When ‘The Worst’ isn’t as Bad as it Gets

In the fall of 2021, the people of God at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are thinking about ways to emerge from the disruption, isolation, conflict, and pain that the world has experienced as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic and some of the political and civic divides that have accompanied it.  We are turning for wisdom these weeks to the ancient leader Nehemiah, who led a contingent of God’s people from Babylon home to Jerusalem and helped them to regain their sense of identity and calling.  On October 17, our texts included Nehemiah 1 and Romans 8:12-16.

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

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

The first time I visited Africa, my plane landed in the Malawian capitol of Lilongwe.  We then drove for several hours to Blantyre, where our hosts would meet us.  Between the towns of Dedza and Ntcheu, the M1 Highway is virtually on the border between Malawi and Mozambique.  As we drove, many of the structures on western side of the road were abandoned, half-destroyed, and pockmarked with bullet holes or even worse damage.  I asked about it and was told that those were casualties of the Mozambican civil war that lasted from 1976 – 1992.  Such emptiness and destruction was a haunting sight.

Raqqa, Syria, in February 2018

I suspect you’ve never been there, but I also suspect that you’ve seen something like that in the news.  The images that have come out of Syria in recent years are similarly painful.

I’d like to begin our time together this morning by asking you to recall some image of a devastated community.  Maybe it’s in the aftermath of a natural disaster, or maybe it’s a result of armed conflict.  I bet that it’s not hard for you to call such an image to mind.

We’re going to spend a few weeks between now and Advent in the company of Nehemiah, whom you met when the scripture was read a few moments ago.  His story begins with similar emptiness and destruction.  Here’s the back story:

In 586 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem.  The book of II Chronicles puts it this way:

 Nebuchadnezzar carried off everything that was left in the temple; he robbed the treasury and the personal storerooms of the king and his officials. He took everything back to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar’s troops burned down the temple and destroyed every important building in the city. Then they broke down the city wall.
(36:18-19, CEV)

The Flight of the Prisoners (1896) by James Tissot

In many respects, this was the worst thing imaginable: the walls of the city destroyed, the fortified buildings demolished, and the house of God desecrated and burnt.  It was a horrific time, and those who survived were chained and marched more than 800 miles to Babylon, where they lived as slaves.

Yet scripture makes clear the fact that God was calling the people back, and making a way for the restoration of God’s people.

The first wave of those who returned was led by a man named Zerubbabel, and it took place in about 538 BCE.  Under his leadership, a team of people begins to reconstruct the Altar, to re-establish some of the forms of worship life, and lay the foundations of a new Temple.

Rebuilding the Temple, wood engraving by Gustav Dore (c. 1875)

Years after that, Ezra the priest led the second wave of returnees – in about 458 BCE.  The work of this group is described in the Book of Ezra that immediately precedes Nehemiah in our Bibles.  In fact, for many years, Ezra and Nehemiah were grouped into a single book in the Hebrew bible.  Under Ezra’s leadership, the Temple is completed and furnished.  They bring gold, silver, and precious vessels to Jerusalem.  The Temple is open for worship – but it lacks the protection and definition of the city walls.

The third wave is led by Nehemiah, and takes place about 13 years after Ezra’s return.  Nehemiah is tasked with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.  It’s a construction project, but it’s more than that: the walls will secure the identity and offer protection to the people of God.  The walls offer a framework that will allow for the practices necessary to maintain faithful living in that place.

I’m here to suggest that as a community of faith gathered in Pittsburgh in 2021 we have much to learn from Nehemiah about reordering, re-establishing, and re-gaining a sense of identity and purpose.  I’ll further state, as explicitly as I can, that our situations are not the same.  We are not survivors of war or slavery, and are nowhere near as destitute as the folks about whom we’ve read.

Yet we know something of disruption and political strife.  Covid and partisan divide have affected many people’s incomes, employment, schooling, family life, and the ability to gather freely and frequently.

We are not stragglers returning to the ruins of our parents’ or grandparents’ homes seeking to rebuild, but we do know something about grief, interruption, and loss of identity.  And now we gather on the edge of something new.  We will never again inhabit the world of February 2020.  Our schools, commerce, travel, and occupations have shifted irreversibly.  We, like the folk of Nehemiah’s time, struggle with the question of how to move forward and reclaim our identity and sense of self in the wake of the pandemic.

Cain, Having Just Killed His Brother Abel, Henri Vidal, 1896

As you heard, the book of Nehemiah opens with a description of the problem, and it is aptly summed up for us in verse 3: the community of those who have returned is trapped in a net of shame. “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”  There’s nothing else said about conditions in Jerusalem in that chapter: the remainder of Nehemiah 1 is a prayer in which the leader confesses sin, reminds God of God’s promises and character, and asks for God’s help in restoration and healing.

I want to point out this morning that the number one barrier to wholeness at the outset of Nehemiah is the shame that the people share.  Shame is often defined as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress that is the result of doing something unwise.  You know what it is to be ashamed.  You’ve been in an argument, and you lash out in anger and say something that is deliberately hurtful.  Or maybe you’ve had too much to drink, and you act like an idiot, and that brings pain into a relationship.  A part of being human is an awareness of the fact that we all, from time to time, will blow it.  We do stupid things, and we’re not proud of that.

But for the purposes of this morning and this message, I want to point out that shame is usually deeper than that.  Brené Brown is a research professor and author who defines shame like this:  “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – [shame is being convinced that] something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”[1]

Look: when Nehemiah first heard about the situation at hand, the people of God had everything that they needed to worship: there was a functional Temple, a furnished altar, and a faithful priest.  And yet thirteen years later, Nehemiah is told that they are still paralyzed by shame and fear.  In 586 BCE, God’s people thought that they had experienced ‘the worst’ – the day that Jerusalem fell and the Temple was destroyed.  And yet by 445 BCE they had found that there is something more hellish than ‘the worst’: they are living in Jerusalem, unable to even move.  This is the work of shame.

As my friend Dr. Curt Thompson puts it in his recent book, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves,

… my problem is not just what I am sensing but that I do not feel adequate to respond to it. I perceive, beginning at nonconscious levels of awareness, that I do not have what it takes to tolerate what I feel. I am not just sad, angry or lonely. But ultimately these feelings rest on the bedrock that I am alone with what I feel, and no one is coming to my aid. Shame undergirds other affective states because of its relationship to being left. And to be abandoned ultimately is to be in hell. This terror of being alone drives my shame-based behavior and, ironically, takes me to the very place I most fear going—to the hell of absolute isolation.[2]

Do you see what he’s saying there? That shame makes us isolated, and that isolation (or our fear of it) drives us more deeply into the hells of our own making.  This kind of shame is what makes a person think “If people knew what I’ve done, they couldn’t love me.”  And so we hide what we’ve done, or felt, or experienced – we internalize it, and somehow this thing that we have done or experienced becomes the core of our identity. Somehow the worst thing becomes the most important part of who we are, and we live in shame and isolation.

A friend of mine was a much-admired and respected Christian leader.  During a bleak season in his life, he entered into an extramarital affair that wound up tearing apart not only several families, but a congregation.  As his world was falling apart, he was hospitalized for panic attacks.  When I visited him, he said, “Well, I’ve never had any respect for adulterers, and now I wake up to the fact that that’s who I am.”

Here’s another example: researchers at a college campus offered participants a chance to claim money from the university (money that they didn’t earn).  One group of people was told that the researchers were interested in how common cheating was on campus.  That group claimed a lot of cash.  The second group was told almost – but not exactly – the same thing: that the researchers wanted to know how common cheaters were on campus.  They claimed less money.  In other words, people were willing to cheat as long as they did not have to label themselves as cheaters.  Identifying as a cheater brought shame and guilt, and therefore fewer people were willing to engage in such behavior.[3]

In both of these examples, there is a shift from “I experienced this thing” to “I am this thing.”

This is the work of shame: it drives us to embrace the worst of what we have done or the most painful thing that has happened to us and to claim it as the core of who we are.

Do you see how this is a recipe for misery and destruction?  When we look at the worst thing that we have done and say, “Yep, that’s who I am and who I will always be”, it will drive us into the pit of Hell.  Shame is a thief and a liar, and is what Jesus referred to in John 10 when he said, “the thief comes only to kill and destroy, but I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  God’s intention, and Jesus’ ministry, is to free us from shame.

How do we move forward through shame?  Nehemiah gives us a pattern in his prayer.  He engages in a time of confession.  When Brené Brown said, “shame derives its power from being unmentionable”, I think she may have been echoing what Mr. Rogers said: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable… The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”[4]

That’s what Nehemiah does with his prayer.  He affirms what everyone knows to be the truth: that God’s people have screwed up.  Mistakes were made.  Commandments were broken.  He even identifies himself and his family as being among those who violated the Law.  But in the same breath, Nehemiah goes on to say that central to God’s nature is forgiveness and hope.  God is a gathering God.  God is an establishing God.  God is a redeeming God.

Why would such a God prefer that God’s people remain isolated, adrift, and lost?  The very notion is preposterous.

I often address you as “Beloved”.  Do you know that is the most important aspect of your identity?  I call you that in order to remind you of who you are.  You are made in the image of a gathering, establishing, redeeming God.

Now, have you been places that you regret?  Of course.  Have you done things that are destructive? Certainly.  But those things do not define who you are.  God has called you beloved.  As Paul emphasizes to us in his letter to the Romans, “God’s Spirit reminds us that we are his children.” (8:16)  That is your fundamental identity – one that can free you from shame and fear forever.

I think that this is the great power of Twelve Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.  There is a deep recognition that the things I’ve done have caused pain at many levels.  In a program like this, I then bring that awareness to a non-judgmental community with the expectation that healing is possible.  The decisions I’ve made, the sin I’ve committed, the pain I’ve endured is not the only, or even the most important, aspect of my self.  Confessing to you and to God disarms the power of shame and drives out fear.

There have been times in the past 18 months when in order to be good neighbors and protect each other from this virus, we’ve needed to maintain some physical distance.  For public safety, some level of separation was, and still is, in the best interest of the community, our families, and ourselves.  And yet we cannot allow these hygienic practices to alter our fundamental convictions about who and whose we are.

As we continue the work of re-engaging the world in a post-pandemic and politically divisive time, let us do so with honesty, with courage, and with the grace we have received from Jesus Christ himself.  And let us do so together.  Let us seek to create a reality wherein fear and shame have no place, and move toward the hope and healing that are always available in Jesus.

Oh, beloved – I know that there are those who are listening to my voice right now and who think that Poor Old Pastor Dave just doesn’t get it.  You say, “I hear you, Pastor, but if you knew this thing about me, you’d say otherwise.”  You know, far too well, the power of shame and the hell of isolation into which shame drives us.

The Good News is this: you were not made for these things.  You were made beloved.  You are – you always have been – an image-bearer.  Today – this week – let me encourage you to take one step out of that isolation.  Text me.  Reach out to someone who loves you.  Be free from shame, and walk toward the life that is abundant.  Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus – the love that is stronger than any power to hurt or divide us.  Amen.

[1] Blog post, “Shame vs. Guilt”, https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/

[2] The Soul Of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 109.

[3] Dan Ariely Blog Post, “What’s In A Name?” https://danariely.com/whats-in-a-name/

[4] Found at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/157666-anything-that-s-human-is-mentionable-and-anything-that-is-mentionable

A Sequel Worth Watching

God’s people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights welcomed World Communion Sunday with not only the sharing of the sacrament, but a baptism as well.  Our text was Mark’s account of the feeding of the 4,000, found in Mark 8:1-13.

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

To participate in the entire worship service, use the YouTube player below:

What have you been waiting for during this pandemic? Is there something to which you were looking forward that has been delayed or interrupted?

On October 8, something about the cinematic universe will feel a little bit more right when No Time To Die opens in movie houses around the USA.  This film was to have opened in March, 2020, but, well, you know… Covid.  But this week, James Bond is back.  No Time To Die is hardly the first James Bond movie.  In fact, there have been 26 Bond films across 58 years, featuring 12 different actors.

James Bond is a great example of our desire to find a character or a storyline that we like and keep coming back to it over and over again.  Maybe you’re a fan of the Fast and the Furious or Batman.  In those franchises, it’s just sequel after sequel after sequel.

Sometimes that works great.  Toy Story 3 and The Empire Strikes Back come to mind as sequels that are as good, if not better, than the originals.  And often, it’s horrible.  Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House?  Men in Black International? Please. Do something more entertaining, like visiting the dentist.

For a sequel to work, it’s got to have all of the meat and meaning of the original and bring something new to the table.

Today’s Gospel reading is a sequel.  That is to say, it reprises another event that had roughly the same plot.  I bet that you’re familiar with the original – the story of that day when Jesus fed 5000 on a hillside in Galilee.  I mean, talk about your blockbusters! That’s the only miracle that Jesus performed that shows up in all four of the Gospels. Let’s see what you remember of that story – the original – before we get into the sequel.

“Loaves and Fishes”, John August Swanson (2003)

You might remember that the Feeding of the 5000 took place in Galilee, a Jewish region north of Jerusalem.  Jesus had been teaching the crowd – all day – and he didn’t want to send them home hungry.  In the original, how many loaves of bread were there?  5.  Ok, that makes sense, because the Jewish audience might connect that with the 5 books of Moses. How many fish were there? 2.  Great – the two tablets of the Law.  How many were fed? Well, we say 5000, but the Gospels are clear that it was 5000 men, plus their families.  In the Jewish tradition, it took ten men to form a community, so it’s been suggested that the number 5000 was understood to mean the 5 books of Moses times ten men to form a community times 10 times 10 to form an irrefutable demonstration of the presence of God in that place with those people.

And on that day when 5000 were fed, were there leftovers?  Of course!  How much? Each Gospel records that there were 12 baskets of leftovers – 12 tribes of Israel, 12 followers of Jesus.  And just to make sure that we get the connection, when the Gospels talk about those baskets, the word that they use for “basket” is kophinos – it’s a particular kind of woven carrier that is, essentially, a Jewish lunch bucket.  Everybody had one.

So forgive me for all the numbers, but I wanted to make it plain that the original – the feeding of the 5000 – is rich with symbolism indicating that Jesus, a Jew, has come to feed and sustain the chosen people of God.

But now, we’re two chapters later, and there’s another multitude that gets fed. What’s up with this?  Luke and John don’t even bother mentioning it.  They’ve got one great miracle story, and that’s enough.  This one covers a lot of the same ground.

And yet both Matthew and Mark decide that this is a sequel worth mentioning.  The way that they tell this part of the story, we can see all kinds of similarities – and yet we find that the meaning is enhanced by some of the new twists that we discover.  So let’s ask about the passage you’ve just heard.  We know from the preceding chapter that Jesus has moved into a region called the Decapolis – it’s an area on what the Gospels call “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee.  The Decapolis is where those people live.  The folks who are not like us.  The unclean.  The unbelievers.  The unwelcome.

“Christ Feeding the Multitude”, Coptic Church Icon, Egypt

In this account, how many loaves of bread are there? 7.  What’s that about?  Well, in Deuteronomy and again in Acts, we’re told about the fact that there were 7 nations that were driven out of the Promised Land prior to the Jewish occupation. Furthermore, 7 represents the days of creation.  Seven is a number for wholeness and completeness.

What about the fish?  How many fish in today’s reading?  Nobody knows.  All we’re told is that after he broke the seven loaves, he distributed a few small fish, too.

And how many people were fed? 4000.  In scripture, we hear about the “four corners” of the earth – again, the number 4 suggests completeness totality, and inclusivity.

And lastly, how much was leftover? There are 7 baskets.  Interestingly, though, while leftovers for the Jewish feeding were collected into kophinos – the Jewish baskets, these are gathered into spuris ­– and that’s the kind of basket that Gentiles used.  And if the kophinos was a lunch-bucket, a spuris was a laundry basket.  There was a LOT left over.

So what does the sequel add to the story?  I mean, the Feeding of the 5000 was a blockbuster, and it really went far in terms of establishing Jesus as a miracle-working teacher sent by God.  What else do we see in the Feeding of the 4000?

In today’s Gospel reading, we see that Jesus is present, even in times and places where we are unsure.  These people – the folks who are maligned and called racial slurs and scorned by the “good people” who go to church and claim God’s blessing – they are so eager to be with Jesus that they come out and stay as long as he is willing to stay.  Whereas the folks in Galilee waited all day for the miracle of the loaves and fishes, these folks in the Decapolis are with Jesus for three days.  They’re out in the middle of nowhere that whole time, and by dusk on that third day the granola bars and juice boxes and lunchables are all gone.  There’s nothing… and yet the people won’t leave this Messiah who was willing to show up and meet them where they are.

If there’s one thing that the past 18 months has taught us, it’s that we will find ourselves in difficult places, and we will grow tired of some of the places we’re in.  We are so weary of virtual everything and protocols and wondering how we’re going to do this thing that we need to do or that thing that has to be done while living in the shadow of the virus.  It’s easy to feel forgotten or unseen or maligned or ignored.

Except that you are none of those things in the eyes of Jesus.  The Feeding of the 4000 is testimony that even in these distant places, where we’re struggling with whether we are ever going to get out – Jesus is here, Jesus is making the way for us.

Not only is Jesus present, but Jesus is enough.  If you are someone who has always felt included, and faith has come easily to you for your whole life: Jesus is enough for you.  And if you are someone who has felt excluded, left out, marginalized, or made to feel unwelcome: Jesus is enough for you, too.  In fact, those of you who are tempted to feel as though you are not, somehow, “enough” for the people in your world: I want you to remember right now that Jesus came out here looking for you.  Jesus didn’t want to leave this place until he had found and fed the ones that other people were willing to forget.  The Feeding of the 4000 includes a sentence which reads, “They ate and were filled.”  That is to say, this was not a snack.  They were completely satisfied by the presence and the gifts of the Christ among them.  Jesus is enough for us, my friends.

And lastly, Jesus is always on the move.  He comes to this passage from a place called Tyre, and after he stays here for a few days he heads back across the shore where he immediately engages the religious leaders.  The Gospels continually point out how Jesus would alter the path of his journey so he could bump into more people.  In fact, in a few moments we’ll affirm in the Apostles Creed that Jesus’ path included a descent into Hell.

Here’s the deal: we have spent months in places that are new, or unfamiliar, or uncomfortable.  We’ve had to develop new routines and patterns and learn new skills and new ways of relating  And Jesus has been here.

As we look ahead at the days and weeks and months in front of us, we can trust that Jesus will be there, too.

And not only is Jesus on the move, he invites us to travel with him to “the other side” so that we, who now represent the Body of Christ, might be in a position to bring the gifts of presence and sufficiency to those who have felt pushed out.

The Feeding of the 5000? Loved it.  Two thumbs up.  And yet, I find that I like the sequel even better.  And the Good News for today, beloved of God, is that there’s yet another production every day as Christ meets you in the reality of your life, whoever and wherever you are, and then sends you into the world that he loves.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Looking For Unicorns: A “Safe” Church

The Saints at the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending a few weeks considering the ways that we delude or distract ourselves by looking for unicorns in the Christian world – how is it that we organize our lives or worship in ways that idealize something that cannot be found, or focus on that which cannot be seen?  On September 19, we considered the difficulties of attempting to cast following Jesus as “safe”, in spite of the warnings of Jesus and the experience of the early church.   Our scriptures included  Matthew 10:16-23 and Acts 4:23-31.

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

To view the worship service at which this sermon was preached, please visit YouTube, below:

The Biblical Book of Acts tells us some stories of the first followers of Jesus – in particular, how they responded to his death and resurrection and the ways that they were treated in their communities throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.  There’s a narrative near the beginning of that book that I find fascinating.

The leaders of the movement, Peter and John, were preaching in the Temple. They were pointing to the resurrection of Jesus as being profoundly good and life-changing news, and they punctuated those statements by participating in the healing of a forty year-old man who had been unable to walk since birth.  Understandably, this created a stir, and the end result was that the two apostles were arrested by the local police.  They were imprisoned, threatened, held for trial, and eventually released with a warning to stop preaching about this Jesus character.

Listen to what happened next:

After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:

‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,  and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’

For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.

This is the Word of the Lord:
Thanks be to God!

You see – the people of God are threatened with the full power of not only the state – the Roman Empire – but that of the religious hierarchy as well.  This is, of course, the same unholy alliance that brought about the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death of Jesus.  But unlike Jesus, John and Peter are released!  They are delivered back to their community!

Understandably, there is joy, and the followers of Jesus gather for prayer.  When the two leaders of the community whose founder had been killed by those in authority are released, the community prays… and look at this prayer: it is not a prayer for protection.  It is not a prayer for deliverance.  It is a prayer for boldness – in essence, it is a prayer asking that God give them the ability to keep doing that which got them arrested in the first place!

The results of this prayer are seen as the rest of Acts unfolds.  In chapter 5, a couple named Ananias and Sapphira become embroiled in an attempt to manipulate the church and the Holy Spirit, and they drop dead on the spot.  That is followed by the repeated arrest and torture of the apostles, as well as that of Stephen, the first Deacon.  Stephen is executed, and the persecution spreads through Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and even to Damascus.

A quick reading of Acts would indicate that in the early days of the church it was, to say the least, risky to be a Christian.  And yet, so far as we can tell, the prayers and efforts of the people are not directed toward self-preservation.  I can’t find many prayers for safety in the Book of Acts.

Jesus Sending Out The Disciples
Cerezo Barredo

In fact, it’s almost as though they were paying attention to what Jesus said in Matthew, and were taking his word for it.  Jesus issues a rallying cry to his followers, and says “Look, you folks are going out there like sheep amongst wolves; you ought to expect to be mistreated or even killed.  Persecution is coming.”

Now, look, friends – there are a lot of jobs that are simply not for me.  I wouldn’t want to be a plumber, or a divorce attorney, or a taste-tester at an olive factory.  But imagine being Jesus’ P.R. consultant!

“Look, Boss, you started off well, but a few trends are concerning me.  When you were giving away those catered meals – we had more than 5000 people show up.  That was awesome.  Sure, once you started the Bible Study, the numbers dropped to seventy or so… But then when you had that “Last Supper”, you were down to twelve, and one of them left halfway through! By the time you got to the crucifixion, there were only a few, and most of them were hiding.  Listen, I’m not co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit or anything, but maybe this isn’t your best strategy.  You’re just not selling it, Jesus…”

Walking with Jesus was – and, I would argue, still is – a risky proposition.

So here’s where I am going with all of this today.  In recent years, the most predominant theme of the mail, advertisements, notifications, and invitations I get can be grouped into a category that might be called “a safe church”.

Most of these have to do with an understanding of “safe church” as being a place that is free from anything that in any way contributes to the endangerment of child welfare.  These are encouragements or warnings that have to do with the recognition of the fact that  congregations must do all in their power to protect children, youth, and vulnerable adults from abuse – especially abuse from those whom they ought to be able to trust.

Some of this communication has to do with the local church as being a safe place for those who need sanctuary – refugees, immigrants, or other minorities who are experiencing pain or suffering.

I have also received an astounding number of notifications in response to the increasing awareness of gun violence in our culture.  I am being bombarded with invitations to send people to events that will train our ushers in concealed carry, and with suggestions as to how to equip our security team so that they’ll be armed heavily enough to outgun any potential intruders.

And more recently, as you might suspect, the phrase “safe church” has appeared in conversations regarding the Coronavirus pandemic.  People would love to sell me sanitizer, masks, and all manner of tools and ideas that will keep the virus at bay in this space.

Now let me be clear: I am firmly convinced and deeply committed to the notion that we have an absolute obligation to do all we can to not only protect children and vulnerable adults, but to create a space wherein they can thrive.  Our congregation’s policies involving background checks, program oversight, and so on is not only essential, it is a moral good and a step in faithful discipleship.

Similarly, we must do all in our power to protect the vulnerable and to make this a place of sanctuary.  That includes making this a place that welcomes our neighbors, that offers a refuge from gun violence, and that is attentive to best practices in terms of lowering the risk of Covid transmission.  All of that is true, and wise, and necessary.

And yet this proliferation of language, programs, and policies that might be labeled “safe church” could lead some to believe that following Jesus is, well, “safe”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed for practicing his faith in Jesus, put it this way:

… the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.[1]

And C. S. Lewis, in his beloved classic The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, puts this wisdom into the mouth of Mr. Beaver, who is attempting to explain to the visitors to Narnia that Aslan, the lion, is by no means tame:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”[2]

And contemporary writer Annie Dillard has put it this way:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.[3] 

This is the final message in a series of sermons I’ve entitled “Looking for Unicorns”.  I’ve tried to highlight the fact that in many cases, the church’s energy is wasted looking for something that doesn’t exist, whether that’s “the deserving poor”, “a Bible-Believing Church”, or the ability to “Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner”.  If there’s anything I’ve learned in trying to walk with Jesus for six decades, it’s that following Jesus can really mess you up.

I don’t say that flippantly, or irreverently.  Rather, I’m simply trying to be honest in saying that the call of Jesus seems to be singularly expressed as being to love the neighbor, to seek the neighbor’s good, and to extend oneself on behalf of the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead.  If we are being attentive to that call, in my experience, we are going to find ourselves in positions that are not traditionally described as “safe”, “convenient”, or “nice”.

I’ve mentioned in this place that one of the best letters I ever received was an expletive-laced ten-page hand-written note from a high school student.  The essence of this missive was that her participation in a mission trip ruined her ability to fit in at her high school – a place where, in her estimation, what ‘counted’ was what you had, how you looked, and the ability to project coolness and sophistication.  While we were immersed in the presence of Christ on this mission trip, she came to realize that these were not values worth building her life on.  In my opinion – and in hers, I should say – this was a wise realization.  But it certainly did not make her feel good in the short run.

When I hear someone talking about a church that is “safe”, I need to know: are you talking about helping the Body of Christ to create a space where vulnerable folks are protected; the voices of the silenced are amplified; the children are honored; and where love is practiced?  If that’s the case, then I’m all in.

If, however, when we talk about “safe” churches we are pretending that participating in the life of Christ has as its aims protecting our privilege, reducing our exposure to financial risk, ensuring our comfort, or making us ‘nicer’ people, then you can count me out.

John Pavlovitz is a pastor and author who describes his frustration with one such congregation:

On the outside, I had the productive, high-functioning superpastor thing down pat, yet I always carried this…feeling that the Church was supposed to be something… It certainly never felt like the wild, unpredictable, unstoppable movement of the Spirit of God I read about in the New Testament, where people from every disparate corner of humanity came to find shared, interdependent, glorious purpose and stood in awe of the work of God in their midst.  More often our local church simply felt like a successful midsize suburban company generating great faith-based entertainment every week.  There were great facilities, nice people, folksy charm, and really well-produced, age-specific Sunday experiences, but the table was still smaller than it should have been…[4]

The goal of the Church – and of this congregation – is not to provide bite-sized morsels of the Divine that will season an otherwise bland existence.  It is to launch us into the world that Christ loved and for which he died with the same passion and purpose.  This walk of faith is not always easy, it is not usually comfortable, it is rarely predictable, and it is often unprofitable.

But it is good.  And this is the life for which we were created.  Let us pursue it and engage it with joy and passion and purpose.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (Macmillan Paperback 1960), p. 99

[2] The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, p. 86

[3] Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

[4] A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2017), p. 49

Looking for Unicorns: A Bible-Believing Church

The Saints at the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending a few weeks considering the ways that we delude or distract ourselves by looking for unicorns in the Christian world – how is it that we organize our lives or worship in ways that idealize something that cannot be found, or focus on that which cannot be seen?  On September 12, we considered the difficulties of claiming to be “Bible-Believing”, as though that phrase actually means anything concretely.  Our scriptures included Matthew 23:1-12 as well as I Corinthians 14:36.

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

To participate in the full worship service, please use this YouTube link (please be advised that the audio and video here are not in sync; I’ve tried about six different ways to line them up and I’m striking out):

In September of 2010, my daughter and I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Holy Land.  We stayed in the old city of Jerusalem for a few days, and then I rented a car and we drove through the Palestinian territories, the Golan Heights, and eventually found ourselves wandering the ruins of the ancient Galilean town of Chorazin.  This was one of the centers of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee, and is usually mentioned in the same breath as Capernaum and Bethsaida.

The “Moses Seat” in Chorazin

As it happened, we were there during some of the most intense heat I’ve ever experienced – it was well over 100° – but that kept the crowds down and we really had a chance to explore.  One of the places we spent a great deal of time was the synagogue in Chorazin that is nearly two thousand years old – not far from the time of Jesus.  We were all alone, and I noticed an elaborate stone pedestal near the front.  I couldn’t believe it – it was a “Moses Seat”!  My Biblical Archaeology Nerd sprang forth, and I started telling Ariel more than she wanted to know about this piece of ancient furniture.

Every synagogue worth its salt in those days had a “Moses Seat” – it was a special chair of honor where the authoritative teachers of the Law would sit and offer guidance as to how to live as faithful people.  The Gospels often mention that Jesus would teach in the synagogues in Galilee – and if Jesus taught there, then he would have sat in the “Moses Seat”. And because it was so hot, and there was no one around, we actually sat on that seat.  Now, intellectually, I know that there’s nothing special about Ariel’s bum being where Jesus’ bum might have been.  But – I’m not gonna lie – I did swoon a bit.

As today’s Gospel reading tells us, the “Moses Seat” was indeed a place for authority.  The leading religious scholars would occupy that space and presume to speak for the Lord – to tell people exactly what it meant to behave in a way that was acceptable to God.  They interpreted the scripture there, and they used the authority of the sacred text to bolster their own.

How do you understand the Bible?  In what ways is it authoritative in your life?

When I was leaving home for the first time, a number of people I respect took me aside and said, “David, you know, there’s a lot going on out there in the world.  Once you get to Pittsburgh, you’re going to have to situate yourself.  One of the most important things you can do is to find a good church – a good, solid, Bible-Believing Church that you can call home.

Now, these were people that loved me. They had helped to raise me, and had mentored me.  And yet, I’ve come to see that they might has well have asked me to find a left-handed smokeshifter, or sent me on a snipe hunt at camp.

What, exactly, is a Bible Believing Church?  I’ve come to think that, as with unicorns, there is no such thing.

“Hold on a second, Rev – how can you say that? If I turn on that Google machine, I’ll find dozens of churches that call themselves ‘Bible-Believing’.  How can you say that this is not a real thing?”

And you’re right.  There are a lot of churches that self-identify as “Bible-Believing”.  And I suspect that you know some of the things to look for in these congregations, don’t you?  I mean, just think for a moment.  If you were to encounter a church that advertised itself as being “Bible-Believing”, would you be able to hazard a guess as to which views that congregation might hold on some prominent social and political issues of our day?

For heaven’s sake don’t answer this out loud, but think – would a self-described “Bible-Believing Church” have a stance on abortion? Or gun control? What about same-sex marriage or masking and vaccination mandates?

I suspect that many of us have some strong opinions as to what such a congregation might think about issues like this.

Do you realize, though, that the Bible doesn’t mention any of those things?  So far as I can tell, not a word about any of them in the scripture – and yet in many minds, a certain understanding of these issues is assumed as the arbiter of which churches can claim the mantle of being “Bible Believing”.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I think that any conversation about abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage, and masking and vaccination mandates ought to be informed by Biblical principles and diligent exploration of Scripture – but there’s not a single mention of any of these things directly in the Bible.

The reality is that every single one of us, every single day, to the extent that we are mindful of the Bible at all, will pick and choose the parts of the Bible to which we will be attentive and those that we will ignore. Every single person who claims to follow Scripture must decide which parts are to be taken literally and seriously today and which parts were intended for some other people at some other time.

And you say, “Ha! You see, that’s where you’re wrong, Carver.  I mean, sure, when a Liberal like you opens up the Bible, what else can we expect? But me? Look, baby, ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.’”

Um, with all due respect, that’s not how you live.

And nothing is settled.

I have yet to meet someone who is willing to live by the creed expressed in Deuteronomy 21, where disobedient children are to be executed.  Or that of Leviticus 20, where the same punishment is to be meted out to adulterers.  And don’t get me started on bacon.

And you say, “Oh, yeah, OK, sure, but that’s all Old Testament stuff.  Everyone knows that Jesus gave us a pass on those things.  I like the New Testament.  That’s where it’s at, Pastor Dave.”

Oh, so you take literally the command of 1 Timothy 5, where Paul says that his friends should stop drinking water and stick to wine?  Or the passage in Titus where we read that everyone from Crete is a liar, an evil brute, and a lazy glutton?  Did you know Jennifer Aniston is Cretan?  I’m just saying…

The reality is, of course, that we ALL like to climb up into the Moses Seat and tell other people what to do.  It’s easy and it’s fun to assume the mantle of moral superiority and to hide behind some image of God while we’re pretending to be holier than anyone else.

One of my favorite authors is Kurt Vonnegut, a novelist who described himself as a “Christ-loving atheist”.  In his memoir, A Man Without a Country, he talked about the ways that many people of faith weaponize scripture.

How about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes?

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.

And so on.

Not exactly planks in a [political] platform…

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom? “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon? Give me a break![1]

You see, the problem is that too often, we want to treat the Bible as though it’s a rule book – we check the behavior of those who offend us and cry “foul” and then say that it’s not we who are peeved, but God Almighty.  The trouble with that perspective, however, is that the Bible was not given as a set of laws or a code of ethics.  It is much more a collection of writings as to how and when and where some portion of our family encountered some aspect of the Holy and the words that they used to describe that experience.

Now before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I remember that on October 28, 1990 I stood in front of a congregation and was asked, “Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s word to you?”  And I said yes.  And I continue to affirm that as, pardon the pun, the Gospel Truth.

And yet I have come to understand that the most authentic way to treat the Bible in this regard is to use it as a tool to help us to engage and be engaged by the One to whom that volume points.

Here’s a simple exercise for you to try at home.

“Jesus Takes a Selfie”, by David Hayward. Used by permission (https://nakedpastor.com)

Does your reading of the Bible cause you to look at yourself and other people in the way that you suspect that Jesus might look at you?  Is the time that you are spending with the Scripture sculpting you so that you look more and more like Jesus?

Or does your relationship with scripture tend to make you look more like the religious leaders about whom Jesus warned his followers?

The reality is that we are called to be, act like, and raise up generations of Christ-followers. We are Christians – not Biblians.

Every week, we begin our time of exploration of the Bible with what we call the “Prayer for Illumination”. We are imploring the Spirit who we claim to have inspired these words to give us an appropriate understanding of how and where the truth is to be found and lived in the midst of the text. One of the great sins of the church in the modern and post-modern era is that of weaponizing scripture and using it to attack others.

Let’s put it another way.  Today we are all excited as Kati and Dan are bringing Laraine forward to experience the sacrament of baptism.  When we bring a baby forward in the church of Jesus Christ it’s not to utter some magic words or sprinkle some spell of protection around a child; rather, it’s a way of acknowledging that this child has always and eternally belonged to God.  We don’t know what kind of person Laraine will grow up to be; we have no sense of the kinds of choices she’ll make, and what her career or family or hobbies might be.  We trust all of those things, and Laraine herself, to God.

In baptism, we release Laraine from our expectations and we say that we hope, and we expect, that she will be attentive to the One who formed her in the womb.  We present her here in the chancel and say, “She is yours, O Lord; walk with her and guide her.”

So there’s a story that may or may not be historically true about either Charlemagne or Ivan the Terrible.  Legend has it that as the great and bloodthirsty ruler was rising to power, he converted to Christianity.  His troops were loyal to their leader, and so they, too, decided to go through the waters of baptism.  They did so, five hundred at a time, with one distinctive feature: it is said that as each of the soldiers was baptized, he held his right arm above the water.  That way, when the army bore down on its adversaries, the soldiers would cry, “This arm has not been baptized!” and thereby be free to slaughter their enemies.

I’m not so sure that ever really happened, because it sounds too much like a “preacher needed to make a great point” kind of illustration.  I’m not concerned as to whether it actually happened, because I believe that, in 2021, in much the same way, too many of us are hesitant to baptize our politics or our fears.  We want to pick and choose the things about Christianity that sound attractive to us, but not wrestle with some of the difficult aspects of living faithfully in the 21st century.

So, what do you think? Is this a “Bible-Believing Church?”  I’ll not make that claim on our behalf, beloved.  I’m not sure that I’m the best judge of what that means right now.  I only hope that we are a congregation that is shaped by our shared desire to look like Jesus in the world around us.  I pray that we might be known more for who we love than for what we hate; for those we’ve welcomed than for the ones we have shunned; for our desire to be informed and guided by the Living Word than for our eagerness to condemn or judge those who surround us.

Thanks be to the God who meets us in the pages of the Scripture and in the hearts of each of his people!  Amen.

[1] As quoted in The Guardian, 1/20/2006 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jan/21/kurtvonnegut

Debi Carver Butzbach Memorial Service

Today we held a memorial service for my sister, Debi Carver Butzbach.

I am privileged to have had the opportunity to share life with this woman for six decades, and it was a profound gift to share this day with members of our family and to welcome folks who traveled to attend the service and reminisce with us.

I’m deeply grateful to the leadership of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, DE.  Their Pastoral staff, including Brad and Barb Martin, music leadership, and technical and administrative teams, all of whom were amazing at helping to make this service accessible to those who were not able to attend in person.

To view the service on YouTube, please use this link.  The audio is wonderful on this link.  Note that the service begins with an extended prelude.

If you would prefer, for some reason, to hear an mp3 of the service, please use the link below.  Note that the recording is not as crisp on this version.

Click here to see an Order of Service for this worship

Below is my sister’s obituary, written largely by her son, Bob.  It captures a good bit of who she has been to so many people.

Deborah (Debi) Elaine Carver Butzbach, Age 63 of Rockwood, Maine and Fort Myers, Florida, passed away in Portland, ME on Friday August 27th due to cardiac issues, unrelated to Covid-19.
Debi was born June 11, 1958 in Buffalo, New York to Frank William Carver and Lorraine Helen (Shutt) Carver. She was the oldest of three children, cherished sister of David B. Carver and Thomas F. Carver.
Debi earned her undergraduate degree from David Lipscomb University and went on to complete her Master’s Degree in Psychology from Middle Tennessee State University.
While completing her education, Debi was married to Robert George Butzbach, Jr aboard the General Jackson River Boat on May 7, 1994, in Nashville, Tennessee.
She was mother to the late Benjamin Frank Butzbach (Brandy Butzbach), formerly of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Robert George Butzbach III (Melissa Butzbach) of Coatesville, Pennsylvania and Deborah Butzbach Brackin (Phillip Snowden Brackin) of Pennington, New Jersey.
Debi was Grandmother to nine grandchildren. She loved to throw tea parties for her girls and work on crafts. She had a special bond with each of her boys. From “Bushel and a Peck” to “You Are My Sunshine”, she gave each of her grandchildren the special sort of love that only a grandmother can provide.
Bob and Debi had an adoring relationship and were known to their Florida friends as “The Love Birds.” They shared a mutual love of adventure and travel. They would take long excursions together into the deep Maine wilderness for a picnic and they explored as many corners of the world as they could while still being available for all of the biggest social gatherings at their home in Florida and with the Moosehead Yacht club in Maine, where Debi had the honor of being elected Commodore in 2020.
Debi was an active Church member wherever she happened to find herself, including Tennessee, Florida, and Maine. Her love of travel combined with her faith led her to a new calling when she visited Ghana as a missionary. During her time in Ghana, she developed a sincere love for the people of the villages that she visited and in the process expanded her grandchild count tenfold.
She was an avid fan of the Philadelphia Phillies and had the thrill of attending multiple world series games. She loved family games of all types. Many an hour was spent in the cabin playing ‘Hand and Foot’ and ’Garbage’.
Debi was preceded in death by her parents, her son, Ben, and her grandson, Miles. No Thanksgiving dinner, family game night or trip to Maynards will ever be the same.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be directed to the work in Ghana that was so important to Debi. You can learn more about this ministry and how to make a gift by visiting https://www.amenyofoundation.org

Looking for Unicorns: Hate the Sin, but Love the Sinner

The Saints at the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending a few weeks considering the ways that we delude or distract ourselves by looking for unicorns in the Christian world – how is it that we organize our lives or worship in ways that idealize something that cannot be found, or focus on that which cannot be seen?  On August 22, we considered the fallacy of seeking to embrace someone with love while at the same time defining that person as something that we might consider to be the “worst thing” about them.  Our scriptures included Galatians 2:1-10 as well as Matthew 7:1-5.

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

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

“Hate the sin, but love the sinner”.  I grew up thinking that was a verse in the Bible.  That is to say, I didn’t think of it as good advice, or as common practice: I thought it was literally the Gospel truth.

I first remember hearing it when I was in my early teens.  In response to the Stonewall uprisings and Gay Pride movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a number of conservative or fundamentalist Christians began to take a stand for what they called “Biblical morality”.  All over the United States, cities and counties were passing ordinances and laws limiting the rights of LGBTQ people.  Some of these laws permitted the exclusion of sexual minorities from public housing or certain professions while others enforced criminalization of same-sex relationships. Almost always, these views were expressed by perky, fresh-faced, sincere and “wholesome” looking people such as former Miss America Anita Bryant.

“I don’t wish them any harm – heavens no.  I’m called to love them!  My job here is to help them to see the error of their perverted ways and to protect the children from their influence.  Hate the sin, but love the sinner!”

I grew up hearing that.  I’ve spoken some version of that.  Perhaps you’ve heard or said something similar.  When we saw someone we knew doing something that we perceived to be a moral failing – “living in sin”, or smoking, or voting Democratic – we went out and militantly hated the sin and loved the sinner.

Except I’ve come to see that it’s a fairy tale.  “Hate the sin, but love the sinner” is dangerous because it allows the speaker to be the judge of what behavior is “ethical”, which practices are “sins”, how much forgiveness is to be extended, and worst of all, who’s a “sinner” and who isn’t.

This week we are continuing our series of messages entitled “Looking for Unicorns”.  I’m convinced that far too often, the church of Jesus Christ spends time and energy looking for or seeking to be of service to things that are not real.  Telling someone to “hate the sin but love the sinner” is inviting that person to do something that is at least dangerous and probably impossible.

Our reading from Galatians summarizes a problem that the early church had – and with which the church of today continues to be plagued.  It looked something like this:

One group of people who were deeply loved by Jesus, and who in turn sought to be faithful to Jesus, said, essentially, “Look, we get it.  We’re all sinners.  So in order to fully claim the forgiveness of Jesus, we have to do this one thing…”  And in the minds of some of the first-century Galatians, that one thing was adhering to the Jewish Law, which included dietary restrictions, circumcision, and more.  “Jesus was Jewish”, these folks said, “and if you can’t claim to be faithful to Jesus unless you’re doing this thing.”

Now the second group, of which Paul was a member, responded by saying something like, “Um, well, you see, that’s not really how we understand things.  All of those rules are a part of an earlier manifestation of the faith and they are more about conforming to the expectations of others – people like you folks – than they are about loving Jesus.  We are crazy about Jesus, and want to live as his people, but we can’t do those things.  And we don’t need to do those things.”  And before long, the words flew.  “Heathen!” “Judaizer!” “Heretic!” or “Apostate!”

And, for the folks in the first century AD, this was eventually resolved, not because they came to an agreement on everything, but because they came to realize that they were members of the same family.  Therefore, they “extended the right hand of fellowship” one to another, and sought to practice living in a way that affirmed “we’re all in this together.”

The early church lived in a way that was far deeper than “hate the sin, but love the sinner”, and in this response we can see that that phrase is a fallacy and, in fact, dangerous.

To begin with, when I say “hate the sin but love the sinner”, I’m starting with hate.  That is simply not an option for a follower of Jesus.

Years ago I was involved in a workplace that was, to say the least, toxic.  The supervisor was at best clueless, but more accurately deluded and abusive.  The entire staff had quit in the course of about six months, and was replaced.  I was among the replacements.  This rebuilt group soon learned to distrust and fear our supervisor, and in this experience, found that we had a growing comradery.  In spite of the pain meted out by the boss, workplace morale was often rather high – because we thought that we liked each other. We had a common enemy, and that gave us a lot to talk about.

But then, as usually happens, the staffing patterns changed, and one by one, we left that workplace.  As soon as we left, we discovered that the “friendship” we had didn’t really amount to much.  We learned that it is difficult to maintain anything of value when it rests on a foundation of hatred.  In his autobiography, Mahatma Ghandi put it this way:

Hate the sin and not the sinner is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world… It is quite proper to resist and attack a system, but to resist and attack its author is tantamount to resisting and attacking oneself. for we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being but with him the whole world.[1]

And that leads me to another problem with the unicorn called “hate the sin but love the sinner”: it ends with me determining that someone else is a sinner.  Well of course that “someone else” is a sinner.  Whether you’ve sat in this church for 15 minutes or 50 years, there one thing of which you ought to be convinced, and that is the sinful nature of humanity.  Robert Capon, a theologian and priest from New York, reminds us that that’s the only kind of humanity there is.  He said, “Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.” [2]

The danger in espousing “Hate the sin but love the sinner” is that it allows the speaker to claim the high ground as the arbiter of sin and virtue.  In his epic book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his community the truth:

Discipleship does not afford us a point of vantage from which to attack others; we come to them with an unconditional offer of fellowship, with the single-mindedness of the love of Jesus.[3]

He knew the truth: when we see people as “this thing that appalls me” or “this idea I can’t stand”, then we lose our ability to see them as those who are beloved children created in the image and likeness of God.

I know that this is a hard teaching, but our pursuit of Christ leaves us only one primary option when it comes to all of the other sinners around us: we are to love them as we ourselves have been loved.  We will not always agree.  We will not always be able to work together.  But we can refuse to objectify or demonize someone as “other”.  We can refuse to make a single aspect of that person’s self into the totality of their existence.

Here’s the deal: Jesus never told anyone to hate sinners.    In fact, so far as I can tell, he never told anyone to love sinners either.  Jesus didn’t talk much about “sinners”.  He dealt with people, and in that context, he called us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies; to love those who bless us and to love those who persecute us.

In his book, Half-Truths, Adam Hamilton captures this idea well:

I think Jesus knew that if he commanded his disciples to ‘love the sinner,’ they would begin looking at other people more as sinners than neighbors. And that, inevitably, would lead to judgment. If I love you more as a sinner than as my neighbor, then I am bound to focus more on your sin. I will start looking for all the things that are wrong with you. And perhaps, without intending it, I will being thinking about our relationship like this: “You are a sinner, but I graciously choose to love you anyway.” If that sounds a little puffed up, self-righteous, and even prideful to you, then you have perceived accurately.[4]

And so far, everything that I’ve said has made sense to me as long as I think about characteristics or practice that I find to be unusual, or not my style, or some decision with which I personally disagree.  So I can think, in my head, “Of course that person, who understands sexuality different than I do, or who smokes, or who votes Democrat – yes, even that person who is different than me is my brother.  I can love that person.”

But as I struggled with the text this week, I had a bigger question – how do I practice this ethic toward those whose behavior we find truly reprehensible?  How do we love a person who engages in genocide?  What about an abuser? Or a person whose racist outlooks and practices are destroying lives and communities?  Because while Bonhoeffer reminded us, appropriately, that the job of the Christian is to approach others with the “single-mindedness of the love of Jesus”, he also said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”[5]

How are we to engage in a lifestyle that searches out those mechanisms that crush people and seeks to end them while at the same time embracing an ethic of love? It seems to me that the primary starting point must be motive: we begin to engage in this life not out of hatred for those who practice such horrors but rather in love for those who are victimized by such.  It is an act of deep and abiding love to limit the power of the abuser, whether that abuser is the state, the church, an oppressive ethnic group, or an individual who is drunk with power.

And yet even as we do this, we realize that we cannot attempt to do this out of a sense of moral superiority but in the realization that the world is a messy, painful place, populated with messy, pained people.

We will not always agree.

We will not always be right.

But we will always be neighbors.  Let us covenant to refuse to objectify others, to seek justice and wholeness for those to whom those things have been denied, and to treat everyone – especially each other – with respect and love while building the community of peace and wholeness we’ve been given by Jesus.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1023338-hate-the-sin-and-not-the-sinner-is-a-precept

[2] The Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985) p. 132.

[3] Macmillan Paperback 1960, p. 204

[4] Half-Truths (Abingdon, 2016) pp. 151-152.

[5] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/22884-we-are-not-to-simply-bandage-the-wounds-of-victims

Looking For Unicorns: The ‘Deserving Poor’

The Saints at the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending a few weeks considering the ways that we delude or distract ourselves by looking for unicorns in the Christian world – how is it that we organize our lives or worship in ways that idealize something that cannot be found, or focus on that which cannot be seen?  On August 15, we considered the call to Sabbath as presented in Deuteronomy 15:7-11  as well as Jesus’ encounter with a blind beggar in Mark 10:46-52.

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

To view the entire service on YouTube, please use the link below:

Some of you have heard this story before, but you all know that’s how it is with life-changing events.  They become stories that stick with you.

Not long after we’d moved to Pittsburgh in the early 1980’s, I had occasion to travel to Washington DC. In the years prior, I’d done some pretty intensive urban ministry training there, and I thought it would be a good chance for me to share some of my knowledge and experience with a few of the young people from Crafton Heights.  So Jim, Howard, and I went down and took in a few sights while waiting for my friend Carol to meet us for lunch.  No sooner had we arrived downtown when we were approached by a panhandler, asking for money to buy a cup of coffee.

I made a pretty emphatic point of telling him that I didn’t have any money to give him and he shuffled off.  I explained to the young guys with me that “you have to be careful about giving out money; I mean, you want to help, but they’ll spend it on drugs and liquor.”  I saw this as a real “teachable moment”, and didn’t miss the opportunity to pass on this valuable life lesson to Howard and Jim in a way that made me sound pretty streetwise and compassionate.

Half an hour later we met Carol at McDonalds.  As we stood to order, Jim elbowed me and pointed to a customer buying a cup of coffee in the adjacent line.  “Hey, Dave,” he said.  “That’s the guy we saw!  I thought you said that they always buy booze.  Looks like he really wanted coffee.”

That brief encounter nearly forty years ago has stayed with me every moment since.  I’m sorry for the arrogance I displayed, and grateful for the lessons I’ve learned.

How do we tell if we’re doing the right thing?  Are we helping someone? Are we helping the right people?  How do you know?

Today we are beginning a series of messages I’m calling, “Looking for Unicorns”.  Now, you know what a unicorn is.  Everyone does – a majestic beast with a body like that of a horse, but a single spiraling horn projecting from its forehead.  When I say, “unicorn”, you know what I mean.

But – spoiler alert – everyone knows that they’re not real, right?  I mean, you know what a unicorn is – but you also know it’s not a thing, right?

When I talk about looking for unicorns in the church, what I’m trying to say is that a great many people in the church invest significant time and energy looking for, planning for, and developing opinions on things that are not real.  We hold conferences, develop policies and programs designed to help us find and engage with things that are, in reality, mythical.

One of the first unicorns of which I became aware was the kind I was looking for on the streets of Washington DC: the “deserving poor”.

Look, everyone knows that we’re supposed to help people who struggle.  All of us need a little help from time to time.  But as I told Jim and Howard, you can’t be too careful.  People will play you, or take advantage of you. When folks find out that you’re willing to help, they’ll tell their friends and start lining up at your door, ready to take all you’ve got.

In response to that, one of the core tasks for some Christians has been that of identifying a class of people we call “the deserving poor”.  We winnow through the riff-raff to discover those people whom we truly ought to help because we can trust that they won’t take advantage of our kind-heartedness or charity. People want to know that their gifts will be used wisely, and not squandered.

Years ago, an urban pastor named Bob Lupton came up with a description of the people we like to help.  Listen:

truly worthy poor person: is a widow above 65 years of age living alone in deteriorating housing; has no family or relatives nearby to care for her; has no savings; is disabled and cannot work; exists off her monthly social security check; is a woman of prayer and faith; trusts God to meet her needs; never asks anyone for help but graciously accepts what people bring to her; is not cranky.

truly worthy poor family: is close knit; has a working father who holds down two minimum wage jobs; has a stay-at-home mother who makes the kids obey, washes and irons clothes by hand and does not buy junk food; will not accept welfare; always pays rent and bills on time; has no automobile but is always punctual; kids do not cuss or tell lies.

truly worthy poor person: is a young man, out of school, not living off his mother; is unemployed but diligently applies for jobs every day; accepts gratefully any kind of work for any pay offered; does not smoke, drink, or use drugs; attends church regularly; does not sleep around; wears freshly pressed clothes (belted at waistline); is always clean shaven.

truly worthy poor person: is a young mother in public housing (only temporarily); has illegitimate children conceived prior to becoming a Christian; is now celibate; tithes her welfare check and food stamps; is a high school dropout but manages her finances well; reads books to her children and limits their TV watching to educational programs; prepares nutritious meals; walks everywhere to save bus fare; keeps her apartment spotless; insists on volunteering in exchange for food at the church food pantry; will not accept cash from family or friends that violates welfare rules.[1]

Lupton goes on to point out the obvious problem: these folks don’t really exist.  It turns out that the poor, like the rest of us, are complicated human beings who have mixed motives and learned survival strategies. When someone is truly poor, they’re apt to be willing to grasp at any straw; like the rest of us, they may be manipulative or impatient or obsessed with their own immediate needs. If we are intent on creating an ethic of love that is centered on helping only people whom we deem to be truly deserving, we do nothing more than waste a lot of time and energy as well as erecting barriers that will undermine our ministry and credibility.

So what do we do?

Our first reading for this morning, from the book of Deuteronomy, is one of the many, many places in scripture where God’s people are commanded to treat the poor with kindness and compassion.

I want to point out, though, that this chapter begins that conversation by discussing the idea of Sabbath.  In fact, Deuteronomy 15 is the most complete treatment of the Sabbath in the entire book of Deuteronomy.  If you were to read the entire chapter – as I hope you will – you’ll discover that one of God’s main themes is redemption – making things right.  The way that God does that is by inviting us to participate in practices involving rest and release.  Specifically, God’s people are urged to develop behaviors that release folk from onerous burdens that could lead to oppression or even enslavement.

Moses, helping to form the identity of the people of God, says that a key part of knowing rest, release, and freedom for ourselves is looking for ways to extend that to other people.  And note, if you will, that he’s not speaking in theoretical terms: the old preacher is using body language.  He warns against being hard-hearted and tight-fisted.  Many translations include words about the ways that we look at the poor.

Deuteronomy 15 describes a series of economic practices that have real-life implications.  The core of the matter is this: every seven years, debts are forgiven.  Moses presumes that you’re going to have hard times, and you’ll need to borrow from your neighbor, or vice versa.  He then invites the children of God into a theology that is based on trusting in the provision of God more than in the amount of money your neighbor owes you.  The promise, put forward in verses 4 and 5, is that if we act in compassion and justice, there will never be any true experience of need.

The reality, stated in verse 11, is that “There will always be poor in the land.”  If you are familiar with anything in Deuteronomy 15, it’s this passage, quoted by Jesus when he said, “The poor you will always have with you…”  When people talk about the time that Jesus said it, it’s often used as an excuse to avoid helping the poor, as in, “What are you going to do?  You’re always going to have them. Why bother?” Which is, of course, the opposite of the Gospel he proclaimed.  The command of scripture is clear: we are to live as open-handed people.

“Jesus and Bartimaeus”, Julia Stankova, 2017; used by permission. More at http://www.juliastankova.com

Jesus himself brings us a great example of these lived behaviors in his encounter with Bartimaeus on the road outside of Jericho.  There is a whole lot I can say about this story, but let me draw two observations.

First, it’s crucial to note that Jesus did not pause the healing in order to interrogate Bartimaeus.  He didn’t ask the man what he was planning to look at with these newly-sighted eyes.  Jesus didn’t check Bartimaeus’ browsing history, or tell him to stay away from porn; he didn’t ask him to enroll in an Art History or Photography class – something where he’d use his eyes only for good.

No – that’s ludicrous.  Jesus did what he could to release this man from his blindness and the limitations that put on him.  He liberated Bartimaeus to become more than he had been, and he trusted that Bartimaeus would grow into God’s best for him.

The second thing I’d like to point out is that for his part, Bartimaeus is a prime example of faith.  Sitting there by the side of the road he knew, somehow, that being closer to Jesus was better than being further from Jesus.  So we read in verse 50 that Bartimaeus threw his cloak aside.  So far as we know, this is the man’s singular possession – and he throws it away in his eagerness to get closer to Jesus.

Why is this important?  Because if this whole Jesus-making-me-well thing doesn’t work out, then we’ve got an impoverished blind man wandering through the street, searching for an old coat that may or may not have been stolen, or thrown in a pile of excrement, or lost down a hill.  Yet in that moment, Bartimaeus realized that his attachment to the cloak was slowing his pursuit of Jesus, and so he let it go.  That makes me wonder whether there are things in my life or in yours that hinder our ability to draw close to God?  Are there attachments that prevent me from being a true disciple?

Listen, if all we have to rely on here is the Gospel, then I’m going to go ahead and say that Bartimaeus was probably a real pain in the tookus.  I mean, he’s loud, he’s pushy, and he’s on people’s nerves.  Is he worth Jesus’ time and effort? Like I said, I don’t know if there are any truly “deserving poor.”  And, truth be told, I’m not sure that there are any truly “deserving” billionaires.  We’re all complicated and conflicted.

And you say, “But Dave! When you talk about the wealthy, how can you say that about _______ (your favorite rich guy)?  I mean, he worked hard, followed his passion, and came up with a plan, and it worked!”

Yeah, I hear you.  But as British author and activist George Monbiot has said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire”.  There’s more to it than having passion and industry, my friends.

I would suggest that at the end of the day, we are all beggars on the side of the road – that each of us is in need of healing in our body, mind, and spirit.  Each of us needs to know the liberation that God intends, even as we desperately clutch to our own sense of place and draw our own cloaks more tightly around us.  When we see the poor, not as some sort of underclass whose motives must be weighed and measured, and whose behavior is to be held under a microscope for our observation as to how proper they are, but rather as fellow residents of the City of God, we can begin to apply some new metrics in terms of taking part in God’s sabbatical liberation and release.

So what are some practices that might help us participate in such sabbatical liberation and release?  I have a few ideas.

Most immediately, can you participate in the rhythm of Sabbath right now?  At the core of the Biblical mandate is an invitation for us to simply stop – to pull over and rest – one day in seven.  To cease producing, and to stop expecting others to do the same.  To gather with friends and family around a shared cause, a common worship, a meal or a project that brings delight.  Come to worship.  Feed the birds.  Go fishing.  Read.  Take a nap.  Write a letter – use an actual US Postage stamp and send your love in an envelope.

Perhaps you’re in a position where someone owes you money.  Is it within your power and means to forgive all or part of that debt?  To simply walk with that person and say, “I know we said you’d work on getting that back to me, but you know what? Don’t worry about it.  When you get it, pass it on to someone else who needs it.”  Maybe that can work for you; maybe not.  But let me invite you to think about it.

How do you participate in the world, economically speaking?  The ways and the places that spend your money provide you with a chance to vote on how the world should be.  I know that it can slow down your pursuit of a bargain, but let me invite you to investigate the ways that the businesses you frequent relate to their employees, the well-being of the world, and the environment.  As much as you can, eat real food (not processed), grown by folks who live close to you.  There are some stores I avoid because while they may offer low prices and offer great returns to their investors, they pay their employees so little that full-time workers are often relying on food stamps or other government assistance.  Can you shop or eat at establishments that are locally owned, or owned by historically-marginalized folk such as people of color?

Think about the ways that you do give – and I hope you do – to build people up.  I’ll be honest – I do not give to every panhandler I encounter, even after the experience in DC.  If I see you standing at an intersection, whether you’re a person experiencing homelessness or a firefighter or a cheerleader doing a fund-raiser, you’re not getting my change because I think that’s a dangerous place to be wandering around engaging in conversation.  But I do try to support agencies and institutions, including this congregation, that are seeking to release people from the burdens of hunger, fear, abuse, violence, or debt.

Take some time to learn for yourself.  Earlier, I quoted Bob Lupton.  His book, Toxic Charity is an amazing exploration of the ways that our well-intentioned giving can actually wound those we’re trying to help.  Come and talk with me about the people who apply for help from the Lazarus Fund.  Speak with the Deacons about participating in The Table, a meal that we prepare and share with neighbors on the south side once a month. Ask Bruce about an opportunity to spend time with a young person who needs some friendly and encouraging adults in their life.

And perhaps most importantly, beloved, stop looking for unicorns.  Refuse to categorize people as “good” or “bad”, “them” or “us”, “losers”, “rejects”, “sheeple”, “bums”.  Right now, your social media feed is filled with comments about those lazy bums who stay home from work collecting welfare and unemployment while the rest of us work our tails off to pay for it.  Your online “friends” are apparently really disturbed by the prospect of folks who use food stamps to buy potato chips or choice meat or some other apparently questionable purchase.

You can give all of that a rest, can’t you?  I’m here to tell you that the guy who uses a hundred bucks worth of food stamps to buy energy drinks or Doritos isn’t the problem. The system that allows systemic inequality and generational poverty to flourish, enriching some at the expense of others – that’s the problem.

“Ah, yeah, there it is.  Carver is saying that we need socialism.  I knew it. Typical.”

No, that’s not what I’m saying at all.  This is not a political message – this is a theological reflection.  And I’m telling you that we need Sabbath.  We need to focus ourselves on what it means to live responsibly in a world of abundance and what it takes for us to resist the temptation to put ourselves under the control of that which holds us back from being the people God meant us to be.  Temptations like judgmentalism, selfishness, or isolation.

Can we stop looking for unicorns like “deserving poor” and start looking for ways to love the neighbors who actually surround us?  Thanks be to God, who meets and equips us in ways we cannot begin to anticipate. Amen.

[1] https://www.fcsministries.org/fcs-ministries/blog/the-truly-worthy-poor

Cooperstown, Canton, and Crafton Heights…

The Saints at the The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights begin the month of August considering what the task of worship is all about, and why God bothered to put all those folks in front of us.  We looked at the “Heroes of the Faith” presented in Hebrews 11 and wondered what the call for us might be.

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

To see the worship service in its entirety, please use the YouTube link below:

Can I tell you one of the hardest things about being a pastor?  I’ve already shared this with some of our nurses, but I’ll come clean to you all.  I hate the fact that sometimes when I’m visiting you in the hospital, as we are reading scripture or praying, someone from the medical establishment will come into the room, look mildly perturbed, and say, “Excuse me, Padre, but can you wrap things up?  We have some important things to do here…”  As if talking to the Creator of the Universe or hearing the word of God are insignificant!

That’s the world we live in, though.  Too often, our world says that faith is a passive, meek, submissive posture that you may be forced to adopt when you are out of more attractive options.  You know how that goes…when are you likely to hear the phrase, “Well, um, you’ve just gotta have faith, right?”  When your team is down by fourteen runs, or when Dad has just left, or when the oncologist has said “Yes sir, that’s right, It’s inoperable.”  For many of us, “faith” is another word for “shadowy hope that something better might come along, but don’t count on it.”

But that’s not how the faith of scripture is described.  In the introduction to our reading today, the author of Hebrews says in 10:29: “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved”  Isn’t that interesting?  In our world, many people see faith as holding back, hoping, and not doing anything.  In Hebrews, though, we hear that having faith is the opposite of shrinking back.  We do NOT shrink back…we have faith…

And then, to prove his point, the preacher in Hebrews leads us through the “Faith Hall Of Fame”.  We didn’t read all of this this morning, but you should. The people who are here are men and women of action.  Faith is obviously a verb in the language of the Bible.  In Hebrews 11, we read that Abel sacrificed and Enoch pleased and Noah built and Abraham obeyed and traveled and procreated and offered and Jacob and Isaac blessed and Moses left Egypt and kept the Passover and Israel passed through the sea and defeated Jericho and Rahab obeyed…How?  By faith.  One after another, like the statues in a Hall of Fame, the preacher reminds us of those who have come before us in the family of faith.  These are men and women of heroic deeds and great actions.

Have you ever been to a Hall of Fame?  The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton, OH.  Maybe you’ve been to Hayward, WI to see the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, or Fort Worth, TX to see the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.  Did you know that there’s a Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid, OH (ain’t Google a wonderful thing?)?

Sharon and I went to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  I saw “Shoeless Joe” Jackson’s shoes.  I saw the uniform that “Bad Henry” Aaron wore when he hit home run number 715.  I even saw Babe Ruth’s bowling ball and shoes.  We went to an all-star game and I saw Bob Feller pitch to Harmon Killebrew and Ritchie Ashbourne.  And when I left the Baseball Hall of Fame, do you know what I wanted to do more than anything?

My visit to Cooperstown made me want to watch more baseball.  I left feeling like, “Wow, I’m really not that good, but these guys are incredible!”

And it occurs to me that that is the goal of any Hall of Fame – whether it’s in Cooperstown, Canton, or Fort Lauderdale, FL (home of the International Swimming Hall of Fame) – is to create spectators.  All of these museums exist because they want to put people in the seats.  To create a hunger in you and me, the target audience, a desire to consume the entertainment that these folks provide.  The Hall of Fame is there to remind people like you and me that we’re not great at baseball, polka, or swimming, and that the best thing we can do is to create an audience for the pros who do it better than schmucks like us ever could.

Listen to me, beloved: as we walk through the Faith Hall of Fame, and as we come to the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, our goal is NOT to create spectators.  I am NOT HERE to put fannies in the pews!

But last month, Dave, you talked about the need for corporate worship and you said that as we emerge from the pandemic, we need to be together in worship more.  And that’s right.  We need to do that.  But that’s not the goal.  Assembling people together in this space is the strategy that we employ in order to reach our true goal.

So if creating spectators or filling this room isn’t our goal, what is?  My goal is to make sure that all of you are running the race from Monday – Saturday.  The hope is that each person who comes into worship is challenged to follow Jesus – that each person who arrives here is growing all the time to look more and more like Jesus.  The goal is to have our lives reflect Jesus’ life.

What would it be like if you opened up the Book of Matthew to read about Jesus and this is what you saw: “And lo, as it was the Sabbath, they went unto the synagogue, and behold, Jesus saith the sermon was ‘not bad, but a little long.’  Those assembled arose and sangeth Psalm 23, and behold, Jesus said, ‘Lo, that one always maketh me weep.’  And after the worship had ended, being precisely sixty minutes, they partook of the sacred coffee hour and holy donuts.”

What would it be like if you opened up the Book of Acts to find out how the early disciples followed Jesus, and you read, “It being a Tuesday, and the First Tuesday of the month, the Apostles all went to a committee meeting, where there was much talking.  After the vote being 7 in favor and 5 against, Thomas was elected to keep the minutes of the meeting…”

God forbid that the scriptures would read like that!  We’d all die of boredom!  We are witnesses to the fact that God revealed his purposes for all of creation in Jesus Christ!  We celebrate the fact that the Church demonstrates the love of Christ to the world.  That we, no less than Jesus and his followers, are called to be actively engaged in healings, feedings, teachings, challengings, proclaimings…

Wait just a second, Pastor Dave.  You’re the one who is all over us to come to worship and sit through these meetings.  Are you saying that those things are unfaithful?  That they are a waste of time?

Yes they are…If those practices do not make us more receptive to the Word of God or the movement of God in history, then they are a colossal waste of time.  The only reason to come to this building – ever – is because something that you or I are doing here will help us be better positioned to follow Jesus into the world.  The only reason to come here is to get us more excited about playing the game, not watching it.  That’s why when one of you speaks with me about this room and you refer to the platform upon which I’m standing as a “stage”, I correct you and say that this is a “chancel”.  We don’t have stages here in church, where a few folks such as the preacher and the worship team perform and the rest of the folks form the audience.  We have a chancel whereupon some worshipers stand and lead the other worshipers in the work of worship.  There is no performance – it’s all worship.  Showing up here, whether it’s for worship or for meetings, is not the goal.  Showing up here is the strategy that teaches and equips us to follow Jesus into the world.

Hebrews Chapter 11 is the “Faith Hall of Fame”.  One by one, scriptural characters are lifted up and their behavior is noted.  When we walk through Hebrews 11, we can see what faith looked like then.  What does it look like now?  Is faith a meek and sniveling shrinking back?  The whimpering wishful thinking of a group of people who don’t have anything better to offer?  Or does faith have hands and feet here and now?

Here’s what faith looks like in Pittsburgh, 2021.  It looks like the student who says to her friends, “You know, I need to stay home and read the book so I can write a paper because I have to pass this class in order to get a degree so that I’ll be in a position where I can be a blessing to others.  So I’m going to have to pass on the movie tonight…”  Isn’t that right?  That for some of us, Acting Faithfully means that we study hard and do the homework – because that’s what God is asking us to do right now.

Faith, in Pittsburgh, 2021, can look like a person who chooses to live in the city when the guys at the office are telling him he’s crazy to want to “put himself in that situation”.  Faith can look like a couple who buys a house in a neighborhood that’s changing because they want to help it change in the right direction.

Faith is choosing to live on less than you earn because you want to have a chance to give some of that money to the things that matter to God.  Faith means saying “yes” to a new ministry and throwing yourself into it even when you’re scared to death.

What does faith look like here and now?  This may be a crazy example, but I’d like to say that faith looks like a scene from one of the CHUP softball games a few years ago.   Early in the game, a player I’ll not name was on base and the person who was up after him smacked the ball – hard.  Now, our friend who was on first took off running all right, but he was also watching the ball.  Do you know what happens when you do that?  You slow down.  You leave the basepath.  You lose track of where you are supposed to be.  As this player discovered, when all of that happens, you usually make an out.  Yet later in the game, the same player was on base again and when the batter after him hit it, he started running.  As fast as he could, he was heading for home.  He got to third base, and instead of turning around to look for the ball, he listened to his coach. When the coach said, “Keep going”, our friend didn’t lose a step.  And he scored.

Faith is a lot like that.  Once we know where we’re supposed to end up, when it’s our turn, we put our heads down and we run as fast as we can.  And while we run, we listen to the coaches who surround us – the people who will help us make decisions about how to get home.  But we keep looking at Jesus.  We can’t afford to worry about what everyone else is thinking.  Our eyes are not on the ball, or on the other players, or on the folks in the stands.  They are fixed on Jesus.

Beloved, I hope and pray that you are not here this morning to watch what the rest of the folks are doing.  My prayer is that you are here to become equipped so that you might be able to act more like Jesus each day.  Not because acting like Jesus is going to save you from anything in particular, or make your life a bed of roses – but because acting like Jesus might just help put your friends and neighbors in a place where they can see and hear Jesus for themselves.  There is nothing more important for you to do than to offer yourself to God and to the world that God loves in this way.  Thanks be to God, who has surrounded us with those who show us how to immerse ourselves in acts of faith to the glory of God.  Amen.

After the Storm: Securing the Fellowship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could he do that?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

After the Storm: A Financial Fresh Start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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