After the Storm: Securing the Fellowship

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On July 11, we considered the need for us to parlay our experiences – even those of pain – into the practice of empathy and the behavior of sympathy.  Scripture references included Acts 28:1-10 and I John 4:7-12.

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

To see the entire worship in which this sermon is anchored, please use the YouTube link:

In recent weeks we have spent this part of our worship together exploring portions of scripture that have given us insight into the ways that God’s people have endured storms of one kind or another throughout our history.  In particular, we have looked at a number of Bible passages that relay something of the experience of the Babylonian Exile as described in the Psalms, Isaiah, or Jeremiah.  This was a time when the children of Israel were compelled to travel to a place they’d rather have avoided; they had to stay there longer than they wished as they put up with diets, rules, limitations, and customs that presented them with great difficulty.

My thesis throughout this series has been that as the time of the Exile was drawing to a close those people were given the opportunity to begin to re-imagine themselves back at “home”.  As they thought about what it would be like to return, they recognized that both they themselves and the place called “home” had changed dramatically during the storm of the Exile.  I’ve tried to compare this journey of our forbearers in the hopes that as we begin to emerge from our encounter with the Coronavirus, we can process our own experiences of lockdown, grief and anger in ways that prepare us for what may come next.

In particular, we have talked about the ways that as the worst aspects of the virus appear to be lifting from many places in the US, including right here in Pittsburgh, we have the opportunity to respond to and reflect intentionally about who we are choosing to be in the days to come.  We have discussed the importance of communal worship and the necessity to participate meaningfully in the Body of Christ. We pointed to the value of providing the children in our families and community with resources like mentors and intergenerational friendships as they seek to claim a faith that has authenticity for them.  We have evaluated the ways that we use our financial resources to demonstrate God’s intentions for the world.

As we conclude this series of messages, I’d like to once again invite you to consider how the experiences of the past eighteen months have shaped and equipped you to respond to the world around you.  Today, I’d like to challenge you to be among those who cultivate empathy in the world.

I’m prompted by some research indicating that children who experience some level of trauma tend to demonstrate a greater ability to understand the suffering of others.  One author expressed it this way:

…people who have experienced adversity in life are more likely to demonstrate compassion and support to others who are suffering. People who have survived hard things are more willing to reach out and help others who are struggling… Surviving childhood trauma increases our ability to feel what others feel, and helps develop our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others.[1]

I’ve seen this in many ways, and hope that you have, too.  For instance, some years ago I received a guest in my home who had grown up knowing famine and hunger in Africa.  He was so alarmed by the small size of our property here in Crafton Heights that he wondered how we could possibly feed ourselves… and so when he returned to Africa he mailed me a slingshot with a letter indicating that he had seen many squirrels and groundhogs in my garden, and surely I’d be able to harvest and use this meat to sustain my family.  That is empathetic behavior!

Another example comes in the form of some youth group members who had lost their mother while they were in their teens.  A few years later, these siblings led the entire youth group in a fundraiser to assist a family in the neighborhood, the mother of whom was battling cancer at the time.

There are at least two ways to experience empathy with another person.  Many of us know the realities of affective empathy.  That happens when you see another person undergoing some sort of a trauma and you feel it in your bones.  Have you ever had a bodily reaction to the suffering of someone else?  Maybe you are the survivor of some trauma, and when you notice someone else immersed in something similar, you are surprised to find yourself developing a pit in your stomach or waking up in a sweat.  Affective empathy allows us to literally feelanother’s pain.

Others of us, however, are more likely to know cognitive empathy.  This happens when we take the time to intellectually imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  We may not exactly feel what they are feeling, but we can certainly understand that it must be difficult for them at this point in time.

This notion of empathy, whether it is affective or cognitive, can grow into the practice of sympathetic behavior.  That is, our feelings for or about a situation experienced by another can lead us to a compassionate response – we understand the pain, and we want to do something about it.  Sympathy leads us to the pursuit of justice, or feeding the hungry, or seeking to help survivors of abuse move toward healing.

Let’s look at the scripture. As we encounter Paul in this morning’s reading from Acts, he’s in the midst of a legal trial on charges of sedition and treason in the Roman Empire. He has been transferred from his cell in Jerusalem to one in Caesarea, where it was decided that he’d be shipped off to Rome for a final appeal.

As he’s sailing through the Mediterranean, the ship encounters a series of storms.  This wasn’t the first time the Apostle had faced adversity.  He had written earlier to his friends in Corinth that he’d been shipwrecked at least three times, and that his proclamation of the love and mercy of Jesus had resulted in his being beaten with rods three times, stoned and left for dead once, and given the punishment of forty lashes at least five times.

You might think that this kind of perpetual adversity and injustice would render Paul bitter, but it seems as though the opposite has occurred.  Even while sailing through a storm on a prison ship en route to the trial that would result in his own death, Paul offers advice and encouragement to the sailors and his captors. Eventually, the ship runs aground on the island of Malta and all 276 people on board are able to swim to safety.

Did you hear what Paul did then?  Paul, who had been arrested unjustly, and then tormented and threatened with death at the hands of his captors chooses to act with grace and generosity.  He collects firewood and cares for others.  In fact, when he hears about an illness in the home of the leading government official – the same government that is currently seeking Paul’s death – he prays for and brings about a healing in that home.

I am suggesting at this point that Paul learned a great deal from Jesus.  In his life and teaching, Jesus was consistent: he always invited people to be better, kinder, and more humane.  It wasn’t always well-received, but Jesus encouraged his followers to “turn the other cheek” and to pray for their enemies.  In Paul’s actions, he demonstrated the theology of I John.  Our calling, as Christ-followers, is to love. To build up.  To reflect the purposes of Jesus into the lives of those around us.  That’s what Paul was doing while tending the fire and caring for the sick on Malta, isn’t it?

Listen, Church: as we come into the summer of 2021 we need to hear, live, and act on this like never before.  I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the dominant culture in which we are moving is not characterized by empathy or sympathy.  In fact, it is precisely the opposite.

It has been 47 years since I preached my first sermon and this is the first time I’ve used this word from the pulpit, but it surely fits our time: we live in a culture that is increasingly marked by what the Germans call schadenfreude.  That’s a compound word in German, made up of schaden, meaning “damage” or “harm”, andfreude, which means “joy”.

More and more, it seems, we are surrounded by examples of people who take great satisfaction in the suffering or pain of another.  The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, “To see others suffer does one good.  This is a hard saying, but a mighty, human, all-too-human principle.”[2]  An example of this phenomenon comes from a study of German soccer matches in 2015 that found fans smiled more quickly and more broadly when their opponents failed to convert a penalty kick than they did when their own team succeeded at the task.  Perhaps you’ve felt schadenfreude when you watched your snooty neighbors take their kids to an overpriced beach resort for two weeks and then came home to tell you that it rained… every single day.  We see this phenomenon in the media when politicians stoke animosity and fear at the expense of a particular group.

This delight in the suffering of others is made possible when living, breathing, human beings who have been made in the image of God become dehumanized, debased, or objectified.  Protestors become “rioters” or “thugs”.  Police officers become “pigs”. Immigrants become “murderers who want to steal our jobs and ruin our country.”  The spirit of animus that grips our culture is deadly, and it is up to us to do what we can to remove it.

To quote the noted theologian The Mandalorian, “This is not the way.”

As the body of Christ on earth, we are called to live in such a way that we honor all people.  We are expected to become a blessing to others.  The world, this neighborhood, and your street should be better off because this congregation exists and because you are here in worship this morning.

In recent weeks, we’ve talked about strengthening the bonds of community that exist; about committing to providing positive role models for the generations that follow ours; and to the necessity of living with generosity and hospitality.  Those are the tasks of the church in the post-Covid era.

Paul had come through not one, but many storms.  Yet in the midst of this one – and all of the others – he sought to serve even those who wished him pain and to offer love and kindness to strangers.

How could he do that?

Because he knew who he was.  He knew whose he was.  His life was in order and his priorities were established.  Paul had a faith community that helped him to nurture his feelings of empathy into sympathetic and merciful behavior.

You and I are called into this place week in and week out, not so that we can learn all the rules of holiness; not so that we can polish our own halos and feel great about how special we are; and not so that we are overcome with guilt about all the ways that we’ve blown it; and no so that we are free to judge others about the ways that they may have blown it.

Rather, we are called into this set of relationships because it is here that we can practice faithful living.  We can learn empathy and grow in sympathy to the end that the love of Jesus is more broadly felt and more deeply experienced on our block and in our world.

One practical example of this is a project that a small group of folks from CHUP are working on right now.  For many years we’ve had a separate fund called “The Helping Hand Fund”.  It has been used, on and off, for a number of years to help members and friends who are experiencing difficulty.  Recently, the church received a generous donation that the elders designated to revitalize and re-envision that ministry.  The goal is to develop a rotating fund that will allow those who experience need to get help and those who have more than enough to share.

We need to learn about discipleship and stewardship so that when we encounter those who are suffering through some kind of a storm we are prepared to care for them as Christ himself would.  May we emerge from this struggle with the Coronavirus as a people more committed to being agents of Jesus in a world that is too often broken and crying out. Thanks be to God for the gifts we have received and the chance to pass them on.  Amen.

 

 

[1] “Surviving Childhood Adversity Builds Empathy in Adults”, in Psychology Today 9/18/2020 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/202009/surviving-childhood-adversity-builds-empathy-in-adults)

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/oct/14/the-secret-joys-of-schadenfreude-why-it-shouldnt-be-a-guilty-pleasure

After the Storm: A Financial Fresh Start

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On July 4, we considered the financial impact that the pandemic has had – and its un-evenness.  In doing so, we considered the voice of the prophet in Isaiah 55:1-7 Jas well as Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community in I Corinthians 16:1-2.

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

To see the entire worship service wherein this sermon was preached, please visit the following YouTube link

On October 28, 1980, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan met in Cleveland, OH, for a presidential debate.  I would doubt that many people can remember a single thing that President Carter said that evening, but one of the lines uttered by Ronald Reagan has become a staple in the American political discourse for the past forty years.  The retired actor looked earnestly into the cameras and asked the American people, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

That was a powerful, powerful moment in American political history.  Now, so far as I’m concerned, it’s the wrong question to ask if we’re seeking to measure a society’s social and communal vibrancy, but, well, here we are.  Those eleven words have become virtually canonical in American political discourse.

This month we are continuing to ask questions about who we would like to be and who we are becoming as we and our neighbors emerge from the pandemic.  I wonder how you might answer “The Great Communicator’s” question today.  Are you better off financially now than you were on December 31, 2019?  I’m not asking you to diagnose our nation, state, city, or neighborhood, but rather to reflect on your own conditions.  How are things in your home, financially?  Which direction are they heading?

There are so many variables in this conversation, aren’t there?  We, or those whom we know and love, have endured job loss, or received unemployment benefits; we’ve seen gas prices drop and then jump; many of us have received stimulus payments or tax credits; we’ve spent less on vacations and more on exercise equipment, perhaps.

As you think about your own family’s situation, here are some emerging trends from across the nation.  We have, by and large, saved more since the onset of the pandemic.  In fact, in March of 2021 the savings rate surged to 27.6%, and for the totality of the pandemic it has exceeded 12%.  That compares to less than 10% in 2019.  What this means, quite simply, is that many Americans are spending less than they make.

That said, however, it’s not even.  While a third of our countrymen and women say that their finances have actually improved during the past 18 months, half of all Americans report having less than $250 left at the end of the month.  12% of us say we have no money left, and 29% say that our credit card debt has increased.[1]

Even more alarming is the fact that 13% of American households with children – one in eight – have not had enough food in the past seven days.  Black and brown Americans are more than twice as likely to be short on food than their white counterparts.

While many in our culture are contributing to a housing boom of epic proportions, 1 out of every 7 renters has fallen behind during the pandemic; that number jumps to 1 in 4 when we look at renters who are Black.  So you see, when I ask how you are faring economically, it’s easy to realize that your experience may be categorically different than that of your neighbors.[2]

There is, however, good news on the horizon.  There are reasons for hope.  New cases of the virus are down by 95%, and vaccines are available to anyone aged twelve or more.  Nearly 50% of the entire population of the United States has been immunized.  Economists are talking about all the ways in which consumer spending is set to take off in the weeks and months to come, saying that there is “pent-up demand” for goods and services.[3]

And there’s more good news about our money, at least in certain respects.  In spite of the economic challenges of the pandemic, Americans donated a staggering $471 billion to charity in 2020 – a new record.  Giving to causes related to racial justice, environmental concerns, and education all rose significantly.  It is noteworthy, particularly in the present context, to observe that giving to religious organizations, however, declined in 2020.[4]

Now look, I don’t want to overwhelm you with statistics, but I’m telling you all of this because I think that it is vitally important for you, for me, and for all of us to think intentionally about how we will choose to behave as stewards, as financial creatures, and as participants in an economic community in a post-pandemic world.  What will we choose to be doing with the blessings we’ve received?

In recent weeks I’ve referenced the experience of the Israelites who were forced to go into the exile in Babylon.  I do not mean to equate our nation’s struggle against the Coronavirus with the forty-year struggle that they endured, but I do think that it’s helpful to note that the Bible has plenty to say about people who are forced to be in situations that they’d rather avoid.

The passage you’ve heard from Isaiah 55, for instance, is directed specifically to a group of people who have experienced a catastrophic upheaval.  They’ve been forced into all manner of new experiences and situations involving hardship and suffering and transition, and now they are heading for home.  They are beginning, after this long season of dis-orientation, to imagine what life can be like in “the after”.

The prophet speaks God’s word in the form of an invitation – “Come, all of you!”  The vocabulary and structure of this summons is similar to that which might take place at the coronation of a ruler or the dedication of a temple.  Isaiah is clear – the abundance of God is for everyone – the only qualification is to be hungry or thirsty.

As Israel hears this invitation, it is clear that there’s only one thing that can keep you away from this celebration: your own decision that there are, perhaps, more interesting options available to you.  Maybe you think that you’ll be able to find something better on your own than that which will be offered up at the feast.  Or maybe you’re interested in coming, but you wouldn’t be caught dead at a celebration if those people are going to be there.

The problem is, of course, that so often when we insist on being the captains of our own ships or the masters of our own destiny, we wind up spending ourselves on things that do not ultimately matter.  Some of us know that for months or even years we longed for some free time to do things that were important to us; we wished for a season when the world would just slow down and then we’d get around to tackling that project or planting that garden or writing those letters. Some of that may have happened, but let’s be honest: all those episodes of Tiger King or The Office did not watch themselves, did they?  We thought that if we had the time, we’d take care of some of that clutter that was building up.  Instead, we’re on a first-name basis with the delivery-truck drivers from Amazon or Wayfair.  When Isaiah talks about spending our money on that which does not satisfy, does that sound remotely familiar to you?

We each have the opportunity and the responsibility to assess how we are using the resources that are entrusted to us.  We’ve always had those decisions in front of us – but now, as we engage in a number of cultural shifts, we have the ability to be intentional and deliberate about how we use the selves that we’ve been given.

Paul, writing to his friends in Corinth, suggests a rule of thumb.  “Make a plan,” he seems to be saying, “to ensure that you are able to support the Lord’s work in your own community and around the world.”  Sharing in God’s intention of provision for all people should not be an afterthought.  Instead, he writes, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save…”

Paul’s wisdom – to his culture and to ours – is to live within our means and to live with other people in mind.  Paul tells the first generation of Christ-followers that the model for giving is not merely to respond to the needs that we see, but rather to be prepared to respond to those needs of which we have not even become aware. “If you have it ready,” he says, “then when the situation calls for it, you’ll be in a position to respond.”

So I wonder, beloved, whether that is a posture that you believe is available to us – to you and me – as we emerge from this pandemic? We have the privilege of deciding who we are going to be, and how we are going to be, in 2021 and beyond.  Is it possible for us to live into this kind of behavior?

As we think about that, I’d like to tell you a little bit about where we are right now.  And as I do that, I’ll tell you that I know precious few specifics about people’s individual finances – and that’s ok with me.  I know some things about the money that the church has, but I don’t know the precise sources of those funds.  But this is what I’ve seen, and what I know.

Before the pandemic, most of the funds that came into the church did so in a manner that is as old as this building: folks came to church, they brought their wallets or their checkbooks with them, and at some point in the service, someone stood up here and said, essentially, “OK, folks, it’s time to pony up in order to keep this place running”.  And the ushers came forward, passed the plates, and people participated.  It was an easy thing to do, and you knew that other people were sharing in that with you.  And mostly, when you were here, you gave.  And mostly, when you were not here, you didn’t give.

And then, for a long time, nobody came.  We’ve had to adapt to a reality where there were no ushers, no plates being passed, and no sense of whether anyone else was in it with us or not.

From what we can tell currently, there are 6 or 8 people who contribute electronically on Sunday mornings during what we call “the offertory”.  More folks have taken to mailing in gifts during the week, and some of you have set up automatic transfers from your bank to the church account.  Now that a few of us are finding our way back into the building, some of us are placing gifts in the plates at the back of the sanctuary.

I will note, parenthetically, that sometimes it is hard to remember to give when you’re not able to be here.  If you would like information about how to be a person who gives automatically, you can speak with Ron Gielarowski or Jason Dix about doing that.

The result of all of this giving that we’ve seen in 2021 is that at the end of June, our congregation finds itself about $10,000 in the red.  That is to say, in spite of our attempts to be cautious about the ways that we budgeted, we’ve spent about $10,000 more than we’ve given.  I’m not saying this to be alarmist, or to stand before you as someone who thinks for a second that God can’t pay God’s bills. Rather, I’m simply trying to make you aware of the truth.  So far, it’s not been a banner year for the congregational finances, and the typical trend is for June, July, and August to be the slowest three months of the year when it comes to offerings.  I’m not complaining – I’m just telling you where your church stands – and I am reminding you that in large measure, we stand where we stand as a result of decisions that we’ve made individually and corporately.

I wonder if, in the months to come, we can lean a little more into Paul’s invitation to give proactively, generously, and intentionally.

As I mention this, I’d like to point out ways where this is happening well.  There are places where I’ve seen you seek to offer funds in ways that clearly seek to satisfy your, and the world’s hunger.

For instance, in the first month of the pandemic I opened an envelope that had been mailed to the church addressed specifically to me.  Inside was a check for a thousand dollars, along with a note that said, “We don’t know how long this is going to last, but we’re afraid that the church will be pinched.  Here’s an extra gift that we hope will help you pay the salaries and keep the lights on.”

Similarly I know of a man in this community who mentioned to his wife, “You know what, honey? We probably have too much money in our checking account – we definitely have more than we need.  Should we be looking for ways to give more of this away?”  And so for months, they have been.  Organizations and individuals alike have found some surprise gifts that came from this family’s realization that they are in a position that not all of their neighbors are.

A non-member who lives out of state and worships with us electronically ended 2020 with a significant gift to the church.  The Elders and Deacons are in the process of establishing a means by which this gift can be developed into a kind of revolving fund wherein neighbors can give and receive assistance as needed.  We’ve already tapped that fund to assist a neighborhood family that experienced a devastating fire.

In 2021, I have met with more than three dozen people or families who have needed financial help – they are among those I mentioned earlier who fell behind on their rent, or experienced food insecurity, or faced utility shut-offs.  Working with other people in the Presbytery, our congregation has written 32 checks totaling $8739.90 to landlords and utility companies on behalf of our neighbors.

Are you better off financially now than you were in 2019?  I have no idea.  To be completely honest, I’m usually not aware of my own financial status.  But I know that every time I’ve had the opportunity to be a giver, it has been rewarding.  I have found that there is more joy in generosity than there is in miserliness.  I have found gratitude to be a great balm for a troubled soul.

And so with all of that in mind, I’ll invite you to join Paul, Isaiah, and me in reflecting on and talking about your finances with the people that you love.  I’d like to encourage you to be deliberate and purposeful about the ways that you spend your money and yourself.  Whatever you do, give, or spend – do it because you’ve decided that thing.  Do not get sucked into habits or patterns unthinkingly.  Instead, let me remind you that today, and every day, you have the opportunity and responsibility to be who, and whose, you are with intentionality.

Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan asked the nation if we were better off than we had been.  Today, I’m asking us to plan to be better next month than we are this month.  I’m asking us to lay the foundations for satisfaction and gratitude that come as a result of being generous stewards of the abundance that we’ve received.  Thanks be to God, who is the giver of all good gifts!  Amen.

[1] The statistics in this and the previous paragraph are found here: https://www.investopedia.com/how-covid-19-changed-our-saving-and-spending-habits-5184327

[2] These statistics about food and rent can be found at https://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/tracking-the-covid-19-recessions-effects-on-food-housing-and

[3] See https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/economy/us-consumer-spending-after-covid.html

[4] https://blog.philanthropy.iupui.edu/2021/06/16/americans-gave-a-record-471-billion-to-charity-in-2020-amid-concerns-about-the-coronavirus-pandemic-job-losses-and-racial-justice/

After the Storm: Investing in Family

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On June 27, we celebrated the baptisms of two amazing children and thought about the ways that faith is passed along to subsequent generations.  In doing so, we considered the voice of the prophet in Jeremiah 29 as well as Paul’s note to his younger friend Timothy in II Timothy 1:3-7. 

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

To see the entire service in which this message was preached, visit the YouTube site below:

How have the events of the past sixteen months, particularly the global pandemic, affected your faith practices?  And to be even more specific, how have these events impacted your family life, and your hopes for other people in your family?

As we continue this month to look at folks in scripture who are caught up in storms of one kind or another and who then decided to move forward through those trials, this morning I’d like for us to consider what it might mean to think of our families as incubators of faith or arenas for discipleship.

My experience of the pandemic has shown that in some families, there has been great anxiety over the cancellation of Sunday School, or the lack of confirmation class, or our inability to gather for worship in-person.  In others, though, there is great relief; I’ve been told, “You know what, Pastor Dave? It feels wonderful. I don’t have to pretend or impress anyone – it’s like everyone is off my back…”

I’m here to tell you that of all the things I miss about our lives before the pandemic, I think that being present with children has to be near the top of the list.  I say that this morning not primarily as a grandfather, but as a pastor.  I say that because we must acknowledge that the transmission of our faith is transgenerational.

The foundation of Israel’s faith is laid out in the shema in Deuteronomy, where the essentials of identity are established and then followed with the words, “Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6)

We see the same emphasis in the early church, where we read account after account of an individual coming to faith, and then the “entire household” is baptized.  That is to say that parents and children began and engaged in the journey of faith together.

Indeed, a part of God’s intention seems to be that faith is passed down from one generation to the next.  In our reading from Jeremiah, for instance, the prophet is reacting to the dismay and horror that the people have expressed after they were swept into exile in Babylon.  They knew that they were called to act in faith and to call their children and grandchildren into faith – but how could they possibly do those things when they were forced to live in such a strange and hostile place?

We might expect the old prophet to tell the children of Israel to circle the wagons and shut the doors; to do whatever they could to hide out or hold on to what they could in the hopes of enduring that which was to come.  But that’s not what Jeremiah does.  Instead, he invites them to continue to be themselves in new ways, and in so doing to teach their children and their grandchildren the unchanging truths of God in a new place.  They are called both to hold onto the fundamentals of the faith but to engage in the community around them.  The new environment does not alleviate the need to pass their faith to the next generations.

Similarly, Paul, who is writing to his young protégé Timothy from the death row of a Roman prison, recalls their last meeting, at which Timothy wept at the prospect of the old Apostle’s death.  Paul hints at the fact that there may be doubts, or fear, or pain in the young man’s life.

Paul, Timothy, and their contemporaries were in fact facing the same dilemma as the Jews of Jeremiah’s time: how can our faith possibly survive this storm? As the first generation of Christians – those who actually knew Jesus – begins to die off, what will happen?  How can the faith survive?

Paul, like Jeremiah, points to the fact that if what we believe has any truth, then it is greater than any one of us (including himself!).  If what we proclaim is true, then it is true for the generations that will follow ours, and ought to be handed down.

In doing this, Paul points out the glaringly obvious truth that nobody gets here without a grandmother.[1] Paul reminds Timothy of his grandma Lois and his mother Eunice.  What lives in Timothy, Paul says, was present in these previous generations.

Whether you’re enduring the pain of separation in a Babylonian exile, or struggling under the persecution of the Roman Empire, or just trying to figure out life in Pittsburgh in 2021, there is no better way to keep faith vital than by being an effective parent.  As we live and move with our children, may we do so with integrity.  May our lives point toward the truth.  It may seem self-evident, but the best way to ensure the intergenerational transmission of the faith is by seeking to invest in and help form the faith identity of your children.  We do this by engaging them in practices, and teaching them what faith looks like, how love acts, and where hope lives.

Yet there’s more to this than mere biology.  Jeremiah assumes a vibrant communal life.  He talks about preparing the children for marriage and relationships in that new place, and about seeking the welfare of this city in which they’d rather not be stuck.  Yes, Paul reminds Timothy of his mother and grandmother, but he does so in a letter that begins by addressing Timothy as teknon – a word that means “my dear child”.  Paul reminds Timothy that even though they do not share any DNA, they have a connection that is based on a relationship of intimacy and trust. Both of our readings today point to the fact that the transmission of faith across generational boundaries is not simply a genetic proposition.

For any community of faith to thrive – including this congregation – we must create scenarios wherein our children have access to healthy relationships with other adults.  Research has indicated that our children are most likely to grow up with a healthy sense of self, a mature faith, and a confident understanding of their place in the world when they have the benefit of five competent and caring adults in their lives.[2]  Obviously, we need more than just parents!

And yet, according to a 2016 survey, only 28% of students in grades 6-12 indicated that they had four or five strong relationships. An astonishing (and depressing) 22% of young people surveyed indicated that they did not feel as though they had even a single vibrant relationship with an adult on which to lean.  More than 1/5 of students said that they felt alone in the world.[3]

So hear me, church: one aspect of good parenting is connecting with and supporting your child’s development as much as you possibly can.  Another, equally important, aspect is realizing that you cannot do it alone, and making sure that you are putting your child in situations where healthy relationships can thrive – places like Youth Group, or Sunday School, or mentoring, or even some form of spiritual direction or counseling for more mature young people.  Healthy faith presumes a vibrant community of care.

So what I’m saying is that the faith we share is meant to be conveyed across the generations, and further, that such transmission involves not only parents and children, but a broader set of deep connections.  One thing I would add to that is the clear recognition that any faith that is genuine is a faith that is fully owned by the self.  God has billions of children, but not a single grandchild.  Our task is to equip the children that we know and love to connect with the Lord intimately and deeply on their own.

Here’s what I mean by that.  This is a blanket that was hand-made by Margaret Vanstone Walter, who was born in 1815 in West Putford, England, and who happens to be my wife’s great-great-great grandmother.  We are taking it to Ohio, where it will belong to Ariel and ultimately our granddaughters.  Now, just for a moment, think: if you were given a blanket of this quality made by your great-great-great-great-great grandmother, how would you treat it?  Would you use it on the sofa in the basement?  In the dog’s crate? Would you use it as a tablecloth on spaghetti night?  No!  You’d protect it.  You’d treat it gingerly.  It’s an heirloom, after all.

This, on the other hand, is a toolbox that my father gave to me.  His father made it, in part, out of wood reclaimed from old ammunition boxes.  It’s still got some posterboard in it from what I believe is the mid 1930’s.  I’ve used it in many different ways over the years, but for the past couple of decades it has held my portable drill.

Note the wood in Grandpa’s tool box – reclaimed from a box made by the “Western Cartridge Company”

So here we have two items that are, between them, hundreds of years old.  One – the blanket – has sat on a shelf, and been honored or displayed, but rarely used.  The other – the toolbox – is lugged all over the country on mission trips and fix-it jobs.  Further, the tool box is currently holding some tools that my grandfather could not have imagined when he built it.  A laser level? In 1935? Grandpa wouldn’t believe me.

“Teach Them to Pray” by Ted Ellis.
Used by Permission of the Artist. More at http://www.tellisfineart.com

Here’s my point: I am suggesting that the faith that we are attempting to pass on to our children is not a delicate and fragile heirloom that we carefully preserve and hope to God they don’t ruin.  Rather, a vibrant faith is like a toolbox that yes, has a story and comes from somewhere and someone who is important, but is useful for facing the challenges of this particular place and time. If that’s true, then it is OK – and even expected – that a living, growing, vibrant faith may lead me to different places, perspectives, and viewpoints than my parents’ faith took them.

I think that is what Paul means when he suggests that Timothy ought to “rekindle” his faith.  Faith, if it’s alive, needs to be stirred up and poked and rearranged from time to time.  We can’t leave it sit on the shelf!

Listen: all four of my grandparents claimed and practiced faith in Jesus Christ.  They did their best.  That said, however, to varying degrees they held views on people of other ethnicities, faiths, or sexual identities that I find to be disappointing at least and perhaps even outright offensive.

Having said that, however, I have no doubt that if I were able to travel back in time to, say, 1932, and sit with them and explain to them some of the places that my faith journey has led me regarding racial reconciliation, understandings of human sexuality, or a host of other social and personal issues, that they might be appalled, embarrassed by, and praying for me.  They were never where I am.  I have not been where they were.

More than that, my faith is not in them.  My faith is not even in faith.  My faith, and all of who I am on my best days, is in Jesus of Nazareth, and in what the God of creation was and is doing in Jesus.  My faith relies on the things that Jesus said about welcome, forgiveness, truth, inclusion, and love being the foundations of the universe.

My grandparents had faith in Jesus, just like me.  But because I’m standing in a different place, I see the same Jesus a little differently than they did.  That’s ok.  In fact, it would be wrong for anyone to insist that our perspectives can never change.

I have a friend who was a faithful, devoted participant in the Presbyterian church close to her home.  I asked her if she was a member, and she immediately said, “Oh, no.  No, I couldn’t.”  She went on to explain that as far back as she knew, everyone in her family had been Catholic, and if she were to formally join a Protestant church, there would be a commotion at the cemetery because of all those relatives spinning in their graves.

Our task as parents and as a community of faith is deep: we are called help establish identity and a sense of self in the children that God has given us to love.  We are expected to give them a legacy and a heritage that is rich and deep and, well, faithful.  That’s what we are to give to them.

We are further called to expect our children to grow to new places.  We must remember that God is not finished, and that our own understanding is not complete. God does not need us to somehow “protect” the Gospel or “defend” the truth.  We, as the church of Jesus Christ in Pittsburgh in 2021, are not called to be the gatekeepers for the Gospel, wherein we decide who is in and who is out; where we protect our sacred traditions and favorite hymns and ideas about the way the world should be.  Instead, we are called to nurture faith and trust and hope and love in the generation that follows ours, and then to open those gates and send those young people to live with fullness and joy in the world that God has given to them, and relying on God’s care for them and their own faith in God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] I have copied this delightful phrase word for word from Thomas C. Oden’s Interpretation Commentary  on First and Second Timothy and Titus (Louisville: John Knox 1989) p. 29.

[2] See, for instance, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_every_student_needs_caring_adults_in_their_life  and https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/01/06/why-kids-need-strong-network-supportive-adults-how-build-that-tribe/

[3] https://www.search-institute.org/developmental-relationships/learning-developmental-relationships/

After the Storm: Foundations of Faith

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On June 20, we looked at the desolation that the Israelites experienced in Psalm 137 as well as Paul’s prescription for the church in Colossians 3:12-17

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

I don’t know how it was for you growing up, but the Carvers had a family dinner time.  Not only that, but our family had assigned seats.  Every meal I can remember growing up, no matter where it was, my mother sat on the left end of the table, my father on the right, my brother sat to my left, and my sister sat at the side opposite my brother and me.  When my grandmother was living with us, she sat next to my sister.  It didn’t matter whether it was our kitchen table, our dining room table, a restaurant, or the picnic table at the campground.  That’s how we ate.  Maybe it had to do with one of us being left-handed.  Maybe there was a disciplinary strategy.  I only know that even as an adult returning home, I always knew which was “my” seat.

Until the day we buried my mother.  We came home from the funeral and after a while began to fix a little something.  Someone carried it in and sat it on the dining room table and, well… we didn’t know what to do.  Her chair was just so empty.  A visitor saw the empty seat and began to sit down, only to be glared out of it.  It seems as if we stood around the table for a long time, trying to figure out how in the world we were supposed to eat while we looked at the hole in the seating arrangement.

So much of our lives we are operating on “auto pilot”.  We take a great deal for granted, and then when something happens, we are adrift.  After a significant loss, we recognize that so much of what we’ve simply assumed is, in one way or another, up for discussion.  We may look at something as simple as setting the table and we think, “How can I possibly do that?”  How do we do what we’ve always done when so much of our world is different?

For the next few weeks, we’re going to continue to explore the kind of people we’re deciding to be as the most intense elements of storm of the Coronavirus appear to be passing.  When we emerge from what my friend Kelly calls our “Covid caves”, how will we choose to re-engage the world?

Psalm 137 is a song of two cities.  On the one hand, we consider Babylon, which is portrayed as the enemy, the destroyer, the kidnapper, or the crusher of dreams.  On the other hand, we have Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was once the exemplar of our highest ideals, but now it lies in ruins – burnt, isolated, uninhabited, and desolate.

By The Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137) By Michele Myers. Used by permission of the artist.

Babylon is addressed first.  The Psalmist utters the dreadful name once, and then there are four times where the word “there” is spit out.  It’s almost as if the name itself is a curse: “there we sat down and there we wept…on the willows therewe hung up our harps…”  The city is so horrible that its name shall not be spoken any more than necessary.  Yes, that place.  How can we be us in that place?

We now have captors. We have tormentors.  We are constantly reminded of our status as “less-than”. We don’t like it when we are forced to be there.

You know something of that feeling.  You’ve just gone to your almost-prom.  Or maybe you’re trying to find your way after having been laid off.  You lost at least three months – an entire season – caring for a loved one who still isn’t the same.  You’ve wept as you watched your bright, energetic child get frustrated by the struggles imposed by “virtual learning”, and yet you didn’t have a way to make it better for them.  For more than a year, you’ve been stuck someplace you never thought you’d be, you didn’t deserve to be, and you have had little control over how long you’d have to stay there.

And now, you go to the grocery or the diner and everyone is just crowding in like nothing ever happened?  Like the pandemic is somehow magically over?  People you know and love have ripped off their masks, and jumped in the pool, and we’re just supposed to go back to “normal”?

Maybe you don’t know how to do that right now.  You’re still limping, somehow.  You’re still scarred.  You’re still there, and while you wish you could change your outlook or your mindset, you’re just not sure how to do that.

And yet, you know, like the Psalmist, that there is a second city.  There is Jerusalem, which is above our highest joy.  Jerusalem, which in the Psalm stands for our heritage, and our hope.  It’s our DNA – it’s who we have been on our best days.

And that “song of Zion” that our captors demand of us – it’s a joyous hymn, a song we’ve known all our lives.  It’s a triumphant melody that celebrates God’s power, and our feeling of safety and security, and our faith in the un-shakeability of our lives.  For years, it’s been one of our favorites, sung on the days that have felt the most like “home” to us.

How are we supposed to sing a song like that, now, here?  But on the other hand, how can we forget it?  The Psalmist promises to remember, and to prioritize that sense of who we have been.  The Psalmist realizes that it’s important to teach the children who were born in Babylon the songs we hope to sing once more in Jerusalem.

Beloved, I honestly think that this is a good metaphor for where we are as a people.  So much of who we were, of what we said, and how we acted in the “before” time seems unattainable now.  Yet at the same time, we’ve got to figure out what’s next.  We don’t want to forget who, or whose, we are, and we carry the hope that we will not always be in this place that can feel so strained and joyless.  We’re not yet home, but we realize that we are able to move in some ways.  How will we do so?

As we contemplate the reality that is coming toward us, I celebrate the fact that we are beginning another season of Cross Trainers here in Crafton Heights.  In some ways, any time we operate Cross Trainers is a look back.  For more than two decades, we’ve operated a summer camp.  It’s a part of our communal DNA now. It’s who we are.

And in other ways, it’s who we are striving to be. Last year, we stood on this date and, with fear and trembling, said, “Look, everything is closed and we’re supposed to be sheltering in place… only we’re not sure how to do summer around here without Cross Trainers” – and so we ran a smaller, shorter camp swaddled in protection. And this year, children will sing, play, eat, and pray together.  Those have not always seemed like radical practices, but, well, here we are in the second summer of the great pandemic.

One of the best parts about Cross Trainers, and I need to say this loudly for the staff who will not always believe me on this, is that we do these things – sing, play, eat, and pray – every blessed day!  For the next seven weeks, you’ll inhabit this building and the lives of the children we’re called to love when you feel like it and when you don’t feel like it.  Some days you’ll drag yourselves here.  Other days you’ll stroll in here like you own the joint, filled with pride and enthusiasm.  The important thing is that this day you are committing to being here with the kids, with each other, and with the God who has whispered your name since before you were born. You are cultivating the amazing practice of habit in yourselves and in these children.

The early Christians knew themselves to be in the midst of a storm.  The torture and death of Jesus was always present in their minds.  The communities that formed in his name faced sporadic persecution from the government, the established religious authorities, or both.  There were many days when churches in places like Corinth and Ephesus and Colossae woke up and wondered, “How are we going to move forward today?  What do we do next?”

My friend Bruce has brought forward a few verses that were vitally important to the church in Colossae as a theme for our own Cross Trainers in 2021.  Paul had written to his friends there and in that letter he lifts up a series of practices in which God’s people can engage.  In the weeks to come, our children and the staff here will contemplate what it means to live and act with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness.  Please note that these are not attitudes, nor are they feelings.  These are practices.  They are noble ideals.  They are difficult, at times.  And they are surely of God.

To use the language of Psalm 137, these are Jerusalem practices.  These are who we are supposed to be when we are acting at our best.  These are how we are supposed to live when we are in the place that God intends us to be.  These practices are the means by which God’s people train to live faithfully.

But here’s the deal: if you were to go down the street, taking a survey, and ask, “How do you feel about compassion?”, or “Are kindness and patience valuable in our world?”, well, my hunch is that most folks would say yes – that is, they’d affirm that by and large, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness are great ideas.

What sets your work this summer with Cross Trainers apart is that you will be coming in here every day this summer and inviting our children and our families to practice these behaviors.  You will, on behalf of the whole church of Jesus Christ, commit to giving us an opportunity to try these behaviors out five days a week for the next six weeks.

And you ought to know this, but for the folks who aren’t sure, let me be clear: it’s not just the kids in the neighborhood who need these practices, dear friends.  It’s us.  All of us.

As we emerge from the storm that Covid-19 has brought us, we need to ask ourselves, “what are we practicing, and how?  Who are we becoming, and why?”

If you’re listening to me right now, chances are that you’ve decided that, at least occasionally, worship is a good idea.  That’s probably the case, unless you’re here by accident, or someone has tricked you into showing up somehow.  If participating in worship regularly is not a part of your plan, let me encourage you to make it so.

The Psalmist sung of a community that gathered in lament and sang to remember who they were, and to help them to frame that identity for their children.

The church in Colossae identified a number of practices to which they committed themselves, and they further pledged to gather together even in challenging times, to choose the best for themselves and for their community.

As you think about where you’ve been during this most recent of storms, what have been your goals, and markers, and practices?  Maybe you learned to make an amazing sourdough bread.  Perhaps you managed to watch all of not only Tiger King but Ted Lasso, too.  That’s not bad.

But can you remember to engage in the formative practices that make us who we are?  Maybe when we had to stop having Sunday School, you thought, “You know what? I can do more to give my child direction in faith development.”  Maybe you and the people who are important to you decided that you could affirm the importance of common worship by participating – either in the pew or on the sofa – on a regular basis.

Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness – these are the disciplines we’ve been asked to practice.  Our shared worship is the context in which we develop a vocabulary for these disciplines.  Cross Trainers, or small groups, or intentional friendships – these are the laboratories in which we try them out, and to help to mold ourselves and the children we’ve been given to love in the kinds of habits that will allow us to define what “normal” should look like.

As we continue to emerge from the “Covid caves”, let’s remember that the goal is not simply to rebuild from the last storm we’ve suffered, but to live in such a way that prepares us to not only survive, but to thrive, in the next one.  The story of God’s people is one of encountering wave after wave of blessing and trial. Anchoring ourselves together in worship and practice is a way that we grow during the blessings and ride out the storms.  Thanks be to God for the gift of the community that allows us to look back at the places from which we’ve come and look ahead to those areas where God’s call is beckoning now.  Amen.

After the Storm: You Want to Go Back?

The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates.  In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed.  On June 13, we looked at the complaining of the Israelites in Numbers 14:1-4 and compared it with Paul’s discoveries as outlined in Philippians 3:7-14.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

To see the entire worship service in which this message is anchored, use the YouTube link below:

If you and I were friends at any point between 1983 and 2008, you know this about me: six days out of seven, I wore one thing, and one thing only, on my feet.

This is the K-Swiss Men’s Classic Tennis Shoe.  I purchased a pair because I wanted to wear a nice, crisp, white sneaker without a big logo.  But here’s what hooked me on K-Swiss: for more than fifty years, the basic appearance of that shoe has not changed.  Which meant that I always had six sneakers (3 left and 3 right).  The best two shoes were my “wear to meetings and when I want to look good” pair; I had a “hang around with friends” pair and a “cut the grass/work in the mud” pair.  If the left shoe of a certain pair got torn or suffered a “blow-out”, I’d throw it away but keep the right one – matching it up with the best left that I had so that I could keep my rotation going with my six best shoes at all time.  It was genius: I never had to waste time thinking about what to buy, I knew that the fit was perfect, and they went with everything.  There were absolutely no decisions that had to be made!

And then in 2008 I broke my left foot.  I had surgery, during which they inserted a bunch of pins and screws.  There were months of rehab, a little cart, some crutches, and a walking boot.  And then in 2009 I put on the shoes again. And my left foot protested!  From achiness to ingrown toenails to chronic discomfort – some days I couldn’t walk.  And it took me a couple of months, but I finally figured it out: my foot had changed shape.  What used to fit so beautifully was now inappropriate. It was harming me.  With reluctance, I finally got rid of the last of my K-Swiss.  It was the end of an era!  Since then, I’ve had to decide how to care for my feet.

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, Giovanni Lanfranco(c. 1625)

Our reading from the book of Numbers comes at a time not long after the children of Israel had been delivered from their slavery in Egypt.  Moses had led them out of Pharaoh’s hand and they were walking toward the Promised Land, ready to take God up on the promises that had been made to Abram and the other elders so many years before.

They came right up to the border of the land, and Moses sent some spies in to do a little recon.  These guys, by and large, are blown away by what they see – but they are also paralyzed with fright as they consider their own inadequacies.  They doubt God’s promise, and they doubt God’s presence.  Most of them return to the leadership council and tell lies about what they’ve seen, filling their countrymen and women with fear about the supposedly insurmountable dangers that wait for them.

As it happens, the faithless spies prevail, and “all the Israelites” complain to and about Moses.  You heard it: they demand a recall election and a return to Egypt.  They are begging and crying out for a return to the slavery from which they’ve only recently escaped.

They’re frazzled.  They’re worn out.  Being in a new place is hard. They’ve had to adapt to new diets, new routines, and new threats.  It was wearisome, to say the least; perhaps it was even overwhelming.  At least when they were back in Egypt, there was no pressure to make so many decisions every single day.  Sure, some days were tough, but they could be on “autopilot”.

Now listen: not for a single second do I want to give anyone the impression that life in 21st century Pittsburgh is equivalent to the experience of slaves at any time or place in terms of actual existence, but I will suggest that you can probably identify with the longing, the fear, and the anxiety that these people faced as they looked ahead at what was uncertain and looked back upon what had been familiar.

I know something of the lives that many of you were leading in February of 2020.  The events of the past 16 months have been unsettling, anxiety-inducing, tiring, and frustrating in so many ways.  There is so much that is new: we’ve encountered technology that we didn’t know was possible; we’ve arranged and re-arranged and re-re-arranged our schedules; we’ve watched and weighed the various threat levels associated with the Coronavirus.  Like the Israelites, we know that we’ve had people lying to us about the dangers or lack of dangers ahead; like them, we’ve disagreed about who’s telling those lies and what the truth really is.  And we’re just so done with this part of our lives.

In 2009, all I wanted was to put on my white K-Swiss and play racquetball.  In Numbers all the folks wanted was to get back to what was familiar. And now, well, we want to go back.  We want life to get back to normal.

Do we?  Is that a good idea? Is what we had – your life and my life on, say, December 31, 2019 – the acme of human achievement and existence?  Is what we had then the living for which we’d all be striving?

Walk with me through this for a moment.  Let’s say that your community suffered a catastrophic flood.  Your vehicle has been swept away.  The first floor, if not your entire home, is simply uninhabitable.  Let’s say, further, that you and your family have survived.

Sooner or later, you’re going to get a little insurance money, and you’re going to start to figure out what comes next.  When the contractors come around, and when it’s time to buy your next car, do you want exactly the same thing?  Sure, that 2013 Chevy was OK, but are you going to replace it with another 2013 Chevy?  That sofa you brought home when your grandmother died is gone… are you going to scour the thrift stores to look for something identical to that?

Now look: I know that this, like any analogy, is weak to the point of absurdity in some places.  But I’m trying to point out that if you suffered such a loss, then it’s more than likely that merely “replacing” everything would not be the wisest course of action.

The Coronavirus has come upon our culture like a flood.  In a true flood, there are some horrifically unfortunate people who have lost some or all of their loved ones, and their homes have been literally swept away.  Meanwhile, up the hill, there are those who have a little dampness in their basement and they lost the WiFi for a couple of hours.

As we think about COVID-19, some of us have suffered immensely. We have watched as family members and close friends died in isolation, or we ourselves are dealing with long-term health effects.  Some of us have suffered through the loss of income or position, and the changes in our educational or child-care structures have been too much to bear.  Some of us have been decimated by this virus.

And others of us have been inconvenienced.  Our favorite restaurant closed, and we were forced to cancel our vacations.  We missed the family reunions, and we are so tired of these stupid masks…

We have not shared a common experience of the severity or consequences of the storm that’s been unleashed on us, but we all want it to be over.  And many of us just want to get back to normal.

I’m here to tell you that 1) that’s not going to happen, and 2) it’s probably not a good idea.  The Apostle Paul lived through a cataclysmic shift in his world and his own identity.  He had been a leading Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians, and then he was molded into a paragon of Christianity who was in fact executed for acting on his faith.  He had held onto impeccable notions of the cleanliness and purity traditions, and found himself extending grace and hospitality to those that his former self would have excluded.  His self-righteousness and concern for keeping up appearances were transformed into a passion for inclusion and generosity of spirit.  Paul had suffered the loss of his personal identity and his standing within the community.

And as he reflects with his friends in Philippi on those changes, he says that he has come to see all of that as something that had helped to make him – but that all of those things were in the past.  The call of faith in his life now was to examine his present reality and to seek to live into a better one.  And for Paul, “better” would be defined as “more Christ-like” and more faithful.

In the weeks to come, we’ll be spending time here in worship considering the ways that we, like Paul and the early church, are called to move forward.  As we emerge from the storms of these past months, we’ll process our grief.  We will count and lament our losses.  And we will begin to figure out what is next.

How have the events of the past sixteen months impacted your personal faith?  The experiences in the desert and coming up to the realities of the Promised Land shook Israel’s faith to the core.  What has this year done to your patterns of discipleship and the hope that you have carried with you?

What have you seen in your family?  Have the relationships there changed?  Are there places that you need to repair, or in which you need to invest?  Are there some practices that you simply need to start over?

In what ways have your financial decisions and options been revealed?  It’s hard to imagine that the pandemic has not affected your wallet.  What decisions to you need to make moving forward about the money that you need, or have, or spend, or save, or give?

How has your experience of fellowship and community suffered or grown lately?  Some of you have shared stories with me of great isolation – you’ve felt left out and cut off from places that ought to have sustained you.  On the other hand, I’ve also heard that some of you are finding new levels of contentment with yourselves.  How will you act as a member of the body of Christ in a post-pandemic world?

When the Israelites made it through the storm of the Exodus only to encounter the terrors of the wilderness and the fear of entering into a new place, they were so overwhelmed that they literally wandered aimlessly for an entire generation.

When Paul and the early Christians encountered the storms of the crucifixion of Jesus, his resurrection and ascension, and then the inflow of the Holy Spirit, they made a decision to press on, and to journey with a purpose.  Whereas the Israelites chose the easy path of living as wanderers, these first Christ-followers chose to live as pilgrims.

Dear ones, I hope that you will join me in the weeks to come.  I’d love to see you here in person, but at least on YouTube or Facebook if you must, as we consider what it means to walk with faith and purpose into a future that is already inhabited and shaped by God.  The world has changed.  You have changed.  And the old “normal” is not going to fit anymore.  That’s not bad – it just means that we’ve got some thinking to do, and some decisions to make.

Thanks be to God who promises to meet us on the way with refreshment and hope each day.  Amen.

Who Told You?

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights shared in the sacrament of baptism this Lord’s Day.  In so doing, we thought about what it meant to be labeled, to have an identity, and to be called something… and whose job it is to give us those labels and designations.  Our scriptures included portions of Genesis 2 and 3 as well as a part of Psalm 139.  

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

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, use the link below:

As we start off this morning, I have a little quiz.  Humor me.  I was an English major!  I’ll give you the opening sentence, you tell me the book from which it comes.  Just go ahead and call it out, or feel free to type it in the comments if you’re watching live.

  • “You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens)
  • “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984, Orwell)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Austin)
  • “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis)

The way we begin a story matters, doesn’t it?  The opening words and sentences invite us in, create conflict, arouse interest, and more.  I love Gary Larsen’s take on this in an old “Far Side” cartoon:

I’m talking about this because we’ve heard from the beginning of our story today.  The opening chapters of the book of Genesis have been incredibly formative for me for decades.  Many of you have been in conversation with me, or heard me preach about, or lead a devotion stemming from some of what you heard from Stacey a few moments ago.  Unwittingly, perhaps, I have made those verses more important than other parts of the Bible.  Maybe that’s true.  I’m not sure.  But I do know that I have come to accept as truth the fact that “I know what those verses say, and I know what they mean…”, and that leads me, too often, to the point where I wind up thinking that I don’t need to think about or listen to them critically anymore.  They become merely background assumptions…

Adam and Eve are Clothed By God, 14th century manuscript from the Netherlands

But in the past couple of months, two things have happened.  I was reading through this passage and I was struck, quite unexpectedly, by a new understanding.  For decades, I’ve thought about God’s role in this story as the boundary-setter, and as the speaker.  I have focused on God’s question to the humans: “who told you that you were naked?”  And as I did that, I subconsciously construed God as feeling all of the irritation and perturbation that I feel whenever the people around me screw up.  But last week, I noted God as an actor in the story, and saw God, not as the One who sent Adam and Eve into their shame, but as One who met them in the midst of that shame with love.  They chose to believe a lie, which led them to an awareness of their nakedness, which led them to hide in shame and fear.  And God sought them out and acknowledged their pain and dis-ease by making clothing for them – which was a little unnecessary, it seems to me – after all, it wasn’t like God didn’t know what was there… but God loved them enough to recognize that their reality was now colored by a kind of “othering” that God wished they didn’t have.

The second thing that caused me to revisit this passage was my rediscovery of some thoughts shared by Walter Brueggemann, who points out that while the opening chapters of Genesis are undoubtedly significant, they are not particularly declarative when it comes to the rest of the Bible.  He demonstrates that there is no clear reference to this narrative in the rest of the Old Testament and its actual use in the New Testament is marginal at best.[1]

So I went back and tried to re-read one of my favorite narratives with new eyes.  And this is what I saw: as a result of the serpent’s deception, the humans had come to see a single attribute about themselves (in this case, their nakedness and the resulting shame), as the defining aspect of their lives.  The one whom we understand to be Satan, which means “the Accuser”, has led them to believe that a part of their being had become the whole of themselves.

God, however, indicates his refusal to acknowledge this distortion by acting with grace and seeking to renew the covenant of care as God makes them new and suitable clothing.  The Accuser seeks to lock people into a single aspect of themselves; the Creator invites renewal and restoration each and every day.

And this morning I wonder in what ways we have fallen prey to the Accuser? What words have been given to, assigned to, or thrown at you? Who told you that you were smart? Or stupid?

Who has called you gifted, or too emotional, or fat, or pretty?

Who has identified you as being “hot” or funny or boring?

Who told you that you were straight, or poor, or angry?

Have you been referred to by racist, sexist, or homophobic slurs that I will not mention now?  Have you been told that THAT is who you are?

How do you know who you are?

Some years ago, I had the gift of spending significant time with a high school student with a fascinating background. One of this person’s parents was as white-bread, vanilla American suburbia as you might imagine.  The other parent was the child of immigrants and who had, in fact, been born in a country from which in recent years the US Government has sought to make it more difficult to immigrate to the US.  I simply asked the student, “How do you understand yourself, racially?”  Without a thought, he said, “I’m white.  I’m an American.”  I brought up the student’s older sibling – a child of the same parents – and said, “How does your brother understand himself?”  The student thought, and said, “He’s a person of color.  I guess he’s a minority.  He is not white.”

Now, I understand that it is not my business to assign any identity to either of these folks, but I will say that in the months that followed, we had some lively interchanges on the topic of identity.  “Who told you,” I asked, “that you were white?  And what difference has it made?”

I mention all of this because I think that it points out that the stories we are told, the words that we’re given, the compliments that we try to inhabit and the slurs that seek to stain us – they all matter.  And I’m worried that if we accept a portion of the truth as the totality of our identity then we will miss out on something big.  As we settle for less than the complete picture, we are diminished.

Which leads me to the work of the Psalmist, who had access to all of the Genesis stories, and who chose to go even deeper than they did.  The author of Genesis points out a situation and God’s response.  That account calls to mind one very present, very real aspect of our existence: nakedness and isolation.

Nobody in Genesis argues about whether folk are naked.  That’s a given – it’s obvious.  Just as it may be obvious to you that you are smart, or old, or non-binary, or funny, or Latinx, or sexy.  More than one of those things may apply to you now or at some point in the past or the future.  You, like Adam and Eve, are a million things.

Creation of Adam (detail), Michelangelo, c. 1512

And the beautiful thing that the Psalmist does is to look beyond all of those things to the question of core identity.  The Psalmist does not talk about attributes or qualities that we carry or display or feel, but rather digs deeper and points to the manner in which we are made.

You heard it: Rayna read it for us.  “I praise you because I was made in an amazing and wonderful way.”  Other translations include “fearfully and wonderfully”, or “remarkably and wonderfully”, or “amazingly and miraculously”.  The point is this: the you that is at the core of your you-ness is crafted by God and is beloved of God. The thing that is most true about you is not your height, weight, ability to dunk a basketball, intelligence, gender, or sense of humor.  The thing that is most trueabout you is that you have been fashioned, shaped, and curated by God.  And that God is crazy about you.

This is important for many reasons, but perhaps especially today as we baptize little Abigail.  To be honest, it’s pretty easy to hold a baby or a young child and affirm the truth of the Psalm.  From what I can tell, infants and toddlers have pretty remarkable self-esteem and don’t believe anything bad about themselves.  Moreover, once we get past a few of the smells and sounds, it’s tough for the rest of us to put the badmouth on a six month-old.  So Rayna reads that passage, and we look at Abby, and we sigh, “Yes, of course.  Amazing and wonderful.”

And you and I both know that it’s a lot harder to look in the mirror and to remember that about ourselves.  And it can be very difficult to look around at the other faces in class, or on the bus, or at the office, or on the news, and to remember that this is what’s most true about those people, too.

The call of this particular baptism Sunday is that this particular group of people, gathered on this particular day, will presume to speak for the entire Body of Christ as we promise that we will remind Abby of this fact for the rest of her life.  In baptism, we acknowledge that Abby is now, always has been, and always will be God’s.

And yet, somehow, if we make Abby special, if we make Abby the sole purpose of our gathering, then we disempower our promise.  Because some of you know this, but others may not: Abigail lives in Texas, for crying out loud.  And some of you are participating in this service of worship from Massachusetts or Louisiana or Florida or California or even Africa.  Saying that you will help to remind this child of her identity in Jesus Christ could be either the easiest or the dumbest promise you’ll ever make.  I mean, it’s easy to say, “Yep, every time I see that particular person, I’ll make sure to treat her as though she is an amazing and wonderful creation of God, beloved by Christ Jesus.”  Who knows when most of you will ever see this little person again?  Of what use is a promise like that?

Unless… unless we are able to remember that we are making promises on behalf of the whole church… and we are able to remember that the whole church is everywhere… and that this amazing and wonderful creation of God is present in each of us.  Which means that you have never ever, and you will never ever look into the eyes of a person who has not been fearfully and wonderfully made.  That includes when you look into the mirror.  And when you look at “them”.  There is no such thing as a person who has been made less than “fearfully and wonderfully”.  Such a person does not exist.

And that is why we mourn when someone, famous or not, is murdered or dies violently – because the light of one who has been made fearfully and wonderfully has been prematurely extinguished.

And that is why we dare not dance in the hopes of revenge coming to the person who committed the crime – because as hatefully and as evilly as that person acted, as wrong as they were, that one, too, is an image-bearer.

Genesis paints for us a scene in which God calls each and every one of us to a life that is ongoing, regenerative, and eternal.  The Psalmist tells us that is how and why we were made.  Too often, we have chosen to believe or to live in a world of assigned or invented identities that acknowledge a portion of the life for which we were born and the ways in which we were made.  Let us trust God as the author of the selves that we’ve been given, and let us seek to love that self in the way that God does.  Further, let us with our promises today remind each other that we are called to love that self, the neighbor’s self, and every self we see well and truly.

When our brothers and sisters in Germany were trying to get at this truth about five hundred years ago, they came up with a statement of faith, called “The Heidelberg Catechism”, that points to the heart of this.  It begins with a question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”  In other words – what is the truest thing about you?  The answer is this: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death, not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…”

In celebrating Abby’s baptism and in remembering our own, we claim the truth that none of us belong to ourselves, but that we are invited into the larger and more complete life of Christ.  We claim the fact that no one part of us, no accusation made against us, no especially attractive component of ourselves makes up all of who we are.

One of the formative influences of my faith is a musician named Rich Mullins. He embraced this truth in his song “Brother’s Keeper”, which contains the lyric

I will be my brother’s keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won’t despise him for his weakness
I won’t regard him for his strength
I won’t take away his freedom

And so today I beg you – for Abigail’s sake, for your sake, for your neighbor’s sake, and for the sake of the world: remember who you are.  Don’t believe everything that anyone – even me – says about you.  Question what you’ve been told about yourself and each other, and let go of those things that are less than true.  More than that, though, seek to embrace the One who has promised to never, ever, let go of you.

Thanks be to God for the stories we live and the gifts that we share.  Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Genesis (Atlanta, John Knox, 1982), p. 41

Theology Takes a Holiday

In 2021, as it often does, Trinity Sunday coincides with Memorial Day Weekend.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights contemplated the ways that those events might bump up against one another and help to enrich meaning for us.  Our Scriptures included John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17.

To listen to the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

To see the entire worship service, visit the YouTube link below:

I’d like to begin this morning by throwing some numbers at you.

800

1 billion

37 million

1,354,664

3

Let me tell you more about these numbers, and why I’m dragging them into our celebration of the Lord’s Day.

This weekend, our world is shaped by the collision of cultures.  Americans, frustrated by pandemic shut-downs, fueled by the optimism they feel because of vaccine that is coursing through their veins, are eager to visit their grandchildren, their parents, or friends from whom they’ve been separated too long.  And so we’ll celebrate with picnics.  It’s estimated that 800 hot dogs will be consumed each second tomorrow – making Memorial Day the second “grilling-est” day of the year after July 4.  We’ll drink $1 billion worth of beer, and 37 million of us (up 60% from last year) will travel more than 50 miles to spend the holiday somewhere else.

It’s like the cork has come out of the bottle – so many of us, constrained for so long, are saying “Woo-hoo! Road Trip! Summer! Picnic! Here I come!”

At the same time, we will recognize that an estimated 1,354,664 servicemen and women have died in wars from the American Revolution to the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.  Folks who are connected with the military, or who have lost family and friends in horrible ways, may protest: “What, have you people lost your minds?  This is NOT an excuse to party! This is a solemn day for remembering and honoring those who have made the supreme sacrifice.”

And lastly, pastors are given a liturgical calendar that says today is Trinity Sunday – a day for Christians to remember that God is three persons yet one being.  We have the responsibility, says the Church, to contemplate the mysteries of how Divinity is expressed, or made incarnate, or experienced.  Here’s the thing about any attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity: if we try to make the explanation short, we’ll be guilty of heresy.  There is no easy way to talk about Trinity.  And yet if we persist in our explanations, we’ll be even more boring than we usually are.

The beginning of summer.  Memorial Day.  Trinity Sunday.  Believe it or not, I think that there is some common ground here.

Our yearning for travel, for celebration, and for reunions reveals our innate desire for connection and community.  I think that we feel this more keenly after the experience of a year that has been characterized by fear, contagion, masks, isolation, and conflict.  When someone brings up the idea of a picnic, we see that there is something incredibly positive that is revealed in the ability to connect with other human beings.  In our picnics we affirm that there is something innately good about eating and laughing and playing together.

Don’t get me wrong – even in the darkest days of our “shelter in place” and quarantining, we knew that we belonged to each other; we knew that we were known.  But we also came to understand that Zoom and Facetime and telephone calls are not substitutes for physical presence.  They’re good… but they’re not the same.  We gather in reunion and we acknowledge the grief of separation.

And those of us who have suffered loss in one of America’s conflicts carry with us this weekend a grief as well.  You who never knew your grandfathers or your mothers… you who grew up seeing faded photographs of young people in crisp uniforms proudly displayed on a mantel year after year… you know something about the goodness of connectivity by having experienced its absence.  You grew up with a hole, you’ve known loss or diminishment because of what hasn’t been there.

I suspect that in the next day or so, you’ll hear (or maybe even use) the phrase, “freedom isn’t free”.  Now, sometimes we hurl those words as an invective at someone else; we use them in a way that is designed to produce shame or perhaps stifle conversation about the appropriate use of military force.  But this weekend, we will look at row upon row of tombstones; we will consider countless deaths, and we must realize that any expression of a free society does incur a cost.  There is pain to be borne.

And for millennia, the church has added an emphatic “yes” to both of these propositions.  We affirm with all of who we are that humanity is created for community and joy and celebration.  And in the same breath we confess that often the gift of love carries with it the burden of pain and sorrow.

I’m not going to try to explain the “doctrine of the Trinity” to anyone this morning, but I do want to point out that the scriptural depictions of the Divine are all rooted in the awareness that whoever, whatever God is – well, we just don’t have enough words to describe or define that.

Right there on page one, we’re told that something of what it means to be God is to exist in community.  “And God said ‘let US make humans in OUR image’…” it says in Genesis.  The book of Proverbs describes “lady wisdom” as God’s companion, and of course the whole story of Jesus describes an interplay between the creative force behind all that is, the empowering Spirit or breath of life, and the corporeal presence of a man who called God his Father and who breathed life into those he met.  One of the struggles in the church right now is finding the correct pronouns to use for God.  Historically, English speakers have used the masculine singular “He” not because there’s any evidence to suggest that God has a gender, but because traditional English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun that is both singular and personal.  I’d rather misgender God by calling God “He” or “She” than suggest that God is less than personal by calling God “It”.  In God’s very nature, there is personality and community.

Paul was writing to his friends in Rome who were trying to make sense out of their own situation.  They were in the process of being forced out of their previous religious communities because of their embrace of Jesus as the Christ.  At the same time, the Empire of Rome was quick to lay the blame for anything from wildfires to volcanic eruptions at the feet of this “new” religious group.  They asked the old Apostle, “Why does this hurt so much?”

Paul, being a scholar, uses a lot of very heavy theological language in an attempt to communicate that the Divine Nature is expressed in a familial relationship that is rooted in love.  He goes on to remind his readers that love carries risk – that love can be painful.  To be made in God’s image, he says, to be like God, or to be family to God, is to know the vulnerability and the suffering that love entails.

The Gospel reading – one of the most familiar stories in the Bible – gives us a story that shows how this looks in our lives.  Jesus describes an authentic relationship with the Holy One by using the analogy of childbirth.  Can you think of any better example of an event that is such a potent combination of pain, anxiety, fear, joy, hope, and love?  Knowing God, Jesus says, is like being born.  It is amazing, of course… but it can be messy, and there is often pain and tenderness.  Those things happen whenever there is any kind of intimacy.

And so here we are on Trinity Sunday, trying to use our paltry vocabularies to try to consider what it means to participate in a relationship with the Divine.

We celebrate that you have always been connected with that One who birthed you and all that there is, and who has equipped you for a life of love, and hope, and relationship.

We rejoice in the fact that you have never drawn breath apart from that great Spirit – the ruah, or the pneuma – who is everywhere and always, thereby binding you not only to those you recognize and even love, but to the whole family of creation at every place and all times.

And we exult in the eternal presence of Jesus who showed us what it means to participate in the Divine Intent one day at a time, one step after another, to the end that we and others would recognize the significance and glory of the love that can never die.

So, yeah – it’s a holiday weekend.  Have a hot dog or two.  Give a hug.  Enjoy a cold beverage with people you love.  You were made for relationship and for joy.

And this particular holiday is Memorial Day – so pause and reflect, giving thanks for what you’ve received undeservedly, and for that from which you’ve been spared.  Take in the measure of this day from your own vantage point of time and space and resolve, perhaps, to live and act in such a way that honors the pain and loss and sacrifice of others.

And it is, of course, Trinity Sunday.  St. Augustine was a great African teacher of the early church, and he preached a sermon in which he famously taught,  “Si comprehendus, non est Deus” (if you can understand it, it’s not God).  In saying this, I don’t believe that Augustine did, and nor do I wish to engage in what one of my professors would have termed “a premature appeal to mystery”.  Rather, I think that the old cleric is saying that the Divine is best apprehended, or recognized, rather than comprehended or explained.

Maybe this will help: today is the 39th anniversary of my marriage to Sharon.  That union has produced a host of realities in this world, some of which are beautiful and others are more mundane.  There is nothing more lovely to have come from that marriage, however, than our daughter Ariel.  No one has spent more time with Sharon and me than our daughter.  She knows us.  But she does not and cannot know or comprehend all that is between her mother and me.  Yet even in her inability to comprehend, she can be thankful and grateful (or irritated and bitter, I suppose).  She can apprehend our marriage.  But she cannot fully comprehend it.

You are made from Love.  You are made for Love.  The notion of the Trinity is an attempt to apprehend that truth that none of us – even God – is ever alone.  And this theology of the Trinity is one that is meant to be shared and lived.  You are not supposed to traipse into church on Sunday and suffer through an experience of trying to figure out the theology as if it were an algebraic proof to be solved and then find yourself released into an alternative, better reality where you are able to play a game of cornhole and share a meal with friends.  No… we come to worship in order to be reminded of the fact that the fabric of the universe is relationship.  We hold that truth near and dear to us in this place, while we sit with the One who has made us, who has called us, and who fills us.  The rest of our lives – our eating, drinking, reuniting, sacrificing, appreciating, laughing, crying, and loving lives… they are the opportunity for us to practice who we have been made to be in the context of love and relationships, with all their complexity.  Thanks be to God, the source of all that has been, is, and ever will be.  Amen.

 

 

Convection in the Wilderness

The Day of Pentecost 2021 (May 23), found the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights sitting with some of God’s people who knew something of diminution and weariness.  Our texts included Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-13.

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

To see the entire service of worship as recorded on YouTube, please use the following link:

It’s your birthday, but you’re not feeling it.  Or maybe you are, but your friends and family have ditched you.  Do you know what it’s like to have a sub-par birthday experience? A quick search of the web provided me with these images that, well, I hope I never experience.

I just don’t get this one.  The long table.  The carefully wrapped subway sandwiches.  The two guests who look as if they’d rather be at the dentist’s…

Or this one.  Who shows up at that venue and thinks, “Yes! This is it! This is where we’ll tell Dave how much he means to us!”

And finally, well, I’m just not even sure what to say about this one.

And yet, here we are, on Pentecost 2021, the “birthday of the church.”  How are we doing?  How does it feel to be you in late May, 2021?

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest that these things may be true for you this season, if not this day.

We’re tired.  I mean, exhausted, in some respects.  Individually and communally, we don’t have much left in the tank, do we?  There are so many things that we used to think of as automatic that now require decisions and negotiation.  Stuff we used to just DO now requires a policy decision or a vote from the board.  Can we have coffee at the meeting? I’d like to offer you a handshake – does that make you nervous? And, speaking of birthdays – remember when we all ate cake after someone else blew all over it? Yikes!  But so many of these little things have just worn us down.  We’re done, many of us.

And we’re frustrated.  I mean, seriously – especially when it comes to things having to do with the coronavirus – how do we make sense of all the apparently conflicting information we’ve received?  Who do we trust?  When my cousin the epidemiologist tells me one thing, but then your friend the nurse tells you something else, and that guy on TV said yet another thing?  To make matters worse, when we finally come up with something that we think will work for us, then our parents or our children or our friends or our neighbors look at us like we’re crazy!  They tell us so, and then they attempt to correct us, or to scold us, or to ridicule us.  And we’re just supposed to take that?

Let’s not kid ourselves – we’re grieving.  Oh, there is an ocean of grief right now.  Some of us are simply lost because of the deaths we’ve endured.  Our grandparent died, alone, in an ICU, and we couldn’t even FaceTime.  Or maybe the specter of death has passed, but it’s been more than a year since we’ve seen the rest of the family.  There is so much loss – in the past fourteen months, we’ve said goodbye to friends or friendships, to jobs, to travel dreams or favorite restaurants or family trips.  And each of those losses adds to our collective lament.

What else? We’re impatient.  We think, “Why can’t those people act or think or believe more like me? What are they, morons?”  We’re concerned.  We think, “Oh, no! Those people are not acting or thinking or believing like me! They are at risk!”

We’re surely out of practice when it comes to being the Church.  We’ve learned a lot of new things, but we’ve gotten out of the habit of being around other people.  If we’re honest, we kind of like our lazy Sunday mornings, and fast-forwarding through the church service on YouTube.  That “mute” button is nice, isn’t it?  And being able to scroll through your email while being “at church”?  Very efficient.  And that’s just us, here in Crafton Heights.  Some of you are watching this on social media because your church has closed, or the pastor has left, or there’s been a big fight about the masks, or whatever.  It’s rough out there, ecclesiastically speaking.

But mostly, I think, we’re just tired.  Worn out.  Frazzled.

So we can be forgiven for arriving at this, the second Pentecost of the great Pandemic, and feeling a little less than exuberant.  In some years, we’d say, “Hey! It’s the birthday of the church! – YAY!”  Now, it’s more like “yay…”

If ever Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones has seemed appropriate, it is today.

Ezekiel had been born in Israel and raised in the faith.  As a young man, he and his family and community were taken captive when the nation was defeated and its people driven into exile.  From his isolated viewpoint, he was forced to watch much of what he loved be destroyed, or wither, or die.  After ten years of this diminishment and loss he has a vision of a valley that is filled with nothing but dry bones.

As a priest, such contact with death would render Ezekiel unclean.  If his identity lay in his ability to do that for which he had been trained since childhood, then he was even further lost – because simply touching anything dead would sit him on the bench for a while.

And as he is contemplating this fresh hell, the voice speaks to him: “Ezekiel, can these bones live?”  The way I’ve come to hear his reply echoes the weariness and frustration that the late great Paul Newman demonstrated as “Cool Hand Luke” a generation ago.  After days of being badgered and tormented by the sadistic prison guards, one of them says, “Luke, what’s your dirt doin’ in Boss Keane’s ditch?” Without making eye contact or even protesting, Luke says, “I don’t know, Boss…”

That’s how I hear Ezekiel’s reply – after a decade of loss and diminishment and grief and frustration, and now finding himself immersed in death and uncleanness, the Divine One asks him for a statement of faith.  The best he can do is to say, “You know, Lord. I don’t know, but you know.  I’m trying to have faith, but it’s so hard…”

And look at what God does – and does NOT do.  God does not give Ezekiel some monumental task; God does not make a huge “ask” of the beleaguered prophet.  Instead, God says, “Look, Son, just tell the truth.”  That’s what “prophesy” means – it means to say what is true. “Tell the truth, and stand in the midst of this wind.”

There’s a word that shows up an amazing ten times in this passage – in Hebrew, it’s ruah, and it can mean breath, or wind, or spirit.  Ruah is “air in motion”, and as that ruah moves over that boneyard, the disjointed skeletons become gradually transformed into what the Hebrew says is a chayil – our English renders that as “a vast multitude” – but it means a strong force, an entity that is infused with bravery or valor or power and purpose.  All Ezekiel does is watch, and stand in the ruah, and tell the truth.

It’s easy to hear a parallel from the book of Acts.  There, on the second floor of a borrowed residence, the followers of Jesus are hanging about.  They are a dispirited bunch in the days after his ascension.  They appear to be more concerned about what they’d lost than they were hopeful about what they might find.  They seem to be more worried about who had died than about looking for signs of new life.  If anything, they feel stuck in the present while they are longing for the past. Have you known any of that in these past 14 months?

And into this room that is filled with a preoccupied grief and angst blows the breath of the Holy Spirit.  It is the pneuma – the breath, the wind, the Spirit of the Holy, and She washes over these disciples gently at first, but then with enough force that they are compelled to run out into the street and tell the truth to anyone who will listen.  The result in Acts is similar to that in Ezekiel: by the end of the day a small group of, at most, a hundred and twenty people has swelled to a multitude that is thirty times that size.  Whereas they had begun the day in quiet, removed, private consultation, the chapter ends by describing a group that meets publicly and looks ahead and is, by any measure, vital and empowered.

The instigating force in both Ezekiel and in Acts is the same: air in motion.  The Spirit of God that moves on, and in, and through, and over those who have been despondent, defeated, demoralized, or dead.

Air in motion.

If you doubt the power of air in motion, let me invite you to ask Ron Gielarowski about his air fryer.  Talk with a chef about her convection oven, or ask my granddaughter about the fish jerky we make in the dehydrator.  Air in motion can do some amazing things, and render what we might consider to be lamentable into something wonderful.

And you say, “All right, Rev., cut to the chase.  What do you want us to do about this now?”

Well, you won’t be surprised to know that I have a few ideas.  But for today, I want to keep it simple and ask you to merely imitate what we’ve seen in Ezekiel and in Acts.  I want to invite you to get yourself into a position where you can catch a glimpse of the Spirit’s power.

Ezekiel entered into a valley and looked expectantly at a scene of disruption and isolation that he never hoped to see again.  The first followers of Jesus were able to take a few steps outside of their cloister, to escape their resignation, and find themselves in places where the breezes could flow.

With the exception of those of you who are about to be ordained or installed as officers in the church, I am not asking anyone to do or to be one more thing.  I don’t think that I’m adding anything to your weariness, or frustration, or impatience today.

I’m just asking you to listen for the Spirit of God.

And then I’m asking you to look at this church, and at your faith that has brought you here, and to answer this question: Can that faith live?  Can this church live?  Can this neighborhood live?”

Today, as we celebrate this birthday and gather around those who will serve as our leaders for years to come, and as we sit and find refreshment at the Table that has been set for us by Jesus of Nazareth, let us move – not as those who carry any power or authority on our own – but as those who have been touched by the convection of the Holy Spirit.

Let us listen.  And watch. And wait.  Expectantly – as those who believe that God does some of God’s best work with those who are despondent, defeated, demoralized, or dead.  Thanks be to God for the breath of the Spirit.  Amen.

Am I An Ally?

In the days leading up to Pentecost, 2021, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are exploring our connection with the ideas about and process involved with reconciliation.  How do we know who we are? How do we hear each other? How will we act in this world?  Our texts for May 16 included the famous “Great Commission” of Jesus as found in Matthew 28:16-20 as well as a portion of Paul’s note to Philemon.

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

To participate in the worship service via YouTube, visit this site:

I’d like to begin this morning with one of the most iconic scenes in the history of American film, although I recognize that most folks younger than I will have no recollection of this movie.  Spartacus is an epic retelling of the story of a slave who became a Gladiator and eventually led a rebellion that became known as the Third Servile War of the Roman Empire.  Spartacus empowers a legion of escaped slaves to fight as a unit and they win many battles against the imperial army.  Ultimately, however, the power of the Empire prevails and a small band of survivors faces the Romans, who are trying to locate the instigator of the slave revolt.  Here is the scene of which I speak:

Even sixty years after its filming there is something overwhelming about watching this group of people who are literally standing up for each other in an attempt to deflect injustice and persecution.

Spartacus was the highest-grossing film of the 1960’s, and it won four Academy Awards as well as the Golden Globe for Best Picture.  It featured a stunning array of Hollywood elite, including Director Stanley Kubrick and actors Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Tony Curtis, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, John Gavin, and others.  To call it a “blockbuster” or an “epic” is no exaggeration.

And yet behind the camera is a story that is equally compelling.  The screenwriting credit goes to a man named Dalton Trumbo.  That may not be a household name now, but he was one of the most well-known writers in Hollywood a generation or two ago.  He wrote a novel entitled Johnny, Get Your Gun, and worked on a number of very successful films in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  During World War II, he began receiving unsolicited letters from the Nazi party, which he turned over to the FBI.  Instead of looking into the senders of those letters, however, the Federal Government began to keep tabs on Mr. Trumbo.

In 1947, Trumbo and nine other prominent Hollywood personalities were summoned before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, where they refused to testify against each other or anyone else in the film industry.  Trumbo served a year in a Federal Penitentiary and upon his release, like hundreds of others, was blacklisted and unable to work in Hollywood.

He continued to write, though, and two films that he wrote won the Academy Award for best story – yet he was forced to publish them under an assumed name and was barred from receiving the Oscars.  When Kirk Douglas and the rest of the star power behind Spartacus decided to make their movie, they insisted that Trumbo write under his own name, and thereby they provided him with an opportunity to regain his name, his vocation, his identity, and his personhood. Another prominent American, President John F. Kennedy, lent his support to those voices when on February 4, 1961 he walked into a theater through a crowd of American Legion members who were protesting the movie, thereby endorsing the anti-slavery film that spelled the end of Hollywood’s black-listing.

And you might think that this is mildly interesting, but wonder why I’m taking your time with it since, after all, it is literally ancient history.  That’s a great question.  This month, we are considering what it means to be a follower of Jesus in times of conflict, pain, and upheaval.  We wonder how it’s possible to relate to each other and the larger world when there appears to be so much that divides us.

Two weeks ago, we observed Jesus squatting in the dirt with a woman who’d been brought before him.  He refused to shame or objectify either her or her accusers, and in so doing helped us to see the importance of beginning sensitive conversations in a spirit of confession and humility.

Last week we learned from an illiterate peasant who has become known as Saint Isidore the importance of listening more, talking less, and realizing that each of us is a unique child, carefully crafted in the Divine image.

“The Great Commission”, by He Qi (2013)

This morning’s Gospel is one of the most familiar passages in all of scripture, sometimes called “the Great Commission”.  Historically, the folks who play for our team have heard the words, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”, and we’ve interpreted that as a call to subjugate or conquer those who are different; we’ve seen this as a commandment to try to make other people more like us.

And yet the command of Jesus is both extensive (meaning that the invitation is for all creation) and intensive (meaning that it is for each of us).  I intentionally selected this passage so that we might see the sequence of the past three weeks clearly, and recognize that we have no right to say anything about what we intend to preach, teach, or impose on someone else unless we move through a process that is rooted in humility, begins to speak in confession, relies more on listening than it does on speaking, and honors the Divine image in other people.

These verses from Matthew are often used in an evangelistic context. By that I mean that we have seen them as a means by which we invite or encourage or force other people to accept a set of truths or a philosophy that we deem to be true.  We say, “Accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and you will become a Christian like I am a Christian.  I know what is true, and I will tell you that truth.”

I’d suggest that for Jesus and the early church, though, “evangelism” was not the proclamation of a series of ideas, but rather a demonstration of God’s intent for the world.  The “Good News” was not a set of intellectual propositions, but an invitation to join in the pursuit of that intent by engaging in a community that is based on humility, an awareness of the dangers of the ego, and the importance of listening to and honoring others.  This community, as lived by Jesus, was known for its attentiveness to those who were on the margins.

Onesimus Delivering Paul’s Letter to Philemon, anon. medieval manuscript

An example of how that looked comes from the shortest letter of Paul that we have on record – a 435 word note that he wrote to his friend Philemon.  Paul has been imprisoned and comes across Onesimus, a slave who has run away from Philemon’s household.  Under Roman law, one who encountered a runaway slave had a legal obligation to “produce him in public”, and then to return that slave to his master after punishing him severely.  In addition, the one who harbored an escaped slave was financially responsible for each day’s labor that was lost.

Paul, in returning Onesimus with this note, is acknowledging that he has therefore violated the laws of Rome.  More than that, he asks his friend to not only forgive the slave, but to set aside the debt that Paul himself had incurred.  In doing so, he reminds Philemon of his own status – that Philemon “owes” Paul a great deal.  I hope you can see, even in this short reading, that Paul uses his position, his credibility, his influence to advocate for Onesimus – someone who, legally speaking, was a non-entity.

According to the ancient historians, Philemon evidently paid attention to his old friend, because Onesimus was freed and began to participate so fully in the life of faith that he rose to the position of Bishop in the city of Ephesus, where in AD 95 he was imprisoned and martyred by Emperor Domitian for the crime of following Jesus.

So now we have Spartacus, Jesus’ last words, and a first-century letter that flouts the laws of ancient Rome.  What are we saying for today?

In recent years we’ve seen the rise of a term and a concept that fits into these parameters.  Perhaps you’ve heard about the idea of acting as an “ally”.

An ally is someone who becomes aware of oppression or difficulty experienced by a marginalized group and who then enters into the struggle in a way that recognizes the dignity and humanity of the members of that group and who acts to support that group in meaningful ways.

Paul recognized that as an apostle, a citizen of Rome, and a public figure in the early church that he had received a number of advantages, resources, and opportunities to which Onesimus would have no access.  And so Paul spent time with Onesimus.  He heard him.  He believed him.  And then Paul used whatever advantages he enjoyed on behalf of Onesimus.  Paul was, quite literally, an ally for Onesimus.

What does that look like in the 21st century USA?  We sit at an intersection of time and space that affords us an incredible awareness of the fact that we are so different.  We cannot help but acknowledge that our experiences and our resources have been neither parallel nor equal.  This knowledge invites us to take a number of concrete steps that can not only make us into more faithful followers of Jesus and better human beings, but can help to re-shape the world in which the next generations will grow.

Can we commit to learning more about how things got to be the way that they are?  This will mean each of us spending our own time and energy reflecting on the ways that we have both inherited and participated in systems that may be oppressive and unequal.

We who enjoy some level of advantage and power can learn how to amplify the voices of those whose cries have been suppressed.  I do this not by presuming to speak for other people or groups, but by using whatever privilege or authority I have to encourage those who are vulnerable to tell their own stories.

Each of us, but particularly those who have traditionally benefitted from the status quo, have the obligation to look for ways to modify our own behavior.  For me, that has been a combination of things.  For instance, I have a new respect for the importance of personal pronouns.  I’m trying to listen to the people around me in an effort to learn how they’d like to be known.  I’m learning new words – not with the intention of shaming myself or anyone else, but with the goal of seeking to know others as they’d like to be known.

I’m trying to shop in ways that maximize the ability of creators and producers to determine their own futures.  That means participating in fair trade where I can, and in trying to be intentional about supporting businesses that are more directly beneficial to populations who have been excluded in the past.

You’ve seen in an airport or a train station a sign that reminds us “if you see something, say something.”  In those contexts, the warning is to be on the lookout for suspicious activity that can lead to mass casualties.  “If you see something, say something” is also great advice for those who wish to live as allies.  When I’m in a room where someone makes a comment that is harmful, I have the ability to call them out on it.  An ally does not depend on the marginalized to do all the work in recognizing insensitivity or systemic oppression.

And I’ve been learning that it’s not my job to announce to the world that I, the great and wonderful Pastor Dave, am an ally.  That’s not my job, and “ally” is not a label one can give to oneself.  The call of scripture is that we are to act in these ways.  We’ll know it’s working when people feel safe enough to share their pain and frustration with you.  The ancient prophet Isaiah worded it like this:

I’ll tell you what it really means to worship the Lord.
Remove the chains of prisoners who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused!  Share your food with everyone who is hungry;share your home
 with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need; don’t turn away your relatives.

Then your light will shine like the dawning sun, and you will quickly be healed.
Your honesty will protect you as you advance, and the glory of the Lord
 will defend you from behind.

(Isaiah 58:6-8)

Here’s the deal: any understanding of a theology of incarnation, or any reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will show that in all the wisdom of eternity, the second person of the Trinity recognized a number of significant advantages that he enjoyed.  Jesus the Christ, according to scripture, set aside some of those advantages and used others for the benefit of a creation that was crying out.

Among the last words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew are “Go, therefore…”  That word, “therefore”, in Greek is a small one.  We might pronounce it as “OUN” , and I’ll suggest that it begins this great commission with an idea that could be understood as saying, “Go – like this”, or “Go – because this is the way in which I was sent”, or “Go – because now it is your turn to act as you have been trained to act”.

Our world is so divided!  Look at the lines we’ve drawn – around our race, our gender, our sexual identities, our politics, our economics, our ages…  If we look at those lines long enough, we might be tempted to forget that the eternal presence of Jesus Christ is not, nor has it ever been divided.  God forbid that the Church – the body of Christ present on earth – would become divided or remain in a state of division.

None of us are perfect.  And nobody’s going to get it right all the time.  But as we think about the people we will be in a post-pandemic world, and as we consider the call of Jesus to demonstrate the intentions of God wherever we are, we might perhaps summarize our goal of becoming allies by living in such a way that gives credence to these words that are often attributed to John Wesley, an English Pastor who led a revival movement that became the Methodist Church:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Thanks be to God, who gives us to and for each other and the world.  Amen.

 

Call Me Isidore

In the days leading up to Pentecost, 2021, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are exploring our connection with the ideas about and process involved with reconciliation.  How do we know who we are? How do we hear each other? How will we act in this world?  Our texts for May 9 included the story of Peter’s vision and encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10 as well as II Corinthians 3:7-11.

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

To participate in the entire worship service via YouTube, please use the link below:

Words.  I love words.  I use them every day.  What would we do without them?  I like long words, like “somnambulist”, which is a person who is a sleepwalker.  I like descriptive words, like “nifty”.  And I like learning new words.  The thing is, that sometimes I hear you talking, and I’m not entirely sure what you said, so I just fit it into some words that I already know.

There was a time when we had a youth group trip to Camp Crestfield.  Most of the kids were having a great time, but there was one student who was just miserable.  I mean, all day, every day, she bellyached and moaned about the camp rules, about the work we were doing, and about the unfairness of life in general.  And then, on Wednesday, it was like a light went on.  She was cheerful, she was cooperative, she was light-hearted.  I couldn’t leave well-enough alone – I had to poke the bear and ask her about it.  She said, “Well, I thought that this place was pretty lame, but then at breakfast that lady said that we’d be riding motorcycles after dinner.  That’s awesome!”

I thought back, and I couldn’t remember any announcement about motorcycles.  The student said, “You were there! She said it – that since it was Wednesday, we’d have Vespas after dinner.  I don’t want to miss that!”

“Oh, friend,” I said.  Not “Vespas”.  “Vespers”.  I explained that “vespers” is a word for a short worship service, often held in the evening.  She exploded!  “You’ve gotta be kidding me!  Church!  The ‘special bonus’ is more CHURCH around here?  Geez, I hate this place…”

Yes, words – and listening – matter.  How many times do we think that we’re listening, and that we’re even hearing – only to discover that we’ve missed the mark entirely.

Acts 10 contains a very lengthy narrative, of which we’ve read a portion, describing the day that God tried to teach the Apostle Peter some new words and new ideas.  It was, evidently, too much, too big, too new for the old fisherman to comprehend.  Peter sees the vision containing all of the “forbidden fruit” and before the Lord can say too much, he plugs his ears and shouts, “No! I can’t do that! I’ll never let you down again, Lord!”

Peter’s Vision as depicted by contemporary sculptor C. Malcolm Powers. Used by permission. More at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mmpowrs/index.html

This happens three times – the Lord starts to speak, and Peter says, “No! I can’t!”  He hears the words, but he can’t listen.

After that, Peter reflects on the experience.  We’re told that he was “greatly puzzled” and “still thinking” about this vision when the out-of-towners show up.  And these guys are not merely insiders from another part of the country – they are Gentiles, representatives of a Roman Centurion who happens to be commanding a significant portion of the occupational forces present in Israel.

While Peter couldn’t quite bring himself to pay attention to or understand what God is doing in the moment, he finds that he is able to listen to these visitors and then, even more surprisingly, he follows them to the home of the Centurion and breaks with his own custom by entering the home and, perhaps more surprisingly, by pausing to listen.

I’ve been reading this week about a phenomenon that psychologists call “closeness communication bias”.  There are several fascinating studies that demonstrate that, as a rule, the more closely we feel connected to someone, the less likely we are to actually listen to them attentively over time.[1]  Once you know someone well enough to feel “close” to them, we think that we already know what they’re going to say… and so we don’t listen as attentively.  Parenthetically, I will suggest that perhaps Mothers’ Day is a fine time for us to consider whether the closeness communication bias has affected the relationships in our own homes…  At any rate, Peter felt very close to God, and had a hard time actually hearing what the Lord was saying.  Maybe he thought he knew what was coming.  On the other hand, a message from the Roman Army?  What could that possibly be about?  I’d better listen up.

Luci Shaw, one of my all-time favorite poets, has a brief verse that gets to this truth.  It’s called “Explorer”, and it goes like this:

You think you know my map
You’ve pioneered my wild
prairies, charted all my rivers
and other
bodies of water,
travelled my highways and
hidden paths.
Yet now, when I decide
to dam an old creek or
cultivate an acre or
grow a small forest
do you feel, maybe,
lost a little?[2]

I’m suggesting that maybe Peter, like the rest of us from time to time, thought that he had God all figured out, and couldn’t quite wrap his head around the notion that God wasn’t everything that Peter thought that God was.

“Peter and Cornelius” by Aubin Vouet (1639, from the Notre Dame in Paris)

As it turns out, Cornelius has had an eventful day as well.  He, too, has had visions and questions, and is far less sure of himself than he had been at the start of the week.  By the end of our reading, Peter, Cornelius, and everyone else have been shaken free of some of their prevailing assumptions and are standing ready to listen to a new word from the Lord.

And perhaps we who, like Peter, have sought to be faithful and obedient and honest and true for a long time – perhaps we wonder, “is a ‘new’ word from the Lord even possible?”  I mean, for so long we’ve held to what we were taught: that God is immutable, unchangeable; that God is the ‘unmoved mover’ who is ‘the ground of all being’.  How can God change God’s mind?  Is it possible for God to do something new?

Well, Peter’s contemporary and sometimes friend the Apostle Paul sure seemed to think so.  In the reading we’ve had from II Corinthians, Paul remembers the fact that for generations, we carried God’s words around carved in stone – we were loath to hear them or experience them in any different way.  And then Jesus showed up, and lived and spoke the Word in ways that blew some of our old understandings out of the water.  The Word enfleshed sure sounded different than those words that were chiseled on a stone.  Perhaps as Paul wondered how thatcould be possible, he cast his eyes on the old scroll of Isaiah 43, which read,

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  (Isaiah 43:18-19)

We’ve committed to spending some time as a congregation thinking about what it means for us to be witness to and even agents of reconciliation in a world that is too often characterized by conflict, change, divisiveness, and pain.  Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to join these predecessors in the faith and grow in our ability to be good listeners.

In particular, it seems to me that if we are going to be able to point toward the peace, the wholeness, and indeed the reconciliation that is offered in Christ, that we must begin (as mentioned last week) in confession and humility.  The logical next step would be to join Peter and Cornelius and Paul and invest some time in training ourselves to be good and competent listeners.  How tragic would it be if we were to miss out on something big that God is doing merely because we think we’ve got everything figured out just fine, thank you very much.

Dr. Wade Davis is a Canadian professor of anthropology who has the coolest job title I’ve heard in a long time: he is an official “Explorer in Residence” for the National Geographic Society.  He’s traveled the world seeking to learn from indigenous cultures, particularly their use of plants for medicinal and spiritual purposes.  He has written a sentence that we would all do well to memorize: “The world in which you were born is merely one model of reality.  Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”[3]  A significant part of learning what it means to be a child of God is realizing that not all of God’s children have the same view of the world – or of God.

Years ago our congregation was blessed by the arrival of a young family.  They were new in town, and their kids went to the school up the street, and they thought that maybe we should talk about baptism, and membership, and, you know, “Jesus-y stuff”.  Oh, that was music to my ears.  I mean, I dove in – head first!  We talked about how Jesus is present in scripture, and our conversations afforded me a platform in which to talk about how I follow Jesus in my daily life.  That, in turn, led me to offer what I perceived as some incredibly thoughtful and helpful advice when this couple started making life choices that were different than mine – they were raising their children differently than I was; they spent their money, to my mind, foolishly; they were clearly “wrong” on some social issues.  When I challenged these decisions (in a way that, as I reflect on it, was less than charitable), one of them said, “You don’t get it, do you Dave?  It’s not like we’re trying to figure out what we want. We know what we want.  And that’s where we’re heading.  Can’t you see?  I don’t want to be you, Dave.  If that means we can’t be friends, then I’m sorry…”

Yeah.  The truth hurts.  Not everyone wants to be me.  Or you.  And that’s ok.

David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates were for many years associated with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality assessment tool that helps foster self-understanding.  They write,

If I do not want what you want, please try not to tell me that my want is wrong.

Or if I believe other than you, at least pause before you correct my view.

Or if my emotion is less than yours, or more, given the same circumstances, try not to ask me to feel more strongly or weakly.

Or yet if I act, or fail to act, in the manner of your design for action, let me be.  I do not, for the moment at least, ask you to understand me.  That will come only when you are willing to give up changing me into a copy of you.[4]

Last week, we sat with Jesus in the dirt as he waited for the religious leaders to realize that they, like the woman that they sought to shame and isolate, had failed to live into God’s best for them.  Today, we watch Peter and Cornelius look at each other with new eyes, and listen to each other, perhaps for the first time – a listening that helps them to hear the Lord that they both claim to worship a whole lot more clearly.

I’d like to close with the story of a man of whom you might never have heard, but from whom we can all learn a great deal.

Icon of Isadore and Maria
Artist unknown

Isidore was born to a poor family in rural Spain in approximately 1070.  He spent essentially his entire life as a hired hand on a farm in the city of Seville.  He and his wife were known as models of piety and generosity.  There was a time when he was disciplined for being late to work on the farm because he spent so much time in the chapel praying for his neighbors.  The next time he was late because of his prayers, he arrived on the farm only to discover that there was an angel doing his plowing for him. Isidore and his wife kept a pot of soup simmering at all times so that he would be able to bring home guests at any hour and offer them hospitality.

In March of 1622 – nearly five hundred years after his death – the Church in Rome surprised the world by declaring that Isidore the Farmer was a saint.  He was not of noble birth; he lived in poverty and was most likely an illiterate peasant.  Yet for five hundred years, people remembered that he listened to them, and that he was kind.  Nobody remembers any sermons that Isidore preached, or any proclamations that he made.  They remembered that he identified with them, that he loved them, that he fed them, and that he heard them.

We all have so much to learn.  May we approach all of our interactions – and particularly our disagreements – with a desire to be present, and to pay attention.  May we listen like Isidore to the end that we might one day look like Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Louise Stanger, “Are You Listening? Understanding the Closeness Communication Bias” (https://thriveglobal.com/stories/are-you-listening-understanding-the-closeness-communication-bias/)

[2] Published in Listen to the Green (Harold Shaw Publishing, 1981) p. 55

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/4652058.Wade_Davis

[4] Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types (Promethius Nemesis, 1978), p. 1.