Working It Out For Today

The Day of Resurrection – Easter Sunday!
As the Church of Jesus Christ observes the second Easter of this pandemic, there is weariness throughout our culture.  The saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered on April 4 and joined in the proclamation of the resurrection and wondered what that might look like to a group of people who are tired and stretched thin – much like the disciples as described in Luke 24:1-12.  We also sat with Colossians 3:1-4.

For a recording of the sermon as preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

To see the entire worship service via YouTube, use this link:

So, I’m not really sure what it’s like for you at your job, or at your school, but for what it’s worth, this has been a pretty rough week for a lot of people in my line of work.  In fact, a couple of the online groups for pastors of which I’m a part have been characterized by comments like, “Holy week? More like ‘Holy HELL week’!”  My colleagues have been feeling the pressure to plan extra services, while dealing with an increased burden of technology, and wondering who is getting the flowers this year and how many people are we supposed to let into the building…  Yes, there are some frustrated pastors out there, friends.

This week, I was imagining a conversation between a small group of Christ-followers from, say, AD 60 and their counterparts in US churches from the last five years.  In my head, this is how that scene played out:

The group of American church leaders stumbles into the room looking weary and frazzled.  They are clutching coffee cups and shaking their heads.  The folks from Rome are led by an elderly man named Caius, who begins the conversation by welcoming the modern-day pastors. 

“Thank you so much for coming in today, friends.  This will give all of us, who have to worship in secret and hide in the tombs of the city, the opportunity to see how things might play out in the years to come.  To be honest, right now, things are tough-“

Before the old man can finish, a young pastor rolls up his sleeves to display a very hip tattoo and says, “Tell me about it, brother! I mean, I was trying to get the worship schedule set for Holy Week when I received notice that the choir director wants a raise, there’s a huge stain on the carpet, and someone just told me that there’s a fight going on in the fellowship committee because a couple of the men want to cook hash browns for the Easter breakfast and everybody else says that we’ve always had homefries.”

No sooner had that pastor finished than the woman to his left added, “Right?  Last year two people quit the church because we had hyacinths AND lilies on Easter.  AND I had to fire the Children’s Director because she brought in the Easter Bunny last week but forgot to mention anything about the empty tomb.”

One of the early Christians looks on in shock: “Wait… what? You have buildings?  Your churches own property?”

An older pastor rolls his eyes and say, “Yeah, and don’t even get me started on the building committee, brother.  I’ve got two words for you: ‘pew pads’.  People are losing their minds.”

Caius interjects: “Hold on, friend.  Are you all saying that this Sunday, this Resurrection Sunday, you have too many people attending your worship services? That you have people who don’t even believe, or who will pretend to believe, who show up just because their grandmother wants them to?”

The contemporary pastors all nod in the affirmative.

Caius continues, “You know we are literally getting killed for mentioning the name of Jesus, right?  That there is a bounty on my head because I broke the bread at a worship service last week?”

Well, I could go on, but I hope that you see my point… The people who celebrated the first, the tenth, or the fortieth Easter worship services would not, in their wildest dreams, recognize what the festival day of worship, the religious enterprise that is the church at Easter, has become.

The Gospels are in complete agreement that the first resurrection was characterized, not by pageantry and finery and musical excellence, but by fear, confusion, and distrust.  People did not know who or what to believe, and Jesus’ friends struggled to understand the implications of what they heard, and saw, and felt.  The first Easter was clouded by pain and grief and loss and uncertainty.

Beloved, can I suggest that this past year may have given us new insights into the Gospel – understandings that we may not have had otherwise?  You know that we have come to understand something of fear, confusion, and disorientation – but I’m not sure you know how deeply that has characterized our culture in the  past twelve months.

  • 41% of adult Americans report that they have experienced stress in their personal and relational lives, citing experiences of isolation, loneliness, and unpredictable living situations.
  • 25% of Americans say that they’ve had trouble paying their bills in the past year
  • According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, there has been a 42% increase in food insecurity in local households
  • In 2019, 1 in 10 Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. In 2020, that number rose to 4 in 10
  • Meanwhile, there has been a 34% increase in alcohol sales, and
  • 42% of people have reported a dramatic weight gain – the average is 29 pounds for this past year.[1]

All of these things, I believe, speak to a deep sense of discomfort and dis-ease and uncertainty with which we’ve lived these past twelve months.

But now, now there is a glimmer of hope, we think.  Things are changing, we hope.  There are vaccines.  The weather is warming up.  We anticipate reunions and re-engagement.

And again, I’m not sure what it feels like to be you, but when my weary-yet-wanting-to-be-hopeful self looks at social media, or receives mailings, or attends planning seminars with colleagues, I’m overwhelmed with people who say things like, “Well, we’re unveiling plans for four major initiatives to start up next month, and there are five new programs for people who are…

It feels like everyone around me has a plan for snapping back into place and I’m feeling like, “Wait – what? How?”  I don’t get how folks can be that on top of things right now.

So if you’ve been away for a while and you’ve come to the Easter worship because you want to see the new program, and get signed up for the plan that will get you back to normal in six weeks, then, well, I’m sorry.  Come back in a couple of months.

But if you’re here and you know weariness, fear, confusion, and grief, then let me invite you to take a load off and breathe easy.  These are your people.  We’ve got you.  And this is your day.

The day of resurrection begins, of course, the only way it can: in death. There’s no way around that fact.  You can’t come charging into this place clinging for some hope for resuscitation, for a kind of a refresher, hoping for a momentary break in an otherwise unending series of wins.  No, the one indisputable requirement for resurrection is a corpse.

And note that the day of resurrection begins, not in anticipation, but in memory.  The women remembered what Jesus had said to them. 

The day of resurrection is characterized by confusion and even disagreement.  I’m sure that many of you heard what Aviva said, “the men did not believe the women, and thought it sounded like nonsense”, and you thought, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

The day of resurrection begins with pondering an empty space and wondering and investigating and thinking “what if?”

Paul says that the resurrection means that we are hidden with Christ.  That we are waiting to be revealed, uncovered, unleashed. 

So listen to me, beloved… if you feel like a loser because you were nodding your heads when I read through that laundry list of symptoms a few moments ago… if when I talked about loneliness or hunger or anxiety or isolation or weight gain, youknew what I was talking about… Then let me encourage you to name those things as a part of your story.  Let me encourage you to acknowledge that those things are, or have been, here.

And let me further encourage you to begin to think about a time when those things are not as much a part of your story.  Let me invite you to ask for God’s help in uncovering, in revealing, what comes next for you.  Let me remind you that it is not pleasing to your Creator when you should all over yourself and thereby remain stuck in what has become dead.  You don’t have a six-week plan, or four steps to financial independence, or the child you thought you’d have by now, or the beach body you think that someone expects you to have. You just don’t.  And maybe you think that you should.

On this day of resurrection, let me invite you to allow those painful or shameful self-condemnations to die, and to ask God what comes next.

On the first Easter, Peter went to the tomb and he checked things out.  And whatever “it” was, he didn’t get it.  Not at first.  He went home and he wondered.  He knew that his life had been impacted by Jesus – he knew that he had, somehow, been changed by Jesus.  And he knew that the empty tomb had to mean something.

And so he did what Jesus suggested.  He met with his friends.  And, because he was still Peter, he probably got on their nerves sometimes, and he was probably rash and abrasive at times.  But he came back.  And he listened.  And he worshiped.  And he took it one day at a time, as things became more clear to him.  As things were revealed to him. 

So beloved, please, let me invite you to make that your practice for this Spring in 2021.  Nobody – not you, nor me, nor our neighbors – will emerge from this difficulty all at once.  Our only option is to take one step at a time.  For one of you, that may mean finding a friend and talking a walk.  And then another one.  And maybe once a week.  For others, that may mean that it’s time for you risk commitment to a real, true community right now.  Maybe it’s just an online book club. Maybe it’s a decision to be physically present in worship twice a month.  Maybe its gathering into some sort of Bible Study or prayer partnership or the Youth Group. But some of us are ready to find new ways right now to be there, to be active, and to grow.  For still others of us, it’s time to look for a new way to give of ourselves.  Can you be more liberal with your finances? More generous with your time? Maybe you combine some of what I’m saying and you share some craft or baked good with a neighbor – someone who needs to see a friendly face and to remember that they are not alone.

This Easter Sunday, let me ask you to be as gentle with yourself as God has been with you.

And let me implore you to be as kind to other people as God has been to you.

Remember, dear ones, that you were made to grow.  It is how you were created. You can grow.  You will grow.  Our brother Paul reminded us to “set our minds on the things that are above”.  Look to the Son, because I promise you that the Son is looking at you, and inviting you to join him in resurrection – in becoming – in wondering and imagining and growing and healing.  In life.  In that for which you were made.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] For more statistics like this, please visit https://www.pewresearch.org/2021/03/05/in-their-own-words-americans-describe-the-struggles-and-silver-linings-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/, https://www.pittsburghfoodbank.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/PRESS-RELEASE-New-Food-Insecurity-Data-Shows-Significant-Increase-in-Southwest-PA.pdf and https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

Looking for Judas

Maundy Thursday 2021 has me thinking a lot about Judas…  The saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent Lent thinking about the Beatitudes and what kind of people we want to be Post-Pandemic.  This evening, we sat with Mark’s account of Gethsemane and wondered why we like to hate Judas so much.  I think that the church is way harder on Judas than Jesus would be.  That makes me sad.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the Media Player below:

To see the YouTube link of this worship, use the link below:

I wonder, what’s the most unusual name you’ve ever heard?  I spent the summer of 1998 in Malawi, and that year I baptized a little boy whose first name is “Davecarver”.  All one word.  I thought that was unique until a few weeks later, when my colleague said to me at the beginning of another worship service, “Well, we’ve got baptisms today; I’ll take the first one, and then you go ahead and take care of young Billclinton.”  Again, all one word…

I’m thinking about that today because I heard recently that a couple in France attempted to name their child “Nutella”, only to be shut down by a judge; the same thing happened when parents in New Zealand attempted to name their little bundle of joy “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii”. Perhaps you’re not surprised to know that in several places around the world it’s illegal to name your child “Judas.”  Judges in several nations have ruled that such a moniker puts undue stress or pressure on a child and would result in needless suffering.

And even as I said that, you were thinking, “Who would want to do that to a kid?”  Let’s face it, there are few names more universally reviled.  Judas is the man that we love to hate, isn’t he?  He’s the ultimate villain – history’s most famous traitor.  Everybody knows about Judas, right?

Well, what, exactly, do you know?  I’m betting that most of us don’t know too much about this person, other than his name.

The Judas Kiss (artist unknown)

We meet him, of course, in the pages of the New Testament.  Well, not all the pages of the New Testament.  In fact, the person who wrote more of that document than anyone else, the Apostle Paul, never mentions Judas. None of the epistles – the first parts of the New Testament to be written down – say anything at all about Judas. In fact, a number of scholars have suggested that Paul never even heard of Judas.

He shows up in the Gospels, of course, and we learn a little more about him.  He’s called “Judas Iscariot”, but that’s problematic because “Iscariot” isn’t a word in any known language.  It’s highly probable that “Iscariot” is an early typo, and that the correct reading ought to be “Ish Kerioth”. That would make his name “Judas from Kerioth”.  Whereas each of the other eleven followers of Jesus was from the region of Galilee (in the north), Kerioth was the name of a small village in the extreme southwestern part of the nation.  That part of Israel had been settled by a group of people called the Edomites.  Whereas most of the people in Israel traced their ancestry through the patriarch Jacob, the Edomites looked to Isaac’s other son, Esau.

Now to 21st century American ears, that’s not a big deal.  “Six of one, half a dozen of another”, we might say.  But if I read you a list of names that included, say, “Mike, Jim, Sally, Bob, Sandy, Becky, Bill, Chuck, and Muhammed”, you’d think, “Hmmm, one of those folks is not like the others.”  In the same way, whenever any of the Gospels lists off the names of the disciples, there are always 11 Galilean names followed by one “outsider”.  Judas is always last in those lists.

Now, having said that, I want to point out that just like all of the other disciples, Judas was chosen by Jesus.  It’s not like the Lord got stuck with a bunch of followers someone else selected.  Jesus invited Judas to join the band.

Moreover, there’s no indication that Judas was a particularly bad disciple.  Whenever one of the fellows is called out for poor behavior, it’s usually someone else: James and John are the ones who are arguing about who’s the greatest in the kingdom, and Judas joins the other ten in correctly suggesting that those guys are way off base.  There’s one disciple that Jesus rebuked openly, and in fact called “Satan” to his face: and that was Peter, not Judas.

There are two people in the Gospels who are apparently trusted by Jesus enough to offer him a kiss: the unnamed woman in Luke 7 and Judas.  And, of course, Judas was invited to the last supper where Jesus not only shared a meal with him but washed his feet.

As you also know, Judas did betray Jesus – he offered information on the Master’s whereabouts for 30 pieces of silver. According to Matthew, when Judas realized the implications of what he’d done, he returned to the Temple and flung the coins back at those who’d offered them.  Running from that place, he wound up on the outskirts of town, where he chose to end his own life.

During our Lenten Bible study, we noted an interesting progression in the treatment of Judas.  As I’ve already said, the earliest writings in the New Testament, the Epistles, are silent on Judas.  Mark’s Gospel, the first account of Jesus’ life, offers no reason to suspect that Judas is any less of a participant in all of the healings, mission trips, and so on. He does simply indicate that it was Judas who showed up with the police in the Garden to arrest Jesus.

Matthew, the second Gospel to be written, adds a little more to the narrative, indicating that the motive for Judas’ betrayal was the 30 pieces of silver he received.

Luke’s Gospel introduces a rationale: Judas did what he did, says the third Gospel, because he was possessed.  Satan had entered into the disciple.

And John, the last of the Gospel accounts to be written, confirms what his colleagues have said about Judas’ motive and the demon possession, but then throws in that “everybody knew” that Judas was a liar and a thief.

So you see, the further we get in time away from Jesus’ selection and calling of the disciples, the more likely folks are to but the badmouth on Judas.

As the Jesus movement continued into the second century and beyond, most of the church leaders continued this practice of piling on Judas.  A church leader named Papias of Hieropolis, who lived from about 60 – 130 AD, described Judas as being physically repulsive and who got so fat that he literally exploded; a couple of hundred years later a teacher by the name of Appolonaris spoke of Judas in grotesque terms, offering horrific descriptions not only of Judas’ obesity, but also going into great detail concerning the infections that supposedly ran rampant through the disciple’s body and the foul smell that he put off.

By the time we get to the 14th century, the great Italian Dante wrote an epic poem called “The Divine Comedy”.  The first section of this work, called “Inferno”, is a description of the depths of Hell.  At the very lowest place in Hell, the fourth ring of the ninth circle, is a place called “Judecca”.  In that place we find Satan, who is encased in ice, and, among other things, is perpetually chewing on Judas’ head, inflicting unending torment on this disciple.

Now some of that might gross you out, but I suspect not much of it surprises you.  We like to hate Judas.  We’ve come to expect it.

You might be surprised to know, however, that there’s another, smaller, branch of early church tradition that runs in the other direction entirely.  Origen, the Bishop of Alexander who lived approximately 200 years after Jesus, taught that Judas’ suicide was an act, not of despair, but of hope.  Origen suggested that as soon as Judas saw what was happening, he repented.  According to Origen, Judas’ thinking ran something like this: if Jesus was who he said he was, and if God was the kind of God that Jesus said God was, then the first and best place for Judas to apologize to Jesus would be in Hell.  Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

If God was just, then [Judas] knew there was no question where he would be heading as soon as he’d breathed his last.  Furthermore, if God was also merciful, he knew there was no question either that in a last-ditch effort to save the souls of the damned as God’s son, Jesus would be down there too.  Thus the way Judas figured it, Hell might be the last chance he’d have of making it to Heaven, so to get there as soon as possible, he tied the rope around his neck and kicked away the stool.  Who knows?

In any case, it’s a scene to conjure with.  Once again they met in the shadows, the two old friends, both of them a little worse for wear after all that had happened, only this time it was Jesus who was the one to give the kiss, and this time it wasn’t the kiss of death that was given.[1]

So here’s my thinking with all of this: we live in a world wherein polarization is increasingly the norm.  We are all tempted, each of us, to look around and note the “other”.  We draw lines and indicate who is “in” and who is “out”.

It’s easy for the church, especially on Maundy Thursday, to stand up, look around, and say, “all right, all right, I know, I’m no angel… I’m not even that great, but at least I’m not Judas…”

It’s easy in our political discourse or social interaction to look at a person and to make judgments.  And so we say, without thinking,

“Him? Oh, come on, he’s a cop, for crying out loud.  Not only that, he’s a white cop.  What do you think?  Of course he’s a racist.  Is there any doubt? Are you going to believe anything he says?”

Or, “Her? Seriously? Everybody knows that she’s an ‘illegal’!  She and her family sneaked in here for the free medical care and food stamps that people like me can’t even get, and now we’re stuck with her and all her babies…”

Or, “Oh, Dave, don’t waste your time on that one.  Didn’t you know? He’s been using for years.  He’s a total junkie.  What a waste.”

As if.

As if believing the worst about those people makes us any better by comparison.  Even if the most damaging thing that we might say about another human being is true, I’m not sure that the worst thing about them is the most important thing about them – especially when we are bringing up that “worst” as a means by which to elevate ourselves.

There is absolutely no room for “othering” or for shaming in the Christian life.  The Gospel forbids that we try to make ourselves look good by pointing out how deficient someone else might be.

We are not here tonight, in a posture of confession, because Judas was such a horrible, repugnant human being.  We haven’t gathered this evening to lament the fact that other people can be such jerks.  We are present because this is a way for us to look in a mirror.

In some circles, Christianity has developed a bad reputation because folks say that we are teaching people to hate or to condemn themselves.  It’s been said, with some justification, that followers of Jesus are too fixated on Sin, and that we want to hear people pray a prayer that sounds something like, “Oh, Lord, I am so horrible, I am so wretched, I am so depraved… I am not worthy.  I’m nothing but a worm.  There is nothing good in me, and my very existence is a crime…”

The point of confession is not to bring us to a place of self-hatred or self-condemnation.

My sense is that if I am able to acknowledge the fact that there are aspects in my being that are contrary to God’s intentions; if I can point to those parts of myself that are painful, bloated, and smelly – then how in the world can I condemn you?

Let me tell you something: I hope that Origen was right!  I hope to meet Judas in Heaven.  That’s not to say that what he did was inconsequential; rather, it’s because what Jesus did mattered more than what Judas did.  We stand in confession, and we sit at Christ’s table, to insist that there is no situation in which “othering” is healthy or justified.

The Gospel of Mark says what he has to say about Judas and the betrayal, but then he ends that part of the story with a curious little anecdote about the disciples all running away.  We’re told that in addition to the disciples who left Jesus high and dry, a “certain young man” was close enough for the cops to grab by the lapel, but sneaky enough to undo the clasp and run away naked and afraid, leaving the guards to hold his toga.

There are a lot of theories as to who that unidentified person is.  Most days, I think that it’s Mark’s way of putting himself into his own Gospel, just as Stan Lee has a cameo in all of the movies in the Marvel Universe.  But sometimes, I think that person, naked and afraid, is me.  That person who has come to watch the show, but who falters at the last moment, who can’t quite bring himself to stand up and stand with, is me.  I think that Mark puts that character there to prevent us from feeling too self-righteous.

If we, like many who have come before us, have come looking for Judas (or anyone else we deem beyond redemption) so that we can feel better about ourselves, we’ve come to the wrong place.

Yet if you’ve come because you know that life can be painful and is saturated with mixed motives; if you’re here to say that there are parts of your story that you hope to God no one ever brings up again; if you are able to ask God to remove the pride in your own heart because you sometimes think that Jesus maybe likes you better than he likes the rest of these losers; if you’ve gathered here because you want to know strength for today and hope for tomorrow, well, then these are your people.  This is your God. And “Forgiven” and “Beloved” are your names.

This is the body of Christ, broken for you.  Thanks be to God for all of us. Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979), p. 83.

Pursuers of Righteousness

The Christian observance of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 17.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will spend Lent considering the question, “When this (the pandemic, the struggle for racial reconciliation, the horrid winter, the political discord… fill in the blanks) is over, or at least a year or two or three down the road, what kind of people do we want to be?”  We are anchoring our discussion in The Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.  I hold that these are eight core values that the people of God hold – the things that make us who we are.  On Sunday March 28 we celebrated Palm Sunday as we sat with the truth of Isaiah 58 and excerpts from Luke 19.  We sought to get an overview of the interconnectedness of the Beatitudes with the kind of lifestyle that is consistent with Christ-following. 

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

To see a recording of the entire worship, please use the YouTube link below:

There are a lot of things that I hate.  Mushy peas from a can.  Groundhogs digging up my garden.  Seeing Tom Brady wearing a Super Bowl ring.  Oh, there are a lot of things I dislike.

But one thing I don’t imagine I’ll never do again is buy a new car from a dealer. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of which play up against my anxieties.  I hate haggling.  I don’t like feeling pressured.  I detest that whole charade where the salesperson has to go and check with the manager…

But the thing I hate worst is two weeks after I’ve bought the car, and I’m talking with a friend, and he says, “Well, Dave, how much did that set you back?”  I tell him the number, and he says, “Wow, I’m sorry.  My mother just picked the exact same car up, and she paid $4000 less than you did.”  Oooh, I hate that.

That feeling is coming up more and more as many retailers in our culture have adopted similar models for their businesses.  It’s called “dynamic pricing”, and you’ll see that when you try to purchase a ticket for a sporting event, the same seats cost different amounts on different days.  Some travel sites use an algorithm that helps them to discern how likely you are to want to purchase that ticket, and how badly you want to get there… And, of course, we all walk around with a dozen or more of the little keychain tabs for loyalty clubs at our favorite stores in the hopes that we’ll get a “special price” on that thing we need.  We want to belong.  We want to be “insiders” and get the bargains revealed for people like us.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s hard to say – we buy into it, I think, because it is built on foundational notion that our American society is deeply individualized.  We tend to view the world through a lens that places ourselves, as individuals, at the center.

And so when the pastor preaches a message, say, on the Beatitudes of Jesus, I think it’s fairly common for us to hear it and think, immediately, “OK, well, how am I doing on this?  I mean, I’m trying to be ‘poor in spirit’, but I’m no Mother Theresa… But, on the other hand, I am not as bad as old you-know-who!”

Yet as we come to the end of this series, I want to point out a danger of looking at these statements through a lens like that.  Today we’ll consider three of the Beatitudes that have to do with righteousness.  The fourth Beatitude reads, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied”, while the eighth and ninth say, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way the persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

In their treatment of this passage, Glen Stassen and David Gushee point out that “…the English word righteousness communicates a false meaning.  Because our culture is individualistic, we think of righteousness as the virtue of an individual person.  And because our culture is possessive, we think of it as something an individual possesses.  But righteousness that an individual possesses is self-righteousness.  And that is exactly what the gospel says we cannot have.”[1]

So we who long to do what Jesus calls “blessed” need to know what he means by “righteousness”.  If we are going to understand and apply this truth to our lives, we’ll need to know where he’s going with all of this.

We’ve mentioned several times in this series of messages that Jesus seems to be intentionally echoing the prophetic tradition here, particularly the words of Isaiah 61.  We can “double down” on that today, because he calls on the prophets himself.  It gets a little tricky, but stay with me here.  The New Testament that we have was written in Greek, and Matthew uses the word dikaiosyne.  That word can mean “the state of being who God wants you to be”, but it carries with it the notion of justice.  It turns out that Isaiah 61 mentions “justice” three times.  If and when Jesus quoted or referred to the Old Testament, he would not have done so in either Greek or English, but rather using Hebrew or Aramaic.  The way that justice is defined in Isaiah is encapsulated in the word tsedaqah, which means both “rescuing” justice (a justice that steps in and removes evil from those who are threatened) and “restorative” justice (a justice that puts things back the way that they ought to be).

So when Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is not celebrating the intentions of those individuals who are striving to be seen as morally superior to their neighbors, but rather the hearts of those who feel in their bones a commitment to the peace and well-being of the world around them.  Those who “hunger and thirst” for what is right are a community of people who long for the hungry to be fed, the oppressed to be set free, and where God’s people can enjoy the intentions of God together.  Perhaps we can think of righteousness here not as a kind of behavioral code but rather as a description of a kind of living that allows for a right ordering of the society.

You can clearly hear that kind of language articulate in the reading from Isaiah 58 we’ve had this morning.  God is not interested in sponsoring some sort of a contest wherein participants can show up and try to “out-holy” one another; instead, God is concerned about the direction and orientation of the heart and how that then shapes intentions and behavior when acting as a member of the community.

That kind of interpretation can fit in well with the overview of the Beatitudes as a whole.  In these brief verses, Jesus pronounces his blessing on those who are willing to come, alone before God, confessing their own lack of pretense or affectation.  They are simply and humbly themselves, and they share the grief of a world that is so often nasty and brutish.  This humility and grief leads them to acting meekly and gently, and at the same time awakens in them a hunger for righteousness – for the shalom of God to be revealed and experienced.

In turn, this hunger drives them to engage the world intentionally and fully, although not in the context of coming in to kick anyone’s tail end, but rather mercifully, and transparently, in the hopes that peace and reconciliation will be achieved.

All of this leads to, not congratulations or a reward, but to a realization that the powers that be are committed to maintaining the status quo, and so rather than “well-done!”, often the life shaped by the Beatitudes is met with persecution or slander.  Instead of recognition, these lives are often met with rejection.

Some of you have heard me tell of a neighbor that Sharon and I had while living on South Graham street across town.  This poor woman was often berating me about something having to do with my faith, and I will never forget the day she accosted me and said, “What’s the message of the New Testament? I know you’re in school for that now… so tell me: what is the key takeaway we ought to get from that document?”  I stammered and yammered for a few moments, and she said, “Oh, look, it’s not hard.  Here is is.  Try preaching this at your church: ‘if you try to be kind to other people; if you walk around trying to make peace and spread love; if you believe the best about other people and try to help when you can, then don’t be surprised when they crucify you.’”

This woman believed that the church was teaching people to be weak and cringing; ashamed of themselves and patsies for others.  In her eyes, my Christianity was “soft”; it was not particularly practical or useful.  Instead, the kind of faith she had seen had resulted in a deepening of the divide between the haves and the have-nots; a diminishment of people who were not white and male; it was a “faith” that sought to encourage “submission” in ways that were unhealthy and unholy.

The authentic life as described and blessed by Jesus in the Beatitudes would seem to be antithetical to that.  For that reason, that kind of life is a threat to those who wield power.

Consider this: today is Palm Sunday.  Today is the day that we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Those who had heard something about who he was, what he taught, and how he behaved lined the streets and cried out “Hosanna!  Save us now!”  People saw the prophetic, Beatitude-shaped life of Jesus, and they were compelled to give voice to their deep cries: “Save us!  We need to be delivered!” they cried.  “We need relief from poverty, or scarcity, or fear, or oppression.”

Had we been there that day, or at any other “hosanna” moment in the times since then, we’d have been hard-pressed to find onlookers cheering “Lord, it’s ok now, but when I die, if you can make sure that I get to heaven, that’d be swell with me…” Jesus didn’t come to tell people to hold on now and that sooner or later it’d all work out and he’ll take them to heaven when they die.  He came to live for them – for us – the intentions of God.  He came to embody the Beatitudes, to enflesh the Holy, to demonstrate the kinds of shalom and tsedaqah that is meant to characterize our communities. And because Jesus did all of that so well, he became a threat, and he had to die.

And because he knew his history, he knew that the people who followed him would not fare much better than he.

And yet he calls that kind of life, not weak, not ineffectual, not wasted; he calls it “blessed”.  Complete.  Happy.  When you live a life that is shaped like the beatitudes, you are living with integrity and purpose, and your life is aligned with the Divine Intentions for the world.

You may be familiar with a version of a saying that is sometimes called “Anyway”.  It has often been attributed to Mother Theresa because she had a copy hanging on the wall of one of her children’s homes in India, but it’s actually the work of a college student named Kent Keith.  The version that Mother Theresa used encapsulates what I’m trying to say pretty well:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered,

LOVE THEM ANYWAY

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives,

DO GOOD ANYWAY

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies,

SUCCEED ANYWAY

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow,

DO GOOD ANYWAY

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable,

BE HONEST AND FRANK ANYWAY

What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight,

BUILD ANYWAY

People really need help but may attack you if you help them,

HELP PEOPLE ANYWAY

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth,

GIVE THE WORLD THE BEST YOU’VE GOT ANYWAY.

As we stand at the beginning of Holy Week, let us take time to contemplate the call of these Beatitudes with which we’ve sat this Lent, and to consider them in the context of the self-emptying love of Jesus.  Let us pause to reflect on the ways that Jesus’ life moved through and beyond death, and let us pay attention to where Jesus was looking, who Jesus was concerned with, and how Jesus acted.

And when we do that, we who are formed by this study of the Beatitudes and who have been attentive to the life of Jesus may come to the realization that we are at a point wherein we are beginning to grasp the possibility that the grip of this pandemic may be loosening in some measurable ways.  There is meaningful conversation about what life will look like “next”.  We can envision a time wherein we might engage in visits or programs or social events.

Whether we are walking through Holy Week with reverence and awe, or anticipating what a post-pandemic life looks like the question is the same: how do we live, move, work, and love in ways that indicate that we long to participate in what God is doing?

May we today, and tomorrow, and this week commit to a lifestyle that is reflective of the futures of which Isaiah and Jesus spoke, and may we act like it matters.  Living a life framed by the Beatitudes will mean that our faith will leak into the way that we vote, and I hope that your relationship with Jesus makes you uncomfortable in a nation where it appears as though citizens with black or brown skin find it more difficult to vote in elections that concern all of us.  There is no place for the Beatitudes in a world where it is a criminal act to offer another human being a drink of water.

Living a life framed by the beatitudes will mean that our commitment to seeking justice will have to be reflected in the fact that we are aggrieved to live in a world wherein it makes sense for a mother in Honduras to put a backpack her nine-year old daughter and tell her to walk north in the hopes of escaping the violence, and we are offended that people “like that” are trying to get into “our country”.  The Beatitudes question why the world is shaped this way, and who would seek to preserve that kind of order.

Living a life framed by the Beatitudes will mean that even when we’re scared or uncomfortable, those of us who are white or black will find the strength to lift our voices in opposition to racism that denigrates people of Asian descent.  The One who first gave us the Beatitudes and who wept over Jerusalem is the One who said very clearly, “come unto me ALL who are weary…”

And I know that now some of you are starting to get a little peeved and say, “Well, there it is.  The Pastor’s starting to mess with politics now.  Why did he have to bring that up?”

I don’t know any other way to read the Beatitudes.  Look, you don’t have to take them seriously.  These sayings of Jesus are a nice little poem.  Cross stitch them and hang them over your sofa if you want.  But if we think – as I do – that these words are the opening phrases in the most beautiful, comprehensive, and God-honoring teaching in the history of teaching, then we ignore them or trivialize them to our own detriment.  We are called, not only to hear them or even to listen to them, but to look for a way to live into them.

The way to do this is not by adopting a posture of “let’s each chip in a bit and see what we can do” but rather “let us call ourselves and each other to account as we seek to empty ourselves so that the whole creation is able to glimpse the healing, peace, wholeness, and love of Christ.”  This is incredibly dangerous business.  There is risk in hearing and following Jesus!  This is no place for individualists.  Your nationality, or race, or economic status don’t give you a leg up in the Kingdom of God!  There are no “special deals” here – this is the vision of God for the world God made.  May we be hungry for that!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Glenn Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic, 2003), p. 42.

The Peacemakers (Beatitudes #5)

The Christian observance of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 17.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will spend Lent considering the question, “When this (the pandemic, the struggle for racial reconciliation, the horrid winter, the political discord… fill in the blanks) is over, or at least a year or two or three down the road, what kind of people do we want to be?”  We are anchoring our discussion in The Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.  I hold that these are eight core values that the people of God hold – the things that make us who we are.  On Sunday March 21 we turned to Ezekiel 34:25-31 and Ephesians 2:1-10 as we reflected on Jesus’ affirmation of those who make peace. 

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

To see the entire worship service in which this message was preached, visit the YouTube channel:

This year, our congregation is taking a Lenten journey through the Beatitudes of Jesus. The core question with which we started was this: what kind of people are we becoming? Or, when this is all over, who do we want to be?  Looking at these attributes that Jesus celebrates and blesses will help us, we pray, to seek to engage the world in a way that allows us to grow into becoming those who are able to live life the way that God intended us to do.

We come this morning to the seventh Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”  Now, I don’t know if this is because my grandfather ran a movie theater for a good part of the 20th century, or because my dad liked to read westerns, but when I hear “peacemaker”, the first thing that comes to my mind is a handgun introduced by Samuel Colt in 1876, issued to the US Army Cavalry, and favored by gunfighters in the American West: the Colt. 45, also known as the “peacemaker”.

The Colt weapon was a favorite of the quintessential American hero of the 20thcentury, John Wayne, and it was said that “the Lord made some men big and some men small, but Sam Colt made all men the same size”.  In referring to this weapon as the “peacemaker”, of course, the manufacturer was implying that any dispute would be short-lived and, once “Judge Colt and his jury of six” had spoken and the dust had cleared, peace would reign again…

And I hear someone saying, “Um, Pastor Dave… I don’t know the Bible as well as I should, but I’m pretty sure that this is not the kind of peacemaker about which Jesus was talking when he called them “blessed”.

All right, then… what did he mean?  Let’s look at that word.

The reading from Ezekiel that you’ve heard is just one of the many places in the scripture where “peace” is celebrated, lifted up, or defined.  As Campbell read, God’s intentions are described as an agreement of peace – a covenant of shalom.  We know something about what God means here because the following verses amplify the Divine intent.  We learn that shalom is understood as a reality wherein safety is present and valued.  We know shalom, in part, where there is an absence of fear and a posture of trust.  In a world characterized by shalom, folk do not suffer from hunger, nor do they suffer persecution at the hands of people of other races or nationalities.

It’s obvious from this reading of Ezekiel (and other parts of the Old and New Testaments) that this kind of peace and wholeness is what God wants for all of creation.  It is the purpose for which we were made – it is the “right answer”, if you will.  As we read this passage, and others like it, we are able to glimpse a sense of being able to be oneself without fear, or shame, or pain.  We get a hint of sufficiency and even plenty – there is enough for everyone.  The Divine gift and intention of shalom or peace means that we were built for security, purpose, and contentment.

What a word of encouragement to a people who are entering into a second year in a world shaped by conflict and pandemic.  We are, many of us, at the end of our rope.  We are at what we pray to God is the beginning of the end of our great season of uncertainty and insecurity and instability.  Economically, we are challenged; politically, we are divided; racially, we are at odds; oh, there is uncertainty at so many levels!  And so we might be excused for leaping up prematurely when we hear a Beatitude that blesses God’s people with peace.  We rise, and we say, “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about! That’s what we want.  Yes, Jesus, we would have peace.  Yes, Lord, we need shalom.  Thank you, Jesus!”

And then Jesus does that little thing where he clears his throat and he shakes his head and he says, very patiently, “All right, now, please listen again.  I did not say ‘blessed are the peaceful’, or ‘blessed are those who know peace’, or even ‘blessed are those who find peace.’  No, what I said was ‘blessed are the peacemakers.’ I’m looking for people who, like me, will engage in the things that make for peace.”

“Oh,” we say, dejectedly.  And we sit down, and we contemplate this word that Jesus has given to us.  Eirénopoios.  It’s a compound word made up from the roots eiríne, meaning “peace”, and poiépo, meaning “to do” or “to make”.  Matthew 5 is the only time in the Bible that this word occurs, and it’s pretty unmistakable: Jesus blesses, or congratulates, or pronounces as complete, those who make for peace.

And let’s consider the context in which he’s speaking.  Jesus’ lifetime falls in that period of time that is broadly termed the pax Romana – the Roman peace.  The pax Romana was an imperial golden age.  The armies of Rome occupy most of the known world, and this display of military might has brought to an end the countless string of smaller wars between the lesser states.  There are some conflicts around the edges of the Empire, but mostly, things are very, quiet.  There is an absence of war.

However, when we consider the notion of “peace”, we would do well to remember that one way to understand the Roman definition of “peace” is that state wherein all opponents have been completely crushed and beaten down so that resistance is impossible.

So, my friends, when Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers”, is he looking approvingly at the legions of Rome, those military forces that have secured the “peace” for generations?  I have to say that’s hard for me to imagine in the context of Matthew 5, and harder still for me to imagine in view of what happened during Holy Week, when we recall that the Romans accommodated the religious leaders’ request to execute Jesus as an enemy of the state in order to ‘keep the peace’.

It’s a safer bet, perhaps, to think that Jesus was giving a side-eye to the political/religious movement known as the Zealots when he made this comment.  At least one member of his inner circle was associated with this group, which had pledged a violent uprising and open rebellion against Rome.  It could be that Jesus was speaking to his disciple Simon and Simon’s friends, indicating that in Jesus’ mind, armed rebellion was not the way to bring about the shalom for which God’s people longed.

Whoever it was at whom Jesus was looking when he spoke, it’s clear that this teaching resonated with the first generation of Christ-followers.  You can’t read far in the New Testament – the collected writings of those saints – without coming across an imperative having to do with peace.

“It is to peace that God has called you,” reads I Corinthians 7:15.  I Peter 3:4 echoes that, inviting God’s people to “pursue peace” with each other, while the author of Hebrews (12:14) broadens that understanding to “pursue peace with everyone.”  And I suspect you’ve heard me quote Paul’s letter to the Romans (12:18), wherein he instructs those who would be faithful to “insofar as it depends upon you, live at peace with all people.”  Peace-making seems to be at the core of what the earliest Christians understood their calling to be.

Further, if we consider the examples of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and most of the other named followers of Jesus, we must assume that being a peacemaker implies a deeper willingness to endure suffering oneself than to inflict it on others.  Each of these folks seem to be committed to a personal ethic that insists on doing all that one can to maintain and preserve fellowship wherever possible, and to seek to be quick to address conflict constructively and non-violently.

I believe we can make a case that some of the groundwork for this is laid in the reading from Ephesians that you heard earlier.  Paul begins this chapter by reminding us that we have long been in a place that is notable for the absence of shalom.  In fact, he says twice that we were dead – that is, we were unable to participate in any fashion in the kinds of life for which we were intended.  We had no security, there was no safety.  In fact, the opposite was true: we lived in fear, and we knew anxiety and suffering.  There was not a hint of the shalom that we understand to be God’s intent for us and for the creation.

And then we came to understand something of the way that life and peace and hope is made present in Jesus.  Maybe you noticed that Paul is so stoked by having the chance to talk about the ways that Jesus impacted our world that he interrupts himself twice with an outburst of praise.  Twice he interjects the phrase “by grace you have been saved!” He just can’t help reminding his readers, and I suspect himself, that this is what happens when the life of Christ comes flooding into those places that have known too much death and conflict.  He concludes this passage by reminding the church in Ephesus – and us – that we are now what God has made us to be; that we are God’s workmanship, created to do those things that are important to God; that, in fact, we are called now to do those things that God has been doing.

Now, hold that thought and return with me to the Beatitude.  Do you remember?  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they…” – what’s the rest of the verse? – “shall be called children of God.”

I’m suggesting that peacemaking, or shalom building, is the family business.  That’s what “YHWH & Children” do.  Put it however you want – like father, like son; like mother, like daughter; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Jesus says that those who engage in the practices of peacemaking are the ones who are God’s children; Paul says that the people in whom God works come to do the things that God intends for all of the earth.  Whereas our first Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” did not really contain an imperative – nobody suggested that Jesus was encouraging people to go out there and impoverish themselves in some way – this one definitely implies that a robust and healthy commitment to the Way of Jesus will result in a commitment to peacemaking.

So what does that look like in 2021?  Here are three examples.

This is Sister Ann Roza Nu Tawng.  One month ago today, Sister Ann Roza was heading to the clinic where she practices her ministry of offering medical care to the poor in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar.  Perhaps you know that Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been the scene of a military coup and great unrest in recent weeks.  Dozens have been killed, and the elected leader of the nation has been detained by the military.  While inside the clinic, Sister Ann Roza saw a group of protesters march past, and then she noticed that they were followed by a group of heavily armed security forces.  This is how she described it:

Then they opened fire and started beating the protesters. I was shocked and I thought today is the day I will die. I decided to die.

I was asking and begging them not to do it and I told them the protesters didn’t commit any (crime).

I was running towards where they were beating the protesters. It was happening in front of this clinic. It was like a war.  I thought it would be better that I die instead of lots of people.

When they reached the Banyan tree, I was calling them (the authorities) and telling them: ‘Please kill me. I don’t want to see people being killed.’

I brought (a protestor) to the clinic and gave him treatment. The police almost captured another one as he had fallen down. I stopped the police and asked them not to continue. That’s why the police didn’t. Otherwise, they would have arrested him and dragged him from there.[1]

Sister Ann Roza’s story is powerful, and that photo is even more powerful in my mind.  She is a living beatitude.

So is another nun, one of my heroes who is named Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Humanitarian Rescue Center that our Adult Mission Team has visited several times in McAllen, Texas.  You don’t have to be listening very hard these days to hear a lot of people arguing about the fact that there are too many of THOSE people coming into OUR COUNTRY now, and they are often shouted down by folks who insist that SOMEONE should do SOMETHING to help them.

Sister Norma has mobilized her group of staff and volunteers to welcome some of the most tired, worn-out, endangered, under-nourished, dehydrated, and barely living human beings that this nation has seen into a space right there in McAllen.  In the name of Jesus, she offers them a meal and a shower and a bed and access to the legal system.  The building she’s currently using is a former nightclub, and Sister Norma jokes that once upon a time people showed up in that place to hit the bottle.  Now, she serves starving children bottles of formula in the same place. And then when a sponsor has been identified and the refugee has been processed and declared COVID-free, Sister Norma and her team put the person – most often, a young person these days – on a bus to be met by their family.

Sister Norma is my hero, but I will tell you that she is not universally regarded as such in Texas or other parts of the United States.  But she is making for shalom.  She is living peace.

One other example to whom I’ll point today is Pastor Raymond Chang, who is currently serving as a chaplain at Wheaton University in Illinois.  He is also the President and Co-Founder of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, and Pastor Ray has been instrumental in encouraging the church of Jesus Christ to stand firm against the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence that has been escalating so rapidly in recent months.  Like the rest of us, he has seen Asian-Americans being coughed on, spit on, and made subject to racist language and assault.  Pastor Ray and the AACC have worked to educate Churches and Christians about the destruction and hatred that is occurring and to look for ways to stand firmly alongside of those who are threatened.

And you say, “That’s all great, Pastor Dave, but I don’t live in Myanmar, or even in Texas, and I’m not sure I know that many people of Asian descent.  If these are the people who are peacemakers, then that leaves me out.”

Nope.  Not for a moment.  You are not called to be Sister Ann Roza, or Sister Norma, or Pastor Ray.  You are called to be you.  And you are called to make peace.  How will you do that?

Let me encourage you, this spring time, to think about starting small, and planting seeds, and looking for opportunities to do this in ways that fit your world.

Do you have children or grandchildren in your home?  What are you reading to them?  Who are the characters in the stories you share?  Do your children – no matter what color they are – have brown-skinned heroes in their lives?

When you’re in a conversation and someone starts to complain about “that China virus”, will you be brave enough to offer the proper name, and to speak against those who would dehumanize people for whom Jesus died?

What does hospitality look like for you in 2021?  I’m betting you don’t have many people over for dinner; but do your neighbors perceive you to be safe?  Have you found a way to help someone who is at risk make rent or obtain food?

Are there people from whom you have become estranged?  Do you hold a grudge? Is there a step you need to take toward reconciliation?

I have a lot of questions, and they are all uncomfortable, and they all get to the same point: are there ways where you are shouldering more than your share of the world’s pain, suffering, and hatred because that’s what followers of Jesus seem to do?  Are your neighbors’ lives better because you have listened to Jesus offering these beatitudes?

Gay Block is a woman who contributed to a book about European Christians who had risked their lives protecting their neighbors called “Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust”.  She traveled the country with an exhibit of her photographs, and spoke of visiting college campuses.

… I gave many talks to students, telling them that what we’d discovered was that there were four parts to play if you were living in Europe during that time. You might be a victim (Jew, queer, gypsy), you might be a perpetrator (Nazi or Nazi collaborator in other countries), you might be a rescuer, and you might be a bystander. Those were your only four roles to choose from, and many had no choice. Most people chose to be bystanders. Few had the courage or the non-conforming personality of the rescuer. But then we asked students to consider what roles they play. Most of us play a combination of these roles every day, and we told them that being a rescuer today wouldn’t require risking their lives as it did during those years. They could stand up for someone being teased, they could resist homophobia, they could resist when they saw their friends abusing people with different skin color, or different eyes or ways of talking. We assured them that every day they might find ways in which to be rescuers.[2]

I suspect that not many of us think of ourselves as “rescuers” on a daily basis, but God forbid we are only bystanders.  Let us move forward in commitment to stand with those who suffer, to speak against evil where we find it, and to live into the family business of being peacemakers – shalom bringers – in the world today.  Thanks be to God who tells us who we are and invites us to be better today than we were yesterday.  Amen.

 

[1]“’Today is the Day I Will Die’: Nun Who Opposed Myanmar Military Says she Begged them for Mercy” (Sky News, 03/06/2021) https://news.sky.com/story/today-is-the-day-i-will-die-nun-who-opposed-myanmar-military-says-she-begged-them-for-mercy-12236955

[2] Gay Block, interview recorded at http://www.strangefirecollective.com/qa-gay-block

The Pure in Heart (Beatitudes #4)

The Christian observance of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 17.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will spend Lent considering the question, “When this (the pandemic, the struggle for racial reconciliation, the horrid winter, the political discord… fill in the blanks) is over, or at least a year or two or three down the road, what kind of people do we want to be?”  We are anchoring our discussion in The Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.  I hold that these are eight core values that the people of God hold – the things that make us who we are.  On Sunday March 14 we turned to Matthew 15:1-11 and Psalm 24:1-6 and considered what it might mean to be “pure in heart”. 

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

To see the worship service via YouTube, please visit the site below:

I have a new mug in my home: it’s a listing of all the passengers on the Mayflower.  This includes my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle John Carver, who was among the group that we call “Pilgrims” who arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  Uncle John, of whom I’ve spoken before, was one of the leaders of a group of religious separatists who had become increasingly convinced that it was impossible for them to live a life of faith in England and so they struck out, looking for a better place in which to engage in holy pursuits. They spent some time in Holland, and eventually made their way to North America.  Not long after that, the first group of Pilgrims was enlarged by another group known as the Puritans, and after a few years, the Puritans were pretty much running the show in New England.

As we continue this series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, we come to Matthew 5:8, which reads “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  When I think about “the pure in heart”, I think about words like “purity”, and “Puritan”, and “puritanical”.  My hunch is that I’m not alone in thinking that many of the associations that we have with those words are less than positive.  When someone calls your behavior “puritanical”, it’s not usually a compliment, is it?  It seems as though this group of people had a spiritual gift for annoying people and making the faith look bad.

For instance, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a law against disrupting worship services.  Anyone who was convicted of interrupting a preacher would be compelled not only to pay a fine of 5 pounds – nearly $500 by today’s standards –  but to stand upon a block of stone four feet high while wearing a sign that read “wanton Gospeller”.

Or consider the case of Mr. Thomas Morton, who arrived at Plymouth in 1624 to engage in fur trading.  He wrote that he had met two kinds of people in this “new world”: Christians and Infidels.  The Infidels, he found, were “most full of humanity and more friendly than the other.”[1]  He traded with these “infidels” – the Algonquin people, and befriended them.  He sought to free indentured servants, and stood firm against slavery.  In the spring of 1629, he thought he’d throw a party, so he brewed up a barrel of what he called “most excellent beer”, and erected a Maypole, and welcomed all comers.  One of those who came was Captain Myles Standish, who promptly arrested Morton on charges of impiety, and ordered him held in the stocks and eventually sent back to England.  Those who sought to present a “pure” religion in the 17th century thought that these appropriate steps to take to ensure that hearts were pure.

Back in the 20th century, we had a different kind of emphasis on purity. Christian kids in my youth group were encouraged – “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t run around with people who do.”  That got refined into the so-called “purity culture” of the 1980’s and 1990’s, wherein the church either implied or stated outright that sexual abstinence was one way of making sure that God liked you better.  I’ve spoken previously about my complicity in some of these conversations, and I’m not, at this point, particularly proud of them.

So all of this is swirling around in my head when I read that Jesus blesses, or congratulates, or approves of those who are “pure in heart”.  And in my heart, I sigh, “Oh, geez.  Another opportunity to think about how much of a screw-up I can be… I come into a church that has lost touch with the people around it, and I wonder if I’m any better than the Puritans who hung around with Uncle John.”  What are we to make of this Beatitude that labels those who are “pure in heart” as “blessed”?

I think that one item of which we ought to be aware is the fact that Jesus’ culture, not unlike our own, contained an element of puritanism.  The folks who settled New England four hundred years ago didn’t come up with the idea of gauging one’s sanctification or holiness using a checklist.  In Jesus’ day, some of the most influential religious leaders adhered to what we might call a “holiness code”: there were a number of rituals that were used as indicative of whether someone was sufficiently religious or pure.

Our reading from the Gospel underscores one of these practices, that of ritual handwashing.  To “wash one’s hands in the tradition of the elders” meant taking enough water to fill one and one-half eggshells and, starting from the fingertips, allow the water to run down toward the wrist.  Then the palms would be cleaned by crushing your fists into them, and then the same amount of water would be poured onto the wrists and allowed to run off at the fingertips.

This ceremony really had a lot more to do with emphasizing which rulebook a person followed than whether or not there were any germs in your food.  It was a way to display outwardly a commitment to a set of traditions and practices that marked you as one of “our kind” of people.

Jesus is not against purity, and he’s not even against ritual.  It’s just that he is far more concerned with what is happening at the core of who we are.  As he has done at other points in his ministry, he calls out the folks who are preoccupied with an outward show of religion and invites them to consider what it means to be totally committed to the Lord at the center of our beings.  When Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about this passage, he says,

Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he may reign in them alone. Only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil–and by their own virtues too. The pure in heart have a child-like simplicity like Adam before the fall, innocent alike of good and evil: their hearts are not ruled by their conscience, but by the will of Jesus…They are wholly absorbed by the contemplation of God, whose hearts have become a reflection of the image of Jesus.[2]

Now, those who have heard me mention his name before will recognize that when I quote Bonhoeffer, I almost always do so approvingly and with gratitude.  To tell you the truth, though, that passage scares me!  I mean, I started out thinking that I’m not good enough, and then I read this paragraph that calls on me to be “undefiled” and “innocent”; that says that the way to get where I’m going is to be “absorbed by the contemplation of God”?  Yikes! That sounds really, really tough!  I don’t know how to get there…

So I find it helpful this morning to look back on a passage that I believe could have been in Jesus’ mind when he was offering this teaching on purity – the reading from Psalm 24 that you’ve heard already.  I hope that you were able to pick up on a beautiful pattern that emerges in these verses.

Verses one and two establish God’s ownership of the earth and everything it contains.  “The earth is the Lords!”, the Psalmist proclaims, and then proceeds to expound on the ways in which God brought a stable existence and divine order out from the chaos as God created and founded and established a natural order.  Note that declaring that God is the owner of the earth is a way of affirming that the creation does, indeed, belong to someone, and if it is someone’s, it can’t be anyone else’s.  This means, for the original hearers of the Psalm, that the Canaanite diety called Marduk or some other god could have no claim on our existence because the earth belongs to YHWH.

In the same way, the affirmation of a world that is established and founded speaks against the idea, prominent in some places today, that the planet on which we find ourselves is the product of random and spontaneous happenstance.

One other important aspect of this introductory declaration is that it lays out pretty clearly that the earth and everything and everyone in it belongs to God.  That goes against the idea that you or I can actually really “own” anything – we’re all playing with house money, if you will.  It’s like the story of the time when some top scientists held a meeting and decided that humanity could be free from God once and for all.  They selected a representative, who approached the Lord and said, “You know, God, we appreciate everything, but now that we can clone people and manipulate atoms and fly through space, you’re essentially irrelevant now.  Why don’t you take a hike and leave us alone.”

The Lord thought about that and said, “Well, OK, if that’s what you think is best.  One thing, though… before I leave, could we have a contest?  Let’s each of us make a human and see what happens.”  And so God, just as he had in Genesis, took a handful of dirt, formed it, breathed into it, and a human appeared.  God looked at the scientist and said, “Your turn.”

The scientist rolled up her sleeves and bent down to get some dirt and God interrupted: “Not so fast, my friend.  Get your own dirt!”  To put it another way, Carl Sagan once said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”  The foundation of our purity, then, is an affirmation that all of this belongs to God.

The Psalm continues with a question: If all of this does belong to God, then who can approach the Holy One?  How do we see and encounter God in our own lives, asks verse 3.

The question is answered in the next breath: those who have clean hands and pure hearts are the ones who behold the Divine.  When the Psalmist talks about “clean” and “pure” in these terms, he’s not using words that are drawn from the religious language of the time; he’s talking about concepts that have ethical connotations.  That is to say, the Psalm is not primarily concerned with a ritual action, but rather with whether or not a worshiper has behaved well in relationship with others and loyally in connection with God.

Who will see God (remember, that’s the point that Jesus makes in the Beatitude)? Those who worship the God on whose earth they walk, and who have treated their neighbors well.  They have not “lifted up their souls” to a false god, and they have made sure to deal with the people around them with integrity and truth.

Verse five contains a blessing – a declaration that the ones who are focused and motivated in this fashion will be blessed by finding what they seek.

To me, this Psalm describes a pattern of behavior that is approachable, even to someone like me.  I can affirm that God is in charge, even on the days when I may not like it, or when I may wonder why some things are happening.  And while I cannot always claim to have clean hands and a pure heart, I think it’s possible to decide that I’d like to have those things, and to ask my maker to help me to grow into those things.

I believe that in some way becoming “pure in heart” is connected with the shaping of desire.  The way that I read the Beatitude, “purity in heart” has to do with wanting the right thing.  And sometimes I do; and if I don’t want the right thing, I can at least want to want the right thing.

Early in my marriage and my pastorate, I had the gift of calling on a couple who had long passed their golden anniversary.  They were, to my young eyes, a wreck. One of them had been decimated by cancer and was nearly bedfast.  The other was wracked with painful arthritis.  And each was blessed with a passion for the other.  I sat with the wife in the kitchen for a while as she grimaced in pain while slicing up the ingredients for a stew.  “This is so hard for me to do,” she confessed, “but he really likes it.  He’s told me for years that it’s his favorite, and I love him, so it’s nothing for me to chop these things…”

I went out and sat by the bed, where the husband confided that the last rounds of chemo and radiation had robbed him of his ability to taste food or enjoy it in any way.  “But I know what she’s making,” he said, “and I want to honor her by enjoying it.  I can’t taste it.  But I love it.  Because I love her.”

In that moment, I thought about all the distractions that might pull me away from the best things in marriage.  I thought about what it would be like to get old, or to get tired, or to envy those who were young and beautiful… and I offered, for the first time, my prayer: “God, help me to want what these two people have more than I want anything else in relationship.”  It’s a prayer to which I have returned many times in my marriage.  I’m older now, and while I’m not entirely broken down, there are plenty of days when I can see that on the horizon.  And my prayer continues to be – “help me to want that kind of love more than I want anything else.”  It has helped me, I hope, become a better husband.  That prayer has shaped my desire.

When we decide who we want to be, we can align our steps so that it becomes a possibility.  As we consider this Beatitude, “blessed are the pure in heart”, may we resist the temptation to be arrogant, as if we could somehow be the arbiters of how pure someone else ought to be.  Instead, may we ask for the kind of focus that makes us single-minded in our desire to participate in the kinds of things that God wants.  May we seek to keep company with those who are like minded – or like-hearted?  May we extend grace to ourselves when we fall short, and to others when they do the same?

In terms of application to today’s reality, I think that these passages might engage us as we observe the ongoing discussion about what has been called “cancel culture”.  I suspect you’ve seen some alarmist reports – that THOSE PEOPLE (whoever they are) want to take an old Dr. Seuss book or a cartoon character out of circulation because THOSE PEOPLE want to destroy our culture, introduce censorship, or whatever.  On the other hand, THESE PEOPLE have said that if you listen to the Dixie Chicks or watch movies with Jane Fonda in them, or buy tickets to a game where an athlete kneels during the National Anthem, then you fail to recognize God’s love for and blessing on America, because, well, those artists were wrong about a political issue.  And SOME OTHER PEOPLE are saying, but what about the music now that is so filled with lyrics that are so violent, racist, overly sexualized – how can people live with themselves in a world where THAT KIND of music can be bought and sold?” Does Jesus or the Psalm have anything to say about what it means to navigate waters that are filled with THOSE PEOPLE, THESE PEOPLE, and SOME OTHER PEOPLE??

I think that they do.  It’s hard for me to envision Jesus walking down the street in 2021 listening to Cardi B singing “WAP”.  And it’s equally hard for me imagine him shaming and denouncing someone who was doing that.  And out of all the important questions he would choose to engage,  do you think that “why can’t we keep the Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery in them?” would be near the top of the list?

Purity of heart is less about keeping a checklist on the comparative holiness with which you or your neighbors engage in specific tasks, and more about being attentive to the ways that God’s presence infuses the world with life, meaning, and purpose.  The more that we fall in love with God, the less attractive those things that are not of God will seem.  Let us walk this way together as pilgrims – that is, as those who seek to be changed by the journey we share – but without the arrogance of the puritans.  And let us give thanks to the God who sees us at all times, even as we strive to glimpse God from time to time.  Amen.

 

 

[1] https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/maypole-infuriated-puritans/

[2] The Cost of Discipleship (New York, MacMillan paperback, 1961, pp. 125-126).

The Meek and Mild (Beatitudes #3)

The Christian observance of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 17.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will spend Lent considering the question, “When this (the pandemic, the struggle for racial reconciliation, the horrid winter, the political discord… fill in the blanks) is over, or at least a year or two or three down the road, what kind of people do we want to be?”  We are anchoring our discussion in The Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.  I hold that these are eight core values that the people of God hold – the things that make us who we are.  On Sunday March 7 we contemplated the states of “meekness” and “mercifulness” as we heard a very strange story about Moses (recounted in Numbers 12:1-16) and listened to Jesus talking about an unmerciful servant (as told in Matthew 18:21-35).

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

To see the YouTube recording of this worship service, please use the link below:

Who is the fastest man in the world?  Usain Bolt is generally regarded as worthy of this title, since he has run the 100 meter dash in a world-record 9.58 seconds.

Some titles are easy like that.  There’s a quantifiable metric and we learn it, or apply it, and we know.  For instance, a British vocalist called Tee Green sustains the word “fly” in a rendition of a song called “Everything Must Change” for an astounding 39 seconds, making that the world record for the longest note sung on a studio recording.

There are some other records that are measurable, but odd.  Joel Strasser, of Lacey, Washington, spent a few hours weaving 3,500 toothpicks into his beard and securing his place in the record book. Nilanshi Patel, a young woman in India, holds the record for the longest hair on a human teenager: five feet, seven inches.

And still other honorifics are, well, up for debate.  According to the folks at the dailymeal.com, the “Chain Gang Chili” served up at the Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, CA, is the best bowl of chili on planet earth.  Richard Wiseman is a humor researcher who claims to have discovered the funniest joke of all time… but you’ll have to click here  to find out what it is.  But how does he know?  And what is a “humor researcher”?

So here’s why I’m thinking about all these world records.  You heard a moment ago that Moses, the man who led the children of Israel to the Promised Land, was the “meekest man who ever lived.”  Wait, what?  Moses? Meek?

Doesn’t “meek” mean “pushover”? Someone who is timid? In the last century there was a cartoon character named Caspar Milquetoast, who was described as “a man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.”[2]  Milquetoast could be described as the original “snowflake” – someone who is hypersensitive and fragile and weak.

Moses and the Ten Commandments, Ju-Chul Kim (contemporary)

Moses – our Moses – was an at-risk child born in a marginalized community. He was the product of a broken home, who came to see himself as a Community Organizer.  He had a lengthy rap sheet, including a murder charge. He mobilized hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in a slave uprising. He argued face to face not only with the most powerful person on earth, but with the Almighty – and lived to tell about it.

And this guy is the “meekest man ever”, according to Numbers?  To quote the noted philosopher and swordfighter Inego Montoya, “you keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”[3]

We’re talking about this word because we’re in the midst of a series of messages on the Beatitudes of Jesus.  Right there in Matthew 5:5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  The word that is used there, praÿs, can be translated as “meek” or “humble” – but in the Bible, it is almost always used in the context of one who is nonviolent.  A person who is truly meek, or authentically humble, is a person who is able to refrain from revenge or lashing out defensively because that one trusts that God will send vindication.

Moses’ meekness is displayed in a curious story wherein his older siblings, Miriam and Aaron, are apparently increasingly irritated by the fact that Moses has married an “outsider” – a woman from Ethiopia.  They seem to think that their baby brother is getting a little full of himself, and they start to gripe about him.  Moses doesn’t do anything – but when God finds out?  Hoo-boy. There’s a big meeting, and at the end of that conversation, the Almighty has apparently afflicted Miriam with a terrible skin disease.

Moses’ meekness, or humility, is demonstrated in the fact that Moses prays for the one who half an hour earlier was attacking him and mocking his wife.

This view of the world, and this perspective on human relations, is markedly different than the one you heard in the passage from Matthew that we know as “the parable of the unmerciful servant”.  Whereas Moses was treated poorly, and yet responded with grace, the central figure in this parable is treated incredibly well, and then turns around and acts towards those around him with contempt and pettiness.

For the purposes of this message, I’ve chosen to combine two Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” and “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy”.

As we’ve said, “meek”, or praÿs, can best be used to describe one who has totally surrendered to God.  Authentic meekness or humility consists in having a true and appropriate view of one’s self.  Theologically speaking, that would mean that a person living into praÿs could be considered as someone who is able to recognize and affirm that he or she is fundamentally incomplete or broken.  Theologian John Stott points out that in the sequence of the Beatitudes, “meek” comes after those who grieve the brokenness of the world around them and before those who hunger and thirst for what is right.  He interprets that, correctly in my mind, to signify that an essential element of meekness is my (or your) ability and willingness to acknowledge that at my core (or at yours), I am a deeply flawed human being.  I am a sinner.  I am broken.[2]  I know that deeply and intimately about myself.

The word that Matthew uses for “merciful” is eleēmōn, which we might understand as “those who are generous in doing deeds of deliverance”.  Whereas “meek” or “humble” calls to mind a character trait, “mercy” implies some sort of action: freeing someone from bondage or acting to deliver someone with healing or grace.  I think that we could make a pretty convincing case that an embrace of “meekness” means acknowledging that we are broken, and living out “mercifulness” means acknowledging that other people are broken, too.

Moses, standing before his older siblings in front of the Lord, is able to remember that not only has he been to Hell and back, but that they, too, are seared and scarred.  He calls on his own stores of empathy and cries out to God to bring healing, and not destruction.

The man in the parable, however, seems to have compartmentalized his life.  He’s built a brick wall around his own experience of having been caught short, impoverished, and subsequently delivered from death.  He is not able to recognize those same things in his fellow servant and cannot, therefore, apply anything he’s learned in his life to theirs.

This Lent, I have been suggesting we turn to the Beatitudes of Jesus as indicators of the kind of life that is blessed by God.  My hope in doing this is that we put ourselves in positions where we can seek to make choices and to recognize decisions that we make as shaping us for the lives that we will lead when we emerge from the paralysis that the pandemic has forced upon us.  My thesis is that this month – right now – we are given the choice to decide who we’d like to become in the days ahead.  Sooner or later, our lives will resume some semblance of “normal”.  I’m here to tell you that I think it’s in our best interest, and that of the world, for us to devote some time to being attentive to the things that make for a lifestyle that Jesus calls “blessed.”

And you say, “All right, all right, Dave!  You’ve convinced me.  I’m ready to be meek.  I want to be merciful.  How do I get started?  Is there a way to get there?”

The school of meekness – which can be difficult and painful – will lead to a diploma in mercy.  It seems to me that if we are able to contemplate the ways in which we ourselves have been blessed, upheld, sustained, and comforted even in times of challenge and pain, then we will be better able to release the pain and pass along the comfort and encouragement in the world around us.

Here’s an example from real-life history (albeit ancient history).  If you were to look through the books, you’d read that Emperor Julian, who ruled from about 361-363 AD, is considered the last non-Christian Emperor of Rome.  Now what might be surprising about that is the fact that he came after Constantine – the one who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Julian, who was Constantine’s nephew, was raised as a Christian and even lived as a Christian for a while.  Yet he grew to have a hatred for those who called themselves “Christians”, and in fact he publicly renounced Christianity and converted to Paganism in 361 and became known as “Julian the Apostate”.

Why would he do that?  Well, this requires a little bit of conjecture on my part, but I think I can back it up.  His grandmother, Helena, was a devout Christian.  She went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, she started monasteries and churches, and more.  Julian’s uncle Constantine was so impacted by his mother’s faith that he established Christianity as the official religion of the Empire.

And yet while those around Julian claimed the mantle of the Christian faith, they sure didn’t act like it.  When Constantine died, his son Constantius II took over the throne and promptly killed anyone who might be a rival.  This included his father-in-law, an uncle, and more than a few cousins.  There is speculation that Julian, who was only five at the time, was spared because he was thought to be too young to be a threat to Constantius II.

Anyway, Constantius II – wearing the badge of a “Christian” – embarked on a murderous, war-mongering reign.  He enacted policies that hurt the Jews, he behaved selfishly and with little regard for others.  Julian, who inherited the Empire after Contantius II’s death, wanted to be known as a philosopher and a “man of letters” – and he was so repulsed by the difference between the ways that so many in his so-called “Christian” family acted and the things they claimed to believe that Julian sought to remove any vestiges of Christianity from the Empire.

One of the things that Julian did was to confiscate the property of Christians and, when challenged, he mocked that he was doing them a favor by making them poor enough to get into heaven.

So this is what I’m saying: that Julian was born into a family wherein some form of Christianity was at least named.  His grandmother seemed to be serious about living her faith out, but so many of his other relatives were so repugnant in their personal conduct that when he had half a chance, Julian not only abandoned the faith, but sought to undermine it.  It is, in some way, understandable, is it not?

But consider what happened next: when Julian began confiscating property and forbidding Christians to be teachers and generally living into his anger over the hypocrisy of his relatives… the church responded with grace.  The more that he sought to deprive the church, the more generous the Christians became.  In fact, at one point he lamented, with embarrassment, that the followers of Jesus were doing a better job than Rome when it came to caring for those who were most at risk.

In a letter to a man named Arsacius, Julian wondered if anyone else noticed how “the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?”  He went on to say,

For it is disgraceful when…the impious Galileans [the name given by Julian to Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that [those who share our pagan faith] are in want of aid from us.[3]

Julian’s attempt to disempower the church was defeated because the followers of Jesus were able to practice generosity – generosity of spirit, generosity of care, and generosity of hospitality.  Julian was the opposite of meekness and mercy, and the church that he attempted to defeat simply got better at living those two attributes.

So what’s that to us?  All of this – Moses, Jesus, Julian, Constantius – is literally ancient history.  What are we supposed to do now?  Is there any way for us to learn from these folks?

Yes.

Here’s what I’d like to invite you to do today.  And tomorrow.  And every day this week.

Spend some time reflecting on this past year, and some of the times and places where the pandemic weighed most heavily upon you and those you love.  In particular, I’d like you to call to mind a day when you felt as though you were at the end of your rope.  You were fed up, or frustrated, or scared, or lonely, or broke, or all of those things.

Try to live with those feelings for a bit, and then see if you can connect with a way that those circumstances put you in a place where you did something that you later came to regret.  Maybe the weight of those feelings caused you to lash out at someone you love.  Perhaps you sought comfort in pornography or substance abuse or another kind of escape or risky behavior.  It could be that those emotions led you to contemplate harm to yourself or a neighbor.

Have you had thoughts like that, or experienced moments of similar anguish, in the past twelve months?

If you have – and I know that this is true for many of you – you are not proud of those moments, those days, those weeks.  You would not want your life or your legacy to be defined by something that you felt or said or did on a day when you were literally at your lowest point.  You don’t want to be known by what happened on your worst day, do you?  Your life is more than that, isn’t it?

Sit with that feeling for a while.  That is the school of meekness.  Learn from who you were, and how you got there.

Now, take a look around you.  Unless you’re sitting on a different planet than I am, I’m thinking that there are people you know who are, right now, acting like complete and total chowderheads.  They are behaving poorly, to say the least; unwisely, to be charitable; and maybe even despicably.

Think about who they are, and where they are.  Is it possible, perhaps, that those people are now where you were when you were at your worst?

I’m not excusing bad behavior, and I’m not giving anyone the right to hurt you.  But I wonder: that part of them that you can see now – do you think that is how they are on their best day? Is this, do you think, how they would like to be remembered?

As I think about the school of meekness and the diploma of mercifulness, I want to urge you, beloved; I want to beg you and to implore you: do not allow how you treat that person to be the reason that they walk away from Jesus.  Let us commit ourselves to learning and practicing these disciplines that Jesus calls “blessed”.  Let us be counted among those who extend mercy and live meekly – those who are rooted in the conviction of God’s sufficiency and an allegiance to what is right and true.

This kind of living is not record-shattering by most measures.  It is, in many ways, unremarkable.  And yet it is, I believe, the way in which the long arc of our experience will bend us toward truth and reconciliation and hope and forgiveness.  We are not called to live the faith in ten-second bursts, one hundred meter dashes, or one-hour worship services.  We are called to explore, to live, and to model these things all day, every day.  Thanks be to the God who meets us where we are, and provides for us – and our neighbors – a measure of grace for yesterday and one of hope for tomorrow.  Amen.

[1] The Princess Bride (1987, Act III Communications).

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1978), p. 43.

[3] Letter to Arsacius, translated at http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/Julian.html

Those Who Mourn (Beatitudes #2)

The Christian observance of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 17.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will spend Lent considering the question, “When this (the pandemic, the struggle for racial reconciliation, the horrid winter, the political discord… fill in the blanks) is over, or at least a year or two or three down the road, what kind of people do we want to be?”  We are anchoring our discussion in The Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.  I hold that these are eight core values that the people of God hold – the things that make us who we are.  On Sunday Feb. 28 we joined others in our nation in mourning more than half a million COVID deaths as we gathered around Psalm 34:17-18 and II Corinthians 1:3-11 and considered what it means to be counted among those who mourn.

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

To view the service in its entirety on YouTube, please use the link below:

It was a typical scene for a youth mission project.  A group of young people had gathered and our task was to carry a large pile of lumber from one spot to another.  At first, folks carried a board at a time, and then several boards, and then a few of the young men got into a contest to see who could carry the heaviest load from point A to point B.  There was some bragging, some teasing, and then one of the guys looked at me and said, “What do you think, Pastor Dave?  What’s the heaviest thing you’ve ever carried?”

I thought about that for a moment, and then I looked those kids in the eye… and then I lied through my teeth to them.  I told them the story that I thought they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.  I told them about a day where I impressed some folks in Domasi, Malawi, by my ability to carry sacks of concrete that weighed 50 kilograms – 110.23 pounds.  And that was true.  I did that.

But that’s not the heaviest thing I’ve ever lifted.

The greatest weight I’ve ever carried was an amazingly beautiful six pound baby girl.  There had been some problems early in the pregnancy, but they had, apparently, cleared up.  Everything looked good, right up until I got a call from the panicked mother: “Dave, you’ve got to take me to the hospital, now!  Something has happened.” We met the child’s father at the hospital, and a quick exam confirmed the worst: this child had died before she was born.  Her mother went through an excruciating night of labor and delivery, and then we met the baby, and we prayed… and then, after a few hours, the medical staff came to take the child’s body in order to prepare it for burial as well as to provide care for the mother.

Except my friend would not let her child go.  Finally, the staff came to me and said, “Reverend, we need to treat this patient, and we can’t do that while she’s still clinging to that baby.  You’ve got to go in and take the baby from her so we can treat her.”

And I did.  And it is the heaviest thing I have ever done, or ever hope to do.

That was a hard day, and it’s still a hard story to tell.  And the last thing a group of high school boys need is a weepy middle-aged man bringing down their banter on the work site.  I’m often clueless, but I’m not THAT clueless.  So that’s why I told them about bags of cement.

We’re studying the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” cries out Jesus of Nazareth, “for they shall be comforted.”  This is the second beatitude, and it follows “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We’ve begun this exploration of the Beatitudes in the hope that in taking a look at the foundations of some of the most comprehensive and inspiring set of ethical teachings ever, we will discover for ourselves ways that we might be included in the kinds of life that God blesses.  We are living with these statements because we are aware that Jesus calls those who follow him to a life of exceptionality, and we want to be ready to follow him into the world.  We are studying this wisdom because we know that the world is changing, and that this is the time for us to decide how we will choose to live in the post-Corona world.  Oh, trust me, I know that this thing is a long way from being over – but this Lent is the appropriate time for us to contemplate the people that we are becoming.

Last week, we acknowledged that the Beatitudes were deeply rooted in a passage from Isaiah 61, the writing with which Jesus began his public teaching ministry, and which proclaims

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted… to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

Melancolie, a statue created by Albert György (living in Switzerland, but born in Romania) can be found in Geneva, Switzerland in a small park on the promenade (Quai du Mont Blanc) along the shore of Lake Geneva.

It’s easy for us to hear a connection between these words and the pronouncement of God’s promise to those who are mourning.  And indeed, this beatitude is fitting today as we will take some time later in the worship service to commemorate those who have lost their lives to this Coronavirus pandemic: an astounding 524,669 (as of 8:30 this morning) in the USA in the last year.  If we say we don’t know anything about mourning and grief, we have not been paying attention.  Let’s explore this Beatitude and see if it has anything to tell us about how we can be the people we are called to be in 2021 and beyond.

Jesus, having addressed those who are “poor in spirit”, now calls to those who mourn.  The Greek word that he uses, penthountes, can most obviously mean one who mourns or laments.  In addressing these folks, Jesus can be calling to mind another passage from Isaiah, wherein the prophet describes the “suffering servant of the Lord” as a man who is “acquainted with grief”.

In Jesus’ day, the land of Israel was relatively prosperous and peaceful.  If we were filing economic reports to the home office in Rome, we might even use words like “prosperous” or “thriving”.  If they had a stock market, it probably would’ve been doing pretty well.

But here’s the thing: that “prosperity” was not equally shared.  The biggest burdens of taxation and debt fell most heavily on those who could least afford it.  It was not uncommon for a man to be so financially overwhelmed that he would have to literally sell one or more of his children in order to simply cover his debts.  I know it’s hard for us to understand this in our own enlightened age (wink-wink), but it’s almost as if the entire system was rigged to ensure the safety and ease of a privileged few while many were simply forgotten.

So on the one hand, this Beatitude of Jesus is simply a statement of fact: God is paying attention.  Those who are being unfairly crushed and penalized will find solace and comfort.  Those who suffer will find relief.  That’s a promise.

And yet I would suggest that we can find a deeper meaning in this saying. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he chose to use the expression leid tragen, which can mean “those who bear sorrow.”  In so doing, he hinted at the fact that this Beatitude is not merely a promise that things will get better for those who are struggling, but rather an invitation to every follower of Jesus to enter more intimately into the sorrow of the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

For the emphasis lies on the bearing of sorrow.  The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it.  And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity… They simply bear the suffering which comes their way as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for hissake.”[1]

When Jesus mentioned the grieving, he was saying that it would be appropriate for his followers to seek to dwell with those who have experienced pain or disruption.

So here’s the deal: Christ-followers, no less than anyone else, can expect to be included in the first group from time to time.  That is to say, it’s not like we have a choice.  We are going to lose people.  We are going to face disaster or hardship.  We are going to encounter death, or grief, or suffering – and therefore, followers of Jesus share in the common lot of humanity by requiring comfort from time to time.

However, many of those of us who follow Jesus in the 21st century – particularly those of us in North America – perceive the second interpretation of “mourning” (that is the “sorrow-bearing” of which Luther spoke) as optional.  We have, perhaps as well as anyone in the history of the world, the ability to insulate ourselves from the troubles of other people.

Most of the folks who can hear my voice have well-developed systems that allow us to escape from anything that reeks of unpleasantness.  We are busy.  We have things to do.  We get lost in our screens, or our gardens, or our hobbies.

Sometimes we do opt to engage the sufferings of others – we make a quick visit to the funeral home, or we send a card, but we find it hard to dwell in that place very long.  We don’t know what to say, or there’s really nothing to do, or we simply don’t want to complicate things for anyone.  And so we disengage, and we refrain from doing anything like bearing the sorrows of the world.

I would like to suggest that Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth helps us to understand where Jesus is going in the second Beatitude. In the span of five sentences, Paul uses the words “console” or “consolation” at least ten times.  This is not accidental: the call of the disciple is to participate in the consolation of God.

And while this may seem self-evident, consolation can only make sense in the context of distress.  Let’s say that you’ve just received a package that contains the keys to your dream house, the title to a new car, a winning powerball ticket, a press release indicating that the coronavirus has been eliminated, and a hard drive containing a recording of every sermon I’ve ever preached.  I mean, you just can’t believe your good fortune, right?

And let’s say that at that very moment, while you’re admiring this amazing pile of incomparable joy, your neighbor bursts in and says, “You’re not going to believe this: I have the best news you’ve heard all year!”  My hunch is that your initial instinct would be to say something like, “I doubt it.”  When everything is going great, what does “good news” even look like?

In the same way, it is literally impossible to offer comfort and consolation to someone who has not suffered.  It would be like offering a bicycle to a fish, or a handful of sand to someone on the beach.  It’d be pointless.

Yet Paul presumes that we have received comfort and that we are invited to behave like God in offering consolation to the world around us.  The only way to experience consolation is to have come through a place of bereavement and grief.  The only way to offer comfort is to be willing to enter into the arena of distress or pain.

If we as the church of Jesus Christ are going to be faithful during and after a time of pandemic, we are going to have to spend time in, and acknowledge, places of pain and loss.  And some of that will probably be personal in nature – more and more of us can think of someone we know who has died from COVID, and most of us can think of someone we’ve met who has lost a job, or suffered some other kind of setback.  But more than that, the people who want to look like Jesus will have to find themselves venturing into the realities that are not yet personal to us simply because those are the places in which the consolation we’ve been charged to convey is in the shortest supply.

I hope that you can see here a correlation between the first Beatitude (“blessed are the poor in spirit”) and the second (“blessed are those who mourn”).  One measure of being “poor in spirit” is getting over yourself and being able to see the world from someone else’s point of view.  As we grow in our ability to be empathetic, we become more and more available to those who grieve and are therefore better able to become agents of comfort and consolation.

OK, Dave, but how do we do that?  You’ve convinced us, and we’re willing to be those who participate in the consolation of the world.  What does that look like?

Allow me to offer two brief responses.

In the near term, one of the best ways to offer comfort is to simply show up.  I mean, that’s why we have calling hours at the funeral home, right? You don’t think for a second that you’re going to stroll into the place and actually do much that is useful.  You’re not going to bring their loved one back, and I know from experience that most folks aren’t going to remember anything that you say.  But they’ll remember that you were there.  When you show up in the lives of people who are in pain, that matters.

And when you show up, resist the urge to try to fix everything right away.  If the wound is deep, there’s nothing you can fix, and if you try to tinker around by attempting to “solve” their deepest problems, you’ll just make things worse.  And please, for the love of God, when you try to bring comfort to someone, don’t say “Well, this is all a part of God’s plan” or some other religious-sounding nonsense.  Just show up and wait with them during the longest, hardest times of their lives.  If God’s got a plan, then let God announce it.

Instead, do what you can in the short run: get them groceries, or clean their bathroom, or take their kids for an afternoon.  Give them yourself, and give them space.

But a deeper, longer-range view of this practice of bearing the sorrow of the world is to invest yourself in that which might address the causes of this pain.  If, for instance, we knew a woman who was killed at a particularly dangerous curve on the hillside, we would, of course, go and sit with that family and do all the things I’ve just suggested.  But if another friend, and then another and another and another perished at that same spot, it seems that we are obliged to go beyond merely showing up at the funeral home and bringing casseroles to the family next month.  If we learn that that curve is lethal, we must speak to the highway department or convince city council to somehow change the road itself.

Similarly, if we are aware of a structure or a system that is continuing to bring pain and destruction into the lives of those with whom we share the journey, then we have an imperative to bring comfort by seeking to change the structure so that it loses its power to bring pain.

This morning, we will spend a few moments seeking to remember and somehow account for more than half a million of our fellow citizens who have been lost to the Coronavirus. To the extent that some of those folks have been loved and known by people participating in this service, it will be a deeply personal act.  And many of us have or will walk more intentionally into relationships with those who are suffering by helping with the shopping or assisting with rent or keeping an eye on the kids.

Yet all of us are called to participate in the broader work of advocating for justice and healing.  We ought to stand against those who profit from suffering or who sow discord.  We are called to do those things that are within our power to curb the spread of the virus even as we support and encourage those who have been affected by it.  And when we have emerged from the shadow of this particular pestilence, we are bound to do what we can for the sake of others in our world who remain in its grip.  And we are obligated to learn from this so that the next time something happens, folks won’t be wondering if it’s safe to light 500 candles in this building.

I’m not sure what you’d say if someone asked you the heaviest thing you’ve ever carried.  I can promise you, however, that if you stick around with Jesus long enough, you’ll find yourself in a position where you are called to bear the grief of the world.

The work of comfort and consolation is difficult and heavy.  And yet it is the means by which the compassion of Christ is made known in our world.  By sharing in the ministry of presence and accompaniment, we reflect the hope of the Gospel into places that can seem very dark and dismal.  Let us not turn away from the opportunity to walk with, and to bear the sorrows of, those who grieve.  And let us not leave the world unchanged, so that the grief continues to multiply generation after generation.  “Thanks be to God, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. (II Corinthians 1:3-4)” Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback, 1963) pp. 121-122

The Poor in Spirit (Beatitudes #1)

The Christian observance of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, February 17.  This year, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will spend Lent considering the question, “When this (the pandemic, the struggle for racial reconciliation, the horrid winter, the political discord… fill in the blanks) is over, or at least a year or two or three down the road, what kind of people do we want to be?”  We are anchoring our discussion in The Beatitudes as found in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.  I hold that these are eight core values that the people of God hold – the things that make us who we are.  On Sunday Feb. 21 we gathered around Isaiah 61:1-3 and Mark 12:41-44 and considered what it means to be “poor in spirit.”

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

To take part in the entire worship service via YouTube, use the link below:

For some reason I have a vivid memory of being in the third grade at the elementary school on Darley Road.  Miss Hanby called me up to the blackboard to work out a problem, and that is my first awareness of being in a situation where I was simultaneously receiving instruction from the teacher while the rest of the class sat back and observed.  I remember feeling exposed and vulnerable – I didn’t want to disappoint the lovely Miss Hanby, but I was afraid that if I made a mistake at the board the class would laugh.  Everybody, it seemed, was watching me – a student – figure things out.

Matthew 5-7 records the teaching we know as the Sermon on the Mount.  For the remainder of Lent, we’ll be walking through the first dozen verses of this teaching, and so I’d like to help contextualize it for you.

Matthew tells us, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them…”  When I read that this week, I was plunged back to the third grade – I realized that the disciples were, in some sense, in the same situation wherein I found myself in the fall of 1968.  On the one hand, these first followers of Jesus are receiving the great benefit of what is arguably the most amazing and comprehensive set of ethical instruction ever offered.  They are there, with Jesus, and he’s inviting them to work it out.  But on the other hand, they are surrounded by “the crowds”.  They’ve publicly left their previous stations in life (as fishermen, activists, whatever) and are walking with the new Rabbi.  And yet it’s the very beginning of his ministry.  The disciples don’t know much – and yet the cameras are rolling, and the public (and, indeed, Herod) is watching.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with a series of eight statements, or more accurately, blessings, that describe the essential character necessary for a life of faith.  These pronouncements offer the disciples a list of character traits that will serve them well as they seek to make sense of their place following Jesus.

We call these verses “the Beatitudes”.  That’s because one of the first Bibles that a lot of our folk read was the Vulgate, written in Latin, and the first word in each of these sentences is beati.  That’s the Latin translation of the Greek word that Matthew uses, makarioiMakarioi can mean “happy”, or “blessed”, or even “rich”.  It is not, however, best used to describe an emotional state (such as how I feel “happy” when Sidney Crosby scores a goal against the Flyers in overtime).  Rather, it is more of a descriptive word – a declarative word.

I got some insight into this from a Malawian man named Mikhael whom I had the pleasure to know many years ago.  Whenever anyone mentioned something positive to him, his response was almost invariably “congratulations!”  “Hey, Mikhael, these eggs are delicious!” “Congratulations!” Or, “You know, the minibus was headed right for our vehicle but it swerved at the last minute.” “Yes, Abusa. Congratulations.”

At first, I attributed this to a poor English vocabulary.  Maybe.  But I came to interpret it in a deeper way: when Mikhael said “congratulations”, he was not telling me that I had done something particularly well; rather, it was his way of indicating that things ought to be like that.  Eggs should taste great.  Minibuses should stay in their own lane.  Life is better when these things are true.  Congratulations.

So as we begin this series, I’m offering these reflections because I believe that these pronouncements are worthy of such “congratulations.”  That is, I believe them to be true and accurate descriptions of how things ought to be.

I mentioned on Wednesday night that we’d be diving into this series because I believe that we are approaching a cultural turning point on several fronts.  The battle against COVID is shifting from abject fear and isolation to a plan for vaccination and reopening.  We face a reckoning with the political differences that have led many people to be manipulative or dismissive in recent months.  We must continue the ongoing work of dismantling systemic racism.

This is a lot to bear, and we’ve been under a great deal of strain for the past year (at least).  But now, we are beginning to see that life can be different, and maybe better, in the days ahead.  I have thought several times this week of the words of Winston Churchill, who after the allies won their first significant victory in World War II at El Alamein, said, “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  While many of us are still locked in, and our schools are still closed, and our finances are still hurting… it’s time to ask ourselves what kind of people we’d like to be when the pandemic recedes.  It’s important for us to take steps now in the recognition that the choices we make today will affect our ability to be the people we’d like to be tomorrow.

In some ways, this Lent is for us a kind of “spring training”.  Right now, there are Major League Baseball players scattered throughout the south, talking about fundamentals of a game that they’ve played since they were six years old… They will be playing some games, and engaging in some practices, not because what they do now “counts” in any real sense, but because they are aware of the truth that how they prepare in March will put them in a better position to win in July, or September, or even October.

Moreover, we in the church of Jesus Christ are doing all of this in places where other people can watch us.  How will we, who claim to follow Jesus, participate in the unfolding events of 2021?

So for all of these reasons, we’re going to spend some time listening to Jesus and the Beatitudes in the hopes that we can learn something about what it means to follow well and truly.

We ought to note that none of these sayings are exhortations.  That is, when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” he is NOT saying, “OK, listen up, people: I want you to get out there and be poorer in spirit today than you were yesterday.  And you: Bartholemew? What do you call what happened this morning?  Do you honestly expect me to believe that was ‘meek?’  Give me a break!  If you want to follow me, you’re going to have to show me! Get out there! Pure in heart! Peacemakers! Show me what you’ve got!”

Of course not.  This is descriptive language… sort of.  Yet there is a kind of an aspirational quality to it. By that I mean that in these Beatitudes, Jesus describes the kind of life he blesses, and then uses the rest of the Sermon on the Mount to talk about how to go about building that kind of life.

According to the Gospel of Luke, the first public sermon of Jesus took place at the synagogue in Nazareth, and his text was Isaiah 61, which you heard a few moments ago.  If you hear echoes of that passage in the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount – the first public teaching in Matthew – then you can be assured that is not accidental.

The first Beatitude is a blessing upon those who are “poor in spirit”.  If you were to rifle over to Luke chapter 6, you’d see that Luke reports this as simply, “blessed are the poor.”  Period.  It’s tempting to want to get Matthew and Luke into a theological argument, but it’s helpful to remember that they are both translating into Greek the Hebrew words of Isaiah 61: the Gospel is good news to the poor.  That word can certainly mean material poverty; it is also used to describe one who has been oppressed by the rich; one who experiences powerlessness.  Moreover, it is used to characterize a spiritual awareness, as when the Psalmist cries, “this poor man called, and the Lord heard him…”  To be “poor”, or “poor in spirit” is to recognize that one has a complete and utter reliance upon God.

In offering this Beatitude: “blessed are the poor in spirit”, Jesus is asserting that spiritually humble people – that those people who pray without making any claim to be any better than anyone else – are the people who are best able to participate in the fullness of life as God intends it.

I’m sure that the disciples heard this as an affirmation!  As we’ve said, these are folks who have very publicly vacated their earlier lives and professions and have now cast their lot with Jesus.  They are, in a very real sense, relying on Jesus to help them to know what is valuable and what is not.

There’s an old Jewish wisdom saying that helps me to understand this. Simcha Bunim was a Polish rabbi in the 19th century who famously taught that each of us should have two pockets, and each pocket should contain a single slip of paper.  Depending on the need, we can reach into a pocket and get a suitable affirmation.  When we are so full of ourselves that our pride will cause damage, we are to reach into the left pocket and pull out a scrap of paper that reads, “I am but dust and ashes.”  That is true.  And yet when we are faced with depression and discouragement, we must reach into the right pocket and retrieve the paper that reminds us, “for my sake, the entire world was created.”  The rabbi’s teaching proclaims the truth that true humility consists, not of calling attention to what a miserable worm I am, but rather of constantly pointing to the strength and power and sufficiency of God.

Those who are “poor in spirit” are those who are mindful of the character and nature of God.  To the extent that this verse contains an imperative, it is not “be poor! Be needy!”, but rather, “pay attention, and look at what God has done and is doing.”

I’d like to suggest that we participate in the Beatitude by engaging with, and learning from, those who are in fact poor.  Look at the world around us: people who have power and wealth generally attempt to preserve those things by any means.  They seek to grow it, to protect it, and to seize more of it.  On the other hand, those who realize that they are powerless can of course be pushed aside and marginalized, but they also are the ones who are more likely to affirm that God in Christ is standing with them and standing by them; that God alone can save them.

I find this hard to say because when I talk about things like this it’s easy to descend into what some might call “poverty porn” or an overspiritualization of someone’s economic condition – and I do not want to do that, or to give the appearance that I think such is wise.  But I have had the opportunity to be a guest in some incredible places.  I’ve visited refugee camps, and I’ve dwelled with those who have experienced disastrous and catastrophic situations; I’ve sat on bare earth floors around fires eating sweet potatoes boiled in water that may once have contained a chicken or goat bone.  I’ve visited homes wherein candlelight was a blessing and electric power is sixty miles away and indoor plumbing is fifteen years away.  And when this has happened, I have been humbled.

Now listen: not for a millisecond do I want to romanticize poverty.  Not for a nanosecond do I deserve credit for being some sort of an amazingly helpful guy.  That is not what I’m saying here, and if you hear that now, then I’m doing this wrong.

What I’m trying to point to is the fact that I know – I’ve MET the women of whom Brogan spoke when we were standing next to Jesus watching the poor widow give all she had to the Lord.  She gave me her last egg in the Chingale region during a famine.  She offered me a tortilla in Reynosa.  He gave me a plum in Moscow, and an avocado in Domasi.  They offered me rice in a refugee camp in Juba.

I have met those who trusted Jesus with the full sum of who they are.  I have seen what discipleship can look like, and I have been humbled.  Humbled!

And God forbid that I meet them, and be fed by them, and be taught by them, and not be changed!  These people of whom I speak know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are but dust in ashes… and yet we have sat in the refugee camp or in the village and looked up at the stars and they have told me of the times that they have seen God at work; they know that for them, the universe was created.

As he begins a description of the life of faithfulness and the life that God blesses, Jesus affirms that God is unequivocally on the side of the poor, the humble, and the oppressed.  Anyone with sense, and who desires to be a follower of Jesus, can and should affirm that if this is where God is, and if this is what God does, then that is what we are called to do.

The Kingdom of Heaven is filled with those who are able to give themselves to God again and again and again; who depend on God’s care for the marginalized; and who resist the temptation to think that our lives are measured by what we have acquired or amassed unto ourselves.

One writer has put it this way:

Followers of Jesus participate in God’s reign by humbling themselves before God, giving themselves over to God, depending on God’s deliverance, and following God in caring for the poor and the oppressed.[1]

Does that sound like something you can do?  If so: congratulations! It should! That’s what life is supposed to be like.  Does that sound daunting? It is.  But there is nothing more important, nothing more Christ-like, than participating in this kind of life.

This kind of humility, this poverty of spirit, is encapsulated well in a prayer I have learned from the Church of the Province of the West Indies – a group of congregations comprised primarily of descendants of enslaved people the Caribbean.  Listen:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, the privilege is ours to share in the loving, healing, reconciling mission of your Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, in this age and wherever we are.  Since without you we can do no good thing,

May your Spirit make us wise;
May your Spirit guide us;
May your Spirit renew us:
May your spirit strengthen us
So that we will be:
Strong in faith;
Discerning in proclamation;
Courageous in witness;
Persistent in good deeds.
This we ask in the name of the Father.[2]

Remember, the whole class is watching.  How are we working out this aspect of our discipleship? Where can we grow? From whom do we need to learn? Thanks be to God who has given us this rich invitation.  Amen.

 

[1] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), p. 39.

[2] Taken from Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp. 96-97.

What Will We Tell The Children?

As Ash Wednesday continued, the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered for a service featuring the imposition of ashes and sharing the Lord’s Supper.  More than that, we considered the ways in which we are continuing to seek to maintain a faithful presence in the face of a long Covid winter.  We found hope and inspiration from the prophet Joel, and considered Joel 1:1-4 as well as chapter two, excerpted below.  

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

To take part in the entire service of worship via YouTube, use the link below:

Did you have a favorite story growing up?  Or can you think of one that you’ve read to your children or your grandchildren that has great meaning for you?

When my daughter was young, we’d lay in her bed and after she told me something about her day, I’d concoct a story involving a character named “Crazy Eddie”, who often encountered similar challenges but with far less wisdom and grace than my daughter.  My grandchildren Lucia and Violet love listening to stories about a brave, kind, strong, funny child whose name is Rain.

Why do we do this?  What’s the point of telling stories to our children and grandchildren?

We want to amuse them, or distract them to be sure.  We also tell them stories about topics, or places, or people that matter because we want to shape their identity – we use the power of stories to tell our children who, and whose, we are.

Scripture, as a whole, is pretty intent on storytelling.  One of the centerpieces of the Old Testament is a command called the shema, found in Deuteronomy 6, which reads as follows:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.

The things we know and that we remember about our God are the things that we tell our children over and over and over again.  Telling our children stories is one way that they discover who we, and therefore, who they are.

You heard the very beginning of the book of Joel a moment ago.  You did not hear much about who Joel was, or where he was, or when he wrote.  The first commandment given in this book of prophecy is to listen, and then to repeat to your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren, this great and powerful story that will unfold.  God’s people are called to mark an event or a time – essentially to remember a story – and then to repeat that story throughout the generations.

In fact, the book of Joel doesn’t have much in the way of context.  We don’t know who was king when Joel spoke, or where his congregation met.  There are not really many historical referents contained in this work.  Instead, it is a timeless call to God’s people to remember, and to remind each other of, the story.

And what is that?

Well, it was simply terrible.  The nation was overwhelmed by swarms of locusts.  You heard it – it was not merely a group – the prophet outlines the ways that the locusts cut, swarmed, crept, and stripped the sustenance from the people.  The devastation of the countryside appears to be complete.

We can get a sense of what this may have been like by reading either Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, or O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth.  Each of these novels seems to describe the devastation wrought by the huge swarms of Rocky Mountain Locusts that overwhelmed the American prairie late in the 1800’s.

Rolvaag describes a scene where three farmers are chatting about the lovely weather and the bumper crops they anticipate.  Then,

…From out of the west layers of clouds came rolling – thin layers that rose and sank on the breeze; they had none of the look or manner of ordinary clouds; they came in waves, like the surges of the sea, and cast a glittering sheen before them…

The three men stood spellbound, watching the oncoming terror…The horses snorted as they, too, caught sight of it, and became very restless… Down by the creek the grazing cows had hoisted their tails straight in the air and run for the nearest shelter; and no sooner had the horses been turned loose, than they followed suit; man and beast alike were overcome by a nameless fear.

And now from out of the sky gushed down with cruel force a living, pulsating stream, striking the backs of the helpless folk like pebbles thrown by an unseen hand, but that which fell out of the heavens was not pebbles, nor raindrops, nor hail, for then it would have lain inanimate where it fell; this substance had no sooner fallen than it popped up again, crackling and snapping – rose up and disappeared in the twinkling of an eye… a cloud made up of innumerable dark-brown clicking bodies!

They whizzed by in the air; they literally covered the ground; they lit on the heads of grain, on the stubble, on everything in sight… millions on millions of them…

…they would swoop down, dashing and spreading out like an angry flood, slicing and shearing, cutting with greedy teeth, laying waste every foot of the field they lighted in…[1]

The farmers in that novel cry out that this is a Biblical plague, and they are not far off.  Listen for the Word of the Lord from Joel chapter 2:

Blow the trumpet in Zion;  signal the alarm from My holy mountain! It is almost here. Let all who live in the land tremble because the day of the Eternal One is coming.

  Judgment will come on a black and fearful day;
a thick cloud of darkness will loom over everything.
    A great and mighty army advances
like dawn spreading across the mountains.
    Never has the world seen anything like it before,
nor will future generations ever see anything like it again.

The army is like a fire, consuming everything in its path—
    a scorching flame burning everything behind them.
The land before them is sweet like the garden of Eden.
    The land following—only a lonely desert; nothing is spared in judgment.
They look like horses arrayed for battle;
    they charge ahead like warhorses.
They sound like clattering chariots racing over mountaintops,
    like a crackling fire engulfing stubble,
Like a mighty army maneuvering for battle.
Seeing the result of God’s judgment looming, the nations writhe in anguish;
    each face grows as pale as a ghost.
They run like champions into the fight.
    Like skilled soldiers, they scale city walls;
Every man marches in formation, never leaving his rank.
Organized—no soldier crowds another.
    Independent—each man marches straight ahead.
Together—they are unstoppable as they break through the defenses
    and do not break off the attack.
They charge the city, scurry along its wall.
    They swarm through windows into houses, like common thieves.

Do you see that kind of devastation here?  It seems to be complete and utter.  Joel talks about the locusts as if they are an invading force, laying bare the countryside.

In the face of such a swarm, there are inevitably questions: What does this mean?  Will we survive?  How can we be who we are in the midst of a world where things like this happen?

For Joel’s community, the questioning gets more intense:

Before them the earth trembles and the heavens shake.
The sun and the moon become a void of darkness.
    The stars lose their radiance too.
The Eternal One shouts commands from the front line of His army;  His forces are vast—uncountable mighty soldiers obey His command.  The day of the Eternal One is great, fearsome indeed. Who can survive?

Did you hear that? Now it’s a theological dilemma! Where is God in all of this?  Is God doing this to us? Is this that great and terrible “Day of the Lord” that Isaiah and Amos and the others have mentioned?

And there, in the midst of the swarm, a voice is heard.  The Holy One speaks:

Even now, turn back your heartand rededicate yourselvesto Me; show Me your repentance by fasting, weeping, and mourning. Rip the wickedness out of your hearts; don’t just tear your clothing.

Now return to the Eternal, your True God.
You already knowHe is gracious and compassionate.
He does not anger easily and maintains faithful love.
He is willing to relent and not harm you.
Who knows? Perhaps He will turn and relieve you of this threat, and leave behind some blessing as He goes—  Maybe enough grain and wine to offer to the Eternal, your True God?

When you don’t know where to turn, says Joel, then turn to God.  And don’t just turn once – re-turn.  Continually orient yourselves in a God-ward direction as you seek meaning in where you are and in what is happening.  Is it just me, or can you see some parallels between this and the past year we’ve endured?  The way that these writers describe the locusts they sound almost viral in their assault.  COVID, like the locusts, can be unpredictable, is often overwhelming, and brings out fear.  One of the worst things is the apparent capricious nature of this onslaught: some people who are seemingly indifferent to precautionary measures are fine, while other families bear tremendous hardship.

I can’t tell you how many times in the past year I’ve been summoned to the phone or the computer by those who want to know, “Pastor Dave, are we going to be OK?  I’m so afraid right now…”  On more than one occasion I’ve been accosted in the street; last March as the nation watched, paralyzed, while the virus shut down Manhattan, I walked into a New York City hospital wearing my clerical collar and a stranger grabbed me by the coat and said, “Why is he doing this to us?  Why is all of this happening, Father?”

These are the questions that faced Joel’s community as the locusts came in and devoured their crops, their thatched roofs, even the wooden farming implements they had.  What is happening? Who is doing this? And are we going to make it?

The entire book of Joel seems to be written to tell people not only where to turn, but how to turn.  When life is filled with turmoil, uncertainty, and fear: then we turn to God.  We “repent”.  Our English translation says, “Turn back your heart… show me your repentance…”  In Hebrew “turn” is subu, and “repent” is wesubu. Turn and then turn again. And again.

And how do we turn or re-turn?

In fasting, and weeping, and mourning.  And Joel says that we are to act like it matters, too.  We are warned against merely going through the motions – instead, the story calls us to again and again and again turn our hearts around.  The word “heart” is used at least twice, and there is a strong connection between one’s inner reality and the outward practice: the heart, mind, body, and spirit are all aligned as we strive to keep ourselves attuned toward the Holy Presence.

And – and this is important – when we turn and re-turn, we are told for whom it is we ought to be looking.  Seek the one who is gracious and filled with mercy; be on the lookout for the one who is characterized by abundant love, and not anger.  When the prophet is confronted by the horrors of his own situation, he responds by inviting his community to center in on God’s character (“You already know that he is gracious and compassionate”) AND on God’s power (He is able to relieve you of this threat).

Somebody said to me yesterday, “It’s hard to believe that March is just around the corner when it feels like it is still March 2020.”  She wasn’t wrong.  For many of us, this Ash Wednesday feels as though it might be a continuation of last Lent.  If you were to walk around the church building, you’d find things where you left them on March 15, 2020.  Our lives have not stood still, exactly, but there has been a certain stuck-ness.  It has been, at times, overwhelming.

But now, there are cracks of light.  Some of you have been vaccinated.  Others have had the virus and gotten through.  I believe that the next task for people of faith is for us to decide what kind of people we are, and what kind of people we will choose to be when we finally emerge from this experience.

Lent is the time for us to do this hard work of deciding, and of setting our face in the right direction, and of walking the walk.  Each Sunday for the next six weeks we’ll consider the Beatitudes: the core values of Kingdom living, if you will.  Each Wednesday, we’ll take the time to consider the person and work of Jesus, particularly in the last week of his life.  In all things, we’ll have the opportunity to align our hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies in the practices that will shape us and our obedience.

And we will tell, and re-tell the stories of faith.  We will celebrate the ways that God has met us.  We will re-affirm the places where we have known God to be gracious and loving.

Look once again at the initial directive from Joel: “be sure to tell this story to your sons and daughters. Your sons should tell their sons and so on, for generations.”  That’s a command, right?  But listen: beloved: it’s also a promise.  It is a gift.  It is a hope.  When someone tells you to remember this so you can tell your great-grandchildren, what is assumed? That there will BE great-grandchildren.  We must know and tell the story, because there will be those who need to hear it.  The command to be attentive to the Lord’s presence in the midst of the swarm is itself a promise that there is a future that will be characterized by that presence.  Thanks be to God for this time of Lent in which we can reflect on who we are charged to become, and in which we can take the time to help the world around us hear and learn the story of God’s faithful love, now and always.  Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Rolvaag, O.E., Giants in the Earth (1927), quoted in James Limburg Interpretation Commentary on Hosea – Micah(Atlanta: John Knox, 1988), pp. 62-63.

Leaving the Porch Light On (Those Who Waited #6)

In the long weeks between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at the stories of a number of personalities in the Bible who have endured seasons of waiting.  During this time of political and civil discord and the coronavirus pandemic, we want to know “when will it end?”.  On February 14 we concluded this series as we looked at the interesting relationship between the prophet Hosea and his wife, Gomer, and the ways that relationship paralleled God’s interest in the people of Israel (Hosea 11) as well as the familiar account of the loving father and the child who wished him dead and left home as told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-24.

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In Hotel Rwanda, we met Paul Rusesabagina and through him experienced the horrors of genocide in Africa.  Solomon Northrup’s experience, brought to life in Twelve Years a Slave, opened our eyes in new ways to the evils of the American experience of chattel slavery and racism.  When Hacksaw Ridge hit the screen, we saw the bravery of Desmond Doss as his pacifism brought him into conflict not only with the Japanese army on Okinawa but members of his own unit.  Each of these films, and a dozen others you could name, does this for us: it takes a huge, complicated, far-reaching problem (like genocide, slavery, or armed conflict) and invites us into it in a deeply personal way by simply telling one person’s story.  Somehow, examining a microcosm helps us to understand the big picture better.

It’s hard for me to communicate the big picture of what the world was like for the prophet Hosea and his contemporaries in the 8th century BCE.  I know that here in the USA we’ve had our share of political conflict and theater in recent years, but consider this chapter from Israel’s history: after king Jeroboam died in 746 BCE, his son Zechariah ruled for six months.  Zechariah was assassinated by Shallum, who was in power for one month before he was murdered by Menahem.  While Menahem lived for ten years, it was during his reign that Israel became a vassal state to Syria, and upon his death, his son Pekahiah was only in office for two years before being assassinated by Pekah.  If you’ve lost count, that makes for six different kings in less than fifteen years, and at least four regicidal murders.  Can you imagine the turmoil in which the country lived?  These years were characterized by regime changes, lawlessness, anarchy, and a sense of desperation and decay.  It’s almost too much to take in.

And here in the record of holy scripture, we see not only those far-reaching societal shifts, but the singular story of a very interesting prophetic vocation.

Hosea and Gomer, by Cody F. Miller (http://www.codyfmiller.com). Used by permission of the artist.

Hosea had been born into an upper-class family and was called by God to be a prophet.  He was commanded by the Lord to enter into a marriage with a woman who was well-known for her promiscuity.  Next, his wife Gomer walks out and Hosea struggles as a single parent for some years.  Eventually, he is commanded to go and look for his wife, and when he finds her he has to bail her out.  He brings her home, and there is a period of redemption and the saga of Hosea and Gomer ends with some sort of an implied reconciliation. Here’s how Frederick Buechner tells it:

She was always good company – a little heavy with the lipstick maybe, a little less than choosy about men and booze, a little loud, but great at a party and always good for a laugh. Then the prophet Hosea came along wearing a sandwich board that read “The End Is at Hand” on one side and “Watch Out” on the other.

The first time he asked her to marry him, she thought he was kidding. The second time she knew he was serious, but thought he was crazy. The third time she said yes. He wasn’t exactly a swinger, but he had a kind face, and he was generous, and he wasn’t all that crazier than everybody else. Besides, any fool could see he loved her. Give or take a little, she even loved him back for a while, and they had three children… But everybody could see the marriage wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.

While Hosea was off hitting the sawdust trail, Gomer took to hitting as many night spots as she could squeeze into a night, and any resemblance between her next batch of children and Hosea was purely coincidental. It almost killed him, of course. Every time he raised a hand to her, he burst into tears. Every time she raised one to him, he was the one who ended up apologizing.

He tried locking her out of the house a few times when she wasn’t in by five in the morning, but he always opened the door when she finally showed up and helped get her to bed if she couldn’t see straight enough to get there herself. Then one day she didn’t show up at all.

He swore that this time he was through with her for keeps, but of course he wasn’t. When he finally found her, she was lying passed out in a highly specialized establishment located above an adult bookstore, and he had to pay the management plenty to let her out of her contract. She’d lost her front teeth and picked up some scars you had to see to believe, but Hosea had her back again and that seemed to be all that mattered.

He changed his sandwich board to read “God Is Love” on one side and “There’s No End to It” on the other, and when he stood on the street corner belting out How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! For I am God and no mortal, The Holy One in your midst. (Hosea 11:8-9)

Nobody can say how many converts he made, but one thing that’s for sure is that, including Gomer’s, there was seldom a dry eye in the house.[1]

Why is this story in the Bible?  It is, to say the least, odd.  When you rattle off the names of the Old Testament Prophets – Amos, Zechariah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, to name a few – you get the sense that there is a lot of thunder.  “Thus saith the Lord!” is yelled out, and generally speaking, followed with a lot of condemnation and threatening and smiting.  It’s not hard to see that this is a group of men who are speaking for a God who seems to be pretty angry.

And then there is Hosea.  The book that bears his name comes after Isaiah and Jeremiah, and he is listed as first in what is called the “Book of the Twelve” – the collected works of the so-called “Minor Prophets” of Israel and Judah.  In stark contrast to many who share his profession, Hosea points to God’s love, patience, and longsuffering.  In describing the relationship that Hosea and Gomer share, we get a glimpse into the heart of God.  Whereas so much of the Old Testament prophecy points to what God has done or intends to do, Hosea communicates unequivocally how God feels.  James Luther Mays writes,

No prophet… experiences a more intimate connection with his God than does Hosea, and the fact that Hosea repeatedly characterizes communion with God in terms of ahab, love, and yada’, intimate knowledge, testifies to the depths of that relationship.  [In Hosea we find] a feeling for and of ‘the divine pathos’ (A. Heschel), the inner tragedy and glory of the God who by his own choice struggles for the soul of his people.[2]

Hosea’s story is in the Bible, not to give us an account of a particular marriage in the 8th C BCE, but to demonstrate for us what it means to be in relationship with a God whose love for his people is illogical, painful, and costly.  Just as Hosea calls to his faithless spouse time after time after time, so too God walks with, waits on, and chases down the people whom God made for love and faithfulness, but who continually choose to act otherwise.

I mentioned how the stories of Paul Rusesabagina, Solomon Northrup, and Desmond Doss help us to know a larger truth because we can identify with them.  Does the narrative of Hosea ring true for you?

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are convinced that you love someone more than they’ve been able to love you or even love themselves?

Do you care about, or are you walking with, someone who chooses to act in self-destructive or toxic ways?  Do you know what it is like to love a person who faces addictive behavior, who seems to have an inability to keep their promises or to choose the right path?  Everything in us wants to scream “NO! I CAN’T!”, and yet we continue to love these people who have lied to us, let us down, or walked away from us time and time again.

Do you know that feeling? Now listen: I’m NOT talking about the kind of pain that comes when you are in a relationship characterized by physical violence or emotional abuse.  That’s a different sermon.  Rather, I wonder if you know how it feels to see someone for whom you care deeply turn their back on you, ignore you, or walk out into an ocean of self-destruction?

What do we do about it?  How do we move forward in our own lives when we love someone who seems to be incapacitated, or even moving backward?

The first word here, and I hope you’re not surprised by this, is “love”.  As we’ve already said, Hosea uses the language of love more than any other Old Testament prophet.  If we are in relationship with someone who continues to dwell in a place of darkness or separation or pain, we are, it seems to me, called to continue to offer love.  Isn’t that what we say each week? “Hold onto what is good, and return to no one evil for evil…” means that when we are wounded, we are not free to strike back blindly (or purposefully, for that matter).  We are called hold a space in our hearts and our lives even for those who mistreat us.

Gomer and Hosea, by Cody F. Miller. Used by permission. (http://www.codyfmiller.com)

Having said that, however, we need to be clear that a part of loving those in difficulty may be giving them the opportunity to experience the consequences of their own behavior.  When I was a kid, the son of one of my mother’s dear friends was marching furiously down a path of self-destruction.  In spite of this woman’s pleas, he was continuing to endanger himself and others.  I was shocked, though, when the woman came by to tell my mother that her son had been arrested.  He called from jail, expecting to be bailed out.  Instead, his mother said, “Oh, what a relief.  I hope you sleep well.  I’ll talk to you in the morning.”  When her son expressed outrage at his mother’s “unloving” behavior, she said “Son, for the last year every night I’ve gone to bed worrying about what you will do to yourself or someone else.  You’ve just called to tell me that you are in a place where you’ll be cared for, protected, and kept from harming anyone else.  I’m so tired, and tonight I can rest, knowing that you will not be able to hurt anyone while I sleep.”

Another way of saying this is that love requires boundaries.  Loving someone is not allowing them to stomp into your tender places again and again and again with no regard for who you are.  Sometimes love looks like saying “no”, or “I can’t help you with that”, or “I’ll be here when you decide to come back, but I will not walk with you into that hot mess.”  A number of us have found help in establishing these boundaries by seeking out a counselor or engaging with a group of like-minded people such as Al-Anon.

And yet love also means that we are continuing to look for a path toward restoration and reconciliation.  While I am not required to allow you to come in and rip at my heart 24/7, I do not believe that I’m free to adopt a posture that indicates that you are dead to me.  Hosea is sent to buy back his wife even when she had fallen to the depths.  A story that some of you will tell me is your favorite Bible story ever features a father who abandons all dignity and privilege in order to run through the streets to embrace his bedraggled child.  When these folks are reunited, Hosea winds up paying a fee, and the father kills the fatted calf.  If you’ve ever loved, you know that there is always a cost to love.

Perhaps the best single demonstration of enacted love that I’ve ever seen was that of a dear friend whose adult child had been engaged in a torrent of self-destructive and negative behaviors.  I asked her how she dealt with it, and she said, “Dave, what could I do?  My child is grown.  I’m powerless to enforce any kind of change.  So the only way I know how to love them is this: every night, I stand in the living room and I offer a prayer.  And I unlock the front door, and I leave the porch light on, and I go to bed.  It took years, but one morning I came downstairs, and there they were, sleeping on the sofa.  We still had a lot of work to do, but I knew then that we were going to make it.”

My friend was describing for me the posture around which so much of the Christian life is centered: we wait and we hope.  And when that gets old, then we hope and we wait.  On the one hand, that’s not a lot.  That is to say, waiting and hoping isn’t rushing out there and fixing or curing or enforcing.  But mostly, when it comes to relationships with living, breathing human beings, fixing and curing and enforcing are not options that are open to us.

Know this, beloved, and know it well: in these vulnerable, tentative behaviors of loving with boundaries and of waiting and hoping, you are acting like God.  Is that not what Hosea does for Gomer, what YHWH does for Israel, and what the father does for the lost child?

Church reformer Martin Luther described the tension between what he called Right-Handed and Left-Handed Power.  The power of the right hand is straight, direct and forceful. It’s quick and effective, whether we’re talking about scouring the stains from your sink or eliminating your enemy with a slug from a  .45.  Yet as alluring as Right-Handed Power can be, it is ineffectual in human relationships based on love.  Theologian Robert Capon summarizes it like this:

Unfortunately (right-hand power) has a whopping limitation. If you take the view that one of the chief objects in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, straight-line power becomes useless. Oh, admittedly, you can snatch your baby boy away from the edge of a cliff and not have a broken relationship on your hands. But just try interfering with his plans for the season when he is twenty, and see what happens, especially if his chosen plans play havoc with your own. Suppose he makes unauthorized use of your car, and you use a little straight-line verbal power to scare him out of doing it again. Well and good. But suppose further that he does it again anyway—and again and again and again. What do you do next if you are committed to straight-line power? You raise your voice a little more nastily each time till you can’t shout any louder. And then you beat him (if you are stronger than he is) until you can’t beat any harder. Then you chain him to a radiator till… But you see the point. At some very early crux in that difficult, personal relationship, the whole thing will be destroyed unless you—who on any reasonable view, should be allowed to use straight-line power—simply refuse to use it; unless, in other words, you decide that instead of dishing out justifiable pain and punishment, you are willing, quite foolishly, to take a beating yourself.[3]

Left-Handed Power, though, looks in every way like weakness.  Instead of exerting strength and maintaining control and enforcing results, Left-Handed Power can look like vulnerability or even impotence.  Again, turning to Capon,

Left-handed power… is guaranteed to stop no determined evildoers whatsoever.  It might, of course, touch and soften their hearts.  But then again, it might not.  It certainly didn’t for Jesus; and if you decide to use it, you should be quite clear that it probably won’t for you, either.  The only thing it does insure is that you will not – even after your chin has been bashed in – have made the mistake of closing any interpersonal doors from your side.[4]

Do you see? Hosea give himself in reckless love to Gomer.  God looked at Israel and cried out, “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? I will not execute my wrath… I will not destroy…”  The loving father of whom Jesus spoke chased after and embraced the child who had looked him in the eyes and said, “I wish you were dead…”  And of course, as God in Christ was hanging on the cross, he died forgiving those who had killed him.

So let me say again to you who are waiting for someone you love to come home, or to stop acting the fool, or to walk away from the thing that you know is killing them… in your love for this person, you are acting like God.  In your vulnerability and waiting and hoping, you are keeping the door unlocked and the porch light on.  That’s what God does.

And I know.  I know.  You say, “But how can I do that?  Literally, how can I act this way? How can I act like God in Christ acts?”

There are no easy answers in this regard.  I can tell you it is difficult.  I can tell you that it hurts.  I can tell you that in my own experience, I have connected more deeply with God in those times when I have been watching and waiting for a healing to come than I ever have when I have been taking the world for granted; I have become more intimately acquainted with the Holy One through anguish than I ever have through joy.  I am thrilled to read Hosea because I see in here a model for waiting that supports me as I bear pain of separation in relationship because I know that even in this lonely place, God is here.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  We will begin Lent, the season of reflection and penitence and fasting.  The season of waiting and of moving closer to the passion – the suffering – of Jesus.

I am here to tell you that in this season, and at this time, the heart of God is open – perhaps more widely than ever before – to those of you who have left home, and who are tired of wandering.  And the heart of God is open – perhaps more widely than ever before – to those of you who are waiting and wondering about whether there will be an end to your anguish.

Let us enter into this season, and into the depths of God’s heart, with care and reverence.  Receive all of the love that you need.  Offer, as best you can, the love that others need.  And give thanks to God, who has not given up on any one of us.  Amen.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 43-44.

[2] James Luther Mays, Hosea: A Commentary (OTL. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), p. 7.

[3] Robert Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 19

[4] Capon, p. 20.