If We’d Have Been There…

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On January 13, 2019, we re-entered this study after an Advent hiatus we talked about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem following the completion of his ministry in the Galilee.  It was an interesting discipline to preach on this on a day that was NOT Palm Sunday.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 11:1-11.  We also heard from the Psalm for the Triumphal Entry: Psalm 118:19-29.

To hear the sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I’d like to begin by inviting you to consider two phenomena that are both very real and very much a part of your experience, but also appear to be direct opposites.

Does the name Kitty Genovese mean anything to you?  I encountered her name in High School, when I had a teacher who brought up this case with astonishing frequency.  I’m not sure why… Kitty Genovese was a young woman living in New York who was horrifyingly murdered on March 13, 1964.  A newspaper report indicated that there were at least 38 witnesses – people who saw or heard something incredibly wrong, but who did nothing to stop the attack, which lasted more than thirty minutes.

When police questioned the man who was found guilty of this crime, they asked how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many people, and he responded by saying, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything.  People never do.”[1]

Psychologists call this pattern of behavior the “Bystander Effect” – nobody wants to get involved, nobody wants to stick their necks out for someone else, and everybody assumes that someone else will do something…

On the other hand, I imagine that you are also aware of a seemingly opposite phenomenon called “The Herd Effect”. Researchers into human behavior use this term to describe how often we find ourselves adopting certain behaviors as a result of an appeal to our emotions.  This has also been described as “Mob mentality” or “pack mentality”. In situations like this, people find themselves eagerly doing something that they might typically reject simply because other people are doing it or a charismatic leader has incited a crowd. If you’d like to see a demonstration of the Herd Effect, just turn on the NFL playoffs later this afternoon, and you’ll see large groups of overweight middle-aged men stripped to the waist, covered in body paint, and cheering on a football team in sub-freezing temperatures.  Now, you have to assume that these guys are not idiots – but here they are doing something today that they would dismiss out of hand tomorrow – because their emotions got the best of them as they prepared for the big game…

Today, we are resuming our exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  When we left off, Jesus had left his ministry in the Galilee behind and had made his way to the edge of Jerusalem.  Today, we see in the event that’s come to be known as “The Triumphal Entry” evidence of both the Bystander Effect and the Herd Mentality.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (c. 1891)

Early on in our reading, Jesus instructs his followers to go and retrieve and animal that he’ll need.  When they do so, they encounter a bit of questioning.  “Hey, why are you taking that?” “The Master needs it.” “Oh, OK.” You can just hear the wheels spinning in those ancient Palestinian minds… “All right, this is weird, but it’s not my circus and those are not my monkeys, so I’ll just stay out of it…” The people who watched the colt being led away didn’t say anything to anyone about what had happened – they just went about their business.

Palm Sunday, John August Swanson (1994)

On the other hand, as soon as Jesus shows up riding on this borrowed animal, people seem to lose their minds.  Whereas at our last meeting in Jericho, it was only Bartimaeus who was calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”, now it’s a large crowd of people going in front of and behind Jesus as they sing the words to Psalm 118.  There is no indication that these people actually know who he is, and Jesus himself doesn’t speak, according to Mark.  Yet the crowd enthusiastically uses terms that evoke images of the Messiah, the defeat of Rome, and the reign and rule of God.

And yet at the end of the day, what do we see?  Jesus retires to Bethany with his disciples.  Those who had demonstrated the Bystander Effect were presumably satisfied as the colt had been returned and there was no harm, no foul. Likewise, I’m sure that there were many homes filled with people who said something like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming today.  That was sure different… What do you have planned for tomorrow…”  People removed themselves from the herd and regained a sense of their own distinct lives and preferences.  In fact, many of the voices that had cried out to Jesus as the Son of David on Sunday would be calling publicly for his execution on Friday – but that’s a different day, different mob…

And Jesus?  Well, Jesus begins this day in quiet discussion with his friends, and that is exactly how he ends it.

Back in November of 2017, we began this study of the Gospel of Mark by pointing out that this little booklet was written for a community of Christians who were in the midst of a difficult time. They were in distress, and they were at least witnesses to, if not victims of, injustice.  The group of people for whom Mark was written dwelt in a climate of fear, and lived with an awareness of the fact that outsiders were often distrusted and marginalized.

And it’s important for us as we study these passages that we note that Mark does not use the words “Triumphal Entry”, and he does not mention palms. Instead, we meet a crowd who is obsessed with making Jesus into a conquering King. This Jesus, however, rides not a war-horse, but a colt. The Greek word is not species-specific: it could refer to a young horse, a young donkey, and in fact once in the bible the word is used in reference to a juvenile ibex or deer (Proverbs 5:19). The point is that Jesus presents himself as weak and vulnerable; he comes in humility and is not threatening an uprising.  There are no pretensions here.

As I’ve indicated, Mark was written to help the first generation of Christians improve their understanding of what it meant to be followers of Jesus.  With that in mind, let’s look at what the twelve do in this passage.

First, they obey their friend and master.  When he tells them to go and get the animal, they do so.

Next, they give of themselves in simple and practical ways.  This is a colt – a foal – and it’s never been ridden.  There would not be a saddle or other riding equipment, and so the disciples take off their own cloaks and place them on the animal to help facilitate Jesus’ ride.

Then they stay with Jesus. They’re there during the parade and the shouting of the crowd, and they walk back with him into the night at Bethany.

I think it’s fair to say that those who followed Jesus on that day refused to be incapacitated by the Bystander Effect andthey did not allow themselves to be manipulated by the mentality of the herd.

One of the things that Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem teaches me this year is that an important part of being a disciple is knowing when to use your voice, and why.  In the context of following, serving, giving, and listening to Jesus, disciples have got to figure out when and why it’s time to say or do something.

There is in our day and culture an ongoing controversy as to how to secure our nation’s borders in such a way that allows for the safety of those who are already here and provides a means for those who are persecuted elsewhere to find shelter and hope.

Bystanders simply see what’s happening and change the channel, saying something like, “Well, I’m glad I’m not the President.  I hope this guy knows what he’s doing…” or maybe “I’ve got some ideas, but what difference can I make, anyway.  Forget about it…”

Similarly, there are herds of us who chant “Build the Wall!” or who stand across the street and yell “Bridges, not Walls!”  We do this until we get hoarse, or until our energy is gone, or something else distracts us and then we go home…

What is a disciple to do in times like these?

A Team from CHUP visiting the US/Mexican Border, escorted by a US Border Patrol Officer

We listen for the voice of Jesus.  We look for where God is on the move, and we try to get there, too.  In our case, this has been a ten year process.  In the last decade, more than 25 people from this congregation have visited the border between the USA and Mexico – many of us more than once.  During that time, our group has had the opportunity to ride along with Border Patrol agents and see the challenges that they face each day; we’ve taken several tours of the facility in McAllen where the President visited on Thursday, and we’ve seen children sitting in glass-walled rooms crying for their parents; we’ve met people who have had to flee their homes in other lands after suffering unspeakable violence; and we’ve entered a church and school complex that is now used as a refugee center that offers those who have been terrorized a hot shower, a warm bed, and a decent meal.

In the course of this decade and these many trips, we’ve encountered the complexity of the situation in a way that is different than that which we’ve seen on television.  And I’d be lying if I told you that the 25 or 30 of us who have made this trip had broad agreement as to which simple policies should be enacted in response to this crisis.  But you’d be wrong if you assumed that all we were doing on these trips was hanging drywall.

We make these journeys because we realize that we need to be shaped; we need to listen; we want to grow toward the truth, and we need to find our own voices.

Listen: next week, many of you will be given an extra day off from work or school. It’s a Federal Holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  When he was honored as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Rev. King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy during this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the words and acts of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”[2]

Listen: I know that I cannot speak for you, or for anyone else.  I am struggling to find my own voice and my own words as I look for places in the world around me where God is on the move.

My challenge for you this week is to find your own voice.  To listen to the news prayerfully.  To read your news feed with an eye on your Gospel, and to ask the Lord when and how it is appropriate for you to speak out against violence and the oppressor, or to stand with someone who has been victimized.  In what instance will you use your voice to contact your legislators or our policymakers?

Beloved of God, do not look away, thinking that it is someone else’s problem. And don’t get sucked into anybody’s mob. Listen for the Master, and be attentive to the things he does, the people at whom he looks, and the places to which he directs his energy.  And follow Him there.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]Takooshian, Harold, Ph.D., “Not Just a Bystander: The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?”Psychology Today, March 24, 2014.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., January 27, 1965 Dinkler Plaza Hotel

Old Befana: An Epiphany Story for All Ages

On Epiphany (January 6, 2019) God’s people gathered for worship.  In these times of fear and distrust of the “other”, it seemed wise to me to share an old story from Italy.  When my own daughter was a child, I particularly enjoyed the legend of Befana as retold by Tomie dePaola in his wonderful book The Legend of Old Befana. I combined elements from his retelling with some other material from La Befana: An Italian Night After Christmas by Susan Frey-Blanchard.  After we shared the story, we had communion and then the children led us through an activity to do at home: the “chalking of the doors”.  You can read more about that practice as well as finding a liturgy for use at your own home in a post from 2015 by by clicking here.

You can listen to the story as told in worship by clicking on the media player below:

A long, long time ago there was a small village in the countryside. On the edge of that village was a tiny house that was remarkable for two reasons.  First, it was undoubtedly the cleanest house you’ve ever seen, and second, it smelled better than any home you’ve ever visited.

Inside the little home lived a very old woman whose name was Strega Befana. While other people were happy to go roaming through the village or even travel the world, La Befana was happiest inside the coziness of her little house.  She kept busy all winter long by sewing little toys to sell to families who had need for such, or by making herbal remedies and potions to sell to those who were not feeling well, or by baking some of the most amazing bread and cookies you’ve ever eaten.

She also kept busy – very, very busy, by making sure her home was clean. She swept the floors at least three times a day – morning, noon, and night.  If there was one thing that Strega Befana hated, it was a dirty home!

While she depended on other people to buy the things that she created, La Befana actually didn’t like people very well and never admitted them inside her house when she could avoid it.  She sold them their toys or their cookies or their ointments, and then she sent them away.  She led a clean, quiet, life, and didn’t want anyone messing with that!

One night, when she had finished sweeping the last stair and had pulled in the lantern and blown out the light, she was presented with a mystery.  Her home was not dark!  She checked the lantern and it was indeed out – but the light was pouring in through the window.  “Why was it so light?” she wondered.  She looked out the window and saw a star was shining brightly – it was the brightest star she had ever seen!  But she didn’t have time to think about what was happening, because she was startled by a knock on the door. “Visitors now?” she complained.  “Who is bothering old Befana so late?  If it wasn’t bad enough with the sky all lit up, now I have company!” No one had ever came so late before.

She peeked out her window to see who was there and saw an old man who was magnificently dressed.  He looked to be very learned, his face was quite tan, and although his clothes were brightly colored, they were covered with dust from the road.  His shoes were very muddy, and he looked worn out from his travel.

She opened the door, reluctantly, and he stepped inside – with his dirty shoes and muddy pants.  “Good evening!”, he said. “I’m sorry to be disturbing you at such a late hour, but I am lost.  I’m on a great mission – I’ve seen a sign that a child has been born – one who will lead us all in the years to come.  This child is divine!  He is full of joy, hope, and love.  I know that he is sent from God above.  I’ve brought gifts to this child, and I want to give him my heart, too.”

The old man saw the little toys and things on the shelves in La Befana’s home.  “Oh! You could come with us! These things that you sell would be fit for a king like this baby!”

Befana wasn’t too sure about that, and she didn’t like the fact that this man was dressed so funny, and that he was out there following the stars. And he was MUDDY.

“No, no, no,” she said.  “I don’t know anything about this child, and I can’t help, and I certainly don’t want to go out following a star or some such nonsense!”  She showed him the way to the door and reached for her broom to start cleaning up the mess.

No sooner had she started cleaning when there was another knock on the door.  She saw another man, also dressed quite finely. “What do you want?”, she yelled through the closed door.

He answered, “I need directions, my friend.  I am also looking for supplies for a journey.”

The second gentleman and his friends came inside.  Like the first, their boots were covered with grime and dirt. “My friend,” he said “We are seeking a child of light – one who will become a King! We go to bring gifts and offer him our hands. He will bring good news to the poor, and to change the world! Why don’t you join us as we travel to see him?”

Once more she assured them that she was not at all interested in something like that, and so she sold them what they needed and sent them out into the night.

She thought that they had all gone, but she looked out and there was still a young boy, holding a camel.  “Please, Befana!”, he said, “Come with us!  We will find the king, and he will be good news for all people!  He will love and help the poor.  There’s still time!  Join us!”  But Strega Befana just closed the door and collapsed into her chair.

She looked at her room – it had been soooooo clean! She set down her broom and decided that she’d take a quick nap before she cleaned it up again. As soon as she sat to rest, the oak door was pounded on one more time.  She didn’t even get up – she just yelled at the door: “Go away! I know nothing about this child that everyone is trying to find!  Please, leave at once!  I will not come, and I’m not interested in selling anything else!”

Whoever it was that had knocked went away slowly, and La Befana finally started to finish cleaning up her house.  She muttered and sighed as she swept.  “Coming to serve the poor…hmph!  Old Befana is poor.  Does this baby care for her?  I think not!”

But when she opened the door to sweep the dirt out she let out a small cry. There in the distance, something bright caught her eye.  It was a wondrous new star in the deep blue sky.  Something in her changed, and she realized that this was not an ordinary star, and it was not an ordinary day.

She thought back to those lost gentlemen, the king they were seeking, and the gifts that they’d brought. “That star – and those visitors – they were right!” she said to herself.  “Maybe it’s not too late for me to go.  I will find them.  I will go with them and present my gift to the child king.  But what could I take?”

She set down her broom and went to the kitchen.  All day long she baked.  When she was not baking, she was clearing all the little toys from her shelves, throwing everything into a large bag.

She put on a shawl, and she opened the door.  She grabbed her broom, thinking, “I imagine that when I find that baby his mother will not have had time to clean.  I can help her with the sweeping of her home…”

But as she stood at the door looking back into her home, La Befana noticed that there was a speck of dust in the corner of the room.  She thought, “Well, now, how would it be if I were to go on a trip and leave my own home a mess!”

And so La Befana put down her sack and started to sweep.  She got the speck of dust.  And then she swept the room, and the other room.  She swept the steps, and she even thought to sweep the walk outside.

Finally – hours later – she was ready to leave.  She glimpsed the star all right, and she walked toward it. She was in such a hurry that she began to run, and she ran as fast as she could… but it was a long way, and she was old, and she got tired.  She started to walk, and she thought, “This is no good.  I’ll never find this baby.  I don’t even know where he is.”

And, sure enough, when she looked at the sky again, she wasn’t sure which star was THE star.  She sat down and cried.  She got up again, and started to walk when she saw a home with an open window.  She looked inside, and there was a child asleep. “I wonder,” she said, “Could this be the one?  Is this the one who is born to be king? Maybe I better leave something just in case…? The further Old Befana walked, the more sleeping children she passed, and in every home she left a small gift and swept it a little cleaner with her broom, because she said, “After all, I’m not sure which of these was born to bring good news to the poor and to change the world.”

Well, La Befana never caught up with the wise men, and she never made it to Bethlehem, and she is still not sure which child they came to see.

So now, every year on the eve of the Feast of the Three Kings, the story is told of a sad old lady who flies around on her broom, bringing little treats to all children.  She’s happy that she can share what she’s been given, but she’s sad because she wasn’t able to welcome the visitors to her home, and she missed her chance to follow them and to greet the Christ child.  She’s decided that from now on, she’ll never miss the chance to show kindness to strangers, or to welcome visitors, and in so doing, to follow the star of Bethlehem.

Chimwemwe To The World

Each Christmas Eve, it is my privilege and delight to look for, write, and tell a new Christmas Story to the congregation.  There are a lot of reasons why this is important to me, some of which are explored in the introduction to my book of collected stories entitled I Will Hold My Candle And Other Stories For Christmas (available at Amazon and other online book sellers).  This year’s story is set in Central Africa and is informed by my many opportunities to visit there.  Our candlelight service included all the traditional songs, a few new ones, and some scriptures that point towards those who watch for, and announce, God’s activity in the world.  They included Isaiah 21:6-8 (which, by the way, is the passage that served as the inspiration for the title of Harper Lee’s Go, Set A Watchman) and John 1:6-18.  

As with nearly all good stories, this one is best heard aloud.  To hear this story as told in worship, please use the media player below.

Chimwemwe rushed into the room.  Although the small home was lit only by candles and kerosene lamps, her face made it light up as though there were floodlights! This thirteen year old girl, whose name means “Joy” in their local language, was the embodiment of light.

“I’m ready, Daddy,” she said.  “Can we go?”

“We can go when your sister and brother are ready,” replied her father, as he put down a newspaper.

She jumped into his lap – which was not as easy as it had been a few years ago.  “Madala, I can’t wait! This is my favorite night of the whole year!”

Although he knew the answer, her father played the game.  “Why is that?”, he asked.

“Because!” she exclaimed.  “It’s almost time to see if we were right!  Tonight we will know the truth about what we thought we saw!  We will know if we’ve been good watchers!”

The girl’s mother called from the other room.  “Oh, you four and your watching.  What will you see tonight?” she asked.

Chimwemwe concentrated for a moment, and then said, “Well, Dalitso noticed that the old woman who lives across from the maize-flour mill has had the thatch from her roof blow off. He thinks she needs new-”

She was interrupted as her ten year old brother burst into the room and completed the sentence, saying, “he knowsthat new iron sheets will keep her dry for the entire rainy season.”  Dalitso, whose name means “blessings”, sought to join his sister in their father’s lap.

Chimwemwe continued as if there was no little brother.  “Chikondi has selected some new books for the teacher’s library that was burnt in the fire, and we have some chickens to deliver to Mr. Mphatso, the watchman.  While he was at work a few weeks ago, the baboons came and took all of his chickens and now there are no eggs for his children.”

The father hugged his children tightly and said, “You know that I’m always proud of you, but this year it means even more to me. You have touched me deeply.”

The children looked at him quizzically, and he said, “You don’t know this, but a long time ago – before you were born – I was a watchman myself.”

The kids were incredulous.  “You? How could that be?  You run a newspaper!”

“I do now, but I have not always.  Listen, since it seems as though your sister will be a while, let me tell you a story.”

“When I was a child, life was very, very difficult.”

The children chimed in as if in chorus: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We know.  You lived in the village.  There was no electric, and you had to fetch water-”

Now it was father’s turn to interrupt.  “Yes, that’s true,” he said, “but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

He held up his right arm, and there where his hand should have been was something that looked as though it could have been the idea for a hand, or maybe the rough draft of a hand, but it was not a hand such as you are accustomed to seeing on folks every day.  There were only three parts of it that might conceivably have been called “fingers”, and even then, the bone structure was quite different.

“When I was born,” he went on, “there was a problem.  Even before the midwife was called to help my mother, she knew that my birth would be difficult.  And while usually the first part of a baby to be born into the world is the head, with me it was this arm that came out first.  I obviously don’t remember this part, but I’m told that there was a lot of yelling and crying, and that people were afraid of this baby to be born.”

Chimwemwe took her father’s hand and said, “Madala, it’s just your hand.  It was just a little baby hand.  Sure, it looks different, but it’s fine!”

Her father said, “Well, we know that now, but this was a long time ago, and in the village. There were not as many doctors. People thought differently.  And so it was that when I was born, my father took one look at me and called me ‘Mabvuto’, which means ‘trouble’ in the local language. And for a long time, everyone – including me – thought that the name was perfect.  Because I wastrouble.”

“Can you imagine growing up with a hand like this?  Can you think how the other children would have teased me? Do you know that they made fun of me and even ran away from me?  On my inside – I wanted to help, I wanted to be a friend – but they could only see my different hand.”

“Now in those days there was a company that was called Secure-Corps or something like that. When I saw them, I saw athletic young men wearing matching uniforms driving fast trucks. They were guards hired by rich people, and when an alarm sounded, truckloads of these men would rush through the streets in order to save a home from being robbed or a person from being beaten.  I wanted to work for them.  I just knewthat if I was a Secure-Corps guard, people would be happy to see me coming!”

Dalitso – ‘Blessings’ – looked at his father and said, “So is thatwhen you were a guard, Madala?”

“No!,” was his father’s quick reply.  “I could never work for that company.  I was never a guard; I never had a uniform or one of those fast trucks.  You see, in order to be a guard for that company, you had to be able to read.  My father wouldn’t pay to send me to school.  He said, ‘Why bother, for such trouble?  Mabvuto – look at him.  Look at that hand.  What can he do with a hand like that?’”

“For a long time, it was so hard.  I was always angry.  I was getting mean.  But one day, it was my grandmother – Agogo – who helped me.”

“She surprised me in the bush one day.  I was staring at my hand, and I had taken some small sticks and was trying to hold them there to see what my hand might look like if I had five fingers.  She took the sticks and threw them and then grabbed me to herself.  ‘Oh, Mabvuto,’ she cried.  ‘Why do you keep on looking for something that is not there?  Do you think that if you stare long enough or hard enough that those fingers will appear?’”

“We sat in the grass for a long time, and if we said anything, I don’t remember it.  As the sun was setting, she asked me to help her back into her hut.  It was getting dark, and she almost stepped on it, but at the last minute I saw it – a snake – a poisonous black mamba – and I pulled her back. I grabbed a hoe and I killed the snake.”

“My Agogo hugged me and she said, ‘That’s my Mabvuto – so observant.’”

“’Observant?’ What’s ‘observant?’  She told me it meant that I was good at noticing things, and at watching.”

“And I was.  I couldn’t be a guard, so I became a watchman, and I discovered that I think I liked that even better than being a guard. Guards, you see, were always rushing around in times of trouble, but watchmen were just always there.  Guards were hired by rich people to protect them from bad things, but as a watchman I would see all kinds of things.  I noticed when the hippos left the river to eat and when they returned.  I learned all about the stars.  I would watch and listen as people ran into a house when a new baby was being born.”

“Do you see? As a watchman, I had to keep an eye out for problems, but I also got to observe – to watch – beautiful and powerful things that might have seemed small. Instead of looking only at bad things, or concentrating only on what was missing, I could tell stories about what I did see.”

“When I got home, my sisters and then my cousins would come around me and listen to me tell them about the things I’d seen.  When I got older, I taught myself how to read and write.  I wanted to share the stories that I had, and so I opened my own company…”

“The paper!” his children shouted.  “Nkani Yabwino!  The ‘good news’ paper!”

“Well, yes,” he said. “It wasn’t a newspaper at first. It was just copies of some of the good things that I saw – and it taught me how to be a better watcher.”

“And now, Chimwemwe and Dalitso, and even little Chikondi – you are all better watchers than I am!  You see everything, and you look for ways to make things better or stronger.  I know, you like tonight because we will go out and share some iron sheets, or books, or chickens… but every day we have the chance to look for things that no one else sees.  We try to straighten what is bent, to point out what is great, and to share in people’s lives.”

“But why do we do this tonight, Daddy?” asked Chimwemwe.

“Because it’s Christmas Eve, my daughter!  It’s your birthday!  Do you remember what your name means when we say it in English?  It is ‘JOY’ – because on that night there is always a lot of JOY.  There is joy because we see that God watches with the people who watch-”

His children cried in unison: “the shepherds!”

“There is joy because God sends people to honor and bless the poor-”

“The Wise Men!”

“Mostly, there’s joy because we know God didn’t set out to guard the earth, but to be in it, to watch it, and to teach people how to see!”

The mood of the room changed quickly with the arrival of the youngest child, a girl called Chikondi. And you might want to know what happened next.

Well, I suppose that depends on what you were looking for.

The men down at the Secure-Corps headquarters who watched the surveillance camera footage could tell you that they saw a middle-aged man who appeared to be favoring one hand take 3 kids – later determined to be named Chimwemwe, Dalitso, and Chikondi – around town delivering parcels.

The families of a poor old woman, and a teacher, and a night watchman later said that they’d been visited by angels who came to them and said that God had noticed them in the midst of their trouble.

And me? I saw someone called Mabvuto who once thought that he had been born for trouble make a way for Joy, Blessings, and Love to shine in the darkness on Christmas Eve.

Well, that was a long time ago.  And it was in a place that’s pretty far away.  But keep your eyes open.  Watch. You never know what you’ll see, and who you can tell about it. Thanks be to God, who watches over us, and invites us to do the same with each other!  Amen.

How’s Your Follow?

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 23 we heard the plea to “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”.  You can hear a version of that at the end of the post, below.  Our scriptural basis was the original call to the shepherds in Luke 2:1-20 as well as the example of Ruth in Ruth 1:16-17.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  If you typically read the message, I’d really encourage you to listen this week, as I think that the audio is a a little better proclamation.

Maybe it’s just me… or maybe it’s simply another sign that I’m getting to be pretty old… but this year in particular, I’ve been struck by a phrase that has become a feature in advertising.

ONE DAY ONLY!

We have to Act Fast! Do It Now! Christmas only comes around once a year, Bub, and if you’re going to be a good parent / child / sibling / neighbor, well then you’d better get moving and get shopping! If you don’t drag yourself to the mall, or write out the Christmas cards, or plan the big dinner NOW – well, forget about it.

It’s Christmas, for crying out loud! You’re supposed to be driving / spending / baking / shopping yourself into a frenzy.

Why? Because “it’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Don’t try this at home… SERIOUSLY, DO NOT try this at home…

Listen, if I ever go out and make a $60,000 purchase without talking to my wife about it, you’d better believe that you’re going to hear a lot about that decision… and I’m here to tell you that whatever may be said about that kind of foolish and reckless behavior, two words that will not be included are “most wonderful”.

But we do this, don’t we?  We put such great expectations on the holiday season, or on a single day, or even into one particular hour that if a flight is delayed or a home is sold or a loved one dies, well, then, everything is ruined and it’s the most horrible time of the year.

You are aware, I presume, that this is not how it’s supposed to be…

Nativity scene with figures in black silhouette against blue starry sky with comet star lightbeam.

The Biblical model for Christmas is something unassuming and surprising; it is something that draws us in rather than railroading us into action.

This month we’ve been seeking to be attentive to some songs of lament and hope that we know as African American Spirituals. Today’s song, “Rise Up, Shepherd”, is shaped around the word “follow”, and I’m here to tell you that as such it is a prophetic word to the culture in the USA in 2018.

Christmas in 2018 is about creating meaning and inventing significance – about building up expectation and acquiring the right gift, people, or experience so that you just know that it’s Christmas and, more so, that you’ve won Christmas.

The first Christmas, on the other hand, was more about discovering what was already there; at joining in with what had begun.  It was about following the soft light of a star that had been shining for, well, who knows?  It was about responding to the song of the angels and then hurrying to get to the place where God was already at work.

“Follow, follow; rise up, shepherd, and follow…”

We use that word a lot these days, don’t we? And I’m here to tell you that there are a lotof followers out there.

How many of you use the social platform called Instagram?  Do you know who has the most followers on that photo and video-sharing network?  Cristiano Ronaldo, a Portuguese soccer player, has 148.3 million followers.

How about Twitter? Who would you suppose is the most popular tweet-er?  An American woman, Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson, a.k.a. Katy Perry, is followed by 107 million people – that is more than twice as many as follow any President of the USA, living or dead (although the dead guys don’t tweet as often…).

Or what about Facebook?  How many “friends” do you have? Who would you suppose has the most followers on Facebook? Once again, it is Cristiano Ronaldo, who has 122.5 million followers; he is followed by a Columbian pop star named Shakira.

And you say, “Ah, all that social media stuff. I’m not into that.”  Maybe not.  But I bet that you could use the word “follow” to describe your relationship with the Penguins, or the Stock Market, or the soap operas.

In our culture, surprisingly, the word  “follow” has become a passive activity.  When you say that you “follow” Shakira or the Penguins, you probably mean that you identify as an interested party or as a fan.  However, you probably don’t invest a great deal of your time or energy in “following” Evgeni Malkin or the latest share price for US Steel.  In “following” these things, you’re keeping an eye on them, and hoping that they might do something that would interest or benefit you. Do you see what I mean when I suggest that it is a “passive” activity?

Did you know that the Internal Revenue Service has a special category for “Passive Activity”? According to them, passive activities are those in which you participate non-materially – that is, less than 500 hours in a given year.  For tax purposes, you can only claim to be actively pursuing a trade or business activity if you spend close to ten hours a week doing so.

I’m here to say that I hope that nobody in this room is investing ten hours a week in Ronaldo, or Shakira, or the Steelers place-kicker.  Oh, we say, we follow those folks.  But they don’t really impact us.  That’s what I mean when we use the word “follow” to indicate a mild interest, or a plan to keep tabs on someone who really is tangential to the main parts of my life.

Yet when we use that definition of “follow” in terms of our discipleship, well, that’s incomplete. According to the spiritual we just sang, you will be so entranced by the presence of the Christ that your following will result in the forgetting of your flocks and of your herds…

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

One of the best examples of a follower in the Bible is from the ancient story of Ruth. This woman, who had been born as an outsider – a Moabite – had been through some incredible difficulty. There was a famine in her home land, and it was so severe that it took the lives of her father-in-law, her brother-in-law, and eventually her husband.  Most of her contemporaries would have said that she was all alone – except she was not.  She had a vibrant relationship with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  She was so captivated by what she saw in the person of Naomi that she left her old life behind so that she could get in on what Naomi was doing.

You heard her declaration a few moments ago: it’s about as far from passive as one can get, isn’t it?  For Ruth, “following” meant adopting a new address, a new culture, a new diet, and new habits.

For the first disciples, following Jesus meant disrupting their vocational plans, involvement in significant conflict, and most often, an untimely death.

For many who sang that spiritual, following Jesus meant holding onto hope in the midst of days that seemed bleak and ugly; it meant trusting God to right wrongs even as they themselves worked to subvert an order that was fundamentally unjust.

“Follow, follow; rise up shepherd and follow…”

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

The shepherds were drawn in.  The wise men sought slowly and deliberately.  The disciples re-oriented their lives.

How are you following?  And is it the way that you’d like to follow?

I’m here to suggest that even though it’s technically notChristmas yet, it’s probably too late for this year.  I mean, Christmas Eve is tomorrow, for crying out loud.  I think that for must of us, the 2018 Christmas train has left the station.

Don’t get me wrong – I hope to share with you in worship; I’ll advocate for you to look for ways to avoid overspending and unwise debt and to seek out ways to be fully present with  people in the days that are to come.

But what about after Christmas?  What will the days following Christmas look like for you?

You see, in our current cultural understanding, the number one activity immediately following Christmas (“the most wonderful time of the year”) is kicking back, taking time off work if you can, and breathing a huge sigh of relief… “Oh, boy, I’m glad that’s over! I sure wouldn’t want to have to go through that again!  Now it’s time to get back to what I want to do.  I want to spend on the things that I’m interested in.  I get to eat what I want to, and to go where I want to go…

As if following the Bethlehem star, or being ‘good’ for Santa, or living in relationship with other people is somehow outside of our normal experience and something we can’t wait to stop…

Today, I’d like to ask you to make the days following Christmas days in which you seek to follow Jesus.  And I’d like to suggest that there are at least four things that you can do to help you be a better follower…

Rest.  I know, you’re planning on that, just as soon as you get back from Aunt Marge’s place on the 29th.  But I mean to ask you this: can you change the pace of your life so that you have a better rhythm?  What if you built in more rest each day? I’m not saying that you’re supposed to plan more “spa” days, whatever they are.  I’m suggesting that every day, you could probably linger over a meal with a friend for a few more moments.  You could probably set aside ten or fifteen minutes at some point in the day to read something that would revive or refresh you.  I know, it might cost you some Ronaldo or Shakira time, but we all make choices…

Practice Gratitude.  I know, many people think that “thank-you” notes are a quaint and unnecessary formality, while others think that they’ve all got to be done in a week.  When we view that kind of correspondence in that way, it becomes another source of pressure and a community killer.  Look – when you receive a gift or a card, just jot it down on a list.  And then in the days, and weeks, and months to come, take a moment to write to the person who extended themselves in that way and say, “Thanks for thinking of me.  It matters. Here are some things that are happening now.  You matter.” Write a note, or send a text, or make a phone call.  Allow the practice of gratitude to drive you more deeply into relationship with people who are important to you.

Give more.  We spend a month or so rushing around hoping we’ve gotten enough stuff to give away and not feel guilty about it, and then we spend 11 months doing whatever the heck we want.  Let me encourage you to make giving a part of your following.  Look for ways to free up more time, more energy, and more money for you to share with people and causes that you think align with God’s intentions.

Try something new.  Find a new adventure or passion that will be tied to and also help feed your faith.  Maybe that’s an active step, such as finding a spot on the Texas Mission Team, or volunteering with the Open Door, or the Preschool, or The Table.  Or maybe that’s a quieter role, such as doing some tinkering around this building or visiting some of the lonely in our midst.  Maybe this is the kick in the pants you need to start investing some new time in an Adult discussion group like Faithbuilders or another small group.

Look, my sense is that for ONE DAY ONLY we’re willing to sit and talk with people a little longer, or to pretend to be grateful, or to make a donation to a cause that we don’t really care about, or to try something new… but then we are ready to get back to “normal”.  But really, if Christmas is for one day only – if it’s the 25thand then back to business as usual… I think we’re doing it wrong.

Follow, follow; rise up, Shepherd, and follow.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

No One Works Like Him!

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 16, we heard the celebration that “No One Works Like Him” (See another congregation’s rendition of “He is King of Kings” in the video below).  Our scriptural basis was another old hymn: the Magnificat – as found in Luke 1:46-55

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.

As we start our time together this morning I’d like to invite you to look at a couple of images.  First, take a look at these magnificent shorebirds that were sketched recently. Can you see the detail in the beaks, especially?  Can you believe it when I tell you that when I showed these birds to my wife, she said, “Wow.  Those rabbits are extraordinary!”?

And how about this image of my uncle?  Do you see him there? The man and the dog that he loved?

Actually, as you may know, each of these sketches is nearly a hundred years old – they are optical illusions – images that can present in at least two ways.  What is interesting is that the scientists tell us that you can only see one image at a time – you see either a man or the dog, but you can’t see both at the same time. The image can only be one thing or another at any given instant in your brain.

I’m bringing this up as we continue our discipline of considering the weight and meaning of African-American spirituals during Advent.  As we’ve said before, Advent is a time of both lament and hope – a time when we name things that are not right, and yet claim that rightness is the intention and the direction in which the creation will ultimately head.  As we experience the songs originally sung by those who arrived to these shores in chains, we need to hear echoes of lament and hope.

George Washington Overseeing His Slaves, 1853 Lithograph

Consider the refrain of the tune we heard a few moments ago: “no one works like him.” Now I’m asking you to use your imagination here, but work with me on this: how would slaves working out in the field have heard that phrase?  In a society where human beings are bought and sold, where one man’s life is the property of another, then can you see that “no one works like him” is a sales pitch, a bit of braggadocio?  A “master” walks past a slave toiling away and points to him, saying, “Just look at him! No one works like him! This is how you should all be behaving.”

Could it be that this lyric is a way of reaffirming the existing structure and paradigm? Could this lyric be interpreted in a way that takes for granted a reality in which slavery is normative and hard work is expected?

If you see these lyrics in this way, then you can imagine a slaveowner out walking in the fields, hearing “his” slaves singing “No one works like him!” and being reassured – as if to say, “Yep, look at Jesus. He works so hard – you should, too!”

I sincerely hope that this is the worst picture of Jesus you ever see in your life.

And if you can see the lyrics in this way as being interpreted like that a hundred and seventy years ago, then it’s easy to see similar images of Jesus’ work in our world now – the images of Jesus working hard on behalf of someone else (usually me).  Here’s what I mean by that: think about your prayer life. “Lord, I really need a new car, or a new job…” and Jesus’ expected reply, “Yep! I’m on it, buddy!” “Oh, and Lord… you didn’t forget that Larry’s neighbor is having a heart catherization today, did you?… Oh, crap, there’s not a parking place to be found, and I’m already late… Jesus, can you help me out here?”

“Well, Dave, you know what they say! ‘No one works like him!’  I’ve got this, Dave.  Don’t worry!”

You see? If you hold the Bible just right, you can see that image, can’t you?

But what if the spiritual we heard earlier is indeed an attempt to tell the whole truth – but to tell it from a different perspective?

Years ago I heard one of my mentors, Eugene Peterson, introduce a study on Jesus by reading a work by Emily Dickenson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With Explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind     [1]

Eugene was using this poem to talk about the ways in which the truth that Jesus spoke and the truth about Jesus was always present – but it nearly always was truth on a slant – or, to put it another way – Truth coming in the side door.  When we talk about telling the truth, and telling it slant – we are saying that there are some truths that are not as obvious at first, but may be just as deep – or even deeper – than the ones on the surface.

For instance, what is this?  I know, I know, Tim and Gabe keep thinking that it’s a fishing net.  They can’t understand that it is my personal collection of holes, held together with string.

Let’s look at a “slant” interpretation of this hymn. “No one works like him.”  Well, what is the work of Jesus?  When he was ready to get down to business, this is what he said of himself: ““The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’” (Luke 4:16-20, CEV)

Magnificat, Daniel Erlander. Used by permission. More at http://danielerlander.com

If we are to take Jesus at his word, he did not come in order to consolidate or affirm the existing power structure – he came to alter it, or more precisely, to subvert it. He came to restore what was broken and to right what was wrong.Therefore, I suspect that when an enslaved people spends the day singing a song about a Jesus who works hard, that they are echoing another song – one that Campbell read a few moments ago.  They sang about Jesus and they remembered the prophecy of his mother, who sang about a savior who has uses his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud; about one who drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power. They placed their hope in a God who gives the hungry good things to eat, and who sends the rich away with nothing.

The One to whom this song points did not come to reinforce oppressive structures such as slavery and he did not come seeking to bless my upwardly mobile lifestyle.

The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus came to help us identify deep, dark places in this world and in our own lives that are at odds with the Creator’s intent and then invite us to work together to redesign that world and these lives.  Look, I’m not saying that Jesus can’thelp you find the perfect gift for the letter carrier or help you to remember Aunt Edna’s sugar cookie recipe, but I am here to say that if those kinds of things were all he that did, we sure wouldn’t be singing about him 2000 years later.

Let me put it this way.  I want you to think of an artist whose work you really admire. And let’s say that Henri Matisse, or Georgia O’Keefe, or Bob Ross showed up at your house with all their stuff and said, “Well howdy, neighbor! I’m here all week! What would you like me to paint?”

I’m here to say that you’d be a real knucklehead if the first thing you thought of was to say, “You know, I’m not really comfortable with the color of the trim in the upstairs bathroom.  Would you mind….?”

Listen: the world in 2018 is a world beyond King Herod’s wildest dreams.  If Jesus’ first arrival was in a world that was characterized by injustice and social inequality, I’m here to tell you that in many ways it’s worse today.  There are more slaves on the planet now – approximately 40 million of them –  than there ever have been.[2]

We see every day that there are different systems of justice that are applied in different ways, depending on the race, culture, and financial status of the one who stands accused.

As we speak, nearly 70 million human beings have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are desperately seeking shelter in camps for Internally Displaced People, or as refugees, or as asylum seekers.[3]

And every day, you and I meet a hundred people who, if they were to be asked about the prevalence of slavery, or the conditions that cause people to leave their entire lives behind them, or the fact that there is not a uniform system of justice in the nation, would say, “Wow, really? That’s too bad.  But it’s not my problem.”

And yet the Jesus who features so prominently in the mangers that they – and we – eagerly display this month is promising to upend a social order that perpetuates inequality and oppression. Jesus seems to think that those things are his problems.

Are we sure that the Gospel is good news? Not to everyone, it’s not.  Do you remember what Herod did when he figured out who Jesus was?  He murdered an entire village’s infant sons, hoping to extinguish this kind of thing.

And yet the work of Jesus is profoundly Good News – it is Gospel – to the marginalized and to those who love them.

So remember what I said about how brain researchers telling us that we can sometimes see the bird and sometimes see the rabbit, but we can’t see both of them at once?  It’s the same way with Jesus and his work and the Kingdom he proclaims.  You cannot see the work of the Christ as BOTH reinforcing the way things are AND heralding something new and liberating.

This Advent, can we stop acquiring and spending long enough to listen for the cries of those on the margins?  Can we learn to not only lament with them in the pain of this world, but to join them in expectant hope and thanksgiving for the God who comes?

Beloved, let us plan our gifting, our eating and drinking, our shopping and sharing as if we are aware not only that “no one works like him”, but as if we actually have a clue as to what kind of work he does. And then, let us join him in it!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston, 1955), #1129

[2]https://www.freetheslaves.net/our-model-for-freedom/slavery-today/

[3]https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

One Step at a Time

In Advent 2018, our congregation is seeking to listen to the voices not only of those in Scripture, but who have heard the testimony of Scripture and had to filter that through some experiences that were painful and difficult.  While there are many examples of such testimony in our world, we are using the narratives contained in some of the classic African-American spirituals. If there is any group of people who had to mine the Good News from ground that was filled with suffering and pain, is is those who were brought to these shores in chains and kept in degradation and bondage.  On December 9, we heard the plea to “Guide My Feet” (video below).  Our scriptures included Luke 1:67-79 and I Corinthians 9:24-27.  In addition, the congregation surprised me with a recognition of my 25th anniversary as their pastor AND we welcomed new members AND we celebrated baptisms.  It was, as my friend Eddie would say, a “double feature”.  And it was good. 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I suspect that if you’ve been here for the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed that we’ve had a lot going on (evidently, this morning, even more than even I knew about!).  Communion. Congregational meetings. Baptisms.  New Members.  We started a new Advent practice of singing spirituals.  Today many of the kids are on a retreat; we’ve heard an Epistle reading that talks about the race of discipleship that must have made sense to the ancient Greeks, who invented the marathon.  We’ve listened to a Gospel story of an old man singing to his infant son about how that son would guide people’s feet into paths of peace…  When I get to a flurry of activity like this, the first question I need to ask myself is, “Well, what are we going to talk about?”

Let’s start at the beginning.  I suppose that there’s a slim chance you could remember, but I doubt it.  Who taught you how to stand up, and then to walk? Who coached you through that experience? Do you remember the precise exercises you did as you practiced rising, putting one foot in front of the other, and then maybe even tackled the stairs?

Of course not.  In reality, by and large, nobodyis taught how to walk.  We just do it, right? Some of you were 8 months old.  Others were 14 months old.  Barring some sort of medical issue, every child eventually gets it, right?

And – you know this – watching a child who is figuring this all out? It’s hilarious.  They pull themselves up on something, and they toddle along stumbling like drunken sailors until they arrive at the inevitable face plant… Most children do not need someone to teachthem how to walk.  Yet every toddler needs someone to encourage them – to remind them that they cando it – that they are, perhaps, better at it than they realize.

The Christian Life is often called “a walk”, and I think that in large part that’s because it is easily understood as a place where – just as in our earliest experiments in mobility – innate ability, personal responsibility, and communal engagement come together.

Why do you follow Jesus?

Well, most of you would say that in large part, you’re here because you choseto be here. You have responded to the gift of grace that was extended to you. Not many people are here – at least, not for long – if someone is “making” them come.  When we shared communion last week, we noted that there was no such thing as a “force feeding” of the Gospel.

Here’s another example that I suspect will resonate with many of us in the room.  When you, or someone you loved, got sober or clean, how did that happen?  Did anyone make you do it? My experience – which is limited, to be sure – is that healing from addiction cannot move forward without a decision and an act of the individual will.  Some of you have told me that you got clean when you wanted to be clean more than you wanted something else.  I’ve heard about how tired you were of seeing the pain, fear, or disappointment on the faces around you – your parents or your children, in many cases.  Most of the time, moving towards wholeness begins with the day that the individual chooses to move.

But – and this is a big but, and there are a lot of big buts in church – in situations involving dependency and addiction, the individual’s choice and sheer determination are not sufficient.

Unlike learning how to walk (which is a natural aspect of human development), entering the paths of faith can be more like coming out of addiction, seeking to lose forty pounds, or going back to school to get another degree. When one is going through such a complete change, the support of family and friends is essential. Many of you who have gone through such significant life changes have talked with me about the importance of having one particular person who can coach you as you look at the pitfalls and seek to gain strength.

Look, I realize that I can only push any analogy so far, but what I’m trying to get at is that most of us are here because we’ve heard something from the Lord, we’ve seen something in Jesus, we’ve sensed some movement in the Spirit and that has made us say, “Yes! That!  I want that! I’ll run this race!”  You and I are here because God was somehow active in our world and we responded to that activity and showed up.

So the more important question for today, then, is not “why do you follow Jesus?”, but rather, “how are we becoming a community of encouragement and care?”  How are we treating each other – those who have joined us in running this race?

I know that every single person in this building has been in a room crowded with “grown-ups” who are watching a child take their first steps.  How does any experienced walker behave in that situation?  You’ve been there: there’s a lot of cheering and celebration and even videotaping and recording, right?

How about here?

It seems to me as though it is impossible for us to think of ourselves as a community of care and encouragement if we are characterized by condemnation and ridicule.  Think about it: can you imagine a grandparent belittling a two year old for stumbling down the hallway?  Would a mature person study an 18 month old child’s attempts to get from the living room to the kitchen and then post it on Facebook, saying, “Well, this kid’s clearly an idiot.  Yesterday, I thought we were getting somewhere, but today? Please.  Looks like she’s falling back into those old habits.  What a loser. Steer clear of her – she looks pretty needy.”?  Of course not.

In the same way, an essential task of the church of Jesus Christ is to resist condemnation, share affirmation, and practice encouragement. Part of our organizational DNA is reminding people that they can be more than they thought they could.  I’d like to try something with you.  Right now, can you just put down whatever you’re holding and just reach your hands high above your heads.  Get them up there – as high as possible, and hold them there for a moment.  OK. Got it?  Now, listen to me, but watch your neighbor: I want you to reach higher.

You liars! I asked you to get your hands as high above your heads as you could, and you said you were doing that… but then when I asked you what was apparently impossible – reach higher – you did.

Listen: my point here is not that you can’t be trusted… it’s that each of us can probably accomplish more than we think we might be able to if we are given the right amount of encouragement and challenge. Let us pledge as a community to resist the temptation to condemnation and judgmentalism and embrace our identity as we become those who encourage.

Another thing that any competent adult would do when encouraging a toddler to walk is clear the path.  When Sharon and I are trying to get Violet to trust her legs and balance more, we pick up laundry and close the gate to the fireplace and so on.

As we are joined by sisters and brothers who are eager to run the race of faith, can we create worship and discipleship experiences that remove obstacles and hindrances for others?  Maybe it’s providing child care.  It could be taking a good look at musical styles or the language we use. In any case, it’s the responsibility of those who are better at walking to make sure that the pathway is as clear as possible.  And I shouldn’t need to say this, but I will: when we do this, we don’t gripe about it. When your friend was rehabbing from his accident or your daughter was learning to walk, you didn’t moan and groan about how you had to make sure that the laundry was picked up before they tried to walk across the room – you did it, and you were happy to do it because you love that person more than you love the things that are laying the path, right?

There’s one more thing I’d like to say about creating a vibrant community of faith, and it’s slightly counterintuitive.  If we’re talking about children learning to walk, we accept it as a given that the two year-olds are learning, and the sixteen or sixty year-olds know it all.  We think that there is some sort of linear progression there, and we’re probably right.  However, as we engage in the walk of faith, we have got to remember that for each and every one of us, there is a lot to learn, and we must be open to learning from someone who is “younger” in one way or another than we are.  Our Gospel reading today showed us a father who was expecting his son to teach him great things; our Epistle was written by Paul, who was one of the best-educated men of his generation – and yet who was nurtured and taught by, and learn from, a group of illiterate fishermen.

When I show up at meetings with other pastors, they sometimes give me grief because I still work with the Youth Group.  “Come on, Carver,” they say.  “Time to get out of that.  That’s a young person’s job.”  Maybe. But I love watching the face of a young person figuring some of this out for the first time.  I am constantly encouraged by – and learning from – the children and young people in our community.  I have learned far more about being fearless from young people than I have from those older than I; children have taught me to use my imagination; and in recent years I’ve seen young adults push me closer to the heart of Jesus than I might go on my own. I’m grateful for the chances I have to teach, and yet I’m more grateful for the many opportunities I’ve had to learn.

“Guide my feet while I run this race” is not merely a prayer wherein I ask God to give me some special coaching; it is a cry for community.  We come in here and we tell each other that we’ve been out there doing it – whatever “it” is – and we cheer for each other, we hold one another’s troubles, and we remember that this is a good place – the right place – for us to be.  Thanks be to God for a community that is vibrant and growing.  Amen.

There IS A Balm

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of Advent, December 2 2018, we talked about the second occasion in that Gospel wherein Jesus restores sight to one who has been blind. We noticed that this passage is intended by the editor of Mark to be a commentary on discipleship and faith – it was so in the first century, and it works in the twenty-first as well.  Our Gospel reading was Mark 10:46-52.  We also referenced Jeremiah 8:18-22.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:

I’ve come to notice something over the years, and perhaps you have, too. Often times when I am getting toward the end of a sermon, our musicians will slide into place behind their instruments. Sometimes I wonder how they know I’m getting close – they don’t have an advance copy or anything – but they pick up on my rhythm or content or pace and often find themselves in position at the close of the message.  Our friend Brian Buckley was a master at this – it was mystifying, and a little spooky, how good he was at knowing when I was done.  In fact, he was so good at it that there were a couple of times when I heard him slide onto the organ bench behind me when I still had a page and a half to go on the message that I wondered, “Wait…should I be done now?”

Of course, if you ask the musicians, they’ll say, “Gee, you listen to a guy for a couple of years/decades, and you kind of get a feel for where he’s going.  There are clues to be heard…”  And because they pick up on these clues, there are shifts in the content and direction of our worship that day.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, Robert Hodgell, c. 1960

I bring that up this morning because as we hear our Gospel reading for today, we ought to be attentive to some clues that are there.  This is the second and last time that Mark reports the healing of a person who was blind.  I think that when Mark mentions the fact that Bartimaeus was blind, he wants us to think back to the lasttime a person’s sight was restored.  In chapter 8, the healing of the man in Bethsaida marked a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.  Prior to that miracle, Jesus seemed to be focusing his ministry on a proclamation of the Good News throughout the Galilee that often featured large groups and great wonders (such as the feeding of the 5000).  The incident in Bethsaida effectively closed that part of Jesus’ ministry and led to a new emphasis: one that was focused more intentionally on the disciples and those around him.  After the healing of the blind man in Bethsaida, we hear Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah, we see the transfiguration, and we listen to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering, death, and resurrection as he leaves the Galilee and walks toward his destiny in Jerusalem.

Today’s passage – another encounter with a sightless person – therefore is meant to send another signal: there are changes ahead.  We see that Jesus is in Jericho, which is only fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem, and so we ought to expect this story to serve as a bridge between that which we’ve already experienced in the Gospel and that which is to come.

And, in a lot of ways, the encounter with Bartimaeus is a commentary on what has come before.  We meet him and we are told that he is a blind beggar.  In Jesus’ day and age, that is a bit of repetition. If a person was blind, of course that person would be a beggar. There weren’t many other options for folk who experienced disability in that day.  Saying that Bartimaeus was a blind beggar is every bit as redundant as it would be for me to say, “Here, would you like some cold ice?”, or “this is a delicious blueberry pie”, or “I’d like you to meet my friend, who is a disappointed Browns fan…”  You see? Saying one thing (he was blind) implies the other (he was a beggar). Mark’s point is that Bartimaeus was an outsider, and, more than that, he was a no-account outsider.  He’s not a Pharisee, he’s not a rich young ruler. He’s on the fringes of society.

And Bartimaeus is not just any marginalized person, he’s experiencing this marginalization in Jericho.  Jericho, as previously noted, is about fifteen miles outside of Jerusalem. At that time, Jericho was home to a large contingent of priests and Levites – professional workers at the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was a “bedroom community” for the religious elite, if you will. Bartimaeus was a sightless, marginalized, seemingly irrelevant person living in a community that was home to thousands of people who were being paid to watch for and point to the coming Savior of God – the One who, to borrow a phrase from the prophet Jeremiah, would be the “balm” of healing for God’s people.  And yet in spite of the fact that there were all of these professional religious people on hand, it falls to a marginalized, sightless, economically disadvantaged member of the community to be the first person in the Gospel of Mark to call Jesus by the messianic title “Son of David.”

Furthermore, you might remember that previously in Mark’s Gospel, whenever someone did call out Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus would hush that person.  This is the first time that Jesus accepts a public acknowledgment of his role.  This is new in the Gospel of Mark.  And it happens in Jericho – home to the religious professionals.  And he’s recognized by someone who is, to say the least, surprising.

Bartimaeus, sculpture by Gurdon Brewster. Used by permission of the artist. More at http://www.gurdonbrewster.com/index.html

In addition, Bartimaeus refuses to be hindered in his approach to Jesus.  Do you remember when the children were being brought to the Lord? The disciples kept them away.  Do you remember when the rich young man came and asked to follow? He could not, because his possessions weighed him down.  Bartimaeus won’t let either the crowd or his belongings slow him down, and so he shouts above the thron and throws aside his cloak – which, as a beggar, would have been his most prized possession and a symbol of his identity – and he leaps to his feet and rushes to Jesus’ side.  Do you see how this story is a commentary on what has come before?

There’s another clue that this is not an isolated event, but rather one meant to be read in context.  Just a few verses ago, Jesus looked at the men who had been following him the longest and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Here, he looks at a man he’s just met and uses the exact same words.  James and John call Jesus by a professional title, “master”, and ask for positions of power and honor in the kingdom that is to come.  Yet when Jesus asks Bartimaeus the exact same question, the sightless man calls Jesus “Rabbouni”, and says simply, “I’d like to see again”.

Whereas lots of people call Jesus “Rabbi”, which means “teacher”, there are only two people who call him “Rabbouni”, which means “myteacher: Bartimaeus (as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem) and Mary Magdalene (when she recognizes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection).  My point is that Mark intends us to notice that Bartimaeus, for all of his limitations and marginalization, as eager to align his life to God’s will.

In all of this, I am suggesting that the writer of Mark’s Gospel intended this encounter with Bartimaeus to be a summary of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  In these few verses, Jesus calls and invites a person to new possibilities for this life with the understanding and expectation that these new possibilities will change the realities for the one who answers the call. When Bartimaeus received from Jesus the thing for which he’d asked, he understood that the Lord had not healed him so that he could be a sightedbeggar.  When he regained his vision, he left his cloak on the ground for someone who needed it more, and he followed Jesus on the way.  This meeting in Jericho gives Mark the chance to show his readers how disciples ought to respond to the intrusion of the Divine in their lives.

So… in the words of that renowned theologian Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

For a moment, I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine Jesus drawing near to you, and opening up new possibilities in yourlife. When the Son of David says to you, “What do you want me to do for you?”, how do you answer? I hope you noticed that when Jesus encountered Bartimaeus, he was respectful.  He didn’t presume to speak for Bartimaeus – instead, he allowed the man to speak for himself.  Similarly, when we celebrate communion in a few moments, there will be an invitation to receive – but there is not ever a “force feeding”.  What do you want Jesus to do for you?  Think about that.

And as you imagine Jesus asking you you, consider this: what will you need to leave behind?  Bartimaeus was in such a hurry to reach the Lord that he threw his cloak aside.  What about you?  What do you need to leave be in order to approach Jesus unhindered?

Some folks might think that is glaringly obvious. You’ve battled a demon – and maybe carried it around with you – for far too long.  A friend of mine told me that he once asked a convert to the faith, “What’s different about your life now that you’re following Jesus?” The new disciple, who had come out of a street gang, thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess I don’t shoot as many people now as I used to…”

And that’s good.  That’s very good.  But what about you?  Is there a pattern in your life that is contrary to the Good News of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims?  I suspect you don’t shoot many people, either… but what about your worry?  Or your anxiety? Or your fear?  Can you set those down as you seek to follow?

What about your arrogance or your temper? Can you ask Jesus to give you a spirit of humility?

“What do you want me to do for you?” He’s asking.  And as you hear that question, consider who it is that is asking. Is it Jesus the enforcer, the sheriff, the one who’s here to make sure you get what’s coming to you?  Or is it Jesus the Wizard of Oz, who promises you escape and enchantment?  Or is it Jesus the rabbouni, the one who is your teacher?

This morning, this week, this Advent – hold onto those questions. Reflect.  Anticipate.  And praise God for healing that does come.  Praise God that there isa balm in Gilead.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.