Texas Mission Update 2018 #4

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Thursday on our Mission Trip we split back into two teams: Gabe’s van heading back to Carrie and Caelea’s home, where they continued to pull wires, install windows, and hang drywall.  My van headed to the community of Hitchcock, where we worked on a home belonging to Melvin and Mary.  They’ve lived in this home for 43 years, and have raised five children here.  “There’s a lot of water,” Melvin said, “but where else can I go? My whole life is here.  I got through Ike, and I got through Harvey.  I don’t know about the next one, though…”

We enjoyed a great dinner (thank you, pizza delivery guy!) and then got into a rousing round of “the name game”, which brought an incredible amount of laughter to our community!

Here are a few photos of our day…

Some folks use a saw. Others make a statement. Some, like Josie, do both.

Talking with Tom, the site coordinator (L), and Carrie, the homeowner.

Lindsay has been Gabe’s apprentice all week!

Jon and Mike team up for some precision wood cuts.

Bonnie works on Mary’s kitchen

Gary working on trim boards for the flooring

Would you trust these folks to replace your soffit? With THAT board?

“Just give us 15 minutes more, Dave, and we’ll finish this side before we stop for the day…”

The “Name Game”…

Our evening discussion included being attentive to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians regarding the need for us to become givers, and to allow others the privilege of giving to us from time to time.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need,so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”

Texas Mission Update 2018 #3

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

When we made the arrangements for this mission trip, the good people at The Fuller Center for Housing indicated that most groups like to take Wednesday afternoon off, and many of those groups like to visit the facilities that NASA has here in Houston on those days. We thought that would be a great way to spend the time, and began looking forward to that even as we marched through our first two days on site.

As we completed our work on Tuesday, however, I sensed that there were some conversations between members of our team and local homeowners and volunteers that had really made a deep impact. Tuesday evening, the group decided to forgo the visit to the Space Center in order to work harder on home rehabilitation. There were probably seventeen different reasons for this, but the bottom line is that we’ve been touched by the stories we’ve heard.

Most of our hours have been spent in the home of Carrie and her daughter, Caelea. In fact, with the exception of our incredible tiling team (Lynn and Bonnie), our entire group spent the entire day at this home today. To get a sense of their situation, you might want to see it for yourself.  Click here to see the local news report featuring Carrie and Caelea.

Here are some photos that Carrie shared with us from the time that she was evacuated:

Carrie took this photo of the exterior of her home as she was being evacuated in a boat last August.

The interior of their bathroom during the flood.

Carrie’s driveway the night Harvey was at his worst.

Because we were so deeply touched by her plight and her eagerness to create a new “normal” for herself and her family, it was easy to work through the day. Here are some images of the progress. Look for some of the shots that are similar to the ones Carrie shared with us from the flood situation… and look for hope.

Here’s the home when it’s surrounded by dry(ish) land.

Storm-damaged front windows

New windows!

Jamie has decided that she really likes throwing drywall mud!

Sharing lunch on the site.

“Tim, isn’t that saws-all blade on upside down?”
“Dave, is that how you’re supposed to brace a piece of lumber for sawing?”
And why is the board pink, anyway?
So many questions…

Gabe contines to lead the charge…

Susanna joins the mud brigade!

After our day was complete, we took the time to drive half an hour south to Galveston, where some of our number braved the wind in order to put our toes in the Gulf of Mexico and then all of us enjoyed a meal at the beachfront restaurant called “The Spot”. Another good day!

Crawfish boil? Why, yes, please! I think I shall!

We completed our formal time together with a reading from II Corinthians 5, and discussed Paul’s assertion that the normative task for the Christian is that of reconciliation. Here, it’s easy to see that reconciliation means restoring that which has been damaged as a result of the hurricane and flood. The greater challenge, of course, is to think about how we might be attentive to the ongoing call to be reconcilers in the spheres that we more typically inhabit in Pittsburgh. We welcome your prayers with and for us!

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Texas Mission Update 2018 #2

On Sunday, February 18, a team of seventeen folks representing The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights left Pittsburgh to travel to Houston, where we’re spending the week seeking to share something of ourselves with our neighbors who were struck by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.  We are working in partnership with The Fuller Center for Housing in assisting residents south of Houston.

Tuesdays on a mission trip are often good days to get a lot of work done. Typically, Monday allows us to develop a sense of familiarity with the site, the work, and what could be called “the chemistry of the company”. We think we know a little better what to expect and are able to embrace it.

Our second day of the 2018 trip was a minor exception to that rule, mostly because the work on one of our sites had progressed so far on Monday that by mid-day, six of us were ready to transition to a new site. We took our lunch to the folks in Dickinson, and most of us remained to assist them in working on Carrie’s home. This was the site where Gabe’s van went on Monday, and in addition to seven folks from CHUP, there were five from a church in Boston MA and an equal number from a congregation in Silver Spring, MD. Normally, I’d run from a job site where there are nearly 30 people trying to contribute meaningfully, but this afternoon, by and large, it worked out all right. The sprawling ranch house had suffered so much damage in the flood that we were able to find a nook (or, in Mike and Jahn’s case, a closet) in which to work.

Mike emerges from the shadows of his closet…

Prime tasks for the day included continued demolition of damaged areas of the home, preparing the site for window installation, pulling wires and installing other electrical components, and hanging drywall.

Jamie uses a texture sprayer in finishing up the walls.

As the Good Book says, “Let brotherly love continue…”

Jahn said he was just screwing around today. He wasn’t being completely untruthful…

Would you trust these men to work on YOUR house?

One of the highlights of the day was when Carrie and her daughter stopped by to say hello. Josie was able to capture the look on her daughter’s face when she saw her new bedroom. She asked all of us to take a photo with her, and many of the people in our crew were able to spend some good time in informal conversations with mother or daughter. These interactions were so meaningful that they prompted our team to suggest forgoing the scheduled half day for Wednesday and spend additional time on the job site.

This is what it looks like when you lay eyes on what will soon be your “new room” for the first time.

Our crew, along with folks from Massachusetts and Maryland…

Although nearly everyone went to Dickinson, I should point out that two very dedicated women spent the entire day in the smallest room of the house we began on Monday. Lynn and Bonnie were found out to be tile installers of the highest order, and our hosts asked if there was any way we could delegate them to that site for the rest of today and tomorrow. While this created a different kind of experience for these women (being separated from the rest of the herd, so to speak), it also led to a quiet afternoon filled with personal conversation. They also had the opportunity to meet the owner of that home, which was a rich blessing.

Rub-a-dub-dub, two women in a tub…

Our dinner was fajitas with all the fixins and some amazing chocolate and strawberry trifle. Yeah…

We ended our program portion of the day with an opportunity to reflect on the insights of the work and other activities. We debriefed as a group, and the circle was alive with energy as each person sought to express appreciation with and for the opportunities we’ve been given. Some of us struggled with the fact that not everyone was skilled at the tasks required, but most of us came to the end of the day realizing that we’ve been blessed. Our scripture for the evening came from Romans 12:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body,so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Thanks for your prayers!  We’re glad to be connected!

Texas Mission Update 2018 #1

If it’s February, it must be time for the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights to head south! For the tenth year in a row, a team from our congregation has headed for the Lone Star State, looking to invest some time and energy in helping communities heal from natural disaster, encouraging local congregations and ministries, and seeking to nurture relational growth amongst ourselves.

2018 presents us with a different opportunity: for the first time we did NOT head to the Rio Grande Valley. Instead, we stayed in the Houston area working with the The Fuller Center for Housing to help folks affected by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017. Not only that, we have more people on the team than ever before. There are seventeen people with some connection to CHUP, and we traveled in concert with another dozen from the John McMillan Presbyterian church.

Trying hard to remember that even though this guy was the only mechanic on duty on a holiday weekend, he was probably really good at his job…

Our departure from Pittsburgh was delayed for several hours by, of all things, a flat tire on the plane. Turns out that since it was the Sunday morning of a holiday weekend, the good people at SouthWest Airlines had only one mechanic on duty. Fortunately, that guy knew his stuff and he was able to change it out and we were airborne about three hours later than we’d planned. Our arrival in Houston was also somewhat surprising to the rental car companies, but they managed to round up some vans for us after a little friendly conversation.

 

Our teams went to the Webster Presbyterian Church, where we shared a meal with a large group of volunteers representing six or ten churches. After our orientation, we split up into four local churches for lodging. Our group of seventeen is all together at the Peace Lutheran Church in Texas City, Texas. We’ve got a room full of cots in their fellowship hall and plan to enjoy a great time of Texas hospitality here.

Our welcome meal at Webster

Home Sweet Home…

On Monday, we divided further. I drove one van to a home that is nearing completion. A disabled resident, living in an area apartment or hotel since the storm, is eager to re-enter her home. We spent the day finishing some painting, installing tiling, taping drywall, and other items on what essentially a “punch list” to get this home to the place where the resident can move in and resume her life again. We were guided by two local volunteers, Steve and Doug, who have been patiently and faithfully assisting this woman in her journey.

Susanna putting on the paint…

Colleen told me she was at her happiest when she was painting. Happy to oblige, ma’am!

Tim is, well, you know, painting…

A couple of Daves mixing it up with the concrete board…

Lynn planning out the tile.

Jamie and Bonnie prepping the bathroom.

Gabe took our other van with the remainder of the crew to a site where demolition and reconstruction was just beginning. At some time since the storm, there had been some repairs attempted but these were not up to code. Our folks today ripped down drywall, took out some flooring tile, and began to hang drywall in one room. One of our more energetic folks even managed to fall through the same plate glass window twice. Don’t worry, Marcy, he only got cut once… This team was pleased to have the opportunity to meet the homeowner, who stopped by with some cold drinks for the team.

Here’s Jon in front of “his” window. Ask him yourself…

Lindsay found a place for her hammer…

Gabe doing what Gabe does…

Josie and Lindsay putting in the insulation!

Our work day ended with a fantastic meal served by our volunteer coordinator, Toni, as she and her colleague Aaron (the work site coordinator) served up some amazing BBQ chicken, brisket, sausage, and all the fixin’s. We ended our evening reading through I Corinthians 3, and talking about the fact that we are privileged to be here as servants – we participate in what God is doing here, but it is God’s doing. We are thrilled to be a part of someone else’s recovery from this disaster and eager to see how partnering together can help us share in the purposes of God in our lives and community.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed,Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service;you are God’s field, God’s building.

Thanks for the prayers!

Thoughts and Prayers

Like many of my peers, Ash Wednesday 2018 found me immersed in the quietness of my study.  I didn’t watch the news, and I wasn’t really all that active in social media.  I was preparing for worship at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights – one that centered on the age-old practices of the imposition of ashes (indicating repentance) and the sharing the Lord’s Supper (celebrating the community we’ve been given).  So when folks gathered for worship and I learned of the horror that was the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, I was caught off-guard.  In the aftermath of that horror, I have seen “thoughts and prayers” receive the derision that inaction deserves.  However, I thought that it might be important for me to go ahead and publish this message anyway – in spite of the fact that its very title might get it dismissed – because I firmly believe that people of faith ARE called to think and pray – and that if we do those things right – we’ll be led to action.  Our text for the evening was Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Religious Studies 356, taught by Professor Justin McDaniel, is so popular that students who are interested in taking the course can only be admitted to it after passing an interview with the instructor. One recent seminar attracted 200 applicants, but only 26 students made the cut. The experiential learning course is subtitled, “Living Deliberately: Monks, Saints, and the Contemplative Life”, and there are no requirements for papers or exams.

There are some who would hear that and scoff, “Seriously? People are taking out student loans for classes like that? Come on, get real. If you’re going to college, you better be learning something.” Some of you, however, might be thinking, “Wow, why don’t they offer that at Duquesne or CCAC?

Students who have taken the class are quick to point out that they’ve learned a lot. Although there are no mid-terms or essays, the requirements are very stringent. Students agree to spend $50 or less each week; they are required to write in a journal every half hour while they are awake; they must go to bed at 10:30 each night and wake up at 5:30 each morning. In addition, students must practice celibacy, eat only raw vegetables or meat cooked without oil and give up all technology – including cell phones and computers – for a month. During that month, they are not allowed to speak to anyone unless it’s an extreme emergency; instead, they’ve got to write everything down by hand.

Can you imagine living that way? Can you imagine living that way on a college campus, while you are enrolled in other classes? Yet students who have completed the course say that it was an amazing experience. “A majority of the course’s former students noticed a dramatic improvement in their academic performance during the semester that they took the class. Although balancing other courses may seem impossible given the course’s restrictions, students have had surprisingly few problems. ‘I have a 100% success rate in the four times I’ve taught the course, not one student has ever gotten lower grades. And almost every student’s grades have shot up,’ Professor McDaniel shares.”

One student said it “was a good way to take a step back from life and just view it from the outside and get a clarity that you don’t get when you’re actively involved with everything all the time.”[1]

Not only does this class and its apparent impact on college students fly in the face of many of our preconceived notions about young adults, it also seems to be the precise opposite of much of our prevailing culture. Think about it: an entire course based on the wisdom and practice of, well, “thoughts and prayers.”

Are there three words in use today that are more vacuous than “thoughts and prayers”? According to the Wikipedia entry on that topic, this phrase, often used when expressing condolences after a natural disaster or violent episode, has received criticism because it “may be offered as a substitute for taking potentially materially corrective actions.” For example, after the Las Vegas shootings in 2017 the local hospitals released a statement saying that while “thoughts and prayers” are appreciated, it’d be more helpful if people gave blood.

In fact, if you visit the website called thoughtsandprayersthegame.com, you’ll be directed to a web-based video game that seeks to demonstrate the impact that “thoughts and prayers” have had on eliminating deaths due to mass shootings in the USA. Here’s a hint: it’s not an optimistic site…

So on the one hand, we have empirical evidence from a small group of motivated, committed people that seeking to be intentionally contemplative and centered does in fact change us. And on the other hand, a survey of current events would seem to indicate that most people’s expressions of “thoughts and prayers” are vacant and irrelevant.

Which kind of Lent will you observe?

At first glance, Jesus seems to play into the hands of most 21st century Americans – those who see “thoughts and prayers” as empty platitudes. It is entirely possible to hear his words in the Sermon on the Mount as “Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t let anyone else know that you are praying, or fasting, or giving. That stuff is between you and God and nobody else needs to know about it.” In other words – it probably won’t make a difference in the “real world”.

Of course, that’s not actually Jesus’ point. What he says is “don’t pray, fast, or give in such a way so that other people will be pretty darned impressed by the fact that you pray, give, and fast.” If we seek to engage in any act of piety or devotion because, first and foremost, we want to be seen as pious people – well, we’re doing it wrong. The purpose of these or any acts of spiritual discipline is not to raise anyone’s estimation of ourselves. How dare we claim to be praising or worshiping God when in fact we are merely seeking to draw attention to ourselves and our kind-heartedness or faithfulness.

The great tradition of the church – and that in which Jesus himself rested – is the opposite: our acts of prayer and fasting and giving are effective and useful only insofar as they activate us on behalf of the world.

In fasting, praying, and giving, we seek to be in touch with the creative power that formed the universe so that we can do everything within our power to align our world with the Creator’s intent.

“Thoughts and prayers” is not some vague sentiment that we hold out to others when we feel guilty because we were not stricken by an earthquake or victimized in a mass shooting; it is not a political slogan which is a handy substitute for substantive action; and it is not a greeting card sentiment that we jot down when we’re not sure what else to say.

Instead, thoughts and prayers are the best tools for reshaping our own lives to the end that we are able to join with God and one another so that the love, justice, hope, and peace of Jesus Christ is more fully, more tangibly, and more palpably demonstrated in the world. Thoughts and prayers are not a hollow box you give to someone else: they are the hammers and chisels with which we fight selfishness, indifference, and feelings of irrelevance in our own lives.

My hope and prayer this Lent is that you will join me in seeking to gain experience in using these tools. Like the course at Penn, there are no exams and no one will be checking your work. But I can assure you that if you seek to be deliberate in this area, your life, and our world, will be changed. Thanks be to God for thoughts and prayers that bear fruit. Amen.

[1] Quotations from “The Sound of Silence”, http://www.34st.com/article/2016/03/the-sound-of-silence

Whaddya Call It?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 11 we considered three groups with whom Jesus was associated: disciples, “unclean spirits”, and apostles.  Our scriptures included Mark 3:7-19 and II Peter 1:16-18 To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Does what you call something affect what it really is? Do job titles matter? These are the things that I think about when you leave me alone for too long.

For instance, did you know that the BAI beverage corporation has a CFO – “Chief Flavor Officer”, and that position is held, I kid you not, by musician Justin Timberlake. Microsoft employs someone with the title of “Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence”. Google pays someone to be their “In-House Philosopher”, and a man named Richard Scheuerman has been featured on the Food Network as a “Shredded Cheese Authority”. Time Magazine recently hired a “Bacon Critic” and Mr. Bernie Paton of Oakland, CA, is a “Bear Biologist and Paper Folder”.

As I thought about that, I remembered the 1995 film The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down a Mountain. That tells the mostly true story of Taff’s Well, a village near the border between England and Wales. They’d billed themselves as “the first mountain inside Wales”, and had a hospitality industry that catered to climbers from Britain. In 1910, a team of cartographers visited the town and discovered that their peak, Ffynnon Garw, is only 986 feet above sea level and therefore must be termed a “hill” and not a “mountain”. Enraged, and afraid of losing their tourist attraction, the locals conspire to strand the map-makers in the town until they can build a pile of rocks at the top of the hill. The scientists re-measure, and determine that the highest part of the structure is actually 1002 feet and therefore, officially, the first mountain inside Wales.

That matters because in today’s Gospel reading, Mark throws around a lot of labels and job titles, and I think that they have an implication for our lives today.

In Mark 3:9, we see that Jesus counts on a group of people known as “disciples” to get things done. The Greek word that we find there, mathétés, is used to describe one who is a “learner” or a “follower”. When Latin became the official language of the church, mathétés became discipulus, from the root word disco, meaning “to learn”. It also spawned one of the most awesome band names of the 1980’s: the Disco Disciples.

We read of disciples who listen, serve, worship, and generally clear the way for Jesus to do a lot of stuff. Like most Rabbis, Jesus relied on his disciples for a lot of things. In the Gospels, disciples prepare boats, ask fantastic set-up questions, bring friends, fix dinner, and (as we’ve already seen with Levi) throw amazing parties. We like the disciples, Jesus likes the disciples, and everyone agrees that Jesus’ ministry was really strengthened by the team of disciples that he gathered around him.

One of the Earliest Known Images of Jesus – Coptic Museum, Cairo (3rd century)

Because these folks were important to Jesus and to the world around him, we know some of them. So let me ask you, how many disciples did Jesus have? Some people might say 12; Luke mentions a group of either 70 or 72, and later in Acts he says that by that time the group numbered about 120. It seems that the number of disciples was fluid, and increased as Jesus’ ministry matured.

The role of disciple is crucial throughout the history of the church and even today, of course. In fact, if you look at the Annual Report of the congregation, you’ll find that this church has not one, but two groups of people who are officially termed “Discipleship Teams”. We need those who are committed to creating conditions whereby people can become hearers and listeners and learners and doers so that the way is cleared for Jesus’ message to get through. Disciples take care of kids in the church nursery and set up chairs, make copies, and track administrative data. The body of Christ, no less today than two thousand years ago, would be nowhere without faithful disciples.

The next group that Jesus encounters are termed “the unclean spirits”. Whereas most of the people around Jesus either have no clue who he is, or (like the disciples) are just beginning to get an idea about this, the unclean spirits are constantly shouting the truth: Jesus is the Son of God; they know Jesus to be the Holy One. Yet as soon as these spirits begin to acknowledge the truth about who Jesus is, he shuts them up and forbids them from speaking.

Think about that for a moment – he’s constantly gathering followers around him, trying to teach them, helping them to see something of who he is…and much of the time, they don’t get it. Yet as soon as he walks into the room, unclean spirits recognize him for who he is and announce it – and they are told to remain silent.

It seems to me that the implication here is that you don’t get to talk about Jesus until you show that you have listened to Jesus and been shaped by him. These spirits know the truth – but they don’t really know Jesus.

Similarly, our world today is filled with those who claim to speak for, or at least about, Jesus but who seem to be ignorant of what he really was. There are so-called authorities who are happy to yell out that Jesus wants you to be rich, happy, thin, and young. Spirits cry out that Jesus prefers a particular system of government or a political party. We’re told by “leading teachers” that Jesus wants you to protect yourself and your family from “those people” at all costs. Worst of all are the voices who cry out that Jesus hates the gays, the foreigners, those on the left or those on the right.

Before you invest any of your time and energy listening to these people, ask yourself, “Is that person actually spending time with Jesus? Does he or she look, or act, or think, like Jesus would?” When someone claims to tell me who Jesus would hate, or bomb, or ostracize, or destroy… I have to question the spirit that is driving that discussion, and often times it’s hard to believe that it is indeed a spirit of the Christ behind those sentiments.

Ethiopian Icon featuring the Twelve

The third group of folks with whom Jesus spends time in our Gospel reading for today are called apostles, from the Greek word apostolos. That word refers to a messenger, an ambassador, or a delegate: one who has been commissioned to convey a particular message or accomplish a specific task.

Let’s play a game that we’ve already played once this morning: how many apostles did Jesus have?

I know, the “gimme” answer seems to be twelve, because that’s what is listed here. But later on, after Judas abandons his post, the eleven believe that Matthias is called to join their number. Moreover, the New Testament refers to Barnabas, Paul, Andronicus, Junia (who happened to be a woman, by the way!), Timothy, Silas, and Apollos as apostolos.

Like disciples, the apostles were incredibly important to Jesus and to the later church. We should note that in today’s reading, all the apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.

The apostles are called to be “with” Jesus. They are given authority to cast out those unclean spirits and demons and to proclaim the message of Christ. Throughout the New Testament, the Apostles are taking trips on Jesus’ behalf; they are preaching and healing and generally speaking for Jesus (which sets them apart from both the unclean spirits and the disciples). In reflecting on this, Peter wrote to his friends, essentially, “Look, it’s not like we had a choice or anything: we saw it with our own eyes. You can’t make this stuff up! Jesus was the real deal, and we were compelled to share it with you all.”

So what does all of that mean in our context?

Here’s a clue: when the language of the church transitioned from Greek to Latin, the Greek apostolos was sometimes simply shifted to the Latin apostolo; however, the preferred term was often the Latin word missio. As in “mission”, or, in this context, “missionary”.

How many of you here today are anticipating being a part of a Mission Trip this week? Can you believe it? We have seventeen adults who have some level of connection with this congregation who are preparing to leave next Sunday morning for Houston, Texas. When we get to the Pittsburgh Airport, we’ll be joined by another dozen from the John McMillan church in Bethel Park. Almost 30 people who are taking time away from their so-called “normal” lives in order to dwell with each other and the folks on the Gulf coast of Texas who have suffered through the horror of Hurricane Harvey.

And we are calling this a “Mission Trip”. Why? Because we believe that framing walls and cleaning out muck and removing moldy drywall and laying new sewage lines and helping people sift through generations of family mementos and memories are all a part of demonstrating and proclaiming the reconciling work of God in Jesus Christ. We use that terminology because we have gathered in this place and heard the call of Jesus and sought to follow – that is, we have become disciples; and now we understand that we are being given an opportunity to share in the purposes of God in the context of the Texas Gulf coast, and therefore we are sent as apostolos. The labels matter. If this is indeed a mission trip – and I am convinced that it is – then that makes the 29 of us missionaries, right? We are called to become that which we are sent to accomplish.

So, that takes care of a couple dozen of us… is that what we’re here to talk about? 29 people planning a mission trip this week? What about the rest of us? What are you planning to do?

Let me ask you this:

Is the healing power of Jesus Christ needed on the campus over at CCAC this week?

Are there people with whom you work who need to hear a word of grace, encouragement, or hope?

Would the scene at the grocery store, your family’s dinner table, a blind date, or a board meeting be improved by the presence, spirit, power, and love of Jesus of Nazareth?

In short, would our world be better if the stuff that we talked about while we’re in this room somehow managed to find its way out there? Would the lives of our neighbors be blessed if some of the life and ministry and teaching and love and hope and justice of Jesus was lived and shared and conveyed into the arenas in which those neighbors live and work and play?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… now that you mention it, Pastor, it would. But how is it going to get there? How?

If only there were people in this room today who were willing and able to hear from Jesus; someone who wanted to learn from him and follow him around as he does such amazing things in our world… if only there were people like that who would also be liable to show up on campus or at work or in relationships with neighbors and family later this week. But where could we possibly find people who are both here, with Jesus as followers, and out there in the world that he loves?

You might have come in here willing to be a disciple. And that’s great. It’s a fine job title. Yet I hope and pray that you will find in you a hunger to become an apostle. Next week a fraction of us will be going to Texas. My deep prayer is that each of us would recognize that we are being sent on a mission. Oh, that all of our trips would be mission trips.

Thanks be to God, they can be – because that is who you are.

Hear our prayer, O Lord.

Amen.

The Lord of the Sabbath

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 4 we joined with Peter in remembering the ways that Jesus confronted the power structures and pointed us towards practices that can restore our own lives.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:23-3:6.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

If you had come upon me in the college dining hall that evening and asked me how it was that I came to be wearing that lovely collage of mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate pudding, and coke, I might have said that I had no idea. But I’d have been lying.

A group of us were sitting around and, as often happens, began teasing one of our number. We fed on each other’s energy and wit, and failed to see that the more animated we became, the more sullen and withdrawn our victim was. I’m ashamed to say that I carried on more than most, and some of my peers were trying to get my attention – waving and gesturing to knock it off. During one interlude, the object of our jokes looked around and said, “One more time. Go ahead, say that one more time.” Would you believe me if I told you that four out of five college students were smart enough to shut up at that point?

But not me! I had to say it, one more time. And before I knew what was happening, my friend had flipped the trays off the table, covering me with the remains of his dinner, and walked out of the room.

My companions looked at me and laughed, and then said, “Come on, Dave, didn’t you see it? Man, he had the look. You gotta know that when he’s giving you that look, you better stop… or something messy could happen.”

None of you were there that day, but I think you know what I mean. Do you know someone who has “a look”? I know for a fact that some of you have “a look” – a way of glancing around the room and communicating that whatever is happening right now is serious stuff, and the rest of us had best pay attention…

The Pharisees Question Jesus (James Tissot, c. 1890)

According to one of the men who knew him best, Jesus had a “look”. We heard about it in the morning’s Gospel reading, where we’re told that Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”

You may have been here the morning we started our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, where I suggested that even though we believe Mark to have been the writer, the source of this narrative is the Apostle Peter. When Peter is remembering this incident from Jesus’ life so many years before, he chooses a particular word. Where we have translated “look around”, the Greek uses periblepomai. It’s an unusual word, and we find that Mark uses it five times in his Gospel. Apart from one place where Luke is quoting this story, these are the only places in the New Testament where that word occurs.

My hunch is that the old fisherman didn’t remember everything, and he surely didn’t remember everything well (for instance, in our reading for today he mistakenly says that Abiathar was the High Priest, when in fact it was Ahimelek – and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the fact that all those Old Testament names were confusing to even one of the twelve apostles…) – but Peter would never forget the way that Jesus could hold a group with his eyes and give them the look that said so much more than words could ever say. To his dying day, the disciple remembered the searching, sweeping, examination that came from Jesus to those around him.

The Man With the Withered Hand (James Tissot, 1896)

The occasion for “the look” was a worship service. Jesus had begun to engage some of the religious and political leaders of his day about the appropriate ways to honor God and the commandments – especially the command to keep the Sabbath. I think that what really gets Jesus going here is the fact that these folks who claim to be on the side of holiness and righteousness are so willing to shamelessly use a man who would have been on the fringes of society to accomplish their ends.

They’ve invited “Lefty”, the fellow from down the street with a handicapped arm – a man whose ability to provide for his family would have been seriously limited in that day and age – and they use this man as bait to see whether or not Jesus will “break” the Sabbath again and try to heal this man’s hand. There is no hint of interest in actually making this poor guy’s life any better – he’s a tool they’re using to see whether their hatred for Jesus is “justified”.

Furthermore, Jesus calls these men out for pulling this stunt on the very day that they’re claiming to honor, saying, “Is it better to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?”, knowing that they are, in fact, using the Sabbath to look for a way to destroy him (even though they’re cloaking everything in religious language).

So Jesus sees the trap that they’ve laid for him and simply glares at them, and then he goes ahead and brings healing to this man and his community. And now, these leaders have to make a choice. They could have celebrated that the man’s arm was now whole and he had a new kind of freedom. They could have asked Jesus how this sort of healing related to the Kingdom of which he spoke. They could have praised God. But you know what they did – verse six: “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

I’m sure that you remember this really well, but for the sake of the person sitting next to you who’s a little fuzzy on all of these Bible names, let me remind you that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. They oversaw worship and served as spiritual guides. The Herodians were a political party – they were people who were affiliated with and drew some benefit from their support of King Herod – the puppet governor that the Romans had set up to rule this part of the world.

It seems to me that this passage is just another reminder to us – and people of every age – that when the religious leaders and the political leaders get in bed with each other, it’s usually bad news for Jesus. Some things never change.

The broader context for this interchange has been set in the first part of our reading, the end of Mark 2. The disciples are walking through a field and as they do so, they grab a little fast food to munch as they walk. Immediately, the Pharisees point out that this is a violation of one of the rules – “everybody knows” that you can’t do that kind of work on the Sabbath. The “law” to which they refer isn’t found in the Bible, but rather a book of rules that humans had produced over the years to make sure that God’s rules weren’t being broken. You heard the commandment: God said to rest on the Sabbath, and use that day to remember God’s provision. This book to which the religious people point took that rule and broke it down. For instance, they said that you couldn’t walk on the grass on the Sabbath, because walking on the grass pressed it down, and pressing it down was like cutting it, and cutting it was work, and work was prohibited. A woman couldn’t look in the mirror on the Sabbath because if she did, she might see a grey hair, and then she might pluck it, and plucking a hair was work, which was not allowed. Pulling a stalk of grain and munching it as they walked was an example of this kind of violation, and the religious leaders are all over Jesus for being “soft” on the Sabbath.

Don’t we love doing that kind of thing? We take something that God has said and we put it in a box and wrap it up and say, “Well, of course, this is what God really meant to say… You know, God can be a little confusing sometimes, so don’t bother trying to figure it out on your own… just trust me. I know what God really meant – and you are wrong!”

God in a box is incredibly appealing for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we will never, ever get “the look” from a God we have gotten so well figured out that he’ll fit into our little box.

The truth is, of course, that a “god” who can fit into one of my little boxes isn’t really any kind of God at all. A god in a box is a god who will not surprise us, does not ask for anything from us, and ultimately has only as much power as we ourselves do.

Jesus modeled a life that was open to – and hopeful for – God’s intrusion. Jesus taught us to look for and to welcome God’s surprising appearances in our lives. While we want to say “yes” to that kind of faith the reality is that so often our existence is so crowded and so filled with work and obsessions and toys and screens and getting and spending that there is simply no room for God to interrupt. As a result, our lives themselves become increasingly difficult to interpret and decreasingly meaningful…

Here’s an example. We believe that the Gospel of Mark was written late in the first century. It would have been written in Greek and on a scroll or a papyrus. Here’s an image of one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, called Papyrus 46:

A folio from
P46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9

Can you make heads or tails of that? You say, “Of course not, Dave, it looks like Greek or something. I can’t read that.”

OK, so here’s the same text, translated into English. How’s this? Is that any better?

Maybe a little, but it’s tough, right? It’s all capitals, and there are no spaces or punctuation. Let’s try one more time.

Here’s the same passage, this time in English with punctuation and spaces. Does this make more sense?

Of course it does.

What’s different? The final version, in addition to being in English, has more “white space”. Although we would say that all of the heavy lifting in this image is being done by the dark print, the fact of the matter is that the message is actually conveyed because there is sufficient “white space” for our minds and eyes to be able to take in the content and process it. The white spaces on the pages of our books and magazines make it possible for us to glean meaning and purpose – we can get the message that the author intended in part because of the spaces that have been left blank.

Let me suggest that the practice of Sabbath as given by the Lord and upheld by Jesus is one of the best means by which we will be able to insert some “white space” into our own lives – a way in which we can reduce some of the clutter we encounter and therefore allow God some space that is out of the box in which to help us discern how best to honor him and serve our neighbor.

Choosing to honor God’s creational intent by setting aside some time for reflection and awareness will permit us to enter into uncertainty and ambiguity trusting that God can bring order out of chaos (it’s what he does, after all).

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the 20th century, said, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[1]

What I think that means for us is that we can get out of our own boxes by consciously setting aside some time to engage and be engaged by the Lord. Look for opportunities to wonder and to wander, and to lay down our insistence to be creating and making and spending and doing all the time.

If we do that, there’s a chance that we can get rid of our boxes as we recognize the truth that there is more to God than I can ever grasp, and there is more to life in God’s world than that of which I am currently aware.

You see, the fear that ruled the lives of the Pharisees and Herodians threatens each of us every day: what if God is bigger than we can imagine God to be?

The folks in the Synagogue that day had some idea of what God’s messiah would look like. They had it all figured out. But Jesus didn’t fit that image. And so Jesus had to die.

What about you? What about me? Am I open to God teaching me new things? I am willing to let Jesus shape me and change me? Or am I too comfortable with my own set of little beliefs and practices and I don’t really want to think about them too much, thanks all the same…

In Genesis, we learn that God created humanity in his own image. It was good. It was very good. The problem is that ever since then, we’ve been trying to create God in our own image – a god who fits in our own little boxes. And so we worship a god who has been, at times in the last couple of thousand years, a racist god, a violent god, a god who wants to make me rich, a god who tells me that I’m better than you…

Peter remembered Jesus giving “the look”. And while some of those present might have come to associate that only with the anger of Jesus, my sense is that Peter remembered it because it was so meaningful, so inviting, so searching that it changed him to his very core. May you and I this week seek to live and move and dwell in a rhythm that includes the Sabbath to the end that we might see and perceive the glance of the Savior as inviting us to new places of joy and participation. My charge for you this week is simple: find some time to sit still and allow Jesus to wrap you in his “look”. I suspect that you will be changed by that. Peter was. I know that I am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 3)