The Importance of Being Kirk

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 17, we considered The Scots Confession of 1560 and sought to be attentive to the scripture as contained in Psalm 68:1-10 and Matthew 18:15-20

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

This month, we’ve been using this part of our worship to look at some of the ancient and historic documents, called “creeds”, that are a part of the church’s story.  Maybe you remember that the oldest of these start with the words “I believe”, and the Latin word for that is “Credo”.  The creeds provide a helpful means for us to look back at where we’ve been as the people of God.  When I speak with the confirmation class, I tell them that the Bible is like a birth certificate: it tells us who we are, and where we came from.  The Creeds are like a family album: they tell us what we looked like at a particular point in time.  Like most photo albums, some of what is here is more flattering than the rest of it, but they are accurate depictions of where we were, what was important to us, and – in a manner of speaking – what we were fighting about at that time.

In the fourth century, the church argued about who Jesus was in relationship to God the Creator.  The Nicene Creed emerged from that controversy.

The Apostles’ Creed, as we discussed last week, was a response to a series of conflicts relating to the possibility of forgiveness, the meaning of Christ’s death, and an understanding of who could be included in the church.

About 800 years following the completion of the Apostles’ Creed, the winds of change were blowing through Europe and much of the world.  There was an explosion of learning and culture that we call “the Renaissance” that led to the reshaping of political boundaries and allegiances as well as a burst of energy within the church.  A movement we know as “the Reformation” was ignited by men like Martin Luther and later John Calvin.  These folks saw some glaring problems within the church, and they tried to get the church to fix them – to re-form itself.  Instead, by and large the church tended to kick people like this out, and the fact that they were protesting something they saw as wrong led them to be called Protestants.

Across the church, in congregation after congregation, people were asking questions like, “How do we worship?”, “Who’s in charge of worship?”, and “Which of these is the ‘true’ church?”

John Knox preaching before the Lords of the Congregation in the Parish Church of St. Andrew’s, 10th June, 1559. Attributed to Sir David Wilkie (1785 – 1841)

In the mid-16th century, the nation of Scotland had just emerged from a bloody civil war.  The political unrest and conflict had led to a determination to reform not just the government, but the entire ethos of the country, including the church.

In the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds we have documents that resulted from long periods of deliberation involving dozens, if not hundreds of people, written apart from or even in opposition to the government.  In the Scots Confession, however, we find a statement that was written in haste by six men so that it might be presented to the Scottish Parliament, thereby making the realm of Scotland officially “Protestant territory”.

The world of the Scots Confession is vastly different from that of the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds.  The church is no longer hunted or persecuted – in fact, it is virtually synonymous with the government in nation after nation across Europe.  In most countries, there is very little distinction between the offices of the church and state, between ecclesial polity and national strategy.  When Scotland emerged from a civil war, then, it seemed logical to them that they’d want a new form of the church – which meant breaking away from the Catholics in France as well as the Church of England.

And so for four days in August of 1560, John Knox and five other men named John wrote what we have come to call The Scots Confession.  It followed, essentially, the teachings of a Presbyterian theologian in Switzerland whose name was John Calvin.  At the end of the week, it was submitted to Parliament, ratified, and the Church of Scotland as we know it was born.

If we were to read the entire document – which we shall not – we’d think it to be quite dated.  It is tied to its time and place in many respects.  Yet one key – and perhaps this is the reason that the Presbyterian Church USA has retained this confession in our own Book of Confessions – is the emphasis it places on the local church.

Using the Scottish dialect, the confession describes that there is one true Kirk – or Church – and yet we can only know the one Kirk in and through specific congregations in particular places.

I have to interject and say that when I speak of the one true Kirk, I’m not trying to discuss the merits of William Shatner or Christopher Pine.  Rather, I’m joining John Knox and the other five Johns in affirming that the one Kirk is comprised of many parts.

For centuries, the question “which is the right church?” was not problematic.  Fundamentally, there was a single church, headquartered in Rome, led by the Pope and his Cardinals and Bishops.  If you were to say, “Which is the true church?” to many folks, that would be like asking “How long is the television program ’60 Minutes’?”  It was a no-brainer.

And yet as the Reformation and Renaissance splintered and fragmented society, new churches and theologies sprang up. Martin Luther and John Calvin, among others, began to teach that there was a way to discern where the “true church” could be found.  They said that the presence of Christ was found in any congregation wherein the Word of God was preached and the sacraments were rightly administered.  As long as when you went to church you could find someone speaking your language teaching the Bible and offering baptism and communion to those who requested it, you could count yourself as “home”.

And yet Knox and the others thought that this did not go far enough.  In their experience, the church was often led by unsavory characters.  It was not uncommon to find authoritative and powerful church leaders who were corrupt, murderous, or totally lacking in integrity.  For instance, the Cardinal overseeing that part of Europe at the time was widely known to have fathered at least eight children with several women.  Knox and his contemporaries advocated for a higher moral standard within the church, and so the Scots Confession offers a third key definitive aspect to the church: in addition to proclaiming the Word of God and administering the sacraments, the true church is marked by “ecclesiastical discipline whereby vice is repressed and virtue is nourished.”

The framers of the Scots confession said, essentially, “Look, we live together in covenant community.  How we treat each other matters!”

When we hear the word “discipline”, particularly in church, we can have a negative connotation.  We’ve heard of groups that use their particular version of the truth to shun others, to marginalize smaller groups, or to bring shame and pain to particular people.  In the 21st century, we don’t think about “church discipline” often. We don’t want to offend people; we don’t want to sound as though we are trying to be “holier than thou”, and nobody wants to be the person pointing fingers at anyone else.  It’s uncomfortable:  I’ve sat in a lot of rooms around the world wherein people with power use the church courts to marginalize, ostracize, and shame someone else.

The Scots Confession points out that discipline is not a dirty word, but rather an essential tool used by individual Christians and local Kirks so that each of us would be better able to follow Jesus and glorify God.  They sought to reclaim the teaching of Jesus that an authentic and helpful understanding of discipline was a liberating thing.  When I talked to the kids about exercising during the Children’s Sermon, I hope I indicated that I don’t exercise because I like laying on the floor with my dumbbells – I exercise because that’s the best way to become the person I think I’m supposed to be in the world.  Each of us in the Kirk commits ourselves to seeking to act uprightly and with integrity, and we covenant with others to hold ourselves and each other accountable.  In this light, discipline is not a weapon, but a resource that can be used to help us be our best selves.

In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus outlines a simple plan for individual uprightness and corporate accountability.  If you sense that someone in the fellowship has wounded you or acted in a manner that is contrary to the Good News of Jesus, you are obliged to speak to that person about it.

Do you think that Jesus knew how uncomfortable these conversations would be?  When he said this, did his followers avoid eye contact and stammer, “Um, yeah, well, you see, Jesus, nobody really wants to be ‘that guy’ in this kind of a thing…”

One of my best friends in the whole world is a person who makes me a better human being each time we speak.  Often she will sit me down and say, “Look, this isn’t easy, but I’m not really your friend if I don’t tell you this…” and then she names some hard truth about myself that I need to hear but very few people are willing to tell me honestly.  Stephanie holds me accountable in a way that reflects love and grace and reminds me to be my best self.

I’d invite you to go home and re-read the passage from Matthew.  You’ll note that Jesus did not say, “If you see a sister in sin, make sure that you post it on Facebook, #prayforthispatheticloser.”  He doesn’t say, “If your brother sins against you, make sure that everyone at the office knows what a jerk he is.”

No, the prescription that Jesus offers is simple.  One on one, go and ask.  Inquire.  Expect the best from this person who is a sibling in Christ with you.  If you are not heard, and you remain convinced that there’s a problem – go back.  You take the initiative and bring one or two more people along in the expectation that things can be made right.

I know – this is an idealistic scenario.  It presumes that trust, integrity, humility, and interdependence are shared values, and that change is possible.  But it is what Jesus expects from those of us who follow him.

But what if there is no change?  What if the poor behavior continues?  “Well,” said Jesus, “at that point, then treat this person as you would a tax collector or a sinner.”

Ahh, so NOW we can gripe on Facebook and gossip at the coffee shop, right?

Except… how did Jesus treat tax collectors and sinners?  How many people did Jesus publicly marginalize or shame?

Listen: we are never free to publicly humiliate or denigrate someone else.  Can we disagree?  Of course.  Are there times when we need to remove ourselves from the conversation? You better believe it.  Shall we launch an attack, or smear someone, or return bad behavior for bad behavior?  That is simply not of God.

The goal of all discipline – in my own life and in that of the Kirk – is self-discipline.  If I hurt or offend you, then you offer me feedback as to what I have done that has harmed you.  Eventually, we hope, I’ll get it right.  I’ll learn, I’ll remember, and I’ll stop doing it.  And if I don’t? Then you may need to step away from me for a while, until I learn how best to be the person God longs for me to be.

The Scots confession ends with a powerful allusion to Psalm 68, which Anna read for you earlier today.  It is a prayer for the people of God – the Kirk – to be bold in speaking the truth and in living with integrity so that all creation might see the true nature of God.  The confession and the Psalm both indicate that all we do in our lives and in the Kirk ought to point to the powerful acts and loving character of the One who created us.

The Psalm is a plea that we are not those who are known for who we hate, but for how we love; we are not renowned for the ways in which we attack others, but for our willingness to defend those who have no other recourse; the Kirk of God is defined not by our willingness to exclude others, but rather to lay siege to the fortresses of loneliness and isolation.

Like every other document produced by human hands, the Scots Confession is a mixed bag – there are some parts that make me cringe as I read them, and some paragraphs that resound with truth and grace.  Today, let us claim the truth that is here: that none of us can do this alone.  We are each members of the Body of Christ, but together we are the Kirk of God.  We need the Kirk – we need each other – to help us, to equip us, to correct us, and to motivate us to be our best selves so that we display the love of Jesus in all we do.  Thanks be to God for that!  Amen.

[Following the sermon, the congregation rose and used these words from the Scots Confession to affirm our faith and our commitment to follow the rule of love.]

The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be:

  • first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us…
  • secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus…
  • and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.

Then wherever these notes are seen and continue for any time…is the true Kirk of Christ, who, according to his promise, is in its midst. This is not that universal Kirk of which we have spoken before, but particular Kirks, such as were in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, and other places where the ministry was planted by Paul and which he himself called Kirks of God.

Such Kirks, we the inhabitants of the realm of Scotland confessing Christ Jesus, do claim to have in our cities, towns, and reformed districts…

The interpretation of Scripture, we confess, does not belong to any private or public person, nor yet to any Kirk for pre-eminence or precedence, personal or local, which it has above others, but pertains to the Spirit of God by whom the Scriptures were written…

We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love.

Walking the Path

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 10, we considered The Apostles’ Creed and sat with the Word of God as found in Matthew 28:16-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4.

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

What do you think of when you I say the word “footpath”?  What are the mental images that brings to you?  I’d like to ask you to pause for just a moment now and get a picture of a footpath in your mind – a trail that you have known.  Think about what footpaths have done in your life.

It seems to me that footpaths can fulfill one of two main functions.  There are a number of us who have been thinking of paths that we have followed as escapes and adventures.  We’ve been driving down a main road and at some point, it seemed like a good idea to get out and walk.  Many years ago I was a passenger in a car that Don Prevost was driving.  We were going over the hills in West Virginia, and it was just beautiful.  But then someone saw a little trail leading from the edge of the road, and Don found a place to park.  We clambered out of the car, and followed the path only to discover an incredible vista of huge boulders looking down onto a pristine valley.  Our children – much younger then – discovered wild blueberry bushes, and we spent a couple of hours – unplanned, unanticipated hours – leaping around in the sun, picking berries, and enjoying the world God has made.  The footpath got us there – it led us to a blessing we’d have missed otherwise.

But maybe you are thinking of a different sort of path altogether.  Maybe you remember a camping trip or a hike of some sort, when you got lost in the woods. When you were ready to panic, you saw the blazes painted on the tree nearby and that led you to follow the path that led you to safety.  When you to think of paths, you think of trails that were there to safeguard you from getting lost, to protect you from the dangers that lurked off the beaten path.  I’m remembering a trail that we walked along while in South Africa, and there were crocodiles, hippos, and leopards in the neighborhood.  Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice that it was a bad idea to leave the marked trail – I stayed on that path like nobody’s business – because I believed that the path was the key to my survival.

On the one hand, then, we can think of footpaths as guides that can serve to introduce us to certain aspects of life or our environments that we’d never have a chance to see.  On the other hand, those paths can also serve to protect us from getting overwhelmed by some aspect of our surroundings that could potentially threaten us.

Now I want you to picture a new footpath.  It’s in a cave.  It’s dark.  There are a few torches here and there.  It’s dank, and it smells like there’s not been any fresh air for a while.  You are a part of a procession of Christians going into the catacombs – the caves that surround Rome.  It’s time for worship, and you know that the Emperor has recently murdered several of your friends for the “crime” of confessing Jesus as Lord.  Nevertheless, there are several people with you tonight who are eager to follow in The Way.  They want to declare their faith in Jesus.  Because they are new, it’s the first time that they’ve been into the catacombs with the other believers.  When the worship begins, the leader brings them to the front of the group and asks them to answer publicly the questions of faith: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” he asks.  The converts answer with one word:  “Credo”, which is the Latin word for “I believe.”  “Do you believe in Jesus Christ His Son?”  “Credo”.  And so it goes.  Each element of the church’s teaching is affirmed by the converts as they embrace the truth of the Faith.

Last week we began a series of messages on some of the Creeds of the church.  Do you see why we call them the creeds?  How does the Apostle’s Creed start?  “I believe . . .”  And how would you translate that into Latin?  “Credo”.

The Apostles Receiving Inspiration from The Holy Spirit, illustration from Somme le Roi, a 13th century manuscript.

This morning we’re going to consider the Apostle’s Creed as a footpath to faith that the Christian Church has used for centuries. Unlike the Nicene Creed, which we discussed last week, the Apostle’s Creed did not come out of a single crisis in the church, but rather was developed over a period of about 700 years.  There’s a legend which states that this Creed was authored by the Apostles ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, but that is not the case.  The Apostle’s Creed, like the Nicene before it, was an attempt by the church to come together and provide some uniform statement of belief that could be shared by a number of churches.

For many of us, it’s a well-known pathway.  Some of you probably had to memorize this statement in order to join a church; some of us learned it along with the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.  If you’d like to look through the faith as I discuss it, you can find it on page 35 of your hymnal.

When the creed was being developed, it served to guide people to a deeper understanding of the faith.  In the early days of Christianity, most of the world was illiterate.  There was no such thing as FaithBuilders or youth group – people learned the faith from one another through relationships and practice.  The creed came to summarize the orthodox faith of the church, and gave people a memorable statement of what was true.  Early Christians thought that the creed helped them to fulfill the command of Jesus in Matthew 28: to “baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded”.

Benediction of God the Father, Luca Cambiaso, c. 1565

As you look at the Apostles’ Creed, you can see it as a pathway that’s deepened people’s understanding of God.  Just the very first line, for instance:  “I believe in God, the Father almighty.”  I have a friend who, upon hearing that line, said, “Wow, that’s a lot of gender right there!”  For some people, referring to God as “Father” raises a real difficulty: we think of “father” in contrast to “mother”, and so we wonder: is the purpose of this sentence to affirm the masculinity of the Divine?  But the early church, along with the cultures who produced the writing that led to the Bible presumed a patriarchal structure.  When the first Christians said that God was “Father”, they were not claiming a gender for God, but rather affirming that the Creator was a personal being who had a parental affection over and involvement in the Creation.  For them, “father” stood in contrast, not to “mother”, but to a distant power or impersonal entity!  The creed begins with an affirmation that God is as close as a loving parent.

The Apostle’s Creed is a footpath that is well worn for many of us, and surely for our predecessors in the faith.  Like some of the best paths you’ve been on, it didn’t develop in a day, or even a week, or even, as was the case for the Nicene Creed last week, in fifty years.  For generations, Christians recited something that sounded a lot like this document, and from time to time as the church needed to, it was edited in order to make sure that nothing important was left out.  For these folks – and for us – the creed is a living document that will help us express what we believe in a changing world.  Let’s talk about a couple of those changes.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1661 – 1669.

The earliest versions of what we know as the Apostles’ Creed did not have the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins”.  That clause was added in the second and third centuries.  Now, don’t get me wrong – the church has always been about forgiveness!  However, in the early days of our faith, when confessing Christ was considered an act of treason against the Roman emperor, it was not uncommon for individuals to flee the church or deny the faith during a time of intense stress and persecution.  Later, some of those folks returned to their community and said that they wanted to re-claim the faith and to reassert its primacy in their lives.  Church leaders added the words, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins” because every believer needed to know that forgiveness is the air we breathe – it is who we are!

You know, if you were to walk up the stairs behind you and stroll through the Preschool area, you’d see a lot of art hanging on the walls.  If I told you we had a vast art collection upstairs, and you ran up to find something amazing, you’d be disappointed.  Why? Because most of that isn’t, by any objective measure, very good.  It’s not like something you’d expect to find hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or in the Louvre.  Of course it isn’t – because it was made by three and four year-olds.  Those are the people we have in the building, making art in this place.

Similarly, if you walk into this place (or any church) expecting to see only perfect models of faithfulness and forgiveness, you’re going to feel let down.  Why? Because the only people you’re going to find at the church are people who know that we are good at sinning and in need of forgiveness.  We have to affirm a faith that knows a liberality of forgiveness because we know the prevalence of brokenness in our lives and in the world. When the church says, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” the church is saying that there is always room for people to come home to the church.

And that leads to another modification that was made a couple of hundred years later.  The church in Africa added the phrase, “I believe in the holy catholic church” because they were, at that time, engaged in a vigorous discussion as to who actually could be considered a “member” of the church.  Was the Body of Christ an elite club, reserved for those who had achieved some real distinction in matters of faith and doctrine?  A “who’s who” of faithful superheroes?  Or is the church an inclusive group made up of any who can confess that Jesus Christ is Lord?

As those sisters and brothers wrestled with that, they came to understand that the church is, by definition, “holy”.  That is, it belongs to God, not to any human.  It is comprised of those who have heard God’s call, not who have been able to pass some sort of theological examination.  And more than that, it is “catholic”.  By this, they meant that it is universal.  It is for all people, in all places and cultures. It does not belong to us.

Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-1499.

The last edit that I’d like to mention this morning is one that still may catch a few of us off-guard: in the fifth century, the words, “he descended into hell” were written into the creed.  There were a growing number of people who came to be known as “Docetists” that were speaking into the church.  The Greek word dokein can be translated as “to seem”; dokesis can be understood as “an apparition”.  This sect taught that while Jesus of Nazareth seemed to be a regular guy, in reality, he was simply God wearing a man-suit.  The reason he could pull off all those miracles and eventually rise from the dead, the Docetists taught, was that he wasn’t really human to begin with.  He was Divine, and appeared to be a normal guy, but don’t let that fool you.

And when they said that Jesus “descended into hell”, the word for “hell” that is used in the creed is not the word for “Gehenna”, or a place of torture to which unsavory dead are consigned for punishment.  No, the word here is sheol in Hebrew or hades in Greek – a word that reflects the state of one who is physically dead.  The church affirmed that the death Jesus entered into was not a “near” death or an “apparent” death, but rather a “really dead” death.  Jesus of Nazareth, who as the letter to the Hebrews affirms is the reflection and image of God the Father, died a real death.  The implication of that is that there is no place, including my own death, where the love of Christ is not present.  Even in the most bereft, the darkest, the most anguished of places – the Light of the World is apparent.

So having heard all of that, let me ask you a few questions: Do you believe in God the Father?  If so, simply follow your ancestors of the faith and say, “Credo”.  Go ahead, use the Latin word!

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, who descended into hell? (“Credo”)

Do you believe in the forgiveness of sin and in one holy catholic church? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that God has blessed your life? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that we are called to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, teaching them and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? (“Credo”)

And do you believe, like me, that God is longing to use the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights to reach people and to change lives? (“Credo”)

Do you believe that YOU can be a blessing to others? (“Credo”)

Then please, beloved, please, stay on the path that’s been trodden before us.  Live as though you believe what you’ve said.

Go out from this place and live as though you believe that forgiveness is normative.  Act like someone who has needed it, and who has received it.  Practice giving it away.  Join with the church of all ages in remembering that the world, and you, and me – it’s all broken.  And that the world, and you, and me – it’s all made whole in Jesus.

And go out from this place remembering that it is not “yours”.  That you and the rest of these people are not somehow “better”, or holier, or closer to God’s love than the folks who slept in this morning, or who somehow felt unable to be here.  We are a group of seekers whose chief qualification for membership in this place is that we are great sinners in need of a deep healing and we have responded to God’s call by being here.

And go out from this place committed to carrying the light of Christ into the dark corners of your world.  Jesus himself descended into hell… surely you and I can make it through the rough patches that next Tuesday or a week from Thursday might bring to us.  We can know and affirm that here – but you may be the means by which one of your neighbors discovers that there is nothing so dead that it cannot stand in line for resurrection.

Thanks be to God for the pathways that lead us to hope and love because of Jesus, the Christ!  Amen. 

What’s the Big Deal?

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On November 3, we considered The Nicene Creed and considered John 1:1-5, 10-14 and Colossians 1:15-23.

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

Have you ever been to a meeting that was too long?  I mean, you walked in and someone put a plan on the table, and questions were raised, and votes were taken, and you were just spinning your wheels?  Have you ever thought, “Jeez, this thing will never end”?  This morning I’m going to tell you about a meeting that started on June 14, 325 AD and didn’t completely wrap up until May of 381.  See? And you thought my sermons were long.  Here’s the story:

For the first 300 years or so of Christianity, folks were struggling to survive in the faith.  There was persecution, the message of Jesus was getting out, but some of the deeper questions of theology seemed a little bit like a luxury, especially to the folk in the pews.  There was so much that made daily life hard, and those “big” questions had to wait for a bit.

And then, in 318 AD, everything changed.  Instead of persecuting Christians, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.

As you might suspect, once the Government wasn’t picking on them, Christians started picking on each other, and by 325, there was a full-fledged church fight going on.

The traditionalists held that Jesus was co-eternal with God; that when we asked, “Where did Jesus come from”, the answer had to be something like, “Jesus always was.  There was never a time when there was no Jesus.”  But a fellow named Arius began to teach differently.  Arius looked at passages like we’ve heard in Colossians and said that The Word, the Son, was a creature.  And as such, he had been made by God.  He was made first; he was most important; but Jesus had a beginning, and that he was subject to change.  Following that, then, he taught that Jesus did not always have full and accurate knowledge of God the Father.

His opponents pointed out that this teaching meant great difficulty for the Christian Church.  If it was true, they said, then in Jesus, people could not truly encounter the Divine, but rather something less than God.

Council of Nicea in 325 (Fresco in the Vatican, 16th Century)

The Emperor immediately called a council in the town of Nicea so that people could sort things out.  They began working on a document (which later became known as the Nicene Creed), and there was broad agreement until they got to the section that says that Jesus was “of one substance with the Father.”  That little phrase de-railed the council and started a fifty-year disagreement in the church.  And basically, the disagreement was over one little letter in the creed.

Do you know the word “iota”?  That’s the letter I’m talking about.  No, not Yoda – he’s a character in the Star Wars Movies (“hmmm, preach to you I will…”).  I’m referring to IOTA, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet.

You see, when it came to describing Jesus, Arius and his followers wanted to use the word “homoiousios”, which means that Jesus is “of similar substance” to God the Father – that Jesus is really, really, close to God in his essence.  The other folks, however, led by a fellow named Athanasius (there’s going to be a quiz, you might want to write these names down…), insisted that they use the word “homoousios”, which means that Jesus is “of the same substance” as the Father – that whatever God is, that’s what Jesus is, too.

Homoiousios and homoousios are very similar in spelling – as I say, there’s only one letter’s difference – but that makes a lot of difference in meaning.  Think for a moment of how true that is in English.  If I say that you are a real friend, that means lots of good things, right?  But what if I remove one letter, and say that you are a real fiend?  Changes things around, doesn’t it?  If a man appears to be angry, and we look at him and say he has a lot of spit, that doesn’t really help us understand him.  But add a letter, and tell people that he’s full of spite, and that makes the situation clearer, doesn’t it.

That’s what the church argued about for more than fifty years, until in 381 they finally came to understand that Jesus was “of one substance” with the Father.  They tweaked a few more phrases from the first draft of 325 AD and adopted a statement of faith that is now the most widely used statement in Christianity.  Not only Presbyterians, but other Protestants, Catholics, and even Eastern churches use this creed as an essential element of defining the faith. It is the first truly ecumenical creedal statement of the church.

And, in a few moments, I’m going to ask you to do something pretty radical. I’m going to invite you to stand up and affirm the faith by using the Nicene Creed.  What makes that radical?  I mean, really, can we talk about being radical when we’re talking about using a document that’s more than 1600 years old?  Yes, we can – because of the iota that makes all the difference.

Christ Pantocrator, from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. 6th century – oldest surviving icon of Jesus

Here’s the deal: for a long time, I’ve held onto this Creed because I thought it was telling me something about who Jesus was.  And it does. Jesus is of the same substance as the Father.  Great.  When I view it in this way, it’s as if the Creed is vouching for Jesus.  “Jesus? Son of Mary?  Yeah, well, he’s Divine. He is fully God. Case closed.”

But beloved hear me on this: lately, I haven’t had many questions about who Jesus was.  The more time I spend with this miracle-working, beatitude-teaching, sinner-loving, marginalized-including rabbi from Nazareth, the better I like him – no – the more I love him.

But the more time I spend wandering through cancer wards and refugee camps and abuse-filled lives, the more questions I have about God the Father.  I don’t want to stir anyone up, at least not too much, but there have been more than a few days this past year when I’ve wondered whether God the Father is everything I’ve been taught.  Some good friends of mine have given up on the faith, and they’ve wanted me to argue with them, and I haven’t.  Some days, to be honest, it’s hard for me to trust God.  The pain is too great.  Life is too ugly.  How can God be who God claims to be and yet so much of our world looks like this?

And yet the Nicene Creed affirms that Jesus and the Father are of one substance.  As Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood put it in The Humor of Christ,

The deepest conviction of all Christian theology is the affirmation that the God of all the world is like Jesus Christ. Because the logical development is from the relatively known to the relatively unknown, the procedure is not from God to Christ, but from Christ to God. If we take this seriously we conclude that God cannot be cruel, or self-centered or vindictive, or even lacking in humor.[1]

Do you see what that means?  The notion of the incarnation – that Jesus and God are one – means that we cannot start with what Brian McLaren calls a “predetermined, set-in-stone idea of God derived from the rest of the Bible and then extend that to Jesus.”[2]  From our vantage point in history, we go the other direction: we start with Jesus and work our way to God.

Our best source of knowledge as to the character and nature of God is, as Trueblood pointed out, to be found in Jesus.  So when someone makes it sound like a horrific famine or chronic pattern of abuse or the death of a child is all somehow a part of God’s wonderful plan, I have to interject and say, “No, the intentions of God as revealed in the life of Jesus do not lend themselves to that sort of assumption.”  When parts of the Bible make it seem as though God is a bloodthirsty petty tyrant who seems to enjoy going around smiting the people who irritate him, I have to think that maybe those descriptions of God’s character are insufficient because there is none of that bloodlust,  pettiness, or smiting to be found in Jesus – who is, as the Creed says, of one substance with the Creator.

If the God of creation, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the maker of all things seen and unseen – if that God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ – If God and Jesus are of the same essence – if Jesus of Nazareth was fully human AND fully God, then that’s good news!  In looking at Jesus, we can grow in our understanding of who God is.

And as the Apostle Paul points out to his friends (not his fiends, but his friends) in Colossae, because we have the final word in Jesus, we can live our lives assured that we have been accepted and forgiven.  Did you hear what Paul said?  “In him ALL the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”; “he has now reconciled you” – those are the kinds of statements that are made about the Creator, not a creature.  There is finality and authority in those words.  If they are true – If Jesus is the essence of God, then we can say with all integrity and authority, that whatever God is, Jesus is that; and whatever humans are, Jesus is that too.

So what?  What’s the difference to you and me?

Because Jesus is those things, that allows us to live in the hope of being changed people.  Religion cannot change a person’s circumstance.  We take a body of ideas and agree with them or not.  But a Relationship with the Creator – now that can change a person.  Because Jesus is the word for God – Jesus is the essence of God – that means that you and I and anyone who will know and love Jesus can live a life of power and holiness.

Because Jesus is NOT a creature, but the Co-Creator, we have a privilege and a responsibility.  We are privileged to have access to the heart of God through prayer and worship.  And we are bound to follow in the ways that Jesus himself walked.

I’d invite you to stand, and with the church – not just this church, but the church for the past 1600 years from every place, – and join with that church in announcing just who Jesus is.  That’s what the Creed is all about.  That’s the big deal.

And so now, let us confess the faith of the universal church:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God, begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Now, it’s time to take it one step further.  Because I’m going to invite you to leave the hymnals and the Creed here in the room – but to take your relationship with Jesus Christ, the Word for God, out into your worlds, and to show people who he is by living lives that are holy, blameless, and above reproach.  The scripture and the Nicene Creed seem to indicate that we know more about who God is because of Jesus.  I dare you to live so that your neighbors know more about who Jesus is because of how you live.  Thanks be to God for what we have learned and become through Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Trueblood, Elton, The Humor of Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 32.

[2] McLaren, Brian, A New Kind of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010), p. 114.

In Rare Company

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.”  On October 20 we talked about the unusual and difficult-to-quantify virtue of meekness.  Scriptures included Matthew 5:1-12 and Psalm 37:1-11.

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

There is a lot to love about the 1987 film The Princess Bride.  One of the plot lines involves a mob boss named Vizzini seeking to escape the Dread Pirate Roberts.  Every time Vizzini thinks he’s outsmarted his foe, he finds himself surprised at Roberts agility and resourcefulness.  At each turn, he utters the word, “Inconceivable!”  Finally, he is corrected by the swordsmith Inigo Montoya, who points out, “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Montoya is correct, of course.  “Inconceivable” means that something is impossible even to imagine. Anything that is truly and utterly inconceivable would by definition be unimaginable by the human mind.  Vizzini ought to have used words like, “surprising”, or “unlikely” or “improbable”, but although such might have been more accurate, the dialogue would have suffered.

We do that a lot, don’t we?  We use words that don’t mean what we think that they mean.  Part of that is because English is a funny language.  I mean, why in the world should “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing when “active” and “inactive” are opposites?

I bring this up because we are thinking about the ways that the scripture calls us as Christians to treat each other.  A few weeks ago we read from Colossians 3:12, wherein the Apostle Paul instructs the church to “put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” in our dealings with one another.  Today, I’d like us to consider what it would mean to clothe ourselves in “meekness”.  How would you define that word?

I checked a few dictionaries earlier this week and came across these definitions: “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on…” “enduring injury with patience and without resentment…” “deficient in spirit and courage…” or “not violent or strong…”

Really, Paul?

Is that what we’re supposed to do and be in the world?  Come to church and be NICE.  Don’t make any waves. Be polite.  Make sure to use your manners and say “yes, please” and “no, thank you”?  Is that what it’s all about?  Is that what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? How can that even make sense?

Science fiction author Robert Heilin read the Beatitudes and quipped, “The meek do inherit the earth, but they tend to inherit very small plots – about six feet by three.”  That’s what the world thinks about people who are “meek”.  A person who is meek is mousy, or timid, or weak.  Meekness is related to being ineffectual and powerless.  Meekness is thought to be a liability or a character flaw, and not something to which we ought to aspire.

We keep using that word.  I do not think it means what we think it means.

The word that is translated as “meek” in Colossians and in Matthew comes from the Greek praos.  It’s a word that was sometimes used to describe the behavior of the best horses – strong, mighty, and ready for battle BUT responsive to the command of the rider.  Sailors would refer to a “meek” breeze as one that was powerful enough to move the ship in the right direction without driving the boat off course or capsizing it.  A further use of the word can be traced to the idea of an appropriate dosage of medicine.

I hope you get what I’m saying here: a horse that is harnessed and hitched correctly can be very useful and productive; a horse that is stampeding out of control is a danger to the entire community.  Similarly, a good stiff breeze will carry cargo across the sea, while a typhoon will lift boats out of the water.  The right amount of medicine will save your life; too much will kill you.  Praos is about having a great deal of power under the appropriate control.

In fact, Aristotle said that this word was best understood as being between two extremes of getting angry without any reason at all and never getting angry at anything.  Praos is having the energy and the passion to get worked up at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason – and expressing it appropriately.

If we understand “meekness” in that way, then maybe you are not surprised when I tell you that there are two people in the bible who are called “meek”: Moses and Jesus.  In fact, Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was the meekest man on the face of the earth.  Moses, the man who went in to Pharaoh and led the people out of Egypt; the man who threw the tablets down in anger at the sight of the golden calf… he was “the meekest man in the world.”

And Jesus, who fashioned a cord into a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple; the man who called the religious leaders of his day “whitewashed tombs” and “hypocrites” turned around and said to those who would follow him, “come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest…take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly of heart…”

“Grace”, photograph by Eric Enstrom (1918).

I think that we can agree that neither Moses nor Jesus was a soft, pushover, spineless person; and yet each was described as being “meek”.  In an effort for us to understand our calling to wear “meekness” in our dealings with each other, let’s take a little time and look at the 37th Psalm, which I believe Jesus clearly had in mind when he blessed the meek.

Psalm 37 is attributed to David, and comes from the perspective of his old age.  The heart of this Psalm is offering advice to the community of faith as to how to live in confusing and conflicting times.  Psalm 37 is a lesson in meekness, and I’d like to draw out at least three themes from the verses we’ve considered this morning.

The Psalm contains clear instructions to make sure that we keep our focus.  When we experience pain, or discomfort, or endure some evil, it’s easy to get rattled.  Those connected to the psalmist had gone through some sort of an attack or experienced injustice.  His clear word to them was “don’t worry about what those other people are doing: keep your eyes on God and what God is about.”

Of course, that’s difficult to do, particularly in an age of social media.  When someone wrongs me, it can be amplified by Facebook or Twitter; if someone seeks to diminish you, it’s frustrating for you to see that person posting photos of their perfect life, perfect child, or fantastic job.  Psalm 37 says that we can’t afford to be sidetracked by what someone else is doing.  “Fret not because of the wicked…”, he writes.

Instead, we are to keep our focus on living for God and caring about the things that God puts in front of us.  A dear friend of mine refers to this as “keeping my side of the street clean”.  When someone wrongs me or angers me or frustrates me, often the only thing that I can do is to make sure that I’m continually working to keep myself in line, making sure that I’m becoming the best person I can be.  If I get obsessed with how many “likes” his social media posts have or the kinds of things that are coming her way, then I can lose track of who I am supposed to be.  Meekness is focusing on living the life that God has put in front of me right now.

As we move ahead with focus, however, we have to realize that we ourselves are still in the process of being shaped and framed.  One of the most misinterpreted verses of the Bible, in my opinion, is Psalm 37:4, which reads “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  I’ve heard from people, “Dave, I’ve prayed and I’ve prayed, but God still hasn’t given me that job that I want (or that boy or that girl or that new baby or that whatever). I’m trusting in God, but I’m not getting what I want.  What’s wrong?”

The way of meekness teaches us to submit all of who we are to the Lord.  As I learn to be meek, I ask God not only to give me a focus, but to frame my life.  My relationship with the Lord is not about wandering through my own hopes and dreams thinking about what would look nice, but rather learning how to hope and dream for the right things.  This is what I mean by asking God to “frame” me in meekness.

Years ago I visited in the home of a couple who’d been married for nearly sixty years.  He had been through an enormous number of health challenges, and his strength was nearly gone.  He barely had the strength to swallow, and yet the doctors were clear: “you have to eat.”  He didn’t want to.  He was ready to die – but he was afraid of the effect that would have on his wife. I went to their home and she said, “I’m going to make that stew you like so much.  You need to eat it, honey.”

I followed her to the kitchen and I watched her crooked fingers chop and dice.  I knew that the arthritis was so bad that it was more than the onions that were bringing tears to her eyes.  She said, “Dave, this is so hard to make, but he loves it, and I need him to eat.  I am not ready to lose him.  And so I will do this.”

Later, I was in the living room when she brought out a bowl of stew.  He took it gratefully and began to work on it.  Each bite was difficult, and every swallow a test.  When his wife stepped out of the room he said , “Pastor, I have to be honest with you.  I’ve had so many different medicines over the years that I can’t even taste any food any more.  This is the hardest thing I’ve done all day.  But I love her, and if this is what makes her happy, this is what I can do.”

For years, that holy conversation has been a window for me on what it means to allow God to frame the desires of my heart.  If all we read in the Psalm is “God will give you the desires of your heart”, we are short-changing ourselves. It begins with that focus on God, that trust in God’s presence and care.  As I focus on God, I can pray that God will teach me to want the right things.  I remember as a young husband that I went home praying that I would want the kind of love I’d seen that day far more than I wanted fancy vacations or extravagant adventure or eternal youthfulness.  Meekness is about allowing the Lord to frame or transform our desire.

And another thing that we can learn from this Psalm is the importance of taking the long view.  We focus on God’s intentions, and we ask God to frame our desire; we are also called to follow in God’s way habitually.  “Commit your way to the Lord” is how the Psalmist puts it.  It’s not a one and done deal – it’s a lifetime of realizing that we are simply a part of a chain of events bigger than we are.  We see some challenge of the present, some obstacle in the path, and we think that everything is lost and that we are finished.  This is an incomplete view.

Luis Espinal was a Jesuit priest who fought for the rights of the poor and marginalized in Bolivia in the 1970’s.  He stood up to both the corrupt government and the cocaine cartels.  Not surprisingly, he was murdered.  Shortly before his death, however, he published a meditation that speaks about the importance of following Christ in meekness for the long haul.  Listen:

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions
As if the world had slipped out of God’s hands.
They are violent, as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history.
The world is not a roll of the dice on its way toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen!

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph.
With our bodies still in the breach, our souls in tension;
We cry our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are the definitive smile for humankind.
What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death, Because you, our love, will not die! We march behind you on the road to the future.
You are with us. You are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces; We are not in a game of chance! You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones,
Now has begun the eternal “Alleluia!” From the thousands of openings in our wounded bodies and souls, there now arises a triumphal song!

So teach us to give voice to your new life throughout the world, because you dry the tears of the oppressed forever, and death will disappear.

As Psalm 37 teaches, meekness prepares us for life together.  I was thinking earlier this week about one of the perks of my job is hearing people rehearse music.  I sit in my little room there and people come in here and practice all kinds of things: saxophone, organ, piano, guitar, drums, and voice. As I thought about the power and the discipline of meekness, I was reminded of the scene on a stage just before the symphony starts to play.  All the musicians are blowing into their instruments, running up and down the scales, and it seems random and chaotic.  It’s irritating and loud. Then the first violin stands and plays an “A” note and everyone in the orchestra makes sure that their instruments are, in fact, in tune.  Then, when everyone is aligned, the conductor steps out and lifts his or her baton and all the power of every instrument is there, focused, framed, and ready to follow the conductor’s leading.  That’s when music happens.

To think of meekness as being weakness is, well, inconceivable.  Let us remain focused on God’s call in our lives; let us commit to asking God to frame our desires, and let us follow where God in Christ would lead us.  If we are able to do that, then we will, in meekness, be strong enough to carry the hope of Christ into the world that needs it.   Thanks be to God for that hope!  Amen.

Wearing the Uniform

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 13 we talked about the virtue and practice of Humility.  Scriptures included Matthew 23:1-12 and Philippians 2:1-11.

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

I’d like to start this morning by sharing one of my all-time favorite memories of Christmas.  In the mid-1980’s, before we were parents, Sharon and I spent a day buying clothes for a student at a prestigious private school where Sharon was doing some research. This young lady was a “scholarship” kid who lived in what thirty years ago we called “the projects”.  Most days, she did well at school, but the last Friday of every month was sheer torment for her, because it was “dress down day”.  That meant students were free to shed their uniforms and wear whatever they wanted to.  I think that Maddy could tell us something about how nice it feels to be able to choose your own clothes for a day every now and then.

The problem was that this student didn’t really have any other clothes that were nice enough to wear to that school – so she just wore her uniform on those Fridays.  And, because kids are kids, she got ripped apart on those days, and was teased mercilessly. Because my wife is one of the kindest, most generous people I know, she decided that we’d go school shopping for a high school girl.  We bought a couple of bags of clothes, and got a youth group member named Tom Taylor to dress up in my Santa suit and deliver the goods.  It was wonderful to hear Sharon narrate the scene she witnessed on the next “dress down day” at that school.

Now, the Gospels don’t record that Jesus ever had to deal with a posse of “mean girls”, but there was a group who consistently targeted and criticized him for being “not like us”.  They looked at Jesus and they scolded and mocked him, saying, “What’s up with those losers you surround yourself with?  And how can you justify spending your time in that way? And that stuff that you eat? And the people you eat it with? For crying out loud, Jesus, you are embarrassing us.  You are so out of it.  How dare you think of yourself as one of us, Jesus.”

But Jesus looked at that crowd – we know them as The Pharisees – and shot right back.  “Those guys?  Please.  Oh, they may think that they’re all that.  And they’ve got the right uniforms on – their prayer shawls and beads and scripture boxes – but there is no substance there.  They don’t have a clue.  They were born on third base but they walk around like they just hit a triple.”

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

And then he looked at those who were following him and issued a call to humility. “Don’t be like that,” he said.  “You are to take the lowest place. You are to see yourselves as students, not teachers.  You are to serve each other.”

It’s hard to talk about humility in the church – or anywhere, really.  I mean, if you talk about yourself as someone who is humble, you probably aren’t.  I’m reminded of the time that the congregation surprised their pastor at the end of one Sunday worship service.  They announced that he had been voted the “Most Humble Pastor in America”, and then they presented him with a medal having that inscription.  The next Sunday they took it away from him because he wore it.

As we continue this series of messages on “The Dress Code for Christians,” what does it mean for us to be people who wear humility in our relationship with each other?

Let’s look at a case study: the situation in the First Church of Philippi.  Things were rough there.  We don’t know exactly what was going on, but it’s clear that the place was simmering with conflict. Plenty of people were really irritated with each other.  Paul names two adversaries in chapter 4 of this letter, and so it may be that folks in church were taking sides in this dispute.  Maybe some of the folks were running around saying, “Well, I’m on Syntyche’s side” and others were saying, “Why is that person being so mean to Euodia?”  It could be that what had started as a personal argument was polarizing people in the congregation.

Or maybe there was some conflict around the idea of what made someone a “real” Christian.  Some folks insisted that you couldn’t follow Jesus unless you bought into all of the Jewish Law first, and others insisted that there was no impediment to following Jesus – nothing at all.

And it could have been that some people there were irritated at Paul – they saw him as playing favorites, or as being too close to some people while being distant from others.  Whatever the cause, the content of the letter makes it plain that there was some genuine conflict in the church.  I know, I know, it sounds difficult to believe, but it’s right there in the Bible so I guess we’re going to have to accept that it’s possible for people to argue with and even be petty with each other at church.  Go figure.

So Paul addresses this conflict by constructing a theological argument.  He begins chapter 2 with a sentence that strings together a number of clauses that all begin with the word “if”.  In the Greek, it is ei.  You heard it a moment ago: “if you have any encouragement… if any comfort… if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Now, in English, when we use the word “if”, it’s often in a conditional clause: “If it rains on Saturday…” It might be gonna happen, it might not be gonna happen.  We won’t know until Saturday.  But the Greek language allows for an understanding of “if” as a statement of fact.  Something like, “Look, Andre, if I’m your friend – and we both know that I am – then…”[1]

My point is that Paul is not wondering whether there is encouragement, comfort, commonality of purpose, or compassion to be found in Jesus – he is affirming FOUR TIMES that we all agree that those things are rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  So he starts this case study by reminding them of what they all know.

In the second verse, Paul goes on to tell the Philippians what ought to happen.  And once again, he re-states the goal four times: be like-minded (this does not necessarily mean that he expects them to agree on everything or vote unanimously, but rather that they are to work toward having the same attitude, or to be looking in the same direction); have the same love for one another; be of one spirit (the literal Greek there says “share the same soul” or “share the same breath”); and be of one mind.

You may think that he’s stretching to make it come out to four by repeating the word “mind” twice in this list, but I’d like to suggest that in repeating the word phroneó, he is actually getting that word into their heads so he can use it again in verse 5.  He calls his congregation to have the same mindset, the same view, to have a commitment to seeing things… how? To seeing things the way that Jesus saw them.  “Be like Jesus,” Paul says.

And then the old Apostle does something that you’ve done a hundred times.  Do you know how sometimes you have something to say, or you want to tell me something that is true, and you’re not quite sure how to put it into words, and then you think of a song that says it exactly right?  You want to remind your spouse of the way that you love her, and so you play “your song” on the car radio.  You are grief-stricken at the cemetery and all you can do is just stand there while “Taps” is played.  You are searching for something true to say at church and the best you can do is say, “Well, Amazing Grace, right?”

That’s what Paul does in Philippians 2.  He either reminds them of a song that they’ve sung before or he writes a new hymn on the spot.  The purpose of this hymn is to point to the humility of Jesus.

So what did humility look like when Jesus wore it? It begins, Paul says in verse 5, with a mindset.  He repeats the word phroneó as a means of affirming that Jesus, in the mystery of his pre-existence within the Trinity, decided something.  Jesus chose to submit himself to the overall purpose and intentions of God.

Now that choice, that mindset, led Jesus to a specific course of action.  When Jesus decided to align himself with God’s purposes, that meant that he was setting down the pathway of obedience.  In this case, obedience means that he yielded his rights, privileges, or place in line so that he might be better able to see, hear, and simply be with people like us.  Obedience for Jesus meant the setting aside of one possible reality in order to fully embrace something else.

Of course, every action has a consequence.  According to the hymn that Paul sang, the result of the action that Jesus took was his death.  He suffered pain that he did not deserve because he had chosen to act in obedience.

However, that action also produced fruit.  Yes, Jesus died, but that was not the end of the story. The end result of Jesus’ decision and action was that the entire creation would come to the realization that Jesus, not Caesar, not me, not you, is Lord.

So what?  What are the implications for the people in Philippi? Or for the people in Crafton Heights?

Paul is calling us, as the people of God, to recognize that humility is a part of the uniform that we wear as Christians.  Like any other garment, we must choose to put this thing on.

Paul begged his friends in Philippi to see that humility is a willingness to accept that God, in Jesus, is at work in each life.  In my life.  In your life.  And in affirming that God is at work in my life, I must of necessity acknowledge that the work is not yet complete.  I am a work in progress.  And since I am not yet finished, I cannot (as the Pharisees did) present myself to you or anyone else as a final product.  I am still being molded, shaped, and used as I seek to stay on the path of obedience.

And if God is at work in each life, then God is moving not only in my life, but in yours.  I must acknowledge that you are being molded and shaped by the power of the Spirit that flows through Jesus.

And if THAT is true (and it is), then it is preposterous for me to think that somehow you are in your finished form.  I am not free to treat you as someone who is too high and lofty for me to reach – someone who is out of my league.  And neither can I regard you as one so lost that I shouldn’t even bother reaching out to you.

Like Paul, I’m not above quoting a song lyric that says something meaningful and important.  The late Rich Mullins wrote these lyrics:

My friends ain’t the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are
And 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
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother’s keeper[2]

When Paul tells his friends in Philippi, or when he speaks to us through the letter to his friends in Colossae, that we are to wear the uniform of humility when we come to church, he’s saying that we are to look to Jesus in obedience and to each other mercy and kindness.  That’s what Mullins is saying when he says he is his brother’s “keeper”, not “judge”.

John Ruskin was a leading thinker in 18th century Britain. He got to the heart of the matter at hand when he wrote,

“The first test of a truly great person is their humility. I do not mean, by humility, doubt of one’s own power…[but really] great people… have a curious… feeling that… greatness is not in them, but through them… and they see something Divine… in every other person, and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.”[3]

Humility, therefore, is not thinking less of yourself, but simply thinking of yourself less as you act in kindness and mercy toward others.

Beloved, this is the truth that comes to us from scripture this morning, the truth that echoes through the streets not only of Philippi but Crafton Heights: if your baptism means anything, it means that we are called to care with and for each other in demonstrable, observable ways; that we are charged to invest more in the means of building each other and the whole Body of Christ up than in tearing it down; that anyone who would wear the name “Christian” is by implication someone who is learning every day to adopt the mind of Jesus.

Thanks be to God for the call, the example, and the presence of Jesus on this path of obedience.  Amen. 

[1] Fred Craddock, Interpretation Bible Commentary on Philippians (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985) p. 35.

[2] “Brother’s Keeper”, David (Beaker) Strasser | Rich Mullins, © 1995 Kid Brothers Of St. Frank Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.) Universal Music – Brentwood Benson Publishing (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

[3], edited for inclusivity.

Deciding to Love

In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”.  What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time?  Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”  On October 6, World Communion Sunday, we considered the call to practice kindness.  Scriptures included Deuteronomy 22:1-4 and John 13:34-35.  

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

Demetri Martin is a comedian and author who has what I consider to be a particularly keen eye for human behavior and our foibles.  In one of my favorite routines, he talks about getting dressed in the morning.  In it, he says, “I think vests are all about protection. You know what I mean? Like a life-vest protects you from drowning and a bullet-proof vest protects you from getting shot and the sweater-vest protects you from pretty girls. ‘Leave me alone. Can’t you see I’m cold just right here?’”

Or this observation: “I think that when you get dressed in the morning, sometimes you’re really making a decision about your behavior for the day. Like if you put on flipflops, you’re saying: ‘Hope I don’t get chased today.’”

I’ve been thinking about clothes lately because we’re in the midst of these sermons that I’m calling “The Dress Code”. I hope that you were here a couple of weeks back when we read from Paul’s letter to his friends in Colossae.  As he was helping them through a particularly difficult time in their life together, he said this: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  A couple of weeks ago we talked about the practice of “compassion”, which can be literally taken to mean “suffering with”.  Today, I’d like to think about what it would mean for us to be a people who practice clothing ourselves with kindness as we present ourselves to each other and to the world.

Often, we use the word “kind” in a very vague, non-specific way.  When we say someone is “kind”, it’s like saying that they are “nice”.  It can be a way of damning someone with faint praise.

Yet the word at hand in today’s reading is the Greek chrestotes.  That word shows up ten times in our New Testaments, and always carries with it a sense of moral goodness and integrity.  In fact, it is used in Ephesians, Titus, and Romans, to describe the ways that God has acted toward us.  Chrestotes is a word that refers to a root conviction, an attribute, or a decision that of necessity displays itself in action.  So, rather than being a vague compliment, this word is used to imply the following: God has acted toward us with goodness, kindness, and integrity.  We are made in the Divine Image.  Therefore, it is only sensible that I am called to choose to treat you well.

And perhaps you say, “OK, Pastor Dave, I’ll buy that… but what does it look like?”

Think with me about the passage you heard from Deuteronomy.  It describes a mundane scene of rural village life: you’re out walking around, minding your own business, and you see a stray animal.  You recognize it to be your neighbor’s.  What do you do?  Well, three times in those four verses there is a simple imperative: “do not ignore it”.  The scripture is clear: you cannot know about something bad that happens to a neighbor and choose to ignore it.

Aw, geez, I hate scripture sometimes!  I know that I’m not the only one who, on some days, could pass for a professional ignorer!

You have a friend who has experienced some real trouble.  You don’t know what to do, or how to do it, and all of a sudden you see them at the grocery store or the bus stop…and you are tempted to run into the next aisle or duck behind a building.  Please tell me that I’m not the only one who thinks that those are viable options…

And yet there it is, right in Deuteronomy.  In fact, the word that is used means literally, “do not hide yourself”.


That’s what we do, isn’t it?  Think about when a fellow student drops a tray in the school lunchroom, or a server spills a plate at the restaurant. We look away, and pretend it didn’t happen, don’t we?  There’s a kid with a world-class temper tantrum going on in the drugstore, or a person sitting by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Homeless – anything can help”.  We avert our eyes.  We pretend not to see anything.  We repeat, “Not my circus, not my monkeys…”

And that, my friends, is a problem, especially as we seek to live in community with one another.

If you were a part of the All-Church retreat last weekend, you may remember the conversation we had about the fact that the only name for God that is given by a human being is when the Egyptian slave-girl Hagar is met by God and she says, “You are El-Roi – you are ‘the God who sees’”.  The fact that God is a God who sees is great news for Hagar, for Ishmael, and for all who struggle.  It is reassuring to know that God sees you – that God cares for you – that God is aware of the pain in which you find yourself.

And, at risk of repeating myself, I’ll say again: one of the cornerstones of our theology is this: we are made in the image of God.  If God sees, then we see.  If the seeing nature of God is held up as a positive attribute of the Holy One, if we worship a creator who is beneficently observant, then it only follows that we are called to be those who are similarly motivated to notice what is going on around us.

This seems like a simple truth, beloved in Christ, but I think it is one to which we need to be re-oriented time and time again.  As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to put on kindness in our dealings with each other.  We are implored to be ready to see the lives of those around us and to act daily in love for and with the people around us.

This kind of behavior is not reactive – at its best, it is anticipatory and pro-active.  A couple of weeks ago Hurricane Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas.  People were fleeing the islands.  But a man named Jose Andres, a professional chef, was busy taking people and food and water to that nation.  With members of his organization, World Central Kitchen, he pre-positioned himself in Nassau.  When asked why, he said, “We are learning that pre-positioning yourself in a hurricane buys you precious time. You know…we’re in the business of feeding people after a hurricane. Sometimes in some parts people obviously they can be OK one, two, three days later. But for some people, sometimes three days is way too much. Some people don’t have any food at home or if they had, they lost it because the hurricane.”[1]  This man planned to love – and he lived kindness by taking food to a place close to where it would be needed so that it would be available sooner.  We can do that – we can plan to be kind even before we know what specific kindness will be needed.

The Last Supper, Hyatt Moore (2000)(for more – or for Moore – visit

When Jesus was talking with his disciples – at the meal we commemorate this morning – he put it simply: “A new command I give you, that you love one another.”  And when you heard that, you nodded and you said, “Yes, yes, that’s it.”  But think about it for a moment.  “Love one another”?  Isn’t that all over the earlier parts of Jesus’ teaching?  Isn’t that infused throughout the Hebrew Bible?  Where does Jesus get off saying that this is a “new command”?  Is this first century Fake News?

“Love one another” is not a new command.  Keep reading.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  He is not saying, “Hey, fellas, here’s a new idea: love each other.”  The new part is what comes next.  “Love each other the way that I have loved you.  Do love the way that I do love.  Do love in the feeding, healing, foot-washing, forgiving, reconciling way that I do love.

Back to the dress code: put on kindness.  That’s not a way to say “be nice” or “don’t offend people”.  It’s an imperative to actively seek ways to bring about love in the world.

  • Take a moment more to listen before you speak.
  • Offer a gift before it’s requested or needed.
  • Be a person who offers forgiveness and seeks reconciliation.

You know this! The reading from Deuteronomy was clear: you can’t leave a neighbor’s donkey in a ditch – it doesn’t matter how it got there: if you see it, you’re called to help lift it out.

Does the Lord care about people any less? If your relationship with a sister or a brother is in the ditch, you are not free to ignore that, or even worse, to make the ditch deeper.  You are called reach out.

I say that with this caveat: you are not called to return to an abusive relationship, and your pastor is not saying that you ought to continue to enable a destructive person.

Having said that, though, I will say that you don’t get to decide to leave someone else in a ditch because you disagree with them or because they irritated you.  We are called to follow Christ in the practice of chrestotes – of living toward, and acting toward, and loving toward other people.  As those who bear the name of Christ, we are expected to let go of our past resentment and become living reminders for the world of the hope that is love.

The world is a painful place.  Paul, and Jesus, and Moses, seem to expect that the church should be less painful.

Demetri Martin, like most good comics, told the truth: when you get dressed in the morning, you are making a decision about your behavior for the rest of the day.

Have you decided to wear kindness today?  If so, you will find that it’s harder to hold onto a grudge, or nurse a resentment, or feed a rumor.  You can’t do those things while you are wearing kindness any better than you can run while wearing flip-flops.

I’m here, as your pastor and friend and neighbor, to ask you to make a decision about what you’re going to wear.  To ask you, as did our brother Paul, to put on kindness.  For the sake of the world, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the person you see in the mirror each day, put on kindness.  Thanks be to God, for God’s kindness toward us. Amen.


The God Who Sees

Each year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights set aside a weekend for an “All-Church-Retreat”.  This year, rather than have an outside speaker come in, the leadership team set its own program and agenda.  In that context, they asked me to reflect a little bit on my recent Sabbatical and share some insights into the nature, purpose, and advantages of time away, of rest and renewal.  I was glad to be asked, and surprised by where this took me.  My frame of reference was a difficult story: that of Abram and Sarai and the “slave girl” named Hagar.  You can read more about that in Genesis 16.

While this blog often offers a chance to hear the message as preached, due to the constraints of having been on a retreat there is no audio recording for this message available.  

As we start, I’d like to invite you to think about your name.  Take a moment and reflect on this: what name, other than that which is on your birth certificate, have you been called?  Do you have a nickname? Do you have a favorite nickname?

Now, think further about the power of naming… and by this, I mean, who you let call you what.  For example, there were two people in the world who have called me “Davey”.  My paternal grandfather and my High School Gym Teacher, Jay Widdoes. From them, it sounded right.  For everyone else, it is inappropriate. Or LaVerne Yortgis, who ran the diner in the West End, called me sweetheart every time she saw me.  Not many people do. You know the truth: allowing someone to determine what they will call you grants them some power/authority in your life.  You become vulnerable to someone if you allow that person to name you.

Think about the names for God.  There are many in Hebrew:

  • El Shaddai (God Almighty) – shows up 7 times in OT; It can mean that God is complete, satisfies, nourishes God’s people. (When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1))

    El Elyon = “God Most High”

  • El Elyon (God Most High) – this is used 28 times, including 19 in the Psalms – the prayer book of God’s people; it expresses the supreme majesty and sovereignty of God (King Melchizedek of Salem was a priest of God Most High. He brought out some bread and wine and said to Abram: “I bless you in the name of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:18-19))
  • YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah = “I Am”) – this is often said to be THE name for the Holy One, used 6519 times in OT. As the promised name of God, it was considered too holy for Hebrews to voice. (Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
    God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14))
  • YHWH Rapha (The Lord who heals) although this title is only used once, it is referred to by function in other places (notably prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as the Psalms). (“If you listen carefully to the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26))
  • Elohim (Creator God, Judge) – this occurs some 2750 times, and emphasizes God’s strength and power.  It is the first name used for God in the Bible (In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1))

As you think about these names for the Holy one, is there one that resonates with you? Is there one that I’ve left out that seems better to you? Why do you think that is?  How do you think of God?  What do you call God?

I mention all of this because I was asked to take some time and talk this morning about how time away, time in Sabbatical, and even time in the wilderness equips one to encounter and be refreshed by the Holy.  You know that I myself am fresh from some time away – I’ve been on Sabbatical for three months, and that time has included a lot of rest, a good deal of wilderness, and it was all away.  Now, this may be an indication that I’ve had too much time away – but as I reflect this morning I want to start with an obscure reference… Genesis 16:1-16

Hagar, Andrew Geddes (1842)

The story of Hagar is the story of an outsider.  She is an Egyptian, probably acquired by Abram from the Pharaoh after the embarrassing incident in Genesis 12 wherein Abram and Sarai lied about their relationship.  At that point, Pharaoh attempted to marry Sarai, and then to ease the pain of this confusion he ended up sending the old couple away with a lot of hush money as well as some property – including human property.  Hagar is an outsider.  A slave. A marginalized person.  A victim of human trafficking and abuse.

Her life becomes demonstrably worse after she leaves Egypt and wanders with these old dreamers and schemers, Abram and Sarai.  Ultimately, she is humiliated, forced into unwanted relationship with the old man, becomes pregnant, and then mistreated as an object of derision and scorn.

Look at how she is objectified – she doesn’t even have a name.  In Genesis 16:5, Sarai can only bring herself to refer to the Egyptian as “the slave girl”.  In 16:6, Abram does the same.  To Sarai and Abram, she was not a person.  She was a uterus.  And she became inconvenient.

Finally, when Hagar can’t take it anymore, she runs away.  She is discovered by a messenger of God who calls her by name (16:8).  Note that, beloved: the first person to refer to Hagar by name in this chapter (other than the narrator) is the Lord.  She is then asked two questions:

  • Where have you come from?
  • Where are you going?

“Hagar in the Wilderness” Rivkah M. Walton, Sculptor (2008)

Did you notice that Hagar only answers the first one – “I am running away from the Hell behind me”?  Why doesn’t she answer the question about her future? Because she knows that she has no future.  She is alone in the wilderness, and she is dying.  Maybe she even wants to die.  Maybe she thinks that death is the only option.

And so the Divine One answers the second question for her.  Hagar is told to return to Sarai, and to submit to her – which must have sounded onerous!  How can God be sending her back to the place of mistreatment and pain.  And how can Hagar manage to go back?

She can do so only in the power of the promise that comes next: she is given the word of the covenant from God.  Hagar herself – not a man, not a husband, not an owner – but Hagar, the the runaway slave girl herself…  There are 4 people I can recall who hear the covenant directly from God (Noah, Abram, and Moses).  She hears a prophecy about her son – a son who would be anything BUT servile and meek and abased…a son whose personality would match the feistiness of his mother…  And this unborn son, too, has a name: Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Ishmael is an answer to prayer; Ishmael is a living breathing demonstration of God’s response to the one who feels abused/abandoned/discarded.  Every time Hagar calls to her son, she will remember that she was heard.  Every time she hears his name spoken by someone else, she is affirmed in her own person and her participation in the promise is reaffirmed.

El Roi = “The God Who Sees”

And that leads to an amazing thing: in 16:13, Hagar names the Lord.  Of all the people in the Bible, only ONE of them ever dared to name God: it wasn’t David, Isaiah, Moses, Abram.  It was this lost, alone, mistreated, abused, outsider woman.  She looked at the One who encountered her, and she said, “You are El Roi.  You are the God who sees.”

I should mention that scholars argue about the translation of v. 13.  There is not a universally accepted “good” rendering of this Hebrew phrase.  I think that Eugene Peterson captures it well:

“She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her,
‘You’re the God who sees me! Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!’”
(Genesis 16:13, MSG)

Beloved, this is, I think, one of the significant gifts of time that we spend in the wilderness and time in Sabbath: we are able to somehow get a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us.

“Hagar” Edmonia Lewis,
Sculptor (1875)

You may know that the past couple of years have contained a number of stressful times for me.  Death has been a constant companion.  I have been called into situations where hope seemed distant, if not altogether absent.  There has been great dimunition and anxiety on several fronts. I have known at least an erosion of support, if not outright betrayal, from some I had thought to be dear friends. And as these things were unfolding, I was given the opportunity to plan a Sabbatical – to get away.  And it included a lot time alone.  I have to say that it was not always warm, rosy, sit in the sunshine with my favorite book kind of time.  There were Car breakdowns…I was chasing airplanes… There were crowds of incredibly needy people in United Nations camps and I spent a lot of time struggling with identity…While I did have a lot of amazing time with people who love me and more importantly with the One who created me, there was ample opportunity for facing the vastness of human need and sinfulness.

And yet, in the midst of it all, I discovered that I think that I like myself.  I was able to get away from the lenses that I perceived others to be using for me and I think that from time to time I could glimpse myself – for a moment – as God might see me.  And it was OK.

Here, in the midst of the desert, in the strength of a promise to someone who the world thought was expendable, worthless, and even sub-human, God reveals a portion of God’s self.  God becomes vulnerable enough to Hagar to be named.  God shows God’s self in a person, in a promise, and in grace.  God sees Hagar, and in being seen, she catches a glimpse of the Divine glory for herself.

In the strength of that revelation, standing on the power of that promise, Hagar is free to return to the Hell of her existence, and look at what she does: she tells her “master” (who will not even acknowledge her own name) what he is to call his son.  She looks at the old man and says, “His name is Ishmael”, and Abram agrees.

Sabbath and rest prepare us for the heavy lifting that is ever and always to come.  Sabbath and rest allow us to cling to the promises we’ve received even as we re-engage in the struggles at hand.  We will get up on Monday and we will return from retreat, knowing that we have been seen, heard, and known.

Sabbath and rest and even time in the wilderness offer an opportunity to reclaim our identity – in a world that longs to strip that from us.

I’d like to close with reading a Psalm that, in my own theological construct, reminds us of who and whose we are every single day.  There are a number of people in this room who heard me read Psalm 139 on the day of their birth.  Listen for the truth, the promise, the affirmation, and the rest as it comes to us from Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message.  In fact, if you are reading this on the internet, let me encourage you to read this part of the message out loud as your own prayer:

God, investigate my life; get all the facts firsthand.
I’m an open book to you; even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and you’re there,
then up ahead and you’re there, too—
your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful— I can’t take it all in!

Is there any place I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute— you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you; night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;
you formed me in my mother’s womb.
I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!
Body and soul, I am marvelously made!
I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out,
you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.

Your thoughts—how rare, how beautiful!
God, I’ll never comprehend them!
I couldn’t even begin to count them—
any more than I could count the sand of the sea.
Oh, let me rise in the morning and live always with you!
And please, God, do away with wickedness for good!
And you murderers—out of here!—
all the men and women who belittle you, God,
infatuated with cheap god-imitations.
See how I hate those who hate you, God,
see how I loathe all this godless arrogance;
I hate it with pure, unadulterated hatred.
Your enemies are my enemies!

Investigate my life, O God,
find out everything about me;
Cross-examine and test me,
get a clear picture of what I’m about;
See for yourself whether I’ve done anything wrong—
then guide me on the road to eternal life.