Privacy and Psalms 139

Privacy is a hot topic these days. Facebook is now doing more invasive snooping on our on-line activities so they can send me more ads for adult diapers! Wonderful! People justifiably worry about Big Brother/NSA knowing all manner of information about where we go, who we talk to and what we ate for dinner. The thought police from 1984 have arrived, just 30 years late.

But these are not new concerns. Listen to these words from 3000 years ago: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

That’s from Psalm 139:2-5, a great companion piece for the Genesis 28 text that is also in the lectionary for this July 20 where Jacob is reminded at Bethel that when it comes to God, you can run but you can’t hide. The Psalm takes that wisdom to cosmic proportions: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vs. 8-10)

Just as our modern technology that gives us 24/7 access to information, news, weather radar, directions and contact with family and friends is both good news and bad news, we can take God’s omnipresence and omniscience (which simply means God is everywhere and knows everything) as either a threat or a promise – it all depends on how clear your conscience is and your understanding of the nature of God. The words of Ps. 139:7 look the same, “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “absolutely nowhere,” but the intonation of those words sounds 180 degrees different when uttered by someone who lives in mortal fear of a God of wrath and judgment as opposed to someone who knows and trusts the unconditional love of a merciful Lord and Savior.

We sometimes draw a false dichotomy between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Abba Father God of Jesus to explain the difference in those responses. The truth is that both reactions run throughout Judeo-Christian scriptures and theology because fallible human beings always have reason to fear God’s judgment and long for God’s mercy simultaneously. The lectionary texts for July 20 illustrate that rich diversity beautifully. The alternative Psalm for July 20 describes the “New Testament” God (“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86:15), while it’s the Gospel lesson for this day that sounds a loud warning against unrepentant sin ( “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt. 13:41-42).

No matter how much we wish it were so, life is not a simple dualism between grace and judgment. It is a delicate both/and balance between obedience and forgiveness. Grace is not cheap. It comes with a cross-shaped price tag, and even Jesus knew the awful feeling of wondering if the Psalmist got it wrong. Maybe there are places in “the dark night of the soul” (title of famous poem by St. John of the Cross) where not even the God of creation can go! Quoting another Psalm (22:1) Jesus laments through the agony of crucifixion, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). We’ve all felt that way at some time(s) in our lives if we dare to admit it.

Many years ago I heard a conversation between my in-laws, Bill and May Newman, who at that time had been married 40-plus years. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but they were reminiscing about their dating days. This was long before bucket seats and seat belts changed the way young couples rode in cars. In those days women would scoot over next to their dates in the front seat of the car to snuggle while he drove semi-dangerously with one arm. May teasingly asked Bill, “Why don’t we sit close like that anymore?” He wryly replied, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”

When we feel discouraged and abandoned, like a motherless/fatherless child, remember God’s not the one who moved. God is still everywhere. The Psalmist says we can’t even shake God if we go to the depths of Sheol – that’s Hebrew for Hell. Of all the places one would not expect to find God, hell has to be near the top of the list. I personally don’t believe Hell is a physical place, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that we have not all been there. Hell is anywhere or any time that we feel cut off from the presence of God, and when that happens desperation sets in; and that is very dangerous because desperate people often do desperate things they would not normally do.

When the Hebrews felt abandoned in the wilderness because Moses was on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected, they built a golden calf and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-4). When we are afraid and think God’s not watching, that’s a dangerous combination. Under that pressure we may mistreat other people to pursue the false security of wealth or fame. We may try to escape from our anxiety in mind-numbing use of drugs, booze, sex or some other addiction du jour.

That is why we so desperately need to hear the words of Psalm 139 not as a threat by a privacy-invading deity looking for dirt to hold against us. If we stop reading the Psalm too soon that might be the way we feel and be tempted to move away from God or even try to take over the driver’s seat. The same is true of the Jesus story. It doesn’t end on Good Friday, and it doesn’t end with “My God why have you forsaken me!” Keep reading to the end. Like a great novel, God’s salvation history must be pursued to the surprise ending. Luke tells us that Jesus’ great lament was not the final word from the cross. Luke (23:46) records these words of faithful surrender and peace, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

To face life and death with that kind of confidence in God’s protection means giving up our idolatrous notions of self-sufficient individualism and privacy. The lectionary lesson omits the bloodier and more self-serving attempts to justify our own worthiness in Psalm 139 (vss. 13-22); but it ends on a realistic note of humility that reminds us how easy and how hard it is to accept God’s persistent presence in our lives. The final verses say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

God has not moved. God has not abandoned us, no matter how good or bad our lives may be right now. God is ready, willing and able to guide us, but our God is not a God of coercion. The guidance is free, but it comes with one catch – in order to receive it we have to surrender our pride and privacy and be willing to humbly invite God to know us in total transparency.

Unforgiveable? I Samuel 3:1-20

Are some sins so bad they are beyond forgiveness, even for God?  I sure hope not, but in

I Samuel 3:14 God says, “Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”  That’s the NRSV translation.  Since “expiated” is not a household word, the NIV translation of that verse clarifies things a bit.  The NIV says, “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.”  At least that one leaves off the ominous “forever” of the NRSV.  But don’t celebrate that verbiage too soon because both translations agree in verse 13 that this judgment is forever.   No matter how it’s translated, this passage is bad news.  Eli’s family is guilty of some heinous sin that they can never ever make amends for.

Inquiring minds want to know what the sin of Eli’s family is–in part to be sure that particular big no no is not on our rap sheet, but even more we want to know what this Scripture means about the very nature of the God we worship and want to trust with how we will spend eternity.  Are some acts so evil that they are beyond the limits of an infinite God’s power to forgive?

We can all think of potential candidates for the unforgiveable list: genocide, child abuse, hate crimes, cruelty to animals, and murder might come to mind.  Many of us have painful memories of things done to us or by us that stay with us so long they feel unforgiveable.  But just because we mortals can’t forgive something doesn’t mean God can’t, does it?  “The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for” has a ring of finality to it, and with God there’s no higher court of appeal to turn to.

So what is this unforgiveable offense?   I’ll summarize, but the details are found in I Samuel 2:11-17 if you want to read them for yourself.  First, you need to know that Eli and his sons are priests in the temple at Shiloh.  But we are told up front in 2:11 that Eli’s sons are “scoundrels” or “wicked men.”   Their offense is that they violate their sacred priestly duties by taking for themselves the very best portions of meat which are meant to be sacrificed on the altar to God.  Furthermore, they don’t even attempt to hide their wicked ways but boldly and openly demand the very choicest cuts of meat for themselves and even threaten to take those by force if anyone tries to stop them.  Verse 17 concludes this section by saying, “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord; for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.”

Sadly, in contemporary times it is easy to draw parallels here to clergy embezzlement of funds entrusted to them for feeding staving orphans or betraying sacred trust through sexual misconduct.  It is a given that Christians and clergy in particular must not dodge those hard questions and constantly strive to understand and eliminate the suffering those unacceptable behaviors cause.  But a broader question raised by this text is: are those unforgiveable sins?  In our eyes?  In God’s?

And to muddy the waters even further, for those of us who believe in the priesthood of all believers, the question becomes what offerings of the Lord do you and I treat with contempt?  If all of creation is an offering of God to us and we are entrusted by God with all that we are and all we have, not as owners but as stewards, then how does our stewardship compare with that of Eli’s wicked unforgiveable sons?  When we betray God’s trust and desecrate God’s creation with toxic waste, or pollute our bodies with carcinogenic junk food, or disobey God’s laws against killing, or violate the sacred vows we made at our marriage or our baptism, does God then say to us, “I swear to you that your sins shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever?”

The God I know and love does not pass such harsh judgment, and in most sermons and blog posts I would attempt to show why I believe that and bring some resolution to such a difficult  question.  And I will do that in another post, but not yet.

Sometimes we need to wrestle with the questions of our faith so the answers we find can be claimed as our own.   So I’d like to ask you:  What evidence do you find in Scripture and in life that speak to you about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human sin?  If you were explaining this text to a new Christian or someone living in guilt and fear of an angry God, what would you say?   I invite you to explore this for yourself or with friends and if you like share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Let’s dialogue a bit and next week I’ll share my thoughts on what I think the key to understanding this text might be.

God Gives the Geep Hell, Matthew 25:31-46

One of the mysteries of life is why no one wants to sit down front in church.  Everywhere else– at the theater or the sports arena or a rock concert–front row seats go for top dollar, but church folks come early to get those great back pew seats.  Explanation: in the old days the front pew was called “the sinners pew.”  Maybe good theology to put those who most need the sermon directly under the preacher’s watchful eye–but not good marketing to sell those front row seats.

In a similar vein, this week’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 25 about Jesus separating the sheep from the goats may explain why in some churches more people sit on the right side of the sanctuary than the left.  In the parable those on Jesus’ right get praised and have their tickets punched for heaven, while those on the left go the other way.  And the reason is simple—those on the right have treated the hungry, lonely, naked, sick, and prisoners with compassion while those on the left have not.  And Jesus says in the most famous line from this parable, “what you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did to me” (verses 40 and 45).

Matthew 25 is one of the lectionary texts for November 20, the last Sunday before Advent begins.  It is the Sunday in the church calendar known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday.  Since the church liturgical year begins with Advent (the four Sundays prior to Christmas), Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and is a time when the Scripture lessons focus on the end time and judgment for how we have lived our lives.  It’s the bad news before we turn to the good news of the birth and incarnation of Christ at Christmas.  The Hebrew Scripture for this Sunday is from Ezekiel 34:11-24 and contains a very similar passage about the fate of good and bad sheep.

Among the challenging questions these passages raise are these: What kind of king is it who judges our lives?  And what kind of critters are we who come to be judged?  It’s pretty easy to tell the difference between an actual sheep and a goat.  It’s not so easy to identify saints and sinners.  Case in point—a week ago Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was a much revered and respected iconic hero.  Some have said he was one of the most influential people in the state of Pennsylvania.  But in a few short 24-hour news cycles the whole world learned Joe Pa is a flawed and fallible human being like everyone else.

There’s a marvelous contemporary parable attributed to Rabbi Haim, a traveling preacher which addresses that question:

“I once ascended to the firmaments. I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger. As I came closer, I understood their predicament.  Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.

Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell–row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.

As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?  As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.

I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other. I ran back to Hell to share this solution with the poor souls trapped there. I whispered in the ear of one starving man, ‘You do not have to go hungry. Use your spoon to feed your neighbor, and he will surely return the favor and feed you.’  ‘You expect me to feed the detestable man sitting across the table?’ said the man angrily. ‘I would rather starve than give him the pleasure of eating!’

I then understood God’s wisdom in choosing who is worthy to go to Heaven and who deserves to go to Hell.”

Saints and sinners look a lot alike.  We not pure-bred sheep or goats, but a mixed breed, and that’s why the difficult task of passing eternal judgment should be left to God and not done by fallible human beings. [Check out Jesus’ quotes: “Judge not that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1) and “If any of you are without sin, let him/her cast the first stone” (John 8:7).]

This parable makes me wonder what Jesus will do with me.  Some days I’m the sweetest most lovable, patient, compassionate person in the world.  The next day I may throw away an appeal for a worthwhile charity without even opening the envelope.  I’ll see someone in need and hurry by on the other side because I’m too busy and my agenda is much more important than yours.  And those who have caught my immature, competitive act at a basketball game or on the golf course know that God is definitely not done working on me yet.  I hope Jesus catches me on one of my good days because I’m not a full-blooded sheep or goat.  I’m a half breed or what Ronald Luckey once called a “Geep.”

And I’m not alone.  I have a dear friend who is the most compassionate pacifist I know; but I remember a conversation we once had about an 84 year-old woman who had been raped and tortured.  There was not one ounce of compassion in how my friend would have treated that rapist if he could have gotten his hands on him.  Or take the lovable actor Andy Griffith.  I once read he had dreams of beating up on dear old Barney Fife.

What will Jesus do with all of us Geep?  Ronald Luckey says our judge will give us hell.  God will show us all of God’s children who have been abused, who are starving and suffering, and we will feel the pain God has always felt.  We will feel regret and remorse as God parades by us all the missed opportunities we’ve had to serve others—all those times we were too busy to help or to care, too scared to get involved, too torn by conflicting loyalties.  We will see in vivid Technicolor all those times we were too selfish or stupid to figure out how to reach across the table and feed each other.

And we will have to stand there and take our medicine.  I have always been afraid that when my time’s up and my life flashes before my eyes it will be boring.  But boring will be so much better than regrets and remorse.  So much better than having Jesus show me all the times I failed—failed my moral and ethical responsibility to do justice and mercy.  He will make me listen to all my lame excuses. “But Jesus, if I’d known it was you; of course, I’d have visited and clothed and fed you.”  And with a tear in his eye, Jesus will say, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (vs. 45).

But then another word will come, quiet, grace-filled, one we don’t deserve.  Luckey says the King will look at you and me and say:

  • “You who had full cupboards are the truly hungry; I will feed you.”
  • “You who are well-dressed are the truly naked; I will clothe you.”
  • “You who had lavish access to all the good things, you are truly in prison; I will set you free.”

The King will lift us up and give us back our lives.  We are judged on the basis of our deeds, but sentenced on the basis of Grace by a friend and savior who says, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).  We Geep are judged but loved by the lamb who takes away the sins of the world because we are not special.  We are not better or worse sinners than anyone else, and if we repent and ask, none of us are exempt from forgiveness or from needing it.

God will show us how meager our offerings and services have been.  God will show us the times we turned our backs on those in need and show us the ravaged earth we are leaving for our grandchildren.  God will give us that kind of hell because God cares that much.  But then if we are humbled and sincerely confess our sins of commission and omission, God will offer us back our lives.

God will say, “I love you still.  Go, do what you failed to do yesterday.  Reach out with your broken arms and feed those other broken souls across town or across class and racial boundaries, across political, ideological and religious divides.  Feed each other.  For I am still hungry and naked and in prison and a stranger, and what you do to the least of these, you do to me.”