Facing Giants

One of my favorite Cartoons growing up in the 1970’s was Underdog which originated in the 1960’s as a cereal promotion for General Mills according to Wikipedia.  The premise was that “humble and lovable” Shoeshine Boy was in truth the superhero Underdog. George S. Irving narrated and comedy actor Wally Cox provided the voices of both Underdog and Shoeshine Boy. When villains threatened, Shoeshine Boy ducked into a telephone booth, where he transformed into the caped and costumed hero, destroying the booth in the process when his superpowers were activated. In many cases to save his damsel in distress, reporter canine Sweet Polly Purebred. Underdog almost always spoke in rhyme: “There’s No Need to fear—underdog is here!”

Underdog stories abound in our culture. Who doesn’t like to hear or witness the little guy or gal claiming victory from the hands of the favorite whether in sports or adventure or in the reality of the everyday good and evil in our midst?

We cheer for the teams like the Butler Bulldog Basketball team back in 2010 or the NC State team back in 1983 or the New England Patriots in SuperBowl 36 back in 2001. You remember  when a little known back up quarterback with the last name Brady came off the bench in the play-offs to lead them to an unlikely championship. We love watching the underdogs claw their way to victory – unless of course we are fans of the favored champions.

Sports are not the only arena for these favored stories – the courts are as well – while staying in a hotel not too long ago we came across a late night movie about an inventor and professor at Wayne State University who had created the intermittent windshield wiper control – remember when wipers were either on or off with no delay feature? Robert Kearns invented the device and as the 2008 film Flash of Genius depicted was robbed of his technology by Ford and Chrysler among other automobile manufacturers. Kearns spent 20 years trying to get his case to court, losing his marriage and nearly his family. He prevailed winning over $30 million.

And then there was Erin Brockovichs story where contaminated water supplies with a cancer causing poison from a nearby Pacific Gas & Light plant were being covered up until she helped local residents take on the wealthy corporation and win a large settlement for the families affected.

We love to hear stories of unlikely heroes and heroines of the victorious underdogs in our world.

If any story in the whole of scripture fits our affection for underdogs – it’s most likely our story for today from ancient Israel’s myths and legends, retold in the book of Samuel. Probably the most famous story from Hebrew Scripture outside of the tales of Moses perhaps, the tale of David and Goliath is certainly memorable and for the ancient Israelites a legend marking their special identity as God’s – Yahweh’s – chosen covenant people.

First, we must remember that this story was and is special to Jewish people then and now. David’s unlikely victory over the giant Philistine Goliath was a vote of confidence in the power and majesty of their God over the gods and goddesses of the ancient world.  There are many  details in this story – too many to expand upon today – but a couple I think are worth noting.

Some scholars believe that the Philistines led by Goliath were mercenary army with a lineage that traced back to the time before the Great Flood Epic of Noah to the Nephilim or giants who lived among the sons of God, the descendants of Adam and were the “heroes of old, warriors of renown” according to Genesis 6.

If so, David’s victory again stakes the claim for Israel as God’s people and for God’s majesty and power over all the earth.

Another detail worth noting has to do with David’s stature as the youngest son of Jesse, the anointed successor to the throne of Saul. David was not able to wear Saul’s armor and in fact was not able to move in it. This is most often attributed to David’s overall size and strength in stark contrast to the giant Goliath with his armor and sword. And so, when David sizes up the giant and says, “yeah I can take him,” the audience chuckles with “good luck with that!”

But perhaps David is not as naïve as we make him out to be, of course as a spiritual narrative there is certainly the God is on my side factor (which is the moral of the story of course) but David has had to be nimble, quick, determined and cunning to save his sheep, to stay alive among older brothers who scoff at him when he inquires about the spoils of defeating the Philistine when he arrives at the front lines with fresh supplies.

Sometimes the best player on your team is the shorter, faster, turn so quick you lose track of them player – that’s David.

Perhaps the armor was just a hindrance to his greatest strength, which was also his greatest vulnerability, his size, his speed and his agility.

Imagine the scene for a moment, nine foot tall giant Goliath covered in armor on one side of the creek bed who has employed psychological warfare for 40 days, (you know that number means something) yelling at the Israelites, daring them to fight and every time they run and hide in fear, which is wearing down the entire regimen. Goliath with heavy armor moving slowly mostly bark and only bite if you get in his swing zone a formidable force to behold  against David, a shepherd boy with five stones and a slingshot no armor, no heavy sword, agile, fast, stealthy and without fear.

By might, Goliath was the one to place your bets on but was he? Was David really the underdog? He fell the giant nearly immediately in the story before Goliath had a chance to react.

The audience cheers, the little guy won and God was victorious again!

And then the story turns evil by the world’s standards today and perhaps even then  The storyteller takes the violence of battle to another level as David beheads Goliath with the Philistine’s own sword. He then parades with it to show everyone the awesome (meaning to be feared) power of the God of Israel and perhaps of the soon to be new king of Israel. With this violent act, little David claims absolute power. If he could do this to Goliath, who will challenge him now?

Absolute Power has the capacity to be corrupted and to corrupt. And whenever absolute power and religious belief combine corruption is just around the corner. We have all witnessed far too many stories of such corruption in our time.

Violence in the name of God is a corruption of the nature of God who demands that we love our neighbor, even our enemies. Perhaps no one made this point better than the German pastor Martin Niemoeller, who protested Hitler’s anti-semite measures in person to the fuehrer, was eventually arrested, and then imprisoned for eight years in German Death Camps.

He once confessed, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.” Anne Lamott said,

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Violence is a human attribute – not a divine attribute – if God was by nature violent – then when God walked among us in the person Jesus – would not God have chosen to destroy the Romans who dared to crucify him – to violently take back the temple from the corrupt religious leaders? Perhaps the humanity of Jesus was most present when he turned those tables and drove out the animals – but notice Jesus never took life – only healed, restored, saved life.

Bible stories filled with violence are like all the stories in scripture, tales passed down from generation to generation attempting to share the powerful covenant of love between the creator of the universe and all that God created. And sometimes, we get the nature of God wrong. Sometimes we make God in our image.

David was not alone, the story says. The almighty God was with David and it was God’s power the tale says that was challenged by the Philistine and prevailed. We too walk in the same power of the Almighty God:

Power to conquer our gigantic challenges in life.

Power to love beyond our imagining even those who have wronged us’

Power to endure the often unbearable tragedy of illness and accidents that lead to suffering in this life,

Power to face the challenges of aging and differing abilities,

Power to return no one evil for evil, to be non-violent even in the face of violence,

Power to challenge the big systemic issues of our time like a broken and often inhumane immigration system, a criminal justice system in need of reform, an economy that does not work for everybody, poverty and homelessness that impacts millions of children and families,

Power to work for equal access to education, healthcare and adequate mental healthcare in our communities,

Power to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized because of their gender or gender identity, their race or religion, their ethnicity or primary language, their body type or social/physical abilities.

Facing Giants With God’s power we are not the underdogs we may think we are – we are the champions…we are the champions of an agile love, a nimble compassion, a determined justice, a real reconciliation, and a true peace.

May we be so. Amen.

Text from my Message for Today, Central Christian Church, Bourbonnais, IL July 24, 2018.

Peek A Boo I See You!

One of the first Games we learn to play – Peek a Boo I see You! With our parents perhaps or our grandparents. I remember teaching our boys and how excited they were when they learned to hide their faces and play along.

Very young children learn to play as they develop their fine motor skills and as the explore the world of object permanence, being able to know any object that is covered or hidden is still there, which they typically begin to grasp at about 9 months old.

Children often desire nothing more than for their parents to see them – they crave our attention, from infancy through toddler-hood, childhood and some even through young adulthood. Look at me “look at what I can do daddy.”

I am thankful to have helped raise my boys before the smartphone and tablet craze hit the scene. It is sad when a child has to compete with a tiny screen for the attention of one or both of their parents (no less than those who had to compete with television screens in my humble opinion.)

All children need us to see them. Watch them as they grow, paying attention to their developing skills and successes, witnessing their mistakes and failures, seeing the person they are becoming. Child psychologists have documented that children who are denied their parents attention are at a greater risk of developing mental health challenges later in life including anti-social, psychopathic, and narcissistic behaviors.

So any circumstances that deny children to be seen by their parents except in rare cases of abuse and utter neglect are not well thought out and are abusive themselves. And by the way, there is no biblical precedence nor support for separating children from their parents at borders. In fact, the Bible is very clear about how aliens and foreigners are to be treated with hospitality as if they were residents in your land (Lev 19). What is currently happening on our southern border is both sinful and shameful. This isn’t a political statement it’s just basic common sense and God’s will for humanity.

Big challenges like the one we face with our broken immigration system seem overwhelming, like Giants that we feel powerless to do anything about. We may feel as if we are babies in the face of the complex systems and issues involved. We may look at ourselves and say what am I supposed to do about that monstrosity?

It’s like David and Goliath the Philistine giant  but that’s next week’s story. Before David ever picked up his slingshot in battle, he was just a shepherd of some flocks, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, the runt of the litter who got the dirty work in the family.

The Storyteller says, God sent the prophet Samuel to Jesse’s House because God regretted choosing Saul as king. We hear about the parade of seven sons, big & tall, strong and handsome, Mr. Incredible types, superheroes in the making.

God doesn’t choose any of them,

“the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7)

God chose David, the youngest more of a Han Solo type, the unlikely hero of the story without whom the Dark side would have been victorious, hope I didn’t spoil anything for you, but the Light side always wins in the end, at least in Star wars.

Story teller says of David’s anointing “spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward”

God looks on the Content of our Character not our physical attributes and calls us to do likewise. We often Limit our vision for ourselves, our community, our church, our power but God’s power is unlimited, unrestrained, undefeatable.

A third-grader taught her teacher this important truth: The teacher asked, “How many great people were born in our city?”

“None,” replied the pupil. “There were no great people born. They were born babies who became great people.”

We can do No Great Things only Small things with Great Love….Mother Teresa

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, began her orphanage with such a vision. She told her superiors, “I have three pennies and a dream From God to build an orphanage.”
“Mother Teresa,” her superiors chided gently, “you cannot build an orphanage with three pennies…with three pennies you can’t do anything.” “I know,” she said, smiling, “but with God and three pennies I can do anything.” The Rev. Dr. Hugh L. Eichelberger

In our own community, Fortitude Community Outreach for the Homeless has a dream of providing overnight shelter for the homeless our most vulnerable folks during the coldest months – which are hard for us to imagine right now. And their director Dr. Dawn Broers began with a vision “three pennies” and God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 2 Corinthians 5:14

 In truth we are obsessed with externals, with youth and beauty, accomplishments and credentials, productivity and profit. We are constantly tempted to judge our own worth and that of others according to “a human point of view.” We are tempted to view worldly success as a sign of God’s favor, and conversely, to view weakness and suffering as a sign of God’s absence or even God’s punishment.

In his second letter to Corinth Paul reminds us that human standards of judgment count for nothing in God’s eyes. The scandal of the cross is that God chooses vulnerability, weakness, suffering, and death in order to bring new life.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

David wasn’t born into a royal family lineage, Mother Teresa wasn’t born into greatness indeed none of us were born great people and yet through the power of Christ’s resurrection and the amazing gift of God’s Holy Spirit we may become great people.

We have the potential for Greatness in the Eyes of God who looks on the heart, who sees with Grace, Mercy, Love and Joy, rejoices in God’s good creation, and invites us to see one another and especially those we name as other with our hearts. Amen.

Text from my Message for Today for Father’s Day, Central Christian Church, Bourbonnais, IL. July 17, 2018

 

 

Be Careful What You Ask For

Thinking back over your life, what were some of the things other people had that you just had to have for yourself? As a child or adult what gadget or fashion item, toy or fad made you everyone else has one or is doing it so I should too?

Bell Bottom pants or saddle shoes?  Penny loafers or Air Jordan’s? Calvin Klein Jeans or a leather jacket? Big wavy hair or a Mullet? A Rubik’s Cube or a Nintendo 64?  Ken & Barbie or Cabbage Patch Dolls, A Sony Walkman or a Boombox

An iPad or Apple watch the list is huge from gadgets to fashion to behaviors and choices, at some point most of us can relate to wanting something because we believe we must be the only one’s without it in the world.

Being consumers we are easily driven by material fads and as residents of 21st Century free-market America, we may find difficulty relating to the story of ancient Israel’s demand for a king because everyone else had a king, but that’s because we know or at least we’ve been told by the stories of our national history what its really like to live under a monarch.

The story of the prophet Samuel responding to the cries of his people for a king is first just that, a story, a tale of how the people whose identity was born of covenant with Abraham & Sarah and their descendants, redeemed from the hand of Pharaoh under the leadership of Moses and led into the promised land (albeit an occupied territory), a tale of how those ancient people over 3000 years ago demanded God appoint them a ruler, a king.

A story, not so much history provable by external sources of which we have none, not eyewitness accounts of which there are none as these tales precede most writing in general. These are narrated folk stories passed down over generations around the cooking fires of centuries gone by.

Period drama that would make for a great series of novels 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings & 1 & 2 Chronicles tell the story of the major characters of Ancient Israel, the prophets, the judges and the kings.

One of the uniqueness’s of this story from other’s in the ancient near eastern world is that the demand for a ruler comes from the people rather than from a deity. In other Mesopotamian religions and cultures the gods or goddesses appoint a ruler on their behalf, a king or queen to enforce the will of the deity among the people. The king was thus the puppet of the gods and the gods maintained their supremacy.

For ancient Israel, according to the story, the people demand a king from a hesitant God and an even more resistant prophet. Samuel is aging out of his capacity to lead effectively, especially in battle with other kingdoms. His sons who were the heirs apparent are both corrupt we are told taking bribes from other nations and such. And so, the people fearing the sons of Samuel would take over and squander the land promised to their ancestors  demand new leadership for a new day for Israel.

Samuel we are told is saddened in heart by the request, perhaps grieving over the truth about his wayward sons, perhaps regretting his inability to lead the people effectively in battle or perhaps concerned for keeping the covenant with God.

Samuel wanted to reject the people’s cries but the storyteller says God relented and granted their request, but not without dire warnings. Be careful what you ask for warns the prophet.

The king, warns God will take your sons and daughters , your property and your goods – everything will be in service to the king, which is the big change in the identity of Israel.

When God called Abraham out of the land of Ur and promised he would become ancestor to a great nation of families, he promised and God demanded through the law to have no other gods before me, no one to fight their battles for them  just God. While the Exodus generation had made it lawful to have a king (Deut 17:14-15), the king was first and foremost a servant of God, meditating on the law and serving justly, second in command to God. Deuteronomy prohibits the king from acquiring horses, amassing wealth, or selling the people into slavery.

But it is not a peaceful king the people desired, they desired a king to expand their boundaries, protect them from foreign invaders, establish Israel as a political and military power in the region.

And those are not faith in God motivators, those are not God’s vision for the world God created.

Spoiler alert! The warnings Samuel issued about the king taking everything including their sons and daughters to wag wars and build their kingdoms  came to pass and the storyteller tells the tale of the rise and the fall of the kingdom of Israel.

From Saul to David and Solomon, the kings anointed by God, each abandoned God to quench their own hunger and thirsts for power, for wealth, for other people’s belongings and such. Like the modern day politician who is elected by their constituents in their home district and packs off to Washington only to be wooed by powerful lobbyist and party leaders forgetting about the people back home they were supposed to represent – at least until the next election cycle.

The tale of the kings of Israel point us to one major lesson, be careful what you ask for, you just may get it and it may not be as you hoped or expected. It may not even be what God desires for you.

Consider how your request loves God first and neighbor as yourself, how your love for God and neighbor is expressed by your need to have or do whatever it is because everyone else does. Be care-full what you ask for, full of caring love for others, full of care for God’s amazing creation.

How does what you ask for in life bring about the beloved community of God in your midst?

 

From my Message for Today based on 1 Samuel 8:4-20 for July 10, 2018 Central Christian Church, Bourbonnais, IL.

Practicing Sabbath

In the Beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the first story of creation in Genesis 1 an orderly and organized account in a perfect seven days, developed by the priestly class of the ancient Israelites as the people’s faith in God understandably withered under the oppression of exile in Babylon, we are told God took nothing and made a vast, beautiful, ever expanding universe including humanity among other life.

And then God rested. On the seventh day God rested taking it all in and proclaiming it all good indeed blessing all of it. A sabbath day which in the ancient tradition and law of Judaism was a day to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, to save and preserve life.

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. Deuteronomy 5:12-15

This is precisely what Jesus is referring to in our story from Mark this morning when he says,

“The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.”

It’s probably helpful here to briefly unpack what happened just before and right after Jesus said what he said about the sabbath. Sabbath for Judaism begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday the last day of the week,  the seventh day. And so, Jesus and his disciples were making their way through the wheat fields and some were picking the heads of the wheat. Doesn’t seem like a big deal to us. He’s not stealing. Furthermore the law prohibited harvesting to the edges of the fields, and demanded leaving wheat for gleaners, travelers in need of food.

What should stick out to us immediately is that some Pharisees are following Jesus and his disciples around, almost stalking him, harassing them. But in this story of Jesus we call Mark’s gospel, Jesus has already healed a paralyzed man and proclaimed his sins are forgiven, he has recruited and dined with a tax collector, went on a preaching tour and announced his ministry attracting many followers. ALL of those acts were potentially offensive to the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Scribes. So even though we are only at the end of chapter 2 we should not be surprised that the local religious authorities are out on a Saturday watching Jesus’ every move.

In response to the accusation of working on the sabbath, Jesus recounts the story of King David doing something even more sacrilegious by eating food only the priests were ceremonially allowed to eat to prove his point that need overrules the law. King David will be a central character for our messages in the weeks to come by the way

The story immediately shifts to a synagogue where we find Jesus on the Sabbath encountering a man with a withered hand and challenges the authorities on the righteousness of healing his hand saying, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

The storyteller says the man stretched out his hand and it was made healthy, he was restored not only to wholeness in body but to his community he was now accepted fully, no longer mocked for his disability, nor taken advantage of by others, no longer considered cursed or contagious by the suspicions of ancient times. He was now whole in the whole sense of wholeness.

And, the result we are told, the religious authorities got together with the Herodians to plot to destroy Jesus. To bring this into perspective this unlikely marriage of religious and political parties of the first century to devise a plan to kill Jesus would be like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow agreeing on a common enemy and actually working together to eliminate that enemy.

Ponder this. Healing and restoring wholeness of life to the man with the withered hand was so extreme that violently opposed groups came together to plot death for the healer.

Two things are going on behind the scenes of this story that are important for the first century audience and for us as we hear it anew today.

The purpose of the Law is being misunderstood. According to blogger and biblical scholar David Lose, “The biblical witness is clear: God gives us the law to help us get the most out of life and, in particular, to help us get more out of life by helping others, by looking out for them, by taking care of them and, by extension, each other. In this way, the law creates a level of order that makes human flourishing more likely. Law offers a measure of protection, particularly important to those who are most vulnerable. Law establishes a  stability that makes it easier for us to prosper. All of these things the law does. Which is why God’s law is holy and we are taught to know, revere, and follow the law.”

But, Lose claims, “as important as the law is, it is and shall always be a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose. It is not an end in itself; following the law is not itself the purpose of the law, and the law not capable of granting us identity but only helps us live into the identity of beloved children given to us by God.”

So for the religious authorities then, as do some well-meaning religious folks now, the law had become an end and a legalism resulted that does two things: it judges everyone we believe is not following the law whether religious or civil laws to our standards as high or low as they may be, and this rewards or punishments legalism creates a social system where-in law and order become a god of sorts and thus the system – those who make the laws and enforce the laws become exempt from the very laws they are sworn to uphold – laws intended to protect the most vulnerable among us, children including teenagers, the poor, the orphaned, the mentally ill, the elderly.

When serving law and order comes before basic human needs the law is no longer made for humanity – humanity has become servant of the law.

We are no longer innocent until proven guilty, we are guilty until proven innocent if we make it to the courtroom to defend ourselves. That is the experience of many black and brown communities in our nation.

By standing up to the Pharisees, the scribes and the Herodians, Jesus proclaims that the law was made for humanity not the other way around, that people matter to God more than law and order.

Of course law and order was the way the Pharisees, the scribes and the Herodians maintained their power, their wealth, their privilege and so Jesus was meddling in their status. He was calling them out again for not upholding the first law of God, to love God because they were busy loving themselves first.

Jesus was organizing a resistance to their authority for not obeying the second law of God, to love their neighbor because they were too blood thirsty for condemnation, too ready to trample them under their oppressive practices including the temple tax.

Jesus is turning the social order of his time and his people upside down as he announces the arrival of the kingdom of God. Those who benefited from the law and order mentality were threatened to lose their high and mighty status, their privilege especially when this loose cannon is out their healing the scum of the earth with withered limbs on the sabbath – who will he restore to full status in their community next blind beggars, prostitutes, lepers, the mentally ill, the addicted, foreigners, criminals?

Truth is Jesus continues to turn the world upside down. Just when we think we have a hold on everything,  just when we think we are the ones establishing law and order, we get our world flipped over by Jesus and his love and grace. Our world that says if you obey, if your good, if your right you don’t get punished and you certainly don’t get executed – but he did. And perhaps still does today.

Crucifixions as a form of capital punishment may be a thing of the past  but our world is full of crucifixions yet today.

People are condemned every day mainly by well-meaning religious folks because of who they are, where they come from, how they talk, how they dress, who are how they worship, how they decorate themselves, who they love. And every condemnation is another nail in the cross of Christ.

Jesus was not condemned for picking grain or healing on the sabbath, but for challenging the status quo, those with privilege and power, the power to destroy him. And try they did. Succeed they did not. For God so loves all that God made and there is unmeasurable power in God’s love, enough to raise even us from condemnation and death to newness of life, life here and hereafter.

This is why Jesus is Lord even over the Sabbath and desires to be your Lord and Savior today. Amen.

Text from my Message for Today based on Mark 2:23-3:6  June 3, 2018 Central Christian Church, Bourbonnais, IL