Lessons Learned

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  The second message in the series brought us the opportunity to consider the ways in which David was shaped for his vocation in surprising ways.  Our texts included I Samuel 16:14-23 and II Corinthians 4:7-12.

When you are driving past the bus stop and you see a group of young people wearing oversize white tops and finely checked pants, you know that you’re looking at folks who are on their way to the Culinary Institute, where they’ll continue their preparation as chefs. Similarly, when you are walking through the corridors of the hospital and encounter a quartet wearing stethoscopes trailing a woman in a white lab coat, you assume you’re seeing student nurses. In these professions, and in dozens of others, folks enter into their vocation after a period of training, apprenticeship, or coursework. You probably did something like that in one way or another.

Last week, we began our exploration of the stories surrounding King David by reading about the day that, as a young boy, he was taken aside by the old prophet Samuel and anointed as King. One of the difficulties that this presented, as we noted, was that the office of King was not vacant at the time – Saul had been anointed King some years before and he had grown pretty accustomed to the position.

David, then, finds himself in an awkward situation: he’s preparing for a position of which he has already been assured, but has no sense of when he’ll actually be called into that place. In our reading for today, we learn more about the training that David received as he waited for God’s direction. What lessons will he learn as God continues to shape him for the office that he will eventually occupy? And as we consider these events in the life of David, we need to ask ourselves how we understand them to be relevant in our own circumstances.

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

We’re told in verse 14 that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul and, instead, an evil spirit from the Lord was tormenting him. It’s hard for us, as 21st-century believers living in the USA to enter into a mindset of good and evil spirits, let alone a view of the world which holds that the One whom we suppose to be nothing but goodness and light is in the business of tormenting poor unfortunate souls. However, the text we’ve received is one that comes from another time and another place, and an unsophisticated worldview which held that all things are ultimately a result of God’s work; God kills and God brings to life; God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and so on.

In an effort to de-mystify some of the language here, a few modern readers have simply assumed that Saul was suffering from a medical condition: maybe depression, maybe anxiety disorder, or perhaps schizophrenia. While this may be helpful in terms of giving us an insight into the symptoms that Saul may or may not have displayed, it ignores the fact that Saul’s primary problems were theological in nature. He had flagrantly disrespected and violated the Lord’s presence, and so the Lord left him, and that resulted in this series of unfortunate symptoms.

Saul felt the absence of God horribly. In spite of having the best medical care available, with zero copay and zero deductible, he was overwhelmed. Fortunately for Saul, though, the people around him were brave enough to risk acknowledging his situation publicly. “Saul, you are a mess! You need help, and you need it now.”

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 - 1812)

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 – 1812)

One of the lessons that young David needed to learn as he prepared for his role of King is that every one of us needs to listen to the wise counsel of those who are close to us. It’s not something that comes easily to many, and as we look at some of David’s most spectacular failures, we’ll see that it took him some time to figure this out. Yet we note that here, before he ever tries on the crown or even thinks about moving into the palace, David is learning the importance of acting upon trusted advice and having a teachable heart.

Saul is more than eager to be relieved of this distress, and so he listens to his counselors and sends for the musician to be brought before him. He finds, much to his own delight (and surely that of everyone on his staff), that the shepherd boy really does have a great voice and can play the lyre like nobody’s business.

David is brought before Saul and asked to do something for which he had prepared – even though he had no idea that’s what was happening. What I mean is this: do you suppose that David took his lyre out to the hillsides while he was hanging around with those sheep and said, “I’m going to practice and practice and practice, because you know what? Sooner or later, I’ll be called to be the personal musician of the King!”

That’s unlikely. My hunch is that he probably took along the lyre to alleviate the boredom of being alone so much; that he sang and thought and played because he thought he was all alone; in actuality, though, he was being prepared in the solitude for that great call that came through Samuel.

Perhaps as he played the lyre for a King who was in such distress, David was able to remember that God sometimes uses the unpleasant, or bitter, or painful experiences to grow us in some way for the future. Have you ever had to work for a boss that is completely unhinged (I’d be grateful if current and former church staff did not answer this one out loud)? It had to be very, very difficult to be David in that situation; he knew that he had been called to be the King, and yet of course he was not the King, and instead he was being called to soothe the dis-ease of the one for whose position he was being groomed.

Let me ask those of you who can remember being in an intensely painful or unpleasant situation: is it possible for you to look back on that time of your life and see that you experienced some growth, that you learned some lesson, that you discovered some fruit as a result of being in a difficult place? I’m not asking you if you were glad to have been there; I’m not saying that God put you there so that you’d be taught something… I’m asking whether or not you can look back at some horrible time in your life and say, “You know what? When all of that was going on, I learned ___________.”

I don’t want to spend time talking about the causes of these difficult situations; I simply want to ask you to explore whether or not you have grown through times of pain.

And if you can say, “yes, I can look to some important things that I learned while in that difficult place”, then are you able to recognize that it’s likely that you are going to be able to grow in, through, or in spite of the next painful spot in which you happen to find yourself?

I believe that one of the things that David was able to grasp while in the service of Saul is the truth that even in seasons of pain and discomfort, of horror and grief, we can grow.

Perhaps the third lesson that David was able to grasp while in this formative place with King Saul is the importance of waiting on God and honoring those with whom you are placed.

David Playing the Harp Before Saul, Ivan Ivanovich Tvorozhnikov (1848-1919)

Think about it: David knows that he’s the next King. He’s been told that by no less an authority than the Prophet Samuel. The kid leaves his house, where he’s in charge of keeping the sheep out of trouble and maybe carrying the groceries every now and then, and comes into the royal residence. He sees the luxury that surrounds the King, and he sees the King in a very, very fragile place. And look at what he does: he acts to be an anxiety-reducer in that place. In some ways, David is acting against his own best interests here. There has to be a part of David that’s saying, “You know, if old Saul finally loses it here, then I’m in! It’ll be my turn to live into the prophecy that Samuel shared!” There are all sorts of reasons why it would be to David’s advantage to hasten Saul’s descent into madness and obscurity, yet he refuses to do so. Instead, David brings life to Saul, and helps Saul to find his way back to normalcy. David does not feed the fear; instead, he seeks to defuse and disarm the fear.

There’s a word there for the church today. We live in an environment where there is every conceivable incentive to grow fear. Everywhere we turn, people are trying to get you to be more alarmed, more anxious than you were five minutes ago. Politicians tell lies and make up stories about each other; the current Presidential election is rife with fear-mongering and alarmist rhetoric; the entire culture is saturated with distrust and disgust and fear and anxiety and there is no peace.

A couple of weeks ago, the Smith & Wesson Company announced that their profits have doubled since last year. Background checks for weapons permits are on a pace to shatter the record that was set last year. Do you think people are buying all this firepower because they feel safe and secure? And do you think that anyone who owns stock in Smith & Wesson (the value of which has surged 60% in 2016) has any interest in reducing anyone’s anxiety right now?

Of course not. There’s money to be made in fear. Hate sells. Anxiety brings out the voters, brings in the money, and obliterates the truth.

And far too often, in our culture, it’s people who wear the name of Jesus who are out there leading the yelling and screaming. We feed the fear. We nurture it. We allow it to grow, when we should be seeking, as David did, to be a non-anxious presence in time of great fear. David’s eyes were not on the madness of King Saul, but on the presence and power of God.

Father Luis Espinal was a priest born in Spain, but who went to Bolivia to serve as a missionary amongst the poor in 1968. For years, he spoke out against the gangs who ran the drug trade and the government that supported those gangs. He railed against injustice, poverty, the lack of freedom of the dictatorship, the massacres, the exiles, the complicit collaboration of many with the dictatorship, drug trafficking, and the guilty silence of members of the Church. On March 21, 1980, he was leaving a movie theater when he was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a death squad. Yet just before his violent death, he wrote this brief meditation:

Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

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

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are a definitive smile for humankind.

What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality!

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

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

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

Does any of that ring true with you? Have you or your friends fallen prey to “hysterical reactions”? Does it seem conceivable to you that the world is slipping out of God’s hands, somehow?

When I say it like that, you say, “Oh, no, Dave, we don’t believe that. God is still God. God is our Rock. God is our fortress.”

If that’s the case, then the challenge for this week is for you to go out there and live like that’s true. Accept the call on your life that was the call on young David: to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of a fearful world. To be the voice of reason and tolerance even as you are surrounded by those who hurl vile racism and who abuse power and who profit from decay and would foment discord. Use your voice, your presence, your song, so to speak, to speak truth and peace and grace to those around you.

I know that it’s not easy to do this. And it’s not easy to hear this. Earlier this week, in an effort to be perceived as funny and sophisticated and wise, I made a comment that was smug and dismissive and disrespectful. Someone I love came to me and said, “Do you realize how hurtful that was?” In my attempt to be well-regarded, I was instead smarmy and self-inflating, and I contributed to separation and alienation. And someone cared enough about me to pull me aside and say, “Look, Dave – is that your best self? Is that who you want to be?”

That’s what I’m asking you to do today. To show up in rooms where people are acting more irrationally than old King Saul ever did and to use the voice that God gave you to bring peace, to point to hope, and to demonstrate resurrection.

We’re in a hard place. We can expect that it’s going to get harder. Let’s go ahead and do what is right anyway, trusting God to be with us even as he was with David, in the midst of our vulnerability and risk, in a place of fear. When we are tempted to distrust, can we join together and repeat the psalm of peace? Thanks be to God, Amen.

(In)Significance

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  Our series began with this message, and the texts included I Samuel 16:1-13 and I Corinthians 1:26-31.

OK, so you’re sitting around with someone you love, and you’ve got nothing better to do, so you decide to pop on down to the Redbox and get a movie. There have been all kinds of new releases lately, and it’ll be a great way to spend some time together.

Until you find yourself standing in front of the machine, looking at row after row of titles, saying, “Nope… nope… nope… Um – wait, who’s in that one? Oh, right. Nope… nope…” It’s horrible, isn’t it? How hard can it be to pick a film?

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Believe it or not, that’s the image I have as the old prophet Samuel meets with Jesse’s family. God has told him that there’s a new king to be anointed, so here is Samuel, watching each of the boys pass before him, shaking his head over and over again, “nope… Uh-uh… Nope…”

For much of this year, we’re going to be looking at the life and times of the one who is eventually chosen by God, the man we’ve come to know as King David. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time for us to consider issues of power, leadership, integrity, perspective, and God’s working in history.

First, an introduction. Most of content at which we’ll be looking in the months to come is found in the Old Testament books of Samuel. Although your Bible might refer to these as among the “historical” books, it’s important to note that they are not “history” in the way that most of us understand that word. What I mean by that is that this is not an ordered account whereby we are given a strict chronology of events, complete with footnotes and cross-references. What we have before us is more of a series of family remembrances – stories that are told from a particular perspective that aim to remind us of certain core truths again and again.

In the books of Samuel, we see a significant transition in the life of Israel. What we heard about in Judges and Ruth was a loose confederation of insignificant tribes that really had no cohesion as a functioning nation, but in the span of a few short pages, we see the emergence of a centralized nation-state that is moving into some prominence on the world stage. There are three key figures in this narrative. Samuel is the last “Judge” of Israel, and he is called by God to establish a monarchy. Samuel has incredible religious fervor and great depth of character, but he is not really a great leader and has absolutely no patience when it comes to working with other people. He is led to anoint Saul as king. Saul is an amazingly motivational leader who really knows how to work the room – whichever room he happens to be in. He has a commanding presence. Unfortunately, however, Saul is also spiritually bankrupt and mentally unstable.

Samuel and Saul are really the set-up men for the main event, however: David, the one who no less an authority than the Apostle Paul described as “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22). David is the instrument by which God transforms this motley group of clans and warlords into a functioning nation, and today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to this remarkable person.

Our reading opens with a reminder of Saul’s inability to be king and the declaration that it’s time for something new. When God sends Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king, he is understandably frightened. After all, Saul still thinks that he is the king; if he discovers that Samuel is out there looking for a new king, well, there’s going to be trouble. After all, the job isn’t really vacant.

The Lord gives Samuel a cover story about going to make a sacrifice (which reminds me of the time that God told Moses to take the people out of Egypt: “Tell Pharaoh that you need to take a long weekend to offer a sacrifice…” That seems to be one of God’s ways of announcing regime change…). So Samuel goes into Judah and is met by a quaking group of elders from the town of Bethlehem, who are troubled by the presence of the old Judge in their town. If Samuel is there because Saul sent him, then they are afraid that Saul’s about to inflict some new round of taxation or plunder. If Samuel is there to incite rebellion against Saul, however, the elders will be held responsible and punished accordingly.

Samuel manages to quiet everyone down by saying it’s time for worship, and then he asks to have Jesse’s family invited. Well, again, this is awkward. I mean, if you’re going to have a sacrifice and worship as God’s people, why invite Jesse? His grandmother, Ruth, was from Moab. According to Deuteronomy (23:3), Moabite families – down to the tenth generation – are excluded from the assembly of God’s people. And yet, here (at God’s urging), Samuel is insisting that the worship service can’t go on until Jesse and his boys show up.

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

That leads us to the parade of sons with which we began this message: Jesse marches his oldest boy in and Samuel is immediately struck by the notion that this is one amazing young man. But the Lord says, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Son after son comes in until there are seven fellows standing in the “rejected” line and no others visible. Now it’s Samuel’s turn to be perplexed, and he says as much to God as to Jesse, “Wait – isn’t there anyone else?”

“Oh, well, there’s the youngest, but he’s out with the sheep.”

Samuel and our narrator heighten the drama by bringing things to a grinding halt until this nameless afterthought could be found and brought to worship. Eventually, the young man is brought in and, even though Samuel was warned against judging anyone from the outside, he is quick to notice that this boy is special in all kinds of ways. What matters most, however, is the fact that the Lord grabbed hold of Samuel and said, “Now! This is the one!”

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

God reaches into an insignificant family in a forgotten corner of a developing nation and says, “Yes! This is the one who has a heart like me. This is the one with which I will shape the history of my people!” David is chosen, not for any quality of which he or anyone else is aware, but because God has decided to take something of apparent insignificance and use it for eternal purposes.

While young David may be striking in his appearance, what is important for us to remember this morning is that at this point, he is one of the marginal people. You’ve seen a thousand faces like his this week, as you’ve read or seen stories of Native Americans protesting a pipeline, or Syrian refugees struggling to find safety, or anonymous first responders showing up on doorsteps where who knows what is inside, or kids from this neighborhood waiting for the bus to come and take them to school. The point is that David has no credentials, no social standing, and no reason to attract the attention of the local military recruiter or scholarship officer, let alone the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, that attention is given, even to David – even to the one who was marginalized.

Illustration may not be to scale...

Illustration may not be to scale…

In the late 1970’s, Douglas Adams produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a remarkable work of science fiction and imagination. In it, we are introduced to a device called “the Total Perspective Vortex”, which is allegedly the most horrific means of torture a sentient being can endure. Adams writes, “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.’” The idea behind this torture is that the victim is forced to realize just how insignificant, how worthless, how small he or she is, and such knowledge is totally debilitating. When you see yourself in comparison to everyone and everything that ever was, is, or shall be, the logical response is “Who am I?”, and a logical consequence is having your entire sense of self obliterated. Interestingly enough, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have experienced something like this, called the “Overview Effect”. When we realize just how small we are in comparison to everything else there is, well, it redefines us…

So this anointing of David, the great-grandson of a foreign-born refugee, the lastborn son of a sheepherder from a little town fourteen miles from nowhere, the marginalized and uncredentialed and unschooled and unworthy one – this anointing could have been the moment when David realized that he was nothing and nobody; it could have, and perhaps should have, blown his mind.

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea...

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea…

But it didn’t. It didn’t because David chose not to compare himself to everyone and everything else. Instead of seeing himself in contrast to all that surrounded him, David saw himself encompassed by God’s care and God’s call. Instead of seeing himself alone in a world filled with people who were more competent, more powerful, wiser, smarter, or more important than he was, David chose to see himself as wrapped in the intentions and heart of God.

The anointing takes place in silence, and at the end of the day, David is still everyone’s little brother, given the grunt work to do by the family and village that do not understand what’s happened. Saul is still the king. Samuel is on his way to Ramah. The key change is unseen: the Spirit has come upon David in a new and powerful way. The anointing has received no press coverage, and its secrecy will last for years. Yet history has been changed, and the Spirit is at work. The old order, whether Saul knows it or not, has ended. The next big thing is under way as God’s Spirit works on and in and through the young boy who has been called to change the world.

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

In 1809, if you asked anyone in Europe, Western Asia, or Northern Africa, what was going on, all you’d hear about was the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor of France was gobbling up territories and people in London and Rome and Moscow and Tunis and Madrid went to bed wondering what the world was coming to. The war was horrible, and in fact spilled over into North America in the form of the War of 1812.

And while Napoleon was getting all of the media attention in 1809, other things were happening. Babies were being born, for instance. A family in Coupvray, France, welcomed a young son named Louis. In Boston, two young actors named their son Edgar. A family in Shrewsbury England welcomed young Charles, and deep in the woods of Kentucky an impoverished family named their second child Abraham. Nobody cared about these children in 1809. Everyone cared about battles.

And yet today, nobody but a few historians know who fought in the Fifth War of the Coalition in 1809, or which side prevailed in the epic Walcherin Expedition. But ask people about the ways that the work of Louis Braille opens up the world for them, Edgar Allan Poe shapes imagination, or Charles Darwin engages sense of wonder at the natural world, or the impact that Abraham Lincoln has had on this nation and the world, and you’ll see that some of the seemingly insignificant events of 1809 wound up as being far more important than anything that was in the headlines.

I don’t know what the headlines of your life are right now. I don’t know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, as compared with all the other people and places and things in God’s great creation. You may well go to bed tonight thinking that you are, by many measures, insignificant. You may walk home today with a heavy heart as you know that you are surrounded by some sort of a battle that makes the Battle of Aspern-Essling look like children fighting in the sandbox. And you may be right, if that’s the way that you choose to measure those kinds of things. But if you and I can let go of that system of self-evaluation and instead think about the fact that the same Spirit that was at work in David is available to us, then we can grasp the truth of which Paul spoke in his letter to the Corinthians. We are where we are, we are who we are, by the grace of God. If we bring ourselves to God in humility and with joy, it may seem insignificant, but I’m telling you that such discipleship is wrapped in significance.

Samuel had no idea what he was doing as he followed the Spirit into Bethlehem that day. I am here to tell you that the smallest acts of obedience and faithfulness and generosity can bear amazing fruit in the hands of God. Today, this week, this year, as the headline-grabbing battles rage throughout your own life – ask God for the gift of being able to see yourself in God’s heart, that you might care for the things about which God cares, in the hopes that you will be the agent of God’s presence and provision to those who need them. Your story, our story, His story, is still being written. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Everything Matters

This Labor Day weekend, the believers at CHUP gathered to consider the ways that we do what we do, when we do it, and where we do it, impact our ability to be followers of Christ.  Our scripture texts for the morning included Luke 14:25-33 and Jeremiah 18:1-11.

Almost twenty-six years ago I was ordained as a “minister of the Word and Sacrament” by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For more than a quarter of a century, I have been paid to be a Christian. My vocation has been an amazing gift and a wonder-filled journey. It is an odd calling, as the people who love me have tried to pin me down as to exactly what I do all day. Everyone has a thought, of course:

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On Labor Day weekend, however, I’d like to take a moment to address two mythologies about my particular line of work.

Every now and then, I’ll get a call from someone who says, “Oh, Reverend, I hate to bother you with something like this, because I know how busy you are, and, well, I really shouldn’t even mention anything, but, well, if you can spare the time – even just a couple of minutes would be amazing – I wonder if you could possibly help me with…” Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when my life is hectic and frenzied, but if I’m too busy to pray with you, then maybe I’m not doing it right.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, I am compelled to hear cracks like “Wow, must be nice to get paid a full time salary when you only work an hour a week.”

It is, as I have said, an odd calling. And because of that, I get it – I know the temptation that you have to roll your eyes at me when I stand up here and presume to lecture you about work and employment. “How dare you pretend to know what I go through, Pastor? After all, you work in your nice little bubble of Christianity, where everything is sunshine and roses and unicorns and rainbows. I’m not sure you know how hard it is in the real world…”

“My supervisor looks down her nose at me all day, every day.”

“Do you know how exhausting it is to try to do your job when you’re assigned to work with two or three people who care more about getting their next ‘high’ than they do about getting any work done?”

“I’m afraid to go to the bathroom in my school. How can I pay attention to anything else?”

“There are four positions in my department. As of January 1, there will be three.”

“Now, Pastor Dave, what was that you wanted to say about my job?”

Having recognized the differences in all of our experiences, let me offer two observations, one of which is theological and the other historical.

Theologically, I might remind you that work is a privilege – it’s a part of God’s gift to humanity. In Genesis, it is very clear that we had a job before we knew anything of brokenness. Adam was called to take care of the Garden before there was any mention of sin. We often treat work – especially hard work – as if it’s some sort of punishment, but that’s simply not true. Work is one of the ways that we live into the image of God. Just as God is a creator, a fashioner, a designer, so too we are called to use our strength and energy in ways that bring forth life and grace.

Here I am standing in the ruins of the "Pool of Bethesda" in Jerusalem - note that everything is made of stone!

Here I am standing in the ruins of the “Pool of Bethesda” in Jerusalem – note that everything is made of stone!

And historically, I should point out that Jesus had a job. He was what the locals called a tekton. Our traditional translations indicate that he was a carpenter, but the Greek word simply means “builder”. Since most of the homes in London were made out of wood when the Bible was being translated into English, you can understand how “builder” became “carpenter”. What I noticed when I visited the places where Jesus lived, however, like Capernaum and Jerusalem, is that so much of what exists in that part of the world is built with stone. As a tekton in that place and time, Jesus was surely no stranger to heavy lifting, or sweat, or the frustration you feel when your co-worker gives you measurements that are a quarter of an inch off.

Having said that, then, what do we hear this Labor Day weekend from Jesus, a member of and friend to the working class?

The passage you’ve heard is a difficult one by any measure, and it’s been made more so by some unfortunate translations over the years. Let’s look at what was happening.

The Resurrection of the Widow's Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

Jesus was big news. The crowds were coming out time and time again because, well, Jesus put on a good show. I mean, you never knew what you were going to get: there was water turned into wine; thousands and thousands were fed miraculously; the paralyzed, blind, mute and more were healed; and who could forget the way he took on those religious hypocrites so fearlessly. There is no other way to say it than that Jesus was, well, huge. His popularity was off the charts.

And one day he turns to the crowds that find him so enthralling and he says, “You know, this is serious! This lifestyle of faith – it’s not a diversion. This isn’t a fad or an amusement. It’s not a hobby – it’s the main thing. And because it’s so important, those who follow me are expected to lay everything on the line. The kinds of things that you see me doing are foundational and world-changing – they are reflective of the purposes and intentions of God now and forever. The healings, the miracles, the teaching… all of this points to the ways that God moves and acts and dwells in this world. So if you are ‘following’ me, it has to mean more than standing around and applauding what you see as my latest parlor trick; it has to mean that you are going to care about the things that I care about, do the things that I do, go to the places where I am sent, and act like the presence and call of God has made a difference in your life 24/7/365.” In other words, we dare not “follow” Jesus the way that we “follow” celebrities or athletes on Instagram or Twitter. If we are not willing to go “all in” with Jesus, we are hobbyists or voyeurs.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

The prophet Jeremiah, who lived hundreds of years before Jesus, made much the same point as he taught Israelites about the power and sovereignty of God. We often hear these words as a statement of God’s absolute freedom and unlimited power and indeed Jeremiah indicates that God spins the history of this planet as a potter turns clay on a wheel. However, there are several places in this passage that reveal the truth that some human response and responsibility is expected. The word “if” appears throughout this text, bringing a conditionality to our relationship with God that does not exist between the potter and the clay. “If” you do this, “then” this will be the result. There is some sort of deep and intimate partnership between the Creator and that which is being crafted. Clearly God is in charge, but just as clearly we have a role to play. What we do, who we are – it all matters.

And because both Jesus and Jeremiah point to the fact that God wants all of us, all the time, there’s no time like Labor Day for the preacher to point out that this life of faith includes not just the religious stuff you do, but the entirety of who you are. Your occupation is a means by which you are called to serve the Lord.

I want to pause here and say that I’ve chosen the word “occupation” intentionally, and I want you to know that I’m thinking of everyone, not merely those who are employed. I want you to hear that word and think about the things with which you are “occupied”. The ways that we spend our time and our money and our energy and ourselves are reflections of the things that we believe to be ultimately true.

Whatever you set your hands to – whether that’s working down at the plant or watching the grandkids or sitting in an AP Biology class – it’s important to strive to do that well. It’s important because the ways that you are who you are while you do what you do will either point people closer to the things that are eternally true in Jesus Christ or distract them from the presence of God in the world.

Regular worshipers will remember, I hope, that we just finished an entire year studying the Sermon on the Mount. Think about the kinds of ways in which we are called to act: with kindness and mercy, in honesty and integrity, with humility and decency as those who are genuine and generous. None of these traits are occupationally specific – anyone can do that.

And you say, “Look, I get that, and I really want to be like that, but to be honest, I hate my occupation. My co-workers annoy me…I can’t wait to graduate…I feel so useless being retired…I resent the circumstances in my life that have forced me into this particular occupation.”

If any those things are true, then I would by all means encourage you to work towards changing your reality, but I would also remind you to refuse to compromise who you are and who you are called to represent as you live out your daily life.

Here’s the deal: if showing up here three or four times a month – or even if you get all “super Christian” on the people around you by serving as an elder or deacon or Sunday School teacher – if that’s the primary way that you show the world who you are and what you believe, then your witness is incomplete and it points to a life that has been adorned, not transformed. Deciding which day you will choose to act like you think a follower of Jesus should act is not unlike taking a bunch of Christian trinkets and decorating your life with them – they’re not really substantive, but they’re eye-catching and have a vaguely positive message.

But if you live out your faith every day at school or work or home and in your interactions with others (including the social media), then people will see a life that is fundamentally and integrally engaged with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Six months before he was assassinated in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of students at the Barratt Jr. High School in Philadelphia. He challenged these young people, and the words he used to address the children ring true to us as well:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Your occupation – the ways in which you are who you are, where you are, doing what you do with whom you do it – is your number one way of serving God and reflecting God’s presence in this world.

And finally on this Labor Day weekend, as you do all of this, remember that as you go about the world conducting your business each and every day that you are constantly interacting with people who are performing their occupation. So think about what you buy and where you buy it. Is your “great deal” on shrimp propping up the slave labor trade in Thailand? Does the place where you shop pay their workers fairly and offer them good working conditions? When you go out to eat, are you a good tipper? If you can’t afford to be generous to the one who is serving your meal and cleaning up your messes, you can’t afford to eat out and you need to stay home. Remember to give your teachers and coworkers a break. You don’t know what kept them up all night. Be nice to the custodian and the receptionist. Because in a perfect world, they are all striving to do the same thing that you and I are doing – to show up each day being our best selves, seeking to reflect God’s love and truth into the world.

This weekend, and each day, show the world who you are – and show the world whose you are – by the efforts you put forth to follow Jesus in the simple tasks of daily life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

(The speech by Dr. King quoted above is entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint”.  Do yourself a favor and invest twenty minutes of your day and watch him issue this challenge to the young people of Philadelphia in 1967.  If you can’t click the link below, you can paste this one into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmtOGXreTOU).

Bridges and Harbors and People I Love

Our congregation ended the month of August 2016 by sending our friends Michael and Rachel Weller back to Ethiopia after a season in which we had enjoyed each other’s company for eight months.  You can read more about their ongoing work as mission co-workers by clicking here.  Our texts for the day included Luke 10:1-12 and selected verses from Romans 16 (included below).  

 

If you have spent any time with me on the river this year, you’ve probably been forced to hear me wax poetically about two bridges that exist almost side by side on the Allegheny River just upstream from the Point.

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Northside terminus of the 16th Street Bridge

The Sixteenth Street Bridge (also called the David McCullough bridge) is my favorite span in the city. It is a thing of beauty and strength as it connects the North Side and the Strip District. I love the sculptures – winged seahorses in spheres – that symbolize the four corners of the earth; I love the engravings of fish and of Poseidon that adorn the columns; and I love the fact that you can walk across it. It’s a bridge that points to awe and wonder and reminds us that it’s good for communities to be connected to each other and we ought not to take that for granted.

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Veterans Memorial Bridge

Just downstream from that structure is the Veterans’ Bridge, an imposing platform that whisks traffic from Interstate 279 to Interstate 376 as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is a giant, ugly conveyance that seems to regard the communities over which it towers as little more than distractions or inconveniences. The only way to cross that bridge is in a vehicle, preferably as fast as you can – because that bridge is not designed to create wonder or awe or thanksgiving – it’s designed to get people from someplace way over there to someplace way over there as smoothly and rapidly as possible. “Here” does not matter to those on the Veterans’ Bridge.

And if we were in a boat under those bridges, I’d tell you that I think the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be more like the Sixteenth Street Bridge than the Veterans’ Bridge. The Church ought to create wonder and awe as we celebrate connections that can be made and progress that can be measured.

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge

And as I pondered this, I drove my boat under the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge, which goes from Homestead to, well, something that isn’t there anymore. And it occurred to me that a lot of our churches are more like this bridge than either the Sixteenth Street or the Veterans’ Bridges. That is to say, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to create an elaborate structure, characterized by strong support systems and rock-solid foundations – and yet, that structure doesn’t really go anywhere, make any connections, or lead to any accessibility. In terms of functionality, the Carrie Furnace Hot Metal Bridge is a useless relic.

That said, if you offered me a chance to visit one of these bridges this afternoon… I’d choose the Carrie Furnace, hands down. I think it’s fascinating.

Why does any of this matter?

Because I realized a long time ago that I would have made a horrible apostle – at least initially.

This is my idea of a great day!

This is my idea of a great day!

I think I would have been a great disciple. It would have been so cool following Jesus around, engaging in long, drawn out conversations about stuff that really matters, and having deep and intimate relationships with other followers. I like that kind of stuff. And so when I heard Jesus say, “Pray that God will send out some people to do God’s business in the world,” man, I’d be all over that prayer. “Come on, Matthew, Andrew – let’s pray that God sends some people!” And then, after the prayer, before I can say, “Hey, Simon, what are you doing for lunch? I know this great shawarma place over in Capernaum…”, Jesus says “Go! I am sending you!”

Um, really? Me?

Look, I understand if you don’t believe me now, but the truth is that “Go!” is not my first nature. I’ve learned something, and there will be more about that in a moment. But if I had been in charge of the early church, it would have looked much, much different.

We’d have been hanging out together, and we surely would have missed Jesus after his ascension and all that. And I’d make sure that we got together each night for a little singing, and then I’d probably ask some awkward and intrusive questions that made you want to avoid eye contact for a while. We’d keep building the relationships amongst the disciples, and we’d dive deeper and deeper into that small group…

Yet fortunately for everyone who’s ever lived, I was not in charge, then or now. The first disciples (translated from the Greek word for “follower”) were shaped to become the first apostles (translated from the Greek for “one who is sent out”). And as that happened, they left the relative safety of their own homes and culture and families, leaving the delight of constant relationships with each other in order to follow God’s call into the rest of the world.

If it had been me, we’d have hung around in Jerusalem, Bethsaida, or wherever, mooning and spooning about the good old days and wondering if God would ever use us again. But thanks be to God, the real Apostles did what Jesus told them to do.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that the intimate relationships continued. You know that when Peter and John were in the same town, they got together and prayed and talked and maybe even sang a few of the old songs. I am certain that personal relationships are the fabric from which the church was created.

The text that taught me that was today’s Epistle reading, Romans chapter 16. This chapter, incidentally, is the number one reason you have never signed up to be a reader in church – because you’re afraid that I’m going to stick you with something like this.

Here’s the background: Paul, the Apostle who traveled the most, is also the Apostle who left the best record of his deep and intense personal connections with people. Here, he closes his letter to the church in Rome, which happens to be one of the heaviest theological treatises in the New Testament, with a list of names. In so doing, Paul turns the discourse on correct theology and Christology into a love letter as he names names, sparks memories, and points to the web of relationships that sustains the church.

I’m going to read it now, and in the split second that you hear a name, try to imagine each name as a real person; someone with a story, a home, a friendship, and a joy. Listen for the intimacy that is here…

Be sure to welcome our friend Phoebe in the way of the Master, with all the generous hospitality we Christians are famous for. I heartily endorse both her and her work. She’s a key representative of the church at Cenchrea. Help her out in whatever she asks. She deserves anything you can do for her. She’s helped many a person, including me.

Say hello to Priscilla and Aquila, who have worked hand in hand with me in serving Jesus. They once put their lives on the line for me. And I’m not the only one grateful to them. All the non-Jewish gatherings of believers also owe them plenty, to say nothing of the church that meets in their house.

Hello to my dear friend Epenetus. He was the very first follower of Jesus in the province of Asia.

Hello to Mary. What a worker she has turned out to be!

Hello to my cousins Andronicus and Junias. We once shared a jail cell. They were believers in Christ before I was. Both of them are outstanding leaders.

Hello to Ampliatus, my good friend in the family of God.

Hello to Urbanus, our companion in Christ’s work, and my good friend Stachys.

Hello to Apelles, a tried-and-true veteran in following Christ.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (Fra Angelico, about 1423-24)

Hello to the family of Aristobulus.

Hello to my cousin Herodion.

Hello to those who belong to the Lord from the family of Narcissus.

Hello to Tryphena and Tryphosa—such diligent women in serving the Master.

Hello to Persis, a dear friend and hard worker in Christ.

Hello to Rufus—a good choice by the Master!—and his mother. She has also been a dear mother to me.

Hello to Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and also to all of their families.

Hello to Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas—and all the followers of Jesus who live with them.

Holy embraces all around! All the churches of Christ send their warmest greetings!…

And here are some more greetings from our end. Timothy, my partner in this work, Lucius, and my cousins Jason and Sosipater all said to tell you hello.

I, Tertius, who wrote this letter at Paul’s dictation, send you my personal greetings.

Gaius, who is host here to both me and the whole church, wants to be remembered to you.

Erastus, the city treasurer, and our good friend Quartus send their greetings.

All of our praise rises to the One who is strong enough to make you strong, exactly as preached in Jesus Christ, precisely as revealed in the mystery kept secret for so long but now an open book through the prophetic Scriptures. All the nations of the world can now know the truth and be brought into obedient belief, carrying out the orders of God, who got all this started, down to the very last letter.

All our praise is focused through Jesus on this incomparably wise God! Yes!

Paul, the Apostle who was sent by God to amazing places – was Paul in each and every one of those places. He had long conversations, and he asked irritating questions. He interceded in arguments and started a few, and there were some old songs along the way. But everything he did was in service of the mission on which he’d been sent. Paul was who he was, where he was, for the sake of the One who had called him and sent him.

I started this message with thoughts of bridges, and I talked about how the church of Jesus Christ ought to be about bridging divides, revealing wonder and awe, and so on. And as I think of our own little expression of that church – the community of people here in Crafton Heights, I am drawn to a slightly different metaphor: that of a harbor.

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

Ships in Harbor, by George E Lee (1925-1998)

According to our friends at dictionary.com, a harbor is “a part of a body of water along the shore deep enough for anchoring a ship and so situated with respect to coastal features, whether natural or artificial, as to provide protection from winds, waves, and currents… any place of shelter or refuge.”

This place – this building, this set of relationships, this collection of ministries… this needs to be a place of safety. We are called to be a refuge to which you can come as you are with no fear of judgment and no pressure to be perfect; the church is a community in which you can let down your guard. When you’ve been out to sea for a while and you feel beaten up and drenched and overwhelmed by storms, this congregation is the place to which you come for healing and restoration and refreshment.

And this is a place for equipping – you ought to be growing while you are here. Learn about yourself, discover resources that will help you on the next leg of your voyage. Become enlarged in your capacity to serve, give, or lead.

And remember that like all harbors, this is a place from which you will be sent. No one is here forever, soaking it all in, hiding from the peril and adventure of the open sea.

A harbor, after all, is valuable only inasmuch as it is a place where vessels come and go. Ships, of course, are made for sailing. Ships are specifically built to transfer people and cargo, knowledge and ideas, from one place to another. Harbors exist to make sure that when it’s time for a ship to sail, it’s ready for the journey.

A harbor that is full of vessels that never go anywhere is a waste! There is no benefit to the community that surrounds the harbor, and in discouraging ships from sailing, a harbor is seeking to prevent them from accomplishing their created purpose.

A vibrant harbor is an active, confusing place: it is complete with vessels that are coming and going, transferring resources from one crew to another, sharing advice or notes as to where to travel, how to deal with storms, or amazing sights that the open sea will bring. A harbor that is working as it has been designed is a place of vibrancy and life.

This morning, in our little harbor, we say “God be with you” to Rachel and Michael Weller as they prepare to return to their home in Ethiopia. It has been good having you in port these past eight months, and we hope that you are somehow a little better equipped for the next part of your journey.

In our little harbor, a lot of collegians have already left, and more will head out tomorrow. We’ll welcome a new musician next week, and an additional staff person at the Open Door the week after that. The programs at the Preschool and Open Door are getting ready to kick into gear, and some of you are going to get a call from the Nominating Committee in the next few months.

Beloved, let’s remember with gratitude and affection those with whom we’ve been privileged to spend time, but who now find themselves at sea – on the journey elsewhere. And let us pray that they find the next harbor when it’s needed.

Beloved, let’s include those who have made it here safely, and who need some respite, equipping, and a place to share their gifts.

Beloved, let’s encourage each other to live into the purpose of being the church in this place, at this time, with these people. And let us not be afraid of the journey that is to come – this afternoon, this week, this month – knowing that the One who calls and sends us is the One who guides and protects us. Thanks be to God! Amen.

You Need the Challenge of a Cross Cultural Partnership

 

This is an adaptation of a talk that I presented at the New Wilmington Mission Conference/Malawi Mission Network on July 25 2015. I offer it here in the hopes that it will spur some thoughts on how we can be more effectively in partnership with those whose stories are different from our own.

Let me present three scenarios that may or may not sound familiar.

Scene 1: A number of years ago I got a telephone call from a church in Malawi. The conversation went something like this:

“Abusa, do you know people at ____ church in such-and-such town?”

“Yes, I know a few people there. Why do you ask?”

“They are building a building for us, and there are now some problems, and we need help sorting them out.”

“A building? What kind of building?” I had been to that community in Malawi, and I was surprised by their response. I continued, “Tell me, do you need such a building in your community?”

The Malawians replied, “No, not really. It will be nice, though, and the Muslims have all started to admire it because we have well-wishers in the USA.”

“Did you tell your friends in the USA that you didn’t need that building?”

Well, we did not. But it’s almost done. All that is remaining is a certain part of the roof.”

I braced myself, but asked the question: “Well, what do you want me to do about this building you’re not sure that you need?”

“The problem is the plans that they have sent. They are very complicated drawings and our local craftsmen can’t understand them. It appears as though they are calling for us to use materials that we do not have, and a type of construction we do not know how to do, and that will lead to maintenance that we cannot afford. We need you to get them to change the plans and tell us how to finish their building. They have stopped answering our calls and are withholding any money until we can prove that we are doing things according to plan. Will you fix this, Abusa?”

Scene #2: I got a call from a young woman who had been deeply touched by a lifetime of witness in a missional congregation in the USA and several international mission experiences. At the time, she was in a long-term mission placement in a developing nation. She was also in tears.

“Pastor Dave, don’t know what to do. I am here, but I am not doing what they said I would be doing.”

“What’s going on?”, I replied.

“The ministry said that they needed someone to do _____. I know that I can do that; I’ve done that in other places in the US and in other countries; I am ready to grow here. But the problem is that the local ministry leader does not trust me. I found out that he didn’t want to have any Americans here, but was afraid that the funding he gets from America would stop if he said ‘no’. I tried to talk with the leadership of the board that runs this organization, but they said that I was not accountable to them, but to the onsite leader – the man who doesn’t want me. He is spreading lies about me to the local workers; he is not letting me do anything that I’m trained to do, and all I do is sit in my room and wonder why I am wasting my life here. I’m afraid to talk with anyone at home about it, because they all think that I am changing the world and doing all kinds of great ministry here. Plus, they gave me money to come. I’m embarrassed to think that their money is being wasted, and I am frustrated that my own gifts and education are being wasted, and I am saddened because I know that the things I’ve been trained to do could make a real difference in this community.”

Scene #3: Each year, our church takes a trip to the Mexican border region in Texas, where we work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and local partners on housing rehab and construction for those affected by natural disasters. For several years, we had the same local site coordinator. As we got to know this man, he invited us to his small church. Our team shared meals, laughter, etc. with this man and his community. One day he came to me and said,

“Pastor Dave, is there anyone that you know in Pittsburgh who needs help with their house or anything?”

“Oh, sure… There are homes in my own neighborhood that need help. Why do you ask?”

He continued: “We are working with the young people in our community – you’ve seen these kids the past few years; they are gifted, smart, energetic… but the problem is that people up north keep sending help and mission teams down here.”

I was taken aback, and said, “Wait! Are we causing you a problem? We came to help?”

“No, the problem is that for years and years and years, all that the local Hispanic culture is doing is receiving. We are teaching our kids that they don’t have anything to offer; that they don’t ever need to give anything because the richer churches from up north will come and provide everything. We are teaching our young people that they don’t have any worth. I would like to take a group of kids to the north and have them give something to someone else. I would like them to grow in service, and from what I’ve seen, your congregation is a place where people will come and let these kids serve somehow. If you let us come to your neighborhood, we can become givers, not just receivers.”

Chances are that you’ve probably not had those exact things happen to you… but you probably have seen dozens of occasions like that. Helping is good. But sometimes, helping can hurt – it can hurt everyone. And I know that there is a book entitled When Helping Hurts (Steve Corbett, et al, Moody Press 2014), and from everything I can tell, that is a sensational book. I also know that I have not read it, and so I don’t want anything that I say to be construed as my reaction to that piece of work. When the organizers of this conference sent me the early draft of the schedule, this session was called “When Helping Hurts” and I asked to change it because I don’t want to sully that book’s reputation with my thoughts. I was asked to offer some personal reflections on partnership and development and what it means for us to do ministry together in a broken world.

To that end, this presentation has been titled “You Need the Challenge of a Cross-cultural Partnership”. Let’s unpack that for a moment. Just to keep it interesting, I’m going to start at the end and work my way to the front.

 

Partnership. The Body of Christ is only effective as it works in and through partnership. Paul states this explicitly in I Corinthians 12: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” When everything is functioning as it should, anything that any of us do we do because we are seeking the health of the entire body. We – especially the church in North America – have to understand that in every way that matters, we are equals in the eyes of God. We can only stand together in partnership and humility, therefore, and seek to offer and receive encouragement, admonition, assistance, inspiration, and more in our day to day lives. We are together. Everyone has something to give. Everyone needs something. Any congregation or group of Christians that believes anything different believes less than the complete Gospel.

 

Cross-Cultural. I know that there are specific fields of study that seek to pinpoint the meaning of this term, and that you can go to some of the finest universities in the world and spend years and years defining it, but the reality is that any partnership with another person or entity is, in some way, cross-cultural. When I have a couple of 22 year olds who come into my study and want to talk about getting married, one of the first conversations we need to have is about the cultures in which they’ve grown up – they may both be white, or attended the same school, or whatever, but each of them has absorbed a culture – a world-view – in which “everybody in my house knows” that the mother pays the bills in a family or the father cuts the grass or that men can’t be trusted or that a woman’s first job is to get pregnant or… That’s the “culture” with which each person is familiar. The problem is, of course, that “everybody knows” different things – which is why pre-marital conversations are such good ideas. And if that’s true in a relationship wherein two people who’ve known each other intimately for a few years are coming together, how much more true is it in a relationship where two churches are coming together across town or across the globe?

As we develop into partnership, we are obliged to give some real thought to what we know, and how we know it, and how that knowledge affects the way that we work.

For example, some years ago I was privileged to participate in a short-term pastoral exchange wherein a Malawian colleague and his wife came to our congregation and walked with me for six weeks. Some time later, my family and I moved to Malawi for the summer and did the same thing. One of the first thing that my friend the Rev. Ralph M’nensa noticed about me was that I was always wearing t-shirts around my neighborhood. As time passed, he came to see that I could do that because I’d been in this neighborhood a long time; our congregation is fairly small, and on this side of town, everyone knows me, what I do, and where I live. Finding Pastor Dave is not a problem.

When we went to Malawi, however, Ralph and I wore clerical collars everywhere. You see, Ralph was the minister in charge of three congregations and another thirteen different prayer houses (rural worship sites). In the Malawian church, pastors typically stay in a particular call for only three to five years before rotating to a new parish. Ralph was the only clergy serving approximately 10,000 people, very few of whom had ever met him personally. If he didn’t wear the collar, he would be less able to be of service to those who needed, but did not know him.

Another example of cultural awareness has to do with the simple concept of asking a friend to help with a project. In the USA, if I need you to help me unload the truck, I send you a text, or I call you and say, “Hey, I’ve got a load of firewood and wonder if you can come over and help me get this done.” In the context of our Malawian partners, however, the “ask” is typically much more involved. I stop by your house and you make me tea. During the first cup of tea, we talk about our families: how is everyone getting along, etc. During the second cup I might mention how it sure is getting cold and hasn’t it been a great summer, etc. On the third cup of tea, I excuse myself to go unload the truckload of firewood and ask if you are free to come join me. Sometimes the American custom of “getting right down to business” seems harried and pressure-filled to our Malawian friends, where as we can be frustrated by the fact that “everything takes so long in Africa”.

None of the above is innately right or wrong; we simply have to realize that we all start someplace different.

There may and will be places where we come to believe that one or the other partner is, in fact, mistaken in theology or practice, but we can only address those things in the knowledge that we are not all the same and that we have different starting points. And that leads to the fact that every Cross-Cultural Partnership is a…

 

Challenge. Any relationship is hard work. The marriage that we referenced earlier? If it succeeds, it will be because both partners keep working even through tough times. The young person stuck in a foreign country with a boss who mistreats her? The only way through that kind of pain is to name the difficulty and trust in God’s healing.

I’d like to go out on a limb here and suggest that if you are in a partnership that you perceive to be “effortless”, I bet that your partner feels otherwise. If you think that there are no difficulties, no challenges, no changes that need to be made… perhaps your partner is absorbing a great deal of that to which you are ignorant. We have to always be learning, always be willing to grow, always be willing to stand corrected, always be willing to adapt our own theology or practice if God reveals through partnership that the situation could be other.

The key to all of this is the Christian virtue of humility. Remember the passage in Philippians 2, where we are told to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”   Good marriages, good friendships, and good mission work are not about demanding your rights; nor about being treated like a servant or a dog. It’s about discerning where God is calling us together and figuring out a way to get there.

Having said that, let me offer a brief word about money, which can be absolutely cancerous to partnership, even with the best of intentions.

I became personally aware of this while serving on the pastoral exchange in Malawian parish that was unaffiliated with the partnership in the late 1990’s. As I visited churches that had partners and churches that did not, it was easy to see a spirit of rivalry and envy developing as the congregations in Pittsburgh were engaging in unregulated giving to local African congregations. One church would get, unexpected and unannounced, a financial windfall equivalent to the yearly salary of five or eight full time workers. Another would have a manse built – all without the input or oversight of leadership bodies on either side of the partnership. I saw then that one of the things that money can do is turn “partners” into “sponsors” or “donors” or “well-wishers”. There’s nothing wrong with being any of those things. Philanthropy is a worthy endeavor and a satisfying hobby. And if you want any of those things, great! But just don’t call it partnership, because it’s not.

I am thrilled by the fact that recently five young people from my own small congregation have approached me and asked me if I could take them to Africa. When I asked them why they wanted to go, I was blessed by their response. They said that they had seen changes in me as I have encountered our partners in Malawi and South Sudan, and they saw that I act different than a lot of the people that they know in America. They told me, “We know that being in a place like this can really effect us, and we know we need to be changed.” I said that if we do it right, a trip to visit our partners would really screw them up as they tried to fit in with the consumerist, materialistic, acquisitive culture that is so dominant in the 21st century USA and they said, “Exactly! That’s what we need.” If you participate in a partnership trip (either by traveling or by hosting) and it does not change you somehow, you are doing it wrong.

A related point comes from one of the early criticisms of the partnership between Blantyre Synod and Pittsburgh Presbytery. There were some who condemned Americans who visited Malawi as nothing more than do-gooders who would rather help poor Africans than deal with racial/social justice in Allegheny County. Such critique had best not be true; if we travel well in the spirit of partnership, we will undoubtedly be equipped to be better voices, more sensitive ears, more generous spirits in our own homes. The way that we shop, the places that we live, the manner in which we educate our children, the choices we make about food – all of these are ripe for reflection, evaluation, and improvement as we learn more about the world from those whose experience is different.

 

You Need. As I have indicated, sponsors and donors and well-wishers are hobbyists. Philanthropy is a nice way to spend your time, and do something good with your money. But none of those things are essential, and none of them are partnership.

I get it: travel is a blast! Our churches and universities are filled with opportunities for people of every age to go somewhere, get a cool shirt, learn some characters or phrases that will make a great tattoo, or give us the opportunity to toss off phrases like “when I was in Peru…” But travel is not partnership. One of the dangers of the church is where we are training generation of wealthy young people in practice of “voluntourism”. That happens when we invite people to put their regular lives “on hold” and then go and spend a couple of weeks building a medical clinic or a school. We find ourselves holding a starving orphan for an awesome social media post that shows the world how a)amazing and b)sensitive we are, and when the trip is over we come back to resume our regular lives.

Partnership is something we each need because we need to grow. We need to learn, and re-learn, and re-re-learn, that none of us is complete and no one has all the answers, all the resources, all the wisdom. We do partnership because it is essential to the living the Gospel in its fullness.

One of the best pieces of writing that is a part of the PCUSA tradition is the passage from our Book of Order containing the “Great Ends of the Church. The sixth and final “great end of the church” is “the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world”. We become more Christlike, more heavenly, when we move together in partnership. I don’t go to Malawi or South Sudan because I am a nice guy; I go (and receive wisdom from) there because I am incomplete. I am less than Christ-like as I move through my daily life, and I need the constant reminders that my sisters and brothers from the rest of the world bring to me.

I can’t think of anything on which I work harder, at least in certain times of the year, than International Partnership. I don’t do it because I think that Blantyre Synod or the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church need Dave Carver to save them; I do it because I know that I need them to save me. I need the challenge of a cross-cultural partnership to remind me of who, and whose, I am, and of my responsibilities in the world that in which God has placed me.

A Whole New World

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 17 brought us to the end of the story in Ruth 4 as well as Paul’s statement about the redemptive work of Christ in Ephesians 2:14-17.  

 

Did you hear the debate? It was quite a while ago, but – WOW – was it powerful! I wanna tell you, it was a real scorcher.

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

Ezra Reads the Law to the People, by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

The fellow on the right – the old guy with the white beard – he made a strong case for what we might call “traditional values”: you know, a return to the things that made the country great back in the day. He was particularly tough on immigration and what we might call “multiculturalism”, and he was campaigning on a platform that proposed legislation that would not only prohibit marriage to foreign-born people, but would declare any such marriages to be invalid and would immediately deport the foreign wives and any children from such marriages.

It’s all there in the Old Testament book of Ezra, chapter 10. Ezra, and his buddy, Nehemiah, said that the anger of God had descended on the nation because so many foreigners had come and led people away from the truth. The legislation that they proposed won in a landslide – there were only four people who went on record as opposing their action. And so they built a wall and sent the immigrants packing.

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

Ruth Revenant des Champs, by Alexandre Cabanel (1868)

But then the woman started speaking. It was hard to understand her because of her accent, but she talked about the idea that there is no single perspective that can capture the entirety of God’s majesty. She didn’t say this in so many words, but she sort of implied that if anyone thought that he or she had God fully figured out and understood God completely, then that person had to be wrong because God is so much more than any human mind can comprehend.

She went on to say that we are better off when we walk together toward the truth, and that when we are vulnerable to each other and those around us in love and humility we are more likely to be able to hear the ways in which God might direct our steps. One man, hearing what she had to say, summarized it this way:

[God’s activity in the world is amplified as people go] beyond the limits placed upon them by society. The social definitions of ethnicity and gender are not only unhelpful but they block the successful solution of life’s problems. Inclusion and the violation of role limits become the proper ways of living out one’s faith in the midst of a pluralistic world.[1]

To be honest, the woman didn’t speak nearly as much as the man did in the debate, but she sure showed her intentions and her heart in the ways that she acted. She demonstrated her heart for God and for God’s people in the way that she lived.

This was not, of course, a “real” debate – at least, not one that we saw in person. On the right, as I’ve mentioned, we have the historical figures of Ezra and Nehemiah, two of Israel’s leaders who brought the nation back from a punishing time of exile in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah understood, rightly, that much of what had led people into the place of exile and separation from God was the pagan practices that they had learned from their neighbors as they gave up on following God and instead followed the selfish desires of their own hearts. They reasoned that much of what had led God’s people to engage in such pagan practices was their willingness to enter into marriage with non-believing, foreign-born spouses, and so the solution that they proposed was simple: ban foreigners, end mixed marriage, and thus stay pure as God’s holy people in God’s holy land. As I mentioned, you can read a lot more about where these folks are coming from in the books that bear their names.

The author of the Book of Ruth gently counters this logic by reminding people that if it weren’t for foreign women, Israel would not have the greatest leader it ever knew, King David. This man who captured Israel’s heart and who led the nation into new places of obedience and success was at least 1/8 Moabite. In David’s story, we find a stunning bit of irony, in fact. A strict interpretation of the law as found in Deuteronomy 23:3 would declare Ruth’s marriage to Boaz invalid, and that any descendants of that marriage (up to the 10th generation) were to be excluded from participating in the worship of God. Since King David was Ruth’s grandson, that means that he should not have been allowed anywhere near the tabernacle. And take a look at the Psalms – the hymnbook that we’ve carried around for 3000 years: all of the best songs were written by someone who, according to the strict reading of the Law, wasn’t even supposed to be here.

What do we do?

Let’s look at Boaz.

Boaz' Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 - 1260)

Boaz’ Kinsman Renounces His Rights Over Ruth, by William de Brailes (1230 – 1260)

Boaz’ role in the Book of Ruth is to serve as what is called a “guardian-redeemer”. This role is well-defined in Leviticus 25 and other places in the Law. When an Israelite man dies, it falls to his brother to take responsibility for the man’s widow and to do everything that he can to ensure the survival of the family, even to the point of providing a son who will continue the dead man’s legacy. If there is no brother, then the next closest relative is responsible to make sure that the widow is cared for and that the line continues.

In the book of Ruth, we have seen a young woman, poor and humbled and despised for her status as a foreigner, come to Boaz and ask him to fulfill the role of “guardian redeemer” in her situation. Even though Ruth represents a family that has acted against the strict interpretation of the Law, Boaz acts in grace toward Ruth and Naomi and so presents to them, and to us, a picture of the face of Christ. Boaz sees these widows as those who are forced to contemplate a life of poverty, fear, exclusion, and homelessness and who then takes steps to offer himself to them in the hopes of correcting that.

As you might imagine, not everyone can do that. In Naomi and Ruth’s case, there was a man who was, legally, more responsible for their care than was Boaz. He could have, and perhaps should have, said “yes” to their plea, but he did not. He passed the torch to Boaz and said, “If you would do this, you’ll not only be helping these women, you’ll be helping me, too.” And, as you saw, Boaz was able to act in the interest of Naomi, Ruth, and the entire community by offering himself.

Many scholars have looked at the way that Boaz embraced the role of “guardian redeemer” and have seen an example of Christ. One writer puts it this way:

Through his actions, Boaz communicates Christ. His person and character illustrate the incredible hesed (compassionate loving-kindness) that Christ possesses for his people, as well as the great measures he is willing to take to redeem his bride. Though Ruth arrives at Boaz’s bed empty-handed and humbled to the core, Boaz treats her with respect and kindness (3:10-13). Disgraced by her position and despised for her ethnicity, the young Moabite woman appears to have little to offer. Yet, despite all this, Boaz views her as a worthy woman (3:11). Though Ruth comes from a family that has turned their backs on the Lord, the Lord turns his face towards Ruth and reveals himself to her through Boaz. Boaz foreshadows Jesus Christ, the ultimate kinsman redeemer who will redeem a bride for himself—the church.[2]

Jesus, like Boaz, took on a problem that was not his so that we could have a chance to become what we were created to be.

In this way, I’d suggest that Boaz and Jesus ended any debate between Ezra and Ruth. Each of them acknowledges the truth that when we leave God’s intentions, we can die; when we seek out less than God’s best, we are diminished. It is possible, but surely not wise, for us to pollute ourselves and our world by embracing things that are counter to God’s purposes. Yet as they call us to remember this truth, they also remind us that it is God, not us, who gets to define those purposes. It is God, not us, who sets the boundaries for the world.

The solution for Ruth and Naomi and Boaz was not to build higher walls, to spark more violent protests, or to shout louder than their adversaries. That was clearly not the solution for Jesus, either. And that makes me wonder why I would imagine that it’s a solution that would work well in my own life.

It would seem to me as though this story of Ruth invites me to look across at someone whom I might identify as being “other” and do my best to discern in what ways I am called to walk – with that “other” – into the intentions of the One who created us both.

I think that there is a word here for the protester and for the policeman… for the light-skinned and the dark-skinned… for the one who trumpets adherence to “family values” (however that one chooses to define that term) and to the one who wears all the colors of the LGBTQ rainbow… to the one who just got off the boat and to the one whose great-great-great grandfather was born here… To the born-again, sanctified Christian and to the Muslim as well as the Jew and the atheist… It seems to me that the key is not to push against each other and yell and scream more loudly, or, worse, to blow up more of theirs before they have the chance to blow up yours… but rather to walk in the steps that God has laid out for you in the hopes and in the expectation that God knows God’s heart, God’s purposes, and God’s intentions and that if we are able to submit to those things we will discover how to live more Christ-like lives ourselves.

Can we embrace the concept of redemption? Can we acknowledge that things are a red-hot mess in the world right now, but that the best hope through this mess lies not in violence and the extermination of the “other”, but in the transformation of each of us? Author Anne Lamott posted something incredibly true on Facebook Friday morning:

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. it will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does–and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.[3]

I know that this sounds incredibly idealistic. I know that you may think me to be naïve; and yet it is apparent to me that the way of Boaz and Ruth and the way of the cross requires me to choose to act first out of love and humility and inclusion rather than in hostility or revenge. I confess that my heart is not pure, and that one way for me to make it purer is to learn to sing some of the songs that were written by the descendant of a Moabite woman. I want to offer the strength of my arms and my back and my legs, not to wreak havoc or inflict judgment or mete out revenge, but to protect the weak and restore the broken and search out the lost. And I’ve come here, to this congregation and to the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, to meet with those who, like me, are called to walk in the way of the cross. May we remind each other, and the world around us, that grace does bat last. That the game isn’t over. And that love always, always, always wins. Thanks be to God for the One who sought to reach out to us when we were so far away. Amen.

[1] Jon L. Berquist, Judaism in Persia’s Shadow, A Social and Historical Approach, Fortress Press, 1995, pp 223-225.

[2] Stephanie Van Eyk, “The Ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer” in Ligonier Ministries blog: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/ultimate-kinsman-redeemer/

[3] https://www.facebook.com/AnneLamott/posts/894203970709247

The Risks of Love

 

Each summer, the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, through its Open Door Youth Outreach, sponsors a free five-week day camp for as many as 50 neighborhood children.  Because we invite these children and their families to worship, we often try to have a theme for our time together on Sundays.  In 2016, we have been listening to the story found in the book of Ruth.  Our texts for Sunday July 10 included Ruth 3 and Philippians 2:1-4.  

 

It’s all in the story of Ruth, but if you’ve not been here as we’ve studied this book, it’s not just the story of Ruth. It’s all over the news in 2016, too.  Just like it was in 2015.  And 2014.  You may never have heard of Ruth or Boaz or Naomi, but you know this story…

Famine leads to despair, and despair creates refugees. Refugee camps and slums lead to more violence and death, which in turn creates more long-term poverty and systemic dislocation, which breeds resentment and ethnic hatred.

It’s what happened to Naomi, Elimilech, and their family; it’s what has happened to 60 million people on the planet this morning. So even if you’ve never heard of Naomi or Boaz or Ruth, I know you’ve heard this story of famine and refugees before.

"Whither Thou Goest" by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

“Whither Thou Goest” by Sandy Freckleton Gagon. Used by permission; more at http://sandyfreckletongagon.com

In the book of Ruth, these challenges provide our hero, Ruth, with an opportunity to work that leads to encouraging the community to structure itself so that there is a better chance for long term healing, growth, and survival.

Now, so far in our story, the driving force has been Ruth’s desire to care for Naomi, the destitute and elderly widow who at first finds herself bereft in a foreign land, but eventually comes home to Bethlehem. While they were still in Moab, Ruth promised all she was and ever would have to ensuring her mother-in-law’s survival. When they moved to the land of Judah, Ruth took it upon herself to go out and look for food to sustain the two of them. Thus far, our story has been about Ruth’s devotion to Naomi.

Today, there is a slightly different angle that emerges. For what is really the first time, Naomi voices her concern for Ruth’s security and future. I know that back in chapter one she said that she had Ruth’s best interests at heart when she tried to send the younger woman away, but when we read that, it sure sounded as if Naomi was so trapped in her own grief that she was simply driving everyone away from her, rather than genuinely caring about her daughter-in-law.

Yet in our reading for this morning, Naomi lays out the beginnings of a course of action for Ruth to follow. It’s as if the older woman is saying, “OK, you might not know this, but this is how we do things here in Judah. You’re going to have to trust me and do just as I say, even if it seems strange to you…”

Now, I should probably include this caveat every single time I open my mouth, but it’s important to note this morning that there are a lot of ways to view the events that are described here in Ruth 3. If you’d like, I will invite you into my study to consider the perspectives of a number of authors who are way smarter than I am and who choose to read this scenario differently. Yet as I overlay the passage at hand with the life of this community and the needs of the world, I am choosing to view this part of our story with an eye toward seeing the main characters as individuals who are willing to take personal risks that result in opportunities for someone else to thrive. I believe that this is a story about people who could have chosen to focus in on personal gain of one sort or another, but who decided to act in the someone else’s best interest.

Naomi, in chapter three, strengthens Ruth even when there is no guarantee that Ruth will stick with Naomi in the days to come. Right now, Ruth is going out and engaging in the menial labor of gleaning that provides Naomi (and Ruth) with three squares a day…but if Naomi’s plan works, Ruth will have a measure of independence and freedom that will allow her to turn her back on her mother-in-law, should she so desire.

Similarly, Ruth is exceedingly trusting here in chapter three. She follows Naomi’s advice, even when for all the world it appears as though the older woman is dressing her up like a prostitute and parading her through town. The whole plan hinges on Ruth’s ability to have a private meeting with Boaz in a public space. Can you imagine what would happen to Ruth if the perception was that she was a vulnerable young foreign beauty who was looking to earn a few dollars by spending time with the field hands? There is a lot that could go wrong with Naomi’s plan, and if it would go wrong, Ruth would surely bear the brunt of it.

"The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz", Marc Chagall (1960)

“The Meeting of Ruth and Boaz”, Marc Chagall (1960)

And Boaz has his own set of risks here. He’s thought to be such an upright man, but what will happen if he’s found in the fields with a gleaner-woman? He could have worried about becoming a public spectacle, but rather he chooses to be more concerned for Ruth’s honor and safety as well as Naomi’s well-being. In this private meeting, Boaz offers nothing but support and encouragement for Ruth even as he pledges to do the same publicly.

Each of the three main characters in this chapter had the opportunity to choose to act out of fear, mistrust, or selfishness, and yet each chose to risk reputation, future, or even self for the sake of others and the community.

If I may, I’d like to highlight a bit of fairly recent history as an example of how this kind of choice might look today, even if it is rare in our world.

Not long after modern Israel became independent, the first Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1948. For decades, Jews and Arabs traded violence and hatred. When he became US President in 1977, Jimmy Carter sought to broker an agreement that would lead to a lasting peace in the Middle East. He sought out meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Although there was initially some progress, the talks quickly stalled and it appeared as though things would always be as they had always been. President Carter’s wife, Roslyn, suggested that the President invite these two old adversaries to a place that had become special to him, Camp David in Maryland.

L to R: Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin at Camp David in 1978.

For thirteen long days, the leaders of these three countries met in secret. It was an enormously risky process for each of them, because typically heads of state only show up at meetings once their “people” have determined the outcome and laid the ground rules. There were times when Sadat and Begin refused to talk with each other, and Carter carried notes from one to the other. But finally, on September 17, 1978 the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was signed by these three world leaders. Much of the world reacted with hope and a cautious optimism.

When the treaty was accepted by Israel, Egypt was punished by the other Arab nations. Not long afterwards, Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by a member of his inner circle. It was a costly, costly peace process… but it remains a shining example of leaders who are seeking the best hope for peace and justice for all, and not merely seeking to increase their own influence or prestige. You can say, “Are you crazy, Carver? Do you know what they’re doing in the Middle East?” I do. And I have crossed the border from Israel into Egypt, and I am here to tell you that it’s a much better situation than most borders between Israel and her neighbors. Because men of courage and vision risked something.

Can you imagine anything like that in our own day? Three world leaders who are willing to take the time and energy and risk necessary to hammer out a complicated agreement? As you mull on that example from history, let me invite you to compare that narrative with that of the current day, where each of the major political parties in the United States has selected the most militaristic person possible to stand for election as president. If all you knew about the United States was what you read in the papers or saw on the news, you might conclude that a top priority for this “Christian nation” is making sure that we elect leaders who are prepared to bomb our enemies back to the stone age if that’s what’s necessary to preserve our power and prestige.

Let’s be honest: we worship power and prestige. We want to be best at everything, first in every line, and to have more than anyone else. We resent being inconvenienced, intruded upon, or asked to do something or love someone that isn’t to our liking. We believe that everyone ought to be treated more or less equal, or at least nearly as well as we are treated. We want to be safe and secure and comfortable – for God’s sake, we want to be comfortable.

following-jesusAnd here comes Jesus, talking about humility and service and self-denial and personal sacrifice and caring for others ahead of yourself. Asking us – no, expecting us to get into line behind him and act like him when all we really we want is a ticket to heaven when we die. As if we would be comfortable living the life that he lived.

Exactly! Did you see what they did to Jesus? I saw The Passion of the Christ. Wow, that was intense. And gross. No thanks, Jesus. I’m not into that.

“…do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

I’m telling you, for as much as all the politicians like to hang around Jesus at election time, the real Jesus couldn’t get elected as dogcatcher in this town.

And yet… and yet, there he is, saying over and over again, “Follow me.”

Allow me to conflate the stories of Jesus and the words of Paul and the narrative from Ruth and suggest that while the Gospel does not instruct us to simply roll over and denigrate ourselves, there is pretty clearly a biblical model here to extend yourself, to risk yourself, perhaps even to lose yourself on behalf of another.

You saw it already in the scripture reading: Naomi lent Ruth some of her “insider” privilege in the culture in which they lived. Ruth promised Naomi all of her youthful energy and devotion. Boaz shared deeply of his wealth and honor as he extended both his wallet and his reputation on behalf of these poor women.

So go ahead. I dare you. Look for ways to enter into someone else’s experience this week. Acquaint yourself with the sense of powerlessness and frustration that so many of our neighbors deal with day in and day out. You want ideas on how to do that?

Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel died recently. Although his life was complicated in all sorts of ways, you would do well to set aside an evening this week and read (or re-read) his short book called Night, which details the horrors of the treatment that the Jews received at the hands of the Nazis a couple of generations ago. And think about what that book says about the refugee camps and walls and fortresses of our own age and the people who would build them and those who profit from their existence.

And what about the other events that dominated much of this week’s headlines: the death of several young black men as a result of encounters with the police and a horrific attack on police who were patrolling what by all accounts was a peaceful protest and lament over these deaths.

Think about this odd connection between these events: in both cases, we have groups of people who, by and large, are good people who want to do their jobs and love their kids and coach little league and… and yet, this morning, our nation has a lot of people who are getting out of bed this morning wondering if they will be judged simply by the uniform or the hoodie that they choose to wear; people who wonder if the color of their skin or the job that they’ve been hired to do makes them deserving of the death penalty…

Very few of us in this room know how it feels to be profiled while driving in the “wrong” neighborhood or shopping in a strange grocery store… but I am here to tell you that for many of your neighbors and some of your friends, that’s a daily, if not hourly occurrence.  Very few of us know how it feels like to show up for work wondering if there’s someone waiting to kill you simply because of the job to which you’ve been called, but that is the reality for many of our law enforcement officers.

Can you be, in the words of Paul, “interested in the lives of others” enough to correct your co-worker when he starts spewing racist hate speech? Can you honor the stories of the men and women around you enough to call out your friends on social media when they post and repost bald-faced lies or poison the web with their toxicity? Or do you laugh and say, “Oh, well, that’s old Uncle Bert. He doesn’t mean half of what he says.”

Look for ways to be present in conversations that involve people of color. Listen for their stories, and accept them as opportunities to see the world from a different perspective. Refuse to give credence to, and for God’s sake don’t be a part of passing on horrible stereotypes and accusations about what “the police” or “those thugs” or people of color or anyone else is. Refuse to talk about “those people” – whichever category “those people” refers to. And then use whatever influence you have as a result of your race or citizenship or financial status or gender or… or… or… to be you for someone else today.

I’m only one person, you say. What difference would it make? I’m not changing anything.

Change you. Be remade in the image of Christ anew each morning, and risk who you are for someone else. Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi did it… and while we’ve not quite gotten there in the story yet, I’m here to tell you that because these three people decided to risk themselves and trust each other and enter the world open-handed, a baby who would become King David was born. And the world was changed eternally by that.

Remember: you’re not making this up. You’re following in the footsteps of those who have brought us to this point, by the grace of God. Amen.