March 31, 2008

Isaiah 40:6–11; Matthew 28:16–20

The options include climbing, biking, skiing, yodeling, singing with Julie Andrews, picking wild flowers, bird-watching, Elk-hunting, searching for Big Foot, erecting a satellite dish, clearing a forest or finally enjoying the scenery.   If you have ever wondered about the purpose of a mountain, and what practical use we might assign to a rise in elevation, these dangling participles, these recreational activities, may suffice.   And yet, for those of us who imagine the meaning of a mountain differently, to those who refuse to cave in to the user-friendly fascination of our society, there is another possibility that I’d like to explore with you today, and it’s a possible meaning that may be of the same fabric with the season of Easter. 

Annie Dillard talks about the frozen tundra of the north pole, and how (prior to Global Warming) a group of people tried to plow through the ice in a ship.   On board the vessel they had all the trappings of European civilization, fine china, wine goblets, dainty linens, ornate furniture.   Unfortunately, when the ship could go no further, the passengers and crew set out on foot and dragged all their stuff with them.   Eventually everyone and everything froze and the people, not sensible of conditions, died, clutching and grabbing and trying to hold on…  Now, I’m relating this experience today because I’d like us to consider the spiritual conditions of the mission we have in and through the risen Christ.   And the prime symbol of that condition is a mountain.  The only question is, which mountain?

 desert-mountains.jpg Is it a mountain upon which we slip and slide and no one gets hurt and everybody enjoys the view?   Yes, that could be part of it.    

But, from the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament there are no apologizes for the rugged and unfriendly terrain upon which God’s salvation story unfolds.  First and foremost, there is Mount Sinai, upon which Moses receives the Decalogue, or the Ten Words.   Mount Sinai is neither the Promised Land, nor a comfortable vacation destination.   Mount Sinai is a brooding place, a locale of smoke and fire from which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob demands accountability from a people that he might just as well carve out of rock.  


I remember the nervous moment when my history teacher called me out.   Mr. Parrish (which we pronounced Mr. Perish) sported a pointy beard and glaring set of bifocals.   He looked like the devil incarnate.  During class he seemed to enjoy putting his students on the spot, demanding answers to severe questions that seemed very much beyond us.   Anyway, one day, I discovered the difference between Mr. Parrish and the other history teachers in my high school.  My friend Paul used to forge the name of Mr. Puddy, who had tenure and was close to retirement.   He used to scribble the name of his teacher on a library pass and that pass would allow Paul to go to the library rather than study hall.   Well, I reasoned that Mr. Parrish wouldn’t mind if I scribbled his name.  So, without thinking, I did it.

I did it, and the next thing I knew, the devil confronted me before homeroom.   He said, “You misused my name.  You wrote my name without asking me to write it myself.  And now, Scott, I have to re-evaluate who you are…”   Mr. Parrish, as I remember him, was like my Mount Sinai.   I’d glad that I met him when I did, but I couldn’t live very long in that glare.


Second on the list of possible mountains, there is Mount Zion.   Mount Zion refers to one of the five peaks upon which the city of Jerusalem has been built.   Originally, Jerusalem had been a fortress and the severity of the rock formations made it seem like the most perfect and permanent place, maybe even God’s own footstool.   Israel claimed (and still claims) Mount Zion to be the sign and seal of God’s favor.   The only problem with this claim, as we seen, is that Mount Zion has been perpetually under siege, conquered and re-conquered—with the effect that the people who worship and serve from this mountain are prone to becoming extremely defensive.


“What ever happened to Christmas?”  The man, whose family had purchased and maintained the church’s organ, wanted us to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem in November.   I explained that we wanted to wait for Christmas.   He didn’t understand the idea of waiting, and indicated that if we didn’t start playing Christmas carols earlier in the season he would take his family’s money to Mount Zion United Methodist church down the street.

 But, finally, we have the mountains of Galilee, a place once called The District of the Nations by the prophet Isaiah.   The geological features in this region include the mountain upon which Jesus preached the legendary Sermon on the Mount and the mountain upon which he had been transfigured.   Mark’s gospel also refers to Jesus as retreating to and praying on a mountain side…Moreover, when the risen Christ scans the horizon for a launching pad from which he might send out his bedraggled disciples, he finds one here.  Here in Galilee.   Here in Galilee, the Crucified and Risen Savior finds a sending mountain.  And again, what we’re driving at are the true spiritual conditions in and through which we make the journey that God intends us.   And again, as I look around at the institutional church, I have to wonder whether or not most people have set up shop in the shadow of the wrong mountain. The risen Christ, you see, directs us to Galilee.   He doesn’t want us to be always cowering in the presence of Mr. Parrish or Mr. Perish.   Nor does he want us to be overly defensive, always protecting what we imagine that we can’t live without.   Instead, he arranges to meet the bedraggled disciples—all twelve minus one—on a sending mountain in Galilee.  And if you think that Galilee is too far away, let me suggest that a sending mountain can happen almost anywhere, even in a valley.     

A sending mountain has these crucial characteristics:

 1.     A sending mountain is less traveled and un-hyped by religious slogans and branding.   Travel it anyway.   Travel it even though the roads may be bad.   

2.     Just as Galilee is the hometown region of Jesus and the original fishermen-followers of Jesus, there may be aspects of your life and my life which have some kind of local flavor.  Don’t be afraid to emphasize things about your history which are peculiar to you, peculiar hurts, peculiar joys and interests. 

3.     A sending mountain overlooks Samaria, and its trails lead to places and to people who do not share our world view.   Similarly, it might be good for us to find that place where we can converse with folks who do not necessarily share our world view, with men, women and children who might ask us questions and challenge what we believe, and who also may be curious about the good news that in Christ we are forgiven and promised new life. 

4.     Galilee is comprised of gritty, messy stuff.   There are seeds, weeds, fish, nets, logs, specks, yokes, oxen—all the material things that help us stay grounded in the world.   Is there a place in your life like that?  Are there things that keep you situated and not always so cerebral or esoteric?    





March 23, 2008

You may assume that it’s all about life.   And you’d be right.  You may assume that when Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20 describe the empty tomb or the raising of Jesus from the dead that this amazing and emotionally charged story is all about life.  You may assume that, and then not devote another ounce of energy to the thought.  You would then be correct in equating resurrection and life, but you wouldn’t even begin to comprehend the depth of shock and awe that those disciples felt on this day.    

The Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, once wrote this simple confession:

“Had I simply understood that life had no meaning I could have borne it quietly, knowing that was my lot.  But I could not satisfy myself with that.  Had I been like a man living in a wood from which there is no exit, I could have lived; but I was like one lost in a wood who, horrified at having lost his way, rushes about wishing to find the road”  (A Confession, p. 22).


You see, the Bible understands life to have a meaning, and that’s the shock of it.   It has meaning and purpose beyond biology and genetics, beyond psychology and economics.  Life has meaning which transcends its own end, and that meaning for the Christian involves Jesus of Nazareth.   It involves the way he came, calling into question the way things are.  It involves the way he taught about the one lost sheep.  It involves the way he healed the outsider.   And finally, it involves his humility and his death upon the cross.   Life has meaning.   And the only question that remains is what people like us are supposed to do with that meaning.   Are we supposed to simply believe it and go to heaven when we die?   Or, is there some meaning thing to do here and now?

“On this mountain,” says Isaiah 25,

“the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food, filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”


That sounds like a cool party, doesn’t it?   And maybe for the vast majority of people that’s a picture of the good life.  Who isn’t up for a shindig like that?   But verse six is very clear to point out that, as far as the Lord of hosts is concerned, the party will be “for all peoples.”  And to be honest with you, that’s kind of shock too.   More shocking than the fine wine that will be served or the food filled with marrow that will be consumed, is the notion that this feast is for everybody.

When I was a student at Penn State we had this memorable gathering of friends.  Not everyone was invited.  Just a few.   Just a select group of us had been drinking beer and playing poker.  But when Harry showed up with his sandwich from Subway, my roommate, Mike, and I looked at each other and knew what we had to do.   Harry had placed his hoagie down at the table, between us.  He then went into the kitchen to get a drink.  Upon his return, the sandwich vanished.   With a smirk he scanned the room.   Although we smelled like onions and salami, Mike and I shrugged our shoulders.   Well, when Harry had time to study our smug and self-satisfied faces, he went back into the kitchen, grabbed the fire extinguisher and proceeded to spray the entire party with a heavy shroud of white foam.   We chased him from the apartment and threw snowballs as he ran down the street.  

And, here’s the thing that sticks in my mind.   The last sentence that I remember somebody shouting as this exile ran from our party went like so: “You’re dead, Harry!   You’re dead!”   Ah, the good ol’ days… And I’m relating to you this bawdy reminiscence because, of all the pageants, parades, banquets and festive gatherings that I’ve hosted and to which I’ve been invited, that inebriated phrase still echoes.  It still haunts me:   “You’re dead.”  


Why?  Is that where every exclusive, members-only celebration is headed?   Is it really true that some of us will enjoy a great abundance while others will barely survive on table scraps—and then that’s it?  Are some just blessed with health, wealth and happiness while others get by on proscription medication—and then it’s over? 


Denise Levertov writes about a smartly dressed woman she observed at the cemetery, “a woman hurrying towards another grave/ hands outstretched, stumbling/ in her haste; who then/ fell at the stone she made for/ and lay sprawled upon it, sobbing, sobbing and crying out to it…”  


In a poem, called, Traveling Through the Dark, William Stafford writes about the carcass of a deer he found by the side of Wilson River road:  “her side was still warm; her fawn lay there waiting,/ alive, still, never to be born.”  Then after thinking hard “for us all,” the poet pushes her over the edge into the river.


And you see, something in me (something in us, I think) wants to agree.   We want to admit the edge of death, that point beyond which we won’t be able to think or to feel anything, that point beyond which Harry doesn’t matter.  He’s dead.   And yet, just when we assume that we know what life’s all about…

“And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever (Isaiah 25:7).  


Death, in this passage, is a power.  It may not seem like much to cover a person’s face with a shroud, or to encase it in a coffin.  But if you’ve ever been there you know how charged the atmosphere can become.  To spread a sheet over the corpse of man or woman in the hospital, over a living human being who only just last week looked you in the eye—that is an electrifying experience.    Death is a power.   And the infrastructure of death channels the guilt and the shame and the fear of generations upon generations.  Around the world and from culture to culture, death dictates the rules.   Death is a power.   But the text says that God “will swallow up death forever.”

  John’s Gospel, chapter 20, verse 5, says that when the beloved disciple outran Peter to the tomb he bent down and peered into the darkness, and he saw the only linen wrapping lying there…   and that was it.  That was it!   That was it!

After it rains, after a torrential downpour, the worms come out. 

During the spring, I used to notice them on the sidewalk on my way to school.   I used to dodge their thick, still squirming, bodies amid the puddles.   And if you were to ask me to personally identify with any creature on earth (something like an eagle or a dolphin) the worm would be the very last on my list.   The worm is repulsive to some.  And to others, bait.   A Styrofoam container of 50 night-crawlers will cost you $2.50 at K-Mart.   And if you’re looking for a good science project for junior high school, you can’t get any more basic than the dissection of the large, hermaphroditic earthworm. 


And yet, in spite of all this queasiness, I’d like to point out that Jesus of Nazareth probably thought about this creepy, crawly thing during his final week of life, and perhaps just prior to his death on the cross.  What compels me to say that is the quote that the Crucified One offers in Matthew 27:46…  


He says, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   And these words come into his mind undoubtedly because of his meditation on Psalm 22:1.   And, if we plow through the next few lines of that poetic prayer, we alternate between moments of despair and moments of praise.  But right in the middle of this flood of emotion verse six writhes in the very place we’re about to step: 

 “…I am a worm and not human…” 


Well this morning I want to focus on this figurative phrase as it relates to the humility and to the contrition that Jesus embodies during this holy week and as other lowly images help us to live our faith in meaningful ways. 


First, however, let me emphasize the problem.   According to the recent book by David Kinnaman, entitled, Unchristian, the number one critique that people in their twenties say keeps them from exploring Jesus and the ministry of the church is a certain, judgmental arrogance.  

 “We were talking about sex, intimacy, and pregnancy, stuff like that.  I told them about a friend of mine who was considering an abortion.  I told them her entire situation, a twenty-year-old boyfriend left her.  She’s feeling really alone.  I made some comment about really emphasizing with my friend, that I could understand that abortion might make sense.  I guess that shocked them.  I know the women there are pro-life and all—I don’t know what I am, pro-life or just myself.  But the conversation shifted at that point in a really weird way.  Instead of having a dialogue, I was put on the defensive.  They were nice enough about it, but the ladies just kept talking at me, trying to fix my attitude about abortion…. Lisa paused and softened her tone.  “And here is the part that bothered me, something that I never told them.  What they didn’t know is that I had an abortion—a long time ago.  It was not an experience I would wish on anyone.  But I can feel my friend’s dilemma because I lived it.  I am not sure the Christians I hung out with that morning get that” (p. 182).  

You see, the question hinges on a fundamental perspective.   Do we believe in order that we might form definite opinions about the major moral issues of our time?  Or do we believe and follow Jesus as he moves toward Jerusalem and toward the cross?   Do we cheer on Palm Sunday so that we might express how right we are?  Or do we realize that the entire crowd who applauded during that donkey-ride into Jerusalem chided and jeered and spat upon Jesus only five days later?  The donkey and the worm, it seems, have a lot in common.

Os Guinness, in his book, The Calling, describes the wealthy life of Andrew Carnagie.  Carnagie had been born to poor parents in the city of Dunfermline, Scotland.   He eventually moved to the United States, and settled in Pittsburgh, where he made millions of dollars in the booming steel industry.   Anyway, for all his fame in America, Carnagie had made a promise to his mother.   After coming to this country as immigrants, he told his mother, “Some day I’ll be rich… and we’ll ride in a fine coach driven by four horses.”   His mother, at the time, could not be consoled and said, “That will do no good over here if no one in Dunfermline can see us.”   So, on July 27, 1881, Andrew Carnagie and his mother, rode in a carriage drawn by four, incredibly strong stallions into that small city of Scotland.    

Os Guinness, in recounting this story, makes two key points:

1.        The question is not whether we have an audience but which audience we have; and

2.        A life lived listening to the decisive call of God is a life lived before one audience that trumps all others—the Audience of One (p. 70).


So, let’s compare and contrast the audience that Andrew Carnegie and his mother were trying to impress with the AUDIENCE that Jesus tries to impress.   Jesus models humility in deep and profound ways.


And yet, why do we have so many believers in Christ Jesus who parade around as if this holy week boasts about our own spiritual accomplishments?   Why do we have this attitude of evaluating or checking people out or running them through the gauntlet of our own righteousness, our own theological litmus test?  

Why… when it seems so obvious that Jesus humbled himself? 

Robert C. Roberts claims that, contrary to popular belief, humility is a radical self-confidence, something “so deep, a personal integration so strong, that all comparison with other people, both advantageous and disadvantageous, slides right off…” (Spiritual Emotions, p. 90).  In other words, God has not made us to compare ourselves with one another.  We’re not meant to draw strength from being better.   We’re not meant to feed off of the resentment that grows with being worse.   God has not intended us to compete.   The root word for humility is humus, which is Latin, for earth—and do you know what aerates the soil of the earth?   Worms, baby! 

Latah Valley Presbyterian Church has the opportunity to foster the humility of Jesus during this mysterious and holy week.  Let’s embrace the opportunity on our knees.   Amen.        


March 11, 2008

Ham On Regal is a religious experience. 

It’s also a sociological case study and a psychological head game and an economic investment of time, energy and resources.

Before elaborating on these characterizations, however, let me simply say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my participation in the Ferris High School fundraiser. 

In its 45th year of existence Ham On Regal, or HOR,

involves approximately 300 parents from the school in two and one-half hours of slap-stick silliness and quasi-entertainment.   This week’s performances of “Remote Possibilities” recount decades of television programming which have arguably lowered our collective Intelligence Quotient a minimum of ten points per every memorized theme song or commercial jingle. 

In addition to the assorted general chorus and men’s character numbers, my assigned parts in the production played and continue to play upon the shadow sides of my introverted personality.  I have been cast as Fox Mulder, from The X-Files series and (yes, it’s sad but true and no, I didn’t lobby for the role) the David Hasselhoff character, Mitch, from Baywatch.  Here are some of the snippets of each sketch, which I have committed to memory:


“I want to believe…”


“They must be aliens themselves…”



“Man, it’s hard to run in slow motion…”


“I’m tired of holding my stomach in…”


Given these much caricatured lines of dialogue, you may be wondering about the religious experience to which I referred earlier.  Well, Ham On Regal happens to be thick with tradition and ritual, and among the established liturgy there is the inevitable push to sell tickets to the show.  Anyway, during a motivational spiel to this effect, my own Fox Mulder persona expressed doubts about our ability to reach our sales quota.   This lack of faith then precipitated my powerful healing at the hand of a visiting Pentecostal preacher, astutely portrayed by Redhawk Rice-Sauer.   Other mirroring of ecclesial life includes the sincere sense of camaraderie which foments over the weeks of rehearsal.  (Dare I call it fellowship?)

Sociologically speaking, parallels to the evangelical sub-culture also give way to the scrupulous morays of a residual Christendom.  I find the South Hill vicinity of Spokane not necessarily prudish; that would be too strong a descriptor.   But something about the region’s super-ego is still shielded from the rogue displays of secularity that are evident elsewhere in the North America.   What drives me toward this totally subjective analysis is the way my bare-chested character, Mitch, has been received.   The script had originally called for hair “like a forest” sprouting from the lifeguard’s pectoral muscles.   And since God didn’t make me with an abundance of fuzz in that realm of the anatomy, I had planned on compensating with glue and a shredded toupee, bought at the costume shop.   In rehearsal, the cast hooped, hollered, possibly gagged a little, but generally found Scene 16 hysterical.  I had curly tuffs of hair that became unglued and flew off my torso, which of course only made the episode more ridiculous…  So far, so funny!  

And yet, apparently not everyone had been amused. 


Later I learned about a subtle controversy—the fact that no Ham On Regal player had ever performed sans shirt before.   This 45-year-old tradition (referring to the show itself and not the actor himself) is after all “Family Friendly.” And so, we’ll have to wait and see what the directors and show-chairs will decree from on high.  Either way—shirt or no shirt, hairy chest or not—I am resolved to exegete the sensibilities of Spokane society.   And yes, I am resolved to be a witness even in the midst of this weirdness.

Psychologically and economically, I will throw myself and my aging body into roles which have been assigned to me.   But if the critics opt to censor Mitch, they will have to reimburse me $28 for the wig.   


March 10, 2008

bandage.jpgA nasty bruise.  A sprained ankle.  A ruptured spleen.  A rash.  A heart palpitation.  A terminal illness.  To see a person recover from any one of these ailments is a wild and wonderful thing.   But to experience healing, not only in one’s physical body, but to experience it in between people, that’s something else.   And this morning, we need to focus on the meaning of these restorative moments.   What does it mean that Jesus came into the world because things are not supposed to be this way, and that he teaches like a shepherd seeking out a lost sheep and that he spends a great deal of time healing those who suffer?   What does it mean?   And how might we ourselves become source of healing for others?    

Before tackling those questions, let me tell you about Amy, sweet Amy.   One night, her boyfriend drove her to work and because the roads were slippery and because he didn’t have a clue, this young man engaged the emergency brake as the vehicle had been traveling at a high rate of speed.   The car immediately flipped over and Amy sustained severe trauma to the head.  The Toledo hospital sent a helicopter, scrambled paramedic personnel, medical specialists, social workers and at three in the morning, my phone rang.   It was Amy’s mother, who told me what she knew and asked me to pray.  That prayer, unfortunately, in no way prepared me, for the experience of walking into the waiting room a few hours later.   Amy’s parents were absolutely beside themselves with grief.  A doctor shook his head and whispered that Amy’s condition appeared critical.   That is, her brain had been swelling since the accident and once it had swelled beyond the capacity of Amy’s skull, she would die.   And so, we gathered all the family, friends and hospital folks in one huge circle and we prayed.  

 We prayed, thanking God for the gift of Amy and then we let go of the sweaty palms and watched the clock tick away the minutes.   Then, in a few hours, Amy was still alive.  Confounded, the doctors did a scan of her head and discovered a crack in her skull, a crack that released just enough pressure so that when her brain swelled, there would be this give, this flexibility, this healing.  Now, I don’t know what you think about these kinds of experiences.   It is painfully obvious that on many other occasions, people pray and the daughter dies.  People pray and the son is killed.  People pray and accidents happen and the results appear quite meaningless.   That much is painfully obvious, even in the life and death of Jesus.   But the question this morning is not what healing doesn’t mean when it doesn’t take place, but what healing in the name of God means when it does. 

Commander Naaman in 2 Kings 5 has been healed of a contagious skin disease.   Centuries later, as recorded in Luke 4:27, Jesus of Nazareth refers to this incident and the crowd responds angrily, nearly running Jesus out of town.   And so, we have to wonder, not only about the dramatic power of a miraculous healing, but about the purpose of such an event.   Does God deliver a person from disease and death simply to be nice, or simply to show that he’s a good kind-of Deity, or to illustrate how he blesses the good and damns the bad people in this world?   Something in the text tells me that meaning of healing is much more than any of those options. 

Tony Campolo talks about doing ministry in a prison, among some very hardened criminals.   Many of them had terrible addictions and intense anxieties about being re-united with their families.   Some were bitter.  Some were sorry.   Some were open to conversation about God’s love.   Anyway, during one visit, Campolo arrived a little early to overhear this prim and proper female evangelist lead the inmates in prayer.   She had been trying to motivate them to pray and she gave them an example about the kinds of details for which they might pray.   

She told them a story about how she had been driving on the highway and  a rock skipped up and cracked her windshield.   So, when she had the chance, she pulled to the side of the road and put her hand on the divot in the glass and prayed for God to heal it.   “Do you believe that when I lifted my hand, the crack was gone,” she said.  “Do you believe that God healed the windshield of my car?”   


Campolo overheard this question and muttered some derogatory comment to himself.   But the broken human beings in the room were not so discreet.  With one, obnoxious voice, they shouted, NO!   What in the world is God doing healing broken windshields when there are thousands upon millions of broken lives that still cry out for wholeness and salvation?  


The fact is—the meaning that God offers to our lives is part and parcel of the healing that we receive.   And from the story of Naaman we begin to appreciate how incisive, how non-capricious and how intentional that meaning is.   Naaman is an outsider and a foreigner to the promises which God has made to the people of Israel.   At the same time, in his own land of Aram, among the ancient Syrians, he is well-decorated and well-positioned.  

Naaman has servants who serve him and he himself has personal access to the King of Aram who has access to the King of Israel.   And yet, in spite of these social status symbols and these alliances, beneath all the badges of honor and glory, there is leprosy.   Naaman is afflicted.   And now, comes the wild and wonderful healing of God…   It comes at first through the voice a slave girl, who had been captured.   She says in verse three,

 “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.”   

Now, following that bit of gossipy news, Naaman tries to work the channels and corridors of power to which he has grown accustomed.   He reports to his king and implores him to send a letter to the king in Samaria.   But when the king in Samaria receives the memo he is perplexed, perplexed enough to tear his clothes and say,

 “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me” (2 Kings 5:7). 

You see, it happens nearly every time, doesn’t it?   All we want is healing.  All we want is a sense of wholeness and well-being, and then what we get is politics.   We get the spin of pundits and the posturing of presidential candidates.   We get the mess of insurance coverage.   And we get the worry over talking to the right person at the right time.   Naaman, like us, gets the run-around.   And within the royal system of health care, he has come to his wit’s end.   Everyone seems to be passing the buck.  Elisha, the prophet, won’t even come out to meet him in person.   In verse 10, he simply writes a prescription that says,

“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”


Naaman, initially, takes offense at this meek message and for two reasons:

 1.     “I thought for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord, his God and would wave his hand…”  In other words, he wants Elisha to pull out all the stops, to spare no expense, to give him the full an d flamboyant treatment to which he feels entitled; and

2.     “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than the waters of Israel?”  And this is to suggest that if all Naaman had to do was to take a dip and to soak in the water, he could have stayed at home.   

So, it’s interesting to note that in a story about healing, the predominant emotion is not gratitude, but anger.   Naaman is angry and offended, and this is exactly the aspect of the story that carries meaning for Jesus in Luke 4:27.


At the very moment that Jesus needs to prove himself, in front of his hometown crowd, he refuses.   And in stead of healing anyone in Capernaum, he makes this offensive observation:

“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

  You see, this is the meaning of any healing that happens in the name of Jesus.  It is not that God or Jesus favors certain people because he likes them, or wants to reward their good behavior.   It’s that God intends to communicate the effusive and overflowing nature of his love.  It’s not meant for the insider who stays at home, but for the one who ventures out, for the one who risks appearing ignorant or disconnected.   Our healing in Christ is not complete unless it pushes us beyond our own provincial and limited set of relationships, unless the salve which Jesus spreads on us oozes upon others who we would not otherwise meet.  

At our previous new church plant, we had a day when all the people of the congregation signed this piece of parchment.   In beautiful lettering a calligrapher had written out our mission statement and all around the edges of that statement the charter members scribbled their names.   Anyway, for some reason, this young woman named Debbie Steiner couldn’t be there that day.    She couldn’t sign her name and later we discovered that she had cancer.   She had cancer and tried all kinds of treatments and nothing really seemed to work.  By this time, the chartering document had been framed and put on a wall in the church office and we didn’t think about it too much.   But, as Debbie’s body deteriorated, her husband came and asked us if she could sign the Mission Statement.   Well, that just seemed like so much trivia to me.  Who cares if she signs that piece of paper?   God doesn’t care if she has her name on that briccobrack on the wall?   But, something about the request eventually made us dis-mantle the frame and peel off the matting, unglue the glass.  And with a trembling hand, I saw Debbie healed.   I saw her write her name next to our names.   Yes, later she died… but not before declaring that her life and her death meant something more than she could say or do.   

And friends in Christ, who knows?  Maybe your participation at Latah Valley Presbyterian Church may be the healing that God has for you.            


March 3, 2008

As a highly skilled and long-time large-animal veterinarian, Doc Rodabaugh knew everybody in town.  He also, of course, knew their livestock.   So when he called me on the phone one day, I eagerly joined this affable older man on a venture to the Smith farm, where there had been reports of a pack of dogs that apparently had mauled a few sheep.   Doc picked me up in his pick-up truck and told me about the incident in detail.   We drove a little bit out of town to this small groove of trees and in the middle of that windbreak stood a barn.   Getting out of the truck, Doc noticed what I had been wearing on my feet and immediately warned me to look out.   On my feet, I had worn a pair of Birkenstock sandals that day, and with the assorted piles of manure in the pasture, my fate had been sealed. 


I followed Doc, slipping on straw and wet grass until finally we stopped near a young ewe that had been torn up pretty badly.   He sedated the animal and proceeded to sew up the wound.  And by the end of that visit, I had graduated with my degree in the art of handling sheep.   Just before he dropped me off, Doc gave me this gentle reminder:  “There are all kinds of sheep around here and all kinds of predators that make them vulnerable.   As pastor, you should know that.”


Following that comment, every reference to sheep in the Bible seemed to cry for special attention.   And today, years later and miles away from rural Ohio, I can still hear the bleating.  Just like the mention of “clouds” from last week’s passages in Daniel 7 and Mark 13, this morning’s focus on sheep provides us with a valuable insight into the life and ministry of Jesus.   Jesus, as you know, had worked as a carpenter.  And yet, in an agrarian culture, he also had ample opportunity to experience the mess of raising livestock.  Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures like 2 Samuel 12 wreak with the odors and idiosyncrasies of life and death on the farm.  My contention is that Jesus knew these sacred stories like he knew the calluses on the back of his hand.  He not only knew about King David and the prophet Nathan; he knew how the imagery of sheep could become a vehicle for the meaning and purpose that he would like to give.    

Let’s review the events of Second Samuel, prior to the reference to sheep, and let’s connect the dots of those events with the messy relationships that we have with people in Spokane.  


First and foremost, a one-time shepherd boy, the youngest of seven siblings, stands out from the rest.  After his anointing by Samuel, he matures, comes of age, and exercises great skill in leading various troops into battle after battle.  Eventually, those military victories pave the way for David to become the King of Israel.  And isn’t this the way we picture our lives as people of faith in Christ?   We imagine that we will always win, that after some initial skirmishes with sin, we will rise above the fray.  We may not think ourselves like a king or like a queen, but when it comes to being a Christian we live and we die by the decisions that we make and by the impeccable reputations that we acquire over time.  (Or so we imagine.) This is what Hebrew scholars refer to as “royal ideology,” and when we become full of it, it’s time for Nathan to tell us a story about sheep.

 “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought” (2 Samuel 12:1—2). 


Now, in order for us to pick up on the many layers of this seemingly innocent tale, we need to understand how David’s life as king had become this insulated sphere of pride and power.  The eleventh chapter of Second Samuel gives us a brief synopsis, when “late one afternoon… David rose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house,” and from that lofty vantage point the king saw a woman bathing.  That woman, by the name of Bathsheba, happened to be married to Uriah the Hittite.  But to David, that’s a minor detail.  The king sleeps with Bathsheba and then arranges it so that Uriah is killed at the “forefront of the hardest fighting” (11:15) in Israel’s war with the Ammonites.  And, of course, this scenario may also appeal to people who live in and around Spokane, Washington. 


Think about it.  In our previous congregation a woman called us on the phone and with great hysteria told us about a note she had found on her husband’s dresser drawer.   This woman had suspected that their marriage needed work, but the piece of paper that she discovered drove that point into her heart.  On the paper the husband had apparently scribbled a list of words, words like new job, divorce, another woman’s name and then it said get married, have kids.  You see, in any other context those words seem harmless, even hopeful.   But in this suburban culture it told the story of a man who wanted to call the shots without anybody’s help, without anybody’s guidance and without anybody to love but himself.


Mel Brooks has starred and directed a series of movies, called the History of the World, Parts One and Two.   And in the scenes, depicting King Louis of France, just prior to the Peasant Revolution, there’s Brooks, in his powdered wig and with his swanky mustache, and as he moves from woman to woman, as he eats and drinks whatever he wants, without a care for his people, he delivers this classic line, “It’s good to be the king.”    


Now, without further adieu, imagine that arrogant phrase on the lips of David, as Nathan continues telling the story about the sheep.  At this point in his reign, things like livestock and property ownership have nothing to do with the power and the status that David enjoys.   But still he listens.  He listens almost like the first time that he watched Bathsheba from the roof of his palace.  He listens from a distance, ready to alter the story whenever he wants.  And in 2 Samuel 12:5 that’s exactly what the king does.  Upon hearing about the rich man taking the poor man’s only sheep, David barges into the prophet’s tale,

“As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die…”


That’s how the king would change the story about the sheep.   The king would act decisively.   The king would try, sentence, convict and authorize capital punishment for what he considered to be a capital offense.  The king would vindicate the poor man by restoring to him fourfold what he had lost in property.   In the kingdom ruled by David, the rich man would not get away with his crime.  And the only problem with that solution is that King David is “the man…”  Nathan has been sent to say exactly that.

“You are the man…”  You and I are intimately involved in the very relationships upon which we’d like to pass judgment and execute justice.   And that’s the terribly awkward thing about the Christian faith.  It’s not just about morality and doing the right thing.   It’s about how we live when we realize that before God everyone is in the wrong.   We are the men and the women and the children involved in this perpetual cycle of violence and betrayal.   We are not only the wounded healers, to use Henri Nouwen’s phrase; we are the victimized predators.  Or we are the predatory victims.  In the pasture where we roam relatively free, we are both the pack of dogs, bearing their fangs and we are the mauled and clawed creatures too.


On MSNBC recently I saw this study of how people might react to a group of teenage girls who had been ganging up on one of their peers.  Producers of the news spot had actually arranged for these young actors to berate and taunt another young woman, also an actor.   So, in typical adolescent girl, gossipy, hormonally crazed ways, these kids ripped into this child in the middle of this public park.  Meanwhile, adults who happen to wander by the scene had no idea that everything had been contrived.   Some responded by ignoring the whole situation.  A man intervened and gave the girls three minutes to clear out, or he was going to call the police.   An angry woman mocked the teenagers, saying, “Oh, aren’t we so cool, picking on a girlfriend.”   But finally, the adult who made the biggest impression was the woman who spoke to the young woman quietly about how she herself had been teased as a younger person.   She said that it made her want to hurt others… until she saw the vicious cycle.

Now I wonder if we might learn what Jesus wants to teach us about livestock.  To really learn it, according to the biblical text, is to make the transition from 2 Samuel to Luke 15:4.  You see, in that text, Jesus seems to continue the story of the sheep and we’re still involved.   It’s just that we are no longer implicated as the sinner, or even as the forgiven sinner.   Suddenly, as Jesus talks about the shepherd who leaves the ninety-sheep in the wilderness, we realize what we have to do with the rest of our lives.  That is, we have to go.   We have to intentionally go after the one who out there and alone, the one who’s been hurt so many times and the one who’s inflicted pain upon himself and upon others.  

  When our kids were younger, we had this little picture book of Bible stories, and the story about the lost sheep had been included in the collection.  I remember reading it one night and after I kissed Philip goodnight, something about that story didn’t seem right.  The picture book described how the shepherd realized that he was missing a sheep and then how he safely locked the other ninety-nine in the barn and went looking for it.   Re-reading Luke 15, however, it’s pretty clear that the shepherd doesn’t do anything safely.  And it’s also clear that no one is locked up in a barn.  On the contrary, so passionate is the shepherd about the lost, so passionate is he about the vulnerable one in the world that he goes.  The only remaining question is, will we? Amen.