young rabbi in Munich, at the beginning of the Third Reich, I couldn’t allow myself tears, because I had to be strong for the confused and frightened Jews in my care. That is how I survived Buchenwald… [and the passing of] my sister and her family at Auschwitz. Why do I write you this? Certainly not in order to open up a mercifully drawn curtain, but to tell you that my own fate in the Third Reich… taught me that one cannot categorize human beings. I knew, for instance, high-ranking Nazis whose helpfulness was exemplary, and I knew of Jews who denounced me to the Gestapo. I always understood about the quality of the world’s so-called compassion… Without the cowardly silence of the great powers, Hitler would never have become the awful reaper of death he became. And in the subsequent years? Vietnam, Greece, Spain, South America, South Africa… If one does not wish to despair and if one recognizes that the battle is on many fronts, then one knows that the first victory is to say time and time again “Yes” to individual human beings. I can look upon you as a comrade because I sense you to be true…”

This is a foretaste of life in God’s kingdom: this is a place where living waters flow; where there is nothing to fear, and nothing is lacking. As Jeremiah says, God searches human hearts: to understand, and to bring truth: but ‘searching’ a wound is also the beginning of healing. And so we see in Luke, Jesus comes as the great healer. Luke says: “Power came out from him and healed them all” – that is, all who were following Jesus. Jesus didn’t heal everybody in Israel that day, but he healed all who were there… everyone who put their trust in him.

BTW there’s a lovely postscript to the story these books tell: just last month, Albert Speer’s daughter received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award, presented on Holocaust Remembrance Day (2019), for work she has done creating a foundation to support Jewish women artists. And they remark that she also has welcomed refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to live her own home.

Parched or planted: the decision is ours.  We live in a world that is dying of thirst, and yet continues to put its faith in mere mortals; a world that trusts in human power, in spite of the fact that human power has led to tragedy over and over and over.

Will we live like dried-up shrubs in the desert? Or will we live like fruit trees planted by the stream? And the fruit we bear – what will it help others to become? As we turn our hearts to the Lord in trust – resting in God’s goodness and mercy – Jesus brings healing and the hope of rich blessings to come. In a world of uncertainty, this we can trust. AMEN.

 

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh 2/17/19

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Jeremiah 17:5-10  Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.  7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.  9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?  10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Luke 6:17-26   He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

 

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Today we continue our summer series in the books of Samuel. The further we read in this book the more it sounds like the evening news doesn’t it? Last week the king had an affair and tried to cover it up with murder, and this week we’ve got rape, fratricide, and civil war!  Sadly too familiar.

Our scripture reading for today is actually the end of a much longer story, so we need to back up to the beginning.  When we left off last time, David had just married Bathsheba (after killing her husband), and God wasn’t happy about it. God said ‘because of what you have done, the sword will never depart from your house’ and ‘someone close to you will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. What you have done in secret will be done in public.’

And then… not much happened for quite a few years. David ran the kingdom, and he trained his sons how to be leaders, and everything went well.

Until… many years later… David’s oldest son, Amnon, fell in love with his half-sister Tamar. David was father to both of them but they had different mothers. David had many wives and children, and a huge palace, almost like a small city, so a half-sister was almost more like a neighbor than a relative.

Anyway, Amnon was obsessed. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, he was “tossing and turning” (cf. Bobby Lewis). His cousin asked him, “What’s wrong?” and Amnon said, “I am so in love with Tamar, I’ve got to have her!”

Instead of suggesting the right thing – which would have been for Amnon to go to King David and say ‘may I marry Tamar?’ – the cousin said ‘hey! I know! Get in bed, pretend you’re sick, and ask the king to have Tamar fix you (the ancient equivalent of) some chicken soup.’  Which he did.

Amnon and Tamar

And when Tamar came into Amnon’s bedroom to give him the food, he raped her. Tamar begged him to ask the King for marriage, but once Amnon was done with her, his love turned to hate – and he threw her out.

Tamar tore her clothing and ran weeping back to her side of the palace.  Her older brother Absalom met her at the door and comforted her, and took her to live in his part of the palace, where she stayed for the rest of her life, in mourning.

When David heard about this he was angry… but he didn’t do anything. The law of Moses (which was the law of the land) said that anyone who forced himself on a virgin was required to pay the bride price and marry her.  Which sounds like a horrible deal for the woman but it was better than most other countries at the time. And most likely someone in Amnon’s position probably would have said “take the money and keep the girl, I don’t want her” – in which case she would have had enough to live on without having to marry her rapist. Which is probably what happened more often than not.

BUT David didn’t enforce the law. He didn’t do anything. And Absalom watched while his beautiful sister spent every day lost in pain and grief. He wasn’t going to let it go. I imagine Absalom would have agreed with the ancient Klingon proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Two years later Absalom invited all the King’s sons to a great banquet. And he said to his men, “when everybody’s had plenty to drink, at my signal, take your swords and kill Amnon.” Which they did.

This not only avenged Tamar’s rape but also put Absalom next in line to the throne. But it’s not safe for Absalom to go home just yet, so he runs to a foreign country where his mother’s brother is the king, and he stays there for three years.

In those three years, David again did nothing. He didn’t acknowledge Tamar’s rape. He didn’t condemn Amnon’s actions, or Absalom’s. He did start to miss his son Absalom; so Joab, commander of the army, recommended that David bring him back and make peace. So David brought him back… but he didn’t make peace.

Why David would do this I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to send for someone and then refuse to see them. And for a king it was probably the worst thing to do, because a child in rebellion (when you’re the king) is a threat to the nation.  The one thing we do know is the Bible is being honest about David’s humanity. David was a hero, but he wasn’t perfect. And God is honest with us about David’s flaws.

So Absalom was home (sort of) and living nearby. Now Absalom was loved by all the people. Absalom was an extremely handsome man; and he had a head of hair so thick it had to be weighed every time he got it cut. He was like the Johnny Depp of the ancient world. His name means “father of peace” and that’s pretty much how the people saw him – but he didn’t live up to his name. He was charming; and he stole the hearts of the people, and he dropped hints that the people weren’t getting justice from David, but that they could get it from him. This was a total lie because scripture says “David executed judgement and justice to all his people.” But doesn’t this sound like our politics today? People say what they want people to think about their opponent (whether it’s true or not) and they keep on saying it until public opinion makes it so.

That’s the game Absalom played against his father for two years. And then he said to King David, “let me go to Hebron with some of my friends to worship God as I promised the Lord.” And David said “ok.”  But Absalom sent out secret messages to his friends all around the country: “When you hear the trumpet in Hebron, shout ‘Absalom is King at Hebron!’” And that’s what happened.

A messenger came secretly to David and told him what was going on. And David, knowing how much his people loved Absalom, gathered up his household and ran. He left ten of his concubines in charge of the palace; the rest of the royal family, and everyone who supported David, took off across the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives: the exact same path Jesus took on Palm Sunday, only in reverse.

And as they’re running, Absalom returns to Jerusalem; and finding the palace empty, he pitches a tent on the roof and sleeps with his father’s concubines.  And so the word of God came true: “the sword will never depart from your house; and someone close to you will sleep with your wives in the sight of all Israel.”

Absalom Crowns Himself King

So civil war breaks out, and this is where our scripture reading for today picks up the story. As the reading opens, Absalom has the advantage: he is in Jerusalem, he holds the palace, and he has many of David’s top advisors with him, plus a good portion of the army.

But Absalom doesn’t reckon on God.  In all the years that have passed, God has been working on David’s heart – made him gentle and wise; and David has been building up friendships with many of the nations surrounding Israel. So David has more help than Absalom expects.

And then, of all the ironies, as battle is being fought in a forest, Absalom gets caught in a tree by that magnificent hair of his. And his donkey rides on and leaves him hanging there by his hair.

Absalom Caught in the Tree

Now David had given orders to his men that if they found Absalom they were to ‘deal gently with him’ – in other words, don’t kill him.  But Joab, the commander, thought he knew better, so he took three spears and plunged them into Absalom’s heart, and then commanded his armor-bearers finish Absalom off.  And a Cushite who witnessed this ran and brought the news to David: “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”

And the King wept: “my son Absalom, my son, my son…”

Like God, David never ever desires the death of any of his children. In spite of the fact Absalom would have killed David given the chance, David still grieves for him: so much so that when Joab arrives he scolds David, saying “your army is sneaking back into the city with their heads down in shame because of you. You love the people who hate you and hate the people who love you, and if you don’t go right now and say a kind word to your army I will leave you!”

And so David does. But he never forgets that night. And when Solomon is crowned king, David reminds him “when I’m dead, see to it that Joab dies.”

Wars and rumors of wars… doesn’t this sound like our evening news?  People haven’t changed much in 3000 years.

So what does this have to do with our lives today? What can we take from it?

First, the story is far too complex to boil it down to good guys vs bad guys. There’s a richness of characters here which makes it a whole lot more real.  David and Absalom both start out with good intentions: David loves his sons, and Absalom loves his sister. The biggest difference between David and Absalom is that David loves God and wants to do things God’s way; but Absalom tries to do everything in his own power. In fact Absalom never even mentions God except in the context of a lie.

But the question I want to ask today is: who do we relate to in this story? And the answer will be different for each one of us, and could even be a mixture for some of us.

  1. Some of us may relate to Amnon. Some of us know what it’s like to have loved someone but to have that love turn to hate. In Amnon’s case I think we can question whether love was actually there in the first place. Real love, the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love God teaches us, never dies. Maybe we should use the words ‘romantic attraction’ instead – something full of fiery emotion, but far from permanent. If we feel like Amnon sometimes, with God’s help we need to turn to God and ask God to soften our hearts and keep us from doing harm. “The heart wants what it wants” but that’s no excuse for hatred or abusing others. And to force our will on someone else – sexually or otherwise – is NEVER God’s will, for that person or for us.
  2. Some of us may relate to Tamar. Some of us know what it is to be deceived, taken advantage of, forced to do what we didn’t want to do. Tamar’s reaction is very appropriate. First she appealed to reason; but when reason failed, and she was violated, she tore her garments, which was a sign of great grief, and she cried out loud through the whole palace so everyone could hear her. She didn’t keep what happened a secret. We see a good parallel today in the “Me Too” movement. Breaking the silence; going public with wrongs that have been done; is the first step in finding justice and regaining self-respect AND in seeing that it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Some of us may relate to Absalom. David’s failure to act put Absalom in a position where he felt he was the only person who cared enough about justice to do something. How many of us have ever waited for someone above us (a boss, for example) to ‘do the right thing’ – and have come to the realization that they’re not going to?

It happens a lot in business; it happens a lot in politics too. We think we’ve found a political candidate worthy of support, and we vote for them, but then they fail to take a stand when moral decisions needs to be made: which leaves us, the members of the public, to duke it out amongst ourselves. (And people wonder why the nation is so divided…)

Sooner or later, if justice is delayed – as Martin Luther King said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” And then people look for comfort wherever they can find it, as Tamar did: right or wrong, healthy or not. Absalom was not the right person to bring Amnon to justice; but the right person failed, so Absalom took it upon himself. Can we relate to that? If Absalom had only brought his heart and his life – and his anger – to God, things might have been different. God is able to act in ways that we can’t; to bring justice in ways we can’t yet see.

  1. And finally, some of us might relate to the crowd. We average folks, we’re fond of people like Absalom: physically attractive, popular, smart, warm and charming and beautiful. They make us feel good just to be near them. In our day, these people might be on TV, or in politics, or in business, sometimes even in religion. For those of us who are fans of the beautiful people: we buy their books, we watch their videos, we tell our friends and family members to ‘check this out’ – a word of warning: fame built on image never ends well. Someday, some way, that famous person will begin to tell little lies, or cheat in some way, and everything they’ve built comes crashing down.  For those of us who may find ourselves up against someone like this: opposing someone who is charming and attractive and who carries public opinion – but we know what they’re doing isn’t right – is very difficult. The best thing to do is to confront when the time is right… and look to God to know when that time is. And when it’s all over it’s OK to grieve, like David did.

So today we leave David with his tears; but we also leave him with faithful friends and an army worthy of their calling. God’s judgement has passed, and now God’s mercy begins. Next week we’ll see David crown his son Solomon the next King of Israel, just as God promised. Brighter days are ahead.

Let’s pray: Thank you Lord that through all the ups and downs of life you are always with us, just as you were with David.  Help us to walk with you in wisdom and righteousness and love. We pray Lord for those we know who are in Absalom’s shoes – that you would call them to yourself and keep them from rash and violent actions. We pray for those we know who are in Tamar’s shoes, that you would heal their pain and help them find strength and peace and joy. And we pray for those in David’s shoes, that you would heal their hearts and give them wisdom for just and compassionate action. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, 8/12/18

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Scripture Reading: II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

“The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

 “So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

 “Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.

 “A man saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.”  Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom! On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak.  […]  And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. […]

 “Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”  The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”  The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!””

 

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“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

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Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

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“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.

In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town.  “Repairers of the breach rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in. To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.

With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town.  There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay.  At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?

The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.

Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.

With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa.  Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.

But there was another side to that story.  J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town.  They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods.  (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)

The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering.  Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.

The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”

Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community.  In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?

The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”.  It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.

After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.

Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”

I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.

Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done.  Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down).  The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.

All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.

And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”

Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.

Isaiah 58, verse 2:  God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”  In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us).  And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.

The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future.  Here’s what I mean:

Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.

But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t.  Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past.  The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.

God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.

And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?

God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us.  And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there.  The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.

Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:

  1. Your light shall break forth like the dawn
  2. Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
  3. Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
  4. The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
  5. You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
  6. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
  7. You shall raise up foundations for many generations
  8. You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
  9. You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
  10. God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”

That’s the vision.  Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands.  All these things will happen if we will do the following:

  1. Work for justice
  2. Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
  3. Feed the hungry
  4. Welcome the poor
  5. Cover the naked
  6. Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
  7. Stop pointing fingers at each other
  8. Stop speaking evil
  9. Satisfy the needy
  10. Honor the Sabbath

That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath.  In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.

Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.

As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”

And in our own towns, things are starting to happen.  In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.

So let’s take the next step.  I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16

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A friend posted this on Facebook today and I had to re-post it here.  It’s a blast from the past, part of the soundtrack of my young adult life. Glad to have it where I can find it and share it with friends.

Without further ado… comedian/musician/mathematician Tom Lehrer.  Enjoy.

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There are days I look at the news and shake my head wondering how on earth the message of Jesus has gotten so twisted.  Jesus taught love and peace and joy and truth… never disrespect for the dead, or abuse of women and children, or voices raised in anger, or judgmental hatred of minorities.  When I look at the Fred Phelpses of the world I can hardly blame non-religious types for thinking of religion as a mental illness.

For those who say the world would be better off without religion, defense of faith isn’t my purpose in writing today.  It’s enough to say that so much of humanity’s historical, cultural, and intellectual capital is rooted in the positive aspects of religion, that to do away with religion is essentially to saw off the tree branch we’re sitting on.

And, as so many people of various faiths have said before me, fundamentalists do not represent the majority of the faithful.

So how does fundamentalism spread?  Here’s one story that I’m sure has been repeated millions of times in one form or another.

Today I received an email from an elderly friend.  She’s a wonderful lady – matriarch of three generations, community volunteer, lifelong churchgoer.  She sent me a link to a web page and video that was troubling her.  Here is the web page it linked to — an article castigating President Obama and his choice of church attendance on Easter, with a “video” of said service.  The video looked familiar so I popped over to YouTube and discovered the so-called “Easter service” was a tiny piece of a much longer sermon filmed over five years ago.  There’s no indication it was filmed on any Easter or that the President was in attendance.

The website that published all this is a subset of One News Now, run by the American Family Association.  According to Wikipedia, the AFA is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing “propagation of known falsehoods” and “demonizing propaganda”.  The AFA is, essentially, our generation’s version of the KKK.

But there’s no way my elderly friend could have known all this.  All she knows is she got an upsetting email with a video containing the n-word and she wants to know what the world is coming to.

And she wonders how people can put this stuff in print if there isn’t some grain of truth in it somewhere.

And that’s how fundamentalism spreads… not in the halls of power, not via FoxNews, not via huge bank accounts, but friend-to-friend and family member to family member, by innuendo, twisted truths, false reporting.  Deliberate misinformation sent out by an organization with its own prosperity in mind, to people who would never think to do such things. People who forward emails to their children and relatives and friends and say, “Have you seen this? Can it be true? If Mom (or Dad or Sis or Bro) thinks there might something in it, maybe there is…”

One News Now, the AFA, Focus on the Family, et al… they make their millions by sending out messages designed to incite anger and play into people’s fears.  The language of their message implies that the nation as we know it will cease to exist if immediate action isn’t taken.  (To be fair I’ve heard equal and opposite jargon from the “other side” but that’s a different story for another day.)  They call people to stand for ‘God and country’ and they define what God said (“Stand firm!”) and what supporting country means (hyper-nationalism, wrapping the cross in the flag, no abortions, no gays, no immigrants, no blacks or women in power, always looking to “get back” to a more “innocent” era).  And of course “taking a stand” really means “Send money! And send us the names and addresses of other people who will send money!”

Blogger and ‘recovering fundamentalist’ blogger Jeri describes the fundamentalist subculture:

Loyalty compels separation and alienation. Paul warned the believers in Corinth about the dangers and flaws of saying “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.” Yet, this is the very fabric of Fundamentalist culture. […]  We really believed our culture, our leaders, our “standards” put us a few notches above…  Alliances and divisions were (and are) numerous and complex and rock hard.

A lot of Fundamentalist preaching is mayhem and doom, as preachers try to tie people in to the sense of being part of the enlightened and godly few. Fundamentalist preaching attacks music, movies, books, people, political groups, other cultures, etc. Loyalty thrives in a culture that so clearly and frequently culls out most other people as being unfit for God’s approbation, even if they are in Christ. And yet Fundamentalism remains dead silent about its own child molesting preachers, and those who have been caught in deceptions, frauds, and embezzlement. Fundamentalism protects its key men […] it cannot admit to the gross corruption of its leaders. In a culture of loyalty, the leaders must be protected…

How to stop it?  Things that won’t work: Reason. Arguing.  Shouting. Violence.  Trying to understand where they’re coming from.  The passing of laws restricting religious activity.  Ignoring them.  Treating them like idiots. Talking down to them.  Telling them to “get with the times”.

What does work: Defeat the false gospel of power politics with the real gospel of Jesus.  “Gospel” is an ancient word meaning “good news”.  What these organizations spread is “bad news”.  Remind people who are afraid that God loves them and is still in charge. Remind people who are angry that Jesus has already won the victory over sin and death on the cross.  Remind them that real Christians “take a stand” on their knees… and have a duty to pray for enemies, perceived or real.  Pray for them.  Remind them of the depths of God’s love.  Remind them that perfect love casts out fear.  And when appropriate, remind them that Jesus’ sharpest criticisms were reserved for the religious leaders of his day… who sound amazingly like these fundamentalist leaders.  Confront the leaders with God’s truth, especially as found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew ch 5 & 6)  Remind the followers – the flock of Christ – who their real Shepherd is.

Sounds crazy in the ears of a secular society, I know.  But this is a spiritual battle.  Humans are not the measure of all things.  There is a reality beyond what our senses can perceive.  And that’s what’s needed here.  Nothing else will answer.

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Christian Associates of Southwestern PA issued a joint statement this past April on the “Preventive Services Mandate” portion of the national healthcare bill. The joint statement says, in part, that the Mandate “requires faith-based entities that provide health insurance to facilitate access to specific preventive services, even if they consider some of those services incompatible with the practice of their faith.”  It speaks of “a common commitment to the right of religious freedom” we share as Americans regardless of differences of opinion on political matters.

While it is not spelled out in the statement, the major sticking point in the Mandate is the requirement that Catholic and other faith-based charities provide abortion and contraceptive services to employees via their health insurance, which would be a clear violation of religious beliefs and practices for many people of faith.

The joint statement received extremely broad support, as shown by the signatures of leaders of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Kiskiminetas Presbytery, Allegheny-Scranton African Methodist Episcopal District, Pittsburgh Presbytery, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, the Southwestern PA Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Christian Associates, United Churches of Christ, the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, Beaver-Butler Presbytery, Pittsburgh Baptist Association, the Orthodox Church in America, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Disciples of Christ Churches.

The joint statement calls on the federal government to “broaden the religious exemption… so that both the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion… and the moral imperative of healthcare… may not be impaired.”

The full text of the joint statement and accompanying press release may be found here.

The press release having been sent in mid-April, this is not breaking news, but as it was reprinted in the June issue of The Call (the newsletter of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania) I wanted to mention it.  There are times when I have been critical of CASP for not taking strong stands on Biblical issues, so I am delighted to report this time they have not only taken a stand but have been the rallying point for an interdenominational statement that is all too rare among church leaders today.

 

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It is with sadness we share the news that Pope Shenouda III of Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church has passed away at the age of 88.  The story can be found here:  BBC News

Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda was seen as a peacemaker between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, loved and respected by both.

He was also a good friend of Bishop Mouneer Anis, head of the Anglican Church in Egypt, and through him to Anglicans worldwide. Bishop Anis wrote in his Obituary for Pope Shenouda III, “Together with all Egyptians, the Episcopal / Anglican Church of Egypt mourns the loss of Pope Shenouda III,” adding, “I was not surprised to see hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Cairo yesterday, immediately after the announcement of the passing away of the beloved Pope, who was such an important symbol for the nation.”

His funeral is set for 21 March, and he will be buried at the monastery of St. Bishoy.

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“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk.  And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin.  And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.
– Matthew 22:15-22

Candles

The theme for our Advent series is Hope in the Darkness, and last week we looked at how Jesus brings hope into the lives of individuals… how He gave sight to the blind, and how He can bring light to the dark places in our lives.

This week we look at what happens in human institutions when leaders put their faith in things that are not worth putting faith in.  When people trust in something other than God to fix the world’s problems, the result is always oppression and injustice.  Jesus shows us how to bring hope into this particular kind of darkness.

In the Scripture reading we just heard, we see the Herodians and Pharisees teaming up against Jesus to try to discredit Him.  By way of explanation, back in Jesus’ day the Herodians were political leaders and the Pharisees were religious leaders.  Both of these groups are portrayed negatively in Scripture.  The Herodians were supporters of King Herod, who was a Jewish puppet king in league with the Romans.  In other words, Herodians were collaborators, playing along with the enemies of the Jewish people for their own personal gain.

The Pharisees – we hear a lot of bad things about them in sermons – but what is not commonly known is that they were very popular in their day.  They had broad support of the people because, out of all the religious leaders of the time, they were the ones who taught the word of God correctly and stood for purity of faith and the Jewish way of life.  In a way they were sort of like the TV preachers of our day: strongly in favor of God and country.  Jesus criticized them, not for teaching the wrong things, but for being hypocrites… because they didn’t practice what they preached.  Many times Jesus said to His followers, “do what they tell you but don’t do what they do.”

So the Herodians and the Pharisees, by nature of being who they were, usually didn’t get along with each other.  But they were united in two things: one, they thought they had all the answers.  For the Herodians the solutions to life’s problems were found in politics.  For the Pharisees the solutions to life’s problems were found in religious practice – and by that I mean not a relationship with God but rather following a set of rules.  Neither group was looking to God for answers.

And the second thing they had in common was that they hated Jesus.  They thought He was dangerous.  And they wanted to bring Him down.  When people put their faith in things other than God, the result is always oppression and injustice.

So the Pharisees hatched a plot to trap Jesus in His words.  Getting together with the Herodians they came up to Jesus while He was teaching in the temple and said: “We know you are a man of integrity and you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth…”.  (Really?  Then why weren’t they listening to Him?)

And they ask: “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  From their point of view there’s no good answer to this question.  If Jesus says yes, pay the tax, he will be taking the side of the Romans  against His own people… but if He says no, don’t pay the tax, they can arrest Him.

Watch now as Jesus brings hope and light into a world of darkness.  First, He calls them on their hypocrisy.  He tells it like it is: “You hypocrites!”  And then He says, “show me the coin for paying the tax.  Whose likeness is this? And whose inscription?”

They answer “Caesar’s.”

And Jesus says, “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

In our day we might say, “give to Washington the things that are Washington’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The coin bears the likeness of the head of government, and therefore ultimately it belongs to the government.  But we bear the likeness of God.  In the very first chapter of Genesis, the first page of the Bible, God says, “let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.”  We are created in His image, and His inscription is written on our hearts.  Therefore we belong to Him.  We do not belong to the powers of this world that oppress and cause injustice.  We belong to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

And that gives us hope in the darkness: to know that we were made for something – Someone – greater than what we see around us.  The powerful people and institutions of this life are passing away — here today, gone tomorrow.  But God is forever — and we are forever — when we put our trust in the babe in the manger, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  AMEN.

Homily for Candlelight Compline, Church of the Atonement, Carnegie PA, Saturday December 3 2011

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(The following is reprinted with permission of classmate Drew Schmotzer who is currently serving in Egypt.  It is rare to have the opportunity to read first-hand accounts of current events un-edited and un-filtered by the news media. I thank him for the privilege of sharing his observations.)

Burning Churches in Cairo
7-8 May 2011

St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Imbaba was attacked by Salafi Muslims (a militant fundamentalist sect of Islam). There were three guards guarding the church: one was buying food outside and two were inside the church. When the Salafi came they shot and broke the locks and doors. They were looking for weapons in the church, and immediately looked under the draped altar to find nothing. They then went to the baptistery where they found the guards.

The Salafeen asked where were they hiding the weapons. The guards responded “we haven’t any weapons.” The Salafi then took their knives and guns and said “convert or die. Say there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Prophet.”

One guard refused and they slit his throat. The other somehow was released/escaped. Then the Salafi burned down the church.

The Salafi then went to another church. Christians made a human wall around the church so the Salafi could not attack it. The Bishop said he would welcome the Salafi to look at the church, but only after the police arrived. The Salafi shouted “Islam, Islam, The government is finished,” while the Christians shouted, “by our blood we will defend the cross.”

Shops next to the church were burned down (both Christian and Muslim shops). The local Imam then came to the church with the local priest and spoke from a loud speaker to stop the people. It wasn’t loud enough, so they spoke from the steeple together.

Muslim and Christian neighbors stopped cars passing by to get the small fire extinguishers, and tried to put out the fires.  They even used the dust on the street to put out fires. The Salafi tried to stop them but the people pushed them aside.

Although the building is burnt, and everything inside is destroyed, the church is ok. This is the 5th tragic attack on Christians since 1 January 2011 and the government is not taking any action. The army isn’t doing anything, as they were present but did not do anything. 12 died and 242 were injured and 4 churches were attacked.

Bishop Mouneer [Anis, Anglican Bishop of Egypt] reminded us by saying “unless we are broken, we cannot address the broken world around us.”

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Dr. Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has just proven me wrong about the Southern Baptists.  And I’ve never been more happy to be wrong.  Check out his article God, the Gospel, and Glenn Beck.

Here all this time I’ve been blaming the excesses of the ultra-right-wing socio-political movement rooted in Liberty University, Focus on the Family, etc and egged on by Glenn Beck, on the Southern Baptist Convention.  Judging by readers’ reactions to Dr. Moore’s post, the LU-FOF-TeaParty gang have departed from anything resembling a church denomination, including the Southern Baptist Church.  They’ve become more like… well… a political party!

But I digress.  Kudos to Dr. Moore for saying what so many people have wanted to say, and have been trying to say, in a voice that others will hear and from a position that other leaders will (hopefully) take note of.

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This sermon was given at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie
8AM service on 8-1-10.

For years I’ve been commenting to friends that I wish someone would preach a sermon about greed.  I don’t know about you, but in all my years in church I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon about greed.  I have heard lots of sermons about stewardship, and I have heard sermons warning about the dangers of wealth, but I have never heard a sermon preached on greed, and I have been complaining about that for some time.

So after accepting the pastor’s invitation to preach, I looked at the scripture readings for today and I got the feeling maybe God was telling me to put my money where my mouth is (so to speak).  Because every single one of our scripture readings for the day –  even the one we didn’t read – deal with how chasing after money and things effects our relationships.

The ironic thing is, where it comes to this congregation I feel like I’m preaching to the choir.  I wanted to preach a message on greed to people who feel trapped by money, who feel like they’ve been running on the hamster wheel long enough and want to get off.   I’ve discovered that in life some people learn how to master money, while other people become slaves to it.  And I don’t know for sure but my gut feeling is that most of you have mastered money fairly well.  What I mean by that is, you use it rather than it using you.

So I’d like to ask you to do something a little different today: as you listen, see if you can find a nugget or two to share with people – family, friends, co-workers, whoever.  Help me spread the word.  Because I think greed is the #1 battlefield for peoples’ souls.  Here in America, we are one of the largest and wealthiest nations in the history of the world.  But even in poorer countries, and in other times, I think greed has been the #1 battlefield for peoples’ souls.  I think that’s why Jesus talked about money so much.

Think for a minute about the evils of this world and how many are caused by greed.  Addictions?  Addictions are a form of illness, but it’s the greedy who keep the addicts supplied.  In the case of drug lords they subjugate entire populations of nations in order to keep up the supply.  Pornography, prostitution, and other abuses of the human body?  These things wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t big money to be made.  Slavery?  Or “human trafficking” as it’s called – happening in parts of Africa and Asia today – greed is at the root of it.  Corporate executives raiding employee pension plans. Credit card companies who not only charge interest but charge interest on the interest, enslaving people in years of debt.  Nations doing outrageous things to each other in their mad rush for oil.  And even in small communities like Carnegie much of the evil we see happening can be traced to greed.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  What amazes me is that nobody ever points to greed as being the problem.  Nobody in the public eye ever stands up and says “Don’t you know that people are worth more than money?  Don’t you respect your own souls enough not to sell them, doing these things?”  Greed is the proverbial elephant standing in the middle of the living room that everyone ignores and talks around.

Thank God Jesus doesn’t ignore it.  In our Gospel reading for today He takes it on.  He says to the crowd – “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  And He gives His famous example of the foolish rich man who says to himself “I have everything I need: eat, drink, and be merry.”  And God answers, “this very night your life is required of you.”

I think a common mistake here is to think Jesus is preaching against wealth.  Jesus does warn about the dangers of wealth in other places.  But as St. Paul says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.  It’s not being rich per se that gets a person into trouble – it’s loving money.  If being rich was the issue, we’d have a hard time finding one person in America who could be saved, because even the poorest of us is wealthy by most standards.  And Jesus’ disciples questioned Him on this very point.  In Matt. 19:25 they ask Him, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Which brings us to the Psalm appointed for today.  Today’s Psalm was written by the “Sons of Korah”.  These guys were Levites, warriors, and musicians (interesting combination!)  They were familiar with wealth and with life and death situations.  Here’s what they have to say in Psalm 49:

v. 1 – Hear this all peoples!
v. 3 – I will set forth my riddle upon the harp…
v. 4 – Why should I be afraid in evil days,
when the wickedness of those at my heels surround me,
v.5 – The wickedness of those who put their trust in goods…

And they give two answers to their riddle:

Answer #1 – They know that:

v. 6 We can never ransom ourselves,
v.7  For the ransom of our life is so great
that we should never have enough to pay it.

And… Answer #2 – They know that:

v. 15  God will ransom my life
He will snatch me from the grasp of death.

The bottom line for the sons of Korah is trust: the wicked trust in wealth, but they trust in God.   And the Sons of Korah know that they’re dealing with a life-and-death issue.  Security is found in God, not in things.

Greed is not just a little sin.  It is not just a sin we commit within ourselves.  It is a sin that has repercussions in the lives of others, often for generations.  But at its heart, greed is what happens when people fail to trust God to provide.  Is it any wonder that, as the influence of Christianity in Western nations is declining, the influence of greed in those nations is growing?

Greed is a lack of trust and a lack of faith.  It’s a lack of trust in the One who is trustworthy, a lack of faith in the One who is faithful.  Greed is buying into a lie.  Because with God (not money) all things are possible.

For people who are not yet convinced of this, the words of Ecclesiastes might provide a starting point for conversation.  These words come from King Solomon, David’s son, probably the richest and wisest king in ancient Israel.  Solomon writes:

“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

As anyone who has ever tried to build a career knows, if we are honest with ourselves, at some point we begin to question why we do what we do.  What difference will it make if I get all these reports done?  What difference will it make if I ever finish this sculpture?  What difference will it make if I get these books balanced?  And yes, we know it matters in a small way, but only like a cog in a machine.  That was the point of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and of the movie The Matrix.  We’re just another brick in the wall.  We’re just one more cipher in the program.  We’re just chasing after the wind.

Solomon was not the kind of guy who would have a bumper sticker on his chariot reading “He who dies with the most toys wins”.  His bumper sticker wouldn’t even read “He who dies with the most toys still dies” – although that’s getting closer to the point.  I think Solomon’s bumper sticker might have said “He who dies with the most toys has to leave them to somebody who didn’t work for them.”  That’s basically what he says in v. 21-22.  He says: “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.  This also is vanity and a great evil.” And Solomon was proved right by his own son, who squandered his father’s wealth, oppressed the people, and ended up losing 5/6 of the kingdom of Israel in a revolt.

Solomon’s thoughts are dark, and Ecclesiastes can be difficult to read; but it has also been a comfort to millions who have seen and experienced the truth of it.  We are not alone in our observations.  The world really has gone money-mad.

So after all of Solomon’s observations of life, where does he end up?  In Eccles. 12:13 he writes:

“Here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

I don’t know about you, but for me reading this was a bit of a letdown, at least at first.  But without knowing it, Solomon has just pointed us back to the New Testament, where Jesus is saying pretty much the same thing.  At the end of his teaching on greed, Jesus says: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This statement begs the question: what does it mean to be rich toward God?

St. Paul gives us the answer in today’s reading from Colossians.  He says in Colossians 3:12-14:

“…as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love…”

It’s impossible for a greedy person, someone who is in love with money, to do these things… because greed only thinks of itself.  As God’s people, we are loved (so we have received) and therefore we love (so we give).  To be rich in the Kingdom is to be rich in love, to practice compassion… and the truth of Jesus’ words becomes crystal clear: it is indeed impossible to serve both God and mammon.  That’s not a law or a restriction, it’s the nature of reality as God designed it.

So to sum it all up from our readings today…

  • Jesus warns us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed.
  • The Sons of Korah in the Psalms challenge us to choose who or what we’re going to trust.  They tell us, from experience: Trust God, not wealth.
  • King Solomon says that all of life is just chasing after wind.  He says: Fear God and keep His commandments.
  • And Jesus and St. Paul advise us to be rich in God’s eyes, reminding us that God’s commandments are summed up in “Love God and love your neighbor”.

Like I said, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir.  But I think every now and then it can be encouraging to the choir to be assured that they’re on the right track.  And if you’ve heard anything worthwhile, then share it.  Warn people about greed, and spread the word that God doesn’t measure people by what they have but will give them everything they need if they will trust Him.  AMEN.

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With a tip of the hat to a friend on Facebook, I wanted to mark and recommend this blog-find.  It’s a good example of wrong — and right — ways for Christians to approach politics and rumor-mongering.  And it gives me hope that the generation coming after us has seen through the BS the current generation-in-charge has been slinging for so long.  Welcome to Controversy in Wisconsin.

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This past Tuesday the lower house of France’s Parliament voted to ban the full-face burqa, and it is expected the upper house will shortly follow suit.  The move has proved to be extremely popular with the majority of the French and with people all across Europe.  Justifications for the law include being able to identify individuals; setting women free from centuries of sexism; requiring immigrants to “get with the program” where it comes to being assimilated into French culture; and promoting the French values of gender equality and secularism.

Movements to consider or pass similar laws are in full swing in other European countries including Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and Germany.

European nations for decades have been struggling with how to deal with the large numbers of Muslim immigrants.  While there are certainly cultural differences, the majority of problems have revolved around Sharia law.  Muslims living in Great Britain, for example, have petitioned to have Sharia law be admitted in British courts,  or to be permitted to set up their own Sharia courts for their own people.  Situations like this have often been poorly reported, poorly analyzed, and poorly addressed.  Intellectual liberals such as the Archbishop of Canterbury have set the nation’s teeth on edge by saying that Sharia law is inevitable; while on the other hand, the British national government has failed to make the point clear: the law of the land is the law of the land.  If you move to our country, our law becomes yours.  Period.

I agree with the French that Islam has a long way to go in promoting and defending equality for women.  But I can’t shake the feeling that this anti-burqa law is going about it all wrong.

For starters, it misses the point.  It dodges the bigger issues.  It fails to take the bull by the horns.  If the French want to tell immigrant Muslims to get with the French legal system, they should do so.  Picking on a handful of women and tourists wearing burqas looks an awful lot like cowardly bullying.

Secondly, it victimizes women.  If a woman chooses to wear a veil — any kind of veil, for any reason, religious or otherwise — is it not her right to do so?  This law assumes Muslim women are being forced to wear veils against their will, which is usually far from the truth.  Women will never be fully equal or fully liberated until their decisions — whatever those decisions may be — are respected.

Third, it promotes discrimination, both cultural and religious.  Read the blog comments on the various European newspaper sites, and you’ll see the ugliest forms of nationalism and cultural superiority being paraded as promoting ‘justice and freedom’.

But most importantly, it puts secular authority above religious authority.  This is VERY clearly the message being sent, and it’s an extremely prideful and arrogant thing to say.  “Our Parliament is more important than your God.”  Yeah, and even God couldn’t sink the Titanic.

This is a perfect example of why our nation’s founders were right to separate church and state.  They recognized that the conscience of the individual — often informed by the individual’s faith beliefs — has a higher claim on a person’s life than the state.

Our nation has always made room for people to live as they believe they should in God’s eyes. The Quakers are an excellent example: their pacifist beliefs exempt them from military service, and in return they receive no tax money from the government.  The arrangement is fair and the faith is respected.  Muslim immigrants in Europe could, if they chose to, live among Western European society as the Quakers live among ours… except neither Muslims nor native Europeans are content to leave it at that.

There’s a storm brewing in Europe.  This vote is just one of the first flashes of lightning.  I fear it’s the prideful who are the ones about to fall.  Pray for wisdom and peace in Europe.

Recommended for further reading: the New York Times: Veiled Threats .

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