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The Desire for Advice

Psalm 34
© Stacey Steck

The eighteenth century Swiss man of letters Henri-Frederic Amiel very wisely once said, “Before giving advice we must have secured its acceptance, or, rather, have made it desired.” In the absence of willing ears, the greatest advice is just more hot air, and indeed, as the British poet Joseph Addison, noted, “There is nothing which we receive with so much reluctance as advice.” So often, advice is like the cod liver oil that generations of youngster once had to endure – good for you but never on their menu. Of course, there is a difference between unsolicited advice, and advice that we seek out, isn’t there? When someone starts their advice giving with, “If I were you,” we are more likely to go and do otherwise, than to go and do likewise. Fellow Ohioan and newspaperman William Feather had it exactly right when he advised that “Giving advice isn’t as risky as people say. Few ever take it anyway.” We have a natural resistance to accepting what we have not asked for, and hence Amiel’s words of wisdom to pay heed to cultivating the desire for advice before giving it. Amiel must have been a careful reader of the Psalms, including the very Psalm 34 we just read, which does precisely what he identifies, making advice desired.

In case you missed it, the advice begins in verse 11, but maybe it didn’t feel so much like advice because of what came before it. You see, whoever wrote this psalm made you want to listen to its advice by using language that drew you in: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears…This poor soul cried and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble…O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want. The young lions suffer and want, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” I mean, at this point, you’re almost begging to hear just what it is that saves and brings happiness, and helps avoid suffering and want, and makes sure that we lack no good thing. I’ll have what he’s having, as the old saying goes. Yes, we are buttered up and ready to hear the punch line, even if it happens to come in the middle of the psalm, rather than the end of the joke. “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” That’s it. There’s your advice. And you didn’t even know you were about to get it. “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”

It’s pretty basic advice, isn’t it? It may not be very specific but it covers pretty much everything. Depart from evil – lying, stealing, murder, tax evasion, (yes, it’s that season again) – and do good – be kind, generous, loving, and romantic (yes, it’s that season again too). If you need some help to figure out whether what you want to do is good or evil, there are lists of virtues and vices in not only the Bible but every culture and every religion, and they will basically be the same everywhere, with a few variations. Of course, there are some gray areas, some ethical dilemmas, some changing values and mores in every generation tht challenge us, but overall, most societies, ours included, still have a basic moral code of right and wrong, good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It’s how we avoid chaos. We play by those rules. It’s simple, right?

Well, it’s simple until it’s not so simple. It would be easy to make the case that if we all played by the rules, everything would be OK. But what about when the rules are not really fair for everyone playing the game? What about when the rules are not just functionally flawed or carelessly crafted, but when they are intentionally designed to create inequality or justify brutality? What about when the rules no longer meet our needs as a human community? What about the power that stands behind those who get to enforce the rules? There are consequences to the rules. I don’t mean that there are consequences for breaking the rules. I mean that the existence of the rules creates consequences in the lives of real people, some intended and others unintended, but consequences nonetheless. It’s simple until it’s not so simple.

These exceptions to the rule are why we must look beyond the simple advice given in a couple of lines of a Psalm to see how the Bible as a whole, the Bible as a witness of God’s character, describes and defines good and evil. Some of those descriptions are hinted at here in Psalm 34. Righteousness is a prominent theme: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and rescues them from all their troubles.” But what does it mean to be righteous? Anyone can say they are righteous – right with God – but that doesn’t make them so. Slave owners thought they were righteous before God. Men who beat their wives and children into submission thought they were righteous before God. Nations and empires thought they were righteous when they dehumanized and plundered other civilizations for gold, silver, and sugar cane. We always think we are righteous. Nobody goes around thinking they are wrong all the time. Even the marginalized think they are righteous when they loot and steal, justifying it in the name of their oppression. “Look what’s been done to me. I deserve a little back in return.” Well, if I’m righteous and you’re righteous, and the other guy is righteous, why are we still in such a mess? We all follow the rules, right? But whose rules are we following? Ours? Or God’s?

Righteousness is not the only category to explore when trying to get the Bible’s take on good and evil. It helps to look too at justice, and compassion, and inclusion. And in case after case in Scripture, the overwhelming evidence is that God is on the side of the powerless and the marginalized. Every time God’s people got into trouble, it’s because they weren’t looking out for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, the least, the last, and the lost. The criticism on nearly every page of the prophets was that the nation’s leaders did not look after the interests of the most vulnerable, that they left the poor to suffer, or were the cause of their suffering. That perspective is seen clearly in the book of First Peter, in the third chapter when this very Psalm, Psalm 34, is used to help an oppressed people survive in the face of empire. “Have unity,” Peter says, “have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil with evil or abuse for abuse; but on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing.” And then it goes on to quote, word for word, the advice, the wisdom found in our psalm today. Peter used these words to remind his people that God’s defining characteristic and concern is life, and that sinking to the oppressor’s level is giving away your life., throwing away your blessing. There’s a lot more where that came from in that chapter from 1 Peter, but suffice it to say that it reveals how we are to think about the instruction of Psalm 34 even today.

Despite our failure to always discern what is good or evil, and our failures to observe our blind spots and our ignorance, the advice, the wisdom of Psalm 34 is good. “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue.” But don’t take that advice from me, especially if I have not “made it desired.” But, if you will not take it from me, take it from the one who not only offers it without failure, blind spot or ignorance, but who offered it in the flesh. The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen poignantly wrote, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.” Those who have “chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot to me like Jesus. Jesus offered advice, it’s true, but it came with that choice to “share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.” It came, in the words of Hebrews we heard earlier, from the one “who, for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” It came from the one whose own humility set the standard for our humility.

Psalm 34 is a call to humility, to the fear of the Lord. “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” And that fear of the Lord, just like the Psalm itself, begins in a posture of humility, of kneeling and adoring the Creator. “I will bless the Lord at all times,” Psalm 34 begins. When we use the word bless, as in “God bless you,” or “God has blessed me,” what we mean to express is our hope and trust that God gives us the good things described in Psalm 34. God gives peace. God grants healing. God rescues and saves. And when we say that, we place God as the subject of the sentence in those cases, we make God the actor. But when God is the object of blessing, when we say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” it’s something entirely different. When we say that, we are recognizing and affirming our inferiority, and praising God for being the only one who can bless. The word we translate as bless, when we say “Bless the Lord, O my soul,” literally means to kneel down in obedience and loyalty and humility. And so it is humility which is the final test of righteousness and justice, and compassion, and inclusion, of good and evil. Are we willing to be self-critical and search our hearts and our scriptures for when we haven’t kept our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking deceit, when we haven’t departed from evil but have embraced it, not intentionally, but from our blind spots and our woundedness and our social location? Are we willing to admit that we don’t have all the answers and that our unsolicited advice may be part of the problem? Are we willing to engage in learning about perspectives that are different than our own without passing judgment on them? It is humility that defines the righteous and they who act on their humility are the ones who fall under God’s gaze, and whose cries reach God’s ears, and whom God rescues.

It is my hope that as we have considered together God’s self-giving in Christ that you have felt that desire welling up within you to not only receive the advice the Psalmist gives but to act on it and find life through it. “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?” “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Let us bless the Lord. Amen.

A Trauma-Informed Faith

Psalm 89: 5-18, 38-52
© Stacey Steck

Did you know…that every year since 1973, network television has aired the epic Cecil B. DeMille film the Ten Commandments during the Easter/Passover season? You remember the one with Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and a cast of thousands? The one that is the eighth most financially successful film of all time when adjusted for inflation? The one with the images of the sea parting for the Hebrews and collapsing for the Egyptians that took nearly six months to shoot? Yes, the Exodus story makes for a good movie. Not long ago, there was an animated version called the Prince of Egypt, right? And we talk about the Exodus all time in Sunday School, Moses in his little basket, Moses killing the Egyptian who was abusing a Hebrew slave, Moses saying to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!,” the ten plagues culminating with the angel of death, and all the rest of that great story. But can you name one film about the Babylonian exile, that terrible event that occurred in the year 587 BC that destroyed Jerusalem and ended the monarchy? Go ahead, look it up on your phones. I’ll wait. There are some documentaries, and a few labors of love, but there are no Hollywood fingerprints on that story. Can you remember one detail of the story of the exile that you learned about in Sunday School? Do you even know what books of the Bible include it?

There’s a lot of good news in the Bible. Lots of peace, joy, victory, and love. But there is also a lot of bad news – violence, misery, pain, and suffering. On one had you have the Exodus, the Passover, and the promised land, and on the other you have the great flood, the slavery in Egypt, and the Babylonian exile. The bad comes with the good, in the Bible, as in life. So too in the Psalms, and Psalm 89 is an example, perhaps the best example, of the less appealing parts of the story of God’s people. Psalm 89 is a poem that not only raises the spectre of the exile, but leaves it hanging there for all to see. This Psalm is the last psalm in Book Three of the Psalter. Maybe you never knew that the Psalter has an internal structure of its own, but it does, and it’s pretty thoughtfully divided into five books, the third of which, the one that ends with Psalm 89, is the struggle to understand, in poetry and song, what happened to the people whom God loved when the Babylonians carried them off into exile. Books four and five do the theological heavy lifting of interpreting the meaning of the exile, but book three lays out the anguish of a complete upheaval in the lives of this people, and it ends on this unresolved note. At the end of Psalm 89, there is no concluding comfort. No hope. We are just left with this cliffhanger of lament for all that has gone wrong. Like the book of Lamentations that ends with these desperate words, “Why have you forsaken us these many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure,” Psalm 89 ends with “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” And God makes no reply. There is just silence, excruciating divine silence, which perhaps gives rise to the psalm’s final words of appeal to God: “Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and amen.”

Hauntingly, the last lines of the psalm echo the first: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” Steadfast love and faithfulness. Two mighty words, steadfast love and faithfulness, well, at least they are one word each in Hebrew, two mighty phrases that tell you almost everything you need to know about God. And in fact, those two words are repeated over and over again in this psalm, as if the Psalmist is trying to remind God about how God is supposed to act in this time of calamity. The first part begins by speaking about God’s mighty acts in creation, and how powerful God really is, so that “Happy are the people who know the festal shout,” those who have attended the party of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. And then the second part, the one we didn’t read aloud, goes on to recount how God so wisely and graciously chose King David and promised that the throne of Israel would forever belong to one of David’s descendants. But then it takes an ominous turn at verse 38 where we picked up again: “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full or wrath against your anointed,” in other words that you let this terrible thing happen to us, or worse yet, you caused it, O Lord of Hosts.

And just what happened that the Psalmist is so bitter about? Briefly, you may remember that following the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy during the reign of King Josiah of Judah one of the very few faithful kings who followed God’s commandments, Josiah was killed by the Egyptians when he aided an ill-fated uprising by a neighboring king. Well, the Egyptians installed a puppet king who last for a few years until the Babylonians under the infamous King Nebuchadnezzar came calling and laid a deadly siege to Jerusalem for a year when they couldn’t breach its walls. When they finally overcame the Judean resistance, the removed a huge portion of the city’s population to Babylon, including all the major leaders and elites, leaving just a few thousand mostly poor people to run the town so they could collect taxes from the peasants. Well, the next year, after another attempted insurrection, the Babylonians had enough and burned the temple, tore down the walls of the city, and removed the rest of the inhabitants. The beloved throne of David was gone, the Temple, the very house of God, was gone, the promised land left in ruins. How could God abandon them? That was the question they were left with asking. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is; for what vanity you have created all mortals!” It was a devastating national disaster, a trauma beyond their imagination.

Interestingly, for all the theological reflection on the question of why, in the Bible there is almost no mention of the actual experience of the exile. There is plenty about what led up to it, plenty about the siege and the deportation, and plenty about the return to Jerusalem, but very, very little about what it was like to actually be a refugee, a person whose life was turned completely upside down, a person who never knew if they would ever see home again. Nothing about the Babylonians and how they were treated, nothing about the struggles with the Babylonian belief systems, nothing. Dead silence. It’s like when a mass shooting takes place and people clamor that the name of the shooter should go unmentioned so as not to give him the glory he so obviously sought. It’s all painfully ignored or judicially whitewashed from the story. It’s so obviously missing from the Biblical history that it has led some people to suspect whether it happened at all. In fact, a movie released in 2014 called “Exile, A Myth Unearthed” actually tries to make the case that the exile never even happened, that’s how forgettable we want the story to be. Or maybe like the denial of stories of the genocide of Jews, Armenians, and other groups, the desire to whitewash history, has to do not only with power, but also with the discomfort these episodes of history cause when we really stop to think about how horrible human beings can be to one another. Or maybe the experience was so traumatic that they developed a sort of collective amnesia, a phenomenon that has been well-documented in situations like these. We may never know for sure why the events of more than forty years are never mentioned, but what is sure is that a truly traumatized people were left to pick up the pieces of their lives after a devastating war that killed thousands, a siege which starved to death even more of their kin, and a forced march across the desert that wiped out many of the rest. We don’t know whether they suffered what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, but it’s hard to imagine they didn’t. They were the walking wounded of Judah.

A year ago at the end of January, we couldn’t know the extent of the trauma the world would face from an invader as deadly as Nebuchadnezzar, and as silent as God at the end of Psalm 89. We couldn’t know, and we still don’t know, the length of the siege we are under that keeps us in our homes. We don’t know if, like the Babylonian troops did for their final assault, this new strain of COVID-19 will return with a vengeance after our vaccinated reprieve. But we do know how traumatic it’s been. We’ve heard the stories of hospitals overflowing and loved ones dying without being able to see their families. More than two million deaths worldwide. Drug use, suicide, and child abuse are increasing. Business shuttered, savings wiped out, long term health effects unknown. The list goes on and on and maybe it’s led you too to ask, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not equating what we are going through to the violent end to a people’s way of life on the wrong side of a war. But I am saying that we are experiencing a traumatic event unfolding, the kind that does, or should, raise theological questions. We are in exile, at least from our traditional activities and pastimes, and our visits to friends and family, and even from the smiles of our neighbors and fellow citizens. We can downplay it if we want. We can whitewash it from our history of the early 21st century, but what is undeniable is that a large portion of our society will live with the effects of this trauma for generations. I’ve shared with you in the past the results from one of the most revealing public health surveys ever conducted. It was the Adverse Childhood Experiences study sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and conducted by Kaiser Permanente and it polled more than 17,000 people about their exposure to ten traumatic experiences they might have lived through, ranging from divorce of their parents, to having a parent incarcerated, to witnessing, or being a victim of, domestic violence, or having a family member addicted to alcohol or drugs and many more. Its findings indicate that persons with an ACE score of four or higher were not just at higher risk for a range of physical, psychological, emotional, and social problems, but dramatically so. To give you just a couple of examples, persons with an ACE score of six or higher are 5000 percent more likely to die by suicide than someone who had none of these adverse childhood experiences, and women with ACE scores of only four are 540 percent more likely to be depressed. Not just twice or three times as likely to be depressed or suicidal, but almost unavoidably likely. And these outrageously high numbers also correlate to rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and a host of other bodily medical issues. This is the real life effect of trauma on children. It may be hard to hear, and it may not conform to our own experiences, but the body of evidence is growing rapidly that a vast majority of the occurrences of what we call mental illness not caused by a specifically medical condition, the vast majority probably has its roots in trauma of one kind or another in the current generation, or a prior one. The effects of trauma are clearly passed on, so that even if a child only lives with someone without enough resilience to positively adapt to the trauma in his or her life, it will have a significant impact on that child’s future.

What does all of this mean for us? I think it means that we need to acknowledge that even once we are all vaccinated, that we will have a continuing struggle against COVID-19 as the effects of this trauma play out on our society. We are a resilient people, no doubt, but resilience does not mean we snap back into shape like a rubber band. Resilient means that we will indeed find our way back, but that the journey won’t necessarily be an easy or painless one. People who face trauma and come out functional and happy and with meaning attached to their lives never report that they woke up one morning and everything was all better. They report that their progress is by fits and starts, advances and relapses, step by step movement forward that is often imperceptible in the moment and only able to be seen after a long time. But they get there. And many of them get there because of the faith and grace of people around them who take their struggles seriously, who do not deny the horror of what happened, but who accept that what may look like a lack of responsibility, or a negative attitude, or bad behavior might just be the tip of a traumatic iceberg they can’t see.

Psalm 89 may end with divine silence, but our response to the same questions cannot be the same. It will be tempting to want to just move on and get back to normal, but it cannot be a normal that does not acknowledge what we have been through. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that we acknowledged that veterans who struggled to cope with what they had experienced in battle didn’t have a defect of character, or that they weren’t strong enough, but that their brains simply could not process what had happened and that there are consequences when that happens. In our lifetimes alone, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of vets from World Wars One and Two and Korea suffered the rest of their lives in silence, and with nightmares and flashbacks and all the other symptoms of PTSD, and their families suffered as a result, because there was no graceful and understanding space for them to come to terms with what had happened to them.

Trauma is inevitable. It’s part of the human story. It’s part of God’s story. It is inevitable that we will suffer in mind, body, or spirit. What does not have to be inevitable, however, is the denial that so often accompanies the trauma. We can talk about it. We can be graceful and understanding. We can acknowledge that not everyone has the same resilience factors built into their lives and that some people are going to need more time, more patience, and most of all more love when they don’t get over things as fast as we would like them to. May God help us to cultivate enough compassion to live a trauma-informed life and faith. Amen.

Three Little Words

Here a quick link to the Thyatira Psalter Project. We would love to have you participate!

Psalm 109
© Stacey Steck

O Psalm 109, O “song of hate,” O song of vengeance. Psalm 109, the infamous imprecatory Psalm, the Psalm whose superscription, it’s title, should be that old children’s taunt: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” You fans of the Big Bang Theory TV show may remember Sheldon’s version of this childhood comeback to insults: “I'm polymerized tree sap and you’re an inorganic adhesive, so whatever verbal projectile you launch in my direction is reflected off of me, returns on its original trajectory and adheres to you.” In Biblical terms, it is expressed as, “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life.” No matter how you say it, there’s some real animosity going on, and the Psalmist isn’t pulling any punches.

This is one of those brutally honest psalms, comparable perhaps to Psalm 137’s desire to take the children of the hated Babylonians and dash their heads against the rocks. The language is harsh, the accusations severe, the proposed remedy extreme, a sort of Old Testament version of “May he rot in hell.” May he be found guilty, may his days be few, may his wife become an early widow and may his children young orphans begging in the street. May he go bankrupt, be miserable, and wind up forgotten in the mists of time. Feel vindictive much there, Mr. Psalmist? There has obviously been a conflict. Wicked and deceitful mouths have slandered our hero, and a case is going to court to press charges. God is invoked to make sure justice is done against these treacherous conspirators. It’s all a big, angry mess.

Before I say more, let me tell you about the one great controversy about Psalm 109. In verse six, the text switches from the third person plural “they” to the third person singular, “he.” This has led some translators, including those who authorized the translation we use here in church, to put these super harsh words in somebody else’s mouth, namely, the people who are persecuting the writer. So, option A is the Psalmist talking about all his enemies as if they were one, and wishing terrible things on them, and option B is that these terrible things are being said about the Psalmist. Either way, it is verse 20 reveals that the truth and the heart of the matter, that the Psalmist desires for his enemies what either they have said about him, or what he says about them. “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak evil against my life.” The desire for vengeance is undeniable.

Especially if this is written by David, it is not that the Psalmist cannot practice the vengeance that he expresses. David was the King, and a pretty powerful one, by all accounts, powerful enough to have Uriah killed to cover his tracks with Bathsheba. Tyrants stay in power by making sure their enemies meet the fate of Psalm 109. Think about the regular reports out of North Korea that detail the disappearance of supposedly disloyal members of Kim Jong Un’s own family. And the lack of power does not always prevent people from trying to take justice into their own hands when they feel aggrieved. Think of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, for example, a man with a laundry list of grievances, or the Unibomber and his manifesto against technology, both of whom ruined countless lives, running around with a version of Psalm 109 in their heads. In a sense, our whole nation, even before recent events, has something of a Psalm 109 mindset. You see it reflected in the embrace of the death penalty, and “three strikes and you’re out laws,” and “Stand your ground” laws, and just a general “eye for eye” mentality when it comes to what we think our enemies deserve. So maybe it’s just me, but the tone of Psalm 109 seems to strike a little too close to home in these polarized times, seems particularly raw and fresh in light of the social and political discourse we are subject to every day. It’s like a feud between Hatfields and McCoys, a political roll in the mud, Alexander Hamilton facing down Aaron Burr in a duel, or, dare I say, the 140 character Internet bickering that passes for political discourse these days. The psalm of hate reverberates through the centuries, down to our own days. Well, at least the first nineteen verses.

You see, it’s verse twenty that really must matter, verse 20 that is vitriol’s pause button, the moment you come to your senses and you don’t mail that hate-filled letter you wrote to your boss, but decide to sleep on it overnight and realize you will only be throwing gas on the fire. Verse 20 is that God-given moment where the Psalmist may indeed express that wish that all those terrible things happen, but also turns it all over to God to sort out. “May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord, of those who speak against my life. But you, O Lord my God, act on my behalf for your name’s sake; because your steadfast love is good, deliver me.” The Psalmist steps back from the precipice of retribution, and lets God handle things. “Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love. Let them know that this is your hand; you, O Lord, have done it.” The words of the psalm seem to mirror our experience, don’t they? We get all angry at someone, want revenge, or at least what we think is justice, but then we recognize that discretion is the better part of valor, put our trust in God’s infinite wisdom and divine justice, and walk ourselves back from the edge of actions we would regret. Well, most of the time. And when we don’t follow that pattern, the results usually speak for themselves, and we get what we deserve more often than our enemies get what’s coming to them.

Look, it’s OK to express rage, and seek divine assistance, but it is not OK to act as judge, jury, and executioner. We sometimes are on the receiving end of injustice, subject to outcomes that outrage us, fed up with foolishness, stuck behind someone driving under the speed limit in the passing lane. But these circumstances do not give us license to take matters into our own hands to sort them out. If it sounds like I might be referring to last week’s events at the Capital, I am, but I am also referring to the daily aggravations and inconveniences that push our buttons, the ones that cause us to act towards our spouses and children in ways that only make it harder to find peace the next time. No matter what we may think about the outcome of the recent election, or any election, or any decision we don’t agree with, no matter what side of the debate we may be on, it is always dangerous to try to play God in response. It’s even a risk to simply ascribe God’s favor to our position. Let’s not delude ourselves. No political platform comes close to God’s, and none of us is righteous enough to claim to know the perfect will of God. So let us cling to the wise words of that old saying that advises us to make it our business to make sure we are on God’s side, rather than cling to the idea that God is on our side.

In our rage, it’s easy to become blind to what ultimately matters. Living through the events of the early years of World War 2, the Italian filmmaker Alberto Lattuada brought this harsh, but illuminating critique: “The absence of love brought many tragedies that might have been averted. Instead of the golden rain of love, a black cloak of indifference fell upon the people. And thus people have lost the eyes of love and can no longer see clearly…Here are the origins of the disintegration of all values and the destruction and sterilization of conscience.” How do we avoid finding ourselves with “the absence of love” which brings many tragedies? How do we shed the black cloak of indifference and enjoy the golden rain of love?

Let me suggest that a good place to begin is in reading the fine print of Scripture, like the three little words in verse 20 of Psalm 109 that matter the most: “from the Lord.” It’s easy to miss them after the nineteen and a half thunderous verses which precede them, and the “poor old me” expressions that follow them, but they are the theological heart of this honest expression of legitimate feelings. Sometimes you really have to read your Bible to know what’s in there. That’s why I am excited to invite you to participate in the Thyatira Psalter Project which allows you to really pay attention to every word on the page. Before I say more on that, let me tell you something about the way our Jewish brothers and sisters love their Scriptures.

In the more mystical parts of Judaism, the faithful believe that it is not just the words on the page that mean something, but where the words are located on the page, and how much space there is between the words, how thick the letters are written, and so on. To them, what’s on the page really, really matters. The Torah scrolls that are used in most synagogues for worship are actually handwritten in Israel, often on animal skin just like in the days before the invention or paper. That’s why the Rabbis don’t lick their fingers to turn the page. In fact, they never even touch to pages with the fingers because they are so valuable, so easy to damage, and so difficult to replace. Each scroll takes months to write. Instead they use a stick with a little wood or metal finger on the end to keep track of where they are reading. Now, you might say that these Jews have gone a little too far, that such reverence for the medium obscures the message. And maybe you’d be right. But you have to admire the love they have for the words of God, and the way they do not treat it casually, as if it were just another book, but reverently, as if God were speaking to them even in the spaces between the words.

To copy Scripture faithfully, even if you are typing it, but even more so if you are handwriting it, takes enormous concentration. Imagine if you were the one responsible for transmitting the word of God, for making sure that the three most important words of Psalm 109, “from the Lord,” were there for all to see, and that you lost your concentration for a moment, and you left them out. Where would the world be then? With “an absence of love,” that’s where. Wearing “a black cloak of indifference.” If we really want to be faithful to the God who can handle all this stuff we feel so passionately, we need to know what the Bible says about that God, in every word, every punctuation mark, every space. And the best way I know to get that familiar with the Bible is to write it down, line by line, letter by letter.

There are 150 psalms in the Bible, some angry ones like Psalm 109 and some lovely ones like 133. There are long ones like Psalm 119 and short ones like Psalm 117. There are famous ones like Psalm 23 and Psalm 51, and infamous ones like Psalm 137. There are memorable psalms and forgettable psalms, but they are all important psalms because they speak the truth about our human condition, and the relationship God has with this imperfect people. Each one of them has something to say to not only a world sometimes bent on vengeance, but also to you in whatever you are going through. There are 150 psalms in the Bible and 214 members of Thyatira. May each of us find the psalm to which God is calling us, seek out the words that really matter, and let them bring down the golden rain of love. Amen.

Baptized in Blood

Hebrews 9:1-28 and Matthew 14:1-12
© Stacey Steck

On this Sunday of the year, we are usually talking about water, especially the water of the Jordan River in which Jesus was baptized, and the water from a variety of sources in which each of us were baptized. Baptism of Jesus Sunday comes every year right after Epiphany and it gives us the opportunity to reconsider the call and claim God makes on each of us, including Jesus, when that water hits our heads. But this is the interesting Year D and the traditional water baptism texts have all been used up, and in their place we find what I am calling the baptism of blood texts, a red-tinged way of looking at the same call and claim God makes on each one of us. I, for one, am already feeling squeamish, because the sight of blood does that to me. Years ago, after I almost fainted when having blood drawn, a kindly nurse suggested I probably had what is called Vasovagal syncope, which means that your body overreacts to certain triggers, such as the sight of blood, and, in my case, the introduction of contact lenses for the first time. Now, that was a disorienting adventure, not unlike being plunged underwater during baptism. All of that is to inform you that should I pass out up here talking about blood, that’s all that’s wrong with me.

Yes, the sight, and sometimes even the thought, of blood makes people uncomfortable. That’s probably because blood, like pain and fever, is our bodies’ way of telling us something is wrong. We generally aren’t supposed to bleed, the monthly exception of fifty percent of the human race aside, and when we do, we usually need medical attention of some kind. Blood is usually the sign of disease, accident, or violence, none of which are on anyone’s bodily wish list. Blood, red and oozing, is the sign of death, and the last thing we want to see.

And yet it, in the Bible, blood is the sign of life, physically, spiritually, and metaphorically. The Bible doesn’t shy away from blood. The word blood is used some 378 times, and while some of those uses are related to the uncomfortable side of blood, the vast majority have something positive to say about our relationship with blood, even if it is animal blood. To begin with, the people of Israel, for what little knowledge of anatomy they possessed, correctly associated blood with life, and life force, of both humans and animals. Leviticus 17.14 says, “You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” Deuteronomy 12.23 says, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat.” And there were consequences for the taking of life and blood. In Genesis 9, God lays it out there: “You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image, God made humankind.” Serious stuff. An eye for an eye, blood for blood.

And then there are the very explicit instruction in the Mosaic law about how to drain, use, and dispose of the blood of animals, whether for use at home or in the temple. Like life itself, God’s idea was that blood should not be treated casually. And once it was collected, there were meaningful uses for it, most notably in the various sacrifices offered in the temple, a pretty bloody spectacle all things considered. We’d be here all day if I shared with you all the ways blood was used in the Temple, so let me just offer a couple of choice morsels. Leviticus describes these rituals in quite a bit of detail, including this example: “If the offering is a burnt-offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” And, in addition to the dashing, or splashing of blood to be used in the sacrificial offerings, some of the same forms we use for baptism, like sprinkling and pouring, are indicated. It’s a messy business, worshiping God and dealing with all our sin.

And then there’s the part about how to use blood in ordination. Are you ready for this, all you new Deacons and Elders? When Aaron and his sons were to be ordained as priests, there was an elaborate ritual using a bull and two rams. After preparing the bull and the first ram for sacrifice in the way I just described, the instructions continue: “You shall take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, and you shall slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the lobes of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet, and dash the rest of the blood against all sides of the altar. Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar, and some of the anointing-oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his vestments and on his sons and his sons’ vestments with him; then he and his vestments shall be holy, as well as his sons and his sons’ vestments.” I hope you didn’t wear any clothes today that you’ll want to wear again, you new Deacons and Elders.

All of that is some of the backdrop to what we heard from the ninth chapter of Hebrews about Christ’s role as the great high priest who atones for all of our sins, not with the blood of animals all dashed and poured and sprinkled, but with his own blood shed willingly on the cross. And he only has to do it once, not every year. And he brings a new covenant that is better than the old one. And the maintenance costs of the Temple decrease because all that blood doesn’t have to get cleaned up all the time. Anything they can do, he can better. It’s all very neat and tidy, especially nice for those of us who are squeamish. Thanks be to God.

Jesus is no stranger to blood. At his birth, he emerged through his mother’s blood. During his infancy, the blood of the boys of Bethlehem was spilled out of Herod’s fear. He grew up hearing the story of the plague visited on the Egyptians when “all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt” and how blood was smeared on the doorposts on the night of the Passover to protect God’s people from the Angel of Death. He likely drew blood on more than one occasion working with sharp tools in his father’s carpentry shop. A woman with an uncontrollable menstrual flow touched his garment and was healed. As he sat with his disciples at the Last Supper, he famously said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” In the garden of Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” At his trial he was scourged, with blood running down from the wounds in his flesh. At his execution, not only did his hands and feet bleed where they were nailed to the cross, but water and blood poured out of his side when he was pierced by a soldier’s spear. No, Jesus was no stranger to blood. You could almost say he was baptized in it. “Indeed,” it says in Hebrews, “Indeed, under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” From the perspective of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, it is blood, not water, that brings us into communion with God.

For right or wrong, we tend to think of baptism as a kind of rite of passage, an initiation into the community of faith. If that’s true, the other story we heard about blood this morning is a helpful one for us as we prepare to ordain and install new officers in the church. No, I won’t be smearing blood on their ear lobes and big toes, but I am reminding them that faithful service can be costly, as John the Baptist found out the hard way. John’s story is a dramatic one, and one that could have turned out differently if a tyrant had any common sense. But as the story goes, John has preached an uncomfortable truth, and he pays for it with his life. The way of discipleship can be hard sometimes. As cleaned up as our atonement now is with Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice, it can be easy to forget that neither life, nor ministry, come with a guarantee against pain, suffering or even bloodshed. We may not be slinging blood up here every Sunday, but we are trying our best to live into the truth that Jesus “offered himself without blemish to God [to] purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God,” as Hebrews so vividly and forcefully reminds us. In Jesus, we go from dead works to worship of the living God. That’s a tall order, a big transformation, a reason for thanksgiving.

I said earlier that the Bible makes clear that God does not condone treating blood casually, as did Herod with John, and as Pilate did with Jesus. Violence is one of those “dead works” that Jesus has transformed in us, and it’s a dead work not because it sometimes ends up with people dying, but because it does not treat blood, and therefore life, with the respect it deserves. Worship of the living God, however, honors what God has created and seeks to make sure all of that creation receives the blessings of its Creator. The witness of Jesus that is lived out as member, Deacon, or Elder in the church of Jesus Christ is that if blood must ever to be shed, it must be our own blood in service of worship of the living God, and never someone else’s blood in service of dead works. If that makes you squeamish, that’s a good thing, because faith is an awesome responsibility not to be taken lightly. Herod was “grieved,” it says, when his rash and foolish oath was demanded of him and he had to spill John’s blood, and his conscience was not even bound by the new covenant that binds us. Let us rejoice that we are baptized in water, and make faithful and wise choices where life and blood are concerned. Amen.

Who Is This Guy Anyway?

With apologies for the split screen…

To access the Image of God Chart referenced in the sermon, click here.

Hebrews 8:1-13 and Luke 7:18-35
© Stacey Steck

Even before a child is born, people begin to wonder what this new life will be like. Will it be a happy baby or a colicky one? Will she grow up to be a doctor or an artist? An introvert or extrovert, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, believer or skeptic? So many unknowable possibilities. Surely the same was true for Jesus when he was born, the angelic directives and assurances aside. Mary may have treasured the events of Christmas Eve in her heart, but not everyone else knew them, and so there would have been the usual speculation about the newest member of the family. Would he follow in his father’s footsteps as a carpenter? Would he even survive into adulthood? Would he somehow live up to his name, Jeshua, which means “God saves?”

We are a little more than a week removed from Christmas, the genesis of all manner of speculation about Jesus, ben-Joseph, from the town of Nazareth. There are only a couple of stories of Jesus in his younger years, before his debut reading from the scroll of Isaiah as an adult – his family’s flight to Egypt, his precocious question to his parents when they found him in the temple after they had lost track of him on the way home from Jerusalem. Despite these stories, and all the others that comprise the Gospels, we really know very, very little about this man to whom we have pledged our lives. There are no other accounts, as we might read in a biography, about things like his temperament or sense of humor or delight or distaste for learning. All we have to go on are fragments of memories and age-old stories. Who is this guy anyway?

The Gospel writers were probably wise to leave Jesus as enigmatic as they have. Generally, the more we know about someone, the more likely we are to find some failing in them that tarnishes them in our eyes. The flipside, however, of leaving him so undefined, is that we are very easily able to engage in that favorite human pastime of projection, of placing onto a blank slate our hopes, fears, and expectations, as well as the darker side of ourselves like our passion, jealousies, and self-loathing. No matter how true or accurate the picture of Jesus in the Gospels may be, we unavoidably see him how we want or need to see him, a tendency that has led us to ascribe to him all manner of roles, images, ideologies, and fantasies. Now it’s true that most of these come from parts of the Bible itself, but the sheer number of ways Jesus is described suggests that this process of projection has been going on since the very days he spent on earth. The famous three-fold office of Prophet, Priest, and King is maybe the most famous and fully formed way to describe Jesus, one that our spiritual ancestor in the faith, John Calvin, found quite useful. But think of all the other titles ascribed to Jesus: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Son of Man, Son of God, Prince of Peace, great high priest of the order of Melchizedech, Rabbi, healer, sage, waymaker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness and so many others, and that’s not even mentioning some of the most compelling like anointed or Lord or Messiah. Each of these titles come loaded with significance, from Jesus’ time all the way into our own time. Jesus may indeed be all of these at once, but he is also truly all things to all people.

And yet there is still ambiguity. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John the Baptist asks from prison. John is in jail, having objected to Herod Antipas marrying his own brother’s wife. There’s not much said about John’s state of mind when he sends his disciples to Jesus but it’s not a stretch to think maybe he’s wondering if the whole “free the captives” line applies to him. It seems safe to say that John had some expectations about who Jesus was, and that now he’s questioning those expectations. When does the revolution start? When do we rise up and break down the walls of the prisons? When do we start the guerilla warfare? And what is the answer? “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Looks like Rome is still standing, John. Sorry to disappoint you. Oh, and may I suggest that you adjust your expectations, curb your projections? Because if not, you’ll just find yourself angry at me, taking offense, and missing out on the blessing. Who is this guy anyway?

I was asked that very question once in seminary while I was being interviewed for an internship. “Who is Jesus to you?” they asked. And so I chose what I thought was a safe and answer and replied, “A humble carpenter” because that’s how I saw Jesus at the time. I guess that’s who I needed him to be at the time. And there was nothing wrong with that exactly, because the identity of Jesus I needed was found in Scripture. He was humble, to the point of death, it says in Philippians. He was most likely a carpenter, being the son of a carpenter. Of course, Jesus is also portrayed in Scripture as triumphant, victorious, and even arrogant, but that’s not the Jesus I prefer. Despite the fact that the image is right there in Hebrews of Jesus as a heavenly high priest, that was just not a way I could connect with him. I respected that image, but it’s not one that would make me respond. To me, he was a humble carpenter. Well, I got the job, but I can tell you that it wasn’t easy, and there must have been some grace involved. You see, other people had different prevailing images of who Jesus was for them that didn’t exactly match mine. Some on the committee were concerned that I did not identify Jesus as the “son of God” or as Messiah, and that my opinion of his divinity left something to be desired. Perhaps it did at the time.

Each of us apprehends who Jesus is a little differently, not because he is different to each one of us, but because each of us has a unique relationship with him. Surely there will be some common themes, but in the same way that within a group of friends, among family members, no two relationships are the same despite having the same people in common, each of us knows Jesus just a little bit different, because we come to him with unique life experiences. I have found over the years that we are generally kind of unaware of our image of God, and how it guides us. That’s why I like to use a little worksheet devised by the great hymn writer and pastor, Tom Troeger, that allows people to explore how they understand God. To use this chart, you simply select one word or phrase from each column, and then form them into a sentence. So, for example, I could say, “Healing God, your thankful servant wonders about meaning.” I’ll post a link to this on the church’s website if you want to try it yourself. One of the interesting things about this exercise is that when people do it a second or third time, they actually tend to forget what they chose at other times and are surprised to find that their answers are quite different than they were originally. That’s actually not so surprising since each of us is ever-changing, even if we aren’t aware of how we are changing. And isn’t it interesting to know that even though God never changes, we can always find in him what we need?

Henry Ward Beecher was one such person whose view of God changed dramatically during his lifetime. Growing up under the influence of his father, Lyman Beecher, the preeminent hardline New England Calvinist of the early nineteenth century, Henry lived the early part of his life in dread fear that he would not be able to measure up to the demanding image of God preached by his father, that he would burn in Hell because he could not feel the fervor for the Lord that he was told he needed to feel. But Beecher had an epiphany one day and his understanding of who Jesus was changed. He was walking in the woods one day while in college when, he says, “there arose over the horizon a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ as a living Friend, who had the profoundest personal interest in me, and I embraced that view and was lifted up.” And with that revelation, by mid-century, Henry was largely responsible for transforming the severe, strict, and legalistic Protestant way of thinking about Jesus into a kinder and gentler one, a change that is still very much with us. If you can affirm the words of the hymn, Jesus Loves Me, you are a spiritual descendent of Henry Ward Beecher’s answer to the question, “Who is this guy anyway?”

It is not so important that you understand who Jesus is in some kind of thorough, systematic way, so much as you know who he is for you, and that you are aware of how that influences you. You see, the image we have of God inclines us to view the world, and behave in the world, in a particular kind of way. We are unlikely to be generous people if we do not view God as generous. We probably aren’t going to extend as much grace if we see God as a judge, and so on. It may just be that recognizing how you see Jesus helps you understand who you are as a person, right now, and that by changing or expanding your view of Jesus, you can make a change you want to make. Sometimes the timing of that change is out of our control, as it was for Henry Beecher, but sometimes we can pursue it like John the Baptist did. John’s question seems ignorant on the surface, but it reflects the fact that he was reassessing what he believed about Jesus. We don’t know what he did with the answer he received, but he asked the right question.

If you have not already formulated a New Year’s resolution for 2021, beyond surviving COVID-19, let me suggest that a good one might be to be intentional about finding out who Jesus is for you, right now, in this phase of your life. Maybe you don’t change, and that’s OK. It’s asking the question that matters. It could be that exploring other images of Jesus lets you be more sympathetic to another person’s perspective that’s not the same as yours. Maybe you’ll change some patterns and habits. Maybe you’ll be more willing to take some risks. Whatever the outcome, may we follow Jesus’s advice to take no offense at him whether our perspective of him changes or not. It’s worth the effort, because even though we’ll never have all the answers about Jesus, asking “Who is this guy anyway?” reflects our desire to follow him more faithfully. Amen.