Has Anyone Seen My Last Nerve

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this month.  On July 5 we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and the scriptures included James 1:1-18 and Psalm 46.

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

As I begin, I want to acknowledge the fact that I’ve been absent from the pulpit for two weeks, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunities that the time away afforded me.  I was able to connect in meaningful ways with people who are really important to me; I was able to tend my garden; I was able to disengage.  I am deeply grateful, and want to offer my thanks to my colleague and friend Laura Strauss and to our amazing worship team for putting together a couple of beautiful worship services.  It is so good to have friends!

As we enter a new month, we’re going to begin a series of messages around the theme of faithful living in stressful times.  Perhaps you can relate to this: have there been occasions in the last, say, four months, where you felt as though someone was on your absolute last nerve? Times when you felt as though you just couldn’t make it through?

Less than one year ago, the British telecom called O2 commissioned a survey in which they asked folks in England what they found annoying.  “What gets on your nerves?”, people were asked.  The results were published as a list of “The 40 Most Annoying Things About Modern Life.”  Here are a few of them – and remember, this is less than a year ago:

  • The number one problem people cited: an intermittent or slow wifi connection. That was, according to this survey, the absolute WORST
  • Number two: calls from unknown numbers. “Who are these people and why do they want to talk with me?”
  • Interestingly enough, #35 on this list was “People who won’t answer my calls when I’ve deactivated caller ID”
  • Others on the list included food deliveries that take more than 30 minutes or not enough leg room on the subway or a plane.[1]

Can you believe it? Those were the most frustrating problems people thought about less than a year ago.  I am reminded of the joke that Jerry Seinfeld told decades ago about our priorities:

I’m very impressed with this seedless watermelon product that they have for us. They’ve done it. We now have seedless watermelon. Pretty amazing… How does this work? And what kind of scientists do this type of work? I read this thing was 15 years in development. In the laboratories with gene splicing or, you know, whatever they do there… I mean, other scientists are working on AIDS, cancer, heart disease. These guys are going: “No, I’m going to devote myself to melon. I think that’s much more important.  Sure thousands are dying needlessly but this… that’s gotta stop… I really think we should devote the money to these studies.”[2]

My point is that I am not sure exactly what stresses you are facing right not, but I think that it is safe to say that we are living in a time that is rife with anxiety and stress.  There are many, many things about which to worry in July 2020, and we’re going to talk about the intersection of faith and stress in the weeks to come.

Our guide for this journey will be the book of James.  This is a brief letter that’s tucked into the end of our Bibles, and it has not always received a lot of attention.  Unlike most of the other epistles, James is what we call a “catholic epistle”: meaning that it was not written to any one individual or specific congregation, such as, say, Titus or Romans, but rather to those who had come to believe in the message of Christ and were trying their best to live it out in their varied contexts around the Roman Empire.  The author says that these words are to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion”.  So his letter is for those who grew up as Jews as well as for those who did not; it will be received by the wealthy and the poor, the slave and the free, the employed, the insured, the privileged – and those who lacked those advantages.

Folks inside the church have had a “love-hate” relationship with this letter.  Martin Luther, a 16th century reformer of the church, tried to have this book removed from the Bible.  He called it “an epistle of straw”, and said that it was full of bad theology.  Others however, including your pastor, believe that this letter is filled with practical and pragmatic advice about how to live into the message of Christ.  It’s true that this letter doesn’t tell us much about what Jesus said or did – because the author assumed that the recipients already knew those things.  And while this letter only mentions the name of Jesus twice, I’d suggest that you’d be hard-pressed to find a part of the Bible that sounds more like the Sermon on the Mount than these words.  He’s not talking about Jesus, he’s talking like Jesus.

James, in a 16th century icon

And who is this “he”?  Who is the author of the book of James?  Most scholars have attributed this work to James of Jerusalem, a younger brother of Jesus who rose to prominence in the early church after the death of the Lord.  There are a lot of things I could tell you about James of Jerusalem, but let me simply give you his nickname.  He was known as “Camel Knees”.  He had a reputation for praying for other people, and it is said that his knees were actually hardened and calloused – like a camel’s – as a result of long hours in prayer.

I will encourage you to remember his reputation for humility and love as we hear his words not only in the weeks to come, but today.  The beginning of his letter may be enough to make you throw your hands in the air in frustration.  “Who is this guy?”, you may want to know.  “He is out of touch and delusional!”

Really, friends.  How did you react when you heard verse two: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy”? Seriously?  Isn’t that the biblical equivalent of “Oh, cheer up, pal! Turn that frown upside down!”?

Camel Knees…

An uncritical reading of this text may make it seem as though James is dismissive of pain and trauma in human existence.  I can see how one might hear what he’s written as meaning hard times are only blessings in disguise and people who go through difficulty are really lucky!

And then, if we’re not careful, we’ll read the next few verses as adding insult to injury.  Is he saying that if you don’t pray correctly, and if you don’t have enough of the right kind of faith, then you’re just screwing things up and you don’t have a right to expect anything from God?  “So, you prayed for a friend to recover from illness and it didn’t happen?  Well, you must not have had enough faith.  You’re a lousy pray-er.”

I know that many of you have had that feeling – that there’s a “right way” to believe, or to have faith, or to pray, and you don’t know that way or aren’t good at it.

Let’s walk back from that a little bit.  He does write, “consider it joy”.  What does that mean to you?  How would you define “joy”?  Most of our dictionaries say that word means an emotion of great happiness, or keen pleasure, or elation.  That’s how it’s used in the 2015 Disney/Pixar film Inside Out.  Listen to what the official Disney biography has to say about the character named “Joy”:

Joy’s goal has always been to make sure Riley stays happy.  She is lighthearted, optimistic, and determined to find the fun in every situation.  Joy sees challenges in Riley’s life as opportunities, and the less happy moments as hiccups on the way back to something great.  As long as Riley is happy, so is Joy.[3]

We tend to define joy as happiness and elation.  Yet the biblical understanding, particularly the one associated with the Greek word chara, is much more nuanced than mere happiness.

Joy – chara – is an attitude that people adopt not because of their happiness in their current circumstances, but because they trust that the God we serve is a God who keeps promises.  Viewed in this light, joy is not an emotion that is reflective of how a particular event or incident has made me feel.  Instead, it’s more of a decision that I’ve made not to allow my current situation to define my reality.

The Apostle Paul uses this same word when he is writing to the church in Corinth.  Listen to what he says:

as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.[4]

When James and Paul write that we can be joyful in trials, they are not suggesting that our problems make us happy.  Rather, these men are reminding us that we have the opportunity to make a decision to trust in our Creator and that our current losses do not define who we are.  If we lose sight of what is ultimately and eternally true, then no matter how we might feel in the particular moment, we will be lost.

In the spring of 1982 I had applied for a job working with kids at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  In those pre-GPS days, my 21 year old self and my new bride were given directions to get to this building from the East End.  In addition to crossing the Fort Pitt bridge and finding our way through the West End Circle (which looked totally different before they “improved it” several times in the last forty years), these directions told us to “head north on PA 60”.  We got through the circle and Sharon pointed to a road.  “Route 60 north! There it is!”  I put the car in that lane, and then looked at the compass.  I freaked out.  “No, Sharon, this is wrong.  We are supposed to be going north on route 60.  We are driving due south.”  My wife countered by pointing me to the roadside sign that clearly indicated 60 north.  I had become convinced of something that was not true, and had allowed the momentary misalignment of the compass and the road map to cause me stress.

Oh, by the way… I got the job.

Hear me, beloved: I guarantee that you will feel stress and anxiety in the days to come.  In fact, you might feel that before the end of the day… Heck you might experience it before the end of the sermon (“when is this guy going to shut up? Can’t they bring back the band?  Where’s the worship team?”)

We cannot deny the realities of our present circumstances.  Yes, I am here to tell you that for a couple of hundred yards, Pennsylvania route 60 north travels due south.  That’s true.

The coronavirus is a scary thing, and it’s made worse because we may be in conflict with our neighbors and family and friends as to how we deal with that reality.  It is wearisome.

Our current political climate is at what I would call an unknown level of pain and anger and frustration.

The tension and pain surrounding the American experience of systemic racism and white supremacy contribute to these feelings of anger, guilt, and frustration.

And it’s not like any of these things stand in isolation, right?  Everything is wound together in a web, and this is a time of deep stress and profound anxiety. That is simply the air we are breathing right now.

But the virus, and the political mess, and even the tensions associated with racial injustice do not define who we are, how we are growing, and where we are called to be.

Listen: the fundamental narrative of scripture is that we are in a place that may be less than good, and we are invited to grow and develop and imagine and follow into a new and better place.  Things began in chaos, and God called forth order. We were slaves in Egypt, and God led us out; we were wandering in the desert, and God provided a haven; we were like sheep without a shepherd and God sent us Jesus.  Time and time again we are reminded that the expectation of the faithful life is a willingness to trust that God will keep God’s promises and that we are to do what we can to grow and shape our lives so that they better reflect that eternal Divine Intention tomorrow than they did yesterday.

There’s one other aspect of the Greek word chara that deserves mentioning before I close.  There is often, as there was in the words of Paul, above, a suggestion of gratitude in the character of joy.  In fact, one might actually translate chara as “rejoicefulness” – if that were really a word.  I think that the chara to which we are invited to grow is an ability to reflect on the things that have brought us to where we are and then consider those things around us that point in the right direction even if we can’t fully realize them yet.

Today, as you confront the unrelenting stress of your life in the age of coronavirus and political and racial division, let me invite you to explore that stress with the tool of gratitude.  Don’t be grateful FOR the virus, the hatred, or the pain… but look for ways to see through and past those things to the person you’re supposed to be and the community we are given.

One more story: On the day we buried my mother we arrived home and a freak winter storm had knocked out our power.  I was 30, and my brother and I were angry.  “It’s 1990!”, we said.  “How can it possibly be that there’s no electricity in this house for three hours?”  The next generation up – my mother-in-law – was worried.  “Oh, we have all that food in the freezer.  What will we do if it thaws?”  And my grandmother – my mother’s mother – said simply, “You know, we take so much for granted.  I lived a lot of years without electricity and I guess I haven’t thought lately about how much I depend on it.  It is a gift.”

Nobody in the room was glad that my mother had died, or that the power had gone out.  Yet my grandmother modeled for me a sense of rejoicefulness: a decision to live in a posture of trust and hope, even if the current signs are not all aligned.

This week, let me charge you to seek to be anchored in the reality that God is here and active.  Let me join our brother James in reminding you that God is for us. And let me implore you to look for ways to participate in the life-giving, affirming presence of God, and to offer that hope – in joy – to your neighbors.

[1] https://www.lincolnshirelive.co.uk/news/local-news/40-most-annoying-things-modern-3319253

[2] Comedy Special, “I’m Telling You For the Last Time”.  Transcript from https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2018/01/07/jerry-seinfeld-im-telling-you-for-the-last-time-full-transcript/

[3] https://pixar.fandom.com/wiki/Joy

[4] II Corinthians 6:4-5, 8-10 NRSV

Here is the YouTube Link for the entire worship service.

Infectious Faith

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this month.  On June 14 we realized that even these unlikely times are a part of “Ordinary Time”, and we sought to be attentive to how we might live as persons of faith in our own day and age.  Our scriptures included Matthew 9:35-10:8 and a rather comical episode from I Samuel 19:18-24.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player immediately below.  The entire worship service is found in the YouTube link at the end of this post.

When my daughter Ariel was a little girl, she often began the day by asking, “Daddy, what kind of day is it today?”  The first time I heard that question, she wasn’t even three years old.  When I went to her room to greet her, she asked what kind of day it was.  I thought for a moment, and said, “It’s Tuesday.”  She looked at me with some confusion, as if perhaps I hadn’t heard her, and said, “No, daddy, what kind of DAY is it today?”  Feeling a bit perplexed, I looked out the window and said, “Oh, it’s a sunny day!”

By this point she appeared convinced that I was some sort of an idiot.  She grabbed my beard (much longer in those days) with both hands, held it gently, looked me in the eyes, and said slowly, “But what KIND of day is it today?”

So I sat down on the bed and got a brief tutorial session, where I learned that in her not-quite-three year old world, there were really only three kinds of days.  There were regular days, when she got to play with all her friends at day care; there were church days, when she got to go with her mother and I to worship, and there were special days, when we would stay home, go to the park, or something else.  Ariel didn’t consider any of them to be the “wrong” answer, but even at that age, she wanted to be able to prepare herself.  Suitably educated, I looked her square in the eyes and said, “It’s a regular day, honey.”  “Hooray!” she squealed, and off we went.

If you downloaded an Order of Service this morning, you may have noticed that liturgically speaking, it’s a “regular” day for most of us.  The great seasons and festivals of the church have more or less ended until Advent rolls around again (November 29, if you’re eager).  We love the high, holy days at church, but most of our lives – our working, playing, protesting, advocating, cheering, voting, shopping… it’s all done in “ordinary time”.

Today’s gospel reading gives us a picture of what ordinary time might look like to Jesus and his crew.  We’re told that Jesus is out doing the kinds of things that we have come to expect Jesus to be doing – teaching, proclaiming the Good News, and curing every form of sickness.  It all seems to be going swimmingly until one day he stops and says, “Wow, this is exhausting!  The need is so great! The pain is so deep! The brokenness is just everywhere…”  And he throws up his hands, and he says to those who follow him, “Listen – this is the time when God’s people need to be active.  Pray, pray, pray that God will send more people to participate in the amazing thing that God is doing.”

And, because Jesus’ disciples were good, God-fearing, eager-to-please kinds of folk, they apparently said, “OK, boss.  We’ll pray!”

But then Jesus – as he so often does – pulls a fast one.  After they get together for a prayer meeting, and after they say, “Sure, Lord, we’d love to help you out.  We can pray…”, Jesus changes the vocabulary.

It’s right there in the beginning of chapter 10.  Jesus calls the 12 disciples around him.  The word that Matthew uses there is mathetes, and it’s the word that is usually translated as “disciple”.  It comes from a word that has to do with the mental effort needed to think things through…, and it implies learning from, or following, or paying attention to.

Fair enough.  That’s what those guys were doing, right?  Jesus was in front of the crowds doing the heavy lifting and they were busy, well, paying attention. They were disciples.  They were mathetes.

And the Gospel continues as Matthew lists the names one after another.  Except – except that this is where the vocabulary shifts.  Before we get the names, we’re told, “These are the names of the twelve apostles…”

Yeah? What’s the big deal about that, Dave?  Disciple, Apostle – they’re pretty much interchangeable, right?

Well, the word is different.  And, in fact, it’s the only time that Matthew uses the word apostolos.  Whereas a mathete is one who follows, or one who learns, an apostolos is one who is sent out with a message.  An emissary, if you will.  An ambassador.

So what Jesus is doing here is equipping the disciples to be the answer to their own prayers.  He says, “Hey, pray for help!”, and they say, “OK, we’ll pray…” and before they get to the “amen”, he turns around and says, “Wow, am I glad to see you!  Here’s the deal: go out and cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons…”

And Jesus sends them out – and the names cascade one after another: Simon Peter and John, James and John, Philip and Bartholemew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddeus, Simon and Judas… The list contains the word “and” six times, and I think that’s a linguistic tool to emphasis that not only are there a lot of apostles, but that they are connected.  They are not all the same (one of them is a tax collector, one of them is a Canaanean, and one of them is you-know-who, who wound up betraying Jesus in the end).  In other words, these disciples-turned-apostles are a magnificent blend of great intention and sloppy execution and high hopes and folks who start the at-bat with two strikes against them… and they are here, called and sent by Jesus for the sake of the world.

If we were to read much further in the Gospel, we’d figure out that these guys hit it out of the park, because Jesus spends most of chapter 11 bragging on his friends and by the time we get to chapter 12 the disciples as well as Jesus were a threat to the religious establishment so, well, they must have done something right.

The power of God is unleashed in the world, and amazing and unpredictable things happen.

We see that playing out in our reading from the Old Testament as well.  You may remember that David had been called by God to be the King of Israel, and that the prophet Samuel had anointed him as such.  The problem was, however, that the current King, Saul, was not interested in giving up his position.  So Saul was chasing David all over Palestine seeking to kill him, and David holed up wherever he could as he sought to respect the office of the King even while he waited for God’s timing to play out.  I hope you remember some of that.

Our reading talks about the time when Saul’s intelligence team confirmed David’s whereabouts and the King sent a squad in to take care of him.  However, when the hit team shows up, they are so overwhelmed by the spirit of God in that place that instead of eliminating David, they start to worship God.  As you might imagine, that frustrates Saul no end, and he sends a different SWAT team out to bring in the suspect, only to see the exact same thing happen. When the third group of commandos winds up singing Kum Bah Yah around the campfire with the outlaws, Saul decides that the only way to get things done is to do it himself.  And, as you heard, no sooner had he pulled into Naimoth in Ramah when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and he, too, joins in the prophetic frenzy and we leave him there, both physically and spiritually naked and unable to accomplish the evil he’d intended.

Seeing Saul worshiping and prophesying with David and his companions struck everyone as a bit, well, unusual – so much so that they wrote it down and put it in the Bible for us to know as well.

I think we saw a current example of this earlier this week when the news networks all tripped over themselves upon discovering that Mitt Romney, of all people, was marching in a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC.  I don’t bring this up to say anything positive or negative about Mr. Romney or the protest in which he was engaged, but rather to point to the fact that a year ago none of us would have been able to predict that this would happen.  To say it is a surprise would be an understatement.

Whatever the newscasters, the Romney fans, the critics, or his fellow protesters thought – Romney was there, and it was, well, unexpected.  Something in the energy of the crowd, the movement of the times, and the pressures and opportunities of that particular day led the Senator from Utah to behave in a way that astonished both his ardent supporters and vocal critics.

Listen: the church of Jesus Christ is in the time of the church year that we call “ordinary” time.  As I’ve mentioned, we call it that because there are no planned liturgical festivals or holidays.  We are counting down the days, using ordinal numbers, between Pentecost and Advent.

Yet as I have suggested, extraordinary things often happen in the midst of ordinary time.  Today is the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Maybe you know that the Greeks used two different words to refer to the concept of time.  Usually, when someone was seeking to make mention of the passage of hours, days, and years, the word was chronosChronos is a wonderful word, and it is the way that we usually refer to the sequence of events that pass by.  When we ask someone for a “chronology”, for instance, we expect to hear a listing of dates and actions that took place: first this happened, and then that, and a result, this other thing took place.  Chronos is a quantitative measurement – it tells us how many minutes or hours or days passed between events.  We love chronos, and we spend most of our lives there.

Yet the Greeks also referred to Kairos. In using this word, they were not referring to a movement of the clock or the calendar, but rather a sense that the present moment is the exact, opportune time for action.  The word Kairos comes from ancient understandings of both archery and weaving.  When an archer is ready to fire an arrow, there is a moment when the pressure on the bow and the tension of the string and the placement of the arrow and the presentation of the target are such that NOW is the time for the arrow to fly.

When a weaver is using a loom, a number of threads are held on the warp and at just the right instant a thread is drawn through the gap that is momentarily created by the movement of the loom.

Kairos time is qualitative, and is not used to designate a particular hour, but has rather the connotation that “the time was right”.  For nearly everyone on the planet, April 15, 1947 was just another day.  Maybe people were rushing to get their taxes done, or finish clearing out the gardens for spring, or finally taking care of the leftovers from their Easter hams that year.  It was chronos for just about all of us.  But on the afternoon of April 15, 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers sent a young man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson to play first base at Ebbets Field and the world embraced a Kairos moment – an African-American man was playing in a Major League baseball game, and the sport has not been the same since.

The church is in ordinary time.  We’re counting days and making our summer plans and doing what we’ve usually done.  But we would be foolish to miss the opportunity to claim this intersection of global pandemic and economic uncertainty and racial tension as a Kairos moment as well.  This is the time for the disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ in the 21st century to be ready to proclaim the good news, to seek the health and healing of our neighbors, and to do the things that make for the peace – the welfare, the shalom – of our community.

We’re not crazy about that, I know.  Chronos time may lack the “wow” factor; it may be boring and predictable, but it’s safe and reliable.  We sure know what to expect.

I think that’s why in his instructions to the first Apostles Jesus told them to go only to Jewish towns.  I don’t think that in saying “Go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” Jesus was being exclusionary – that would be inconsistent with the rest of his ministry.  I think that when he gave those marching orders he was saying, “Look, here’s the plan.  Start off with the folk who ought to know what you’re talking about.  Go to the people who claim to be paying attention first, and watch what happens.  See if your preaching, proclaiming, healing, empowering ministry lights a fire under them.”

Because so often those of us who say that we’re ready to embrace healing, peace, and change come to find out that these things require something of us, and well, we think that maybe it’s just not time for something like that after all.  It’s like a customer walking up to the counter and saying,

I’d like to buy $3 worth of God, please.  Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.  I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth.  I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.  No, not the flesh and blood one…He will keep me from my appointments…and make me late… I can’t put up with pundits from Persia or sweaty shepherds trampling over my nylon carpet with their muddy feet. My name isn’t Mary, you know!

I want no living, breathing, Christ – but one I can keep in its crib with a rubber band.  That plastic Jesus will do just fine.[1]

We are used to chronos time, and as often as we complain about being bored or unmotivated, we prefer it.  But the church of Jesus Christ lives in ordinary time, wherein all bets are off and a Kairos opportunity might erupt anywhere.  All the markers are moved, and we can only look to Jesus not only as our guide, but as the one who gets us moving in the world.  Let us listen to the prayers of those around us, and seek to be the healing, welcoming, engaging, reconciling, challenging, affirming, constructive presence of the Body of Christ in this Kairos moment that we’ve been given.

Let us fear neither the time nor each other, but work together to use these times to create something better than that we have known.  It’s a regular day, church.  Let’s use it and get to work.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Here is the YouTube presentation of the entire service:

[1] Wilbur Rees, quoted in The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart (1998, Word) p. 479.

Coming Through The Chaos

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this week.  On Trinity Sunday, we took comfort – and challenge – from the fact that God is actively present in the midst of chaos.  Our scriptures for worship included  excerpts from Genesis 1 as well as Paul’s final counsel to the church of Corinth as found in II Corinthians 13:11-13

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Please note that the link to the YouTube video of the worship service can be found at the end of this post.

When human beings were learning the wonder of flight, airplanes and bad weather were a deadly combination.  Those who encountered poor visibility mid-flight told harrowing tales of disorientation and confusion. Surrounded on all sides by milk-white fog or hazy darkness, pilots entered a world where nothing behaved as it should. When it seemed as though the plane was slipping into a gentle descent, they corrected to gain altitude, only to find the plane diving downward faster. Or, when they felt certain the plane was flying level, the craft’s turn indicator would register a turn to the right. What the gauge registered as level, meanwhile, felt like a turn to the left. Faced with this reality, simply bailing out – parachuting from the plane – was often the best option for survival.

There is a long and detailed explanation for this phenomenon that came to be known as a “graveyard spiral”, but the heart of the matter is this: our brains and our bodies work together to help us get a feel for where we are and for how we’re moving.  While flying, though, the fluid in our inner ears can settle, and our bodies then fool our brains.

The first aviators needed to develop a strategy to overcome this – and they did.  Scientists helped them to refine their turn and bank indicators and introduced an artificial horizon to the cockpit, and “instrument flying” was born.  But there was a problem: the pilots wouldn’t trust the instruments because, well, it just felt  wrong!  Researchers tried all manner of flight simulators, and a couple of scientists even blindfolded homing pigeons and threw them out of moving airplanes to demonstrate that even nature’s most gifted fliers were powerless without sight.

A wary stance toward bodily perceptions would become a guiding principle for instrument flight. Researchers gave pilots a set of practical lessons in how to reference them to keep control of the plane. As pilots learned to trust their instruments, flight through clouds and fog became commonplace, safe, and mundane. The graveyard spiral, meanwhile, was replaced by a simpler imperative: Check your instruments – and believe them.[1]

Have you ever been “lost in a fog”?  If I said, “Hey, I was flying blind”, would you know that feeling?  I am sure that you would.

This morning’s scripture reading contains the first words of the Bible.  And right there in Genesis 1:2 we find that the text presents us with five separate words that point toward the reality of chaos in our lives: we are told that the creation took place in the context of that which was formless, void, dark, deep, and flooded.  Our story begins with a five-fold emphasis on the pervasiveness of confusion and uncertainty.

Yet that is only the beginning.  I mean, literally, it is the beginning.  It says so right there on page one of the Bible.  And in that beginning the Divine is neither absent nor silent.  The first sentence tells us that “In the beginning when God created…”

That sentence contains an important presupposition.  A presupposition is a linguistic or philosophical term that means, essentially, the things that we assume to be true as we decide how to move forward.  A book that starts with the phrase, “In the beginning when God created…” presupposes the existence of the Holy.  I would suggest that God is the fundamental presupposition.  Neither the author of Genesis nor your pastor this morning is going to start by trying to convince you that God is.  We will assume that.

What we discover in the words that follow, however, tells us something more about this God.  According to Genesis 1, a fundamental characteristic of the Divine is that She is actively moving and encouraging within the creation.  We didn’t read the whole chapter, but if you were to do so, you’d find that the word “let” occurs fourteen times.  God says, “Let…”  God allows.  God prods and permits.  In this way, I would suggest, God is more like a gardener than, say, a blacksmith.  That is not to say that God is incapable of or unwilling to use direct or even brute force, but it is indicative of the fact that it does not appear to be His preferred style.  If we can infer anything from our reading of Genesis 1, it is that the Divine preference appears to be to participate in a creation that is unfolding, and opening, and growing.

And this creative, empowering God adds another dimension in the second part of our reading from Genesis.  Whereas for most of a week, God has spoken creation into being, and the Divine Word has been directed at or over the creatures, we find in verse 29 that the Lord now speaks to a creature.  When God creates humanity, God engages with humanity in a way that is unlike anything else.

The presupposition there would be that God is relational.  God longs to know and be known.

So, a review of Genesis 1, at least for today: The Holy One is present, engaged, and encouraging, and employs relationship as a strategy to bring order to the chaos.  Humanity has been created by the Lord and is in the Divine Image.  Something of who or what God is is present in you, me, and every human being who has ever or will ever live.

And if all of that is true – and I believe with all my heart that it is – then it would seem as though our call is to be present, active, encouraging, and relational even at those times when chaos seems to be closing in around us.

That appears to be the mindset in which the Apostle Paul was operating in ancient Corinth.  That’s a church that was, in many ways, a red hot mess – in a city that was a red hot mess.

Back in the old days, Corinth had been one of the important cities of Greece.  It rivalled Athens and Thebes for wealth and influence.  And then, in BCE 146 a Roman named Lucius Mummius besieged and captured Corinth for the Empire.  He promptly executed all of the men, sold the women and children as slaves, and burnt the city to the ground.  He was given an award for all of this by the Empire, because frankly, that’s the kind of behavior Empires tend to value.

About a hundred years later, Julius Caesar rebuilt the city as a colony of Rome, and it became known as an important military and commercial center.  Its leading citizens were mostly Romans, not Greeks, and it came to be home for close to half a million people.  It was a wealthy town, a “Navy town”, and was known for a lax attitude toward sexuality that may have been tied to its worship of the fertility goddess Aphrodite.  Corinth was home to slaves, soldiers, and Empire builders.

Not uncoincidentally, the church in Corinth was filled with those same folk – and it was not always a harmonious place.  There was conflict between the generations; there were clashes between the socio-economic classes; there was racial and ethnic tension; and the church was embroiled by more than one sex scandal.  It’s all there in First and Second Corinthians.  Feel free – no, feel encouraged to read all of that.  I’d like to focus on the very end of the last letter to the Corinthians that we have.

After seeking to address each of those conflicts and more, Paul is closing his Corinthian correspondence, and he does so with an appeal to the people there.  “Be a part of what God is doing to dispel the chaos,” he writes.  “Listen to me, and listen to each other.”  And in a statement that is probably not the most helpful to a community engaged in a struggle against a pandemic disease, he continues, “Greet each other with a holy kiss…”  The point is, I suspect, that he presupposes that Christians will be in real and genuine relationships with each other, and that First Church Corinth – and First Church, Crafton Heights – will remember that we are all connected.

Listen, friends: our world, our nation, and our community all seem to be shrouded in layer upon layer of fog.  We are living in a chaotic time.  Which of these has gotten your blood boiling or your heart racing:

  • We fear for our personal safety and the health of those we love in an era of COVID-19
  • We are enmeshed in conflict that is rooted in racial identity, ethnic prejudice, and oppression that has become systematized
  • We are awash with economic uncertainty as jobs have been lost and businesses are closed
  • We are at best witness to and at worst a part of a calculated strategy of deception and dishonesty on many levels within our institutions
  • We are not able to plan more than a day or two ahead because we lack a common strategy or unified goals
  • Everything is conditional, and every blessed interaction requires some sort of negotiation. Nothing seems presupposed any more, and that is simply exhausting!

At such a time, beloved, let me invite you to remember who, and whose, you are.  Let me encourage you to take advice from those pilots a hundred years ago.  Find the instruments that you can trust to guide you on those days when you know that you’re not at your best.

What does that look like in Crafton Heights, in June of 2020?

For me, it means that I will anchor myself in worship and in prayer.  When the world is rushing around me so fast and change is coming at breakneck pace, I will seek to center myself in that which I have known to be true.  That means considering the promises and presence of God fully, even when I can’t be sure where God is in the turmoil that surrounds me.  Just because I don’t always feelloved, gifted, called, or sent doesn’t mean that any of those things have changed.

Similarly, I will endeavor to put into my heart those things that are congruent with what that heart was meant to hold.  In her insightful book, Untamed, Glennon Doyle writes “We are mugs filled to the brim, and we keep getting bumped. If we are filled with coffee, coffee will spill out. If we are filled with tea, tea will spill out. Getting bumped is inevitable. If we want to change what spills out of us, we have to work to change what’s inside of us.”[2]

Changing what is in my heart, however, will involve examining what is in my heart. It’s like that time you decided to change the things that you kept in your closet, right?  You looked at the things you had there and considered what you wanted to keep and what you needed to get rid of.  We’re called to do the same thing in this time of global pandemic and racial unrest.  Doyle continues, “In America, there are not two kinds of people, racists and nonracists. There are three kinds of people: those poisoned by racism and actively choosing to spread it; those poisoned by racism and actively trying to detox; and those poisoned by racism who deny its very existence inside them.”[3]

Each and every one of us lives and moves in atmospheres that are tainted by the chaos.  We’ve got to actively seek ways to explore what is in our hearts and minds and lives so that we can take steps to be free of those untruths that will kill us.

A part of that is seeking wise counsel.  In addition to anchoring myself in worship, I’m going to continue to look for ways to involve myself in the conversations that are bearing fruit around me.  I want to be open to hearing how I have been understood and misunderstood, and where I have misinterpreted the motives of others.  I want to be a child of the Divine who learns and grows, and that will happen best when I am surrounded by people who love me enough to tell me the truth about myself.

And when I have been anchored in worship, and have reflected on whose I am and how I’ve been shaped, and have received support and challenge and love and correction from those who are around me, I am in a position to lift my voice on issues that are important to the world and to me.  When we do this, however, we need to do so carefully.  It’s so easy these days to re-tweet and to “share” and to pass along something that we heard.  But is it true?  Is it helpful? Is it consistent with what I know to be true of both myself and the other in light of Genesis 1?

And finally, I want to keep growing.  The reality is that we were created to be in a garden – a place so full of life that things are constantly shifting and changing; where pollen is shed and compost enriches and weeds are removed and fruit is born.  I will remember that, like the world in which I have been placed, I am able to unfold and open and grow.  It is how I’ve been made.

It has seemed, beloved, on many days lately as though we have been lost in a fog.  Let us reclaim the instruments we’ve been given, and let us rely on them in pursuit of health, and justice, and equity, and liberation for all God’s children.  I know I can’t always trust myself.  I’m sure that the world is filled with those who are malicious and evil.  But together, let us work to uproot that which destroys and seek to live into the best intentions of the Gardener, in whose image we have all been made.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Much of the wording and all of the research in this illustration comes from The Atlantic Magazine, “How To Escape A ‘Death Spiral’”, by Toni Wall Jaudon (10/06/17) https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/death-spirals/542304/

[2] Untamed (Dial Press, 2020), p. 212

[3] Untamed (Dial Press, 2020), p. 218

Being Faithful for the Long Haul in the Exile

With the church around the world, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the racial tension and civil unrest that has gripped the USA this week.  As we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, we do so mindful of the fact that we are a church that was born speaking the languages of the marginalized and oppressed and seeking to be faithful to God’s call to demonstrate the fullness of God’s reign on earth.  Our scriptures for today included Daniel 6:1-23 and Acts 2:1-13.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player below.  To see the complete worship service, please use the YouTube link at the end of this blog.

On March 22, our congregation began to gather for worship digitally.  We did the unimaginable: we had Holy Week and Easter without any of you setting foot in the building!  We didn’t know how to do that; and some of us thought we couldn’t do that, but we did.  And since then, we’ve been spending most of our worship time exploring the stories that are found in the first half of the book of Daniel.  We’ve discovered some reminders of the ways that God is present to a people in exile, and we’ve seen vivid examples of courage, fortitude, faith, and love.  Today brings us to the end of that series, and we will conclude our exploration with the story that is probably most familiar to us… The lion’s den.

When we first meet Daniel, he’s a young man – maybe 13-15 years old.  By the time of today’s reading, though, he’s at least 65, and probably closer to 80 years old.  For fifty or sixty years, he’s been continuing to do what he’s always done – he’s being faithful to God, no matter which king reigns in Babylon.  As a teenager, he was in trouble because he didn’t want to contaminate his plate with food that didn’t belong there according to God’s rule, and he was threatened.  His friends were thrown into a fiery furnace.  He faces pressure again and again to worship someone other than the Lord, and he never does so.

Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Briton Riviere (1872)

I am struck by Daniel’s staying power: to be so faithful in such a difficult place for such a long time.  We are frustrated to think that we haven’t been able to eat in our favorite restaurant for three months; when the politician we oppose gets elected we think, “Oh no – four whole years of this!”; we buy a house and think, “30 years of mortgage payments…” and yet Daniel models faith for more than half a century.  Daniel is a man with staying power.  He stood firm.

What was the key to this?  How could he do it?  I would suggest that it was because Daniel knew which laws were ones that could be changed, and which were ones that would never change.  That’s what this story is about.  It’s not a story about Daniel and a bunch of crooked politicians, or Daniel and a gullible king, or even Daniel and the lions.  It’s about God’s laws and the Empire’s laws.  The other rulers saw this when they were trying to get rid of Daniel: “We’ll never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”

I don’t know about you, but when my eye falls across verses 8 and 15 of Daniel 6, and I read about the laws of the Medes and the Persians which can never be changed – well, it sounds sort of quaint to me.  Sort of old-fashioned.  After all, who even knows anything about the Medes and the Persians, whoever they were, let alone their laws?  That sounds really old-timey. “The law that cannot be revoked!” – it sounds like a line from a bad movie.

Except it’s not.  We’ve grown up and lived under and suffered with all kinds of “laws that can never be changed”; We accept them day in and day out.  “A law that cannot be revoked” is a law that is designed to protect privilege and power.  I mean, isn’t that what was happening in Daniel?  Those who were threatened by Daniel’s faithfulness and ascendancy were saying, “As long as this Jew is hanging around, we’re not ‘safe’; we could wind up losing the King’s affection, our positions of glory, and our privilege.”

The laws that can never be changed are those fictions that a society tells itself so that evil can hide behind a statute and what is immoral can cloak itself in legality.

Another way to put it would be to say that the laws that can never be changed are the things that “everybody knows”.  If you think hard enough, you might be able to come up with a few of them:

  • You can’t fight city hall
  • It’s the ‘golden rule’: whoever has the gold makes the rules

You see what I mean? Some of these are actually codes written in a book somewhere, but others come from our lived experience and we accept them as true and as binding.  And these laws that cannot be changed have been around forever.

You remember Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the amazing phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  He also said, “Slavery is a necessary evil”.  The chattel slavery of human beings was a law that could not be changed in America from 1619 until 1865.  Everybody knew that.

And when the legal cloak of slavery ended, the law came to allow, or even mandate, state-sponsored segregation according to “race”.  The Supreme Court of our nation ruled in 1896 that “separate but equal” was not only possible, but was a law by which we should live.  And that was the official doctrine of the land until 1954 when the same Supreme Court said, “You know what? That’s a law that CAN be changed.”

All of that happened before I was born.  The “law that cannot be changed” under which I’ve lived my entire life is, “If those people  would just follow the rules, then none of this would have happened.”  A situation gets out of hand, and property is damaged or lives are lost, and we fall back on that truth: that a person who suffers injury or death is usually complicit because, well, they weren’t following the rules.  They should have just obeyed, and everything would have been fine.

Am I reaching too far here?  Are these are examples of “laws that cannot be changed”?  Codes of conduct to which society agrees and then implements for generations?

What has changed in my lifetime?  When I was seven years old my mother put me in front of the television and told me to watch the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This week, at the age of 59, I’m sitting in front of the television watching people prepare for George Floyd’s funeral.

Are we ever going to learn?

Is anything ever going to change?

The witness of Daniel and the story of Pentecost may provide clues for us who seek to live by faith in a world where privilege is protected and power is maintained through the malicious (and fully legal) use of “laws that cannot be changed.”

I’ll start by saying that we’re not entirely sure how the Festival of Pentecost might have been observed on that day in about 30 AD about which we heard in the reading from Acts.  There were three great festivals for which faithful Jews were expected to journey to Jerusalem.  However, unlike the other two pilgrimage holidays (Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles), Pentecost – the harvest offering – lasted only a single day.

Pentecost, also known as the “Feast of Weeks”, celebrated the beginning of the wheat harvest.  As such, it was a busy time for an agricultural people.  Folk who were trying to be faithful got into town, dropped off their “wave offerings” at the temple, and headed back to the farm.  There were probably no extended welcomes, lavish banquets, or week-long observances.  People came in, did their best to do right in the eyes of the Lord, and left town.

The followers of Jesus happened to be in Jerusalem when the feast of Pentecost took place.  They were not there to make new friends or to change the world.  They were trying to figure out what it meant for them to be a community of faith.  They were hiding in a nondescript place, not wanting to attract attention to themselves – until the Holy Spirit barged into their hideout and it looked like God was trying to burn the place down and they found themselves being sent out and talking to the people nobody cared about in languages that they didn’t think that they knew.

Acts chapter two describes the formation of a new community which was birthed in an act of invitation, engagement, welcome, and inclusivity.   Historians of the first century tell us on numerous occasions that the followers of Jesus were either reviled or revered for their posture toward outsiders and the marginalized.

The Day of Pentecost is a call for the Church in 21st century – for us – to seek to recover that aspect of our congregational DNA and to remember that the call to faithful living, to invitation, engagement, welcome, and attentiveness to those are the margins is one that must be chosen over and over and over again in the long haul.

The church was born speaking the language of the outsider.  Are we still listening for the language of the oppressed?  Are we willing to learn that language? And are we committed to living graciously and hospitably?

I would suggest that a central strategy for the church in 2020 is to embrace the work of antiracism in the name of Jesus.  Now, church, this is the first time I have used this phrase in my eleven weeks of preaching to an iPhone in an empty sanctuary, but I’m glad you’re not here right now.  It’s not that I don’t love you and it’s not that I don’t miss you, but if we had a hundred and fifty people here this morning I guarantee you that I’d have a line of people waiting to talk with me who began the conversation by saying, “Pastor, I’m not a racist, but…” or “You know, I have a friend who is black, and even HE says…” And frankly, I don’t think I could handle too many of those conversations this morning.

It’s not enough to claim a lack of prejudice for myself, or to point to a person of color who can somehow vouch for me.  The church is called to the work of anti-racism – of disassembling structures that prop up the laws that cannot be changed and not only opposing those who spew hate, but becoming people who will not be silent in the midst of hate.

This Pentecost Sunday, this day where we remember the life of a man who lived in exile in a foreign land for nearly a century, the truth is this: an astounding 40% of white Americans do not have a single friend who is a person of color.  Similarly, 25% of nonwhites live effectively surrounded by their own tradition and culture.[1] Are those numbers indicative of your friend group?  I don’t know.  But they are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what do we DO? How do we engage in the work of antiracism as a means of expressing our faith in Christ during a time of pandemic and isolation and social unrest?  There are a lot of ways, and if you are hearing my voice now, you know how to work the Google Machine and you can find a number of articles or exercises that will fit your interest and ability.  Let me offer a few ideas, though, that might make sense as you continue to dwell in your own quarantine.

You can expand your reading list.  If you have not read anything by someone like James McBride, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Khaled Hosseini, then you should.  Most of you have not lived their experiences, but all of us need to know them.

Similarly, you can enlarge your media consumption so as to include stories of people of color.  Watch the films “Just Mercy”, or “Selma”, or other such movies or television series that will allow you to listen to and internalize the stories of people of color.

Pay attention to the stories that you read to and tell your children and grandchildren.  There are many amazing children’s books that depict the brown child or the outsider as the hero of the story.  Help the children that you love to grow up knowing that people who may not look or think like them can be extraordinary, and that exclusion and hate do not belong as a part of our story.  Some of you are aware of the fact that I have been reading a children’s book on Facebook most days since the middle of March, and there are a lot of stories there to get you started.

And perhaps most importantly, listen to your own inner narrative.  How do you repeat “the laws that cannot be changed” in a way that solidifies your own power or privilege but negates someone else – often in a way that you would not do overtly?  How does your social media use align with the values of the Christ of Pentecost?  To whom do you give your “likes” or your retweets or your attention?  And to whom do you offer a challenge or a correction?  Sometimes, your silence is taken as complicity.

Finally, beloved, remember this: at the end of the day, there are only two laws that cannot be changed, and they were given to us by the One we’re called to worship this day.  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NRSV)

So that’s it.  Today is Pentecost, and more than anything, we’d love to repeat the experience of the first Christians (“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place…”), but we can’t.  Instead, we are challenged to echo the next part of their story – their experience of having been driven out of their building and into the world.

We have not been in the exile as long as Daniel – not by a longshot – but we are weary.  But beloved, for the love of God, do not waste this moment.  In the middle of March, this congregation did what we did not think was possible: we learned how to do church this way.

Today, don’t worry about the fact that you can’t COME to church; instead, think about how you might BE the church in all the ways that matter.  Listen.  Learn.  Love.

Thanks be to God, who invites us to become wider, richer, deeper, wiser, and better than we have ever thought possible.  Amen.

[1] https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/08/08/poll-white-americans-far-less-likely-to-have-friends-of-another-race

Being Willing to Learn in the Exile

With other communities here in Western Pennsylvania, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are experiencing the difficulty of finding our way through the COVID-19 pandemic.  When our part of the state entered the “Yellow” phase of this effort, gatherings of 25 people were permitted.  I was delighted to be able invite four confirmands and their families to be present in the sanctuary for worship even as the bulk of our congregation gathered virtually.  Today we celebrated the young people who made their public profession of faith and one special young person who received the sacrament of baptism.   As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 24 included Daniel 5:17-31 and Luke 11:24-28.  


To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the YouTube link posted at the end of the message.

One of the hazards of leading worship on the internet is that I don’t know who’s here or who has been here before.  So this morning, let me start by reminding some of you and informing others that we’ve spent the last six weeks immersed in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  When we were hit with the Coronavirus and all of the COVID closures, it seemed like a good idea to take a look at what some of our ancestors have experienced, done, and learned.  Daniel chapters 1-6 tell a number of stories about a group of people who are taken from what they think of as their “normal” lives, compelled to go to places they don’t want to go, eat what they don’t want to eat, be called by something other than their true names, and live in a culture that is not of their own choosing.  We’ve heard of young people resisting pressure from their peers as well as their leaders, we’ve seen stories of God’s power overwhelming that of the idols, and we’ve watched rescues and bravery in many ways.  Last week we even heard about one man’s inability to get a decent haircut. So, yes, there have been some parallels to our current situation.

Today’s story fits in nicely with this sequence.  This week, we’re back in ancient Babylon.  King Nebuchadnezzar, who originally kidnapped the young people back in about 605 BCE has died in 562 BCE, and there have been a number of power-hungry and blood-thirsty men who have sought to succeed him.  The Book of Daniel is silent about the intervening years, and today we pick up the story on what we are told is October 11, 539 B.C. – 23 years after the old king died and 66 years after Daniel and his colleagues began their exile.  The man in charge now is named Belshazzar.  He gives a feast, and as he gets drunk, he orders the servants to bring the holy objects that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the temple in Jerusalem.  And there, as they are toasting the idols and mocking the Lord, something incredible happens.

A disembodied hand appears and begins to write upon the wall.  The king is suddenly very sober and very scared – his knees are knocking and the color drains from his face.  He calls out for the same bunch of clowns that we’ve seen time and again in Daniel, the royal astrologers, wise men, and magicians.  He begs them to tell him what is going on.  And once again, they are perplexed.

Then the queen has an idea.  Scholars think that because this woman was so bold in her speaking and so familiar with the history, that when the story talks about the queen, it’s referring to the queen mother – perhaps old Nebuchadnezzar’s wife.  She reminds the king of the Jewish slave who’s done all right at solving these mysteries in the past.  “Send for Daniel,” she says.  “He’ll tell you what this is all about.”  I should tell you that at this point in his life, Daniel is well over 70 years old.

So Daniel comes in and the king tries to keep his position of power.  He tries to buy Daniel’s advice and loyalty by making all sorts of promises of wealth and fame.  And what does Daniel do?  He says, “Keep your money.  I’ll tell you the truth about what the writing on the wall is all about.”  And he does.

“Nebuchadnezzar was the king – a powerful man who didn’t care about anything other than himself.  But God humbled him – God showed him who was really in control.  And you knew this, Belshazzar!  But you have ignored it.  And tonight you have made that fact crystal clear by praising these idols of wood and stone and metal while you’ve treated the objects that belong to God with contempt.  You knew the truth, and laughed at it.  And that will cost you.”

And then Daniel goes on to read and interpret the writing on the wall. The words that have been written are, as best we can figure out, are the Aramaic spellings of common coins of the day.  At that time, the value of a coin was not seen in its imprint (as we have today, where we accept the fact that a dime is worth ten times as much as a penny, even though the penny is clearly bigger), but rather in its weight of precious metal.  There are three coins mentioned: the mena, the peres, worth about half a mena, and a tekel, or shekel, worth about a sixtieth of a mena.  These words form a sort of a riddle that we might read this way: “A half a dollar, a half a dollar, a penny, and a quarter.”

Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt (between 1635-1638)

Now Belshazzar looks up and he sees the words, but they don’t make sense. After all, why does a king care about the weights of the various coins?  Daniel comes in and realizes that God has made a pun for everyone to see.  Mena is related to the word for ‘numbered’; tekel is related to the word for ‘weigh’, and peres can mean ‘divided’.  Daniel says, “Well, king, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.  You have been found to be a real lightweight.  You knew what was right, you did what was wrong, and your days are numbered – the kingdom will be divided, or taken away.”

Belshazzar keeps his promise, and gives the goods to Daniel.  A parenthetical note here: some of you will recall that in previous weeks we’ve compared the story of Daniel to Joseph, and talked about how the Jews would want to be reminded of the fact that God is present, even when it’s hard to feel that.  Here are other reminders.  When old Pharaoh can’t make sense of the situation around him, how does he happen upon Joseph? After all of the king’s magicians and wise men failed, someone in the room said, “Hey, I remember a Hebrew slave who’s pretty good with this stuff.” And when Joseph solves the Pharaoh’s problem, what does Pharaoh give to Joseph?  A robe and a gold chain.

When Belshazzar is so afraid he needs a new pair or royal underwear, and his magicians and wise men are clueless, how does Daniel enter the picture? Someone in the room says, “Wait a second… remember that Hebrew slave who’s been around for ages?”  And what does Belshazzar give to Daniel?  A robe and a chain of gold. These are the same stories – they are connected – they are given to remind God’s people that we will endure exile, that we can survive, and that victory and power belong to God, not to any self-important ruler.  So at the end of the day, Daniel gets his reward, and fortunately for him, Belshazzar gives it to him in cash, because a couple of hours later, the king is murdered and the kingdom falls.

What a great story, with a lot to say to us.  I’d like to center on two insights that have gotten me thinking this week.

First, it seems pretty obvious that Belshazzar is in big trouble because he has ‘de-sacralized’ the vessels that had been in the temple.  That is, he took those holy objects – the cups and the plates and the trays that had been consecrated – set aside – for use at the temple in Jerusalem and used them for his drunken festival worshipping other gods.  More than that, when he did so he ought to have known full well what had happened to Nebuchadnezzar.  Belshazzar, this text points out pretty clearly, looked at the God of heaven and earth, the creator of the universe, and said, “Yawn.  Whatever.”  He took the reign and the rule of God lightly.

And so when Daniel pronounces the sentence indicated by the writing on the wall, we nod approvingly.  The king is only getting what he deserves.  It’s too bad, but the man should have known better.

Beloved, let me tell you the truth – and it is a hard and heavy truth.  We do what Belshazzar did every day.  We take what God has made to be holy and sacred and destroy it without thinking twice.  We should know better.

Look at the alb that I’m wearing.  100% cotton.  In order to grow the cotton that we use in our clothing cheaply and efficiently, the fields are first plowed up.  Then they are sprayed with a chemical cocktail that sterilizes the soil so that there are no pests like weevils or fungus.  There’s nothing else, either.  The soil is so heavily treated that in some cases it takes 5 years before earthworms can live in it.  And then, because the soil has been bleached, after they plant the cotton they’ve got to use more chemicals to fertilize the plants.  What did we read just a couple of weeks ago? ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it!’  Yet we are turning our farmland into food factories that depend not on the cycle of rain and sun or the virtues of rotating crops or composting, but rather on daily doses of deadening chemicals and cancer-causing pesticides and environment-destroying fertilizers.  Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the plastics we toss aside so lightly, or the fuels we burn so freely, we take the reign and rule of God, and God’s care for this earth, lightly.

Here’s another way that we do this same thing.  God has created us to be a body, right?  We are called God’s people.  We live together.  We work to build the kingdom here.  But how do we treat each other?  We gossip.  We backbite.  We harbor resentment.  The Lord has given us clear guidelines about how to deal with conflict when it arises – because it always does.  But the sad truth is that sometimes I’d rather talk about  you than with  you.  God has given us a good, good gift – the treasure of relationship – and so many times we don’t value that gift enough to treat each other as though we were owned by and consecrated to the Lord.  And then we look up and see the writing on the wall.  And then it hits us – that perhaps this applies to us as well.

That leads me to my second insight from this passage, which is this: God expects us to learn not only from our own experiences, but from those of other people.  Daniel, a foreign exile, a man of no power or consequence in the kingdom, comes face to face with the most powerful man in the known world, and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for not learning from the mistakes of other people.  More than that, actually, he says that Belshazzar’s failure to apply the lessons he ought to have learnt will, in fact, cost him his life.

OK, because I know that you all have Google, I need to be upfront with you about something important right now.  This is fake news.  That is to say that so far as we know, there never was a “King of the Babylonians” whose name was Belshazzar.  King Nebuchadnezzar, who kidnapped Daniel, did have a son, who ruled after him – but his name was Amel-Marduk.  Nebuchadnezzar apparently had a grandson, or maybe a great grandson, whose name was Bel-shar-usur, who would sometimes rule in Babylon while his father was away from town, and the timing works out that this Bel-shar-usur might very well have been in Babylon on the evening of October 11, 539 BCE.

So what’s your point, Pastor Dave? I mean, if this didn’t happen, or at least it didn’t happen this way, then why are we even reading it?

Because the point of the book of Daniel is not to make sure that all God’s children know the timeline of the Neo-Babylonian Monarchy of the 6th century BCE!  This part of the Bible is written to remind us that there will be times when we are called, or even sent, into exile.  There will be times when God’s people will face testing, and live under rules that we don’t like, and watch people who think that they have authority strut around like they own the place.

Right now, I’d like to speak to the young people who will stand up here and affirm their faith in Jesus.  Your call, as young disciples, is NOT to be sure that you continue to do things exactly the same way that we’ve always done them, or to come into church as if it’s a museum full of holy relics and life-giving artifacts and it’s your job to protect those things.  I’m asking you to learn from the mistakes we have made; to be faithful in your own discipleship, and to, starting now, create a “new normal” for yourselves and our world that is closer to the ways that God wants it to be.

In our reading from Luke, Jesus banishes an evil spirit.  He encounters a man who is in trouble, and he cleans things up.  But then the person who was healed did not seek to build upon that healing.  He didn’t choose a good to replace the evil from which he’d been delivered.  As a result, he ended up worse than he started.  This time of quarantine, this forced interruption of your lives has taken a number of things from you.  You have had to re-invent the ways that you spend your time, do your homework, express your love, grow in faith.  I want to encourage you to keep looking for new ways to be yourself, to be faithful, to be anchored in the person that God intends you to be.

So maybe the point is this: who do you want to be in this story?  The arrogant king who scoffs at God’s power and makes light of the sacred?  The inept wise men who look at the writing on the wall and shrug their shoulders and say, “well, it’s all Greek (or Aramaic) to me”?  Or an agent of the living God who is sent to proclaim the truth of God’s presence in the world and to reveal the lifeless idols for what they are?

Beloved, the message of Daniel is clear – you don’t get to choose everything; you’re not in charge.  You’re going to be handed some stuff that you don’t want and don’t deserve.

But what you are in charge of is how you deal with it, and seeking to learn from it. As you make your profession of faith in a public fashion this morning let me encourage you to continue to seek out what is holy, to build relationships of trust and where it is safe to wonder about things, and to grow in your ability to be person who is responsive to God’s leading and committed to the friends around you.  I’m proud of you.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Being Centered in God’s Care in the Exile

With other communities here in Western Pennsylvania, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are experiencing the “next stage” of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’ve entered the “Yellow Phase” of our struggle with this virus.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 17 included Daniel 4:18-37 and Acts 17:24-28.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player immediately below.  There is a link to the YouTube recording of the entire worship service posted at the end of this blog entry.

Imagine that you are hosting a few guests from another country.  Let’s say that you are looking for opportunities for your friends to experience your culture, and so during their stay, you immerse them in all manner of places and events.  And let’s say that you’ve been invited to a wedding, but at the last minute you can’t go. Because you really want them to have the experience, you send them anyway. When they gets home, they’re very impressed, but have a few questions.

Your friends ask you about the part where the announcer called all the people in the room to form a circle, and then how everyone began acting very strangely.  Your guests say that people began to wave various body parts at each other.  You think and you think and you think and finally it hits you.  They were watching the crowd during “the Hokey-Pokey”.  It wasn’t a random waving of body parts, but rather a choreographed sequence of motions:  “You put your left hand in, you take your left hand out, you put your left hand in and you shake it all about…”

In this case, you can tell your friends that there is really nothing unusual here – it’s just a dance.  Now it would be unusual, you think, if you went to a wedding and there in the middle of the vows someone jumped up and started doing the Hokey-Pokey, or if off in the corner there was an odd person doing it alone.  But in our normal context of weddings and dancing, there is nothing odd about it because, in spite of the song’s claim, the Hokey Pokey is not really what it’s all about.

You may be asking yourself what all this has to do with the Bible and our current exploration of the life of exile.  Well, the answer is simple:  Daniel 4, and indeed all of Daniel, answers the basic question, “What is the reality of history?”  Do we experience our lives, do families and cultures and nations come and go by chance?  Or are we in some sort of a dance?  Is our world shaped by random, and therefore meaningless events, or are we participants in a choreography that has a final conclusion and promised end?

This is precisely the presenting issue here in Daniel 4.  Who calls the shots?  Who is in control?

A reminder that last week we heard Daniel 3, which began with king Nebuchadnezzar punishing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for worshipping YHWH – because the king said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not, in fact, a real god.  And Daniel 3 ends with Nebuchadnezzar praising these three young men, and saying that they have in fact shown him that YHWH is a god – or at least, one of the gods.  Here in Daniel 4, we see Nebuchadnezzar take the next step: the chapter ends with the pagan king saying that at the end of the day, he has come to realize that YHWH is not just a god, but THE God, the Most High God.  How did he learn that?  Through a means we’ve seen already in this story – the interpretation and fulfillment of a dream.

Daniel Explaining the Dream to Nebuchadnezzar, print by Adriaen Collaert (between 1593-1597)

You have heard the dream.  Like much of the book of Daniel, it’s repeated in a couple of different ways so that the hearers can soak it in.  This is a long chapter, and I’ll encourage you to read it all.  Nebuchadnezzar’s dream is a prediction of the king’s punishment with insanity and loss of reason, leading to his humiliation and eventual restoration.

Let me invite you to look at the reading, and in your own bibles go ahead and circle verses 17, 25, and 32.  Here we see the refrain of this story chorused again and again:  “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdom of mortals; he gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of human beings.”  Time and time again,Nebuchadnezzar (and we) hears this profound theological statement – a statement that reminds this great king that he is not who he thinks he is – he is not the most powerful, the most wise, the most authoritative person in this story — God is.

Daniel gets that theme.  Daniel understands!  And in verse 27, Daniel pleads with the king to change his behavior, to adjust his life, so that he will not receive the punishment of which he’s dreamed.  Daniel says, “Look, King, it’s not too late.  Start over.  Maybe you can make this punishment only a bad dream…”

It’s interesting to note that Daniel has not only a bit of counsel for the king, but he has a strategy.  God wants the king to know who is deserving of glory and praise – only God.  And this message from Daniel to the king seems to indicate that the correct response for those who know that God is in control is to act with righteousness and to show mercy to the oppressed.  There is something about recognizing God’s position in the world that ought to compel us to treat others rightly.  When we recognize that we are not almighty, we have the opportunity and responsibility to treat others with mercy and humility.

But, of course, the King doesn’t get it.  Take a look at verse 30.  A year later, he’s walking through the palace and it hits him — he’s done all right for himself.  “Look at my palace, my city!  I made it myself.  It’s great – and it displays my honor and my glory!  I’m all right!”  And before the echo from the marble pillars and golden statues dies down, Nebuchadnezzar receives the fulfillment of his dream.  He is punished in one of the worst ways imaginable – he is driven from human society and away from reality.  The mighty, powerful king finds himself eating grass; his hair is as long as an eagle’s feather and his fingernails are like talons. I mean, you thought the “stay at home order” has been tough, but…

And some time later, God relents and Nebuchadnezzar is restored.  He blessed God and moves, as we have said, from being obsessed with his own power and glory to extolling the one true God.  And the end of the chapter describes Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance and the ways that he yields to God’s greatness and power.

Friends, the book of Daniel calls the question: Who is in control?  Who calls the shots?  Only God.  God is, in the words of our reading from Acts, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  The prime mover.  The unmade maker.  The Ground of all being.  There are lots of ways to describe this truth – but it is foundational to our understanding of life, and it is profoundly Good News for Hebrew exiles.  The proud Empire that conquered Jerusalem is not really in control.

A theological way to talk about this idea is called the doctrine of “Providence”.  That is to say, human history and existence has a meaning and a purpose.  We are not simply here on a roll of the die or a spin of the wheel, but rather we believe that somehow God, who sits outside of human history, is ordering that history towards a particular end.  Another theological expression that might be applicable here is the one that we call “Election” or “Predestination”.  Over the years, Presbyterians have taken a bad rap on this one, because people have said that the idea of predestination means that God, before the foundation of the world, decided that you, me, and your mother in law would inherit life forever no matter what, and that your sister, my brother, and my mother in law would go straight to hell, no matter what.

While I resist these individualistic understandings of belief systems anchored in the idea that God, not me, is sovereign, I like what Karl Barth has to say: that the doctrine of election or predestination is more binding on God than it is on humanity.  That is to say that before the invention of time and before the beginning of the world, God elected to bind God’s self to humanity through Jesus of Nazareth so that humans might receive life.  Barth points out that when folks talk about election and predestination, it’s almost always about individual people being sent to heaven or hell – but that the act of reconciliation that Jesus accomplished was to bring the children of God to the throne of grace.  God is in charge, moving through history so that everyone – kings and peasants – will know that fellowship with God is the purpose of life.[1]

Friends, the notion of God’s providence and sovereignty over the creation can be seen as either a threat or a promise.  For those who are unable to see themselves, their plans and desires, and their authority as anything less than central, well, this notion causes difficulty.  And so I would suggest that the first word that we can hear in this text for today is one of caution.

As we find ourselves in the first “yellow phase” of our lives, many of us are tired and irritable and, frankly, just about over this whole coronavirus thing.  We are ready to get back to normal.  We want to take that vacation, we need to get our hair and nails done, and we bristle at any so-called “authority” who tells us what we ought to do in a reality we no longer want to inhabit.

When I have those thoughts, I wonder… how much of that comes from a place of humility?  How much of that is rooted in an awareness to God, and not me, rules over creation?  When I sit out on my porch and work myself up into a state over what “they” (whoever “they” are) are trying to do to “me”, am I any different than Nebuchadnezzar strutting across his balcony preening in his own power and authority?

And you might respond, as I hope that some of you do, that there is not just a need for a word of caution here, but of compassion as well.  After all, we read that one of the prime complaints against Nebuchadnezzar was his unmerciful behavior toward the oppressed.  And, for all I know, some of you may be yelling at your TV screen now saying, “Look, Carver, you chowderhead!  I don’t want to go out because I’m all that – but people have got to get back to work.  I want to support the folks in the restaurant industry and the hair stylists and the hotel workers.”

The word “compassion” comes from two Latin roots: pati, meaning “suffer”, and com, meaning “with”.  We stand at a place in history where we have been extended an opportunity to offer compassion to our neighbor.  To enter into their suffering.  And I get it: maybe you really do want to get out because you want to help people feed their families.

Can you do that today?  Do you want to help your hair stylist feed their family? Then give that person a Giant Eagle card – not because they cut your hair, but because they are suffering.  Don’t let your pride (“Uh, well, I would do that, Pastor, but then that would just make it weird between us…”) get in the way of your ability to live with compassion.  Offer what you can to the people who are in your field of vision.  Give of yourself.  Compassion.

And lastly, there is a word here of encouragement.  Remember, I said a few moments ago that the idea of God’s providence implied both a threat to the proud and a promise to the humble.

So remember this, beloved: there is good news for the people who heard the story of Daniel for the first time.  Consider the context of this story!  Do you remember the situation in which the first hearers of this story found themselves?  They were being persecuted.  Their children were murdered.  Their holy objects were profaned.  An evil king was tearing apart those who would be faithful to the Lord.  But here, in Daniel, they hear something different.  They hear the story of a pagan king who turns to God.  They hear of an evil tyrant who is punished and repents.  They hear a story that cannot help but fill them with hope that somehow, their suffering might have meaning.

God is in control!  That’s not just good news to an unknown crowd of Jews a couple of thousand years ago.  There is good news for today.

There’s good news for those who are caught in the economic crisis of this pandemic.  You, or someone you love, may have lost a job or some savings because of the climate of greed and irresponsibility that has typified this nation for a while.  The truth that this morning’s lesson brings to each of us is that none of us is in “free fall” right now.  At the end of the day, we are not at the whim of China or the President or a bail out or even a virus.  We are not living in a chaotic world where we have to deal each day with the luck of the draw and are subject to chance in every area of our lives.

You are living in a world where God has chosen to be a partner in your life.  God has willed – God has elected – to be active day by day.  We are dancing with the Lord. Now look, I didn’t go to the Mary Pappert School of Music at the Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit like some people I know, but I understand that when our friend PJ was learning to play jazz piano, he came to understand quickly that while he may have some mad skills, he is not always the composer or the director. Sometimes he’s given a sheet of music that’s in a particular key and carries a certain time signature and he’s expected to do his best to improvise within a chord structure that he didn’t choose.

That’s us. I know that there are times when we simply cannot see the purpose and our lives look a whole lot like a mishmash of one thing after another.  Yet I am convinced that the Book of Daniel is here to point to the Gospel truth that we will one day know the full depths of the Composer’s love for and presence with us.  You belong to God, and are headed to God.  It is in the very heart of God that you live and move and have your being.

My prayer for you is that you would believe this.  That you – wherever you are – will begin to understand yourself first and foremost as a disciple of the Christ who has come to establish fellowship between God and humanity.  And when you think of yourself as a disciple, for goodness sake, don’t do it the way we do so many things – by dabbling around but not really investing ourselves.  So often we go part way.  We put our left arm in, or we put our right arm in, but we don’t really take it seriously.  Friends, follow God in this dance of discipleship and belief; listen for the rhythm of God’s movement in your life and in your world any place you are… and then, beloved, put your whole self in.  Shake it all around.  That’s what it’s all about!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1] See The Theology of Karl Barth, by Herbert Hartwell (Westminster, 1964) p. 105ff.

Being Focused in the Furnace of Exile

Like much of the rest of the world, The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are living in the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts on May 10 included James 1:1-5 and Daniel 3:13-30

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the player just below.  Note that a YouTube link for the entire service appears at the end of this post.

Well, here we are.  It’s been 56 days since many of us worshiped together in this room.  55 days ago the President told us to stay indoors for 15 days.  There have been 37 days since Governor Wolf issued his “stay at home” order for the entire state.  How do you measure how long you’ve been adapting to our current reality?

Today is Mother’s Day.  Many of you who are with us this morning woke up to snow yesterday.  On May 9!  Your pastor, who encouraged you to plant seeds at Easter, is grieving over his kiwi blossoms and sweet potato starts today.

What in the blue blazes is going on here?

In the midst of a long day, when there was seemingly one challenge after another, the saintly woman we know as Mother Theresa was frustrated and exasperated.  At one point she let out a long sigh and said, “I know that God won’t give me anything more than I can handle…but there are some days when I wish God didn’t trust me so much.”

Do you know that?  Have you felt that?  Have you been down a road of pain and suffering and frustration and cried out to the Lord?  If you have, then you have learned one of the greatest lessons of the Christian faith.

The last time I preached to you, we talked about the fact that the Book of Daniel teaches us something that goes against our American culture.  Do you remember?  We said that although the culture insists that I am a free agent, I am the master of my own destiny, the captain of my own ship… the scriptures teach that God is in control and in fact God tells me who I am.

Today’s readings are similarly challenging.  Whereas much of our world believes that suffering is evil; or that it is punishment; and that it is to be avoided at all costs – the scripture teaches us that suffering is not meaningless.  In fact, if the Bible teaches us anything, it is in fact that suffering, far from being evil, can be redemptive.  That suffering can be a path to blessing.  Did you hear James?  “Consider it nothing but joy…”, he says!  Seriously?

Do you remember last week when I suggested that the story of Daniel was meant to remind people of the story of Joseph?  Do you remember what Joseph said to his brothers?  “You meant to hurt me, but God turned your evil into good to save the lives of many people…” (Gen. 50:20 NCV)

And now today we walk into the furnace with these three kids who have been taken away from anything that they ever thought was “normal”.  Talk about “out of the frying pan and into the fire!”  And yet the witness of scripture seems to be clear: suffering is not meaningless.

When we started this series of messages, I described for you the context in which the Book of Daniel was first read.  Do you remember?  We talked about the terrible difficulties that the people of faith had already endured: they’d been exiled, quarantined, forced to adapt to different schedules, different diets, living in a climate of political turmoil and fear day after day. And to these people, beset by one trial after another, God reveals the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

As we consider this tale, I need to say that we’ve lost our ability to hear an important part of this story.  Our culture is one that insists upon, and rushes towards, a happy ending.  We know that their suffering will not last – and so we basically skip it altogether.  When we tell our children this story, we don’t dwell in the horrors of the furnace, we skip to the happy ending that we know is coming.  Yet it’s a story about profound suffering that carries with it profound truth.

The Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (15th century icon of the Novgorod school).

What is the place of suffering in Daniel 3? The first thing that we see is that this trial provides an opportunity for these three boys to be faithful to the Lord.  Think: what do the young men say to the King when he threatens them with the furnace? My hunch is that we remember them saying something like this: “Our God will save us from the fire, O king.”  But that’s not it at all.  From the text, it’s plain to see that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have no certainty about their future.

A faithful translation of verses 16-18 might go something like this:  “…King Nebuchadnezzar, Your threat means nothing to us.  If you throw us into the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king.  But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king.  We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.” (The Message)  Do you see?  They acknowledge that they don’t know whether God will save them or not – and they don’t seem to think that’s the most important part of the story. What is the most important thing for these boys?  Obeying God!

Do you remember the first commandment?  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surely did.  What about the second?  That’s what they were thinking.  Nebuchadnezzar was sure that they’d try to save their lives, but all they were thinking was, “Have no gods before me” and “do not worship idols”.  The trial in front of the fiery furnace was a chance for these three young men of faith to demonstrate with their lives that they were willing to obey the commands of God

So, in Daniel, suffering provides a chance to be faithful to God.  But that’s not all.  It also puts us in a place where we can shed the things that are unimportant or even harmful to us.  Look again at the reading from Daniel.  Old Nebuchadnezzar heats up the furnace all right, but what happens when the three boys are tossed in?  Who dies?  The Babylonian guards.

And what actually gets burnt up in the fire?  When these kids are thrown into that fire, the cords that have constricted them are consumed by the blaze.  As a result of being thrown into the furnace, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become untied.  When they emerge from the furnace, they are freer than they were when they went into it.

Now I want to be very, very careful as I say this, and I hope that you are listening carefully as well.  I am NOT saying that God sends us terrible pain or experiences or death or disease because God wants us to somehow get loosened up because of those things.  That is not what I’m saying at all.  And yet I am saying that the kinds of disruption and disorientation that accompany suffering and trials can sometimes free us to experience things in a new way.

To be crystal clear: Pastor Dave is not preaching that the God sent us the coronavirus to teach us a lesson.  That God unleashed this pandemic in order that we might be attentive and straighten up and fly right.  Nope.  Nope.  Nope.

And yet, here we are – in the middle of this experience that has been deadly for hundreds of thousands, frightening for millions, and inconvenient for billions.  While I’m saying that God didn’t do this to teach us a lesson, I would also say that we would be fools to ignore what may be learned while we’re here.

One of the most disturbing refrains in recent weeks is “Can’t we please just get back to normal?”  As if the experience we shared in February is the nirvana toward which we are all striving, and the measure of perfection that defines the best humanity can do.

Do I need to remind you that in February, an unarmed African-American man was out jogging and apparently hunted down and slaughtered by two white men?  Or that a civil war in Syria was raging, involving not only warring factions within that nation but Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey, and the USA?  That the pace of our lives and our thirst for energy was consuming us and destroying the planet?

Here’s my point: we are in a difficult, difficult place.  Many people we love are far worse off than we.  We want the lockdown to end, the virus to die, and to be restored to our jobs and our friends and families.  But let’s not settle for going “back to normal”.  “Normal” wasn’t the best for us any more than the situation just prior to the furnace was the best for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Let’s use this time of separation and isolation and disruption to imagine a new normal.  To think about moving forward to the next best thing, rather than simply going back to how it used to be.  To think of new ways to be present and attentive to ourselves and our neighbors; to pray for a new imagination; to seek new patterns of shopping, consumption, and growth; to search for new avenues in which to oppose racism and other evils.

What I’m saying is that maybe there is something about suffering and trial that can make us better able to hear the voice of the Lord – something about painful situations and loss that can help us to lose the bonds that have held us back and be free to move – even in the midst of the fire.  How does this happen?  When we realize that we are not in the midst of the fire alone – but that God himself is there with us.

Because that is what happens in our story!  Nebuchadnezzar himself points out that there is a fourth person in the fire.  Now, think about that for a moment.  For some reason, God does not prevent the young men from facing the ordeal of the furnace – yet we must note that God does not allow them to go through it alone.  God is present with them every step of the way.  So much so that when they come out of the furnace, they don’t even smell like smoke!

Beloved, remember that you are not now, and you never will be truly alone. When you feel as though things are so awfully hard to bear, remember that you are not in a position where you are holding them all by yourself.  I believe that one of the reasons we have been given this story is that we might be assured by the promise and the presence of the Holy One in the midst of the crucible of suffering.

Why do we remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego?  Why do we tell these stories to our children?  After all, there’s not a person in this room who has been threatened with death in a fiery furnace.  We are not in the same situation as those boys, nor as the original hearers of the story.

I would suggest that one of the reasons we tell these stories to the people we love is because we want to remind them – and ourselves, that suffering and death are not the worst things that can happen to us.

When I was a boy, and my mother would go to work as a nurse, there would be times when I would hear her talk about her patients.  One day, I remember her saying about a friend, “But what if she doesn’t die?  That might be really terrible…”  And I remember looking at her as if she were crazy – after all, what could possibly be worse than death?  And she read my mind, because she looked at me and said, “You know, David, there are many things worse than dying.”

My mother was right.  Giving up is worse than dying.  Living a life without purpose or meaning is worse than dying.  Refusing to let go of the cords that bind you up is worse than dying.

Are you in the midst of suffering and pain?  Can you cry out to God?  Can you hold onto God?  Will you look for God’s presence in the midst of the furnace that you’re in?  Will you remember that your story isn’t finished yet?

I’m told that a bar of steel weighing several pounds is worth, say, $10.  If you take that same steel and shape it into several horseshoes, the value rises to $25.  Make it into nails, and it’s worth a little more.  Fashion it into sewing needles and the value rises to $350.   Yet if you take that same amount of steel and fashion it into delicate springs for expensive watches, it’s worth more than $250,000.  The same bar of steel is made more valuable by being cut to its proper size, passed through one furnace after another, again and again.  It is hammered, beaten, ground, finished, polished, and manipulated until it’s ready for a delicate task.

What about you?  Are you being heated, pounded, shaped?  You don’t need to run from it, you know.  Just look for the One who calls you.  Look around the furnace for the one who is faithful.  Cry out.  Do your part, and trust the One who made you and who is with you still to do the rest.  Let us look forward, in hope, to a new kind of normal in the months to come.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

Being Faithful and Rooted in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 26, 2020 to continue the celebration of the season of Eastertide.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts this week included Daniel 2:25-49, and we also heard from Paul to his friends in Rome, Romans 12:3-5

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a link to the YouTube broadcast of the entire service at the end of this blog.

So at the Ash Wednesday service, the congregation prepared for the usual prayer of confession.  The preacher started off as usual, but apparently got so caught up in the moment that he stepped away from the elegant pulpit, threw himself on the chancel, and began to weep loudly.  As he did so, he cried out, “Nothing, God, nothing! Before you, I am nothing!”

The congregation was visibly moved by this show of humility, and in a moment the leader of the worship team throws herself down next to the pastor and begins to imitate him, wailing, “I’m nothing, Lord! Before you, I am nothing…”  After a moment, there’s a bit of a stir in the back when the town drunk steps into the aisle and kneels, and cries out, “O Lord, before you, I am nothing!”

While the congregation stares, the worship leader nudges the pastor and says, “Well get a load of this! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This morning, I’d like to talk about who we are, who we think we are, how we understand ourselves, and the notion of humility.  And as I start I’ll confess that this is a difficult message because the more I talk about humility, the less you’re convinced that I have any of it.

“Daniel Interprets the Dream of King Nebuchadnezzar”, William Brassey Hole (1846-1907)

We are continuing to read in the Book of Daniel, listening for ways in which God’s presence and truth was revealed to a people who were sent to a place they didn’t want to go, held by a power they didn’t acknowledge, and asked to define themselves in ways that they couldn’t understand.  Last week, we read about the fact that King Nebuchadnezzar had had a vision in the night and he was just about ready to slaughter every one of his advisors before young Daniel announced that, with God’s help, he knew the dream and its interpretation.  He rushed to tell the executioner, Arioch, that God had given him the answer and that the wise men’s lives could be spared.

Did you notice what happened in the reading today?  Arioch leads Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar and begins by saying, “I have found a man who can solve your problem, O King.”  Seriously? The only thing Arioch did was to not kill Daniel – but he wants the king to associate whatever success Daniel has with Arioch himself.  Not what I’d call a lesson in humility.

Then, as you heard, Daniel tells the truth.  That is, he not only reveals Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, but he interprets the dream.  It’s a long and complicated vision, and, quite frankly, not the point of this morning’s sermon.  If you’d like to talk with me about the four kingdoms and the ways in which they may or may not be representative of various historical realities, well, give me a call and maybe we’ll both have had enough of the Coronavirus boredom to make that an interesting conversation.  But the emphasis for today is this – that the king puts an apparently impossible demand in front of his lackeys and Daniel is the only one who brings him any satisfaction.  Nebuchadnezzar accepts Daniel’s explanations and our text indicates that he worships Daniel.

When many of us gathered for our Wednesday night Bible study this past week, we talked about the word “worship”, and how it is a natural attribute of humanity.  When we “worship” someone, we usually use that word to mean a celebration of someone’s strength or other attributes, or an adoration of that person, or pointing to the power or accomplishments of the individual. I say this because when the Bible says that the king “worshiped” Daniel it is not implying that the King somehow “accepted Daniel into his heart” or began a new religion.  Rather, it’s a way of saying that the king acknowledged that Daniel was a great guy who told the truth.

The king goes on to acclaim Daniel’s God, YHWH, as the God of gods and the Lord of kings, and he promotes Daniel to be, essentially, vice-king.  He also elevates Daniel’s other companions to offices of respect and power.  I assume you got that from the reading today, right?

Question: did any of that sound vaguely familiar?  Look at the arc of the story: a young man is taken away from his home and his family and sent to the capital of the Empire.  While there he is imprisoned, threatened with harm, and attempts are made to convert him to the Empire’s way of thinking and style of life.  The king, however, experiences a disquieting dream and, against all odds, the young captive from Israel is brought in to interpret the dream.  The grateful king celebrates the wisdom of this outsider and elevates him to a position of great rank and authority in the Empire, recognizing his wisdom and the superiority of his God.  Have you seen this movie before?

Of course you have!  Isn’t that the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt but rising as the vice-chancellor to save the people?  This type of an account, which might be called a “court story”, is central to the Old Testament narrative.  In fact, we’ll see it again next week as we walk into the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Why are these stories important in the Bible?  I’d suggest that there are at least three things that the court stories do.

First, they serve to remind everyone – the people of God, mostly, but the whole human family in general – that God is sovereign.  That is, they affirm the truth that the great I AM is the one true God.

Secondly, it would follow from this that those who learn from YHWH and who are faithful to YHWH have access to a wisdom that is superior to wisdom that comes from other sources.

And thirdly, these court stories are told and re-told to remind those who follow and serve YHWH that they can be encouraged and even hopeful in the midst of situations that might be otherwise untenable.  As Andrew Lloyd Webber put it in his musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,

Close every door to me,
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
For we know we shall find
Our own peace of mind
For we have been promised
A land of our own

These court stories inform the collective memory of the people of God in such a way that nurtures and sustains hope, especially when things look dire.

All right, so if that’s what we’re looking at when we consider this story from Daniel – a “court story” that reminds us of what is true even when our own immediate experience might suggest something else – then what are to do with it?  In what ways can we apply Daniel’s experience to our own?

Well, how does our brother Daniel behave when he finds himself facing a traumatic event in his own life?  As we’ve noted, Daniel is uprooted from his normal routine, taken away from his regular school or work, given a new diet, forced to learn a new language, expected to participate in a reality that is not of his choosing…  How does he respond?

One key aspect of Daniel’s personality that shines through here is his remarkable humility.  You heard it a moment ago – several times when the king is seeking to praise him, Daniel deflects and says, essentially, “Look, it’s not me or any other human; it’s YHWH.”  You could argue, correctly, I’d say, that Daniel does not get into a deep kind of self-abasement or lowering; he does accept the king’s gratitude for the role that he played.  Humility is like that, isn’t it?  As Paul says, it’s a proper assessment of who we are. We take an honest look at who we are and we think about how the gifts we’ve been given equip us to participate in what God is doing.

Frederick Buechner writes about humility, saying

Humility is often confused with the gentlemanly self-deprecation of saying you’re not much of a [card] player when you know perfectly well you are. Conscious or otherwise, this kind of humility is a form of gamesmanship.  If you really aren’t much of a [card] player, you’re apt to be rather proud of yourself for admitting it so humbly.  This kind of humility is a form of low comedy.  True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.  It is the capacity for being no more and no less pleased when you play your own hand well than when your opponents do.[1]

A few weeks ago I suggested that we could learn something from Daniel when it comes to living in the age of Coronavirus.  What would it look like for us to practice humility during these times of social distancing and virtual community?  Well, I can think of at least three things.

I don’t know what your screen time has been like, but 76% of us are reporting an increase in smartphone and tablet use during the lockdown.  47% of these folks say that their use of social media has increased significantly.[2]  Do you know what that means?  It means that you’re more likely to come into contact with fools.  It’s not a mystery, and it’s not a shocker.  The internet is full of idiots, half-baked ideas, and misinformation.  One aspect of humility is having the strength to avoid arguments with fools.

Look at what Daniel did.  He was surrounded by people who mocked him for his belief, who belittled him for his diet, or who couldn’t pronounce his name.  His continued faithfulness was not demonstrated by trying to prove to these guys that what he knew was superior to what they knew; instead, he went about his business and focused on being the person that God was calling him to be.  In fact, as we saw last week, not only did he refuse to get sucked into anything with the idiots around him, he actually saved their lives!

Another way in which we can see Daniel demonstrating humility is his refusal to compare himself with those around him. Again, last week we saw him drawing near to his colleagues, inviting them to pray with him and to seek the power and presence of YHWH.  You don’t hear Daniel pointing out how either Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego have it somehow better than he, or how his suffering is more or less than the others.  He recognizes that they are in this together.

One of the temptations in our current reality is for those of us in some areas of the nation or world where the effects of the virus are not as pronounced is to look at other people and say, “Suck it up, buttercup!  It’s not that bad.  Quit being such a baby!”  And yet when we do that, we diminish the real pain and suffering in those communities where death has been a too-frequent visitor and the danger of infection is a matter of critical importance.

And finally, one of the most significant lessons we will learn and re-learn from our brother Daniel is that God, not we ourselves, assigns our identity.  Imagine this: that Daniel went into the bedchamber of the most powerful man in the universe and said, “Look, your majesty, you’re pretty big – I’ll give you that… but even you live in a universe that is governed by the God that I worship; that God is the one who raised you up and that God is the one who knows when you’ll fall.”  Daniel consistently points to a God who is sovereign over human history.

And if there is anything that sounds un-American in the Bible, well, that is it.  We are raised to think of ourselves as self-determining.  All around us these days are people who are proclaiming, in the name of something called “liberty”, that they, and they alone, will determine if they’ll go to the Target, if they’ll wear a mask, if they’ll respect social distancing… because, well, freedom.  “Nobody tells me what to do,” we say.

Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas were college professors when their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony was published.  They write,

Our culture has perverted “liberation” to mean freedom from the demands of others in order to be free to follow the demands of the self… Why do you think that we’re all here at the university?  To get liberated!  To stand alone, on our own two feet, autonomous, liberated!  And when we finish…here at the university… you will not need mother, father, husband, wife, children, God, anybody.  We call it “education.”
…It’s tough out there.  Paganism is the air we breathe, the water we drink… Paganism defined as the worship of false gods who promise us results.  [As a person of faith], You better not go out there alone, without comrades in arms… So we must gather on a regular basis, for worship.  To speak about God in a world that lives as if there is no God.  We must speak to one another as beloved brothers and sisters in a world which encourages us to live as strangers.  We must pray to God to give us what we cannot have by our own efforts in a world that teaches us that we are self-sufficient and all-powerful.  In such a world, what we do here on Sunday morning becomes a matter of life and death.[3]

Beloved, know this: that if there is one thing of which this lockdown has reminded us, it is that we are no more self-sufficient or all-powerful than was Nebuchadnezzar.  We, no less than Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are interconnected, interdependent, and belong to each other.

We need each other.  We have the ability, in some cases literally right now, to save each other’s lives.  We have the ability to crush each other’s spirits.  How will we treat that portion of the creation with which we’ve been drawn close?  How will we treat those around us?  May we have the grace and wisdom to learn humility from our brothers Daniel and Paul and live with it onscreen and in real life, to the glory of God and the good of our neighbor.  Thanks be to God, who rules and reigns forever.  Amen.

Here is the YouTube recording of the entire worship service:

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper San Francisco, 1973) p. 40.

[2] https://thenextweb.com/growth-quarters/2020/04/24/report-most-important-data-on-digital-audiences-during-coronavirus/

[3] Resident Aliens, p. 153-154.

Being The Blessing in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 26, 2020 to continue the celebration of Easter.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it helpful to consider previous stories of exile and separation.  Our texts this week included Daniel 2:1-14 and Romans 12:9-18

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

Near the end of the third century, the world was shaken by a pandemic that today is known as “the plague of Cyprian”.  At the height of this outbreak, as many of 5,000 people per day were dying in Rome. Not only did many perish from the disease itself, but there was widespread famine as the Empire experienced a labor shortage on its farms.

Here’s something noteworthy, though: sociologist and demographer Rodney Stark has looked at a number of outbreaks in the Roman Empire and suggests that cities which had churches in them experienced death rates that were far lower than communities that did not have resident Christians.

In some ways, as the famed theologian Casey Stengel said, “you could look it up.”  Roman Emperor Julian sent a letter to one of his pagan priests telling him that the pagans needed to step up their game because they were being put to shame by the Christians.  He wrote, “the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”[1]  An early church historian named Pontianus said simply, “…good was done to all men, and not merely to the household of the faith.”[2]  Cyprian said, “…there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but one might become perfect…who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well.”[3]

I was moved to learn about Cyprian and other faith communities who responded to virulent outbreaks after encountering our Old Testament lesson for today.  We are continuing to read through the first part of the book of Daniel, and if you were here last Sunday you will recall that a quartet of young men named Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, along with a number of other up-and-comers from Jerusalem, were kidnapped, isolated, threatened with loss of identity, and brought into exile by a king named Nebuchadnezzar.  Last week, I tried to point out that Daniel and his friends might provide some pathway for us to discover what it means to live faithful lives in the midst of unsettling circumstances; to be people of integrity in the midst of a crisis.

Unlike Cyprian and the other members of the early church, Daniel did not have the witness of Jesus to consider; however we presume he had access to the book of Leviticus, which Jesus himself reminded us contains the phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

This morning, I’d like to consider the next installment of this saga.  You heard the beginning of chapter two a moment ago.  What happened?

Well, Nebuchadnezzar – who was, to use a delightful British term, seemed to have been a bit, well, barmy, or maybe bonkers; at any rate, he seemed to have been off his trolley – had been troubled by a series of nightmares.  He was convinced that these dreams had a deep significance, and so he summoned his wise men and counselors.  He demanded that they tell him both the content and the meaning of these night visions.  Their failure to reveal what he’d dreamt and what that meant would mean that he’d have them and their families ripped to shreds.

When the counselors to the king said, “Well, your majesty, just tell us the dream and we’ll let you know what it means,” Nebuchadnezzar replied, “Nope – if you are who you say you are, you’ll know.”  And when the king’s men fail to tell him what he wanted to hear, he flew into a rage and demanded that ALL of the wise men in the entire kingdom be slaughtered.

As his henchmen begin to marshal their resources to carry out this edict, one of them named Arioch rounded up Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and told them to get ready to meet their maker.  When Daniel learned of what had happened to set these events in motion, he asked that he be given a chance to solve the king’s dilemma.

Daniel met with his friends, and they entered into prayer, and he was given insight.  He rushed back to Arioch and said, “Don’t kill anyone! I’ve got the answer”.

Daniel Interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s First Dream, Mattia Preti (17th c.)

And you might be thinking to yourself, “Self, this is mildly interesting, but I fail to see how this connects with my life as I seek to make sense of another day in the quarantine of 2021.  And I can’t figure out at all why Pastor Dave brought up Cyprian and the plague of the 3rd century.”

Let me point out that the practice of prayer was a means by which Daniel and his three friends sought to be reconciled in the midst of an unwelcoming foreign culture.  When his existence was threatened, he went to God in prayer – not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of his neighbors as well.  Daniel sought the good of those around him, even when there is no evidence that the people who he saved had the slightest interest in connecting with him.  In fact, here’s a spoiler alert: at least twice in the next four chapters we’ll read about how the wise men whose lives Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah saved sought to repay these men of faith by seeking their execution.

And further, I will suggest that the existential threat of being exiled, quarantined, marginalized, and promise of certain death led Daniel deeper into a relationship with the community of faith.  When he was confronted by news that seemed overwhelming to him, he immediately went to the others who shared his faith and asked them to walk with him towards wholeness.

And those things lead me to wonder how well you and I are connecting with others in meaningful ways during the era of COVID-19.  How are you seeking the presence of, and offering to be present to, the people who matter to you, who share your faith and values, and who help you be attentive to the call of Christ in your life?

My friend Stan Ott has spoken a lot about the fact that each of us has a number of “friends of the road”.  He says,

A friend of the road is a friend you make because you walk life’s road together. Perhaps you are neighbors on your street; perhaps you work in the same office, attend the same school, or participate in the same church. For whatever reason that you share the same road, it is the place where you become friends – true friends – supporting one another, encouraging one another, and enjoying one another.

However, when the road comes to an end, you leave the office; move to a different house, change schools, then the friendship of the road comes to an end. It may remain as a Facebook friend but intimacy fades.

In addition to those companions, we are called to nurture “friends of the heart”.  In contrast to the first type of relationship,

A friend of the heart, on the other hand, is a friendship that by virtue of some God given chemistry between you, a deep and permanent bond grows between you. It doesn’t make any difference if your friend of the heart is in China and you are in Virginia. If you don’t see your friend of the heart for five years, it’s like no time has gone by when you see each other again.[4]

The circumstances of our lives in the past six weeks are such that we are simply not on the road as much as we used to be.  We are finding it more difficult to spend time with the “friends of the road”, and so I wonder – how are you nurturing your friendships of the heart?  In what ways are you inviting intimacy into your life at a time when being in the same room with other humans is problematic?

It seems to me that Daniel (and his friends) experienced life-giving power and found sustaining wisdom when they took the opportunity of their confinement to focus on, to reflect on, and to deepen their relationships not only with the Lord but with each other.  Can we say the same?  Are we looking to invest in people who are significant to us in meaningful ways even while we’re being told that “social distancing” is the order of the day?

Has someone been a friend of the heart to you?  Write them a letter, send them a card, give them a call.  Has someone made an impact on your ability to get through these days?  Do they know that?  Be an encouragement to someone who has been an encouragement to you.

And similarly, do you find yourself struggling right now?  Is this current reality a challenge to you?  Then reach out to one who is a friend of the heart and connect in a meaningful way.  I know, it’s easier, less risky, to just trade memes on social media or to watch another episode of Tiger King and seek to be amused.  But I think that if we are to be a people who are going to shape life for the good of those around us, we will need to invest ourselves in relationships in new ways so that if and when things ever get back to “normal” we’ll be blessed with a “normal” that is decidedly different, and markedly better, than that we experienced in February.

The other application I’d like to draw from the story of Daniel this morning, as well as our reading from Romans, is simply this: we are called to live as agents of the Divine Love in the world.  We are called to participate in and to share the blessing that we have found with those who are around us.  I do not believe that quarantine or exile or even imprisonment negates that call on our lives.

How is your faith in Jesus Christ impacting your neighbors today? Are the people on Cumberland Street better off because I am seeking to be attentive to God’s call on my life?  Daniel’s faith in God, and his willingness to seek God in prayer in the context of his community, resulted in the sparing of dozens, if not hundreds, of other lives.  Daniel’s faithfulness was a blessing to those in Babylon – even those who didn’t know him; even those who reviled him.

Martin Luther was preaching and teaching in Wittenberg Germany during an outbreak of the bubonic plague.  He called on Christians there to be bold in their love for others.  In fact, as he taught on the sixth commandment (“thou shalt not murder”), he pointed out that the call to honor life was such that this commandment means that we are not free to endanger the lives of others through our negligence or recklessness.  Luther instructed the faithful to obey the quarantine, to fumigate their homes, and to do all that they could to avoid spreading the sickness.  We engage in these practices, taught Luther, not because we are afraid that something horrible might happen to us, but rather because that is the best way to love our neighbor and to practice hospitality.  One of the best ways that we can care for the afflicted is by doing all we can to not infect the healthy.[5]

As we continue to seek to be God’s church in this present time, let us be a people who are willing to see prayer as a means by which we can be reconciled with our neighbors; let us be a people who are committed to growing more deeply in the practice of community; let us be a people who are known for our generosity of spirit, our gratitude to God, our love for our neighbors, and our trust in the presence of Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Below is a YouTube link for today’s service in its entirety.

[1] The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. III (Loeb Classical Library, 1913), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Letters_of_Julian/Letter_22

[2] Lyman Stone, “Christianity Has Been Handling Pandemics for 2000 Years”, in Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/

[3] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton University Press, 1996) p. 87

[4] See E. Stanley Ott, The Joy of Discipling: Friend with Friend, Heart with Heart (Lamplighter Books, 1989) chapter 6.

[5] These thoughts from Luther’s works are also developed by Stone, cited above.

Being Faithful in the Exile

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually on April 19, 2020 to continue the celebration of Easter.  As our culture wrestles with the implications of the Coronavirus, including “stay at home” orders and social distancing, we find it important  to share the good news as is found in Daniel 1 (excerpted below) and I Corinthians 9:24-27.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.  Note that there is a YouTube link for the entire worship at the end of this entry.

Perhaps you know the story about the skeptic sitting in an airplane next to an elderly woman who was reading her Bible.  She leafed through the well-worn volume, evidently looking for encouragement and hope.  He said, “Ma’am, you know that there’s nothing in that book that can help you.  You’re just going to have to trust the pilot and the engineers.”

She responded by saying that she had great faith in the bible.  He sneered, “What a bunch of rubbish!  I mean, how can you believe that?  Do you honestly think that, for instance, there was a man named Jonah, and he was swallowed by a fish, and he somehow lived inside that fish for three days?  How could such a thing ever happen?”

She paused for a moment and said, “You know, that’s an excellent question.  I think that I’ll ask Jonah that when I see him in heaven.”

The skeptic replied, “Oh, sure.  Well what if Jonah’s not even IN heaven when you get there?  What if for some reason he’s in hell?”

She set the Bible on her lap and looked at the man and said, “Well, then, I guess you can just ask him yourself!”

You know, sometimes you show up at church and the preacher hands you a whopper and expects you to believe it. Here you are, trying to be a responsible citizen of the 21st century, and you never know when you walk in here whether someone is going to be talking about miraculous healings, a talking donkey, or even a person who comes back from the dead!

This week, we’re going to begin a series of messages that focus on a story that took place a long, long time ago in an empire far, far away.  I have to warn you, this story may stretch you.

I mean, it’s an incredible tale about a group of people whose lives were upended.  They were forced into a quarantine, isolated from their families, unable to participate in their regular school or occupational activities.  They had to deal with new food regulations and new ways of interacting with each other in public.

And it’s not just a small group, either.  This situation affected people all over the known world.  And don’t even get me started on the political situation then – it was a red hot mess.  There were leaders talking out of both sides of their mouths; clowns and buffoons who were arrogant, ill-informed, self-serving, and at times downright evil.  Many aspects of that society were characterized by instability, uncertainty, fear, anger, boredom, and isolation.

Can you even imagine a world like that?  I know, the Bible is filled with some crazy stories, right?  But it’s here.  Listen to the Book of Daniel, starting in chapter 1.

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. The Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into his power, as well as some of the vessels of the house of God. These he brought to the land of Shinar, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his gods.

Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 

Daniel and His Friends, Artist unknown

So who is Daniel? When our story begins, he’s a boy of 13 or 15 years old.  He’s been born into a prominent family in Jerusalem, and enrolled in the program for the gifted.  He’s been identified as a future leader, a kid with potential – and when the nation falls, he’s kidnapped by the Empire and forced to relocate to Babylon where along with a small group of his peers, he endures isolation and is subject to an entirely new culture and lifestyle.

More than that, there is a plot afoot to re-educate, to re-mold, to re-make Daniel.  The book continues:

The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

We’re told that he and his companions were given new names.  Sometimes, we do that, don’t we?  When we meet someone from Malawi, and find that her name is Chimwemwe – well, that’s just hard to say, and so she says, “Just call me ‘Joy’”.  In her own language, Chimwemwe means joy.  But that’s not what happens here.  Daniel is a fine Jewish name, and it means something like, “God is my judge.”  But when he’s taken to Babylon, people start calling him Belteshazzar, which can be translated as “may the goddess protect the king”.

Do you see what’s happening here?  This is not a shift in moniker so that people’s tongues can pronounce a name more easily; it represents, instead, an attempted shift in identity.  All his life, Daniel’s been told – every time his name is uttered – that he is a child of God and a participant in a promise.  Now, he’s told that he’s an investment; a commodity; a slave; an insurance policy.

Some of you know how that feels.  For a long time, you thought you knew who you were.  You had your identity in a series of relationships: you were a teacher, a student; a grandparent, a host.  And now someone is telling you that you can’t act that way right now.

Or maybe your identity came from what you do on what you’d think of as a “normal” day.  You think that you sell houses, or cut hair, or make doughnuts… but now you can’t do those things.  And if you can’t do them, are you still you?

And all the while we’re getting messages from those in authority: remember, you’re an American!  Remember, you’ve got to go out and BUY stuff, because you’re a consumer. You’ve got to SHOP, people!

Who are you, anyhow?  And who gets to tell you who you are?

In the book that bears his name, Daniel refuses to let the Empire define him.  Listen:

But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself. Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor and compassion from the palace master. The palace master said to Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king; he has appointed your food and your drink. If he should see you in poorer condition than the other young men of your own age, you would endanger my head with the king.” Then Daniel asked the guard whom the palace master had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. You can then compare our appearance with the appearance of the young men who eat the royal rations, and deal with your servants according to what you observe.” So he agreed to this proposal and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations. So the guard continued to withdraw their royal rations and the wine they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. To these four young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom; Daniel also had insight into all visions and dreams.

There’s an old proverb in the Middle East that says, “I saw them eating, and I knew who they were.” That doesn’t make much sense in our culture of dining out and sampling a variety of ethnic delicacies, but in that part of the world, at that time, what you ate and who you ate it with spoke volumes.  Eating was, in many ways, something that was done religiously.  So note that in this section, not only does Daniel refuse his Empire-given name, he refuses to share the King’s table.

Essentially, Daniel is saying, “I know that I belong to God, and will not become dependent on Nebuchadnezzar or anyone other than the Lord.”

Now, this does not make Ashpenaz, the Palace Master – the head of all the captives – a happy camper. He knows that if something bad happens to Daniel or his friends, that it will be his job – his head – on the line.  So he doesn’t want any part of tinkering with Daniel’s diet.

His underling, however, is a different story.  It seems as though the head guard and Daniel arrange a deal: Daniel and his friends will trade the rich meat and fine wine from the king’s table for some fresh fruits and vegetables that this steward is willing to bring in.  It’s a great deal for the guard, who had probably never seen that kind of meat in his life.  And it allows Daniel and his friends to remain loyal to God.

Daniel realized that saying “yes” to God would mean saying “no” to certain things in his world, and he did so.  And the result, as we see it here at the end of chapter one, is that Daniel and the boys ended up getting straight A’s on their final exams – in everything from gym class to calculus, they were ahead of the others.  God saw what they were doing and blessed them because of it.

And right now, it would be nice if I would wrap this sermon up with a little moralistic lesson.  Right now, you wish I could say, “See, friends, that’s the kind of God we serve.  You treat God right, and you’ll be blessed with success and riches. After all, that’s what happened in Daniel, right?”

That is the Good News, is it not?

It is the Good News… but it’s not all of the Good News.  In our New Testament reading for today, we hear from the Apostle Paul.  We’re not exactly sure where he’s writing from, but I can tell you it’s not the Presidential Suite at the Crowne Plaza.  He’s in prison somewhere, waiting for word on his fate.  He’s been faithful to Jesus, and so far that faithfulness has gotten him beaten up, spat upon, cursed, and jailed.  And he keeps on writing, because Paul knew that faithfulness doesn’t always lead to a new car, a date for the prom, or the corner office.

Paul and Daniel served the same God, belonged to the same people, and faced the same dilemma: how is it possible to maintain or regain my true self in a world where everything seems to be shifted?  How do I live faithfully when all of the markers seem to be re-arranged?

Have you found yourself asking questions like that in the past month? I can’t imagine that you have not!  Let me offer a few observations based on my reading of Daniel and Paul that might be of help to us in the age of Coronavirus.

Let us remember, beloved, who (and whose) we are.  You are called by God.  You have been named by God.  I know, we are taught over and over again by the Empire to find our worth in what we have… but how can we do that when our savings are plummeting and our resources appear to be more finite than ever?  We have been taught over and over again by the Empire to define ourselves by how we look… but how can we do that when we can’t get to the barber shop or buy new clothes?

And there are some in the Empire who are unable to remember the deeper truths.  And so there were people out protesting the other day because their need for validation as those who have independence and agency as defined by what they buy and how they look has been compromised by a stay-at-home mandate from the health officials.

Seriously?  Your ‘right’ to get rid of the gray in your roots, or to eat chicken wings at a bar is so significant that you want to put other people at risk with foolhardy behavior?  You are not what you own, where you shop, or how you look.  You’re not.

And remember, beloved, that you are not alone.  Daniel formed a pact with his peers, and we’ll hear more about that in the weeks to come.  Paul was always traveling with someone, and in I Corinthians we know that he’s with Sothsenes even as he reaches out to a larger community.

Can we seek to redefine our sense of community and what it means to connect?  I am profoundly grateful for the social media that allows us to connect in worship with a sense of immediacy and presence even as we are unable to gather in person.  Will you remember that you are connected?  Will you practice that connection by showing up for the Zoom youth group meeting or the Wednesday night discussion group?  And let’s not forget that most of you have one of these [cell phones].  There’s a really cool app that comes pre-installed on every single one of these devices, no matter how old it is.  Did you know that you can hold it, punch in a series of numbers, and actually talk to another living human being?  You don’t have to use this just to broadcast texts or tweets or status updates.  You can talk to each other on these things.  It’s amazing!

And lastly, let me encourage you to join our brothers Daniel and Paul in remembering to stay focused.  In the current state of affairs, we, no less than they, are called to remember that we are in it for the long haul.

I’ve been corresponding for a year or so with someone who has experienced a debilitating illness, and it nearly killed them.  I reflected the other day that early in this process, I was sending messages that were filled with caution against panic and fear.  I was trying to beat down the notion that this terrible thing was going to swallow my friend up.  When it became clear that death was not imminent, I noticed that my messages were more likely to be filled with verses that pointed to hope – to remembering that there is good ahead.  And even more lately, as recovery inches ever closer, I find that my counsel is that of patience – of not getting ahead of ourselves.

I think that’s where we are, in some respects, with the experience of COVID-19. Much of the original panic gave way to a need to be reminded that we could get through whatever was coming, and that in turn has begun to yield to an impatience that just wants things to get back to “normal” again.

Paul writes of the importance of self-discipline.  Of training himself to be faithful and ready in any situation.  Daniel lived that kind of life.  There is one final verse in Daniel chapter one that doesn’t really make sense to our modern ears.  We are told that

Daniel continued there until the first year of King Cyrus.

Because we’re not Chaldean or Babylonian, we don’t know what that means.  Let me tell you: Daniel arrived in Babylon in the third year of King Jehoiakim of Judah.  By our modern reckoning, that would be 605 BC.  King Cyrus came to power in about 539 BC.  Daniel lived this life of exile for more than sixty years.  It would be like saying he arrived in the USA when Harry Truman was president, and he stayed until after the election of Donald Trump.

Friends, we are a people who have known – who have always known – that we belong to a God who tells us who we are. We are a part of a story that is taking a long time to tell.  And this is a difficult part of that story for many of us.

Listen: give yourself a break.  It’s ok to grieve what you’re missing.  It’s all right if you are not as ‘productive’ as you wish you were or think you ought to be.  You don’t want this.  I don’t think anyone does.

But at the same time, let me encourage you not to languish or waste away.  Find something that will reconnect you to who you are in your inner self.  Plant some seeds.  Take a walk.  Write a letter.  Try something new.

And remember, beloved.  Remember who you are.  Remember that you are never alone. And remember that this will end.  Your call, and mine, is to be faithful in the days that we have been given, one day at a time.

In one of the truest laments in one of the most insightful books ever written, a hobbit called Frodo looks at his mentor, a wizard named Gandalf, and says,

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’…
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”[1]

And so, beloved, it is with us.  We are not in a position to wish away the virus, and we are not free to ignore it.  Let us then choose to live prudently and wisely in the days we have been given, remembering who, and whose we are.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Below you will find the links to the YouTube recording of this morning’s worship.  Because we had a glitch in the Facebook feed, the service is divided into two parts.  Part one, above, consists of everything from the Call to Worship to the beginning of the Prayers (including the scripture, children’s sermon, and sermon).  Part two, below, picks up with the prayers and goes until the benediction and response.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Houghton-Mifflin, 1955, p. 76).