Texas Mission 2020 Update #5

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Usually, the “work” portion of our week in Texas ends on Thursday afternoon.  That’s when we tidy up loose ends and begin the process of packing up, as Friday is reserved for a drive to San Antonio to prepare for a flight early on Saturday.  This year, however, we found our opportunity cut short in an unexpected fashion: for what I think is the first time in the history of these trips, we were unable to finish a day’s work due to rain.  It was chilly here in the morning – maybe 50° or so – and the mist hung in the air throughout the first half of the day.  By the time we broke for lunch, however, it had turned into a more determined rain.  This is good news for the farmers in the Rio Grande Valley who depend on this rain for their livelihoods, and who have not received much this year.  But it is, of course, disappointing to us and the folks who are counting on getting their homes built.

This trailer was totally enclosed in the structure we demolished on Tuesday and Wednesday. Today we tore it apart for recycling and scrap.

The first step in building Dulce and Pablo’s new home is setting the foundation blocks – there were 28 of them in all. They had to be measured, laid out, and then brought to level.

Lynn, Josie, and I did a little happy dance each time the level told us that we’d finally gotten things squared away!

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about the power of friendship and shared experiences to shape lives and mission.  On Thursday, we had the opportunity to dive more deeply into the realm of friendship with those we have become privileged to know and serve in our time here in the RGV.  Our hosts for this week, a couple named Pablo and Dulce, had asked us if we’d be willing to share a noontime meal with them.  When we got to the place in the morning, the charcoal was already hot and the chicken was marinating.  As we worked through the morning, we were enticed by the smells emanating from the home and the grill, and the noontime feast of chicken, sausage, guacamole, rice, onions, and… CHEESECAKE was indeed a festival.  As it became clear that we would be unable to continue to work safely and effectively in the rain, the lunch break went on longer than usual as we shared stories and dreams.  Before we left, we spent some time in prayer with these folks, and in doing so we talked about the ways that Moses prayed for the Promised Land without ever getting to enter it.  In the same way, we stood with Pablo and Dulce in the very first stages of their new home, trusting that it will be built in the days to come.  They’ve insisted that we come back and visit them next year to see them settled in.

The grill is fired up and ready…

… and Pablo is at his post!

What a feast!

Pablo and Dulce

The Texas clay tells the story of why digging wasn’t such a good idea this afternoon…

While most of the crew was on the construction site, Susana returned to the Catholic Charities Hospitality Center in McAllen, where her life experience and linguistic skill make her a valuable volunteer indeed.  While on site, she was able to spend time with a young women who, now 8 1/2 months pregnant, is about to be reunited with her husband in the USA.  In addition, Susana was able to escort a Haitian family (whose journey to the USA has taken them through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, and Mexico at least) to the bus station, where they departed in order to join friends and family in Florida.  If you know geography, you understand that this is about the longest way imaginable to travel the 900 miles from Port Au Prince to Florida…

Next stop: Florida!

A long journey is nearing its end!

When evening rolled around we were privileged to visit a family that we first met in 2015. Our team was privileged to meet Juani and her family as we were assigned to their home five years ago, and we have sought to reconnect with them on our annual visits as well as through social media.  How encouraging it is, and what a blessing, to enter this home that we had a hand in constructing!  What joy it brings to feel the love that reverberates from every wall in that place.  It’s been deeply rewarding to watch the children grow into new places of maturity and development, and to hear about their hopes and dreams.  Juani and her family fed us like royalty, and we ate some of the most amazing beans, chicken, rice, sausage, and “Five Cup Cake” that you can imagine.  The food was dynamite.  The conversations were even better.  Heck, they even had a FaceTime call with our old friend Nemorio, who was present on the 2015 team and was able to greet us in that place.

We didn’t finish all of the labor that we’d hoped to accomplish on Thursday.  A wise mentor of mine once told me (and thereafter reminded me again and again) that in ministry and in life, one very rarely gets to finish – but every day, one must choose to stop.  And so we stopped building, because we had to.  But we engaged in a relational pattern that reminds me of the Gospels.  Time after time we hear of Jesus dropping a truth bomb or sharing great grace with folks in the context of a meal.  He frequently compared the Kingdom of God to a party, or a feast, or a celebration.  When we get to travel to Texas, some of you might think that all we do is eat.  Some days, you’re not wrong.  But as we do so, we know that we have been given the great gifts of fellowship and shared time, characterized by the abundance that the Divine intends for each child of God.  We know more about all of that stuff than we did a week ago, and so we prepare to leave this part of Texas a little heavier and a lot more grateful.  Thanks be to God!

Throwback Thursday: here’s the team in 2015 outside the newly-completed home…

…and here’s the 2020 team celebrating INSIDE the same home!

Tim and Vicky (and, I think, Ricky) in 2015…

Tim and Vicky sharing time together this evening…

I am deeply impressed by the ways that Julio continues to reflect maturity and love in the world. I am privileged to be his friend.

Kimberly was in middle school when we showed up five years ago – and now she’s a senior, contemplating her future. She has so many positive things going on in her life!

Sharing stories around the feast…

When we were preparing to leave, we prayed, and then Vicky asked to read us this note she’d written. It says, “I love you guys with all my heart and I will always love you. I loved how you are funny and I like when you come in my house. And you play with me. And that you [buy] my mom a present. And me dancing when I was little. And that you liked my mom’s food and her cake.  And that you liked Ricky’s pictures of the characters that he likes and that I like.  And thank you for coming to my house.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself…

Texas Mission 2020 Update #4

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

There’s a word I throw out a lot when I am involved with ventures like this.  It’s “partner”.  Words matter to me, and I choose to use that word intentionally when describing the kind of relationship that we seek to build with those to whom we travel or whom we receive in the context of church travel.  “Partner” has been defined as “one that is united or associated with another or others in an activity or a sphere of common interest”. That’s a serviceable enough definition, particularly when one considers the words that I will NOT use in the context of mission relationships: donor, client, recipient, benefactor, well-wisher…  

One of the best things about taking part in our annual Adult Mission Trip to Texas is the fact that we get to stay with those who partner with us for the accomplishment of our shared goal: that is, to help people be attentive to the ways that God is moving in their lives, and how God so very often uses people like, well, US to do that.  This entry will celebrate the fact that for the ten years that we’ve been coming to Texas, our hosts have become friends.  We have so enjoyed the ability to worship together, to receive encouragement from, to share prayer requests with, and to hear of how God is moving in the lives of the folks in this part of the world.

My friend Roland has worked with folks who have experienced critical need for a long, long time. We met about a decade ago when he was our “Site Supervisor” on an early trip, and we’ve figured out a way to be together each year since then. He’s brought a couple of groups to Pittsburgh, for which I am deeply grateful.

We’ve stayed with the First Presbyterian Church of Mission ever since we started these trips, and it’s clear that we kind of like each other.  In addition to simply offering us space to sleep and meet, these folks are above and beyond hospitable.  For instance, a few years ago some of the folks at church decided that lunch on the job site would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to pack it ourselves, and so they came up with a system that allowed members of the congregation to deliver a hot nutritious (and delicious) meal to us as we worked.  By extension, that allowed some of the folks in Mission to participate in the housing work that we’ve been doing, even if they themselves were not in a position to hang drywall or swing a hammer.

Add to that the way that “Texas Bob” is here to greet us every morning and send us on our way; or the fact that Judy is willing to wait up until 1 to let us into the building on the night of our arrival; or the faces that greet us when we show up for worship on the day after we get here.  John texted and called me a couple of times prior to the trip to make sure we’d have everything we needed; Bill has been a gracious and kind friend who makes sure we don’t lack for clean, safe water; Cathy has been managing the tools and scheduling our meals, and Martha cooked us a heck of a brisket for dinner.  We do not deserve such kindness – but how it enriches our time away from home and makes us feel welcome in South Texas.

Grant and Donna made sure that the 18th was “Taco Tuesday” in the RGV!

Donna with a satisfied co-laborer!

Martha is the woman who taught me about Grapefruit Pie. Here, she prepares a brisket to share with our group.

Cathy (far left) joins the group in watching Martha slice it up.

John is a member of the FPC Session that plans for hospitality at the church.

We celebrate the ways that God is using the congregations of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights and First Presbyterian in Mission to not only care for each other, but to magnify the commission that each church has received – to go into the world and share the love, peace, joy, and justice that we sense in Jesus the Christ.

FYI, it wasn’t all eating on Wednesday… we did a little work too!

Tearing the home apart… it’s somehow exciting to break stuff on purpose…

Josie and Lynn working to remove siding.

Bob leads the “train gang” – the homeowner with whom we’ve been working was delighted to show our group old photos of this train filled with the neighborhood children.

The house is dismantled into a pile, and then the pile is put into the trailer and taken to the dump.

The stickers on our trailer say a lot…

Lynn and Lindsay are measuring for the foundation blocks for the new home!

Lindsay drove with the dumpster and got rid of our debris.

Susana took advantage of the opportunity to serve alongside our partners in Matamoros, Mexico.

Migrants waiting for the friends from Catholic Charities to set up the daily distribution.

Texas Mission 2020 Update #3

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Tuesday was a great opportunity for us in several ways.  In terms of work, we divided into two camps once more.  The larger portion of the team went back to the community of Mercedes, TX – about a 40 minute drive from our home base in Mission.  We continued the theme we began on Monday – our first-ever destruction centered adult mission trip.  The property adjacent to Monday’s work site has already gotten a new house built, and today we spent a lot of effort working to dismantle the former abode.  The original home was a travel trailer – probably about 24 feet long.  Over the years, folks have built a shell around the trailer, including additional roofs, walls, and anterooms.  The plans and materials used were, to be charitable, haphazard, and it has taken no small amount of ingenuity and strategy to make sure that we’re taking down the right piece at the right time.  So far – no stitches!

This shot shows the old home (rear) located next to the new one. Note the elevation that will enable the new one to withstand future floods.

It was hot and sunny…

We have an entire trailer full of tools – but Tim and I could only find a single nut driver that was the appropriate size to remove the iron sheeting!

Lindsay takes a swing at the structure…

The community in which these houses are located is quite close to a series of levees, and we understand that these streets have flooded twice in the past two years.  The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and other non-profits (I saw a truck with the Mennonite Central Committee logo today, and a bunch of Americorps volunteers) have committed to building dozens of new, safe homes in this area in the hopes of improving the communal life.  We had a long talk this evening about the importance of all aspects of the work, including the rather inglorious labor of taking apart someone else’s work so that it might be replaced by something more suitable.  To a person, our team was in agreement in this conversation that the important thing is seeking to live humbly, to seek justice, and to work to serve the Lord in the presence of those around us.

Two of our group chose a different path today.  Susana and Lynn visited with the staff of Catholic Charities in McAllen and joined in a relief effort in Matamoros, Mexico.  Each day, volunteers in Texas bag up staples such as flour, rice, beans, baby formula, as well as personal hygiene kits and deliver them to a tent city in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, where hundreds of people are awaiting entry to the USA.  Under a fairly new US Policy, those who are seeking asylum in the USA are compelled to remain on the Mexican side of the border, which has created crowded conditions in impermanent structures.  I’m not going to get political at this point (if you want to know what I really think, ask me for a cup of coffee some time), but I want to affirm the work of Catholic Charities in reaching out to address a real human need.

Susana and Lynn preparing to cross the border with volunteers from Catholic Charities.

A whole new kind of “wagon train”.

In Matamoros, the tent city serves as temporary shelter for those who are awaiting decisions about their fate.

Volunteers assisting those who are seeking the support of Catholic Charities.

Doctors Without Borders has an assistance station in the tent city.

One of a number of groups who are seeking to bring about a change in the political climate that has led to the creation of this particular tent city.

Last year, we found the Catholic Charities shelter overwhelmed by visitors and they were running out of clothing to share. This year, they are in a new space and the new migrant policy has reduced the need for such clothing…

I wish you could have been around this table as Susana and Lynn talked about the impact of loading the little wagons with food and then walking across the bridge into Mexico with these life-saving supplies.  I wish you could have heard our group set aside differences as to which are the best strategies to bring about justice and focus instead on the hope for true and lasting justice, relief, and release for all.  I wish you had been here to share in the commitment to seek to allow stories like the ones we’re hearing affect us in our everyday lives, and to look for ways to seek to bring our voices to bear for the benefit of our neighbors – even the ones we have yet to meet.  I wish you could have been here to see the heads nod when someone said, “The world is really a lot smaller than we think it is”, and I hope to God you’ve been in rooms where people have said something similar.

You weren’t here Tuesday night, and yet I hope that you will join us in our quest to seek to live humbly and gently in the recognition of the ways that we are all so interconnected.  This is the only earth we’ve got, and it belongs to all of us.  Let’s figure out how to inhabit it in a neighborly and kind way.

My other name for this week of mission service is “Grapefruit Week”. I abandon my statins and am able to consume the forbidden fruit as a result… Here I am leading a seminar in how to make Grapefruit Pie. Trust me – you WISH you had a slice.

Texas Mission 2020 Update #2

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth. While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Our team at the beginning of the day, along with “Texas Bob” Sherwood, a key member of our crew!

Monday was our first “work” day, and we dove right in.  After seeing us build for ten years, our friend and site coordinator Roland has had enough, and he’s asked us to demolish a building, rather than construct one.  I’m not sure whether that’s a demotion or not haha but we’re happy to lend a hand no matter what!

Most of our number visited the community of Mercedes, Texas, where the United Methodists are constructing a number of new homes for families in crisis.  Our job today consisted of removing a carport and a porch to make room for a new home to be built on the property.  Once that’s done, the homeowner, Dulce, will be able to move into a safe, decent home with her family!

This is not quite a “before” shot, but you can see the carport and back porch/room that were gone before 4.

The dismantling proceeds apace…

Josie carries the corrugated…

One of the joys of this trip is getting to spend time with Tim, and watch him at work!


It was tough out there by the afternoon…

A little plumbing issue that was truly “CHUPped up” a bit…(note Bob’s finger in the pipe, plugging the dike…)

The weather today was in the mid-80’s and by the middle of the afternoon we were all feeling the effects of being inside in Pittsburgh for so long.  We were hot, thirsty, and tired – but we made good progress in terms of the work that got done as well as team-building.  One instance of some heavenly timing… on what we thought was going to be the last swing of the day for the demolition hammer, we managed to break the small pic water pipe.  There was a little bit of a “gusher” in the yard for a while until we located the tools and equipment to cap it properly.  It was, to say the least, demoralizing and frustrating… until we heard the happy sounds of the Ice Cream Truck coming into the neighborhood!  Some frozen concoctions lifted our spirits and put us in the van as happy people!

Who doesn’t like Ice Cream???

Susana, who has a personal attachment to the ministry of Catholic Charities, stayed in McAllen and assisted in the hospitality mission there.  She was pleased to meet with a number of families who have come across the border and are awaiting the next step in the process of obtaining legal residence in the USA.  Susana shared many stories with our group and we hope to send more of our team there as the week progresses.

Susana with a young friend from the Congo, getting ready to start a new life in the USA.

Some volunteers and clients at the Catholic Charities Center, where everyone is offered a good nutritious meal, a shower, some clothes, and a place to rest.

Our evening ended with a dinner of chicken and rice and some great bonding time around the game “Codenames”.  We are a blessed group indeed.  Thanks for joining us on this mission!

Texas Mission 2020 Update #1

For the past decade a team from The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights has visited Texas’ Rio Grande Valley for a week of service, reflection, group-building, and growth.  Some of us have been a number of times, while each year there are a few “first-timers”.  We fly somewhere – often Houston, this year, San Antonio – and then drive to Mission, TX, which is just west of McAllen and just north of the Mexican Border.

Jahn, Lynn, and Susanna are ready to get to the sunshine!

Bob, Lindsay, Jon, Josie, and Tim join me in anticipation!

While in Texas, we stay with our friends and partners at The First Presbyterian Church of Mission and join with colleagues from the United Methodist Church and Catholic Charities in their efforts to provide a ministry of presence and service to those in this part of the country who have been affected by issues related to immigration or natural disaster.  It is a good and holy week!

Our hosts provided us with a welcome breakfast of tacos and fruit! A taste of the Valley!

We left Pittsburgh bundled up and fighting the cold and journeyed through the day, arriving in Mission just after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning.  We woke on Sunday and worshiped at First Presbyterian, where we had the opportunity to greet many old friends and make some new ones.

One of the highlights of the first day of this journey is recollecting that one day we were wrapped in layer upon layer, salting walks and scraping windshields and the next day we were wearing shorts and walking under palm trees.  That’s a nice recollection!  We visited the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the “jewel of the National Wildife system”. It’s not a big park – just over 2,000 acres – but it is lush and diverse.  Here, we took a tram ride through the Refuge and heard about the history of not only the park but the surrounding area.  It was a great time to be together and a wonderful opportunity to encounter God’s wonder in this part of the world.  Our day finished with a dinner of homemade shrimp alfredo and an opportunity to hear stories and play games.  It’s been a great start.

Spanish Moss hangs from the trees at Santa Ana. Henry Ford collected this stuff and used it to upholster the seats of his early models.

The Rio Grande River, with Mexico behind us.

The cemetery at the Santa Ana Refuge, once once a family ranch.

Walking the trails at Santa Ana.

On board the tram in the refuge.

A view from atop the observation tower at Santa Ana.

Not unsurprisingly, the US Border Patrol is highly visible all around these parts. This is the station from which they launch the boats that patrol this stretch of the Rio Grande.

First Things First

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On February 9, we entered the 20th Century and engaged with the authors of Theological Declaration of Barmen written in Germany in the 1934. We listened to the creed while referring to Psalm 62 and I Peter 2:13-17.  

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

As I was growing up, a familiar part of the school experience was the air raid drill.  Every now and then, there would be an announcement or a bell, and we’d be expected to kneel underneath our desks making sure that our fingers interlaced over the backs of our necks, protecting our vulnerable spinal columns.  We did this because there was always a chance, we knew, that the Communists in the Soviet Union were out to get us.  I remember hearing that if the Reds launched the nukes, that we’d be in the first strike zone.  It was easy to believe, as I watched the warships steaming down the Delaware river from the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and when most of my classmates’ dads went to work for DuPont every day.

There was a prevailing climate of fear, anger, and uncertainty.  I was told, however, and I accepted as fact, the notion that the government would keep me safe.  During the same time, I heard a lot about a war that we were fighting in a place called Vietnam.  I didn’t understand everything, but if we were fighting the Commies there, that meant that they wouldn’t come to Delaware to get me, so that was all right with me.

Every couple of months, we all went down to the auditorium and watched a rocket blast off in what was known as the “space race”.  Again, I didn’t know much about what was happening, but I knew that it was pretty important that we be the first to get to the moon and claim it for our side, so that the Reds didn’t wind up using it for evil purposes.

I understood much of my life, in those days, as being “us vs. them”, or good vs. bad.  It was simple, and uncomplicated.

Chopin Monument, Warsaw, Poland

In 1987, not long after our marriage, Sharon and I were given a European vacation.  Did we want to go to Paris? Rome? London?  Nope.  We traveled behind what was known as “the Iron Curtain”.  We went behind the Berlin Wall into East Germany, through communist Poland, and visited a good bit of the Soviet Union.  I was told that it was foolhardy, or stupid, or dangerous.  People who loved me were nervous.

And I’m here to tell you that it was an amazing trip.  There were aspects of it that were quite difficult, of course.  I was stunned by some of what we saw: the lack of personal choice, the pockets of poverty we encountered.  And yet I was surprised by the joy that we discovered.  I will not forget the woman who gave us plums from the farmer’s market outside of Moscow, or the man who kept trying to buy me shot after shot of cheap vodka in the city that was known then as Leningrad.  While visiting a town called Novgorod, we saw a statue commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia.

Contrary to the expectations that I had developed a decade or two earlier, I did not encounter a single person who appeared intent on murdering me.  My experience was the opposite of that which I expected.

I’m telling you that because those are the lenses through which I approach the theme of our worship today.  As I hope you recall, we are considering some of the historical documents and creeds that make up the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions.  Today, we leave ancient history behind and enter into some of the 20th century statements of faith and we will consider the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

When World War I ended with the Treaty of Versailles, the nation of Germany had been humbled, to say the least.  The spirit of the people had been crushed, and the allies demanded war reparations to the tune of $33 billion.  In addition, the victors imposed a new government on the German people and curtailed that nation’s ability to defend itself.  One British official summed it up by saying, “We shall squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak.”[1]

Life in post-war Germany was miserable as the economy plummeted and people suffered.  The exchange rate was as high as 4 billion German Marks to a single U.S. dollar.  People needed a wheelbarrow full of currency simply to buy a loaf of bread.

A young veteran of WWI, who had been wounded in the trenches, began speaking out across Germany.  He ridiculed the politicians for accepting the terms of Versailles, and he began to blame “outsiders” like communists and Jews for his nation’s troubles.  “If we get rid of THEM,” he said, “there will be prosperity and security for US.”

By 1933 this young man, named Adolf Hitler, had been named Chancellor of Germany. In short order, he outlawed all political parties but his own.  He replaced the judicial system, abolished civil rights, purged the universities, attacked the labor unions, and increased the size of the German army.  And he did all of that with the support of Christians in Germany.

Emboldened by the support of church leaders, Hitler appointed a “State Commissioner” of the church.  The German Christian Church had a national convention, the theme of which was “The State of Adolf Hitler Appeals to the Church, and the Church has to Hear His Call.”

Most Germans accepted this cocktail of nationalism, militarism, and Christianity.  They came to see patriotism and Christian truth as interchangeable, and the churches of Germany predicted that the government of National Socialism would restore order, bring justice, increase prosperity, and make Germany safe for Germans again.

From May 29 – 31, 1934 a group of 139 representatives from various churches around Germany gathered in the Gemarke Church in the Barmen district of the city of Wupperthal.  This courageous group drafted an appeal to German Christians to stand against any attempt to link the church of Jesus Christ to the Nazi regime.  They asked the church to remember and affirm the fact that God, not Hitler, ruled the world.  Their document contained a series of six propositions, based on scripture, that rejected the false claims of the German Christians and pointed to the centrality of Jesus Christ in and over all of life.

The primary author of the declaration, Karl Barth, and his colleagues recognized that in identifying with the Nazi Party, the church would not be influencing the political realm; it would be the exact opposite. The government would overwhelm the church and the political party would dictate to the church her practices, beliefs, and values.

This document, therefore, is comprised of a call for Christians to remember that Jesus of Nazareth is the sole authority for the church, and any relationship that the church has must be understood in light of the primacy of Jesus. The Theological Declaration of Barmen was, then, a call for the church to stand firm against idolatry.

Idolatry?  Do you mean praying to statues or worshiping false gods like Baal or Molech?  Isn’t that kind of Old-Testamenty?  We don’t do that.  In fact, the Germans weren’t doing that.  Why is this relevant to us?

Because idolatry is not merely praying to a totem pole or trusting a little carving to save you or your crops when times get rough.  Idolatry is when a person twists the order of creation and winds up trusting something that is NOT God to have or use powers that are reserved FOR God.

The Barmen Declaration stood in opposition to the German Christians who said, essentially, “Well, you know, personally I don’t think that I like Hitler, but, well, the economy is doing better and the streets are safer.  Let’s be honest, you can’t argue with results.”

The theological problem was that many contemporary Germans began to look to the German government to offer, define, and provide security, freedom, success, and identity for themselves.  When they did that, they put the State in the place of the Lord.

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson had warned about this a couple of generations earlier.  He said, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character  Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”[2]

The people of Israel, who knew something about being down and out and longing for safety and security, sang the Psalm that you heard earlier: “Only God can save me, and I calmly wait for him.  God alone is the mighty rock that keeps me safe and the fortress where I am secure.”

The first Christians, who knew something about being persecuted and hunted and being at risk, heard their Pastor, Peter the Apostle, say, “Love and respect everyone; fear God, honor the government, and love your neighbor.”  Don’t give to the Emperor that which belongs to God or your neighbor.

The church always needs to be reminded of the truth that comes through the words of Barmen.  When we confuse the Gospel with the government, that’s idolatry.  When we look to some aspect of creation to fill the role that belongs rightfully to the Creator, that’s idolatry.  When we view other people as less than we, as threats to our own personhood, or as worthy of extermination, that’s the fruit of idolatry.

Listen: if you buy a gun to go hunting, or to shoot skeet, or because you think it might deter crime, that is using a weapon as a tool. But if you buy a gun because you trust that gun to make you secure and to bring you safety and peace, then you’re not treating that weapon as a tool – you are asking that tool to give you something (peace and security) that is only God’s to give.

Tomorrow we choose to provide Universal Health Care, or adopt Medicare for all, but that would not cure cancer or prevent HIV or the Coronavirus.  We could build a forty-foot wall around the entire country, that will not bring us safety.

Asking one party, one person, to lead people like “us” to a promised land of prosperity, peace and security at someone else’s expense is a no-win scenario.  It is idolatrous.

Frederick Backman is a Swedish novelist who tells the truth in amazing ways. In a recent book, he observes,

Everyone is a hundred different things, but in other people’s eyes we usually get the chance to be only one of them…The truth about most people is as simple as it is unbearable: we rarely want what is best for everyone; we mostly want what’s best for ourselves…It’s so easy to get people to hate one another. That’s what makes love so impossible to understand. Hate is so simple that it always ought to win.[3]

The Theological Declaration of Barmen points us to the singularity of Christ and his pre-eminence in the world. In this letter from our German brothers 80 years ago, we are reminded that our first duty is obedience to God, and that our expression of that obedience is love – Love of God and love for each other; love that equips us to seek the best for our neighbor.

We, the congregation of the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights, as God’s people gathered in this place at this time are called to look to God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth to lead us to a way of life that recognizes our interdependence, that refuses to “other” or demonize anyone, and that forms us to serve our neighbor as God in Christ has served us.

We can do this, of course, without retreating from the world.  We can and should vote.  We can and should advocate for strategies that we believe will bring healing and hope.  Yet in the same breath we acknowledge that we trust that God is the author of ours and every story, and that the way to hope and healing is not the destruction or the removal of the neighbor, but rather the recognition of our neighbor as one who belongs to God no less than we.

One of the men who contributed to the writing of the Barmen Declaration was a Lutheran Pastor named Martin Niemöller.  Several years after the declaration was made, he was arrested by Hitler’s agents and spent most of World War II in a concentration camp.  He is best remembered for having said,

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.[4]

Beloved of God, let us hold fast to our position as God’s own children, and let us commit ourselves to reminding our neighbors that each of them is beloved as we. There is no “us against them.”  There is only us. Therefore, may we use our voices and our energy to speak and live truthfully, kindly, and in pursuit of justice and healing, looking to God alone as the arbiter of truth.  May we have the wisdom to trust in God, and the courage to risk ourselves for love.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Geddes

[2] Quoted in James Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose (Cascade Books 2012), p. 23.

[3] Us Against You (Simon and Schuster, 2018), pp 34, 218, 463.

[4] Niemöller used many different versions of this basic thought in his later life and speaking.  This is the version that is printed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/martin-niemoeller-first-they-came-for-the-socialists

Saved to Serve

Of what use are the the ancient (and not-so-ancient) creeds of the church in the twenty-first century?  In late 2019 and early 2020 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at how some of these historic documents, many of which have their origin in some historic church fights, can be helpful in our attempts to walk with Jesus.  On February 2, we considered The Westminster Standards written in Britain in the mid-1600’s. We centered our worship on selected verses from Psalm 24 and 2 Peter 1:3-11.

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

You may not have heard anything about this, but 45 days ago, the US House of Representatives declared that the President had been impeached, and asked the Senate to remove the President from office.  And whether or not that happens, in eight months, there will be an election.  Perhaps you’ve seen something about thatin the news.  There may be, one might say, some turmoil in our government these days.

Let me ask you this.  What if there was a power struggle and polarizing debate that gripped the country not for 45 days, but something longer?  Not 8 months.  Not even a decade or two.  What if you were living in a situation in which “who’s in charge” was a question that people asked for more than thirty years?  It’s happened before.

This morning we are continuing our examination of the creeds and the confessions that are found in the Presbyterian Church USA’s Book of Confessions.  “The Westminster Standards” are three documents that were written in at Westminster Abbey in London: The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Longer Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism.  And, just like the other creeds that we’ve seen, in order to know what’s said, we’ve got to understand a little about the world in which these statements came to be.

The Westminster Confession comes out of a tumultuous time for everyone in England – for the church, the government, individuals – for all concerned.  Here’s a bit of historical background.

King Charles I of England, Anthony van Dyck, 1632

Charles I assumed the British throne in 1625 when his father, James (the “King James” who sponsored the beautiful translation of the Bible that has come to bear his name) died. Like his father, and his grandmother before him, Charles was a big proponent of a belief system that was called “The Divine Right of Kings”.  Everybody knew that the Bible said that humans were special, and this theory asserted that the most special humans were kings and queens. By virtue of being King, Charles said it was up to him – not to the British Parliament, and certainly not to the commoners of England – to define reality.

And so, not long after becoming King, Charles simply dissolved the Parliament.  He said that it was unneeded.  After all, the only thing that Parliament was good for was enforcing the law and levying taxes, and Charles had plenty of money and a loyal army.  For a while.  But eventually, the royal coffers began to run low, and Charles, being short of funding, adopted a scheme proposed by a minister in the Church of England.  Since the Church of England was a state church, the King was King over the church as well as the country.  So Charles began to fine people for missing church – one shilling per offense.  There was no parliament to argue with him, and no one had the power to resist. Emboldened by this scheme, Charles tried to forcibly convert all of the people in Scotland from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism – the Church of England.  Imagine? Trying to get a whole country of Presbyterians to change…

Well, as you might imagine, that’s when Charles failed.  In 1637 Scotland resisted in what has become known as the 1st and 2nd Bishops’ Wars, and, as a part of the truce, Charles was forced to call a meeting of Parliament.  Eleven years after he disbanded them, Charles called the Houses of Parliament together.  When they arrived in London, they were mostly Presbyterian Puritans, eager to reform not only the country, but the church.  They established a committee in 1643 and charged them to come up with a new confession of Faith designed to unify England under a Presbyterian system of government.

The Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents at the Westminster Assembly of Divines, John Rogers Herbert, c. 1844

This group consisted of 121 “divines” (pastors, mostly), 30 Members of Parliament, and a few Scots observers.  And for three years, this team worked tirelessly in a process that was characterized by prayer, fasting, and worship.  These people took their jobs quite seriously.

Unfortunately, however, the country was not able to simply wait while the process went forward.  The Parliament and the king had begun to argue about many things, and a young man by the name of Cromwell was leading a group of independents who were neither Presbyterian nor Anglican.  The Creed was adopted in 1648, but only a year later, Cromwell led the charge to overthrow the King and Charles was beheaded.  Cromwell assumed the role of “Lord Protector” and, you guessed it, he disbanded Parliament.  It seems as though Cromwell believed in the Divine Right of Lord Protectors just about as much as Charles had believed in the Divine Right of Kings.

Finally, in 1660, Charles II returned from France, overthrew Cromwell’s son, and re-took the throne.  Backed by many in Parliament who were afraid of change, Charles II restored the Anglican church and system of government and in one day in 1662, 2000 ministers from the British Church were barred from their churches because of their involvement with Cromwell and the independents.

Can you get a picture of what life must have been like?  For more than 30 years, no one was quite sure who was in charge, or why.  Sometimes there was no King.  Sometimes, there was no Parliament.  Sometimes there was both.  Sometimes there was neither.  Usually, there was civil war, and bloodshed, and always there was fear.  And to make matters worse, this was a time of great change and uncertainty in the culture as a whole.  Writers like Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke were laying the foundations for the movement known as the Enlightenment.  This philosophy questioned truth in a way that had not ever been done; there was a new emphasis on logic and the power of humans to determine their own destinies.

Do you see what I’m saying?  Not only was the government a mess, but lifewas messy.  There was religious and moral uncertainty.  People were genuinely confused as to how to proceed.

And in the midst of all that, this crew of 121 Divines produced the Westminster Confession of Faith. It’s a long document that covers a great deal of ground, but I’d like to point out two emphases for our purposes today.

First, the people who framed this document had a great sense of God’s movement in and through and over history.  It was the Creator of Heaven and Earth, not some king or queen, who ruled the world.  At a time when so much of the world seemed to be spinning out of control, the Westminster Confession of Faith reminded people that God knows what is happening and is able to sort it all out.  What a comforting thought this was to those who were struggling to make sense of their daily lives – because they could see and affirm with certainty that it is not Charles, not Cromwell, but God who reigns.

The second key emphasis to which the Westminster Confession points is the Authority of Scripture.  These folks held clearly to the fact that it was God’s Holy Spirit who caused the Bible to come together, and it was only with the help of that same Spirit that we can presume to interpret what it was saying.  The Westminster Confession points to Jesus as the center of Scripture, and in a response to the discussions of their day, they noted that scripture is not a scientific textbook, but rather a gift that God has given to God’s children.  And these scriptures, says the Creed, are accessible to all – you don’t need to be a theologian to understand the message of reconciliation and truth that is found the Bible.

So that’s what it was like then.  That’s what it was like when the BBC, or some other predecessor CNN or Fox News said that the race for control in England was “too close to call” for about 30 years or so.  What difference does all of that make today?  Isn’t all of that simply musty old history that will gradually disappear over the ages?

Maybe.  But I tend to agree with Mark Twain, who is reported to have said, “History rarely repeats itself, but it very often rhymes.

Think about our day and culture.  Is this an age of change?  Do we live in a time of political, religious and moral uncertainty, when there are people all around us who have conflicting claims about what is true and what is right?  Do you have to make decisions every single day about how to use your time, your energy, your technology – that would mystify your grandparents?  If so, you have more in common with the folks in Britain in the 17th century than you thought.

And you do.  Thus, it would behoove us to consider the truths discovered by those divines so many years ago – not because they will exactly match our situation, but because they are a part of the Body of Christ that has gone through this, and we can learn something from them.

What would it mean for our world, for instance, if we were to hold to a high view of the sovereignty of God?  What if we took seriously the words of Psalm 24 – “The Earth is the Lord’s…”?  When I talk about “the sovereignty of God”, what I mean is simply this: that every human, at every moment of our lives, is in a relationship with the Living God.  There is no human who is not in the Divine Image; there are no people who are outside of God’s care.  No one is alone.  No one is cast off.  God cares about where we’ve been, and about what we do.  And, as Christians, we are learning to look to Jesus to discover what it means to live under the rule of God.  We receive our identities and live into the world that God has created and defined.

What set Jesus apart?  Why do we worship him? Is it that he was smarter, more attractive, or more powerful than anyone else?  No, it was the fact that he was totally and completely obedient to God.  Jesus is God for Us.  He is Us for God.  Jesus said that he was “the way” to God; that he is the means by which God is most fully present with us.  It is in Christ that we find the best means to submit ourselves to the authority of God in our lives and the world.

In our day, as in the days of the Westminster Divines, there are those who find that, well, inconvenient.  Mostly, we think, we want our religion to bring us a set of ideas, or even better, a nice sense of warmth and peace.  We don’t really want to get all involved in the intricacies of a real relationship with Jesus, who seems to expect us to or be something in the world.

C.S. Lewis expressed this difficulty well.  He spoke of

…an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult!… As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[1]

The end of faith is not to make me happy or ensure that my life is perfect.  The main point, it seems to me, is expressed well in the shorter catechism’s first question:  “What is the main purpose of humanity?”  “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  That is, first we bring glory to God – how?  Through obedience and service – like we saw in Jesus of Nazareth. Then, in that context, we are given the ability to enjoy God – that is, we rest in and find meaning in God’s presence and purposes.  “We glorify God by living in obedience to God’s will, and enjoyment comes as a by-product”.[2]

And now to look at the second emphasis of the Confession – the authority of Scripture.  What do you think about the Bible?  Back when the Confession was written, most folks didn’t have very many, if any books.  But you?  You’ve got dozens.  Maybe even hundreds.  What’s a bible?  What’s one more book claiming to have truth?

Did you know that one of the most profitable industries in the US right now is the “Self-Help” movement? We spend $11 billion a year on self-improvement programs and products. I am reminded of the words of the late George Carlin, who said, “If you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help. That’s help! There’s no such a thing as self-help. If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help.”

He might be on to something.  We all crave affirmation and direction, and yet so much of what we are dying to know is given to us in the rich library of scripture.  I can’t tell you how many times someone has come to me and wanted to know what God’s will for their lives was.  I would start to speak about the lost son or the woman who was healed, and they come right back at me, “Look, pastor, if all I wanted was a little Bible reading, I’d have stayed home.  What I want to know is, what is God’s word to me?”

Too often, we in our world set aside this great volume of God’s word because we’re waiting for some sort of special delivery invitation.  Peter has it right when he tells his friends that we have everything we need to know – we just need to apply it in our lives.  God has spoken – a great and encouraging word – to our world.  We gather to know and love the scripture as a means to know God’s will for our lives, because it is primarily through the scripture that the Word of God is revealed.

How will the impeachment drama in Washington end? Who’s the president going to be in six months or a year?  You don’t know.  I sure don’t.  We don’t have much control over that, do we?  Not any more than a typical Englishman did when he heard that Parliament was being dissolved, or reconstituted.  But you know what?  In the most immediate sense, it doesn’t really matter.  No, not because Presidencies and Parliaments aren’t important, but because you are called to be the person that God wants you to be in spite of the decisions of congress or the President.

The King, the Parliament, the President, the political party – none of those entities get to define you.  God, in great power and wisdom, has created you and given you specific abilities.  Will you use those gifts to seek God’s best and to serve others now?  Glorify God in your life.  Obey, and seek to enjoy, the ways that God is revealing new things to you.  And be a light in your world.  Amen.

[1] The Grand Miracle and Other Selected Essays on Theology and Ethics from God in the Dock (Ballantine, 1970), p. 33

[2]  Jack Rogers, in Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions (Westminster Press, 1985) p. 166.