On Giving Up My CFRE

Before I became a pastor, I spent around eleven years as a professional fundraiser. I worked my way up in that career, beginning as an administrative assistant in the development office at Chicago Theological Seminary, directing the annual fund and advancement services programs at Northeast Ohio Medical University, serving as church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, and consulting with churches and other nonprofit organizations. And, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it. I kept up with the literature, took a lot of continuing education, started new fundraising programs, and raised millions of dollars for worthy causes.

And one of the things that I managed to accomplish, fairly late in that career, was becoming a Certified Fund Raising Professional (CFRE).

If you’re not familiar with the CFRE, it’s a professional certification for fundraising professionals. I had to demonstrate that I had worked in the field for a number of years, raised a certain amount of money, had a certain number of hours in continuing education, volunteered, and done other things that showed my commitment to the profession. Then, I had to take a test to demonstrate my knowledge of fundraising techniques and ethics. It was difficult… and expensive.

And now, I’m letting my certification expire. Because, as a pastor, I just don’t spend enough time fundraising to keep my CFRE.

And while it’s a little hard to do — like I wrote above, earning my CFRE took a lot of work and cost me a fair amount of money — I don’t really feel bad about giving it up. The fact is that having one didn’t do a lot for me. Those four letters didn’t make me more skilled, more ethical, or more successful. They simply added a line to my resume. And, honestly, I only have one more class to take to earn my Certificate in Fund Raising Management from the Fundraising School at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis if I really need four more letters.

Still, it does feel a little bit more like my development career really is over.

Chewed Up Gum

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”

Oh… my.

I tend to be a lectionary preacher. If you haven’t heard of the lectionary before, it’s a list of scriptures for every Sunday of the year, plus holidays like Christmas and Good Friday and All Saints Day and even Thanksgiving (and Canadian Thanksgiving).
It runs over a three year cycle. So, if we followed the lectionary really closely, and read all four of the suggested scriptures in every worship service, we would get through a pretty good chunk of the Bible over the course of a few years.

I like it because it forces me to grapple with scriptures that I might not choose if I selected my own scriptures every week. I have my favorites. And there’s a risk that I’d preach on them every week. And this makes sure that I spend time with other scriptures.

But, sometimes, I get this: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice.”

This morning’s Old Testament reading is from a book that is often called the Song of Solomon. But, in Hebrew, it’s called Shir haShirim: Song of Songs. And, again in Hebrew, when someone says that something is the ‘thing of things’ that means it’s the best, the greatest, the most beautiful: Lord of Lords, Holy of Holies, Song of Songs. This is the best song.

And people have spent thousands of years trying to figure out what to do with it. Because it’s in the Bible. And it’s a love song. People have tried to make it into a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church. And maybe it is. But it is also a love song. Period. And it gets… well…

And I looked, and this might be the only time it shows up in the lectionary.

In today’s reading, the woman in the song is describing a visit from her lover. And it’s a scene we’ve seen played out in a thousand movies and television shows. And maybe some of you have seen it in real life.

A boy shows up at the house and throws pebbles against the window. And the girl opens the window. And the the boy says, “Come away with me. It’s springtime. The night is warm. The birds are singing. The flowers are blossoming. Come away with me and we’ll kiss on a mountaintop. Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you.”

(Some of that is Norah Jones, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

When I was younger — when I was involved in a more conservative church organization — I encountered purity culture. Or, at least, something that looked a lot like purity culture.

Purity culture is hard to describe, but you’ve probably run into it… at least a little. Maybe a lot. Pledges to abstain from sex until marriage; maybe even to abstain from kissing until marriage; maybe even the practice of wearing a purity ring as a reminder of that pledge. Chaperoned courtships to make sure that no one gives in to impure thoughts or impure urges. Absolutely a four-feet-on-the-floor-at-all-times rule. Absolutely heteronormative. Absolutely cis-normative.

And there’s the gum metaphor. You are like a stick of gum. And if you step outside the boundaries of your purity — if you have sex outside of marriage — then it’s like someone has chewed you up. And when you’re done, who’s going to want a chewed up piece of gum? No one. That’s who.

And I want to be clear here: while we see purity culture a lot in conservative evangelical culture, we also see it in plenty of other places.

And I want to be painfully clear here: purity culture is harmful. It hurts people who have been the victims of sexual violence. It hurts people who haven’t been victims, but who gave in to their own hormones that one time. It hurts people who haven’t given in, but who stand in a place of judgement over their friends and neighbors.

It can leave a person an empty shell of themselves, under the waves, in the blue of their oblivion.

(And that’s Fiona Apple, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are eating. And they’re eating without washing their hands.

Now, the Pharisees and the scribes had a tradition that they did not eat without washing their hands, and whatever they bought at the market, and their cups and pots and kettles.

And Mark even uses a sort of hopeful superlative: “All of the Jews,” he says, “had this tradition.” Now, ‘all of the Jews’ certainly did not. But Mark is trying to paint a picture here.

And the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples ignore the tradition of our elders? Why are they eating with unclean hands? Why don’t they keep pure?”

And here the lectionary is a little weird, because it skips some verses. And Jesus gives three answers here.

To the scribes and Pharisees he answers, “You are terrible. You are putting your human tradition over God’s commands. In fact, you avoid following God’s commands by creating a loophole through tradition.”

To the crowd he answers, “There is nothing outside a person that can defile him by going in.”

And, later, to the disciples he answers, “Food cannot defile you, only what comes out of your heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And while the gospel just kind of moves on after that, in this moment, whether they realize it or not, the disciples stand condemned. In this moment, whether we realize it or not, we stand condemned. Because we’ve all had things come out of our hearts that defile us and make us less than pure.

And, yes, some of those are sexual: fornication and adultery and licentiousness. But most of them aren’t. And while some of them might seem rare — like theft and murder, though those aren’t as rare as you might think — most of them are things that we do in our everyday lives, one way or another: avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly.

And they are not ranked. There is not one evil inclination that’s better than another. There is no grading on a curve. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and we all stand in complete equality before her, defiled and impure because of that sin.

If anyone here is a chewed up piece of gum, we all are. And who wants a chewed up piece of gum?

God does.

That is the heart of the gospel. No matter how beat down you are, no matter how heavy and dirty your soul is, no matter who you are… where you are on life’s journey… what you’ve done… what has happened to you… God still comes to your window and throws pebbles and asks you to come away with him. God still calls you his dove. God still asks to see your face and hear your voice, because your voice is sweet and your face is lovely. And God will never… ever… ever… stop loving you.

And I cannot tell you how important that message is. There are people in this world, there are people in this town, there are people in this church community, there are people in this sanctuary, who have been told that they are not loved and that they are not worthy of love.

There are people in this world who lie about love. They lie to others and they lie to themselves.

And I want this message to be resoundingly clear: you are loved and you are worthy of love.

You will lose your confidence. In times of trial, your common sense. You may lose your innocence, but you cannot lose God’s love.

(And that’s Sara Groves, but that’s okay, I think she gets it).

And it doesn’t stop there.

We are Christians. We are imitators of Christ.

We’re not always good at it. I’m not always good at it. But that’s what we are. And that means two things.

First, it means that we are called into a new life. We are called to be better than we are. We are called to shun fornication and adultery and licentiousness. And theft and murder. And avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly. And everything that is not love.

And we’re going to fail. That’s okay. We get up, we know that we are loved, and we try again.

Second, it means that we’re called to share that same indiscriminate love that God has or us with everyone in here and with everyone out there. We are called to remind each other that we are not chewed up pieces of gum, but precious children of a loving God.

Because, you see, God has a love song. It is the love song of love songs. It is the greatest of all love songs. And we can all sing along. Amen.

Not Against Flesh and Blood

Most of you know that Mariah and I have a dachshund named Hildegard. A while ago, we started having a little problem with her: she started refusing to go for walks. She would be fine in the fenced-in yard, and she was willing to step out into the rest of the yard and maybe even walk around the house a little bit. But, once we got to the sidewalk, she would tuck her tail and shake and sit down and refuse to move.

A trip to the vet ruled out any medical problems. And we know that Hildegard has had some scary run-ins with loose dogs in the neighborhood… and fireworks over the summer… and loud noises like motorcycles and backfiring trucks.

So now we’re taking a behavioral approach. Hildegard thinks that the world outside of our fenced-in yard is scary, and we need to do the long hard work of teaching her that it is not. Or, at least, of giving her the resilience to overcome that fear and go for a walk.

Today’s reading is from the letter to the Ephesians. Our reading a couple of weeks ago was also from this book. In that the sermon I gave then, I told you a few important things about this letter… but I thought a refresher might be in order.

So, four things:

First, this letter is almost certainly not by Paul, even though his name is right there at the beginning. It’s probably by an anonymous person who followed Paul and who wanted to borrow some of Paul’s credibility for his own letter.

Second, this letter was almost certainly not written to the church in Ephesus, even though its name is right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, sent from church to church, with each sender writing the recipient’s name into the letter: to the saints who are in Ephesus, to the saints who are in Laodicea, to the saints who are in DeWitt.

Third, this letter by an anonymous author, passed from church to church, is sometimes very wrong. And fourth, it is sometimes very right.

In today’s passage, the author takes a moment to recognize the struggles that his audience faces. For the the early church, these struggles included conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and challenges in figuring out who they were and how they lived and what they believed.

For us, two thousand years later, these struggles are different. In some parts of the world, our Christian friends and neighbors are persecuted and threatened. In some parts of our nation, our friends and neighbors — Christian or not — are marginalized and oppressed. And even in this relatively privileged congregation, we face loss, illness, loneliness, and heartache.

Struggle is real… every one of us is facing our own version of a big world beyond the fenced-in yard.

When Hildegard faces her world beyond the fenced-in yard, she does it as a dog, and dogs don’t think the way that we do.

Hildegard doesn’t think in abstractions. She doesn’t think about walks-in-general, or other-dogs-in-general, or parks-in-general. She can’t have one good walk and think that’s what walks are like.

And she doesn’t quite have the same kind of episodic memory that we have. She probably can’t quite remember the time that a dog ran out from a house and started a fight with her… at least, not in the same way that I can.

She might not even know that the world outside the fenced-in yard is scary; she probably doesn’t think to herself, “I am now in the world outside the fenced-in yard and bad things have happened here and they might happen again.” Her knowledge of the world, I think, is deeper in her bones. She steps into the world beyond the fenced-in yard and she is just scared. It’s a brute fact.

We are different.

When I am afraid, I can sit down and think about why I am afraid. When I am upset, I can sit down and think about why I am upset. When I am angry, I can sit down and think about why I am angry.

And, if I think through those things and work on them — by myself or with a therapist — I might be able to overcome them. I might be able to go through my struggles and come out the other side… different, but whole and healthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes, when we sit and think about our struggles, we find someone to blame. And Lord, there are people out there who will tell us who to blame for our problems.

There are people in our families and communities and churches who will tell us who to blame for our our struggles. There are people in the paper and on the radio and on the television who will tell us who to blame for our struggles.

There are people who will tell us to blame our family members. There are people who will tell us to blame strangers. But the message is consistent: “Here is the cause of your problems… it’s their fault.”

There are people who try and push us apart from each other… who want us to believe that our struggles are against each other.

Hildegard doesn’t see the world that way. She doesn’t blame her struggles on that dog that got loose or those people who set off the fireworks. She just knows that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is a world of struggle.

And the author of Ephesians doesn’t see the world that way. He knows that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, I know, we’re good modern twenty-first century mainline protestant Christians and good sensible practical Iowas. We don’t usually talk about cosmic powers and spiritual forces. We are too level headed for that. But I think Hildegard might know something we don’t. And I think the author of Ephesians might know something we aren’t always aware of.

All of us — all of us: you and me and everyone — are subject to forces that we do not understand and that we might not even be aware of. Some of those are wonderful, like that pull to help a stranger stranded on the side of the road. Some of them are terrible, like those unconscious biases that push us to be suspicious of people who are too different from us.

We don’t always know why we do things… and, sometimes, the things that we do are the wrong things. And that’s true for all of us. And that is the key.

You see, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is not against our family or friends or neighbors or strangers. You see, all of them are caught in the same struggle that we are. All of them are having to endure the world beyond the fenced-in yard. All of them are subject to forces that they do not understand and may not even be aware of. All of them are going through what we’re going through.

And the only way to help them through that struggle — the only way to help them through that struggle; a struggle that they might not even know they’re engaged in — is to love them. The only way to get through this world of struggle is to love each other.

The author of Ephesians wants us to be safe in this struggle. He wants us to put on the armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and — the metaphor rapidly losing steam — the shoes of whatever will help you proclaim the gospel.

And he’s not wrong. The world is full of struggle. But…

The thing about a suit of armor is that only one person can fit inside. And truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit and the gospel aren’t like that. We’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Enter the house of God. Not just the house, but the mansion of God. A great mansion with hallways that stretch on forever, with room after room after room, with space for everyone. This is the beauty of that gospel that holds within it truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit: it is big enough for everyone. This is the beauty of God’s love: there is more than enough to go around.

Hildegard is scared of the world beyond the fenced-in yard. And there are reasons for her to be scared. There are forces she does not understand. Some of them will try to hurt her. Some of them won’t try, but will hurt her anyway. And the only way through that fear is for Mariah and I to show her that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is also full of treats and scritchies and love.

The world that we live in is a world of struggle. For all of us. And the only way through that struggle is for us to share the assurance that we have and to show each other that this world is also a world of love. That it is mostly a world of love. That it is intended to be entirely a world of love.

That is the call… to take up this armor and share it around until it is something more, until the world is full of the gospel; until the world overflows with the presence of the God who is love.

Book Announcement: Radical Charity

I’ve already announced this on my personal Facebook profile, but I haven’t said anything here yet: I recently signed a contract with Wipf and Stock to publish my first book — the working title is Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) — through their Cascade Books imprint. I spent more than two years working on the manuscript, and who-knows-how-long before that accidentally researching a book. While there’s still plenty if work to be done, I am very excited for this project to be in its final stages!

Here’s my draft for the back cover copy:

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Radical Charity weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

I’ll post more updates here as the project moves forward.

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

That’s not from our reading today. It’s from our call to worship. It’s from a Psalm. The psalmist sings that he will praise the Lord. He sings that the Lord’s works are great; they are full of honor and majesty; they are faithful and just. He sings that the Lord is renowned for her wonderful deeds; she has provided food to the people; she has sent redemption.

And he sings that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

And that sounds terrible. The Lord is my savior. And this makes it sound like God has plucked me out of the abyss and I am hanging from a string as thin and fragile as a spider’s thread, and that I am afraid, because if I do the wrong thing… he might just… let go.

And that would not be a healthy relationship. If you ever find yourself in that kind of relationship — a relationship where you are afraid that, if you do the wrong thing, your partner will hurt you or kill you — get out. That is abuse. That is a dangerous place to be.

That goes for religion, too. If that is the fear we’re supposed to have — if that is the beginning of wisdom — then God is a monster. And, as Christians, we do not believe that God is a monster. We know — from scripture and from experience — that God is love and that perfect love casts out all fear.

And yet, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

In today’s reading, David is dead. He has gone to sleep with his ancestors. And his son, Solomon, now sits on the throne.
Now, Solomon is a good kid. He loves God. He walks in the statutes of his father. He offers sacrifices. And in a dream one night, God appears to him and asks him, “What should I give to you?”

And Solomon shows God… his fear.

“You have made me the king of your people,” he says, “and I am young, and there are so many of them, and I have no idea what I am doing.” And you can hear it in his voice. He is afraid. He wonders how he is going to live up to this responsibility.

I am forty. I have reached a point in my life where I know two things. First, there are a couple of things that I am really good at. Second, there are a bunch of things where I’m just faking it and hoping no one notices. And I’m starting to suspect that this is just what adulthood is like. And, sometimes, that’s scary.

And a while ago, I started thinking about all of those adults and authority figures who I knew growing up.

I started thinking about those elementary school teachers who seemed so old, but who were probably, like, in their twenties. I started thinking about my parents. My parents were in their thirties when I was born. I even looked up one of my college professors who I really admire. And when he was teaching me, he was younger than I am now.

And while I believe — I really believe — that all of these people had some things that they were really good at… it seems like they might have also been faking some things and hoping no one noticed. And it seems like they might have, sometimes, been afraid.

Because that just might be how it is for everyone. We’re all a little confident, and we’re all a little afraid. We all understand how Solomon felt… at least a little bit.

But this is a different kind of fear. It isn’t the fear that someone will hurt us or punish us. It isn’t the fear that we’re dangling from a spider’s thread, and if we mess up, God might just… let go.

It is a fear that we are ill-equipped for the life that we face. It is a fear that we will hurt someone we care about. It is a fear that is, in a strange and mysterious way, born out of love.

That is the fear that Solomon has: the fear that he doesn’t have what it takes — that he doesn’t have what he needs — to be a good king.

So he asks… “Give me… an understanding mind to govern your people; make me able to discern between good and evil.”

He fears God with a fear born out of a love for God’s people. And he asks for wisdom.

I once read that persuasive writers and speakers project certainty. People who are convincing sound sure. They state opinions as though they were facts. They avoid qualifiers like “I think…” or “I suppose…” We’re all faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices. And if you really want to keep people from noticing, project certainty.

But know: there’s a price.

Solomon asked for wisdom because he feared God; because he was willing to say to God, “I don’t know if I can do this. I am only a child, I don’t know how to go out or come in.” And there is power in that admission. There is power in saying, “I am not certain. I’m faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices.”

There is power in saying, “I need help,” to God. Because when we say that, God might just help. And there is power in saying, “I need help,” to each other. Because when we say that, our friends and neighbors might just help. And we might not have to fake it, anymore.

When Solomon asks God for wisdom, God responds by giving him wisdom. And there’s something interesting happening here.

When Solomon asks for wisdom, God responds by saying, “Because you have asked for this — and not for a long life, or great riches, or for the death of your enemies — I will give it to you… and, on top of that, I will give you riches, and honor, and a long life.”

And it looks a lot like this: if Solomon had asked for those other things, God would have said, “No.” But, because Solomon asked for wisdom — because Solomon said, “I need help,” — God gave him what he asked for and more.

God is generous. When we are vulnerable before God, God gives us what we need and more.

And, I think, in general, so are we. When we are vulnerable before each other — when we say, “I am doing my best, but I’m a little scared and I don’t know exactly what to do,” — we turn to each other and offer each other those three magic words, “Let me help.”

And when we help each other, when we become the hands and feet and heart of the Lord Jesus Christ who saves us all… and when we accept that help, when we become the outstretched hand of the marginalized Christ who is the least of these… then we will have wisdom and insight and knowledge. And, even more, we will have riches and honor and abundant life.

Because, it turns out, if we give up on the idea that we have to fake it and hope that no one notices, if we give up on the necessity of foolish certainty, if we admit that we are dependent on God and on each other… then we can grow in God, and have all that we need and more.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But the fear of the Lord isn’t some fear that we’re hanging over an abyss by a spider’s thread and that if we mess up, God will just… let go. We know that God doesn’t do that. God has redeemed us and rescued us and saved us. Because God is love.

Period.

The fear of the Lord is that admission that we can’t do this by ourselves, and we don’t want to fake it, and we don’t want to hurt the people who we care about… and we know that we are called to care about everyone. And it is when we admit that, that we can turn to God in prayer and ask for what we need: minds that can discern the difference between good and evil, hearts that can choose to choose the good even when it’s hard, and spirits that can ask for help.

Because knowing that we cannot do this alone — and that we are not, in fact, alone — is the deepest wisdom.

Preaching and Listening

For my birthday this year, my wife generously bought be a new tenor saxophone. I started on clarinet in sixth grade. In college, I switched to tenor saxophone (and still doubled on clarinet), and played on school horns. A few months after college, I bought a late-60s King Cleveland off eBay. Despite hundreds of dollars of repairs and adjustments, it’s never been a high quality instrument. The octave mechanism stick, there is always at least one leaky pad, the action is slow, it feels like it’s made out of tin, and it’s always a little stuffy. Now I have a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200 that feels and plays much better. So… a huge thank you to my wife!

And that means that I’m practicing again. It’s something that I have to make time for, but I can usually get an hour or two in every day: practicing the blues in different keys, running scales and arpeggios, striving to get my tempos up, going through different tunes, and… transcribing.

Transcribing is the practice of listening to another musician’s solo and trying to replicate it. So, right now, I’m working on Miles Davis’s famous solo from Kind of Blue. I’m not writing it down — so, I suppose, I’m not technically transcribing — but I listen to a few notes or a few bars and try to play them back. And, as I get more of it under my fingers, I can play more of the solo right along with Miles. The point of this exercise is to train my ear; to get to a place where I can hear a phrase — in principle, any phrase — and repeat it.

And I do this because of something that I heard saxophonist Bob Reynolds say. To paraphrase: improvisation is the art of transcribing ourselves in real time. I want to be able to play what I’m hearing in my head at the same time that I’m hearing it.

And I started thinking about this in the context of preaching.

Specifically, I started thinking about why I don’t listen to — and imitate — other preachers? We have a handful of rockstar preachers in the United Church of Christ; and even outside of those rockstars, I know many pastors whose preaching I admire. Technology has made it easy to record and share sermons, and many churches publish recordings of sermons, so they’re easily available. And I know that listening to other preachers deliver good sermons well invigorates and inspires me when I hear them at denominational gatherings; so surely listening to them on a regular basis, for the purpose of learning from them, would make be a better preacher.

So why don’t I do it?

I think there are a few reasons.

First, I don’t think we usually think about preaching as performance or about sermons as a form of music. But it is a performance and public speaking has a lot in common with music. As preachers, we each have our signature patterns and phrases. Volume, rhythm, and phrasing all matter. Even where we look, how we gesture, and what facial expressions we wear make a difference. And while it is a lot of work to compose a new sermon every week, part of that composition should include thoughts on how I will deliver it.

Second, we tend to think that ‘borrowing’ from another preacher is bad form. The reason that I transcribe on the saxophone is to train my ear; and part of what I am training my ear to do is learn the language of jazz. I am learning new phrases that I can add to my repertoire… and that I can deploy elsewhere. I will never play Miles’s solo during a performance, but a measure that sounds like it might possibly be based on something from that solo might sneak into a solo on another piece where there’s an Em7 chord. The same principle should apply to preaching. I will never deliver the same line that some other preacher delivers, but a rhythm or inflection might slip in during a sermon on a different scripture. Of course, it will only do that if I add it to my own ‘language’. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I say them.

Third, I think many of us are scared to experiment. On Sunday morning, I have to use the time I have during the sermon to do a lot of work. Not only do I have to deliver an inspiring message; I often have to provide a basic education on the Bible, comment on current events, and do a dozen other things. Experimenting with a new style of preaching means taking a risk that my congregation might not be open to. The last think I want people remember is an awkward moment in the sermon; especially if that means they aren’t remembering something else. But that should be easy to manage: only use new things in practice until you’re comfortable with them.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. Along with practicing my saxophone and working on that Miles David solo, I’m going to take the time to listen to other preachers and — as it were — work on their solos. Hopefully, that will add some licks to my preaching vocabulary and make me a better, more interesting, and more diverse preacher.

Life, Together

As we have established in earlier sermons, I am a nerd. Almost every week, I get together with a group of friends and we play… well, not Dungeons & Dragons, but a similar game. For a few hours, we play characters who are wizards and thieves and warriors, who are elves and dwarves and halflings, who are fighting dragons and defeating evil sorcerers and saving the world.

And what it all comes down to is this: we sit around a table and work together to tell a story. And because we are working together to tell a story, one of the first things we have to do is decide what kind of story it is. Are we telling a story of epic high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or are we telling a comedy like Monty Python and the Holy Grail? After all, if some of us are telling one of those stories, and some of us are telling the other, no one will have any fun.

So we ask: for the next few hours at this table… who are we going to be? And I want to be clear: that’s a different question from ‘who am I going to be… or what are my aspirations?’ Who are we, as a group of friends telling a story together going to be?’

And that’s an important question. At some point, you’ve probably worked on it yourselves.

We ask it when we talk about workplace culture: who are we, as a business, going to be?

We ask it when we go through things in romantic relationships: who are we, as a couple or a family, going to be?

We ask it when we go through a church visioning process: who are we, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

We ask it when we go into a voting booth: who are we, as a city or a state or a nation, going to be?

Not just ‘who am I going to be?’ but ‘how are we going to live together?’

And that might be one of the most important questions we can ask. We are creatures of community. No matter how much we like alone time, we don’t do well in isolation. And in order to be happy in community, we have to ask how we want to be in community. All of us. How are we going to live together?

Today’s reading is from a book in the New Testament that we call Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. And, if I can put on a different nerd hat for a minute, that’s a terrible name for this book. For two reasons.

First, it almost certainly wasn’t written by Paul, even though it has his name right there at the beginning. It was probably written by someone who followed Paul, who admired Paul, and who wanted to add some of Paul’s credibility to his own letter. He wanted to say something like, ‘this is what Paul would tell us.’

Second, it almost certainly wasn’t written to the church in Ephesus, even though it has their name right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, meaning that it was sent from church to church to church, all around the ancient near east. And that little spot at the beginning would be filled in with different names, depending on the church that someone was sending it to.

To the saints who are in Ephesus… to the saints who are in Laodicea… to the saints who are in DeWitt.

It was personalized and it went viral. And the author was asking that question: who are we, as people who live together in this world, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

And while I don’t what to downplay the importance and authority of a book of the Bible, the fact that this was a viral letter written by an anonymous author can be helpful. Because, like a lot of people who try to say who we are called to be with certainty and clarity, the author writes out a lot of rules. And, sometimes, he is very very wrong about who we want to be and who we are called to be.

“Wives, submit to your husbands,” he says, “slaves obey your masters.” And, of centuries, we were those people: people who treated women as second class citizens, people who owned other people. We were once people who quoted this book to justify oppression. And, while we’re not out of the shadow of that history yet — while we still have a long way to go — I think that we’ve made some progress.

But, just because the author of Ephesians is wrong sometimes doesn’t mean he’s wrong all the time. And, in our passage today, I think that he has some things exactly right.

Our reading today is a list of rules, a list of ideas, a list of ‘try to be this way’ statements. And I’m only going to look at one, one ‘try to be this way’ statement that I think our anonymous author gets exactly right: “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

In general, I’m a pretty calm person. I’m pretty steady. I’m not led by my passions. But, I admit, there are things happening in the world today that make me angry.

Right now, there are children in detention centers near the border. They and their parents trekked for hundreds of miles in search of a better and safer life. They were arrested and separated. And some of those children will never see their parents again, because their parents were deported, and they don’t have a way back to their children.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people to separate children from their families and keep those kids in detention centers.

Right now, there are schools planning their active shooter drills for the coming school year. And there are people working to make things so that, if you can afford a 3-D printer and download some files from the internet, you can print an untraceable and almost undetectable gun in your own home.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people whose children have to be afraid that someone will print a gun at home and then show up at their school.

Right now, and I mean right now, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are preparing for a rally in Washington, D.C., in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, later today.

And that makes me angry… because I really don’t think we should be a people where voices of hatred and oppression are accepted and amplified.

There are things happening in the world today that make me angry. There are things happening in the world today that make you angry. And that’s okay. There is a place for anger… and there is especially a place for anger in the service of love for our neighbors.

And, sometimes, when we are talking about how we are going to live together, we are going to get angry… and, sometimes, that anger is going to be appropriate, it is going to be necessary, and it is going to be righteous. There are times for civility and there are times for incivility. Anger is not always wrong.

But…

We are angrier than we used to be. Maybe not you, and not all the time, and, hopefully, not in this sanctuary or at each other… though we are a church and a community and a family… and those are all places where anger happens. But, out there in the world, in general, we are angrier than we used to be.

And there is a difference between being a person who gets angry in the service of righteousness, and being an angry person. There is a difference between being people who sometimes get angry when we talk about how we are going to live together, and being people who live together in anger.

And I think that the author of Ephesians knew that.

“Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

When the author of Ephesians wrote a letter to the saints who were in Ephesus… and the saints who were in Laodicea… and the saints who are in DeWitt, a town he had never heard of in a land he knew nothing about… when the author of Ephesians wrote this letter, the Christian community was small and persecuted and a little bit at war with itself. This was a community of Jews and Gentiles from across the Roman Empire and there were disagreements about how they were going to live… together… as one body.

And I have no doubt there was anger. And bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice.

And they needed that reminder — and, sometimes, we need that reminder — that anger is okay, but sin is not. That after the anger there is a call to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving.

Because God was kind and tenderhearted and forgiving towards us.

As a church, we are entering a season of visioning. We are asking how we are going to live together. And while it might not seem like it, as we discover a vision together and live into that vision together, there may be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I hope that anger is in the service of righteousness.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

As a nation, we are entering a season of campaigns and elections. We are asking how we are going to live together. And I guarantee you there will be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I pray that anger is in the service of justice.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

And here is the thing: when my friends and I sit down together and enter a world of thieves and elves and dragons, we know that we are telling a story together. And that story only works if everyone at that table has a voice… and if everyone at that table is having fun.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from having fun — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can work to love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone has fun.

And when we come together as a community — as a church, as a city, as a nation — we know that we are living a life together. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone has a voice. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone is being loved.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from loving or from being loved — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone is loved.

And I believe — I really believe — that if we recognize that we are all in this together, as one body, then we can live the life that we are called to: a life rooted in the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We can be imitators of God, beloved children. By the grace of God, may that be so.

The Relationship between Hours Worked and Energy Spent (And How There Isn’t One)

As a pastor, my schedule is pretty fluid. There are some fixed points: worship is at 9:30am on Sundays, confirmation is at 6pm on Wednesdays, office hours are from 9am to 1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and so on. And there are things that need to be done, but can fit in wherever there is space. For example, I write sermons on Mondays; but if they spill over into sometime on Wednesday, that’s okay.

That leaves a lot of time that is open and unpredictable. Hospital visits happen. Funerals — though I haven’t had one yet — happen on relatively short notice. And, of course, there are endless administrative tasks that need to be dealt with and plans that need to be made. This is not a job with nice, clean, stable hours.

And one of the things that I’ve notices is that there’s no relationship between the quantity of hours I work and how much energy I use. What might look like a short day can leave be exhausted. What might look like a long day can feel like nothing at all.

Some of that is driven by my personality. On the one hand, I’m a personal introvert. I replenish my energy by being alone or hanging out with a few close personal friends. On the other hand, I’m a professional extrovert. I can go to events and work a room and hit meeting after meeting. But that comes at a cost: at a reasonably slow pace, I use up that energy that I got from my introverted activities.

But some of it is also driven by the nature of the work. It’s easy to not realize that leading worship is, in many respects, a performance… and performances are work, even if the performer loves doing it. Similarly, moving from group to group during coffee hour is work. And talking through a deep-seated personal problem with a parishioner is work. And committee meetings are work. And that’s true no matter how much I enjoy all of those things and how much I am called to all of this work.

And that leads me to two thoughts.

First, for pastors. Pastors have a habit of humble-bragging about the quantity of hours we work. And I know too many pastors who work — including their time in the wider church and wider community — every day of the week. And even those who work six days a week are often trying to cram an entire personal life into a single day. I know that there is a lot to do, but we need to give ourselves permission to rest and recharge so that we can be effective at doing all those things.

Second, for parishioners. I know that a lot of what your pastor does is invisible. And every pastor I know is working furiously for their congregation. It is important for you to remember that a few hours on Sunday morning can wipe someone out, that there was probably at least an hour of research and writing for every minute of the sermon you hear, and that your pastor is facing the same struggles that you are outside of work. So I invite you to get to know your pastor, how they replenish their energy, and what wears them out… and then make room for them.

And if we all do our part, we can have stronger and healthier pastors… and stronger and healthier congregations.

Practicing the Kingdom

I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no new sermon today. This is an old one that I preached at the United Church of Christ in Medina, Ohio, sometime in 2009.

For those who don’t know me, I am a communion junkie. Communion is where it all comes together for me, where the entire phenomenon of ‘being church’ is transformed: where a group of people coming together in a brick building is changed into a community of the holy spirit. That’s not to say that the rest of it – the hymns, the sermon, the passing of the peace, and so on – isn’t meaningful. I know some people get it all in those parts of the service, and I get little glimpses there. But, for me, communion is the lynch pin that makes it all come together.

When I was young, though, I did not – and I mean emphatically did not – like communion. Like plenty of kids, I didn’t want to be in church in the first place. The hymns seemed dowdy, the prayers seemed blase, the sermons were often just long and rambling… it was a Sunday morning wasted. Communion was just another bit being tacked onto the end and costing another fifteen or twenty minutes.

In other words: I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t see how radical it was: how it demanded a fundamental change in the way I lived – in the way we live.

I’m not surprised now that I didn’t get it then. I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get it now. Communion, in a way, is hidden by its difference. It doesn’t fit into the way we usually do things. It’s the weird kid who always eats alone: different, and therefore invisible.

The way we normally do things is the way that makes the weird kid always eat alone. Imagine the cafeteria of your high school: which table were you at? I sat with the band geeks, and I remember that there were tables for the jocks from the first tier sports and their associates, and tables for the jocks from the other tiers, and tables for the theater people, and tables for the gangstas, and for the goths, and for the computer geeks, and so on. We all, I’m sure, know the routine: everyone has their clique and, while there might be some crossing of borders, for the most part those cliques stay separate.

That didn’t end after high school, either. When I was in college, one of the art classes was assigned the project of doing an installation piece: a site specific, three dimensional piece that changes the perception of a space. One of the students went into the cafeteria with a few rolls of masking tape and a marker and installed the cafeteria borders: here was the jazz table, here were the tekes, here were the international students, here was the lacrosse team, and so on. The artist had simply made physical all of the boundaries that were already there. While we might have all been more comfortable in our cliques – and while our cliques might have been a little more open – than in high school, the basic set up remained the same.

After college, I had a few jobs. One of these was in a warehouse. When I first took the job, I was told that it was one big happy family, everyone was treated like equals, and so on. They even, around Thanksgiving and Christmas, had holiday meals in the cafeteria, where everyone ate together. Of course, this wasn’t a nice cafeteria: all plastic benches attached to plastic tables. The executive staff didn’t normally eat in there – only the warehouse workers and lower level office workers. Imagine my surprise when, near Thanksgiving, I walked into the cafeteria to discover that one new banquet table had been set up and executive chairs arranged around it. All of those people who didn’t normally eat in the cafeteria would be joining the rest of us in the cafeteria, with their own private table and comfortable chairs. It was still high school: just the cliques didn’t normally see each other. When we all did, though, the lines were very clear.

Even when I was in a position not to have to eat any meals in cafeterias, normal was still there. In Chicago, there were borders around neighborhoods, around apartment buildings, around grocery stores, and around restaurants. There was a huge difference between shopping at Whole Foods (posh) and shopping at the Save-a-lot (not so posh). There were even areas where there were no groceries, and where fast food was the only option. There was a real difference between eating at Frontera Grille or Topolobampo (remarkably posh, genuine Mexican cuisine) and eating at any given taqueria in Humboldt Park (genuine, incredibly cheap, and the opposite of posh). Neighborhoods were sometimes separated by physical borders: there were parks and highways that had been built to make sure neighborhoods stayed separate.

Even here in Medina, borders separate us, just like everywhere else. There’s a real difference between living in an apartment at Forest Meadows or Mallard’s Crossing and living in one at Autumn Run. There’s a difference between those of us who can do at least some of our grocery shopping at Buehler’s and those of us who have to do all of our grocery shopping at Marc’s or one of the big box stores. There’s a difference between those of us who can eat out at Longhorn some of the time and those of us for whom McDonald’s is a special occasion. And, of course, there are those who don’t have kitchens, for whom fast food is the only real option. It’s the same everywhere: there are real borders between communities, real differences that affect where and how we live, what we eat, what kind of medical care we get, what educations are available, and on, and on, and on. In a lot of ways, the world is the high school cafeteria on a much larger scale and with much bigger, life or death, stakes.

The ancient world was no different. At various times and in various places spanned by the Bible, people were divided by gender, income, caste, profession, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and a thousand other things. The world of the Bible, like our own, is a world full of divisions and borders. The Bible itself reminds us of these borders: as when Joseph tells his brothers that shepherds are detested by the Egyptians (Gen. 46:34), or when John is accused of being possessed by demons or Jesus is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton for associating with the wrong people (Matthew 11:18-19), or even in Leviticus, where the Israelites are repeatedly admonished to be set apart from other nations. Separation and division are part of the reality of the Bible.

And yet there’s another strand that runs through the Bible, captured in the two passages from today; a strand that rejects the separation that is so normal and, importantly, rejects it through food. Where God is, there is abundant food: God rains down bread from heaven (Exodus 16:4) on the Israelites in the wilderness while they are on their way to a land of milk and honey; during the sabbath year, we are told that there will be enough food for people to eat off the land without sowing or reaping (Lev. 25:1-7); Elijah has food brought to him by ravens, and performs a miracle where a jug of flour and a jug of water – for making cakes – last for years during a famine; Isaiah promises us that in the future there will be “a feast of rich food for all peoples” (Isaiah 25:6). God provides food to all people: “defending the cause of the fatherless and the widow, loving the alien, giving them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).

Moreover, we are commanded to do the same: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:6-8) Or the more memorable “I was hungry and you fed me” (Matthew 25:35).

Neither Isaiah’s vision of the holy feast nor the commands given to us are about separation. Neither the feeding performed by Elisha nor the one performed by Jesus are about separation. Neither checks to make sure that only the right people are present or that people are sitting in the right groups. They have the food and it is distributed and there is enough for everyone and there is some left over. If the stories seem awfully similar, I think it is because the point of the stories is that this is what God does and this is what the kingdom of God looks like. This eating with abundance and without division is what is supposed to be normal – and thus we see the story again and again, whenever God shows up, as though it is normal.

And so we have the two ways of eating: the high school cafeteria and the feeding of the five thousand. One of these is normal, and one of these is supposed to be normal. One of these is the way of the world, and one of these is the way of God. This is what makes communion so important to me: communion is not its own thing sitting off in the corner, by itself, something encountered only on a special occasion – whether that occasion is once a quarter or once a month or once a week or once a day. Communion sits in relation to the way Jesus eats. Communion sits in a tradition of God’s feast. Communion is how we’re supposed to eat not just on Sunday morning, but all the time.

Think about what a radical demand that is. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, there was enough food for everybody. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, there was more than enough food for everybody. Think about what the world would be like if, every day, no one was turned away from the table. Think about the what the world would be like if, every day, regardless of your race or color or creed, regardless of your religion or nationality or ideology, regardless of your age or gender or sexuality, regardless of your popularity or abilities or education, regardless of your profession or class or appearance, regardless of anything… there was food and drink and company and celebration. Imagine that world. That is what the kingdom of God looks like.

Of course, we’re not always good at living in that world. God knows I’m hardly ever good at living in that world. I get ground down and cynical and selfish just like everyone else. I don’t always look toward God. I don’t always have the eschatological hope of the messianic feast in my mind or in my heart. But I do this: I come here. I practice.

I show up and eat at this table as a reminder of how I should eat and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and eat the same way.

I show up and drink from this cup as a reminder of how I should drink and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and drink the same way.

I show up and sing these songs as a reminder of how I should sing and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and sing the same way.

I show up and pass the peace as a reminder of how I should pass peace and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and pass that peace to others in the same way.

I show up and pray as a reminder of how I should pray and converse with God and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and pray and converse in the same way.

I show up here and live as a reminder of how I should live and, when I’m good, I try to go out there and live the same way.

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Matthew 13:33) I come here to, as it were, get my yeast up. I come here to, as it were, get yeasty. I come here not to be separate, not to be set apart. I come here to by holy as God is holy: the God who is willing to empty himself into a human vessel and spread a kingdom not through conquest and human glory, but through eating and drinking with Pharisees and tax collectors alike, through healing and serving all who came near, through washing the feet of his disciples, through being led off to the cross and hung upon it, and through rising again.

And so, today, I want to try something. We’ve switched things around a little today and put the message a little earlier in the service than usual. I want us to be mindful today that this is not a time set apart to be different from other times, but to treat it as a rehearsal for the rest of the time. And, perhaps even more important, I want us to be mindful for the rest of this week of those things that get in the way of our living this way: both our own personal obstacles and the institutional and systemic obstacles that get in the way of living in the kingdom of God.

As a start, let us rise and greet one another with the peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Hallelujah

Oh… David.

Our reading from 2 Samuel this morning is one of the most famous stories from the Bible. It’s famous enough to make it into a Leonard Cohen song that’s been covered time and time again. I won’t ruin your morning by singing it, but you know it. You’ve heard it. “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof; you saw her bathing on the roof; her beauty in the moonlight overthrew ya.”

And because it’s so well-known, a lot of us only know a little bit of it; mostly from the Leonard Cohen song. David and Bathsheba and an affair. Something goes wrong.”She tied you to the kitchen chair; and she broke your throne and cut your hair; and from your lips she drew…”

Ain’t love grand?

But that’s not the story. This isn’t a story about a love affair. This is a story about David screwing up… and covering up the fact that he screwed up. And because it’s one of those stories that’s different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible, we’re going to spend some time with it. We’re going to dig in.

It’s springtime. It’s the time when kings ride out to war and David has a war planned. His army is going out to fight against the Ammonites and siege the city of Rabbah.

But David stays home. He’s walking around on his roof when he looks over and sees into the courtyard of another house, not too far away. And he sees a beautiful woman bathing; purifying herself. He asks around, “Who is this beautiful woman?”

“Her name is Bathsheba,” they tell him, “she is the daughter of Eliam, she it the wife of Uriah the Hittite, who fights in your army.”

So David… has her sent to him. And they sleep together. And she goes home.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant. So David sends for Uriah the Hittite, her husband. He asks some questions about how the war is going. You know, the war that David isn’t at. And then he says, “Hey, Uriah, while you’re here, why don’t you go home and, um, ‘wash your feet’… if you know what I’m sayin’?”

And Uriah… doesn’t. He stays in a camp with the other soldiers and servants who are at the king’s house. Because if his brothers in arms are out in the field killing and dying, and if the Ark of the Covenant is in a tent on the battlefield, he is not going to stay in comfort at his own house.

So David keeps urging him. Day after day, he says to Uriah, “Uriah, go home, wash your feet.” And Uriah keeps not going home. And David knows that he’s never going to go home. He’s never going to wash his feet. And he’s going to find out what David did.

So he changes his strategy. He sends Uriah back to the war. Y’know, the war that David is not at. He has his general send Uriah to the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then pull back the other soldiers, and let Uriah die on the battlefield. So that David can cover up his crime.

And it isn’t in our reading this morning, but it works. Uriah is sent to the worst of the fighting. And he sees his comrades fall back. And he dies in the way. The general sends word to David. And David shrugs his shoulders, “The sword devours now one,” he says, “and now another.”

And when Bathsheba hears about it, she laments. And when her mourning is over, David sends for her again, and marries her, and she bears a son.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

You see, David isn’t just some guy — some shepherd soldier — who happed to be king of Israel. He is the bold letters in all caps and a deep voice KING OF ISRAEL. According to legend, he was a fierce warrior and a wise ruler. He was so pious that his prayers could bring things from heaven down to earth. His thoughts were so entirely directed towards God and goodness that the evil inclinations that the rest of us struggle with had no power over him.

And there are centuries of spin, defending King David. There are stories.

They say: In the springtime, when the kings rode out to war, women got letters of divorce from their husbands in case they died in battle. So it’s not like David really committed adultery. Bathsheba wasn’t really married.

They say: Uriah the Hittite disobeyed a direct order from his king, and that was a capital crime. So it’s not like David schemed to have him killed. It was a perfectly legal execution.

They say: David was so righteous that he asked God for a trial — his faith was strong, but he needed proof — and this was a growing experience for him. So it’s not like David fell to sin. It was a lesson.

They say David did nothing wrong.

And that’s bad enough, isn’t it? But, oh, it gets worse.

Because there’s a voice we do not hear. Bathsheba is all but silent. The king sends for her, and sleeps with her, and sends her away. We don’t know how she acted. We don’t know how David acted. But we understand power dynamics. The king sent for her, and he had expectations, and he had all the power.

And, after her husband died in battle, the king sent for her again, and married her. We don’t know how she acted. We don’t know how David acted. We don’t know if she knew what he had done. But we understand power dynamics. The king sent for her, and he had expectations, and he had all the power.

She didn’t tie him to the kitchen chair, or break his throne or cut his hair. And if she drew anything from his lips, it was coerced. At least a little.

And that’s bad enough. But this isn’t just a story about David and Bathsheba.

We know this story. This story has been on the news. We know the names: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Al Franken, Roy Moore, and so many others. Some of us have lived this story. Some of us have been David. Some of us have been Bathsheba. Some of us have been both. We know that this story plays out in hotels and restaurants and office suites and, yes, even churches across this country.

Misogyny is embedded deeply in our culture. It’s embedded so deeply that someone could hear this story and think that it was about love. It’s not. It’s about lust. It’s about sin.

After all these things happen, God sends the prophet Nathan to David. And Nathan confronts David, and Nathan forces David to confront himself. And David, finally, says, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Honesty is the beginning of repentance… and David has a lot to be honest about. He has sinned against God. And even though he cannot see it yet, he has sinned against Bathsheba and against Uriah. And it is only once he has been honest… about that… with himself… that he can begin to do better.

And God calls us to the same work.

Believe me when I tell you that I know how much more comfortable it can be to retell and reframe our stories.

It is so much more comfortable to say that in the springtime, when kings rode out to war, women got letters of divorce from their husbands. It is so much more comfortable to say that disobeying the king’s order is a capital offense. It is so much more comfortable to say that it was a test meant to throw us off.

It is so much more comfortable to say that she tied him to the kitchen chair, broke his throne and cut his hair, and from his lips she drew…

It is so much more comfortable to make our sins someone else’s fault. But that means lying to ourselves, to our friends and neighbors, and to God.

To the men in the congregation this morning: misogyny is our sin. To the white people in the congregation: racism and white supremacy are our sins. To the straight people: homophobia is our sin. To the cisgendered people: transphobia is our sin. And I could go on. And we are not solely responsible. But we are responsible.

And if that’s uncomfortable to hear, then know that it is uncomfortable to say and it was uncomfortable to write. Because when I look in the mirror in the morning I, too, am faced with the reality of my position and my power and my privilege. And I know that I have not used those things as I should.

It is my brother and my sister, and my friend and my neighbor, and it is me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

But there is good news: there is grace in that discomfort. Because we are responsible — because we have that position and that power and that privilege — we can do better. We can repent. We can turn to God, and she will make in each of us a clean heart. We can become instruments of love. And there is nothing that can stop us.

And when we do that — when we are honest with ourselves and with God, when we see our failings and turn to Christ, when we accept that God has freed us from the chains of our sins — then we will no longer be cold and broken. And we will be free to erupt in hallelujahs.

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