On Baseball Cards, Social Media, and the Problem of Partiality

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DELIVERED 25 AUGUST 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

As most of you know, I am the father of 3 children. Recently, my oldest two–Evangeline (11) and Cecilia (9)–have started collecting things. It began with Pokemon cards…but it is beginning to grow. So, not too long ago, they asked me if collected anything when I was their age. I, of course, replied that I did: if you know me well, you know that I have a “collecting” nature: my house is full of knick-knacks; when we visit National Parks, I get the “stamps” from the visitors’ centers for my little National Park book; I don’t even delete photos from my phone. So, yes: I was and am a collector…and when I was a preteen, I collected baseball cards and then, a bit later, comic books. So, knowing that they were about to spend a few weeks with my parents this summer in my childhood home, my kids asked the big question: “Dad…where is all that stuff?” And then, a few weeks ago, my children became the proud owners of some complete Topps and Donruss sets from the early ‘90s as well as a few binders full of X-Men and Amazing Spiderman issues from the same period of time.

This is all somehow simultaneously exciting and terribly boring to them.

But watching them go through these old binders has had me thinking back to when I was their age collecting all of these things in the first place, and it’s led me back to a central story in my life. It goes like this:

ONCE UPON A TIME…I bought a Beckett’s.

becketts

Do you know what this was? For any of you under 35, allow me to explain: in a time before the internet, if you were a collector of a thing and you wanted to know its value, you needed some way to know what a standard price for it might be. A “Beckett’s” was a guide to the standard prices for baseball cards, and it was published (at that time) annually. So, long ago, 10-year-old-me would eagerly await the newest Beckett’s, buy it, and then spend hours in my room tallying up what all of my cards were worth.

(There are people right now looking at me like I’m talking about making dominos out of animal bones in a log cabin. But I digress.)

So, one day, I’m going through my cards and my Beckett’s–ten cents, twenty cents, a quarter!–and I discover that I have a card that is worth 8 bucks. It is a Darryl Strawberry Topps rookie card. 8 bucks! 1 card! So, I take this card out of my binder, run to my mom in the living room, and proudly announce: “this card is worth 8 bucks!” And my mother–who is generally a wonderful, Godly, and endlessly supportive woman–on this day said to me, without looking up from the magazine she was reading,

“that card’s worth what somebody’ll pay for it.”

– My Mom, c. 1993

I was devastated. 8 bucks my foot.

Here’s where I’m going with this story: we human beings have a profound and truly troubling value problem. We see this all the time in this crazy paradox we are all living through. On the one hand, we have more sources of affirmation and approval than ever before: for many of us, our lives are absolutely full of times we can share what we think, what we are seeing, what we are good at, where we are traveling with one another and get near-instant gratification from people giving our lives a virtual “thumbs up” or “heart.” But on the other hand, we are living in a time where loneliness, depression, and even violence springing up from feelings of social rejection and isolation are plaguing our society like never before. So…how is this possible? Why is it we tend to feel simultaneously special and unique and precious…and also worthless?

To get at an answer to that question, I’d like us to look at two specific passages from James’s letter, both of which have to do with what wealth looks like in the context of the early church. The first comes from James chapter 2, and it says this:

James 2:1-7

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If I’m honest with you, this is a passage I would usually skim through. The reason for that is that it feels initially unrelatable to me: I don’t know that I have ever offered a favorable seat at church to a rich man with a fine robe and many rings.

richman

“Would you like to see my batcave?”

And honestly, even if I try to expand how it applies and ask myself, “Kenny, but have you shown more attention to a person whose wealth you thought might be helpful to you?” Well, even then…I know on some level the answer is yes, but I still kind of want to say, “not really.”

 

Of course, I am not the same person as all of you, and we are all susceptible to different challenges, so I don’t want to belittle the power of this point: clearly, James believes that showing favoritism is both a present and a serious threat in the early church. It is also a threat to us: we should not do it. But I do want to challenge us to dig a bit deeper into the whys here, because I know that at least for me personally, they start to root out something that I don’t initially see. I think what James says in this passage exposes that showing favor to people who are wealthy actually does 2 harms:

First, it communicates to the poor that you see them as less than they are. So James says, if you show favoritism, “have you not dishonored the poor man?”

But second, partiality communicates to the rich person that their sins–the ways they fall short–are less important, too. This is why he reminds his readers that the wealthy people they know aren’t perfect: they oppress the poor, and they even drag people who are of a lower social standing than them into court so they can extract even more suffering from them. James reminds the early church of the sins of the rich…and why would he do that, unless what he is really concerned with is that the leaders of the church are forgetting them? And that, I think, starts to hit home, at least for me: do I also sometimes look at people who are successful and think to myself: sure, they aren’t perfect, but they must be doing some things right! And if so, what does that expose about what I think about value?

Let me be practical for a second to try and help this point stick with us. What I’m getting at is that I think we sometimes convince ourselves that wealth might not be the whole story when it comes to how good or bad we are…we might even be especially skeptical of rich people…but we convince ourselves it’s part of the story: that a wealthy person is doing something right if they are wealthy; that wealth is in some way a sign of divine or cosmic blessing. And as a result, we allow the reverse of this logic to find a quiet, secret space in our brain: we begin to believe that a poor person, because they are poor, might not be doing anything right at all. Or, in other words, that their poverty is their fault…it reflects their value.

It reflects their value.

I came into this week thinking that of all the sins I am tempted by, partiality isn’t really one of them. But I’m coming into this moment now saying that oh man, partiality is everywhere…and it’s maybe less about favoring the wealthy than it is discriminating against the poor…because I tell myself–we tell ourselves–they deserve it.

If you don’t think this is a real concern in the world we live in right now, look around: at the ways we are telling ourselves in this country that wealthy people have more value in the world than poor people. At the ways we are allowing and overlooking the subhuman treatment of poor people, as if such treatment should be allowed because of mistakes they might or might not have made. At the ways we perpetuate the idea that wealthy people must have some sort of divine blessing or righteousness behind them, as proven by their material success. If these stories aren’t familiar to you, keep your eyes open for them this week, not so you can feel self-righteous…but so you can feel challenged by how easy it is to slip into this. And so you can learn to resist it.

So how did we get here, to this profound confusion? And what can we do about it?

I think the root problem is the result of a misunderstanding in our world about value. To return for a moment to my mom’s point about baseball cards, a thing is only worth what someone will pay for it.

strawberry

That’s frustrating–especially to 11 year old me, who knows no one will give him 8 bucks for a Darryl Strawberry!–but it’s also, on some level, profoundly true. If all my best friend will give me for that card is a buck twenty-five, what Beckett’s says doesn’t matter: the card is worth a buck twenty-five. After all, what is a baseball card, really? It’s a rectangle of cardboard with some ink on it. It holds some basic information…that you could find in countless other places. Does it have some value, just as an object in the world? Sure. But that value is not 8 bucks. It’s not even what my friend pays for it. So, in a sense, card collectors are always fighting against a deep fear which is also a deep and upsetting truth: cards aren’t really worth much of anything at all. But by managing this little miniature economy, where this card must be worth a bit more or less than another one, they can convince themselves that’s not true and create a kind of micro-economy, where the worth of a thing can be determined by its comparative value.

lonelyman

Our lives are much the same: the thing many of us fear, and which is driving the loneliness and even the anger of our age, is that our essential value as living, breathing things on a planet with 7 billion other versions of us is almost nothing. And so we begin to obsess over our comparative value–what we are worth in comparison to other people–in the hopes that this will give us satisfaction and happiness. This is the fundamental hunger that social media taps into: it’s a way of comparing our value to others. And so much of our world–of our marketplaces and our work environments and our digital lives and even our homes and our relationships with our siblings or our relationships with our spouses or even the relationships between one church and another church–so much of our world is fixated on these comparisons of value!

argument

“I’m a better worker than so-and-so…why do they make more?”

“Oh no! My sister is going to med school! What’s that going to mean for grandma’s will?!”

“Why is it that all the dishes and the laundry are always something I’m responsible for? When was the last time you did anything?”

“How did that photo get 200 likes when mine only got 50?”

And for me sometimes: “Why do 1000 people show up to listen to his sermon?”

We obsess over our value as it compares to other people.

But here’s the flip-side of what my mom was trying to tell me: sure, that card is only worth what someone will pay for it…but then again, it is worth what someone will pay for it. So, what happens if someone pays more? What does that do to the card’s value?

At the very beginning of that passage from James, James writes,

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”

He reminds his readers, then, of who they are: they are brothers…holding to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” What “glory” is he referring to? Well, based on what we read last week in chapter 1, it would seem it’s the “glory” of being made perfect and complete through steadfastness in our faith. In other words, it’s the glory Jesus is bringing you into. Which is to say: his glory.

You have been purchased for waaaay more than your comparative value.  While you–while we–were quibbling about which of us is worth a quarter and which is worth fifty cents, Jesus metaphorically bought us for a king’s ransom. He paid not in coins but with his actual life. So what, then, are we worth?

At root in the dangers James is pointing out about showing partiality to the wealthy in the early church is this issue of forgetting 1) what you are worth and 2) how you became so valuable. What are you worth, brothers and sisters? You are worth exactly one Jesus. A person sinless and divine and righteous. Your value is incalculable. But how did you become so valuable? Not because of something innate in you, or some talent or skill or shrewdness or beauty…that’s Beckett’s talk! That’s arguing over pennies! You became infinitely valuable because Jesus paid infinitely.

And I think at the bottom of what James is saying to the people in the early church is if you have entered into a community where every single person is valuable beyond measure, don’t give that up to go back to shallow comparisons. Treat everyone–everyone–according to how God values them. Don’t accept that your rich neighbor has “better stats” than your poor neighbor and differentiate in your treatment of them! And don’t assume that your value is something that moves up or down based on the stuff you do or don’t do! That was the Pharisees’ problem, not so long ago. But instead start by remembering what price Jesus paid for you, and where he is taking you now that he’s got you! You are in the process of being made perfect and complete; you are “holding faith” with the “Lord of glory.” So the point isn’t to stop treating rich people well; it’s to treat everyone as you would treat Christ.

The anonymous author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way:

Hebrews 13:2

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

We value each other rightly when we let go of our comparisons and act towards each other as we would act towards Jesus himself. If it were Jesus who came to you for help, having nothing…how far would you go in helping him? What would you do for a person of immeasurable worth?

James closes this section of chapter 2 by writing,

James 2:12-13

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Which is a way of saying: you have received something you did not deserve–not just forgiveness of your sins, but worth beyond comprehension–so carry that sense of generosity forward and apply it to your relationships with others. Speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty, with mercy…and don’t allow the petty judgments of comparisons and rivalry and envy to get in the way. If you’ve been purchased for a million dollars, don’t go back to quibbling about whether or not this thing you’ve done wrong or someone else has done wrong has lessened your value by a nickel…or, vice versa: don’t assume that someone’s material wealth or professional success makes any real difference in how God sees them! Adding a dollar of value or taking a dollar away…judgment…misses the point of what God has done and how God sees you.

So, if all of this is true, how can we be steadfast in our pursuit of seeing others and seeing ourselves as God sees us? How can we keep from falling back into this old pit of comparative value?

Well, we could all quit Instagram, I suppose. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, especially if you find it to be a real distraction or a real harm in your life. But James suggests we actually take a different approach…or at least go a few steps further. In chapter 5 of his letter, he writes,

James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

On its surface, this is certainly a harsh set of verses, especially since all of us are at least comparatively rich people! We should all take to heart what James says here about placing our hope in material possessions–our houses, our bank accounts, our retirement plans. But I actually want to close this morning by zeroing in on what he says at the end. After telling us that we have defrauded and robbed and taken advantage of our neighbors–all of whom are precious to God–he says, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”

I’m going to offer a personal reading of this passage. I know it’s not the only thing the passage says…but I think it’s one thing: I think the righteous person you condemn and murder by greed and partiality…is you. Think about it this way: James’s letter begins by talking about what we are being made into. God is transforming us into people who are like Jesus. That process starts when we are bought at the price of Jesus’s life. But it doesn’t finish until we also are trained in righteousness. The dangers James spends most of his letter warning us about are the things that get in the way of this process: our arrogance, our pride…and our tendency to abuse the people we think we are better than. When we are partial, it doesn’t keep other people from being trained to be righteous. But it does keep us from being trained in that way. When we choose judgment over mercy…we lose mercy. And, I think, when we compare ourselves to others instead of to Christ, we condemn ourselves and effectively kill the righteous person God is rewiring us to be.

So, how to resist this? Well, I think part of that answer is choosing the disciplines of mercy and generosity. We love. We give. We find ways to remind ourselves that our material wealth and privilege aren’t the things that make us valuable to God. We serve our neighbors. We volunteer–we work without expecting payment for it!–to help others. We give charitably to people, to churches, to non-profit organizations because this is good for us to do. It helps us short circuit the pride that always threatens to convince us we deserve blessings because we are worth it. And it helps us remember something true: we are becoming like Jesus the more we follow him…and that means the end of the road for us is living sacrificially. When we are merciful, when we are generous, we are putting to the test the things we believe about who God says we are. There is nothing we should be more eager to do than that.

Love Works Out: An Introduction to the Epistle of James

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DELIVERED 18 AUGUST 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

Today, we’re starting a new series called Working Out on the book of James, which is one of the letters to the early church collected in the New Testament of the Bible. But before we dive in to the history and subject of that letter–and kick the series off!–I want to set the stage with a bit of an illustration.

The illustration centers on a man named Gustave Whitehead. Gustave was from Connecticut, and he lived through the turn of the 20th century…ever heard of him? Perhaps this picture will help:

whitehead

 No? Well, we will get to why Gustave is not quite famous in just a moment. But first, we need to travel even further back in time in order to check in with this guy:

davinciportrait

More recognizable? Maybe? If it helps, it has always been rumored that he hid a self-portrait in this drawing he once did:

vitruvianman

Right! Leonardo Da Vinci! Da Vinci died exactly 500 years ago this year. Since his death, he has become known as one of the greatest artists and inventors of all time. Works like the Mona Lisa and Last Supper are his, as well as such inventions as the parachute, the giant crossbow, and even scuba gear. Da Vinci also famously sketched out the designs for a series of flying machines during his lifetime, including the ancestor of the modern helicopter.davinci You have probably seen some of these designs before.But here’s the thing I found myself thinking about this week–and it’s what’s going to lead me back to our new friend, Gustave Whitehead: I’ve been thinking, if Da Vinci is so smart, and if his ideas about flying machines are so great…why does it take more than 400 years for us to get to airplanes? 

The answer, as it turns out, is more simple than you might expect: it’s because Da Vinci never built them. As it turns out, his legacy during his lifetime, and even up until the middle of the 19th century, was almost exclusively that of a painter. The reason for this is that his notebooks, which include more than 300 sketches of his “flying machines,” were locked up and left unstudied in private collections. It was centuries before they saw the light of day…but once they did, they seem to have caught the imaginations of inventors across the globe. 

Which leads us, of course, to Gustave Whitehead: in the late 19th century, Gustave became obsessed with the prospect of powered flight, and throughout the 1890s, he worked incessantly out of his Connecticut home building and testing dozens of potential aircraft…many of which were based on Da Vinci’s designs. All of this culminated, according to legend and the local paper, on August 14, 1901, when Whitehead’s airplane, the creatively-named “No. 21,”, flew a distance of half a mile at a height of 50 feet before landing safely…more than 2 years before the Wright Brothers would fly half that distance, at half that height, in Kittyhawk, North Carolina. 

whiteheadplane

Like I said: isn’t it odd that we don’t recognize Gustave Whitehead?

Here’s where I’m going with all of this: as we dig into the book of James over the next month, we are going to find ourselves submerged in an ancient controversy in the Christian church which is all about whether or not our actions or our faith are the thing that saves our eternal souls. But I want to contend that what James actually suggests throughout his letter is this: trials produce transformation. But that means you gotta try. Our “works” aren’t things we do in order to earn God’s favor or to prove we are righteous enough for eternal heavenly life. But they are the means by which God refines us into who we are designed to be. The “blueprint”–the Da Vinci sketch–of what a person should be is something that comes to life not just out of the blue, but through a process of, first, believing in what God says, second, trusting him to see it through, and third, acting on those beliefs in our lives. Through this process, God is working out who are designed to be…and who we are designed to be is working out in and for the lives of those around us. 

So, how do we get here? How can we live more responsibly in this process? And what does James have to say about any or all of this?

Well, we can start by quickly reminding ourselves of who James is and why he is writing

jamesTo begin, James is the half-brother of Jesus, who was a skeptic throughout most of Jesus’s earthly ministry–after all, what little brother wouldn’t have a few doubts about their sibling being the son of God?–but after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, James becomes a true believer and emerges as a leader in the early church. He lives in Jerusalem, where he ministers alongside the other early apostles. But towards the end of his life, and under intense persecution, he writes a letter collecting his most personal and important teachings in a series of proverbs to be distributed to the churches outside Jerusalem, or in the “diaspora.” That’s what the book of James–really, the letter of James–is: it is a collection of James’s theological understanding, organized not as a story or even as an address to a particular audience but as a compilation of wise teachings. 

So, what are those teachings, and how are we going to organize our study of them over the next month? 

After a quick greeting, James opens his letter by writing,

James 1:2-4

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Here’s where the illustration of Da Vinci’s and Gustave Whitehead’s flying machines finds its source: what James begins by saying is that we tend to think about perfection in the wrong way. Whereas we often view perfection as our ability to avoid mistakes and remain in an ideal initial state–perhaps thinking about ourselves in the way a collector of baseball cards or comic books might think: our hope is to remain in mint condition–what James is suggesting is that perfection is something God is producing in us. So, if we don’t start off perfect but are supposed to end up there, what does that say about what “perfect” really means? 

Well, my hunch is that it means working out: the goal for my life, for your life, for anyone’s life is to become a person who can fully live in the ways a person is intended to live. It means living rightly. And to get there, James says we need to cling to something he describes as steadfastness.

Steadfastness is, by definition, a word that refers to our ability to be unwavering in our commitment to a path. It means sticking to something, or sticking with something. And it also is a word that communicates not movement necessarily, but action.

anemoneTwo weeks ago, while Meredith and I were on vacation, we had the opportunity to go tidepooling in Olympic National Park. While we were doing this, we saw thousands upon thousands of sea anemones fixed all over the rocks along the shoreline. These guys, in their own ways, model a kind of steadfastness: on the one hand, they don’t move–they aren’t going from rock to rock, looking for the best place–but they do actively stay put. 

anemone2They have a kind of “foot” or “base” that fixes itself in place, and as the tides try to slam them around and even as the water rises and lowers, they do the work of being committed to where they are. It’s that ongoing work that gives them the quality of being “steadfast.”So, how does that help us here with James? James tells the early church that steadfastness is, one, necessary for us to be “made perfect and complete”–he says that’s steadfastness’s “full effect.” But he also says that steadfastness is produced by the “testing of our faith.” In other words, although it might seem like what we are called to, as Christians, is to decide on a core set of beliefs, commit to them, and then protect them, what will actually benefit us and help us to mature in our faith is for those beliefs to be subjected to trials. Here’s the paradox at the root of how James begins his teaching: our confidence in our beliefs is strengthened the more it is stressed

So, when what we believe manifests itself in the ways we live…and when the ways we live lead us into periods of challenge and difficulty…the endurance of our faith–the way it works out–can make us even more confident in what we believe

A light-hearted example: there is a world of difference between looking at a chair and deciding that, yeah, it looks like a good chair; it looks like it can support your weight…you can believe in that chair all day…and actually putting your weight on it. If you do–and if you don’t fall–your belief has been strengthened by being tested. But the flipside of this is also true: if you sit in it and you fall on your butt, that is good for you, too. Because it exposes you shouldn’t have believed in the chair. 

An untested faith can never mature. And even testing our faith shouldn’t be a one-time, or even once-a-week!, proposition…it should be part of how we live. This is “steadfastness.” And without it…we can’t be made whole or complete.

So, what are the dangers of this process? How can we make sure, first, that we are doing this…and second, that we are doing it well

James talks about this next by saying, first, we should be diligent in asking God for wisdom, since God loves us and gives generously to those who ask for good things from him. And second, he draws a distinction between questions–which are those things we ask–and doubts. He writes,

James 1:5-8

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

I once heard it said that the difference between “questions” and “doubts” could be summarized like this: questions are what we ask when we want to find an answer; doubts are what we have when we believe there isn’t one. That might sound trite, but I would encourage you to give it a second look: I think it’s right. Here at Revolution, we use this language all the time: on your way in today, you might have noticed the three banners in the hallway. The middle one–the one that says “BELIEVE”–reads, “We want to treat beliefs as things that grow as we wrestle with them. Questions are always welcome here, and we want to be people who test our beliefs by truly putting them into practice in our lives.” This language gets at the same distinction James is talking about: it is always okay to ask questions…and it also okay to admit when you don’t have confident answers! But doubts–which come from a place of cynicism–are a problem specifically because they replace the HUMILITY and CURIOSITY that motivates a productive question with a FEARFUL CYNICISM that is already beginning to make up its mind.

This gets into the major “danger” James introduces for us as our faith is “working out”: becoming settled in our opinions. 

At the end of the first chapter of James, as James is concluding a series of proverbs about being “tested,” he returns to the issue of “steadfastness” and connects it once again to this larger process of maturation. He writes,

James 1:12-15

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

At first glance, there seem to be 3 distinct teachings here: 

  1. If we remain steadfast, who we are meant to be will eventually be “worked out” in us, and we will receive a “crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
  2. It is against God’s nature to “tempt” us, and we are wrong to blame him when we are tempted.
  3. The root of our temptation is selfish desire, which leads first to sin and finally to death.

But if we return to our initial illustration about Da Vinci, Gustave Whitehead, and the first airplanes, I think we can uncover a way in which these three teachings in fact build on one another in a clarifying way. Imagine, for a moment, what it is like to go through the process of testing an invention: you dream it, design it, build it, and as you give it a try in the real world, you must be so full of confidence that it will work. But the vast, vast majority of the time…it doesn’t. Some defect or error is exposed, and it’s “back to the drawing board.” This is, as painful as it might be, a healthy process, and the end result of a working invention is worth it. 

So, what messes this process up? Well, I think it’s when we try to run our experiments after we have already decided on their results.

sciencefair

*volcanoes.

Quick show of hands: how many of you either remember making a science fair experiment as a kid, or have helped a child make one as an adult? This is the worst. And one of the things that makes it the worst is that it seems like there are only two paths forward with science fairs, and both are miserable for a family.  Path 1: you begin the experiment when it is first assigned, dreaming up some wonderful idea like inventing a new fertilizer or seeing if you clean up the world’s oceans, and then the tests for the experiment take over your house for months. Or Path 2: you procrastinate, and then, at the last second, you have to come up with something you can design and pull of on a Sunday afternoon, so you end up figuring out which kind of ball bounces the highest or building a baking soda volcano. But with either path, the really dangerous part–the really tempting part–comes when you have to “face the music” of your actual, final results. Because here’s the thing, right? More often than you want to admit, the results don’t go the way you expected them to. Or…the way you need them to, to have a successful experiment. And whether you spent forever on the experiment, or you’re throwing it together at the last minute, once you get to bad results, you end up being faced with a really, really hard choice: do I do the hard thing and try it again? Or…do I maybe move a decimal point and get the results I expected? Was this really my fault…or is there something else I can blame

If Gustave Whitehead had fallen so in love with “Airplane No. 20” that he blamed every failed test on something that wasn’t his fault–the wind was wrong; there was too much humidity that day–he would never have gotten to the design that worked. Progress, it turns out, means accepting when failure happens because you got something wrong. When we refuse to admit this, we dig our heels in on our own self righteousness, and this, it turns out, leads us away from useful testing and towards arrogance, sin, and death. Or, as James puts it,

James 1:13-14

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 

Self-satisfaction, settling in our own opinions, trading earnest questions for cynical doubts…these are the things that sabotage what God is doing in our lives. 

So, how do we resist them? How do we remain steadfast? The answer is another paradox: we hold our beliefs in an open hand. We accept that testing–real testing–means they might not make it. We might lose them. They might not endure. But we also accept that this might not mean tossing out the entire idea: we commit to the hard work of testing, correcting, and testing again. This is how we grow. James says it like this:

James 2:14-18

What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Here, James gives a quick illustration of how trying out our beliefs can ultimately lead to their refinement and perfection. He asks his readers to imagine a real-world scenario where what they believe about Jesus can impact the way they live. He says, “if a brother or sister is naked in lack of daily food,” what should you do? Well, as followers of Jesus, they–and we!–would begin by asking, “how would Jesus feel about this?” And in this imaginary scenario, James has his subjects think “Jesus” thoughts: they say, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” On its face, this isn’t a terrible answer: it would be good for this hungry and naked and insecure person to have more peace in his or her life! And the desire being expressed here is good, too: “be warmed and filled.” But, of course, thinking like Jesus–or even believing in the same values that Jesus teaches–isn’t a perfect and complete version of who we are meant to be! Because being really Christian is about more than the right ideas: it’s about sacrificial action! Jesus teaches that part, too: he doesn’t just come to Earth, wish us all peace and good tidings, wave his hands around, and tell us to sin no more. He dies on a cross in order to take the sins of all the world onto himself and pay the price that is due for them. His “mantras” about loving our neighbors and giving ourselves up for one another slam right into his material and physical person, with each hit of the hammer nailing his body to planks of wood. I know that’s a visceral and even grotesque thing to describe, but it gets at what James is suggesting here about our need for revision and new iterations and progress: it’s great to think like Jesus…but steadfastness in our pursuit of him can’t help but lead us to act more like him, too! So, what does James say?

James 2:15-18

 If a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Take the beliefs you have about Jesus…put them into practice in your life…hold the results of those practices in an open hand, so you can receive correction…and grow through your steadfast commitment to being made perfect and complete

Show me your faith through your works. And in that testing, allow your faith to work out

I know that can be a bit abstract, so I’d like to close with a small, practical, and personal example of the role open-handedness plays in this process. Three weeks ago, as Meredith and I were heading out on that vacation I mentioned earlier, we made a last-minute flight change which landed us in the very last boarding positions for a Southwest flight. About ⅓ of the people in this room right now just felt the bottoms fall out of their stomachs, because they know exactly what hellish thing is about to happen to us!

So, in any case, we accepted that at minimum this meant we wouldn’t be sitting together. But no matter! We were about to spend 2 solid weeks together, so a few hours on an airplane wouldn’t be a big deal. And it would give each of us a chance to listen to some podcasts or, in my case, plow through at least 100 pages of a book I have been crawling through on the political history of Britain, from the Vikings to Brexit. 

I…don’t think I can really explain myself here. 

In any case: I was excited about the next 5 solitary hours. So, as the last person boarding the plane, I made my way down the aisle and found my way to the only open seat: between a guy who was already sleeping next to the window, and a woman who seemed to be in her late 50s or so. I sat down…and the pilot immediately announced that the flight would be delayed for an hour due to lightning in the area. I sighed; I started to get out The Story of Britain…and the woman beside me launched into a tirade about Southwest. I nodded in agreement and went for the earbuds…and she wanted to read my tattoos. “Okay,” I said, and she began pulling at my arms and turning them around. “What do you do?” she wanted to know. “I’m a pastor,” I said. 

Annnnd everything fell apart. All my plans came crashing down: a pastor…with tattoos?! What denomination? Where? For how long? And on and on and on. 

Here’s the turning point in this story, right? Because I had a healthy and righteous plan! I was on vacation from my job as a pastor. I was on break! It was supposed to be okay for some “me time”! I WANT TO LEARN ABOUT THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF BRITAIN, FROM THE VIKINGS TO BREXIT! And it was really tempting to close my hand around my plans and my life and to feel confident that I was doing the right thing. And it wouldn’t have been an awful or unreasonable thing to do. But there was a more right thing to do, too. There was a person, made in the image of God, but in her own words living really far away from him. And something about me opened something up in her with earnest questions to ask. She was choosing openhandedness…she was also running a certain kind of experiment…and it was more right to answer and to talk. We talked–well, mostly she talked–for the entire six hours we were on that plane. I learned her entire life story, from teenage pregnancy, to single motherhood, to 12 years of a peaceful if boring second marriage, to an affair that ended it, to moving across the country to live with a former boyfriend and be stepmom to his 12 year old triplets…and at the end of this long story, she had the courage to ask a stranger: “I know my marriage is over and I don’t want it back, but I need to know how to tell my ex-husband I’m sorry.” 

One thing “open-handedness” means is letting go of your plans to be a person to someone else. Steadfastness, and our growth as people, isn’t something we get to by doing what we want. We get there by looking for–and trying to do–what is more right. We will make mistakes. We will behave selfishly. We will fail to love with the perfect love of Jesus! But what God has promised to do in us will work out…if we will keep ourselves open to it. 

Stories We Tell: Queen Esther, Suffering, Privilege, and Opportunity

sermongraphic-01-01 (12)

DELIVERED 11 AUGUST 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

Back in June, we started this series saying that we wanted to look at some of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament neither as history nor as myth but as what they first and foremost are, which is stories. We reminded ourselves that the Old Testament of the Bible involves dozens of books and scrolls sacred to the Jewish people as their primary tools for understanding their relationship with God. They were the records of more than a thousand years of cultural history, first written down at some point in the fifth century BCE, but derived from oral traditions stretching back for dozens and dozens of generations. They were stories that had survived the destruction of the Israelites’ ancestral homeland, their exile in Babylon, their reign as a regional power, their past as a modest tribe, and even 400 years of captivity in Egypt. They were the stories not only of Creation and Great Floods, but of their own ancestors, and their slow emergence as a set-apart people in the world. They were campfire stories, valued so much by their tellers they were remembered for a thousand years. 

All of this to say: the stories of the Old Testament are important, not just because they give us, as co-heirs of the Jewish stories, a narrative of our own spiritual past, but because they capture the heart of the Jewish people’s evolving relationship with their God. They are the records of doubt, struggle, deliverance, and the faithfulness of (and God’s faithfulness to) a people. And as such, they have tremendous value for us, as a people, too. We can go to them and ask not just what happened or what am I supposed to believe, but who is God? Who am I, in relationship to him? And what are all of us truly meant for? Over the course of the series, I have been struck not just by the lessons each story holds, but by the beauty of them: it is a privilege to have access to these artifacts of struggle and hope, each of which has persisted in order to communicate and re-communicate something central to the common experiences of everyone who seeks to live rightly and know their God. I’m grateful for them. And I hope that this series has been similarly refreshing for you, too.

estherrobeToday, as we close this series out, we are going to look at one last story from the Jewish past. It’s the story of Queen Esther, who was a queen not of Israel but of Persia, and it is chronologically the last story of our journey. To set the story within its historical context, Esther follows the stories told in the book of Daniel, which records the experiences of the Jewish people during the 60 or so years of captivity they experienced in the neighboring kingdom of Babylon. At the end of that book, Babylon is conquered by Cyrus the Great, a king of Persia, and the exiled Jews are permitted to return to their ancestral homeland of Israel and rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Many Jews go…but, for a variety of reasons, many others decide to remain. In most cases, this was likely a choice based on, if not comfort, than at least survival: After 60 years, many Jewish families had largely assimilated into Babylonian life, and when faced with a choice between continuing in the life and work they had known for three generations, or uprooting to move back to a destroyed city in a hotly-contested part of the Middle East, they chose to stay where they were. This would one day lead to significant contentions between the two groups–those who returned and those who stayed–that would play a part in the cultural disputes of Jesus’s time. But though those who remained in Babylon would always be seen as “quitters” of a certain sort, they were nonetheless Jews, and their stories–like the story of Queen Esther–were still part of the larger cultural history of the Jewish people.

So, in that context, what is Esther’s story? And what about it has made the story so important to tell and re-tell for the last 2,500 years? 

xerxes

A relief of King Xerxes I, known in the book of Esther by the name “Ahasueras”

Esther’s story begins in the palace of the Persian king Ahasuerus. Ahasueras is a boastful man, and he takes great pride in the beauty of his first wife, a queen named Vashti. One day, Ahasueras commands Vashti to present herself to the king’s guests so they can admire her beauty. But Vashti refuses to be gawked at, and so she disobeys the king. This causes the king to fly into a rage, as he fears that other women will hear of Vashti’s refusal and likewise disobey their own husbands. 

We might pause here to note that Vashti is also a pretty inspiring character.

But nonetheless, for her refusal, she is functionally “divorced” from the king, and a search begins to find a new and even more beautiful queen. Scouts are sent throughout the kingdom, and the most beautiful women are brought to the king’s household to be trained and “beautified,” the text says, as concubines. After an entire year of training, the “contenders” are brought one at a time to spend the night with the king, and when Ahasueras is so impressed that he calls one woman back by name, she is to be made the new queen. 

estherconcubine

Now, among these women, we find the hero of our story, a Jewish woman named Esther. Esther is an orphan, but she has been raised by her uncle, a man named Mordecai. Every day, while Esther is being “trained” as a concubine, Mordecai waits to hear news from her at the gate of the king’s palace. And whenever he speaks to her, he gives her one consistent piece of advice: although what she is going through is difficult, she is never to say that she is Jewish. This, he believes, will only make her situation worse. 

esthermovieEsther takes Mordecai’s advice, and through a complicated series of events, it turns out that she is indeed selected by the king to be the new queen. The king doesn’t know about her ethnic heritage…but Esther continues to speak with Mordecai in the evenings at the palace gate. Eventually, on one of these evenings, Mordecai overhears a plot by some of the concubines’ guards who are planning to kill the king. Mordecai tells Esther, who tells the king and saves his life. Mordecai is praised…but, in time, this causes Mordecai to run afoul of a new and fast-rising advisor to the king, a man named Haman.

hamanmordecai

The story shifts at this point to a dispute between Mordecai and Haman: as Haman’s star rises in the palace, he is afforded ever-greater honor and respect. But each day, when Haman leaves the palace, this one man–Mordecai–who is always there at the palace gate refuses to bow to him. Haman is infuriated, and eventually, he conspires to get rid of Mordecai in perhaps the most reactionary, cowardly, and excessive way ever: knowing Mordecai is Jewish, Haman tells the king that among his people, there is one group of outsiders and immigrants who worship a different god and are culturally-disposed to be disobedient and troublesome. Israel, Haman suggests, is not “sending their best”: we’ve seen this kind of discrimination against the Jews in Babylon before; we see it in our own world now. But King Ahasueras is persuaded by Haman that the Jews don’t really belong and he gives Haman permission to issue a royal decree that would allow anyone in the kingdom who feels threatened by Jews to rise up on one single day, kill them without penalty, and take all that belongs to them. It’s a scenario I wish was less recognizable to us…and it throws the city into chaos as Jews go into hiding and panic at their impending murder. 

When Mordecai learns of the royal decree, he rushes to tell Esther, asking her to intercede with the king: he wants her to go to the king in his chambers, reveal that she is also Jewish, and then plead with him to cancel the day of extermination. But Esther is wary: did Mordecai not tell her to hide her ethnicity in the king’s palace? It was well known that a royal decree could never be undone. It was also known that anyone who entered the king’s chambers without permission would be put to death. If she revealed herself, it was unlikely to work…and, in the process, she would almost certainly be killed. And here’s where I want us to focus this morning: 

Esther 4:13-16

Then Mordecai told […] Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Then Esther told […] Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

Before we look at how this story ends, I want us to pause here and look at some of the key pieces of this discussion between Mordecai and Esther. 

First, I want us to note how Mordecai responds when Esther tells him she is afraid to do what he asks. He doesn’t say what I think you or I would say, which is: “you have to do this! We will die if you don’t! Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi…you’re my only hope!

Instead, he says,  “if you keep silent at this time, deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place.”

Wow. At first glance, this is a startling way for Mordecai to see his situation: he’s not worried about whether or not the Jews will be delivered at all. He just think Esther is in a prime position to be the tool by which their deliverance comes. 

One of the most famous curiosities of the book of Esther is that it is the only book in the Bible where God is not mentioned. For some, the most obvious explanation for this is that it’s the story of those who remained in Babylon after the exile…which, since it was God who engineered their opportunity to return to Jerusalem several decades before this story begins and even instructed the Jews to go, means Esther is the story of people who are living in disobedience to God. We have no idea, in this story, if Mordecai or Esther are Jewish by faith…we only know they are Jewish by ethnicity. So, to the religious Jews who later copied and handed down this story, it would not have made much sense for Mordecai or Esther to come across as particularly zealous or faithful…they were people who had chosen comfort over God. 

But it does say something here, I think, about how all Jewish people thought about God when we try to understand Mordecai’s reply. Because what Mordecai–whether he was a religious Jew or not–clearly remembers from the stories of the Jewish past is that ALL Jews, whether they are living faithfully or not, are ALWAYS God’s people. God has pledged this. It is a covenant. And if there is one consistent thread in all of the Old Testament, it is that people are wayward things. We stray time and time and time again from our commitments to God. We even stray from our commitments to each other. We choose ourselves, follow our own hearts, and over and over again, we repeat that first sin from the Garden of Eden and tell each other and tell God that we can do this on our own. 

But despite this constant rejection, God never stops pursuing us. Not ever. He loves us…even when we don’t love him back. And HE is faithful…in ways that we never seem to be. So, when Mordecai begins by telling Esther she can save the Jewish people, it makes sense why she would think he is saying she has to save them. But that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying she can save them. But if she won’t…God will find another way. He will never, ever fail them. But what a privilege it would be for him to use her. 

The second thing we see in these verses is certainly my favorite part of the story: Mordecai says to Esther,

Esther 4:14 (NRS)

“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.”

I love this verse. I feel this verse. I am a person of extraordinary privilege: I came from a loving home; I was born into a comfortable life. My education, my sex, my skin…everything about me is lucky. With the exception that I’m bald, of course. 

And I don’t know, most of the time, what I’m supposed to do with the privileged positions I inhabit in our world. I don’t know what “time” this is that I–that we–are living in. And I really don’t know, most of the time, how much or how little God is going to use me. 

But Esther’s story–and Mordecai’s words–challenge me to remember two incredibly important things for me, and for all of us:

  1. God is not depending on me to save the day.
  2. But God has given me the opportunity to speak up for others.

It may be that putting my privilege at risk to go ten steps past what seems generous or kind for others saves the day for someone. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? But if this ends up being the reason I have “come to the kingdom”–if I’m here “for such a time as this”–what a waste it would be for me, or for any of us, to stay silent. 

And of course, this verse–”Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this”–isn’t only a verse about privilege. It’s also a verse about suffering: Esther never tells us how she feels about the journey she is on. We know it began with her being taken, really, as a child because she was beautiful, and then raised for more than a year for the express purpose of losing her virginity to the king. Her only hope for a future, then, was if the man who raped her liked her enough to keep her. If he didn’t, she would have been sent back to the house of concubines to live out her life as someone worthless in the eyes of her culture. Although she has arrived in a position of privilege, there is no reason to believe she is happy to be there. But to her story of suffering, too, Mordecai says, “Who knows? Maybe this moment is why you suffered.” 

We, too, might believe that the hardships we have faced in life are detours or tangents from God’s plan for us…and they might be!…but Mordecai’s words challenge us to consider that, then again, they might not. All of that to say, when Mordecai says, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this,” he’s not saying that this is Esther’s one purpose for living…he’s simply saying: you’re here. You have this opportunity. Wouldn’t it be a shame to waste it?

The book of Daniel, which we looked at last week, is full of stories of stoic faithfulness: the men in that book commit to prayer, to worshipping God, and to the rejection of idols, and when that lands them in trouble, they stick to their faith silently, knowing that whether God delivers them or not, God is God, and they are his servants. 

Esther’s story of captivity and assimilation is much different. Her faithfulness isn’t stoic…it’s vocal and relational. God is still in charge of whether or not deliverance, in any meaningful sense, happens…but Esther doesn’t come from a social position where she has the privilege of powerful silence. Her power can only be exercised by speaking. It must be insisted upon. Maybe God will use it…maybe it will only get her killed. But she has been elevated to a position of influence, and for that to MATTER, it must be EXERCISED. Silence, for Esther, is complicity in her people’s genocide.

oldchurch

Once upon a time, the churches of America were cultural institutions that had to be reckoned with: it was assumed that faith was a part of Americans’ lives, and in that context, silence was a meaningful protest. To reject the conventional church culture of this country meant something. Non-denominational churches, like Revolution, were part of that stoic resistance. 

But that’s not the world we live in now. Churches and Christians who remain stoically silent now run the risk of complicity. Travis talked a bit about this a few weeks ago, in his sermon on Jonah: he pointed out that we don’t live in a culture without an opinion about Christians…we live in one with a largely negative opinion of us. To change that, we can’t simply withdraw into ourselves, confident that “our church is different.” We need to be boldly different, as a church, and as individuals. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.

Lastly, in these verses, we see Esther’s boldness and courage in deciding to go to the king knowing the risks and saying, “If I perish, I perish.” 

So, how do things turn out? 

estherbeforeahasueras

Well, to make a long story short, Esther persuades the king to spare her people; Mordecai is duly recognized for saving the king’s life years earlier; and Haman ends up being hanged from the very gallows he had built to execute Mordecai. Moreover, the Jews throughout the kingdom are not only spared, but given the opportunity to defend themselves against their oppressors and, in the process, model a certain kind of mercy. In the end, the event becomes the source of a festival known as Purim that is still celebrated by all Jews–those who remained in exile, and those who returned–to this day.

estheranimals

I cannot explain this Google image search result.

Perhaps the most important church reformer in history, Martin Luther, one wrote that he could never reconcile himself to the existence of the book of Esther in his Bible because he felt the “saving truths of Scripture were absent from it.” By this, Luther meant that Esther did not contain a call to repentance, which Christians believe is central to our religious experience. We are a people who are meant to perpetually humble ourselves to our Creator, in faith that he will perpetually work to restore us to what we are made to be. 

But the story of Esther wasn’t told and retold because it anticipated the life and saving work of Jesus. It was told and retold because it framed what is perhaps an even harder truth, which is that God is faithful to his covenant, even when we are not. The Jews of Persia–in a sense, like Jonah–were turning their backs on who they were called to be. But that didn’t–and that doesn’t ever–change God’s opinion of us. In God, we have an example not just of wonderful faithfulness but of perfect faithfulness. A kind of faithfulness that is beyond anything we can rationalize or fathom; a faithfulness that flows from a love so complete, it generates life itself. 

Esther’s story reminds us that we aren’t like God. But we have the chance, more often than we might think, to imitate him, in our own small-but-brave ways. Doing this takes real courage, and it means accepting and admitting much of what is imperfect in us. But I think our own stories have a similar capacity to share our struggles to be increasingly faithful with humility and conviction. 

What are the stories we are all telling? 

What can we learn from them about who we are? About who God is? And about who we are made to be?