Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Royal Law

 Faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine

A sermon on James 2:1-17, preached September 9, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
(c) Christina Berry

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

I was going to preach about welcoming today.
It’s the second sermon in our series on Disciples, and this text is a good one for Rally Day.
I was going to talk about how important it is for us to welcome strangers, especially here in worship, because we want them to feel welcome, and come back. And we do welcome folks who come to worship with us. Not just people who look well-off, but all people. We do that pretty well. And then I was going to recall all the things we do to make sure that the poor are clothed and fed and cared for – all the missions we do, like FISH food pantry, and Loaves and Fishes, and Good Neighbor Emergency Center, and PADS, and how proud I am of that. That’s what I was going to say.

Have y’all ever heard of Will Campbell? He’s getting on in years now – he’s 88 years old. I got to see him in person a little over a year ago, and then after that I looked him up on Wikipedia. This scripture from James made me think of him.

I don’t know about you, but I found this scripture today pretty challenging. I can’t claim I’m one of the poor, never have been. Sure, there have been some times when I was strapped for cash, but never a time when I didn’t have any resources. I grew up hearing people’s stories of the Depression, sad stories. They really were poor, but I’ve never been that poor. Not even close.

I’ve always had a roof over my head, enough to eat, and clothes to wear. I’ve never lacked medical care, and if I missed going to the dentist for an annual checkup, it was not for lack of money but lack of courage. Even during the times when we didn’t seem to have much, we always had enough, and if we hadn’t, there was family to help if we asked. So I don’t know what that is like, to be really poor.

I also don’t know what it is like to be really rich. I’ve known a few really rich people. Millionaires. I’m sure all millionaires are not like the ones I knew. The ones that I met were pretty self-absorbed. But I’ve never been in a position of managing servants, or giving Rolls Royces to my friends, or planning a trip on my private jet to my private island or my palatial getaway in the south of France. I’ve never had to worry whether my security crew patted down my guests, just in case one of them took pictures of me to sell to the tabloids. I’ve never had so much money that I didn’t have to pay taxes because my income was not from a job but from all my money making money for me. So I really don’t know what it is like to be part of the 1%. Even though I like to imagine it. It sounds much nicer than being poor.

But I’ve always been just a regular old middle class Midwestern Christian. I know I’m a person of privilege –  stable family, educated parents, access to education, lots of opportunities – but I’m a person who cares about the poor. I fancy myself as a person who cares more about the poor than most. I care about them -- I really do.

And when I read this text from James, or others like it, where Jesus blesses the poor, and commands us to care for others, I feel pretty smug. I’m a pretty good Christian. I’m in a great church, a generous church, a mission oriented church. And I’m open minded. I welcome everybody. I don’t show partiality to the rich or mistreat the poor. This past Tuesday, in adult Bible study, we looked at this scripture. We tried listening to it from the perspective of a poor person, and from the perspective of a rich person. It makes a big difference in how we hear the text. But in the end, the message is the same. The Royal Law, as James calls it, is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

We had a good discussion about our responsibility to the poor, and God’s call to welcome everyone. We talked about how we live that out, as a congregation. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Jesus is at it again – we spend the morning talking about the poor, and Jesus starts messing with us! Just as Bible study ended, Judy, our church secretary, came and got me. There was a person in her office who wanted to talk to a pastor. Inwardly, I sighed. I think I sighed outwardly, actually. I had a lot to do on Tuesday, and talking to some guy looking for a handout was not on the list.

I walked down the hall to her office and found this very agitated, very malodorous (that’s my nice Christian way of saying “smelly”) man who immediately began talking to me. I took him out to the narthex, where he talked for about 30 minutes. He was not somebody who makes a person feel comfortable – Judy and Ed and Dorothy kept drifting into the narthex, like they had all kinds of important business in the kitchen. Every five minutes or so.

This fellow had obviously had a lot of experience with churches and pastors. He knew what we all say: “I don’t have a discretionary fund. Our church gives to the agencies that help people, and I’d be happy to direct you to one of them.” He knew that drill, and he knew every reason why that just wouldn’t work for him. He had what he thought was a very pointed and cogent critique of ministers and of our churches’ charitable and mission giving.
Of course, he wanted money.

He didn’t want to go to Loaves and Fishes, or the food pantry, or Firehouse of God, or Good Neighbor Emergency Center. He wanted some money so he could get back on the road on his bike. And of course, the story he wove was pretty thin, and there were some big holes in it. There was a lot in there about other pastors, and other churches, and I thought, “This guy has a pretty good rap – he appeals to a pastor’s pride—gets us thinking “I’m not like those other guys,’ but makes it look like he is appealing to Christian charity.” You may remember that I have a little bit of counseling experience, some of it in chemical dependency. That experience told me that he was not telling the truth.

But on the other hand, Jesus didn’t say, “Talk to the poor and see if their stories check out, then give them some minimal help.” He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Of course, Jesus also said, “Be gentle as a dove and wise as a serpent.” And you just heard what James had to say about the poor. So I was in a quandary. I wanted to be helpful to this man, this child of God, in some way. And I also wanted him to leave. I wanted that a lot.

When I was thinking about this later, I got to thinking about Will Campbell. Will Campbell was born in Mississippi in 1924, and was ordained a Baptist minister when he was still a teenager. He was one of the people who served as escorts to the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock. He was the only white person present when Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He got a lot of hate mail from Southern conservatives. But Campbell started to realize that he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people he hated – bigots, racists, excluders. He admitted to himself that after twenty years in ministry, he had become – in his words -- a "doctrinaire social activist." He had lost track of the royal law. He had let go of God’s extravagant and unconditional love for all people and substituted a kind of "liberal sophistication" that justified his discrimination.

So he changed that. He befriended Ku Klux Klan members. Visited them in prison. Took them communion. He still got hate mail, but this time it came from the other side. At the murder trial of KKK Grand Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Campbell went back and forth from the Bowers’ table, to table of the family members of the murder victim. When asked why he would do this, Campbell replied, “Because I’m a blankety-blank Christian!”

So anyway, here I sit, with this guy in front of me, and I don’t know if what I chose to do was right. I just know that I had been sitting at a table with a group of church folks, not an hour before that moment, and we had read these words: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin  and are convicted by the law as transgressors… For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Those words were ringing in my ears as I tried to listen to that guy, and his convoluted rant about prisons, and preachers, and needing to go to Chicago. And like I said, I wanted to follow Jesus, be a true disciple. And I wanted that guy to leave. But I’m a … blankety-blank Christian!

So I told him, “I’m going to give you five dollars out of my own pocket, and I’m going to give it to you in Jesus’ name. Will that help you out?”
He said, “You know it will.”
And I gave him the five dollars, and he left.

As I said, this is the second sermon in our series on Disciples, today is Rally Day, when we kick off the new season of Christian Education. And we are gathered here together in the name of Jesus, who told us to welcome strangers, here in worship, and everywhere. And we do welcome folks who come to worship with us. And we do all kinds of things to assure
that the poor are clothed and fed and cared for – and I am so proud of that. I don’t know if it was the best choice – to give that fellow five dollars. I don’t know if what Will Campbell did with the KKK was the best choice. I don’t think I could do that.

And I realized later that I should have prayed with that fellow. That’s what Jesus would have wanted me to do – to pray with him, and ask God’s blessing and protection on him, and to mean it. That’s what that Royal Law is all about – not just giving a guy five dollars to get rid of him, but praying with and for him, actually welcoming him. Actually loving him, no matter how he smells.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."That’s what Jesus said is the great commandment, what James calls the Royal Law. Love your neighbor as yourself.

No matter who he is, no matter what she looks like, no matter what color his skin is, no matter how she smells.
Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s what a disciple would do.
That’s what I wish I had done.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What You Are Speaks So Loudly...

A sermon on James 1: 17-27 preached September 2. 2012, at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
(c) Christina Berry

James 1: 17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The book of James is an interesting little book, one that has drawn some strong reactions and supported some pretty vehement arguments. There are pages and pages of argument about who wrote it, and when, whether James is a composite, as most scholars have concluded,  or actually the brother of Jesus, as tradition suggests. Martin Luther thought this book should be removed from the Bible, because of the emphasis on what Christians do, rather than on what Christ has done for us – on works rather than grace. I’m glad that Martin Luther lost the argument, because there is some great stuff here. But sometimes, it would be easier if he had won.

This Sunday we are beginning a new series, on Discipleship. We’re going to be following the lectionary in James and then the gospel of Mark, looking at what scripture tells us about how to be Jesus’ disciples. James 1 is a good place to start, because it is clear that James is preaching to the choir – that is, he is addressing himself to baptized Christians, and not seeking to make converts. His little epistle is not about how to BECOME a Christian, but about how to BE a Christian.

Our reading today can best be divided into three parts, with a final summation about true religion; so while it isn’t my normal practice to preach a “three points and a poem” sermon, that’s what we have today!

The first section covers verses 17-21, and it is about the characteristics of God. You may recognize some of the text that made its way into the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” – there is no shadow of turning with thee. God is creator, steadfast in love, boundless in goodness, and the source of all generosity. Not just the source of some good stuff, but the source of ALL generosity and righteousness.

Given this, the second section addresses us – and instructs us in living a life of faith. The very first point the writer makes, and it is the basis for the rest of his instruction, is that we must be quick to listen, and slow to speak. I recently read an interview about Christians with two very thoughtful atheists. The interviewer was asking the atheists how Christians can best talk with unbelievers. One of the two said that very bad impressions are made by Christians who come to the table with “everything to say and nothing to learn.” It struck me that James might be talking about just that: we have plenty to say and little to learn. That’s a tough critique, especially for those of us who make a living talking! But it’s also a crucial bit of wisdom, especially in these contentious times, for every Christian in every context. If we are indeed the first fruits, offered up to God in gratitude, we need to be ready to receive God’s word, implanted in us, so that we may grow.

It gets even more challenging in the next section, in which we are told that after we get done listening, and hearing, we aren’t finished. We must also be doers of the word. There’s a tricky balance here for most of us – balancing action and belief. We believe in salvation by grace through faith, but there’s that additional challenge that Jesus gave – for us to be fruitful, to demonstrate our faith through our works. But we are also to be those who see ourselves clearly. Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing that your hair is a mess, but then forgetting to comb it, or seeing that you have lipstick on your teeth, but failing to do anything about it.

Frequently, we see our own failings only fleetingly, and as soon as we can divert ourselves, we forget that image in the mirror, and rationalize our behavior. But others see us, and they notice that what we do is not in keeping with what we say, and they conclude that Christians are hypocrites. For example, according to a report by University of Notre Dame sociologists, about a fourth of those who responded to a national study on generosity reported that they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity. Here’s the kicker: The people most likely to misreport high levels of giving were those who said faith was very important to them and those who attend services more than once a week.[1]

Too often, what we hear and what we say are at odds with what we do. And it is our actions that speak most loudly to those who observe us. It was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who said,
“And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!”

At the other end of the spectrum, many of us look in the mirror and see only our failings, rather than the blessings given to us by God, that make us beautiful, beloved, precious. Then we underestimate our potential, and fail to live up to our own gifts. Here we are, standing in front of a mirror.  James asks, "Do you see who you are?" Do you see yourself?
Do you think yourself
thin or overweight,
blemished or beautiful,
dishy or disheveled,
stylish or wrinkled,
stunning or scarred?

Physical appearance is not what James is getting at. He has told us who we are – the first fruits of God’s creation. So here we stand, in front of this mirror that James is holding up to us, and he says to us, “Take a good long look, and remember who you are.” Because when you forget who you are, your life changes course. When you forget who you are, you start to think you are on your own, and it is all about you, and what you want, or think, or do or say.

When you remember who you are, and whose you are, the choices become easier. Remembering how much we have been given makes it easy for us to be generous. When we have been given everything, we have no more need to join the great race to accumulate the most stuff. When we look at ourselves and see a new life, we look at our lives and see a new self -- a self that belongs to God, a self that is built by God’s word and called to good works, a self that is shaped by love, that speaks love, that lives through acts of love and kindness.

And all this, then, leads to the final section of this text, the discussion of the definition of true religion. James has called us to pay attention, to look at our intention determine our conviction, and decide upon our action.

Now, he says, get real:
If you think you are religious and can only talk without listening, if you think you are religious but you lie to yourself if you think you are religious and you do not act, that religion is not worth a thing. Because what matters to God is that your religion matters to you, and because it matters to you, it matters what you do.

And the definition of true, pure religion?
Is it belief? No.
Is it the Apostles’ Creed? No.
Is it the right denomination – being Presbyterian? No.

It is caring for the widows and orphans, caring for those who are in distress, caring for those who are in need, not just a feeling or a thought or a belief, but an action. That’s what keeps your image clear.

So, I promised three points and a poem, and even though we had Robbie Burns in there, the poem that comes to mind was made popular by singer Michael Jackson:

“I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

That change can begin here and now, as you come to this table, come as one of God’s first fruits, ready to be given entirely to God’s good will, to be an instrument of God’s generosity, to be not merely a hearer, but a doer. At this table, God sees you as you truly are, a person made in God’s image, made perfect by love. You are welcome here, for no matter how you may see yourself, God sees you through the lens of Christ, and through the eyes of grace, and you remember who you are: holy and beloved, a child of God.



Holy Place

A sermon on 1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43, preached August 26, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

(C) Christina Berry

1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43
8:1 Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion.
8:6 Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.
8:10 And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD,
8:11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.
8:22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.
8:23 He said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,
8:24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand.
8:25 Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, 'There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.'
8:26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
8:27 "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
8:28 Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today;
8:29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.
8:30 Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
8:41 "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name
8:42 --for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm--when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house,
8:43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

When I was thirteen years old, I was given a wonderful opportunity by friends of our family. They were going to Chicago, for the Associated Milk Producers Convention. Would I like to go along? Oh my goodness! Would I ever! We were going to fly on an airplane from Wichita. We were going to be in downtown Chicago, and while I had seen cities from the back window of the station wagon while on various family vacations, I had never visited a big city. We would be staying in a luxury hotel, just down the street from the John Hancock building, which was still new then, and still the tallest building in the world. I think I spent that entire weekend in a state of awe.

We saw Lake Michigan, and we went to Old Town. It was a convention, so of course there was a banquet and a keynote address. The speaker that night was none other than Richard Nixon. I will never forget the moment that Nixon came into the hall where we were gathered. The crowd rose as one, and there was thunderous applause as we stood, and all the wonder of that trip was concentrated in that amazing moment, when the President of the United States of America entered the room. I was completely, breathlessly overwhelmed. And though it seems funny to me now, I was on the verge of tears, so wondrous was that moment.

It was not because I had any great devotion, at the age of thirteen, to President Nixon or to the Republican Party. It was not because I was overcome with a love for the man who, as it turns out, had cut a shady deal with milk producers to drive up the price of milk in return for a 2 million dollar campaign contribution. My awe and wonder, however, were genuine. And I confess that now, more than forty years later, when I read scripture like the one we’ve just heard, this description of the dedication of Solomon’s temple, I recall those feelings vividly.

Perhaps you too recognize that feeling, whether you experienced it seeing a celebrity, or in a forest or a cathedral, or at the birth of a child, or in a moment of prayer and worship. It is the feeling of awe and wonder, and it is the feeling we have when we experience holiness. It is the way you would feel had you been there, when “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.”

We’ve come to the last sermon in our summer series on the life of David, when David’s son and successor, Solomon, dedicates the great temple in Jerusalem. It had been David’s dream to build a temple, but Solomon was the one given the blessing of doing so. It is impossible, I think, with our modern sensibilities, to convey the amazement of this moment. Solomon had spent years building the temple, and had waited nearly a year for this dedication. In spite of his father David’s many failings, Solomon knew that the unified kingdom of Israel,
with Jerusalem as its capitol, was entirely due to God’s favor for King David, a man after God’s own heart.

The temple was an amazing sight to behold – it takes the book of Second Kings two chapters to describe it in vivid detail. For example: “The interior of the inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high; he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar with cedar. Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. Next he overlaid the whole house with gold, …he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. … He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; …He also overlaid the cherubim with gold, …” You get the idea.

The innermost part of the house, the center of the temple, was the holy of holies, a windowless sanctuary which would house the Ark of the Covenant, in which resided the stone tablets given to Moses, and which was accompanied by the tremendous and mysterious presence of God. That ten-foot square gilded room was so sacred that only the high priest could enter it, and then only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In that inner sanctum, that room lined with gold and decorated with golden cherubim, the high priest encountered God Almighty. Just to be in that room was so powerful, and so dangerous that when the priest did enter the Holy of Holies, they tied a rope around his leg, so that if he died in there, his body could be dragged out. Sometime, when you have a half hour or so, read the sixth, seventh and eighth chapters of First Kings, and see if you can imagine that temple, that amazing structure which Solomon built as a dwelling place for God.

As is appropriate for the dedication of such a splendid place of worship, Solomon stood to offer prayer, seven beautiful petitions:
When someone sins against a neighbor, hear, O God, and forgive.
When Israel turns away from you, hear, O God, and forgive.
When there is drought and the people pray, hear, O God, and forgive.
When there is famine, and the people pray, hear, O God, and forgive.
When the people sin against you, hear, O God, and forgive.
When the people go out to war, hear them, O God, in your dwelling place.
When a foreigner offers prayers to you, hear them, O God in heaven.

Solomon began his prayer standing, with his arms outstretched, but by the time he finished, he was on his knees. When Solomon concluded the prayer he said: “Let these words of mine, with which I pleaded before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires; so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” (1 Kings 8: 54-61)

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Solomon had had an encounter with the living God of Israel, and if you had been there that day, you would have, too. Now, we Presbyterians are people of the book, people who love God with our minds, and we get a little nervous when we start talking about worship and prayer that is so overwhelming, so sensory and so mysterious. We’re used to the preacher getting up front and giving an inspiring talk about something sweet that Jesus said, or an engaging, well-researched account of a historic event of the church. We have some coffee and we go home, and we have not been overwhelmed, we have not been speechless, or at the point of tears, or had chills go up and down our spine for the entire 65 or 70 minutes we have spent in worship. Though often our musicians have offered up music that can move us, and every now and then the Holy Spirit helps me with a sermon that really captivates people, for the most part we leave worship ready to get on with our lives, after a pleasant interval singing and praying and opening God’s word.

We rarely think of ourselves as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” And it is probably better that way, better that we do not have to endure such awe for the entire service, better that we do not remember that to approach God is to risk one’s life, better that we do not think to remove our shoes and stand in terror as we say the call to worship, better that we are not quaking with dread as we are ushered into God’s presence. Probably, we are better off this way.

But what if we are not?
What if we are missing something that is right here in front of us, the immanent presence of our transcendent God, powerful enough to annihilate the universe with one breath, yet as close to as our own breath? What if we are like Jacob, who woke from his dream and said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”? I think Annie Dillard is right when she says,  “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Of course we all know that Sunday morning worship is not the only place where we encounter holiness and the presence of God. But what if we arrived every week expecting that to happen? What if, when we offered up our prayers, we anticipated God’s presence, with a mixture of breathless anticipation and terror? Of course, our prayers are not a leash we yank, to drag God into the room with us, not a magic spell to charm God into obeying our wishes. Our worship is not meant to be terrifying. Our experiences are fleeting, and as my story of Nixon illustrates, not all of our moments of awe are brought about by divine presence.

But those experiences, those overwhelming feelings, perhaps might not be so rare if we recalled that every time we worship, we are invoking the presence of our awesome God, in the original meaning of that word – not “totally awesome” like a meal or a movie, but awesome as in extraordinary, amazing, and inspiring. It is not our experience or our emotions or even our resolutions which transform us, after all, but the presence of God among us. It is this for which Solomon prayed, at the dedication of the temple. It is this for which we might well all pray, as we enter into worship, whether here or in the silence of our own hearts. It is this transforming presence that comes only from God, the source and ground of all being.

And the way we encounter God’s holiness and splendor without crash helmets, without a rope tied around one leg, is through the incarnation of God in Christ. It is because of the person and work of Jesus Christ that we may come within reach of God. In Jesus Christ, we may approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that even in our great wonder, we may trust in God’s great benevolence. In the early part of the seventeenth century, a Puritan preacher delivered a sermon titled "The Incomparable Excellency and Holiness of God" which, by my reckoning, must have lasted about an hour.

That preacher said: “study the mystery of the gospel. Make use of Christ that the glory of God's holiness may not be to your terror but to your comfort.” I would amend his words slightly, to say, “be open to the mystery of the gospel.” When you worship, when you pray, as you may do at any time, and any place, whether it be Sunday morning in church or on any otherwise ordinary day, in any ordinary place, open your heart and your mind to welcome and receive the transforming power of the presence of God.

That preacher also said: Has the luster of the infinite holiness of God ever shone upon your heart and drawn your heart to Him? And has your heart ever leaped at the sight of the brightness of His holiness? Is this why you love Him? If so, you know God correctly and your heart has been correctly drawn to Him.”

May our most Holy God grant that it be so for each one of us.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Just One Thing

I Kings 3: 1-15
August 19, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

I Kings 3: 1-15
1 Solomon became the son-in-law of Pharaoh, Egypt's king, when he married Pharaoh's daughter. He brought her to David's City until he finished building his royal palace, the LORD's temple, and the wall around Jerusalem. 2 Unfortunately, the people were sacrificing at the shrines because a temple hadn't yet been built for the LORD's name in those days. 3 Now Solomon loved to walk in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines. 4 The king went to the great shrine at Gibeon in order to sacrifice there. He used to offer a thousand entirely burned offerings on that altar.

5 The LORD appeared to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream at night. God said, "Ask whatever you wish, and I'll give it to you."

6 Solomon responded, "You showed so much kindness to your servant my father David when he walked before you in truth, righteousness, and with a heart true to you. You've kept this great loyalty and kindness for him and have now given him a son to sit on his throne. 7 And now, LORD my God, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David's place. But I'm young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. 8 But I'm here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can't be numbered or counted due to its vast size. 9 Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help."

10 It pleased the LORD that Solomon had made this request. 11 God said to him, "Because you have asked for this instead of requesting long life, wealth, or victory over your enemies—asking for discernment so as to acquire good judgment— 12 I will now do just what you said. Look, I hereby give you a wise and understanding mind. There has been no one like you before now, nor will there be anyone like you afterward. 13 I now also give you what you didn't ask for: wealth and fame. There won't be a king like you as long as you live. 14 And if you walk in my ways and obey my laws and commands, just as your father David did, then I will give you a very long life."

15 Solomon awoke and realized it was a dream. He went to Jerusalem and stood before the chest containing the LORD's covenant. Then he offered entirely burned offerings and well-being sacrifices, and held a celebration for all his servants.

I wonder if you’ve ever thought about what you would answer if God came to you in a dream and said, “What would you like to have from me?” I wonder if you’ve ever thought about how you would answer that. It’s akin to being asked what superpower you would like to have. Maybe the Midas touch, to turn things into gold (but not everything) or being able to see the future. A while back there was an informal survey on NPR, asking which superpower people would choose: invisibility or the ability to fly. One commenter suggested that heroes choose flight, and sneaks choose invisibility. Another said that choosing invisibility was a reflection of low self-esteem, and that choosing the ability to fly would indicate a stronger self-image! (Harumph! I think invisibility would be a cool super power!)

In those superpower surveys, however, nobody ever chooses wisdom.
It isn’t even on the list of choices, not like its
a. invisibility
b. flight
c. x-ray vision
d. wisdom.
There isn’t a superhero called “Wisdom-man” or “Wisdom Woman.”

We talked a lot about wisdom in adult Bible study this past Tuesday, and it sounds like it isn’t the sort of thing you just get, like a superpower. Mostly wisdom is something you acquire over time. Wisdom, for most people seems to correlate positively with age. Many of us, when we thought about wise people, thought of parents and grandparents. There were, though, examples of children wise beyond their years, or folks who didn’t have much sense, but every now and then spoke words of great wisdom, almost as if by accident.

There’s a popular saying that “Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.” You could paraphrase that and say “Wisdom comes from experience, and often, experience results from a lack of wisdom.” It is certainly true that much of our wisdom is learned as a result of mistakes, or failures, or challenges.

Not so, apparently, with King Solomon. Here he was, a young king, the son of the great King David. David’s firstborn, Amnon, you’ll recall, was murdered by David’s son Absalom, as revenge for the rape of their sister Tamar. David’s son Absalom then raised a rebellion against him, in an attempt to dethrone David and make Absalom the ruler of all Israel. In the process of putting down the rebellion, David’s general Joab pursued Absalom until Absalom was cornered. Absalom was known for his thick and beautiful hair, and in a twist of narrative irony, the mule he was riding ran under a tree, and Absalom’s hair caught in the branches. As Absalom hung suspended by his hair, Joab ran him through with a spear. Three times.

The next eldest son of David, Adonijah, then mounted his own campaign. David was old and sick by then, on his deathbed. Adonijah enlisted the support of Joab, and had the people shouting, “Long live King Adonijah!” But it would not be that easy.

You may recall that among David’s many wives was the lovely Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. David had taken a stroll on his balcony one night and had seen her bathing. He liked what he saw and proceeded to take her for his own. When Bathsheba became pregnant, David  tried to finagle Uriah into staying home – long enough that it might be possible for Uriah to be the father. But even the orders of the king couldn’t get Uriah back into bed with his own wife, so David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle, then married Bathsheba. The first child died, but not before the prophet Nathan had confronted David with the evil of his actions. David and Bathsheba’s second son was Solomon.

Now, with Adonijah attempting to overthrow David, the situation at the palace is tense, and complicated (Just as a side note, when people talk about Biblical family values, presumably they don’t mean the ancestors of Jesus.) Before, Nathan the prophet went to the king about Bathsheba. Now, Nathan holds counsel with Bathsheba about the king.

“Didn’t the king promise you that your boy Solomon would be king after him?”
Well, yes, yes he did.
So Nathan instructed her: “You need to go talk to him, Bathsheba, and confirm that promise. Then ask him, ‘Why then is Adonijah the king?’”
So Bathsheba went to David and reminded him of his promise, then told him about Adonijah’s attempted coup. Her request was unequivocal:
“As for you, my master the king, the eyes of all Israel are upon you to tell them who will follow you on the throne.” (I Kings 1:20)

As pre-arranged, enter Nathan, to confirm the story and remind the king of his promise.
David ordered the immediate coronation of Solomon, complete with the ceremonial ride into the city on the king’s own donkey, an anointing with oil by the prophet, the blowing of the ram’s horn and a public announcement: “He will enter and sit on my throne, and so he will succeed me as king.” Whereupon Adonijah’s men, like soldiers in a Monty Python skit, said to each other, “run away, run away!”

Called to his father’s death bed, Solomon received his instruction:
David said, "I'm following the path that the whole earth takes. Be strong and be a man. Guard what is owed to the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his laws, his commands, his judgments, and his testimonies, just as it is written in the Instruction from Moses. In this way you will succeed in whatever you do and wherever you go.” Then David proceeded to instruct Solomon whom to execute in order to clean the place up and consolidate his power, and Solomon claimed the throne of Israel in short order after David’s death.

And so we come to the third chapter of the book of First Kings, and we see the beginning of the legendary reign of King Solomon. The narrative is careful to point out to us, right at the outset, that Solomon is a person who goes often to make sacrifices at the altar of God.
However, he also makes offerings at the altars of other gods, at the high places, which will be an issue between him and God for the remainder of his rule. But for now, Solomon is a man of God’s favor, and God has asked of him – “What shall I grant you?”

Solomon asks for just one thing: wisdom. And because Solomon chose wisdom over wealth or fame or power, God granted him his request, and then also gave him wealth and fame and power. Solomon’s legendary wisdom is illustrated in the text that immediately follows this story: this tale of two people each claiming that a child belongs to them.

I Kings 3: 16-28
16 Sometime later, two prostitutes came and stood before the king. 17 One of them said, "Please, Your Majesty, listen: This woman and I have been living in the same house. I gave birth while she was there. 18 This woman gave birth three days after I did. We stayed together. Apart from the two of us, there was no one else in the house. 19 This woman's son died one night when she rolled over him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She laid him on her chest and laid her dead son on mine. 21 When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the daylight, it turned out that it wasn't my son—not the baby I had birthed." 22 The other woman said, "No! My son is alive! Your son is the dead one." But the first woman objected, "No! Your son is dead! My son is alive!" In this way they argued back and forth in front of the king. 23 The king said, "This one says, ‘My son is alive and your son is dead.' The other one says, ‘No! Your son is dead and my son is alive.' 24 Get me a sword!" They brought a sword to the king. 25 Then the king said, "Cut the living child in two! Give half to one woman and half to the other woman." 26 Then the woman whose son was still alive said to the king, "Please, Your Majesty, give her the living child; please don't kill him," for she had great love for her son. But the other woman said, "If I can't have him, neither will you. Cut the child in half." 27 Then the king answered, "Give the first woman the living newborn. Don't kill him. She is his mother." 28 All Israel heard about the judgment that the king made. Their respect for the king grew because they saw that God's wisdom was in him so he could execute justice.

It appears in folktales the world round, and the wise judgment is dealt out by Buddha, or a medieval Italian King. In every case, the story is told as demonstration of wisdom and the validation of the wise judge. The story is so ubiquitous that the phrase “split the baby”
is used as a kind of legal shorthand for simple, compromise solutions that may or may not be all that helpful.

Clever on its surface, the story is fraught with peril. How does Solomon know that the real mother is the kind one? Couldn’t the merciful woman have been the impostor, but clever enough to see the sense in conceding in order to win? Why doesn’t he ask for witnesses?
Why doesn’t he ask more questions? Jewish scholars have solved this dilemma with a Midrash that concludes the two women are related, and the one who says “Split the baby” stands to gain from that if she cannot have the child as her own. Without benefit of Jewish sources, we Christians are simply left with the story. Solomon hears the testimony and makes the decision. But he makes the decision based on the insight and knowledge
granted to him by the God of Israel.

When he was offered just one thing to be granted from God, the gift that he named was well chosen. It would serve him well throughout his reign. Many of the proverbs, and the apocryphal book of Wisdom are attributed to him. His name is fairly synonymous with wisdom.

But that was a long time ago, and wisdom seems in short supply these days. You may be interested to know that the University of Chicago is in the midst of a two million dollar project studying wisdom. They say “it is difficult to imagine a subject more central to the human enterprise and whose exploration holds greater promise in shedding light and opening up creative possibilities for human flourishing.”[1] They’re discovering some interesting truths. They’ve looked for a correlation between maturity and wisdom – surprise!, there is one, and a strong one. They’ve examined the power of wisdom in old age, and report that those who have integrity, strong identity, and wisdom are less likely to have a sense of despair or hopelessness as they confront the challenges of aging.

They’ve held thoughtful discussions on the nature of wisdom, its sources and how people acquire it. One of the more interesting conversations concerns their agreement that for many, the gaining of wisdom involves some personal humility, experiences of setback or suffering, and the acknowledgement that we are not in control of the world.

Perhaps the most interesting findings were in a piece on politics and faith. In an article in the New York Times, anthropologist T. M. Luhrman posits that if secular Democrats want to understand evangelical conservatives, they should grasp that the evangelical conservatives
understand themselves as being called by God to improve themselves, to become better people, while secular Democrats are interested in improving the world -- making the world a better place.[2]

I confess that I struggle to place myself in this dichotomy. It seems to me to be about as useful as “splitting the baby.” It divides the world of politics in a way I don’t understand – as if Democrats are secular people who don’t care about God, and conservatives are all evangelicals who don’t care about others. In my observation, neither of those descriptions is true, and in fact, many faithful people across the political spectrum are committed to following the words of Jesus when he gave us the greatest commandment.

In the first chapter of the book of Wisdom, the writer, reputed to be Solomon, says:
“Wisdom is a spirit that wants only what is best for humans.” This builds on the same wisdom that King David gave to Solomon: Guard what is owed to the LORD your God, walking in his ways and observing his laws, his commands, his judgments, and his testimonies.

When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he responded in much the same way, with one important addition: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Matthew 26: 37-39 CEB)

Nobody I know is getting a dream visit from God inquiring what one thing is desired, but most people I know would appreciate a good dose of wisdom. And every one of us who is of voting age, which is most of us, is going to be faced with making some significant decisions when we go to mark our ballots this fall.

Of course no pastor in their right mind would tell you who to vote for, and I may be a little crazy, but it is a demonstration of my own wisdom that I won’t advise you which presidential candidate to support. But I will pray that each one of us will make a decision that emerges not from our self-interest, or from our biases, or fears, or anger, but from our deep desire to choose the path of wisdom.

If God came to us in a dream tonight and offered us just one thing, we wouldn’t ask to be able to fly, or for invisibility.
We might ask to be more faithful, or for greater compassion.
We might seek to know Christ more fully, in order that our lives would bring glory to God. And we might do well to ask for wisdom.

What is amazing, and wonderful and true
is that God is already granting us this even now,
always ready to teach us,
to strengthen our faith,
expand our love
and guide us in the way of wisdom.

With those gifts,
we can be the visible signs of invisible grace,
and with that kind of faith, our souls can fly.



Father and Son

2 Samuel 13
August 12, 2012
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry
2 Samuel 13, Common English Bible
David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David's son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?"
Amnon said to him, "I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister."
Jonadab said to him, "Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, "Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.' "

So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, "Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand."  Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, "Go to your brother Amnon's house, and prepare food for him." So Tamar went to her brother Amnon's house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, "Send out everyone from me." So everyone went out from him.  Then Amnon said to Tamar, "Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand." So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. 

But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, "Come, lie with me, my sister." She answered him, "No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, "Get out!" But she said to him, "No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, "Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her."

(Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves; for this is how the virgin daughters of the king were clothed in earlier times.) So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went. Her brother Absalom said to her, "Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart." So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house. 

When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar.

After two full years Absalom had sheepshearers at Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king's sons. Absalom came to the king, and said, "Your servant has sheepshearers; will the king and his servants please go with your servant?"
But the king said to Absalom, "No, my son, let us not all go, or else we will be burdensome to you."  He pressed him, but he would not go but gave him his blessing.
Then Absalom said, "If not, please let my brother Amnon go with us."
The king said to him, "Why should he go with you?" But Absalom pressed him until he let Amnon and all the king's sons go with him.

Absalom made a feast like a king's feast. Then Absalom commanded his servants, "Watch when Amnon's heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, "Strike Amnon,' then kill him. Do not be afraid; have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant."
So the servants of Absalom did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king's sons rose, and each mounted his mule and fled.

While they were on the way, the report came to David that Absalom had killed all the king's sons, and not one of them was left. The king rose, tore his garments, and lay on the ground; and all his servants who were standing by tore their garments. But Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah, said, "Let not my lord suppose that they have killed all the young men the king's sons; Amnon alone is dead. This has been determined by Absalom from the day Amnon raped his sister Tamar. Now therefore, do not let my lord the king take it to heart, as if all the king's sons were dead; for Amnon alone is dead." But Absalom fled.

When the young man who kept watch looked up, he saw many people coming from the Horonaim road by the side of the mountain. Jonadab said to the king, "See, the king's sons have come; as your servant said, so it has come about." As soon as he had finished speaking, the king's sons arrived, and raised their voices and wept; and the king and all his servants also wept very bitterly.

But Absalom fled, and went to Talmai son of Ammihud, king of Geshur. David mourned for his son day after day. Absalom, having fled to Geshur, stayed there three years. And the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon.

I want to tell you this morning about two women you might not have heard of. The first is the wise woman from Tekoa. The woman from Tekoa, whose name is never mentioned, plays an important role in the story you have just heard about David’s children, Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom. This unnamed woman was engaged by David’s general and chief of staff, Joab. She was sent to confront the king about his son, Absalom.

Before I tell you more about her, let’s review the arc of the narrative. David has several wives, and several sons and daughters with those wives. Amnon is David’s first born, with his wife Ahinoam. Tamar and Absalom are the children of David’s wife Maacah, a princess of Geshur. So when Amnon schemed to rape Tamar, he was also planning to commit incest.

David was an unwitting accomplice in the plot, for when the crafty Jonadab cooked up the ruse to get Tamar into Amnon’s room, it was David’s command that brought her there, to make the cakes. Ironically, they were heart-shaped cakes. Tamar, an obedient daughter, went to her brother’s chamber. When he sent everyone away and grabbed her, Tamar said everything she could think of to talk him out of it. She begged. She reasoned with him. She offered to marry him if he would only ask their father. But Amnon, obsessed with having her, raped her. As frequently happens, when he was finished, he despised her.

When Absalom came upon his grief-stricken little sister, he said what he could to comfort her. And when David found out what had happened, “he got very angry, but he refused to punish his son Amnon.” It took Absalom two years to take his revenge, two years in which he must have waited, plotting, grieving as he saw his sister’s shame. Tamar fades out of the story at this point, although we know she went to live with Absalom, and we know that when Absalom had a daughter, he named her Tamar.

After Absalom killed Amnon, he fled to Geshur, his mother’s homeland. He had been there three years when the woman of Tekoa gained permission to speak to King David. She must have been a woman of great courage, and the scripture account in 2 Samuel 14 says she was a wise woman. The woman of Tekoa, sent by Joab, went to confront the King about his son, Absalom.

David had been grieving over the loss of Amnon, and then over the loss of Absalom in his self-imposed exile. Like Nathan the prophet had before her, she told the King a story. She told how she and her husband had two sons. One son killed the other, and left the country. Now, she said, the whole family wants to bring the other son home, the only surviving heir of the family, and execute him as punishment for the murder of his brother.

David declares that she must bring the son home, and guarantees his safe passage, saying,
“As surely as the Lord lives, not one of your son’s hairs will fall to the ground.”
Then the woman from Tekoa, being given permission to speak, draws the parallel to the king’s own family and the banishment of David’s son Absalom. She points out that everyone must die, “we’re like water spilled out on the ground that can’t be gathered up again. But God doesn’t take life away; instead he makes plans so those banished from him don’t stay that way.”

David sees the logic in her argument, and gives the order for Absalom to come home – not into the king’s presence, but back to Jerusalem. It was only a matter of time before Absalom,  who was next in line for the throne now that Amnon was dead, would raise a rebellion and attempt a coup that would unseat David and make Absalom king. It was in the course of that rebellion that Absalom was killed, inspiring a lament from David that even today rings out with pain: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Who knows whether David later looked back on this decision with regret – but in this moment, with the woman of Tekoa, David’s one thought is for his son to be restored to him.
She has been courageous, this woman of Tekoa, in confronting a powerful man, and speaking the truth to him. She has shown him, through a story, the importance of reconciling with his son Absalom. She is a wise woman indeed, this woman of Tekoa. That’s one of the women you might not have heard of.

The second is a woman named Vicky Triponey. I hadn’t heard of her until the last week of July, when the report of Louis Freeh came out, the report about Penn State. Freeh’s report revealed a culture at Penn State that was probably a surprise to no one,  a culture of power and influence for Joe Paterno, and the Penn State football program, creating a culture that most certainly contributed to the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s repeated crimes.

Vicky Triponey, Vice President of Student Affairs, had confronted that culture more than once, and to no avail. She ended up quitting her job, under great pressure, and thought her career was over.

“It all came to a head, she said, after a major incident in April 2007. More than two dozen Penn State football players forced their way into an off-campus party. What resulted were criminal charges against six players and convictions for two. None of the players ever missed a game. "It was the most manipulated discipline case I've ever experienced in my 30 years of higher education," Triponey said. Manipulated by whom? "Senior leadership of the place," Triponey said. "… It would have been the president, the athletic director, the attorney, and the football coach."[1]

What makes it worse is that when Triponey quit Penn State, under duress, she found that she was a pariah in the community. Colleagues and co-workers wouldn’t speak to her in the grocery store.
It makes you wonder what might have happened, way back in 2005, if someone had listened to Triponey. It makes you wonder whether something might have shifted in the Penn State power structure, something that might have spared those boys who were victimized by Jerry Sandusky. It makes you wonder.

I know that these subjects are unpleasant to hear about. I know that we’d prefer to believe that such things do not happen, and we prefer not to have to think too much about the horror experienced by victims of rape and molestation. We feel a sense of revulsion, disgust as we imagine those scenes, a brother raping his sister, a trusted older man forcing himself on a helpless boy.

It is shocking, and heartbreaking, to know that every year in this country, more than 200,000 people are victims of sexual assault. Nearly half of them are under the age of 30.
Nine out of ten are women. More than 90 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker. Victims of sexual assault are
3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.[2]

Those numbers horrify me. Just writing this gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
So why would I want to talk about this in church, of all places? Because we are God’s people. And it is because we are God’s people that we need to talk about these issues. Because it is here that we learn the human stories, our stories, and here that we learn God’s story. Because it is here that we begin to understand how God’s story changes our story.
In God’s story, the wounded find healing.
In God’s story, the banished son comes home.
In God’s story, justice is done, but never at the cost of one person’s dignity over another.
In God’s story, the kingdom is coming.
In God’s story, the kingdom is at hand.
And in God’s story, we find a place to work together for justice, for healing, for care.
In God’s story we are called to work responsibly together to see that every vulnerable person is safe, and that every boy knows his own body belongs to him, and that every girl knows her power to say no, to go, and to tell.

Our impulse, if we are honest, is to brush aside the ugly details of the story, like David did, to let the sadness crowd out the call for truth and for justice. One wonders how the story might have been different, if David had held Amnon to account. One wonders how the story might have been different, had the officials at Penn State listened to the voice of a wise woman.

The good news, friends, is that the story can be different. We can’t change the past, or prevent what has already happened. But we can make sure that we do all we can to prevent such horrors in our congregation, our community, our country and our world.

We can stand up for the victims of assault and violence, work for causes that seek to heal and prevent rape and sexual assault, speak up on behalf of the vulnerable,
especially children.

We can teach our children to be as safe as they possibly can, and we can build structures of safety in our homes and in our churches. We can adopt and implement policies that make sure that no child in our church will be vulnerable to a predator. We can support laws and legislation that protect the most vulnerable people in our society.

This story today is a story of fathers and sons, the tragic family trajectory of King David and his sons, a story of pain and trouble; it is a story of a father who put his own needs above those of his daughter. The bigger story, the great sweeping arc of God’s story, is one that we can only see in part, like seeing just a fragment of a rainbow.

We see glimpses of that in the stories Jesus told,  about the father who welcomes his son home, about the judge who responds to the persistent widow. We see that lived out in the life Jesus led and in his death and resurrection. As the Apostle Paul said, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.”

If we have that love, Christ’s love,
for each other,
for our neighbors,
for our world,
and even for our enemies,
we will be open and ready to protect those who are weak or in danger,
and to bravely speak truth to power, with words of wisdom and words of grace.
May God grant us the wisdom and the courage to be such men and women.