Tradition!

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On May 27, we considered an encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with some of the leading religious scholars of their day.  On the surface, it was a discussion about some ceremonial cleaning laws – but my sense is that the real conflict is about something deeper. You can read it for yourself in Mark 7:1-23

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

I remember the first time I ever paid a dry-cleaning bill.  I was student at Hanby Jr. High School and the time, and my introduction to the world of professional cleaning services came as a result of an incident that occurred at lunch the previous week. I had liberally doused a school-issued “tater tot” with ketchup and thrown it across the cafeteria, where it made an astonishingly vivid imprint on the brand-new purple dress being worn by my classmate Tricia.

Food fights. We’ve all seen them.  Some of us have started them.  When we got down to the Principal’s office following a cafeteria altercation, all of us probably had the same conversation:
“Why did you do that, young man?  What possessed you to throw processed potato product at the girls’ table?”
[Shrug].  “I dunno.”

Of course, most of the time, we doknow what starts food fights. They are almost always a diversion – an attempt to draw someone’s attention from one thing to another thing.
– I can’t say that I have a crush on that person, so I’ll launch an attack of candy corn and veggie sticks.
– I’m not ready for the test that’s coming up next period, so I’ll try to get sent to the office instead.
– Something scary is about to occur, so I’ll create an alternative scenario that will attract more adults into the room and prevent that other thing from happening…

Mark takes only 16 chapters to tell the entire story of Jesus’ ministry, and yet he devotes at least half a chapter to describing a first-century food fight.  Out of all the stories he could have told about Jesus, why does he tell this one?

Sadducees and Pharisees, James Tissot, c. 1890

It would appear as though the story we’ve heard this morning is here to help readers in the first century – as well as the rest of us – to consider the ways that Jesus understood the core responsibilities of those who would walk with God.

We’re told of a confrontation between the disciples of Jesus and a group of Pharisees and Scribes. In this corner, we have the men and women to whom Jesus has dedicated the best and last years of his earthly life as he sought to equip and train them to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom and the Gospel message.  In the other corner, there are the big guns – the theological heavyweights of the day, including at least a few who have been sent up to Galilee by the religious headquarters in Jerusalem.

The apparent conflict is over a small detail of tradition: why don’t Jesus’ followers wash their hands the way that we’ve always been taught to wash our hands?

I should point out here that nobody, including the boys from Jerusalem, is implying that the disciples are eating with dirty hands.  No, the bone of contention is that the followers of Jesus had not participated in the ceremonial cleansing that had become the practice of the day. It’s not a concern about hygiene – rather, it’s a complaint about orthodoxy, authority, and tradition.

The real question is, “Jesus, why don’t you teach your followers to act like us?  Why don’t you tell them to live the way that we live?” The Pharisees and the Scribes are relying on their position of privilege, looking at the followers of Jesus as though they are some sort of backwater hicks – deplorables, if you will.  They are dismissive of the disciples and of Jesus, and they couch their derision and criticism in an appeal to tradition and to the Bible.

Pharisees, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1912)

Jesus, as you’ve heard, responds by pointing out that one can do all sorts of horrible things (like neglecting one’s parents, for instance) while claiming to be doing other, wonderful things (like paying for a new roof for the temple while getting a nice fat tax write-off at the same time, for instance).

In the conversation that ensues, Jesus apparently dismisses large sections of the Hebrew Bible (such as the dietary regulations) while pointing to the reality that a key aspect and indeed responsibility of living in the Kingdom is seeking to grow more deeply in our concern for and attentiveness to the things that are of ultimate importance.

The early Christian community heard the story of this food fight and assumed that it meant that none of the Old Testament laws concerning keeping a kosher kitchen had any relevance in the new understanding of faith.  We know that this is what they thought because the author of Mark, speaking for the community, says so right there in verse 19: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.”

And for centuries, those who would follow Jesus have found this to be a very serviceable, helpful interpretation.  It flows nicely from the text; it makes sense; and I get to eat all the bacon I want. Talk about your win-win situations!

But is that allthat this text means?  I would propose that such a reading is incomplete, and in fact suggest that in the seventh chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus engages the Pharisees, the Scribes, the disciples, the first Christians, and us in a discussion on the role and authority of scripture in our lives.

Hands holding Bible on a wooden desk background.

Think about it: is the purpose of the Bible to control what you do? That is, is the primary concern that lies behind the giving of God’s word that of making sure that you don’t eat shrimp, always tell the truth, and don’t forget to give your money to God?

Or is the Bible more concerned with seeking to engage us as to what kind of people we should be?  That is, helping us to realize the call to be generous, respectful, and loving?

For a number of weeks, a small group of us have been meeting in a Faithbuilders group to consider some thinking by a church leader named Brian McLaren, who in his book A New Kind of Christianitypoints out that those who saw themselves as Jesus’ opponents on that day were treating the Bible and the traditions of God’s people as a constitution of sorts.  That is, a collection of sayings and laws that are given to us to help us know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is permissible and what is not.  In this view – which is at least as prevalent today as it was 2000 years ago, the Bible is an unchanging document designed to establish who’s in and who’s out.  Oh, and spoiler alert: we’re on top.  We’re God’s favorites.

Jesus brings to the discussion the notion that the purpose of Scripture is rather to point toward the heart of God even while revealing the strengths and weaknesses of those whom God has used to help craft, record, and preserve the scriptures. He goes on to accuse the religious leaders of his (and, I’d submit, subsequent) day of hiding behind a particular Bible verse or two in order to defend their own positions, preserve their own power, or get their own way.  Isn’t it convenient when I am free to interpret the Bible in such a way as to indicate that God is actually commanding me to do something that I was already planning to do anyway?

What if the purpose of the Bible is not to provide us with a seamless set of codes of conduct for every situation, or a litmus test for religious or theological purity, or recipes for how to be happy and wealthy because we always do exactly what God tells us to do?

Rather, what if scripture is a record of a people who engage (or are engaged by) the presence of the Divine in such a way as to stimulate their own faith, to enhance their abilities to walk with Jesus more faithfully, and to respond to the world around them as if God cared for, created, and was in fact active in that world?

To put it a different way, what if the Bible is not so much a rulebook listing for you and me every eventuality that we are to face in life and offering us instructions as to exactly what to do or think in that situation, but is instead more like a diary or a blog written by people who had caught glimpses of God at work in their lives or in the world and offering us clues as to how we might be better equipped to be God’s people in the world right now?

I’d like you to try something.  I’m going to be quiet for 15 seconds.  In that time, I’d like for you to think of an instance where your mind or awareness has substantively changed on a particular issue in the last 10 or 15 years.  I’m not looking for reflections like, “You know, I always thought that beets were disgusting, but then I tried that recipe I saw on The Chewand WOW!  Delicious!”

I’m talking about something real and important in some way.  Maybe your thinking about homosexuality and the faith, or issues about race, or thoughts about the environment or our economy.

In the next 15 seconds, ask yourselves, “Where has my mind changed?”

When you think of something, then ask, “What role, if any, has scripture played in that shift?

Here’s what I think: if we see the Bible or the interpretation of that Bible that we’ve received as being more like a rule book or a constitution, then any change from that is a mistake.  If the Bible is an unchanging code of conduct that tells us what is up and what is down, what is black and what is white, and what is right and what is wrong… then if our understanding of those rules has changed, we are questioning the very basics of the faith.  In a system where the Word is the Word, where God said it and I believe it and that settles it – then if my thinking on, say, divorce and remarriage has changed, well, I must be getting soft on scripture and its authority in my life.  I know this because I can think of half a dozen places where my own thinking has changed, and I could name scores of people who would be happy to tell you that I am devaluing the unchanging and inerrant word of God and departing from the truth in some way.

But if we see the Bible as a living, breathing document with which I am called to interact so that I might grow in my ability to really walk with Jesus, then perhaps at least some changes could be understood to be fruit – and therefore, not something to be feared, but rather something to be explored or cultivated.

The call for this day is for us to look for ways in which we can engage with, or be engaged by scripture, each other, and the world as a means to grow deeper in our appreciation for and investment in the things that matter to God.  I think that means that we will have to reject the temptation to treat specific Bible verses or ancient teachings of the community as creative or convenient means by which we can sidestep or avoid the intentions of God.

It’s easy to get sidetracked and not even know it.  For instance, I experience an inner pang of revulsion and distaste when I hear someone referring to immigrants or refugees as animals, or using terms that make those people less than human.  Such conversation does not resonate with any of my experience, my understanding of scripture, or even my political leanings.

However, when that language is used, and someone else refers to the speaker by saying, “Oh, for crying out loud! Thatguy? What a pig!”… am I equally offended?  That is to say, am I as troubled by the dehumanization of the one with whom I disagree as I am by the dehumanization of the one for whom I have some affinity? If not, then I think I have some growing to do.

The fellas from the head office came up to Galilee that day and told Jesus that they were going to keep an eye on him – that they wanted to see how he and his disciples were “walking” and “living.”  He gave them an earful – but so far as I can tell, he didn’t do anything to discourage them from sticking around.  My hope and my prayer is that you and I might be smart enough to stick close to Jesus, to learn to walk as he walked so that we might live as he lived.  I know that means that I’ve got some growing to do, and I suspect that the same is true for you as well.  Thanks be to God for the gift of this community that enables us to engage in this practice together.  Amen.

Jesus is Not a Jerk

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Day of Pentecost (May 20, 2018) we considered the ways that Jesus sends his friends to some difficult places… and claimed the truth that when they got there – he was waiting for them.  Our texts included Mark 6:45-56 and Acts 2:1-4.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon05-20-18.mp3 into your browser

The official records of Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape region of South Africa indicate that at 4:14 p.m. on the afternoon of February 11, 1990, prisoner number 1335/88 was released, having been incarcerated for twenty seven years. That’s a fact.  That’s history.

However, history is not the whole story in this case.  Prisoner number 1335/88 was named Nelson Mandela, and his release marked the beginning of the end of the evils of Apartheid in South Africa.

Closer to home, I can tell you that you won’t find this in any of the official box scores of the game, but during the bottom of the second inning of a baseball game at PNC Park on October 1, 2013 the pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds was so flustered by the jeering of the hometown fans that he dropped the ball.  You won’t find it in the official records because it was not a baseball play.  According to the rules of the game, it didn’t matter.  It might as well not have happened.  It is NOT history, in that regard.

But again, the official record is only a portion of the story.  On the very next pitch, Russell Martin smacked a home run and the Pirates went on to defeat the Reds and gain access to the Major League post-season for the first time in more than two decades.  When Johnny Cueto dropped that ball, the Pittsburgh faithful knew it: the Buccos were back.

This morning, we’re going to talk a little bit about the difference between historyand gospel. History tells us what happened, when, and to whom.  Gospel is the message that is conveyed through the means of history.  History is a listing of events.  Gospel is the meaning that we assign, or the truth that is proclaimed, in those events.

Madiba is free! The struggle may continue, but the battle has been won!

The Pirates are going to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years!  The drought is over!

Sometimes when it comes to the Bible, we get so caught up in analyzing the historical perspective of events that we lose sight of the message those events were meant to convey. Let’s look at the Gospel passage…

Jesus Sends the Apostles, Duccio Di Buoninsegna (c.1300)

In the story you’ve heard, Jesus is eager to spend some time alone with God.  So eager, in fact, that just after the feeding of the 5000, he packs his disciples into a boat, pushes them into the Sea of Galilee, and says, “We’ll see you later, fellas!  I’ll catch up soon.”

The text implies that Jesus knew that his followers faced difficulty, but he sent them anyway. This is where a strict reading of history could lead us to ask, “Just how big a jerk is Jesus, anyway?”

He puts them in a boat, and makes them sail straight into a storm.  Later, he goes out walking on the water, only when he gets to where they are, he pretends as if he’s walking further.  He scares the crap out of his best friends on what has not been a good day to start with – and then he gets in the boat, laughing, “Haha, guys – it’s only me! We’re all good!”  That’s an historical perspective.

But let’s consider the Gospel.  First, what is the Gospel in Mark? What is the “Good News” that is to be proclaimed? “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus to that first community is an affirmation that you are close to the heart, and close to the intentions, of God.

We have come to understand that the disciples are called to carry this message into the world, and I’ve suggested in a previous message that all believers are called to be encouraged by the presence of Jesus in the face of tremendous difficulty. The Gospel in Mark reminds us that Jesus can be trusted.  Are you with me on this?

Now, I want you to take a trip into some holy memory with me.  Walk with me back into the days when God’s people were enslaved in Egypt. God said, “That is not my intention for humanity! I will deliver them.”

Who was the man that God called to free his people from slavery? Moses.  How did Moses feel about receiving this call from God? He feels afraid, alone, confused, and uncertain.

Moses, Jack Baumgartner (2015). Used by permission. See https://theschoolofthetransferofenergy.com

But what does he do? He goes ahead and stands in front of Pharaoh, and he does what God asks him to do, and he finds himself with the Israelites in the wilderness… where the Israelites just cannot help acting like knuckleheads.  Time and time again, they disappoint.  Moses stands between the people and their God and finally cries out, “Look! This is impossible!  I’m never sure that I’m doing what’s right.  You’ve got to be with me, God. Show me a sign that you are here, now.” It’s right there in Exodus 33:18: “Show me your glory.”

And this is the part that I want you to remember… God says, “OK, Moses, I’ll do that.  You stand here, and the storm will come, and I will pass by you, and you will see my glory; and then I will speak my name to you…”

Do you remember the name of God? YHWH.  It means “I am.”

It’s all right there in Exodus 33.  God passes by Moses, and shows him his glory while announcing his name.  “I am.”  The storm passes, and God takes Moses up the mountain and gives him the Ten Commandments, calling people to a new way of life.

Now, let’s go back to Mark.  In the readings leading up to today’s, Jesus has revealed much about the Kingdom to his disciples – he’s done so in his preaching, teaching, and miracle-based ministry that leads up to the feeding of the 5000.  And just as God had asked Moses to do the impossible (that is, to lead the people to a place he didn’t know, through the desert for 40 years without a visible means of sustenance or support), Jesus was looking at his followers and asking them to stretch beyond their limits: he sent them to preach right after John was killed; he asked them to find food to serve to a hungry crowd; and now he expects them to row across a lake at night in a storm.

Seriously, Jesus? What the heck? Are you some kind of a jerk?

The disciples are afraid, alone, confused, and uncertain.  Jesus sees them in the distance, and clearly knows how they are feeling.  After some hours pass, he decides to do something.  He walks out onto the water and intends to “pass them by”.

Does that sound remotely familiar?

Rowing a Boat in Stormy Weather, François Musin (1820 – 1888)

He wanted to “pass them by”, but his disciples freak out, and so he changes his mind, gets into the boat with them, and the storm stops.

Historians have a lot of questions here: how could Jesus see them through the storm at night on the sea?  What does it mean that Jesus walked on the water? That’s impossible.  Those are historical questions.

But the Gospel message is clear: The kingdom of God is at hand.  Right here.  Right now. And it includes you.  You are close to God’s heart.  Jesus is trustworthy.

OK, OK, Pastor Dave, easy now.  How do you know that it means all that?

Because of what Jesus says when he gets into the boat.  “Take courage.  It is I.” In the Greek, he says, “Ego eimi”.  That literally means “I am.”

The writer of the Gospel is telling us this story so that we might know something incredible about Jesus.  Listen:

Being good Jews, the disciples are already familiar with a story that features a scared, frustrated, fearful and lonely man who longs to experience the Divine presence. They know about a man who saw the glory of God pass by, and who heard a voice speak from the storm, “I am.”

Now, these men experienceall that as Jesus walks out into the midst of the storm in order to pass by them and show them his glory but here Jesus breaks the pattern of Exodus.  He does not simply continue – he gets into the boat with them.  And then he says, “I am.”  It is, to us, unmistakable.  But Mark says that they disciples don’t “get it” yet, and before too long they are back on the shore, among the crowds, reacting to the events of this new day.

But one day in the not-too-distant future, these men wouldget it – in a big way.  They remembered this day, and the other ways in previous days, when Jesus had been revealing the Good News – the Gospel – of the Kingdom of God.  And they probably remembered that almost every time he spoke of that message, they shuddered.  It is hard to believe, they thought.  It is hard to accept.

It didn’t get easier the day that Jesus marched into Jerusalem and confronted the powers of the religious establishment and occupying government. And it sure didn’t get any easier as he was tortured and killed.  While they were joyous when he rose from the dead, they still weren’t quite sure what to do when, just prior to his ascension to heaven, he told them one last time: look, you are my witnesses.  You are the Kingdom of God in the world right now.

And, as you’ve heard, they were hiding out in the upper room in Jerusalem that day when the Holy Spirit overpowered them.  As the wind and the flames danced around, THEN they got it.  Then they were acting like the Body of Christ at work in the world, revealing the glory of God and inviting those around them to participate in the things that God was doing.  It didn’t make sense at first, but it registered with them later.

Some of you heard the Gospel being read, and you thought,  “I know exactly how it feels to be in that boat. There have been times when Jesus has pushed me where I didn’t want to go; times when the storm was so bad I thought I was going to drown; times when the storm was so bad I was hoping I would drown… And worse yet – there have been times when I’m sure that I can see Jesus, and I know that he knows where I am… and it seems like he is just passing right by me.  Yeah, I get that part.”

Beloved, know this: the One who was there to proclaim to his friends, “I am” is the One who calls to you today.  The Good News of the Gospel is for you, this day.  He is.

And others heard that Gospel, and for some reason you identified with the ending of the story: there was this great and powerful surge of emotion: fear and doubt and awe and wonder… and now, well, all that stuff just takes up too much energy and there’s a world of stuff waiting for you to do today.  You’re past the fear and the wonder and the power and you’re mostly just tired.

Listen: the Good News of the Gospel is for you, too.  Trust that the Glory of God is all around you, and know that the invitation you’ve been given to bear witness to that is still on the table.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you know something about that.

These stories of Jesus walking on the water or the explosive power of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room – they are not merely once-upon-a-time historical events that the church is called to remember and maybe even appreciate.  No: they are a model for church life now.  We can ride out the storm and we can proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom not because it’s what he did – but because it’s what he does. These are not written records of something that happened – they are witnesses that point to what is happening right now.

Sometime in the next couple of days, the official records of this congregation will be updated to reflect that on May 20, 2018, a hundred people or so showed up for worship and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  That’s the history of the day, and it will be published.

I want to know, though: will the Gospel break through? Will the Good News of the nearness of the Kingdom of God infiltrate this community becausewe gathered for worship?

That remains to be seen.

Be the church. Your friends, who are caught in the midst of storms of every kind, need you to be.  Speak a word of presence to them.  And be the church.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

The Power of One

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On May 13, 2018, we considered the reunion that Jesus had with his disciples after their “mission trips”, the feeding of the 5,000, and the power of one individual to make a difference.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Colossians 4:2-6.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media browser below, or past the following URL into your browser: https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/scene1_2018-05-13_11-28-11_t001_in1.mp3
Those who listen to the sermon will hear a special introduction about standing on tiptoe whilst reading scripture.

As we begin the next installment of our walk through the Gospel of Mark this morning, let me tell you about two men of whom you’ve probably never heard.  Each is an amazing testament to the power of the individual to accomplish that which we might think to be impossible.

Dean Karnazes is a 55 year old man from California who likes to run.  A lot.  I know that many of you in the congregation this morning took part in some part of last week’s Pittsburgh Marathon, and so you might be impressed if I told you that in 2006, Mr. Karnazes ran 50 complete marathons.  You might be more impressed if I told you that he ran those 50 marathons on 50 consecutive days, and each was in a different state.  And yet what cements this man in my Hall of Fame for individual achievements is the fact that on Wednesday morning, October 12, 2005, he dropped his kids off at school in San Francisco and started running.  He ran and ran and ran – for 80 hours and 44 minutes, without sleeping, weaving his way through Northern California, until he arrived at Stanford University in Palo Alto, having covered 350 miles.

On the other side of the world, a gentleman named Dashrath Manjhi tells us a different story of individual achievement.  In 1959, this landless peasant farmer’s wife, Falguni Devi, died because she was unable to obtain medical care. People in her village had to follow a path that wound for 70 kilometers (43 ½ miles) to get to the clinic.  In 1960, Mr. Manji took a hammer and a chisel and started to attack the rock hillside that separated the village from the clinic.  He worked by himself until 1982 to carve a path through the Gehlour hills.  When he was finished, he’d reduced the distance from 70 kilometers to one – just over half a mile.

I’m telling you these stories because I want you to think about the limits of possibility for one person.  What can one man, one woman, do?  And what difference does it make?

At this point, I’m going to interrupt this sermon for a geography lesson, because understanding the whereof today’s Gospel is crucial to our ability to process the whatand the how.

If you’ve ever traveled, you’ve probably had a conversation with someone that goes something like this: “Oh, you’re from Pennsylvania? My cousin lives in Pennsylvania. His name is James… Maybe you know him?”

When this happens, we roll our eyes and quietly judge that person for being a complete moron, and then three days later we meet someone from Malawi and say, “Oh, Malawi? Yeah, I’ve got friends there, and my pastor goes there all the time.  Do you know a guy named Fletcher?”

Here’s a quick review of the geography of Mark’s gospel.  Jesus began his ministry in that part of Palestine known as the Galilee. This was a strongly Jewish-influenced area that was north of the capital, Jerusalem, and west of the Jordan river.  Nearly all of the significant action in the first three years of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilean communities like Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Cana.

Even though it was removed from the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, Galilee was a stronghold of the faith.  It was surrounded by non-Jewish areas like Samaria, Phoenicia, and the region of the Decapolis.  These names don’t sound much different to you and to me than the towns where Jesus worked, but I’m here to tell you that if I was a good little Jewish boy driving through the Decapolis at that time, my mother would tell me to lock the doors and avoid eye contact.  Good and faithful Galileans did everything they could to stay in Galilee, and when they had to go to Jerusalem to worship, they stayed close to the Jordan River and went that way.

Most of Jesus’ ministry, in terms of time and area, took place in and around the Galilee. The deepest parts of Jesus’ ministry, including his crucifixion and resurrection, happened in Jerusalem.  And yet some of the most amazing testimony to the power of Jesus’ comes to us from the detours he made to “the other side” – those regions outside of either Galilee or Jerusalem.

Today’s reading picks up a narrative that was left off earlier in Chapter six.  Jesus is hard at work in his ministry with the disciples in the Galilee.  You might remember that he’d just finished a visit to his own hometown in Nazareth when he sent the twelve disciples out to visit the other communities in that region. There’s an interlude during which Jesus reflects on the suffering and death of John the Baptist, and then the twelve return to him, eager to report on what they’d seen and done.

The Exhortation to the Apostles, James Tissot (c. 1890)

He sees their enthusiasm, and suggests that they all go on a retreat.  Various translations tell us that they’re looking for a quiet, or a solitary, or a deserted place.  They get into the boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee into the Decapolis.

So far as we know from Mark, the team had been there at least once before.  You might remember that back in Chapter 5 they went and visited the graveyard and met the man who was beset by demons.  Jesus healed the man, but in the process wound up sending a couple of thousand pigs off the side of a cliff and the local authorities came out and asked him to take his religion back to his side of the sea.  The only man there who actually wanted to be with Jesus at that point was the man who had been healed, and Jesus didn’t allow him to join the mission; instead, he told the man to “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

So it might seem to the disciples that this was a fair presumption – if they were looking for a little “down” time with Jesus, if there is anyplace that they could go to be alone, well, it’s there.  The people in that part of the world hated Jesus last time he was here.

Except that’s not exactly how it works out, is it? We read in verse 32 that as they were arriving in this “deserted” and “solitary” place, they were recognized.  In fact, Mark tells us that “a large crowd” gathered there. The disciples, who were irritated and hungry to begin with, take this as long as they can, but finally interrupt Jesus and say, “Send these people away.”

Jesus responds, as you’ve heard, by saying, “We’ll do no such thing.  In fact, why don’t you go ahead and feed them.”

The Twelve are incredulous at this point. “Us? Here? How? It’s not likely – no, it’s not possible, Jesus.”

Christ Feeding the 5000, Eric Feather (http://ericfeather.com/index.html)

[3]And Jesus says, “Here, hold my wineskin…”, and the result, as you’ve heard, is the feeding of the 5,000 – the only miracle to be mentioned in all four of the Gospels.

I’m here to point out that this miraculous feeding of the nearly-uncountable throng was all made possible because one person did what Jesus had asked him to do.  It was not, apparently, what the person had wantedto do; we’ve already acknowledged that the man who seemingly told everyone he knew about what Jesus had done for him would have preferred to become the 13thdisciple.  Yet when Jesus told him to stay put and offer testimony to the work of the Holy One in his life, well, that’s what he did.

I don’t want the significance of this event to be lost on us.  I mean, we don’t even know this person’s name – but somehow, his presence in that region allowed for a transition from “Jesus! Will you please get out of there now, and take your disciples with you!” to “Oh, wow! Thank God! You’re here.  Jesus is here.  He’s really here!”

What is the vehicle for that transition?  What allowed that to happen?  Go back and scrutinize the events that took place between Mark 5:19 and Mark 6:30, and you’ll see that Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracle-working was essentially unchanged.  He didn’t do anything after 5:19 that he hadn’t already been doing.

But the behavior of those who followed him hadchanged.  The one man who had been healed had gone “to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him…and all the people were amazed…”  The twelve whom Jesus had kept with him had walked through their fear in order to bear witness to the power of the Christ in their own homes and communities.

Do you see what’s happening here?  In this section of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is talking about crossing boundaries and is calling his followers to do so; once they are on “the other side”, he simply urges them to “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”

The one man in the region who had been healed had quite a story to tell.

So do you.

In what ways has the life, death, resurrection, love, and presence of Jesus of Nazareth touched your life?

I know that some of you have had some really splashy healings from addiction, or depression, or abuse, or other form of brokenness.

And I know that others in this room have experienced significant shifts of the heart as the power and presence of the Lord has grown in your own lives.

In any case, the core narrative of the follower of Jesus who has experienced any growth in her or his own life is pretty much the same: at the end of the day, we can look in the mirror and say, “You know, I used to be that way…but now it’s more like this…”

To put it another way, each of us has a narrative that could be expressed by filling in these blanks: “I once was _____, but now I’m ______.”

If you were asked what words you’d use in that phrase, which would you choose?  In what ways has God positioned you to speak of your experience in the places where you’ve been?

And you say, “Yeah, about that, Pastor Dave.  Look, I’m not really much of a speaker.  And I’m not one of those zealots, fundies, or born-agains.  I hate to speak in public…  I just don’t think I can tell a story like that.”

Listen: bearing witness to the ways that you have grown and changed is not a super-human feat of individual strength and perseverance akin to running 350 miles without a nap or building a road through the mountain with a hammer.  You don’t need special training.  More importantly, you are never, ever alone.

The charge for today is for you to consider how you have experienced the power of the risen Christ. You, in the midst of your community, surrounded by others who have stories that are similar to, yet not the same as, yours – have had the opportunity to grow in faith.  This week, will you take an hour or so to contemplate the ways that your experience of this life is richer, deeper, better, or has more integrity because of the presence of Jesus in that life?

And then, will you find a way to bear witness to that enriching, deepening, improving, or empowering in your daily life?  Can you do as Jesus asked that man in the Decapolis two thousand years ago: can you “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”? Share your reflections with someone who is close to you.  Be present in the life and worship of this and other communities.  Look for ways in which you can take part in new ministries in ways that shape and stretch you.

My sense is that when we are able to do this, we will find that we, no less than the bread that Jesus broke on that hillside, will be far more nourishing and effective than any one of us might have predicted.

What is your story? And who have you told?

Previews of Coming Attractions

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of May in 2018, we considered the story of John the Baptist’s gruesome death at the hands of Herod Antipas, the reasons that Mark may have had for including it, and how that matters to the church in the 21st century.  Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Hebrews 13:1-3.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon05-06-2018.mp3 into your browser window.

As we continue our study of Mark’s gospel, you will be forgiven if you find this reading hard to accept.  After all, it seems so far-fetched, doesn’t it?  Who could think the powerful leader of an entire nation – a nation that saw itself as an example of moral purity, and whose leader enjoyed the complete support of the nation’s religious conservatives – who could even imagine that a leader such as that might be involved in multiple marriages, messy divorces, and tawdry cover-ups?  I know, it seems far-fetched, but please use your imaginations to at least consider whether such a thing could ever actually happen… Because, as the late, great Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up.”

Before you think you know what I’m saying with this scripture text and a sermon titled “Previews of Coming Attractions”, let’s take a look at what is happening here.

Our text introduces us to “King Herod”.  This is not the same Herod of whom we spoke a few months ago at Christmas.  ThatHerod, also known as “Herod the Great”, was the man that the Romans installed to serve as their client king over most of Palestine.  Herod the Great was the ruler who met the wise men and who ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem.  When he died several years after the birth of Jesus, his territory was divided among three of his sons and a daughter. Today’s Herod, also called “Herod Antipas”, was in charge of Galilee and some territory to the East of the Jordan river.

Herod Antipas divorced his first wife so that he could marry a woman named Herodias.  That might have been messy enough, but Herodias was also married to Antipas’ brother, whom Mark calls Philip but who apparently was actually, if not creatively, named Herod II.  Furthermore, not only was she Antipas’ sister-in-law, she was also his niece.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod, Giovanni Fattori (19th c.)

Mark tells us that the most powerful religious prophet of the day, John the Baptist, had pointed out to anyone who would listen how immoral and unsavory this arrangement was, thus earning the hatred of Herodias in particular.  As you’ve heard, Herodias finally got her wish to have John silenced when her husband/uncle was running his mouth at a birthday party he’d given for himself.

By itself, it is a disturbing story for lots of reasons.  However, as we are looking at the Gospel of Mark, I think it’s fair to ask why Mark tells us this story.  What reason would he have for thinking that, out of all the important things to say about Jesus, the Kingdom, and the community that formed as a result of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, it was important to spend fifteen verses talking about the death of Jesus’ cousin?

Well, for starters, this story reveals the growing power of the movement that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke had begun.  When the Gospel of Mark begins, Jesus is an itinerant Rabbi wandering the backcountry of the Galilee.  He’s got some impressive credentials and can preach up a storm, but by worldly standards he is nobody.  Yet as the Gospel progresses, people start to pay attention.  The crowds get larger, and soon enough Herod Antipas takes notice. The author of the second Gospel wants us to know that the person and work of Jesus was garnering some significant acclaim – so much so that the local government begins to get concerned about who Jesus is and what he is saying.

From a literary perspective, I think that the author of Mark is truly giving us a “preview of coming attractions” in this section.  There are some real and important parallels with what happens in this encounter between Herod Antipas and John and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as ordered by Pilate. Look at this:

  • In both instances, the civil authority is more than a little fascinated by a religious teacher, and appears to be willing to keep him around for a while.
  • Both Herod Antipas and Pilate fall prey to their own egos and make the mistake of trying to impress a crowd with some sort of lavish gesture.
  • Each ruler allows himself to be manipulated by the hostility of another party – in Antipas’ case, it was Herodias, while in Pilate’s it was the Jewish leaders.
  • At the end of the day, both Antipas and Pilate are reduced to being mostly spectators at an execution for which they in fact bear prime responsibility – they become impotent actors in dramas that grow beyond themselves.

Okay, those things may give us an insight as to why Mark feels it’s important for us to know about the death of John, but why does he tell us this story now?  Jesus is clearly on a roll as his movement is taking off in Galilee; we’ve just seen an instance where Jesus is transferring some of his power and authority to his disciples as he sends them out into the countryside… why does Mark interrupt himself at this point with what is essentially a “flashback” episode – he breaks his train of thought to tell us something that had evidently occurred some time previous. Why would he do that?

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Puvis de Cheyennes (1869)

Do you remember what I said a couple of weeks ago about the “Markan sandwich”?  We looked at chapter 5, and discovered how Mark started to talk about a man named Jairus and his sick daughter, and then interrupted himself to talk about the healing of a woman who had been sick for a long time, and then went back to the story of Jairus and his daughter.  As we talked about that passage, we noted that there are times when Mark chooses to insert some apparently unrelated material in the middle of a narrative in such a way that allows us to see both the original narrative and the interruption in a different light.  Here, he’s doing that again.

The first part of the “sandwich” is the passage we had last week: Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God.

The interruption is our text for this week: the death of John at the hands of Herod.  And the conclusion of the sandwich will be our text for next week: the return of the disciples which leads to the feeding of the 5,000.  Let’s think for a moment about how these seemingly unrelated stories can help to interpret each other.

One of the themes in the Gospel of Mark is that the movement of the Holy Spirit is a threat to those who yearn for or worship the power or illusion of success that this world has to offer.  Do you remember that in chapter 1, we saw that just after Jesus began preaching about the nearness of the Kingdom, John was arrested by Herod Antipas?  Here in chapter 6, the disciples give evidence of the nearness of God’s Kingdom, and we’re told of John’s death.  In chapter 11, we’ll read about how the masses are responding to the presence of the Kingdom on the day we know as Palm Sunday, and that leads to the arrest and death of Jesus.  In chapter 13, Jesus gives his “farewell speech” to his disciples and he warns them that when they preach the Gospel, it will mean trouble for them and for those whom they love. 

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, by Jean-Leon Gérome (1883)

So one could argue that inserting a story about the death of John the Baptist into an account of disciples who are trying to point faithfully to the coming of the Kingdom of God is, for all intents and purposes, a “preview of coming attractions” for the ones who are Mark’s first audience – the Christians who are struggling to have faith while living under Nero’s persecutions in first-century Rome. Perhaps those believers have begun to wonder what they had done to deserve this kind of treatment and whether Jesus himself could be trusted, and Mark uses this story to say, “Hold on!  Hang in there! Be of good courage.  I see that you are facing imprisonment and suffering and death, and trust me – the story isn’t over yet! Nothing of eternal consequence has been lost!”

Can you see how that interpretation might fit for the first readers of this Gospel nearly 2000 years ago?

Unfortunately, there are too many 21stcentury American Christians who will read this passage and say, “Oh, thank you so much, Mark, for including this story. We, too, are suffering horrible persecution for our faith and this is a great encouragement to us.”

A recent survey[1]indicated that a majority of white Evangelical Christians see themselves as the most oppressed group in the USA.  It’s people who look like me, by and large, who believe that they face more persecution than anyone else: more than Muslims, more than atheists, more than sexual minorities.  When pressed for evidence of this claim, we hear about

  • The county clerk who works in a state where same-sex marriage is legal and who must therefore act against her conscience in issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples
  • A Hollywood celebrity who is passionately outspoken about her views concerning gender and sexuality is disinvited from an appearance on a television program hosted by someone with differing views.
  • The Christian church that is threatened with the loss of its tax-free status after its pastor campaigned for a particular candidate in a recent election.

When I hear this, I’m sorry to say, I am tempted to respond with something less than compassion. Don’t get me wrong – there are important issues here, and they deserve to be discussed.  But to say that I am being persecuted because someone disagrees with me is, at best, a stretch and at worst, an outright lie.  The white church in America is experiencing some grief at the loss of extensive privilege that it has enjoyed for hundreds of years. I get that.  But let’s not call loss of privilege “persecution” or “oppression”. These are differences of opinion or inconveniences or cultural change, not victimization.

A writer for Foreign Policy magazine recently put it this way:

How will we know when American Christians are genuinely under threat? When they start changing their names from the obviously biblical “Andrew” and “Mary” to the more secular “William” or “Jennifer” in order to avoid hiring discrimination. When Christians in Congress hide their faith and instead loudly claim to be atheists. When Christians are regularly blocked from buying homes or renting apartments in the good parts of town. When the president of the United States calls for Christians to be banned from the country. Then we can start taking claims of religious discrimination at face value.[2]

A few moments ago I read to you a passage of Scripture that contains a direct commandment that is, unfortunately, impossible for many of my Christian sisters and brothers to keep. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those who are in prison…and those who are suffering…”

Most of us are literally incapable of doing this.  We cannot “remember” those who are imprisoned or who are suffering torture because we have never known them.  The word “remember” implies some sort of previous knowledge.  “Do you remember the last time that the Pirates won the World Series?” is an appropriate question, because that has happened in at least some of our lifetimes.  Yet if I were to ask, “Do you remember that time you had your photo taken with President Lincoln?”, that would be nonsense – because you cannot remember that which you never knew.

In the same way, too many of us have no awareness of or connection with those who are truly struggling or facing persecution for their faith.

Mark chapter 6 cries out to the church in Pittsburgh in 2018 to do at least four things.

First, can we all get down on our knees at some point today and cry out with thanksgiving to God for the fact that you and I have never known the kinds of anguish and suffering inflicted on John the Baptist, Jesus, the first disciples, or the earliest followers of Jesus?

Second, before we stand up from that prayer, we need to repent of and give up the notions of privilege that equate our loss of privilege with someone else’s suffering.

Thirdly, will you invest an hour of your time in the week to come learning about and looking for ways to somehow be connected with someone who truly is marginalized or persecuted?  Go home and do a quick Google search on the kinds of oppression faced by women and sexual and religious minorities in the nation of Pakistan.  Learn about the fact that there are only 300,000 Christians in the entire nation of North Korea, and as many as 75,000 of them are currently in forced-labor camps.  Ask me about the South Sudanese pastors I know who have not seen their families for months because they’ve had to choose between serving the Lord and living in a safe neighborhood.

Here’s the deal, beloved: this chapter is not included in the Book of Mark as an “attaboy” to me, encouraging me to bear up under the intense persecution that I, as a 57 year old white man in the richest country the world has ever known, must be experiencing. Instead, I think that it is here as a reminder for me to ask, each and every day, “How does the Gospel with which I’ve been entrusted affect any of the folks in the scenarios above?  What can I do to create a world that is more in line with the reign and rule of God that Jesus called ‘the Kingdom’, and how can I point to its nearness in the lives of those who truly are suffering?”

The author of Mark makes it pretty plain that Jesus was directly and viscerally impacted by the persecution and death of John.  In what ways am I bothered by the injustices of our age, and what am I willing to do about it?  May God have mercy on me as I seek to respond as did Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.prri.org/research/lgbt-transgender-bathroom-discrimination-religious-liberty/

[2]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/democracy-post/wp/2017/12/12/no-christians-do-not-face-looming-persecution-in-america/?utm_term=.1c61c5fc9ff9

The Hardest Mission Trip of All

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On April 29, we looked at an episode the theologians call “The Rejection at Nazareth” – and thought about the ways that we are not amateurs when it comes to rejecting.  Our texts included Mark 6:1-13 and Romans 15:1-7.

 

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/sermon04-29-2018.mp3 into your browser

On December 27, 1992, the NFL’s Buffalo Bills played the Houston Oilers in the final game of the regular season.  The Oilers not only crushed the Bills by a score of 27-3, they also knocked out the Bills starting quarterback, Jim Kelly. When the teams met in the first round of the playoffs the following week, the Bills were relying on second-string quarterback Frank Reich.  It did not start well, and by just after halftime, the Bills were lifeless, having fallen behind 35-3.  The temperature in Rich Stadium that day was just about freezing, and apparently many fans agreed with the radio broadcaster who said, “The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”  The arena started to empty.  One reporter said, the fans are “pouring out of the gates, getting in their cars, driving home”.

But then, improbably, the home team scored a touchdown.  And another. And another. And another.  All in the 3rdquarter.  The fans who had walked away in disgust were now clamoring for re-entry, and even climbing the fences until the Bills went against league policy and allowed people to re-enter the stadium.  The ones who were there can say that they witnessed what is simply known as “the comeback” – the Bills winning the game 41-38 in overtime. Later, Bills coach Marv Levy said, “70,000 people were at that game. I’ve already met 400,000 of them”.

I lived in Western New York at that time, and was watching the game on TV.  For the next few weeks, all anyone could talk about was the fact that so many people had left the game early.  How many times have you heard someone say, “Can you believe that they did that?  If I’d have been there, things would have been different. There’s no way I’d have acted like that!”  Whether we’re disgusted with the way that fans treat a team, shocked by the behavior of a crowd, or appalled by the silence of so many during the Civil Rights movement or the Holocaust, it’s easy for us to say, “Not me.  I’d have done things differently.”

Of course, Christians like to play this game, too.  We’re not too far removed from the events of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, and we remember reading of the religious leaders who mocked Jesus, or the crowds that called for his torture.  “Not us!”, we say.

Today’s gospel lesson relates an incident in Jesus’ life known as “the rejection at Nazareth”. Jesus has had some acclaim as a teacher and a wonder-worker, and now he’s come back to his hometown, where he is roundly and quickly dismissed.  We hear this story, and we say, “How could people act like this?  If I’d have been there, I’d have believed.  I’m with you, Jesus.”

We who sit in these pews 20 centuries later find it easy to get offended on Jesus’ account. We may even find ourselves nursing some anger at the fact that these people, who ought to have known Jesus the best, were doubting him, questioning him, and even “taking offense” at him. We see the rejection at Nazareth as a scandal or embarrassment that should never have happened, and wouldn’t have, if we’d have been there.

When I catch myself thinking these things, I am caught short because in many ways, in my mind, the first-century rejection AT Nazareth has been replaced by the twenty-first century rejection OF Nazareth.

Here’s what I mean: many of us have found our way to some spiritual awareness or awakening.  We have, somehow, been deeply moved or had a conversion experience of one kind or another.  We find that we are more passionate about the faith or some aspect of it now than we ever have been.  Maybe it’s a personal renewal of our spirit, or a newfound embrace of the environment; we are filled with compassion for the poor or have grown a heart for racial reconciliation.  Somehow, the Good News of which Jesus spoke has come to take root in some place in our hearts, and we find ourselves among the converted.  We are ready!

And when that happens, how tempting is it for us to live only with those who share our goals, views, and ideals?  Isn’t it easy to want to spend all our time with those who are hungry for the same interpretation as we, or who are filled with the same kinds of compassion or fire for justice?  Don’t we find it really easy to get irritated with, offended by, or angry at the folks who think differently than we do?

How easy is it to perceive that those who are not “sold” on the same things that we are are simply people in our way, or distractions?  We find excuses to ignore or belittle them even as we seek to follow or respect or share with the people who are more “like us” in some way.

When this happens, of course, we aren’t really living in a true community – we’re existing in some sort of a “silo” or even a “ghetto” where everyone is just like us. We dismiss many of the people who are, geographically or biologically, at any rate, the closest to us.  “Him? Oh, he’s a gun nut.” “Her? Please.  She’s a baby-killer.”  “Them? Wow, let me tell you about them. They are pretty over the top…”

Here’s my point: Jesus went to his hometown of Nazareth, to be with the people who knew him best, and with whom he enjoyed the closest physical proximity, and he was himself. And in doing so, he found that that self was rejected by his neighbors.  It’s taken us 2000 years, but I’m afraid that now many of those who claim to be the followers of Jesus have turned that situation entirely around and it is we who refuse to dwell with our families or our neighbors; it is we who reject our own Nazareths.

In light of that, I am fascinated with what Jesus does next.  Immediately after he experiences the rejection of his hometown, he calls his closest disciples together.  So far as we know, each of these men comes from somewhere in the Galilee – from Capernaum, Bethsaida, or Cana.  And when Jesus calls them to himself, what does he do? He sends them out, two by two, “to the surrounding villages”.

What was he thinking? He himself had been rejected, and now he sets them up to experience the same treatment.

I wonder how it felt to the twelve?  They’d watched as he was attacked or accused or belittled or mocked by his hometown, and now he’s sending them out to the same place, presumably so that they might receive the same treatment.

I was not able to discern the artist for this work on the sending of the twelve. I’d love to know if you can help me.

And, to give him credit, Jesus is simply living into his own paradigm.  I mean, he is responding to the rejection that he’s experienced in Nazareth and Galilee with an embrace and an affirmation.  This should not be all that surprising, really: this is the man who told his followers that the Kingdom ethic involved loving the neighbor, praying for the persecutor, and, in general, giving better than you got.  So in many ways, his sending out of the twelve is simply a concrete expression of this theology, right?  His neighbors have rejected him and his message, and his response is to send out what is, by all accounts, the “B” team.

Except for this…

Look at what happens: the Junior Varsity outscores the star.  In verse 5, Mark tells us that Jesus could not do anything.  And yet, the ones who we often perceive to be the stumbling, bumbling, can’t-quite-get-it-right followers of Jesus show up in verses 12 and 13 preaching the good news, curing all kinds of people, and driving out many evil spirits.

These twelve people simply walk along the roads with which they are familiar, show up in communities where they’ve been before, and repeat the words of Jesus… and find that – lo and behold – this stuff works!  Right there, in the midst of their everyday, normal, walking-around-town lives, the Good News of Jesus bears fruit in places where they might have expected otherwise.

I find this to be particularly interesting because in the past ten days, there is one thing that people have said to me far more than anything else.  Almost every conversation I’ve had with anyone has included the words, “Well, Dave, how was the trip?”  It’s gratifying, on one level, to know that people have an awareness of my travel to Africa and some discussion of the issues surrounding our international partnership, and justice, and famine relief.

And yet, there is at the heart of this magnificent greeting at least the glimmer of a suspicion or confession: when a hundred people greet me and say, “Hey! How was the trip?”, someone might be tempted to believe that I alone have been privileged to make a journey, that I alone have been called or sent out into the world in order to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.  In some ways, it might be tempting for me or for someone who asks that question to begin to think, “It’s the trips to Africa or somewhere else exotic that count… maybe most of us, most of the time, aren’t being sent anywhere.”

The reality of the fact, as I believe it is underscored by today’s Gospel reading, is that each and every one of us are sent each and every day.  Sometimes, there may be big, splashy trips that require vaccinations or passports, but mostly, we get the call to go and be faithful to the people who know us best and who surround us in the places with which we are very familiar.  Each of us is called and sent to work, or school, or family each and every day.

Your neighborhood, campus, office… those are not the places where you are somehow stuck while you’re waiting for Jesus to send you to that one amazing place where you’ll have a life-changing experience.  That’s not how the life of discipleship works!  Your neighborhood, campus, office… those are the places to which you are being sent TODAY!

Let me offer some encouragement to treat each of these sendings in the way that we regard my having gone to Africa a few weeks ago.

When I found myself landing in Malawi, I was vigilant: I wanted to learn and remember the names of the people around me.  I felt as though it was important to hear their stories, and to share a few of my own. I needed to be attentive to the ways that they were experiencing the world that was around them.  I saw that they had some things to teach me, and believed that I, in turn, had some things of importance to share with them.

In the same way, can we be committed to actually being present in the places to which we’re being sent this day? Do you know the names of your neighbors, or the folks in your biology class, or the woman who sits at the receptionist’s desk in your building? Can we take the time to really listen for the stories of our neighbors and co-workers and fellow students?  I know that sometimes, I can be pretty critical of the ways that we behave on social media, but this is an instance where we can, in fact, be socially engaged.  Look at the photos your neighbors post.  “Like” them, if it’s appropriate.  Ask questions so that you’ll get stories.  This is a great tool we’ve been given that can help us to come to know and love the people amongst whom God has placed us.

As you wander through your neighborhood – both geographic and virtual – ask God to use you to bring encouragement, or Good News, or healing in these places.

And you say, “Ah, come on, Dave… what good can it do?  I can’t do much…”  Maybe. But maybe “not much” is better than “nothing.”

On the recent Youth Retreat, Tim Salinetro planted a thought in my mind that’s been rolling around for a few weeks.  He pointed out that in all of the science fiction movies that involve time travel, everyone is always really careful not to change even the tiniest detail because if they do, then perhaps that will result in some huge and radical change in our present circumstances.  Maybe you remember the scene from Back to the Future where Marty McFly risks everything by interfering with the meeting between his parents…  In this view of the world, everythingabout the present can be changed by one tiny little aspect of the past, right?

We can wrap our heads around that, for some reason, but hardly anyone in the present ever thinks that they can change the future much, if at all, by doing something small today.  That’s too bad.

Listen: we believe that God is up to something here and now, in lives like ours, in places like this.  God forbid that we reject our neighbor or colleague or fellow student out of a fear or insecurity or laziness or refusal to believe that the tasks that lie ahead of us this day and this week are somehow unworthy of the divine attention.

Charles Spurgeon was one of the dominant preachers in the English language in the 19thcentury, and he once said “every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”  May we have the grace to see that we are being invited to walk through the world we’ve been given bearing witness to the Christ who is in us, and may we have the sense to not reject that world.  Thanks be to God for the Good News at work in us.  Amen.

Anybody Want a Sandwich?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  After a break for Easter and my travel to Malawi, we dove back into this discussion on April 22 as we considered the intertwined stories of Jairus’ family and an unknown woman.   Our texts included Mark 5:21-43 as well as the 24th Psalm.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/scene1_2018-04-22_11-28-31_t001_in1.mp3 into your browser.

What is your all-time favorite sandwich?

I drank a lot of coffee here back in the day…

Years ago I was having lunch with a group of pastors down at LaVerne’s Diner in the West End – a place that, sadly, is no more.  It was one of the shiny-on-the-outside, Art Deco on the inside places that featured lots of formica, good coffee, and simple food. As LaVerne herself came to take the orders, she asked what I wanted.  I said, “LaVerne, it all looks good.  You decide. Give me your best sandwich.”

She said, “Well, what do you like? How do I know how to make it?”

I said, “There’s no ingredient on this menu I won’t love.  You make me the one you like best.”

So she went back to the kitchen and pushed the cook, John, out of the way.  Every now and then she would yell to me through the window separating the counter from the kitchen: “Will you eat onions?…What about cheese?…” and so on.  Each time, I simply responded, “LaVerne, make your best sandwich.”

She came out with our four plates and put them down in front of us.  I picked up mine, which was essentially a glorified cheeseburger, and took a bite.  “Mmmm,” I said, “Outstanding!  This is delicious!  What do you call it?”

And LaVerne got a little red in the face and looked down and said, “Well, it’s the ‘Big L’.” Because of the look on her face, and the way that she treated me every time I went into the restaurant after that, the “Big L” was my favorite sandwich.

What’s the point of a sandwich, anyway?  It’s a simple dish wherein bread serves as a container or wrapper for some different kind of food. Of course, having the bread makes the delivery of the other food a bit easier (can you imagine ordering a grilled cheese and then saying “hold the bread”?).  But the best sandwiches rely on an interplay between the bread and the filling.  You can’t have, for instance, a Monte Cristo sandwich unless you use French toast.  Can you make a gyro if you use a croissant instead of a pita?  Of course not…it’s just a lamb sandwich.  The bread and the filling go together to make the whole package – which is often more than the sum of its parts.

Our scripture reading for this morning is a peculiar bit of storytelling that the theologians call “a Markan sandwich”.  At least eight or ten times in his Gospel, Mark will start off by telling us one story, and then just when that one gets going, he’ll switch his theme.  When he’s finished interrupting himself, he’ll get back to the original thought.  Now, you know as well as I do from personal experience that when someone does this in conversation, it can be frustrating and difficult to follow.  However, when Mark does it, it almost always provides us, as hearers of the gospel, with a chance to look at how the stories connect with each other.  In fact, often times the “bread” of the story will serve as a commentary on the “meat”, and vice-versa.

So today, we have a typical Markan sandwich for our worship meal.  The outer layer is a story about a wealthy, powerful man named Jairus, and his sick daughter.  The filling is a story about a poor woman who was herself sick, and who in fact had nobody besides Jesus to whom she could turn.

Do you remember where we were when we last saw Jesus in the gospel of Mark?  He had taken us over to the region of the Gerasenes, where we had to spend the night in the graveyard with a demon-possessed madman, surrounded by pigs and pig-farmers.  You may recall that we thought that the disciples were not all that happy to be there, so you can imagine their relief when, upon coming home to “our” side of the lake, they are met by Jairus.

What a contrast between the wealthy, respected, learned, distinguished leader of the community and the total loser with whom we had to spend the night among the tombs. I’m sure that the disciples followed this conversation between Jairus and Jesus with great enthusiasm: “OK, Now we’re getting somewhere!” They have to be thinking that this conversation with Jairus is an indication that Jesus is wising up and that things are going to get better for him, his ministry, and for them.

But no sooner had they started off towards Jairus’ home when Jesus stops the procession.  In the crush of the crowd, someone has brushed up against him.  Jesus stops, and demands to know who it was.

The Woman With the Issue of Blood, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Do you think that the first disciples of Jesus ever snapped – if they ever looked at Jesus and said, “What are you, nuts?  Give me a break!”  Well, that appears to be what happens in this morning’s reading.  “Come on, Jesus, there have to be 200 people around you. How can you even ask a question like that?”

It was more than simply an issue of Jesus feeling as if his personal space was invaded. Virtually every adult Jewish male in that day would have worn a prayer shawl while walking around – and surely a Rabbi such as Jesus would have had his on.  The edges of these shawls were woven in such a way that they ended in four tassels, called tzitzit.  The prophet Malachi, writing about four hundred years earlier, said that the “sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings”.  The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day had come to believe that was a prophecy about the coming Messiah – that he would be so Godly that even if one were to touch his “wings” – his tzitzit, that one would receive healing. When this woman reaches out and receives healing in this way, Jesus allows her to confess her faith that he is, in fact, the messiah.

I am unaware of the name or artist for this work. i would appreciate it if someone could teach me those things!

Meanwhile, Jairus has to be thinking, “Look, I’m not opposed to healing or theological conversation, but the fact of the matter is that we’re in a race against time here…” And in fact, while Jesus is still speaking to this un-named woman, they get word that they are too late.  The girl has died.

Yet as you have heard, that’s not the end of the story.  Jesus takes Jairus and his family home and raises the little girl, much to the amazement of the mourners who had gathered.

So there you have it – the sandwich.  Mark could have told us about the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and then said, “and the cool thing was, there was this other healing while Jesus was on the way…”  But he doesn’t.  He wraps them together, and in so doing, he invites us to compare them. So let’s do that now – let’s take a look at the different healings that comprise this “sandwich”.

Jairus’ Daughter Woman who was bleeding
Powerful, wealthy family with many resources Unknown, unconnected, un-named woman who had “spent all she had”
A public appeal to healing based on status A secret approach made in fear
12 years of joy-filled living with a beloved daughter 12 years of isolation and shame – living as one “unclean” and unwelcome
She was a precious child She was nobody’s child (she is never named or acknowledged until Jesus himself calls her “daughter” in v 34)
A public approach results in a private healing A private approach results in a public healing
Jesus risks being labeled as “unclean” by contacting a dead body Jesus is rendered “unclean” by being touched by a woman who is bleeding

Note that in both cases Jesus – just as he did with the fellow who roamed amongst the tombs and the pigs – risks “crossing to the other side” to be with folks who matter to God.

When LaVerne made me that “Big L”, she took special care to combine the meat and the condiments and the bread.  I learned something about her in the choices she made, and in the way that she made that sandwich and served it to me.

When Mark uses a “sandwich” to tell us about a Jesus who heals both Jairus’ daughter and this sick woman, he tells us something about that Jesus.  What can we learn from this passage?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need to remember that not every interruption is a negative thing.  I get my day all planned out and think that I have all my ducks in a row…and then something else happens.  If I’m paying attention to Jesus, I can learn that sometimes some incredibly important things can happen when I least expect them.  What would happen if I were to treat each “interruption” in my day as an opportunity to learn more about God’s purposes for the world or for myself?

Planning is a good thing, and I’d encourage you to do it.  But I’d warn you to not get so lost in your plans that you miss the chance to see God at work in the unexpected each day.

But more than a lesson about scheduling and planning and interruptions, this is a story that speaks to me about hope.  There is hope for everyone, Mark says.  Even if you feel as if you have suffered for a lifetime – did you notice that the woman’s illness had lasted as long as the little girl’s life? – there is the possibility that God will make his presence known to you, or through you, in amazing ways.

And this hope is available to everyone – even to “outsiders”.  The woman who had been bleeding suffered from more than a flow of blood.  The cultural law mandated that for the health of the community, she had to refrain from contact with any other human being as long as she bled.  She was in a hell of loneliness and isolation – she was outside of any group you could think of.  Yet this is the one that Jesus calls “daughter”.  He blesses her.  In naming her healing publicly, he restores her to her life and to her community. There is hope for those of us who feel as though we are on the outside looking in.

When we are feeling “on the top of our game”, it’s easy to suffer though a tough time.  But when we feel unworthy or unclean, it’s a little easier to feel that anything bad that is happening to us is simply judgment – I’m just getting “what I deserve”.  This sandwich reminds me that there is hope for healing and joy in everyone’s life – not only those who are pure, but for those who are struggling and for those who feel like we’ll never be good enough.

And lastly, as Jesus confronts the evil of death in this passage, we learn that it’s never too late for hope.  The little girl’s parents must have felt a little foolish when Jesus went in and took the hand of their daughter and spoke to her corpse…yet Jesus restored her to them.

Is there a part of your life where you have given up hope?  Is there something in you that you feel is too far gone?  Let me encourage you not to laugh at Jesus with the other mourners, but rather to allow him and his disciples to enter into the deepest and most painful part of your grief…to enter into the place that you think might even be dead…and to allow him to speak to that.

The sandwich that Mark fixes us this morning reminds us of the truth of the Psalm: “The earth and everything on itbelong to the Lord; the world and all of its peoplebelong to him.”  If the healing and hope of Jesus does not include both the unnamed woman and the rich man’s daughter as well as both the disturbed man who roamed amongst the tombs and the eager disciples who gave their lives to the Lord, then it’s not really hope at all.  It’s a reward for people who are in the right group at the right time in the right place. Yet this is a bold claim that in fact, the promises of Christ are open to all, and the presence of Christ is universal. My prayer is that this will nourish you and sustain you and encourage you to move forward in your journey of faith with the one who is the “sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.”  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Partnership in African Mission Final Update (#10)

In one of my first messages to a Malawian congregation on this trip, I shared the news that people in Pittsburgh were preparing to run a marathon this spring.  Explaining to some of these folks exactly why anyone would voluntarily attempt to run 26.2 miles took some doing, but we got there.  I said that one of the customs in such a race is to have people line the path and offer encouragement by cheering or sharing water with the racers.  Nobody really sees the entire race, but each step is witnessed and applauded.

I believe that in many ways, that’s a good analogy to the trip that Brian and I have shared with our Malawian hosts, South Sudanese partners, and my friend Lauren.  We’ve been running up and down and all around the country, and it’s been tough in some regards – but so worth it! And just like the end of the race features the finish line and the time to rest, so our sprint through Central Africa brought with it a “last day” and one last chance to take in the beauty of this nation and her people.

We began by attending the 6:00 a.m. English-speaking service for the Mawira CCAP in Liwonde.  It was the first time that the service had begun at that hour, as it has been pushed back to accommodate a third worship service on Sunday morning in this rapidly-growing congregation.  Nevertheless, the small group of about 60 swelled to well over 100 by the time 6:30 rolled around.  The service was led by the Youth of the congregation, and it was tremendously encouraging to see how these kids are moving in leadership and ministry in this congregation.  I was especially delighted when I realized that the pastor of this church is my old friend Dennis Mulele, whom I first met while doing a famine relief trip with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in 2003.  He really made an impact on me during that trip and it was a great joy to reconnect in worship.

With Dennis Mulele at Mawire CCAP. The first time we met, the only gray was in our clothing!

 

Sharing the story

 

Offering the benediction.

Following the worship, we spent the afternoon in Liwonde National Park.  This park has been steadily improving in terms of security (anti-poaching) and accessibility of wildlife during the time I’ve known Malawi.  The location – right in Liwonde, about five minutes from the church – made it a great option for us to relax and unwind with a drive through the park as well as a “boat safari” on the Shire River. It did not disappoint in the least!

The graceful Impala!

 

Kudu

African Elephant

This is a really bad photo of a jackal, but it’s the only jackal I’ve ever seen in Malawi.

 

A warthog with baboons in the background

 

Little Bee-Eater

 

Hippopotamus

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

The African Fish Eagle is the national bird of Malawi. It looks like the North American Bald Eagle, but it is not quite as large.

We made it home after dark and have spent the last 18 hours or so resting, packing, doing some last minute shopping, and enjoying a Penguins win from afar!  We are so grateful for the ways that this trip has allowed us to carry the best wishes of Pittsburgh Presbytery into our partnerships here; for the chance to grow in friendship with each other and those who have accompanied us; for the grace of God that has sustained us in so many ways.

So for now, we say, Tionana, Malawi – “so long” – but not “goodbye”!

If you would like to hear more about this journey, find out how you or your (Pittsburgh Presbytery) congregation can be involved in the Partnership, or are interested in knowing about the upcoming plans to host a delegation from Africa in October 2018, please click  here or simply come to our next meeting, Monday, May 7, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Presbytery Center (901 Allegheny Ave., Pittsburgh PA 15233).

Mulungu Akudalitseni – May God bless you!