Lives That Matter

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through the the red-hot mess that is 2020. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on September 13 as we heard James’ lament for his community in James 5:1-6. We also sought to be attentive to Proverbs 31:1-9.

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

To see the entire worship service, please use the YouTube player, below

I preached my first sermon when I was sixteen years old.  I’ve been an ordained pastor for three decades.  And today, I’m breaking new ground in preaching from Proverbs 31.  I’ve never been here before.

There are a number of reasons for that, but to be honest the truth is that I’m not really crazy about this book.  In some ways, Proverbs is the “fortune cookie” book of the Bible. There are lots of wise sayings, an alarming percentage of which are about avoiding loose women and strong drink; most of the book is attributed to a man who’s the very personification of wisdom, King Solomon of Jerusalem… but my main reaction to Proverbs has been, well… meh.

And I surely wasn’t planning to preach Proverbs in conjunction with the series on the Letter from James, but I came across this passage from the last chapter in the book and I was captivated.

We’re told that these are the words of King Lemuel.  OK, that sounds good to me.  I mean, I don’t know who Lemuel was, but that’s a pretty Bible-y name for a king.  You’ve got Ahaz, Hezekiah, Solomon, Rehoboam… why not Lemuel?  It seems to fit.

Except that neither Israel nor Judah ever had a king named Lemuel.  There is some evidence that an Arabian people called the Massa were led by someone named Lemuel, but the Massa were descendants of Ishmael, which means that by Old Testament standards, anyway, they didn’t play for our team.

“Lemuel and his Mother,” by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1922)

So we’re not sure who Lemuel was, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter because the text that we have was not written by him, but rather his mother – a woman whose name has been lost to history.  Why does that matter? Because it is very rare for a woman to have an authoritative voice in the culture in which the book of Proverbs was written, but here she gets, essentially, a by-line.

The one exception to the “women should be seen and not heard” policy seemed to be when a queen mother was given a voice during a period of transition or disruption.  For instance, if the king were to die, and the child was not quite mature enough to rule, the child’s mother would be granted permission to help inform policy.  There are examples of this in several Middle Eastern cultures, particularly Egyptian.  The queen mother was invited or expected to make some comments of a didactic nature and that became a formal charge to the young king.

And here’s something else: Proverbs 31:1-9 are the only commands in this book to be directed to the leader of God’s people. The rest of the book is wise sayings from the king.  This is a charge to the king.

So here’s the deal: when the people of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, started sorting out what was scripture and what wasn’t, somebody went to great lengths to make sure that this wisdom from a woman who was outside of the community was incorporated into the Bible and passed down as a word from God.  Now, see, that’s saying something.  It is more than a little surprising to hear Lemuel’s mother’s voice as the Word of the Lord.  And yet, here we are.

So what does it say? You heard it: essentially this charge from Lemuel’s mother indicates that those who have more power, authority, and resources than others are charged to yield their privilege to whose who possess less power, authority, or wealth.

But there’s more.  There is a sense here that Lemuel’s mother is charging him to make sure that nothing so clouds his judgment that he forgets who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing.  If people in positions of power, authority, and privilege lose sight of their call to be godly, well, bad things will happen. Injustice will emerge.  Pain and misery will prevail.  The role of those with great privilege, according to the Scripture, is to stand in solidarity with those who are at risk, to amplify the voice of the marginalized, and to attend to those who suffer by addressing the causes of that suffering.

It’s important for us to remember this morning that all of this advice is coming from an unlikely source: a woman who, under normal circumstances, would not be heard for a number of reasons.  A woman at whom people would nod and smile… but to whom they would not listen.  However, because there is a season of change, or loss, or grief, or tumult, this woman’s voice is heard, her wisdom is recognized, and her warnings are recorded.

The “oracle that King Lemuel’s mother taught him” was born in what we might call a “liminal season” – a time between that which has been previously known and that which is still to come.  The Latin word limen means “threshold” – the strip of wood or stone that is underneath a doorway leading from outside to inside, or one room to another.  Liminality implies a crossing over; if we were to say that someone was experiencing a liminal season, we would be implying that they had left something behind and yet had not fully arrived in their new place.  You know something about liminal seasons.

You know that hardly anyone likes the feeling of liminality.  It’s exhausting.  Frustrating.  Chaotic.  And yet, it is often the space in our lives where it’s easiest to recognize and participate in the work of the Holy One.

And as we continue to read through the Book of James, we acknowledge that this book, like the book of Proverbs, belongs to the “Wisdom Tradition” of literature – and it is a voice that comes out of a liminal space.

Here’s what I mean.  The first followers of Jesus thought that because Jesus was Jewish, that they, too, were Jewish.  But as time went by, the leaders within the Jewish tradition looked at these Christ-followers and said, essentially, “not so fast.”  The early Christians, as we’ve heard in previous weeks, began to experience persecution and oppression from both religious and governmental authorities. James is writing to help them make sense of this, and to follow in the Jesus way in a time of uncertainty and change.  So far in this letter, he’s offered words of encouragement, compassion, and tenderness.  He’s issued teachings about responsibility and godly conduct as well as a call to humility and the avoidance of arrogance.  James challenges his readers’ selfishness and pride.

And in today’s reading, the author of this letter launches into a blistering condemnation of people who claim that they are following Jesus but whose conduct reveals an ignorance of the things about which Lemuel’s mother worried and of which Jesus taught.  He describes a reality in which some people have far more than they could ever use – the piles of clothes that are literally rotting away, the precious metals that are gathering dust and tarnish, and a general picture of people who dwell in superlative abundance, in ignorance, and in selfish bliss.

Verse 4 begins with an exclamation: “Listen!”  There is a warning for God’s people to pay attention to the cries for justice with which they are surrounded and to take advantage of the liminal season in which they find themselves as an opportunity to create new patterns of faithful living.  James echoes the words of Proverbs as he pleads for justice for workers and freedom for the oppressed.  He calls his sisters and brothers to recognize their positions of privilege and to yield that privilege for the sake of the larger community.

Perhaps this is one of the scriptures of which Pope John Paul II was thinking when he wrote that the goal of the Christian is not to have “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of many people, both near and far,” but rather “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, the good of all and of each individual, because we really are responsible for all.”[1]  He’s not wrong.

And that, beloved, brings me to today.  This week I was privileged to spend some time with a young person who was trying to process the train wreck that is the year of our Lord 2020.  This person moaned, “Why does saying ‘Black lives matter’ have to be a political statement?  Shouldn’t that just be obvious to everyone?”

Had my young friend possessed more patience and energy for a burst of Pastor Dave’s wisdom, I’d have explained that it is a very political statement because “politics” is simply the way that people who live in groups make decisions.  Politics is all about coming to an agreement about the way that we choose to live in our tribe, our city, or our country.  So yes, “Black lives matter” is a political statement.

And if I was granted even more time with this frustrated young person, I’d have gone on to say that while BLM – Black lives matter, blue lives matter, or babies’ lives matter – are all political statements, they need not be partisan statements.  As a body politic, we need to recognize the worth of each life.

And yet in this liminal season that is the great pandemic of 2020 it has become apparent that too many people, particularly people who have been invested with authority and power, have been living as if Black lives matter less than non-Black lives.  In too many places, Black and Brown life is cheap.  It’s not considered to be as consequential as White life. And that, my friends, is an abomination to the Creator and Author of all life.

This season of pandemic, tension, unrest, and dis-ease has opened for many of us who are not Black or Brown some glimpses into the struggles of those who are.  We have seen grave injustice and great violence in ways that are often horrifying.  And some of what we have seen and sensed has provoked even greater unrest, disorder, and pain.

This is, beloved, truly a liminal season.  Nobody wants to be where we are. We want to move.  We want to get out of this place… but to where?

The temptation to which many of my friends have given voice is simple: “Take me back.  Can’t we just go back to the good old days? A return to ‘law and order’, or ‘common decency’, or ‘respect’?”

Many of the people that I love dearly believe that our call is to return our nation, our culture, our polis to some former glory or state of being.  And I ask them, “How far back should we go?  To the days when women were prohibited from voting? To the years when entire communities were redlined, making it impossible for people of color to purchase their own homes? To the era of ‘Jim Crow’, where non-whites were expected to ‘know their place’? To the time – which happens to be today – when 30 states in the USA have no law against involuntary “conversion therapy”, a horrific attempt to use pseudoscientific practices to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation?”

And if I ask that question, a look of shock and panic comes to my friends and they almost always say, “No, Dave! Geez, that’s not what I mean.  But it’s just so hard now.  It seems like everything is up for grabs, and it’s so hard to have to think through and decide everything.  I just want it to be back to normal.  I’m worn out, Dave.  I’m exhausted.”

Yes.  Yes, you are.  So am I.

And so are the women, the people of color, and the LGBTQ people whom God loves.  It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just to expect that my neighbor will want to retreat to my “normal” simply because I had grown comfortable with my neighbor’s oppression or dis-ease.

The call of the Gospel is to enter into this liminal space and to allow the new thing that Christ is doing to unfold, and to participate in that new thing to the end that the love, peace, grace, justice, and mercy of Jesus will extend more deeply into the lives of the people with whom I share my life.

Spiritual Director and author Richard Rohr puts it this way:

To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold”…where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence… It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.

Some native peoples call liminal space “crazy time.” I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur. Much of my criticism of religion comes about when I see it not only affirming the system of normalcy but teaching folks how to live there comfortably. Cheap religion teaches us how to live contentedly in a sick world…[2]

Beloved, this has nothing to do with partisanship.  This has everything to do with politics – the ways we decide to live together.  Can we choose to listen, to learn, and to act with love?  Can we agree that we are going to treasure the lives that have been too often devalued?  Can we work to construct a society where the intentions of the Creator are evident by the ways that we treat each other?

Thanks be to God, who is merciful and just even as we struggle to find meaning in these confusing and liminal times. Amen.

[1] Sollicitudo rei socialis encyclical, 1987.  Quoted in Plough Quarterly, Autumn 2020 p. 4.

[2] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), pp. 155-156, quoted in https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation–Liminal-Space.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=jd48qU30R0U

Civil War

The saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be faithful to God and neighbor through the the red-hot mess that is 2020. At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and after a few weeks’ hiatus due to pastoral vacation, we continued that journey on September 6 as we heard the challenges contained in James 4.  We also sought to be attentive to Psalm 131.

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

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, visit the sites below:

To see most of the service, including the sermon, it’s here

The remainder of worship is here:

As I begin the message this morning, I want to extend a special welcome to the members and friends from the McKeesport Presbyterian Church.  As I mentioned earlier, this congregation is in the midst of a pastoral transition and they’ll be joining our streamed worship services for a while. It’s been my pleasure to visit that congregation on occasion, but the last time that I was there was years ago.  It’d be a stretch for me to say that I’m deeply connected with what’s happening there, or intimately aware of people’s lives.

Likewise, it’d be absurd for anyone in McKeesport to hear anything that is said in this sermon and interpret it as a personal attack.  To be honest, I’m not sure who’s paying attention, and I don’t know enough about anyone’s situation to call out anyone individually.

I say all this because as we continue to read through the letter of James in the New Testament, we have to remember that he did not know his audience.  You might recall that we said that James is one of the “catholic epistles”, meaning that this church leader wrote down a few ideas and sent it out to as many communities as he could in the hopes of encouraging someone. It would be preposterous for someone in, say, Antioch, to read this letter and say, “Wow! Did you hear what James said about Sosthenes?  He totally ripped that guy apart!”  James doesn’t know who is receiving these words.

Instead, James is addressing what, in his God-given wisdom, he sees as a universal condition: each and every one of us is engaged, to one degree or another, in a great and intimate civil war.  Without knowing a single recipient, he starts this chapter by talking about “conflicts and disputes” and “cravings that are at war within you.”

His presumption is that we are miserable, and his assertion is that we are making ourselves that way. We are discontented, and we make other people’s lives difficult because we so often want what we cannot or should not have.  Whether it’s a food that is delicious but unhealthy, a sexual escapade that seems appealing in the moment but can destroy the bonds of a family’s trust, or a desire to be right and prove the other person wrong that becomes so pronounced that the community is torn apart – we all know how these stories play out.

A root cause of our pain, frustration, and anger is simply that we do not get everything that we think that we want, or need, or deserve.  We find ourselves falling in love with the thing that we do not, cannot, or should not have and that can lead us to despising the things that we do have and know.  It is a recipe for misery, discontent, division, and frustration.

And I don’t care if you’re from Crafton Heights, McKeesport, Antioch, or Timbuktu: you have known the pull of this temptation.  We all do.  I’ve never even met half of the people who are listening to me right now, but I guarantee that every person hearing these words knows what it’s like to burn with desire or greed or frustration because of something that we do not have.

And that is curious, because God created us for contentment.  God’s intentions are that the spirit that was given to us at birth should flourish and grow in ways that lead to peace and joy – the opposite of the civil war that so many of us experience every day.

What can we do? In our nature, we strive, compete, compare, envy, and desire. And yet we are created for wholeness, integrity, reconciliation, and even satisfaction.  How can we get from the place in which so many of us find ourselves to the kind of life for which God intends us?

Let me simply say that it’s a good thing that this is “Labor Day”, because we’ve got work to do!

Listen: some of you know that I am fresh from two amazing weeks of vacation at a lakeside cabin in Ohio.  I called it “Camp Grampy.”  My son-in-law was able to be there for five days.  My wife was there for a week!  My beloved daughter was able to spend twelve days.  But for fourteen glorious days, I was in the presence of my two granddaughters, ages 2 and 6.  In so many ways, it was a fantastic experience – just what the doctor ordered in this age of COVID and “social distancing”.

And yet, let me ask you this: in the fourteen days that I spent with those children, how often do you think I heard these phrases:

  • Why yes, grandfather, I was hoping that you would ask me to bathe and go to bed right now! Thank you!
  • Mother, I have enjoyed all aspects of this nutritionally-balanced and carefully-prepared meal, and have eaten my proteins and my vegetables. May I please be permitted to clear these dirty dishes to the sink?
  • As much as I have enjoyed swimming in the lake for the past three hours, I’m aware that my sister would probably prefer something else at this point. Can I suggest that we dry off and go back to the cabin for another, mutually agreeable, activity?

Yeah.  Crickets. If I told you I heard any of those things from a two- or six-year old, you’d call me a liar.  And you’d be right to do so.  One of the hardest things for children to learn as they grow up is how to get good at doing things that they don’t want to do.  Let me say that again: a central task of childhood is finding ways to be able to do those things that we’d prefer not to do.

We realize this, of course, and we accept behavior in toddlers and even older children that we find totally wearisome in adults.  And often, we echo the book of James (in what is admittedly a pretty free translation) in saying things like, “oh, for crying out loud, will you please get over yourself?” Or, “suck it up, Buttercup! We’ve got to get moving here…”

In a surprisingly interesting paper entitled “The Role of Weeds in Human Affairs”, horticulturalist LeRoy Holmes begins by saying, “more energy is expended for the weeding of… crops than for any other single human task.”[1]  And I am aware that there may be someone who is thinking, “Yes! I love to weed!  There’s no greater feeling in the world than getting a glass of iced tea and spending an hour on my knees in the flower bed.  That is sooooo satisfying!”

Yeah, well, that’s not what Dr. Holmes is talking about.  He’s describing his perception that on any given day as many as half of the human beings on the planet will spend hours in the sun, stooped over in the fields, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and holding an iron hoe of some sort, fighting to preserve their harvest from invaders that would choke out their livelihood if permitted to remain.  He’s describing the back-breaking work that nobody really wants to do, but that simply must be done if our species is to survive.  It’s got to be done, and while I’d rather be sitting in the shade with my friends, I’ll be over there pulling weeds for a few hours.

I’m suggesting that we need that same commitment in our spiritual and relational lives.  We’ve got to recognize the importance of deciding to act in ways that may not reflect how I’m feeling at this particular moment, but that are for my own good, or the good of my neighbor, my community, and the world.

James preaches against arrogance and pride and the destructive nature of self-centeredness, and says that an appropriate spiritual response to those dangers is learning to conduct ourselves in humility and with gentleness.

What does that look like in 21st century Pittsburgh?

Maybe it looks like shoveling my sidewalk after a snowstorm.  I hardly ever walk on the sidewalk directly in front of my own house; I’m more likely, particularly when it’s cold, to cross the street and hop in my car.  Yet I shovel the walk because I know that lots of people use that sidewalk, and if I can make it safer for them to do so, I want to.

That’s the same reason that I’m committed to wearing a mask when I go out in public during this pandemic.  Listen: nobody I know wants to put that thing on.  But the fact is that the virus is a new thing, and we don’t understand a whole lot about it.  There seems to be some pretty good evidence that it’s safer for you if I’m wearing a mask; if it turns out that isn’t the case, then I’ve endured a momentary discomfort while seeking to serve the greater good.  Wearing a mask is a way for me to express my willingness to do something I’d rather not in the hopes that something good and healthy will result.

One further example of what it means for me to try to live in humility and gentleness is seeking to grow in my ability to allow you to finish your sentence before I break in and explain to you the fourteen different ways that you are wrong. I need to develop the skill of really listening to you, and not simply preparing to deliver my own opinion as soon as you shut up.

And some of you might be saying, “Come on, Dave, this is all so elementary!  Do you really believe that little steps like this are going to have any effect on the way the world works?  You better get your head out of the clouds, Dave.”

And if you were to say that to me, I’d insist that any significant personal or cultural shift must be rooted in simple decisions that can lay the foundation for larger acts that will result in healing and hope for the world.

The Old Testament reading for today describes the Psalmist as one who is like a weaned child with its mother.  That is, for many of us, an odd image.  What does that even mean?

Well, earlier this week I had the great privilege of spending time with a two month old.  An unweaned two month old.  I’m here to tell you that as long as the formula was flowing from that bottle, we were both happy campers.  But when the nipple got clogged and the bottle eventually emptied, well, let’s just say the situation changed rather drastically for at least one of us.

A nursing infant is tempted, or perhaps only able to see its mother as a provider.  The child looks to the mother and says, essentially, “Look, human, I’m glad to be with you, because you are the one who provides me with that which I need: some warm milk, a dry diaper, and that will be all.  You are dismissed.”

The Psalmist does not describe a nursing child with its mother, but rather a weaned child.  A child who has matured to the point where it is able to take delight in the presence, comfort, and personhood of the mother for her own sake, and not for those benefits that she provides.   It’s not easy to grow to this point – I’ve often said that this transition is difficult for both the wean-ee and the wean-er, but the reality is that just as the child has to learn to stop regarding its mother as existing only to satisfy its immediate desires, so too we as God’s children are called to look at God as more than our eternal safety net or wish-granter.  We are called to grow in our ability to enjoy God for God’s own sake.

The letter from James offers a painful diagnosis: too often we fall prey to the tyranny of the self.  Fortunately, in the same breath, James offers a remedy: the challenge to grow in humility and love.

And if we are able to both accept the diagnosis and follow in the sometimes painful, often inconvenient regimen of treatment, then change can occur.

I can be free to grow to see myself as more than a consumer; to see others as more than mere rivals; to see God as more than the wizard behind the curtain.  If I can commit to this way of living, I can learn to appreciate your you-ness; I can celebrate the unique gifts and abilities that you’ve received without seeing them as a threat to who I am; I can embrace you as a partner who can help me grow in ways that I might not be able to recognize on my own.  If we are willing to move forward in humility and gentleness, together we can model a relationship based upon trust and the commitment to demonstrate God’s love in difficult places to the end that we are each mature, disciplined, contented children of the God who created us to share justice, peace, and reconciliation in the world.

It’s a tall order.  As I said a few moments ago, it’s a good thing that tomorrow is Labor Day.  Let’s get to work!  Thanks be to God, who reminds us that we are never in this alone.  Amen.

[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/4041682

A Good Mensch is Hard to Find

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 political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on August 9 as we considered the call to ethical living contained in James 3:13-18 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

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

To see the entire worship service, please visit the YouTube link below:

Do you remember when we used to get together for pot-lucks or game nights or just to sit around and shoot the breeze?  How we’d just gather in a room and talk for hours with each other?

One of the most entertaining ways to engage in discussion in those times was to ask “who’s the greatest?”  You could be talking about anything: who’s the most complete ball player you ever saw in person? Who was the greatest president? Who was the best lyric poet of the 18th century? (OK, some questions are better than others in this game…).

The thing is that when people get together, we talk about stuff like this, right?  We want to know what other people think, we want to express our own opinions, and we want to exchange ideas and maybe even change a few minds.  People play the “who’s the best?” game all the time; sometimes it’s played in bars or at social gatherings; at other times we ask those questions in the academic setting; and of course it’s been raised in church for thousands of years.

In fact, 2000 years ago Jesus was shooting the breeze with a group of religious scholars and one of them approached him with this question.  “Look, Rabbi, we all know that the scripture is filled with commandments.  Which is the most important one?  What’s the bottom line, here, Jesus?”

I think it’s worth noting that when Jesus engaged this question, it’s the only time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus commends the questioner.  I think Jesus liked this game.  And, as you know, Jesus gave not only one, but two answers.

Pharisees, but Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1912)

First, he quoted the shema, the important passage from Deuteronomy that you heard earlier.  In Jesus’ day, reciting the shema was an important way of reaffirming one’s relationship with God.  Time and time again each day, people were invited to re-orient themselves around God’s presence, God’s grace, and the promise of God’s mercy and justice in the world.  To that answer, Jesus went on to add a verse from the book of Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus seems to be saying that the most important commandment is to remember the love in which we are all born and then to treat each other as recipients of that love.

And because Jesus answered this question so straightforwardly, any discussion in Christian circles on the most important commandment is usually pretty short.  I mean, which of us wants to argue with Jesus?

But the question continued to be raised in the years following Jesus’ life.  Late in the first century, a noted Rabbi named Akiva echoed Jesus’ words, saying, “’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ This is a great principle of the Torah.”

A disciple of Rabbi Akiva named Ben Azzai responded, seemingly out of nowhere, claiming that the single most important passage in all of the Torah was the beginning of Genesis 5: “This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.”

What’s happening here, of course, is that the Rabbis are doing what religious folks have always done: playing a little game of spiritual one-upsmanship.  However, I think a core truth of Ben Azzai’s response is worth noting: “though it is certainly praiseworthy to love your fellow as yourself, this might imply that you only need to treat your fellow as well (or as badly) as you yourself are treated. Ben Azzai points out that if we truly understand that all people are made in the image of God, we must accept that any time we shame, insult or abuse another, we do the same to God.”[2]  We violate the image of God when we dishonor or disrespect anyone whom God has created.

And you might be saying, “OK, Dave, I get all of this, but why are we talking about this when you’re already on page three of a sermon that’s supposed to be talking about the Book of James?”  Thanks for asking.

You may remember that in the introduction to this series we talked about the fact that James was often called a “catholic” epistle.  That means that it’s not written to a particular group (like, say, the Thessalonians), and it’s not written to a specific person (like, say, Timothy).  This is a message from a church leader to the whole, scattered group of those who want to follow Jesus.

And yet here, the author of the epistle begins to address a conflict in the church.  It’s not a particular conflict such as we often see in the letters of Paul; rather, it’s a general trend that the writer sees within the universal church.  So even though James doesn’t know the specific individuals who will be reading this note, he assumes that they will be well-acquainted with the sense of discord that is developing within the body of Christ.  The next verses in the epistle of James will speak to some root causes of human conflict and offer a way through them.

The problem, James says, is that we are constantly surrounded by the temptation to see others as less important than ourselves.  And when I can believe my self to be greater than your self; or my pain to be more excruciating than your pain; or my knowledge to be truer than your knowledge; or my faith to be more acceptable than your faith, that leads to ruin and chaos.

There’s a word that James uses twice in this reading that I find to be fascinating, especially in 2020.  He points out that humans are afflicted with “selfish ambition” in verses 14 and 16. In doing so, he uses a fascinating term: the Greek word is eritheia.

Originally, eritheia meant spinning for hire, especially when a woman would work to spin wool into yarn.  It became more commonly used to refer to any work for pay, and by the time that James was writing it had politically charged overtones.  Aristotle, for instance, uses eritheia to refer to the self-seeking pursuit of political office by dishonest means.  We are all familiar with candidates who have “spin doctors” on their payroll – people whose job it is to make sure that we interpret the facts of the day in ways that are only favorable to their particular side.

Do you know eritheia in 2020, church? Have you seen people spinning the truth so that they could continue to get paid? Do you see the commercials and the competing talking heads on the television? Do you have a social media account?  You know eritheia, beloved.  You know that it is within the human heart to be, as James says, “false to the truth.”

The fruit of eritheia is envy, disorder, and wickedness.  We know this, but how easily we are sucked into this world every single day.  Sixty years ago, William Barclay put it this way:

One of the most difficult things in the world is to argue without passion, and to meet arguments without wounding.  To be utterly convinced of one’s own beliefs without at the same time being bitter to those of others is no easy thing, and yet it is a first necessity of the Christian…[3]

James says that the world tends toward chaos when people give way to the temptation to act with eritheia – with “selfish ambition” – in our interactions with each other.

So what’s the answer?  How do we get out of that cycle?

James goes on to say seek the wisdom from above – to be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, merciful, impartial; to be people of integrity who are peacemakers.

Perhaps you remember when we began this series of messages that I said that James is often criticized because he doesn’t talk much about Jesus.  In many, many ways, however, he talks like Jesus all the time.  I want you to listen again to the list of behaviors that James asks us to model – to be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, merciful, impartial; to be people of integrity who are peacemakers – and then go ahead and pause this worship service to read through the Beatitudes as found in Matthew 5.  Is there any way that James could more intentionally echo the words of Jesus?

In her recent book, White Supremacy and Me, Layla Saad speaks of her passion for antiracism as being rooted in her desire to be an ethical person. She has said, “my life is driven by one burning question: How can I become a good ancestor? How can I create a legacy of healing and liberation for those who are here in this lifetime and those who will come after I’m gone? [4]

Do you see, beloved, that this is what James is writing about here?  He’s elevating the conversation among people of faith as he implores us to be people of substance in a place that seems to exist in shadows and vapors; to be people of integrity in a culture that is governed by those who practice eritheia religiously; to be people who are committed to holding onto and to sharing true worth in a world that is forever distracted by noisy, shiny, crap.  James says that the followers of Jesus ought to be known as those who live wisely.

There’s a Yiddish term for people like that: mensch.  A mensch is a noble, ethical human being; a person characterized by a fundamental decency and integrity.  One writer puts it this way:

There are few higher Jewish compliments to pay someone than to call them a mensch, though, of course, a true mensch would be too modest to want to be complimented.

A mensch is a person who can be relied on to act with honour and integrity. But the Yiddish term means more than that: it also suggests someone who is kind and considerate.[5]

The Book of James is often listed in the books of “Wisdom Literature”.  Like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and others in this genre, James is not so intent on telling a particular story, but rather in giving us insight into what it means to live into that story.

Today, let me charge you to seek to be a mensch in a world that has very few of those people.  Take advice from the Epistle of James and from the model of Christ, and live into a higher, deeper calling of life and faith.

“But Dave”, you say, “People are saying horrible things about me.  They are lying, Dave!”

I know that, and trust me, beloved, I know how that feels.

“But Dave,” you say, “They are wrong!  They are spinning the truth, and lying, and they know that!”

I know that.  But remember this, beloved: you cannot control them.

Your responsibility for today is to choose your behavior, your actions, your responses.  Let me implore you to act in love and to choose the path of peacemaking.

That does not mean, my friends, that we are supposed to tolerate mistreatment or to accept lies as truth.

It means that we are called to create a reality wherein each and every one of us is recognized as an image-bearer of the Divine. Listen: the slow, daily work of peacemaking and justice requires love, humility, patience, and mercy.  Again and again and again.  The only way to become a mensch is to walk the paths of righteousness gently and truly for a long, long time.

This may seem incongruous at this point in the message, but a core aspect of my understanding of this comes from that great theologian, Snoopy the beagle. In a panel years ago, Linus tosses a stick and Snoopy just stares at the boy.  Linus finally says, “You won’t do it, huh?”  “Nope!,” replies Snoopy. “I want people to have more to say about me after I’m gone than, ‘He was a nice guy…  He chased sticks.’”

Listen, beloved: In your daily interactions with people in real life and in social media, don’t fall into the trap of chasing sticks.  May we, together, commit ourselves to responding to God’s mission in Jesus Christ by being menschen: a league of decent, ethical, loving people who refuse to see anyone as less than the image of God.  In so doing, we will treasure life, we will honor our neighbor, and we will point to the author of all beauty and goodness. Thanks be to God, in whose image you, and I, and they have been made.  Amen.

 

[2] Rabbi Brant Rosen, “Beginning Again in God’s Image” https://rabbibrant.com/2008/10/24/beginning-again-in-gods-image/

[3] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) p. 108.

[4] Layla F. Saad, Podcast: “How to Be a Good Ancestor” https://castyournet.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/24c74-goodancestorpodcast-025sarahjones_edited.pdf

[5] Simon Rocker, “What is a Mensch?”, in The Jewish Chronicle (https://www.thejc.com/what-is-a-mensch-1.64427)

Watch Your Mouth!

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 political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on August 2 as we considered the call of James 3:1-12 and Proverbs 10:18-21 to speak carefully and wisely.

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

To see the recording of the entire worship, watch the YouTube video below.

Watch your mouth!

Bite your tongue!

Zip that lip!

Button it!

Put a sock in it!

Shut your piehole!

Loose lips sink ships!

My hunch is that you’ve heard these phrases before – they are sometimes useful, if violent, words of caution about the importance of restraining our impulse to speak at every turn.  And my sense is that if and when you have used them, you’ve done so because you thought that they were reflective of wise and sensible advice.

For many years, phrases like that have lingered in the back of my mind when I have read the third chapter of James.  As we have seen elsewhere in this epistle, this seems to be a plainspoken and straightforward prescription.

Like much of my own conversation, this passage is filled with illustrations and analogies.  Perhaps you noticed that there is an increasing order of magnitude in the examples that James provides for his readers.  Look at the relative size of the objects: a horse’s bit is about six inches or so, which is markedly smaller than the animal it’s used to guide.  A ship’s rudder, while typically larger than 6 inches, is much smaller in proportion to the large vessel that it steers.  And a spark is just about the tiniest source of energy we can see, yet it will lead to a huge conflagration.  Did you see how artfully the preacher – in this case, the author of the letter of James – has built his case?

And as I appreciate those illustrations, I am well aware of the many times that I have sat with someone and been on either the giving or receiving end of a talk that began, essentially, like this:

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING WHEN YOU OPENED YOUR MOUTH?

DON’T YOU HEAR YOURSELF?  HOW COULD YOU SAY THAT?

And, if I’m on the “giving” end of the talk, it will include a wise and timely reference to the book of Proverbs; perhaps the reading you heard earlier, or, if I’m in a hurry, the statement from Proverbs 13:3: “Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.”  That’s not bad.

And again, speaking as one who has been involved in many conversations like this, I know that there is a lot of wisdom here.

I wonder: how many of you have blurted out something that caused a lot of damage or heartache?  How often have you hit the “send” button, and then thought, “Oh crap! Can I take that back?”

This fairly straightforward and linear application of the book of James is often very helpful.  As James says, essentially, “How can we pretend to pray and praise and then curse those who are made in the image of God?”  Hard to argue with that.  James insists that we think about taming the tongue.

Let that sink in for a moment.  He doesn’t use language that speaks of removing, eliminating, or disempowering the tongue.  He uses the word damádzo.  Tame.

What does it mean to “tame” something?  Webster’s defines it thusly: “to reduce from a state of native wildness especially so as to be tractable and useful to humans.”  That makes sense.  Humans tame animals not so that they can cease being themselves, but rather so that those animals might somehow contribute to human welfare by sharing in work or offering companionship.

And, to follow through on James’ analogies, we “tame” or re-shape some natural material into a bit or a rudder not without reason, but rather so that the small part can play a huge role in directing a much larger animal or vessel.

This morning I am going to suggest that there have been times when we totally confirm this aspect of James’ teaching.  We unleash a torrent of verbal abuse or nonsense; we post and repost half-truths or outright lies, we witness and participate in smear campaigns, and more.  We know, I think each and every one of us, that we can hurt people with our words.  We know that our words can be weaponized.

And, faced with that knowledge, sometimes we think that the best response is to not use words.  We clam up and we don’t speak to anything serious.  After all, as the quote often attributed to both Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln says, “Better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Yet somehow I cannot believe that a mute discipleship is consistent with James’ teaching or the life to which Jesus invites us.  The first followers of Jesus were not looking to create a church full of mousy, lifeless people who won’t say anything to anybody for fear of offending some of them.  I think it’s about taming our tongues so that they are helpful – and therefore neither silent nor violent.

On September 12, 2001, a New York City advertising executive named Allen Kay viewed the aftermath of the previous day’s terror attacks and wrote six words on a 3 x 5 card.  Those words were later used as a slogan by the New York Metro Transportation Authority and now feature prominently in the Department of Homeland Security’s public presence.  “If you see something, say something.

I’ll confess that I’m not really crazy about that phrase.  To be honest, it sounds a little Orwellian to me – there are too many echoes of 1984 in there, and I wonder if “Big Brother” really is watching me.

Further, I’m afraid that a callous or simplistic use or overuse of that phrase and the principle behind it will simply empower a legion of people who have unfortunately come to be termed as “Karens” or “Kevins”.  I’m referring to the ways that sometimes it’s easier, but often more inflammatory, to speak around the problem or complain about the problem to whoever “the manager” might be.  We talk at or over each other, but not to each other.

But what if the author of James is saying that a core component of Christ following is learning to tame our tongues so that they are, in fact, useful and encouraging?  I find some support for this idea in the fact that James talks about speaking after he stresses the importance of listening.  A huge part of learning to tame the tongue is a willingness to be humble, gracious, and teachable; and to seek to model honesty and courage as well.

What if instead of encouraging people to call the manager, or call the police, or call the homeowner’s association on each other, the thought behind “if you see something, say something” might be understood to be rooted in an appeal for us to speak directly, calmly, and lovingly to our neighbors.  Again, the Book of Proverbs can help us:

“Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable. Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.” (31:8-9)

You know that it’s wrong to beat someone up with your words; James is here to say that it’s also wrong to fail to lend your voice to those who are suffering.  As one of the great prophets of the 20th century, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, speaking to some white attendees at a meeting of the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association,

“We yearn for brotherhood and respect and want to join hands with you to build a freer, happier land for all. If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”[1]

So today, sisters and brothers, let me charge you to pray for the ability to tame your tongues.  To seek to find ways to limit your ability to mock, insult, disparage, and attack others with your words.  That in itself is a noble goal.

But more than that, let me encourage you to seek ways to offer that tamed tongue in words of encouragement and support.  Let me urge you to look for ways to lift your voice prophetically for justice, for peace, and for reconciliation.

That means that if you hear racist, sexist, or demeaning language of any sort, you can point it out.  You don’t do so by attacking the speaker, or by demanding to talk with the speaker’s manager.  If you hear language that marginalizes or attacks someone, it’s all right for you to indicate that such conversation is neither true nor helpful.

If you do this, it will mean that you’ll have to learn how not to excuse your homophobic uncle’s cruel remarks.  It will require you to do better than simply giving a friend a “pass” when that person is using caustic language because, well, you just know that friend is out of touch.

The last time this building was closed to public worship due to a pandemic was during the influenza outbreak of 1918. While church services were not held in compliance with the Mayor’s decree, there were a few groups that met here.  The session appointed some men as a committee and tasked them with the responsibility to meet with those groups and inform them as to the kind of language that was acceptable in this building.  Maybe we need to think about that again – not so we can go around and shush our neighbors when they swear, but so we can covenant to cleanse our vocabularies of combative and unhelpful words like “libtard”, “sheeple”, “snowflake”, “conservaturd” and a score more that I will not even deign to pronounce this morning.  Language like this – spoken or tolerated – is demeaning, confrontational, dismissive, and combative.

Can we seek to learn a new vocabulary, and to wrap these tongues of ours around it? Can we raise our voices, and can we use our hands and feet to speak and pursue justice, peace, and reconciliation.

On the day of Congressman John Lewis’ funeral, his last words were published as an essay in The New York Times.  In this brief message, Representative Lewis, a devout Christian who demonstrated time and time again that he had indeed tamed his tongue, said,

 Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.[2]

Almost everyone who can hear my voice is a citizen of a great nation with a dramatic and powerful history.  A part of the call to faithfulness is developing the resolve and ability to use the voice you’ve been given.  To call or write our elected officials.  To show up at meetings.  To vote.  All with the intent of speaking truly, with love for our neighbor.  At this moment, I believe, the last thing that Jesus or James would want would be for us to remain silent.  Let us continue to speak as well as we can to and on behalf of one another.  And let us continue to hope.  For God’s sake, people, do not stop hoping.

Thanks be to God who made us, as God is, capable of speaking words of life and love and hope.  Amen.

 

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at the Fourth Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at Bethel Baptist Church (December 3, 1959) https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-fourth-annual-institute-nonviolence-and-social-change-bethel-baptist-0

[2] “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html

The Proof of the Pudding

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 political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 26.  The scripture for the morning were James 2:14-26 and Matthew 7:15-23.

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

To see the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.

I don’t know how it was in your house as you were growing up, but I know that my mom said a lot of things that sounded confusing to my eight-year-old self.  Whenever we were in the car and someone zoomed past us in what she thought to be incautious driving, she’d mutter, “Well, people who drive that fast usually don’t get there.” I wondered how she knew where that car was going.  Another phrase that sticks with me is, “if ‘ifs’ were fifths we’d all be drunk.” I mean, I get it now, but who says that to a kid?  Perhaps you’re familiar with a third expression she’d use: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

When I heard that, I assumed it meant, “the best part of pudding is when we get to eat it.” I later came to understand that it really meant “the way we’ll know the pudding is good, or that the story is true, is when we see that proven in the kitchen or in the real world.”  But really, in the 1960’s, when pudding came from a box and consisted mostly of sugar, what was there to prove?  It was always good!

I’ve recently learned that this proverb dates back hundreds of years, and I was a little grossed out to discover that the “pudding” to which it refers was not the sweet dessert of my youth, but rather to a concoction of animal parts and innards that was usually stuffed into a skin casing and fried.  When we understand that we’re being presented with a bowl of farmyard by-products, we can see that perhaps a taste test would be in order.  After all, if it’s not cooked right, that stuff can kill you.

As we continue to read through the book of James, we come this morning to a section wherein the Apostle offers his thoughts about the relationship between theory and reality, or between faith and works.  As you heard a moment ago, what we believe must be tied to how we act, or our beliefs are worse than useless. Faith without works, he says, is dead.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever thought of it like this before, but bad theology can kill you – or worse.  Here’s what I mean by that…

When I was a kid, I heard a number of talks and saw some printed tracts that were titled something like, “Missing Heaven by Eighteen Inches.”  The thought behind those messages was fairly simple: there is a difference between being intellectually convinced of a fact and feeling that truth in the depth of your heart.  These teachings usually talked about the fact that it’s not enough to “know” that Jesus died for our sin and rose again, but I had to somehow move that knowledge 18 inches from my head to my heart.  The way to do that, I was told, was to accept Jesus into my heart as my personal savior.  When I converted my ideas about Jesus to trust in Jesus, I was told, eternal life was my reward.

My sense of the bible passages at hand this morning is that James is saying, essentially, “Look, that’s a start. But it just doesn’t go far enough.”  A faith that travels 18 inches from my head to my heart is insufficient.  For that faith to be effectual and have real consequences, it needs to go further.  In my case, it would need to go another 36 inches so that it reaches my hands; it would need to go another 50 inches in order to reach my feet; it would need to reach around my back about 23 inches so it could touch my wallet.  If I’m not doing anything in my life as a result of the faith that I hold, then in what sense can I say that the faith is meaningful or alive?

James, like his brother Jesus and their host of predecessors in the Old Testament (some of whom are mentioned in today’s reading), assumes that faith is a communally-shared practice and activity. All of these witnesses to God’s power and presence presume that what we think about God and what we believe concerning God will find its way into our daily lives, and the ways that we conduct ourselves in relationship with each other.

I’ll say it again: bad theology can kill you, or worse.

Now, hold on, Pastor Dave.  What could be worse than something that kills me?  Isn’t that about as low as we can go?

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Just like a batch of bad pudding in the Middle Ages could sicken the entire family or village, bad theology spills over into the lives of people around us.

When I’m talking about bad theology this morning, I’m speaking specifically about the tendency that some of us have to take one verse or one thought out of context and then absolutize it over the rest of what we know.  We find a verse that we like, or a notion we hold dear, and then we use it to prove our point or to justify our actions.  We see that in many ways.

For instance, who among us has not heard of a young mother who has gone through the unspeakable grief of burying her child, only to be faced with a “loving” Christian friend who says something like, “Well, you know, Susan, that God only takes the best.  He must have needed another angel up in heaven.  It’s all a part of God’s plan.” How is that helpful at all?  And in what instance is such a comment likely to bring about a situation where the grieving mother is more eager to trust God and God’s so-called “plan”?

Another illustration of bad theology bringing harm and pain pops up every couple of years.  There were faith leaders who assured us that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian bush fires were sent by God as punishments for the ways that our societies tolerate homosexuality or abortion or “loose living”.  Whenever I hear that, I wonder if such is the case, why in the world hasn’t the Almighty done anything about Washington DC? Presumably God is still irritated by greed, idolatry, lies, and pride, right?  Those are just not disaster-worthy sins?  These people are taking something or someone that they hate, and assuming that God hates it just as much.

You can see that kind of thinking in a particularly nasty batch of bad theology that’s been brewing for centuries.  In October 2018, Robert Bowers entered a worship service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill and murdered eleven people.  His actions were the fruit of a theology that taught him that it was the Jews, and only the Jews, who killed Jesus, and that they had to be punished for that.  Anti-Semitism and other forms of racism have long been cloaked in religious-sounding language that has done nothing but bring pain and evil into the world.

The last example of bad theology being life-threatening is ripped from the headlines in our current pandemic, where a quick Google search will reveal far too many people who have taken a sliver of what is true (“God is loving and protective”) and then twist that into a theology that says “I don’t have to worry about the Coronavirus because God has promised to save me.  I’ll skip the masks, forget about the physical distancing, and do what I want to do because I am free in Jesus.”  Just this week I read of a pastor who claimed that the people of God were safe from the virus and held packed services of worship where he implored his congregation to hug and shake hands and sit closely together.  I’m saddened to say that pastor is dead now, one of nearly 150,000 people in the USA alone who have fallen victim to this disease.

Almost all bad theology starts with something good – God is the source of comfort, God implores us to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday, Jesus was murdered by people he loved, and God’s intentions are for wholeness – we take something that is good and then we twist it to suit our own behavior or desire.  Such thinking often assumes, relies on, and even trumpets God’s grace while at the same time it rejects the means through which that grace can come.

Last week we were told that the calling of the Christian is to “fulfill the royal law of love”.  Fulfill the law of love.

How do we do that?  What does that look like?

It’s not just believing that love is a good thing, or by thinking that love is an ideal to which we all can aspire.  We don’t fulfill the law of love by singing songs about it or getting tattoos or putting up yard signs.  Not that those things are bad, but they’re just not actually doing what scripture calls us to do.

We fulfill the law of love by acting like people who have love to give.  We fulfill the law of love by talking about love a little less and giving away love a lot more.

What does love look like in Pittsburgh, PA, in 2020?  If I had to choose one practice (and you don’t, by the way), I would choose to say love looks like generosity.

Often when we use the word “generous”, we are implying that it has something to do with finances.  And that is surely the case here.  Many of your neighbors, and the non-profit institutions that serve them, are hard-pressed right now.  Folks who have never been poor before are struggling to get groceries or pay rent, and people who are, unfortunately, very experienced at being poor are pushed further to the margins.  So if you have what you need, you are blessed.  This is a good season for you to explore what it would mean for you to spread some of that blessing around in acts of generosity that are rooted in gratitude and love.

But it’s not just your money, you know.  You can also be generous with your time.  Are you the parent of a young child?  Then you know that you are being stretched a hundred ways right now.  If you are a person without young children in your life, perhaps this is a moment when you can be offer to step in somehow.  I realize that it may not be practical or even safe for you to offer to spend time with or tutor someone else’s child right now, given the precautions we need to take with the coronavirus.  But there may be a family or two for whom you can make that offer.  If you can’t be with them physically, perhaps you can offer to read a story over Zoom or Facetime.  Or maybe you can offer to help with the shopping or cut the grass or just call and check in with someone who is pushed to their limits right now.

Perhaps even more important than generosity with finances or time, though, is the opportunity that each of us have right now to show love through a generosity of spirit. Resist the temptation to dive more and more deeply into your own rabbit hole of opinions and preferences and take the time to listen to the stories and pain of others.  Seek an opportunity every single day to learn something new, and to offer truth in ways that are gentle and wise.  Give the person who just blew up at you for some perceived offense a break, realizing that many of us are past our limits right now.  Seek to live with others in mind.

When I read this passage in James, and the similar one in Matthew, I am reminded of a story told by former President Jimmy Carter.  He describes a church that sent out a group from their congregation in Georgia all the way to Pennsylvania, where they were to save the lost and convert the unbelievers.  The evangelists encountered an old Amish farmer out in the fields one day.  “Brother,” they asked, “Are you saved?  Are you a believer?”

The old farmer replied, “Do you want to know if I’m a Christian?”

The “missionaries” said yes, that was their question.  The man asked Carter for a piece of paper and a pencil.  He wrote something down and handed the tablet back to the evangelist, saying, “These are the names of the four families whose property borders mine.  Don’t waste your time asking me if I’m a Christian.  Ask them.  You can trust them.  They’ll tell you whether I’m a Christian because they see me.”[1]

May we seek every opportunity to be generous with our love, particularly during this difficult time.  And may every time we open our ears, our hearts, our mouths, our wallets create an opportunity for people not to see or notice or praise us, but rather to come closer into an appreciation for the Love in which the universe was born.  Let our expression of and commitment to live in the love of Jesus be more than “thoughts and prayers”; let it instead be not only non-toxic, but life-giving nourishing, to our neighbors.  Thanks be to the God who gives us neighbors, Amen.

[1] Jimmy Carter, Living Faith, (Crown Publishing, 1996) pp. 240-241.

The Old Song and Dance

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 political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this summer.  At the beginning of July we began a series of messages that consider the relationship between stress, anxiety, and faith, and the call to live well in the midst of turbulent times.  One way that we did that this week was to celebrate the gift of God in the presence of a child presented for baptism.  Our guide for this journey is the New Testament book of James, and we continued that journey on July 19.  The scripture for the morning was James 2:1-13

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

To view the entire worship, visit the YouTube link below.

A couple of years back, our older granddaughter stayed with us for a week or so for what I like to call “Camp Grampy”.  One of the highlights of that week was what could be called “a perfect evening”. We made homemade ice cream with home-grown strawberries.  We spread a blanket in the den and put in the DVD of Cinderella that Danielle lent us.  Lucia was captivated and engaged and laughing… and then we got to the scene where the cat, aptly named Lucifer, was chasing the mice around, intent on devouring them.  All of a sudden my granddaughter clutched my arm and said, “Wait, Grampy – this is pretend, right? It’s not real, is it?” When we assured her that it was, in fact, pretend, and that the mice would eventually outsmart the cat, Lucia relaxed and regained her joyful demeanor.

I know that you have had an experience like that.  You’ve paused the movie or muted the set and said, “No, honey, it’s ok.  This is just pretend.  Nobody is really getting hurt.”  Maybe we talk to them about actors, or about fake blood or pretend hitting.  We need to let them know that it’s “just a story”.

It’s not just children who need to remember that, by the way.  If 1/100th of what we saw onscreen took place in front of our eyes for real, we’d be traumatized for life.  One study has indicated that by the time a young person finishes high school, they’ve seen 200,000 acts of violence in the media, including 40,000 dramatizations of murder.[1]

We have to turn off something in ourselves in order to digest all of that. Speaking for myself, I have no idea how many dramatic crimes I’ve witnessed – but I can tell you that the real life blood and brains and carnage and pain I’ve seen have been seared into my memory and psyche.

I’m bringing all of this up because in his letter to some of the world’s earliest Christ-followers, James asks, essentially, the same question that my granddaughter did.  “Is this faith of yours real?  Does it matter in your daily life? Or is it just pretend? Just for show?”

He then presents his readers with a case study.  “Hypothetically speaking,” he asks, “what would you do if a person of great affluence and a person stricken by poverty entered your assembly of worship?”  He wants to know if they think that it’s appropriate to fawn over the wealthy in ways that diminish the humanity of the poor.  James goes on to indicate that if his hearers think that is all right then they have simply joined the long line of humans who have learned the language of their former oppressors and are content to repeat it over and over again.

And as James writes, we can see that he anticipates some sort of a pushback on his question because, after all, it is a revealing one.  “No, no, no – it’s not like that.  You see, we did this thing… and this other thing… and we always do that special thing at Thanksgiving…”  And so James preemptively calls “shenanigans” (it’s an old Greek word…) on them for trying to give him the song and dance.

“The old song and dance” is an expression that dates from at least 150 years ago, and while it may originally described a scenario wherein someone was both singing and dancing (think about Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain” or Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”), now the phrase is often used to describe an elaborate story that is meant to confuse the listener in order to deflect blame or avoid punishment.

James points out the incongruity of a person who says, “I’m a follower of Jesus” but who then can’t be bothered to, you know, act like Jesus.

You might remember a few weeks ago, when we began this series of messages dealing with James, that I said some theologians have eyed this epistle with suspicion because it only mentions Jesus twice.  At that time I went on to say that James may not talk about Jesus all that much, but he sure talks like Jesus an awful lot. I hope you remember that, because you’re going to see that all over this passage.

In verse 8, for instance, he admonishes his readers by saying, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law…”  That’s an interesting word choice.  He didn’t say “obey”, which is what most of us think that we are under an obligation to do.  He said, “fulfill” the law.

Hmmm.  Where have you heard that before?  I’m here to tell you that I believe he is echoing his brother, Jesus, who said, “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.” (MT 5:17)

Do you see how James’ word choice is consciously directing his readers to act like followers of Jesus?  And as the late-night infomercials say, “But wait – there’s more!”

In verse 10, James continues to surprise us with the words he uses in association with the word “law” by saying, “For whoever keeps the whole law…”.

Again, he could have said “obey” and we wouldn’t have thought twice.  But he didn’t.  He said, tereo – “keep”, and not hupakouo – “obey”.

What’s the difference?  Tereo, or “keep”, means literally to keep an eye on or to guard in order to prevent someone from suffering harm or loss.

Hupakouo, or “obey”, means to hear as a subordinate and then act in a way that conforms to the command of a superior.

Jesus, so far as I can tell, only used the word “obey” once in all of his teaching.  In Luke 17, he says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

In contrast, however, Jesus used the word “keep” a lot.  Just think about John 14, where in his last conversation with his followers he said, “Those who love me will keep my word…”

The difference – for Jesus and for James – is this: our response to the invitation to follow is rooted in love.  One cannot demand love; nobody can be told to love another.  Love grows where the other is honored, seen, heard, and kept.  When James talks about “keeping” the law, he is subtly reminding his readers that the law is not a tool to be manipulated in order to gain favor or escape punishment, but rather a gift to be treasured, honored, and nurtured.

OK, Dave, so what’s your point here?

It seems to me that throughout this passage James’ theme is this: “Are you really in this?  Do you want to actually be like Jesus, or do you merely want people to think that you are like Jesus?”  James doesn’t have time for the song and dance.  If you say that you want to follow Jesus, then act like Jesus.

I’m convinced, more than ever, that the world agrees with James.  I have met lots and lots of people who have horrible things to say about the church or about Christianity.  I don’t know too many people who are critical of Jesus himself.  A Hindu writer about a hundred years ago put it this way: “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.”  I’m sad to say that so often, that criticism rings true for me.

I think a part of the problem is that we spend way too much energy worrying about which laws those people are not obeying and we are not nearly as concerned with the ways that we ourselves are keeping the law of love.

As a result, we have politicians, celebrities, and preachers who have photo ops at churches, or who show up for prayer breakfasts, or who strap on a collar and march around all acting as if they’ve actually done something meaningful and the world keeps crying out, “Yes, but where is Jesus? What has changed? Where is the hope?”

The call of the gospel today is to keep the “royal law” of love.  We are invited to guard the words of Jesus in our hearts and minds and to be focused on finding ways to live  and love like Jesus did: wholly, sacrificially, gracefully, and humbly.  Oddly enough, the only way that we can “keep” the love of Jesus is to give it away freely and regularly and without keeping score.

And I know that today, as we celebrate Emersyn’s baptism, that I am preaching to the choir.  I have seen this family move in love and care for each other for a long, long time.  I have watched you honor and serve and respect each other.  I see how you pour yourselves out on behalf of your children and your grandchildren.  You love these kids.

The call of Jesus is for all of us to remember that each of us is somebody’s child.  Having real faith, says James, means that we will be especially attentive to the voices that have been crowded out or silenced, and to create wellsprings in our lives from which mercy flows in abundance.  Anyone who claims to follow Jesus is bound to live kindly, graciously, expectantly, and lovingly.

And it is not lost on me, beloved, that the overwhelming majority of people who can hear my voice right now are watching this service of worship on a screen.  Maybe it’s your phone, or maybe it’s the big flat screen in your family room. Regardless, you are participating in worship today using the same device that we use to amuse ourselves with Cinderella or Criminal Minds or Tiger King. That machine is now the vessel of this call from Jesus of Nazareth.

And so I wonder, if someone were to clutch your arm at some point during this hour and say, “But seriously – is this for real?”, what could you say?  If someone were to look at your story of faith, could they see evidence of your conviction that everyone is somebody’s child, and we are all children of God?

Let me implore you, friends, to live as though you believe this call to be real, and as though you know that it matters.  And let me implore you to do it even when no one is watching you. Because it matters.  And so do you.  Thanks be to God for words that shape and form us, amen.

[1] Dr. Norman Herr, California State University Northridge, “Television and Health.” http://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

Passing My Hearing Test

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 political discord, the racial tension, and the civil unrest that has gripped the USA this month.  At the beginning of this month 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 we continued that journey on July 12.  The scriptures included James 1:19-27 and Isaiah 1:10-17.

To view the entire worship service on YouTube, click below.

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

We don’t usually do it like this when we’re all in the same room, but you’re either alone or with the people who know you best, so I’ll ask you a couple of questions.  You can answer out loud, or raise your hand, or if you’re really brave you can type in the comments on the Facebook feed.

Today’s reading from James begins with the sentiment, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger…”   How many of you have heard that passage before?  If you have heard it, have you been more likely to apply it to yourself, or to the idiot in front of you who just won’t shut up?

I see that verse a lot, and often times it’s spoken or written by a person who is convinced that someone else just needs to calm down a little bit and so they whip out this scripture.  It’s a great verse to use on someone else because when I dump it on you I get to feel vindicated and self-righteous when you get angry at me for “sharing it” with you.

I wonder if James were writing in the age of social media if he might word it thusly: “Let everyone be quick to fact-check, slow to post, and slow to troll other commenters.”  We have a hard time living by this word, don’t we, church?

Some of you might recall a few months several years ago when I was experiencing some hearing loss.  I’d been on a couple of extended plane flights and it just felt as though my head was full of fluid.  My ears, particularly the right one, felt heavy and crowded and full.  At first, that sensation was merely annoying to me.  I didn’t know that I was losing my hearing – I thought it just felt weird.  Yet the longer it went on, the more it affected my day to day life.  I found that I wanted to skip the “joys and concerns” portion of worship because it seemed as if you people weren’t speaking loudly enough.  And then I couldn’t hear my granddaughter when she called me.  At that point, I knew that something needed to be done.

I went to my regular doctor, who referred me to an audiologist, who gave me a hearing test and determined that I was experiencing about a 40% hearing loss.  We began a series of treatments, and it finally cleared up.

That experience has given me a profound insight into this morning’s reading from James.  In particular, I’d like to highlight one word from verse 19. The Greek word akouo is translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “listen”, and other versions indicate that it is more appropriately rendered “hear”.

Often, those words function as synonyms, don’t they?  You can be telling me the story of your day, and I might respond by saying, “I’m listening” or I might say “I hear you.”  Those statements convey the same meaning, don’t they?

But they are different words.  How many of you were listening for fireworks during the past few weeks?

And how many of you heard fireworks recently?

You see? Different meanings there, am I right?  And most of us have found that explosions have a way of making us pay attention, don’t they?  So often they provoke fear, anger, and other unhelpful responses.

And hearing, in itself, can be a disconnected experience.  How often have you said, “I heard sirens” or “I heard them fighting” or “I heard what you said about me…”?  If we don’t have the contexts as to why there were sirens, or how the fight began, or the intentions of your words, well, then, it’s incomplete.  We sometimes hear things and we don’t know what to do with them.

Listening, on the other hand, is an active process in which we intentionally engage.  When my ability to hear was obstructed, I can promise you that no one ever tried harder to listen than did I.  I strained to hear what people were saying.  I shushed those around me.  A couple of times, in what proved to be a very unpopular strategy, I turned off the ceiling fans at the church.  Yet try as I might, my listening was not always fruitful.  I missed out on a great deal.

I came to see that there was something in me that made it impossible to hear correctly, and that caused me stress and anxiety.

Know this, my friends: I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I don’t think that I deserved hearing loss, or that I intentionally contributed toward it.  I didn’t put it there, and I didn’t like it.  But there was an obstruction.  There was something that needed to change inside of me before I could fully engage with the world around me.  There was something that needed to change in me before I could fully engage with you.

It wasn’t “nothing.” And it didn’t just go away.

So I took some steps.  I sought help from a specialist.  I went to see him, which meant finding a parking spot in Oakland.  On two occasions, I had a hypodermic with the equivalent of a mini shop-vac inserted into my ear.  And I took medication.

The result of all of this outside help, diligent practice, and daily regimen finally resulted in success: I was able to hear when I listened. 

The call of scripture is to be attentive.  James says, essentially, bark less and wag more.  Don’t talk so much.  The prophet Isaiah points out that our religious actions are offensive when we don’t bother to really pay attention to what God is saying.  We are called to be those who listen, and hear, and who then act on the basis of that which we’ve heard.

What if there is something inside of us that prevents us from hearing rightly?  I mean, I had fluid in my ears for more than a year – an internal condition that prevented me from being truly responsive.  Is it possible that we might suffer the same thing in the spiritual realm?

I think that it’s not only possible, but probable.  Each of us carries around inside of us a set of presuppositions and assumptions about how things are and what is true.  Some of that internal baggage is dangerous.

If, for instance, I believe that every single politician and candidate I meet is crooked and self-seeking, that means that I cannot and will not participate meaningfully in a system of governance.

If I assume that every young black man wearing a hoodie is a thug intent on causing me or someone else harm, then I do violence to my neighbor and I miss an opportunity for a connection that could enrich me.

If I perceive that every individual law enforcement officer is a racist pig bent on oppression, then I similarly do violence to my neighbor and diminish hope for justice in the world.

In the American church, at least, for two or three generations we have tried hard to get a handle on the personal nature of faith and action.  We’ve been attentive, in some ways, to the fact that it is possible to look into our own hearts and find ways to truly seek to be more loving, less violent, and more just in our personal lives.

Here in Crafton Heights, for instance, a number of us have sought to actively befriend and walk with members of the Attawheed Islamic Center and get a sense of what the world looks like from their perspective.

We have sought to engage in conversation about the experience of those that many of us see as somehow “other” than we: folks who have sexual or ethnic identities that are different from our own.

And many of us have come to a point where we think we can look at ourselves as not judgmental, not racist, or not intolerant.  I’m here to point to the fact that a number of us have made significant personal shifts in some fairly substantive ways.

And yet, having done all of this, we find ourselves unthinkingly participating in systems that have some of those evil presuppositions at their core.

And we find ourselves saying with great sincerity, “I’m open minded and loving to all,” and then get into the car to drive through a town that is horribly segrated racially and economically.

We say, “I love everyone, and wish no harm to my neighbor,” and yet perpetuate systems where generational wealth is ten times more likely to accrue in white households than it is in black ones.

We say, “Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for conversations, but let’s face facts – we’ve just got to have some law and order around here,” and then we refuse to acknowledge or consider how the laws that we’ve got are guaranteed to consolidate our privilege at the expense of another.

Some of what we think, say, do, and hear is conditioned by these realities that were in place long before many of us were born, and we just think that’s the way it is for everyone.  That may be the way that it is, but are things as they should be?

The call of scripture is to hear.  To be attentive.  To listen.  In order to do this well, says the prophet Isaiah, we need to wash ourselves. That means that we confess – we point out where things are broken.  We scrub ourselves – that is, we root out habits, practices, and laws that are unjust or unwise or unloving.  We turn away from that which is less than pure and walk toward that which is closer to pure.  We learn new ways to interact.

Beloved, this is a profoundly painful time.  You know what it is like to experience economic anxiety.  We are awash in political discord and turmoil.  There is racial and ethnic tension at seemingly every turn.  When this happens, some of us throw up our hands and say, “Oh, come on! Can’t we just get back to the way that things were?  Because back then there wasn’t this kind of pain and disassociation and suffering and violence.”

Yes, beloved, there was.  It was felt and borne by people other than you, but it was here.  And to seek to go back thinking that the way we ran things five or twenty or fifty years ago would mean that all these crises would end is wrongheaded, simplistic, and unjust.

We are in this period of deep pain and anxiety.  Let us commit to learning from it and seeking to make changes that result in health.  Let us seek to adopt habits, practices, and laws that are better than those we have known before.

I’m not going to lie: it was profoundly uncomfortable when that doctor stuck a needle in my ear to remove the fluid.  I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone – unless they had problems hearing because there was fluid built up in their ears. Because as difficult as it was, the fact is that I hear better now, and I love life more.

In the same way, friends, listen to the cries of the One who formed you, and listen for the pain in the lives of those around you.  Let us not waste this moment, let us not ignore this reality, but instead let us move through it as those motivated by love for both God and our neighbors.

At this point in the message, I’m usually ready to wrap things up.  I try to issue a charge and point you to an idea or a practice that you ought to try as you seek to be more Christlike.  Today, that work is internal.  I’m asking you to think about whether you need a hearing test.  About whether our culture and our nation need a hearing test, because there is something structural and systemic that blocks our ability to hear, and that makes listening difficult.  I realize that many people may not think that there’s a problem with our hearing, but I believe that there is, and that it’s worth exploring.

And if I’m right, then I am going to ask you to join me in doing the work that removes the obstructions and brings us to the place where we can listen and hear, and then act in a manner that is consistent with God’s intentions for this world.  Later this week, check your email or the church Facebook page, because I’ll share some ideas about resources that might stretch your thinking, test your heart, and maybe even improve your listening.  Thanks be to God, who continues to speak even when we act as though we are deaf.  Amen.

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