In the Desert

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In these weeks before our season of Advent starts, we’ve been exploring the Psalms of our scriptures.
Rev. Andrea Severson joined us at the end of October to talk a bit about times of transition and journeying and the songs the Israelites wrote to accompany them on the way.
Last week, as we remembered our saints, Pastor Todd reminded us of how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Today, we turn our attention to one of the Psalms of Lament. These songs of lament, frustration, and longing make up over half of the psalms within our Bible!
They are the words that we cry out when we are troubled, persecuted, frustrated, and hopeless.
“There’s got to be more than this,” we say. “There’s got to be more than this.”

This particular psalm is one written by David and the note in the scripture itself indicates it was during a time when he had fled to the wilderness. Likely, it was written after he had become the King of Israel. His very own son, Absalom, led an insurrection and David was forced to run for his life.
And there, in the desert, he cries out…
Not just for water…
But for the very presence of God.
Robin Gallaher Branch writes that “although his body wastes from dehydration, his spiritual longing for God takes precedence. Hunted and afraid for his life, the psalmist remembers God’s protection and loving-kindness… his soul longs for God.”

In the midst of our trials and tribulations, in the midst of the pain in this world, do we, too, cry out with the psalmist?
Do we believe “there’s got to be more than this?”
Do our souls hunger and thirst for God?
And can we hang on to the vision of God’s enduring love in the midst of our longing?

Last week, brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a sanctuary in Sutherland Springs, Texas for worship. They were there to pray and to sing and to worship God… and twenty-six of them lost their lives.
Yet another mass shooting in America.
Yet another tragic loss of life.
And I feel like we are lost, wandering the desert, parched with our longing for the violence to end. Parched with exhaustion from debating types of weapons. Parched with weariness from trying to understand the motivations for such acts.
There has got to be something more than this.

And so, we are gathered here, today, seeking God… thirsting for God… turning our hands and our lips towards the divine…. Clinging to the one who has upheld us before.

What comes next?

Do we turn inward and lock the doors?
Do we get lost in debate about causes and solutions?
Do we stop loving and trusting our fellow human beings?
Or is there something else?

In some ways, I wonder if the lessons of Veteran’s Day are precisely the ones we need in the midst of a desert like this.
After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the “Great War” finally saw peace on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was believed to have been “the end of ‘the war to end all wars.’”
The next year, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day… a day commemorated “by paying tribute to the heroes of that tragic struggle and by rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace.”

You see, in the midst of all of that loss and pain and grief … in the midst of the desert of destructions and sacrifice… as they looked out upon that broken world and believed that there had to be something more than this… they named what they were longing for – peace – and they set it before them as a vision for what they would pursue.

In 1926, Congress officially recognized the date as a legal holiday – a “recurring anniversary of this day, commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

And yet, even with that vision of peace before us, it was not the war to end all wars.
There was a second world war, and then the Korean conflict, and we know that since those days countless of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors have served our country around this world.
In 1954, aware of this reality, President Eisenhower proclaimed that we would expand this day to honor the veterans of all wars and to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

In the midst of our own desert of perpetual war and violence, we believe there has got to be something more than this.
And so we cry out every year, longing and thirsting for God’s peace to prevail across this world.

Maybe the question is… have we truly reconsecrated ourselves to the task of peace?
Simply marking a holiday is not enough…
How are we called to live differently in order to help God’s peace to be known all across this world? How do we lift up our hands and call upon God’s name and allow the divine power and glory to shape our world?

This past week, a colleague wrote a reflection about the kind of preparation she plans to do in the wake of more violence. Instead of preparing her church for someone who might burst in with a weapon, she wants to prepare her church to work against violence in this world.
And friends, there are lots of ways we can do that.

We can mentor students in our schools who are at risk for joining gangs.
We can work to provide better mental health care for our neighbors.
We can respond to domestic violence and take seriously the stories of women who are assaulted and work to not only keep them and their families safe, but provide help for those who are perpetrators.
We can get to know our neighbors and become a part of creating a community where people have one another’s backs and look out for what is happening.
We can talk about the gospel stories that teach us how to respond to oppression and injustice and hatred – often by heaping on extra doses of love and compassion and working for justice.
We can be a church that helps our children, especially our boys, learn healthy ways to express their emotions and to play so that they don’t grow up to believe that anger has to be expressed through violence.

If in the midst of this desert of violence, we turned our eyes to God and allowed that vision of peace to quench our thirst…
if that was the deep well from which we as a church and as a community chose to drink from…
if in the midst of this barren and hopeless struggle we chose to turn our eyes to the Lord and to bless God’s holy name and to cling to the one who has been our help…
then like David, we might find our souls satisfied.

May it be so. Amen.

The Spirit of Goodness

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We’ve heard of goody-two-shoes…
Good riddance…
Goodness gracious great balls of fire…
Things can taste good, we like to read good books and tell good stories.
We tell our children to be good and to get good grades.

But what does it really mean to be good?

The Random House dictionary has 41 different definitions for the word… and that’s just the adjectives.
But in general, I think we usually say that something is good if it fulfills our expectations – if it does what it is supposed to – and if we get some kind of benefit from it.

Take the cookies we just gave the children, for example. If they had taken a bite of the cookie and it was old or dried out… they wouldn’t be so good. They wouldn’t have been all that they were made up to be.
In the same way, we are good when we fulfill the expectations of ourselves and others and if we benefit others as we do so.

I keep using the word benefit, and that is because there are lots of things that fulfill their purpose that we would never call good.
An example – those cookies might taste good – but for all of you adults who didn’t get to eat them, since we didn’t have enough to share, they are only good for our children.
Or, think about what makes a good chef’s knife.
It is sharp, it cuts the way it is designed to, and we can use it to prepare food and eventually be fed. We benefit from the design and use of a good chef’s knife.
But, in the hands of someone unskilled, like a child, the knife becomes dangerous and what we thought was good could harm them.
In the hands of someone who is angry or revengeful – the very thing that we called good only a moment ago, can turn into a weapon.
It still has the same qualities that fulfilled its purpose… only it is being used to harm instead of help.

So… to be good, something or someone must fulfill the expectations and be a benefit.

Throughout the scriptures – we hear stories of men and women who were good:
Noah was a good man and so his family was saved from the flood.
Lot was a good man and so his family was rescued from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Even Rahab the prostitute was good. She fulfilled the expectations God had of her by taking in the spies from Israel, benefitting the people of God, and because she did so, her family was saved in the battle of Jericho.

Culturally, morally, we might wonder how could such a person be considered “good.”
Well, God has a tendency to upend our assumptions about a person’s worth or value. All throughout the scriptures, God chooses unlikely people to accomplish God’s will.

Throughout the scriptures, there are also people that are not good.
They didn’t do what was expected of them.
They lived not to benefit others, but only themselves.
And It is to such people as these that the prophets were sent.
Prophets like Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Hosea… and our prophet for this morning: Nathan.
Today’s story is one of paradox.

You see, David was a man after God’s own heart.
We always think back on all of the good things that he did – his trust in God, his loyalty to Saul, his music, and his love…
But in some ways, David was a kind of bad dude.
As we heard this morning in our scripture, David breaks two commandments all in a week’s time.

First, he sleeps with another man’s wife. Bathsheba was married to one of his soldier’s Uriah and David saw her from afar and decided that he wanted her. Her husband was away at war, and so David took what he wanted.

Then, to cover up the fact this terrible thing he has done, David breaks another commandment. He has Uriah killed out on the battlefield.

Neither of these are good things. His actions go against God’s expectations for David and they harm both Uriah and Bathsheba and they mar his moral leadership, harming the entire nation.

Nathan’s job here is simple. He is called, he is expected, to bring God’s judgment upon David for these acts.
So this morning, we are going to look at how the goodness of Nathan shines through and how WE might be called to be good in the fact of another person’s wrongdoing.

First, Nathan helped the truth to come to light.

In Ephesians 5 we hear that God’s children should live as children of light and that “the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth.”
With the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we are expected to allow the truth to be seen in the world.

Grace and mercy, forgiveness and love are all good and holy things, but they only have meaning in relation to the truth of what has gone wrong.

When I attended the General Conference in Tampa, Florida five years ago, we spent one evening participating in a service of truth-telling about how United Methodists and our predecessors had harmed Indigenous Peoples across the world. As people of faith and in the name of Jesus Christ, we perpetuated crimes against our brothers and sisters. We took land, forced our values upon others, and destroyed cultures. We actively resisted peace processes and in some cases were the instigators of violence and bloodshed. That night, we heard stories about the role that Methodists had played in the Trail of Tears, and in the slaughter of peoples in Philippines, Africa, and Norway.

The act of betrayal that hit closes to home was that of the Sand Creek Massacre. A Methodist preacher, U.S. Army Col. John Chivington, ordered the attack on an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho. These native peoples had come to that site to fulfill their side of a recent peace treaty that had been made with the U.S. Government. While their men were away hunting, Chivington attacked the camp, killing mostly women and children.
It was hard to hear. It was hard to re-live. It was hard to dream that the damage could ever be reversed and that wounds could ever be healed.

And that night, one of the things our leadership focused on was that this night was not the full act of reconciliation. That night was only the first step. Repentance has to begin with understanding what we have done.
Nathan did not ignore or shy away from the wrongs and the harm that David had perpetrated. Rather, he made sure that the truth came to light and that David knew that he had done wrong.

Second, Nathan provided a way for David to turn away from his harm towards good.

The prophet was fully aware of David’s sin.
Had he followed the letter of the law, the right thing to do as soon as David confessed would be to have him stoned. The law was clear that the punishment for adultery and murder were death.
But Nathan shows us that goodness goes beyond simple righteousness. It is far more simply pointing out the wrongs in others.
Nathan spoke the truth about David’s sin, but his first instinct is not to carry out a sentence, but to wait for a response from David.
As people of faith, too often we are quick to bring judgment and condemnation upon others. We are good at bringing unrighteousness to light. We demand that justice be carried out swiftly through every possible means available.

What we aren’t good at is leading people into repentance.
When righteousness is only about the letter of the law, judgment can become a weapon, leading us to harm people or communities.
But by telling David a story, Nathan creates an opportunity for David to confess, to repent, and to choose to live a different life.
In the years that have followed that night at General Conference, United Methodists in various parts of the world have been working to listen and to repent of the various ways we have harmed indigenous peoples. One group in particular was formed to learn more about the tragedy at Sand Creek and to explore whether or not healing could be possible.
Four years later in Portland, a member of the Northern Cheyenne, William Walks Along, shared that although that date “can never be erased from the memory of our people… together let us discover the treasurers we can learn from hardships and from the deeds and misdeeds of our fellow human beings.”

He was extending a hand of friendship to the United Methodist Church and the willingness of fellow descendents of those victims to reconcile and move forward together.

Third, Nathan blessed David because of his repentance.

Not only did the prophet bring the truth to the light, not only did he invite David into a spirit of repentance, but Nathan also gave him the encouragement he needed to faithfully follow God in the future.

Nathan did what was needed to set David back on the right path… what was needed to build him up so that he could once again fulfill God’s expectations for him and live to benefit the children of Israel.
That does not mean that there were no consequences of his actions…. But Nathan reminded David that there was also room for God’s grace and mercy to flow back into his life.

That is a reminder that we all need.
As Christians, we have all have fallen short of the glory of God.
That is the plain and simple truth.
Every single one of us have places in our lives where we need to repent, where we need to turn around and seek God’s forgiveness.
On our own, we are unrighteous and our hearts seek our own benefit and expectations instead of God’s.
And yet, through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are made righteous.
I believe the basis of righteousness is fact that God sets us right.
God forgives us.
God leads us on the right paths.
It has nothing to do with how many answers we get right or how many good deeds we do.
It has everything to do with God and the divine goodness that exceeds every expectation and whose great love seeks only our benefit.
And when we are made righteous, when we are made good, we are meant to let that goodness become contagious. God’s grace and mercy is not ours alone… it is meant to be shared.

Friends, you are armed with a powerful tool that can be used for good or for harm in this world.
The truth of God, the reality of God’s expectations in our lives is now in your hands. And you are invited to let that truth to be know, but you are also invited to share it in a way that brings blessing and benefit to all.

Dance Like No One is Watching

Perhaps you have heard the story of the church on the corner of Main and Broad streets. It was stately and magnificent in structure and style. Much love and caring were shared
between the members.

One particular Easter Sunday, the seats were filled to capacity. Participants sat in pews wearing their Sunday best, smiling graciously and nodding to acknowledge each other and the guests. Everything seemed perfect.

Worship services were well under way when an unshaven man in a faded shirt came through the front door. His jeans were torn at the knees and ragged at the bottom, his sneakers tattered. His eyes searched for a seat at the rear of the room, but they were all filled. All eyes followed him as he made his way to the front of the church, still looking for a seat.

Reaching the first pew and still not finding anywhere to sit… or anyone who would make room, he folded his legs underneath himself and sat on the floor of the aisle.

Everybody was wondering who this was, but even more than that, they were wondering who was going to do something about it.. The organist began to play the opening hymn, but nobody was really listening.

A hush fell over the congregation as Mr. Sims, a stately old gentleman who had served as an usher for more than half a century, made his way slowly from the back of the church down the aisle.

Everybody knew what he was going to do. Somebody had to do something, afterall. Dressed in his usual three-piece black suit, he steadied himself with his silver-tipped cane. He walked down the aisle and he came up to the young man.

Everyone watched as the old man bent down and said: “I just want to say how good it is to have you here.” And Mr. Sims slowly lowered himself with great difficulty and sat down by the young visitor. He offered him a bulletin, and offered to share his hymnal. And they sat together, and they worshiped.

This morning – as we listen for what it means to worship God fully – to gather together and to praise our Creator – that story of the old man and the young man really speaks to me. You see, both of them took a risk to come together in the presence of God.

The young man was a stranger, coming in off the street, and even though everyone around him was dressed in their Sunday finest, he didn’t care what others thought. He didn’t care if everyone else was watching. He didn’t care if what he did by sitting there before God upset other people. He was coming to the Lord – and nothing was going to stop him.

In a similar manner, the older gentleman had just as much, if not more to lose. He was established and respected. Everyone in that church expected him to tell the young man to move, or to walk him out of the church for acting so “inappropriately.” But Mr. Sims broke with convention, broke with tradition, let go of his ways and let the Spirit guide him to the front of the church to sit down with that young man.

There is a quote, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain that goes:

Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt and live like it’s heaven on Earth

That is exactly what our older gentleman and the young guy were doing in that warm little story. And in our passage from the book of Samuel this morning – that kind of heartfelt abandon is depicted as King David leads the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem for the very first time.

For years, the ark has been in the hands of the Philistines – but to go and recapture the ark and to bring it to Jerusalem… the place David has set up as his royal city… means that David is showing how his rule with connected to the lordship, power, and presence of God.

At the outset of this journey, David does what is expected of him. He gathers thirty thousand of his best men and they go and bring the ark up out of the place it has been. One would expect a solemn and formal military processional bringing this prized possession back into the hands of the Israelites. But our scripture tells us that King David led the celebration and they praised God with all of their might with songs and instruments and drums.

In fact, the people were so caught up in their celebration, that an accident occurred. As the ark was being carried over the terrain, one of the oxen stumbled and the ark nearly fell to the ground. But a man named Uzzah instinctively reached out to grab onto the ark and lift it to safety.

Whew, we might think to ourselves… disaster averted. But just like Isaiah’s encounter with God in the temple, we are reminded about just how holy – just how other – God really is. This ark was not simply a box holding some important documents – it was a sacred object that could bring both blessing and harm. It was to be touched and handled only by those who had properly prepared, only by the Levites. Just like the King Uzziah who later is cursed for entering the temple and burning incense to God on his own, the military commander Uzzah is punished for his act. He is instantly killed as a result of touching the ark.

Here, by the side of the road, in the middle of their journey, all of the celebrations stop. David is so troubled by these occurrences, so angry at God for what has happened, that he refuses to carry the ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem. He is afraid of what will happen when God’s presence comes into his royal city. He knows the wrongs he has done in his own life and doesn’t think he will last long in the power of God. David closes himself off to the promise and power of the ark and puts it in the safekeeping of a family in a village nearby.

David’s heartfelt abandon is closed off because of the fear of being burned, of being rejected, or being found unworthy.

I think that there are many people, probably here in this room this morning, whose hearts have been closed off. People who are afraid to let God in. People who are afraid to make a fool of themselves for God because of what others might think. People who aren’t quite sure they are ready to take the risk to celebrate with all of their might before God. Am I right?

One of my favorite biblical commentators, Kate Huey writes, “Jubilation is a word we rarely use, perhaps because such a feeling has been limited for many, for the most part, to sports and, perhaps, the occasional political victory. But what if we felt deep-down-in-our-hearts jubilation over what God is doing in our lives? Would we dance, too?

Henry Brinton has compared worship… to a modern dance solo by Paul Taylor, the dancer/choreographer who “simply stood motionless on stage for four minutes….The dancing we do in church tends to be quite similar to Paul Taylor’s solo. What we do is nothing – we just stand still, hardly moving a muscle. Our worship of God involves our minds, our hearts, and our tongues, but rarely our whole bodies.”

In the book, The Soul of Tomorrow’s Church, Kent Ira Groff writes that we need to include rhythm into every worship service. He quotes Brian Wren in saying that “rhythm tries to move you bodily.” No wonder that from forever and everywhere the drum has been an instrument of healing, reminiscent of the heartbeat of God – use in primal caves, rock bands, sophisticated symphonies. The pipe organ is a wonderful instrument… but in combining many instruments in one, it decreased the participation of the many…” When we clap our hands, or tap our toes, or play along on other instruments, we are joining the whole of creation in crying out with our whole bodies – the Lord is Good.

Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt and live like it’s heaven on Earth

Just like we might be afraid to step beyond our comfort zones and truly praise God with our whole bodies… just like we might be afraid to truly welcome into our midst those who don’t look anything like us… just like we might be afraid of what will happen if we open ourselves up to God’s presence… King David was afraid of what it meant to invite God into his city. He was afraid of what might happen to himself and his reign. In many ways, he rightly understood the holy power and otherness of the Lord… but he had let his fear overwhelm his ability to truly trust God.

For three months, things went on like this, until word came to David about the blessings that had come to the family the ark had been left with. A glimmer of possibility and trust began to burn again in David’s heart and he decided to try again.

The ark was taken out of the house and after just six steps, David was so overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving that he sacrificed a bull and a calf. And he took off his royal garments and there in front of all the people he danced before God with all of his might. He shed his fear, he shed all of the expectations people had of him, he shed his denial of God’s holiness, and he worshipped and praised with heartfelt abandon.

As the dancing proceeded back to Jerusalem and as they got close to the city gates, David’s wife Michal saw him out there. She saw him without his royal robes, dancing among the commoners. She saw him making a fool of himself, rather than maintaining his composure.

When Michal confronted David about his actions his words were clear: It was before the LORD, who chose me that I danced—I will celebrate before the LORD. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.”

He spoke with the same spirit that Paul did when he said that we should be fools for Christ – laying it all out on the line to praise and honor the God who gives us life.

That is a very different attitude towards worship than the one espoused by Michal… or by the Pharisees that Jesus encounters in our gospel reading. They were so caught up on tradition – on doing what they were supposed to, on what was appropriate and required, that they left their heart and mind and soul and body out of worship.

But Jesus words remind us that the outward trappings are not important. They don’t make us righteous or unrighteous, worthy or unworthy. It is our hearts that matter. It is what we give to God that matters. Or as our Psalter puts it…. we should come with clean hands and pure hearts before God… that we should come bringing our full selves with the right intentions.

Dance like no one is watching. Sing like no one is listening. Love like you’ve never been hurt and live like it’s heaven on Earth