Waiting for Tychicus

On Sunday, June 26, 2011 the folks at Crafton Heights concluded a series of messages based on the letter to the Ephesians.  Our texts for this morning were Psalm 27:1-5 and Ephesians 6:10-23

Well, you know the drill.  The story is reaching its climax, and while significant action has occurred, the community is facing a struggle.  There are dark hours, days, or years ahead.  The leader needs to motivate and inspire the people.  You know what happens: it’s time for the pep talk, right?

Do you remember William Wallace in Braveheart?  “I am William Wallace! And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny. You’ve come to fight as free men… and free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Will you fight?”

Or Bluto in Animal House? “Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?…No!…And it ain’t over now…”

And, of course, there’s the legendary Knute Rockne, All American, where the coach speaks to the demoralized football team and uses the memory of a former teammate to inspire the Irish to victory:

Ronald Reagan as George Gipp. You can see the Gipper play this out by visiting http://www.moviefone.com/movie/knute-rockne-all-american/19707/video/film-fixation-update-to-football/1715668

I’m going to tell you something I’ve kept to myself for years — None of you ever knew George Gipp. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame… And the last thing he said to me — “Rock,” he said – “sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper… I don’t know where I’ll be then, Rock”, he said – “but I’ll know about it – and I’ll be happy.”

We love those scenes, don’t we?  We want the hero to come and lay it all out and inspire us and show us how to win, how to succeed, how to beat the enemy.  And it’s about that time for the Ephesians.  Paul has started this letter with a lot of powerful and insightful theological truth.  He has made fundamental claims about the nature of life and the hope for healing that exist in Jesus Christ.  And then, in recent weeks, we’ve seen the verbs in his letter to this little church: submit, love, obey, discipline, serve.  He’s given them imperatives to treat each other well…and now, well, now it’s time for the letter to close.

The Apostle Paul in Prison (Rembrandt, 1627)

The camera zooms in on the aged apostle, writing from a prison cell in Rome.  He knows it’s the end of the line for him – his death is imminent.  And he can see the way that the wind is blowing for the church – the challenges and persecution that are on the horizon.  The abuse and beatings that lay ahead for Christians. The martyrdoms that will characterize the church for generations.

Now, Paul.  Now!  Tell us how we will win!

Except he does not.

The conclusion to this letter starts out in the passive voice.  He’s not telling them to do anything.  Our translation reads “be strong”, but a more accurate rendition of the Greek might be “allow yourselves to be made strong” – he is telling us to receive strength from the Lord.  It’s not ours to manufacture or create.  We can only receive it.  The strength is a gift.

And then, instead of telling us to go out there and destroy the powers of evil, he tells us…to stand.

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood…Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore…”

Four times in these opening sentences of the climax of his letter, he tells us to stay put and take it.  Things are tough, and they’re going to get tougher.  Hold on.  You’ll face the wiles of the Devil and flaming darts of the evil one.  Hang in there.  There are evil plans and evil deeds afoot.  Stand there – and surround yourself with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the promises of God.[1]

Do you see? Paul’s not telling us what to do right now in this moment…Paul is telling us how to live our lives.  None of these characteristics are a plan for action or a program to run.  You can’t do truth or faith, and you can’t have them in your life alone.  Each of these things is a gift that we are given in the company of the whole church.  Eugene Peterson says this about the “armor of God”:

[These tools] can exist only by becoming incarnate in human beings with other human beings in acts of living – being.  None is impersonal.  We don’t look up the meaning of these words in a dictionary.  They are not spiritual skills that we perfect.

Peterson explains that one reason that the Lord has given us the whole Bible is that we have page after page of flesh and blood stories of how God’s people have somehow, over the centuries, managed to live into truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the promises of God.[2]  These words are not individual items that we can check off our “to-do” lists as we go through the motions of our day – they are the elements that will shape us as we continue to become that thing that God is doing in the world.

Paul, as an individual, is clearly with his back to the wall at this time in his life.  He knows he’s looking at a future that is going to be brief and probably painful.  Note that he is not “claiming victory” over his circumstances.  He’s not looking to the power of positive thinking, asking God to reveal his special blessing, or to bring him health, prosperity, or success.  What he is doing is reminding the church that together, we can live towards truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the promises of God.  Together, we can point to the places where God’s Spirit is unleashing those kinds of gifts.  Paul does not seem to expect that an individual Christian will prevail against the wiles of the devil or the forces of evil.  But he does indicate that in God’s strength, the church will know the resurrection power of Jesus and will live as a faithful reminder to what we know is always true, even when we can’t always see it.  Pastor Paul is preparing his church for a time of struggle, not by promising them some sort of immunity from pain or distress, but by reminding them that dis-ease is not what defines us.

And then he does get down to brass tacks at the very end – after telling us what we are to be, he tells us what we should do.  And that, of course, is to pray.

Pray in the Spirit, he says.  Pray focused on the big picture.  Pray alertly.  Pray over the long haul.  And not just for yourselves, he says – pray for “all the saints” – the entire church.  And he does ask them to pray for him.

But look at his prayer request.  I’m not sure what I would ask for if I was facing a death sentence for doing something that was not a crime – I’m not sure what I’d pray for if I were surrounded by guards all day long, limited in my movements and in my ability to express myself.  But look at what Paul prays about: he asks for boldness.  Twice.  In the face of great challenge, Paul asks the Ephesians to pray that he would be bold about facing the difficulties that are ahead.

And that’s about it.  No great stirring pep talk.  No challenge to go out and build a better kingdom or claim a deeper blessing.  The letter ends with a personal note.  It’s very brief, but it’s worth looking at, because it exemplifies all that Paul’s been trying to say in these six chapters.

Tychicus of Asia

Paul tells the Ephesians to be on the lookout for their mutual friend, Tychicus.  We don’t know much about Tychicus – but he is the only individual named in the entire book of Ephesians.  Acts 20 tells us that he was a traveling companion of Paul when Paul visited Ephesus earlier, but that’s about all we know of him.

Except for this: we know what Paul expects Tychicus to do when he gets to Ephesus: he will “tell you everything.”

Really, Paul?  You just wrote Ephesians.  That’s…um, well, in the Bible.  That’s pretty good.  Are you saying that Ephesians 1-6 is not everything?

Ephesians 1-6 is great theological truth.  It is profound spiritual wisdom.  It has sound advice.  It contains wonderful instructions for living.  But the Christian life, and the Church of Jesus Christ, is more than theology, wisdom, advice, or instruction.

Look at it this way: if you were to get laid up tomorrow and be unable to join us for worship, we’d still send you the church newsletter.  More than that, you could call the office and we’d send you the weekly bulletin and, if you wanted, a CD of each worship service.  That’s a lot.

But it’s not everything.  If you were to get laid up tomorrow and be unable to join us for worship, I have a hunch that even if you got the newsletter and the bulletin and the CD’s, that if someone from the church would call and say, “Would it be all right if I stopped by for a few moments?”, you’d say “yes.”  If your church offered to bring you communion, or invited you to spend time together, or simply offered you the gift of human contact, you’d say “yes, please”.

Paul knows that the church in Ephesus is under attack.  He knows that the evil one is at work in that community.  And he’s sent them a magnificent letter that is filled with more wisdom than I’ll ever hope to have.

But he does more than that: he sends them Tychicus.

The Christians in Ephesus know what it’s like to feel under the gun.  They know discomfort and uncertainty.  They are acquainted with fear.  Yes, they know the truth of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.  But Paul knows that simply reminding them of the things they’ve learned is not enough.  It is not “everything”.

That’s what Tychicus is for.  A real person.  Someone that they know and love.  Coming to be with them.  Coming to tell them “everything.”

I know you well enough to know that there are those in our midst who feel the flaming arrows of evil.  We ache at the many places in our lives where there is pain or incompleteness.

Christianity is not something that is adopted in isolation.  It is not a philosophy that is set on a shelf to be admired.  It is a gift of community that comes when flesh and blood people gather and experience the fullness of life as God has given it.  We practice it.  We rehearse it. Some days, we get it better than other days.

Let me suggest, please, that if you are feeling as though you are under attack and it’s just about all you can do to stand – that you call out and ask for Tychicus.  Let someone know where you are, and what’s going on…and look for (and expect) the support of those with whom you share the journey.

And let me further suggest that Tychicus did not pass away somewhere in Asia Minor two thousand years ago, but rather lives and moves today.  Let me suggest that Tychicus sits in the pews this morning.  You, beloved, are Tychicus.  You know the truth.  Great.  But you are called to remind those around you of “everything”.  Help those of us who are under attack to know the grace and power of the church – the whole church.  Look for, listen to, and stand with those who need you.

That’s why the Cross Trainers ministry is so important.  The kids who will come in this summer – they may not know much about the Story.  They may not know too many answers.  But they know you, staff.  They love you.  It’s your job to tell them “everything”.

I believe that the Bible is the Word of God.  And that means that I believe Ephesians has the power of God in it, for me.  But Ephesians is not “everything”.  We have heard the Word this morning.  Now we’ve got to get ready and go out to be the Word.  For the Cross Trainers staff, that means the kids who will fill this building in the morning.  For the rest of us, it may mean the people we work with, or our neighbors.  God bless you, church, as you tell them everything.  Amen.

[1] Please note that I am not suggesting that believers – or anyone – should be passive in the face of abuse, bullying, addiction, etc.  There are many times and places where the obedient action is to stand up and resist that kind of evil.  What I am suggesting, however, is that we ought to be aware that some hardship and trouble is inevitable.

[2] Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Eerdmans, 2010, p. 261)

After we heard this word, we sang, with joy, “Be Ye Glad”.  Take a listen for yourself to this song by Michael Kelly Blanchard as sung by Glad.

The Bible Says THAT?

As we continued in our study on Paul’s letter to Ephesians, on June 19 we came to the passage that deals with the relationships between slaves and masters.  Our first scripture for the day was Leviticus 19:13-18, and the Ephesians text can be found by clicking here.

I have a friend, and I wish she were here this morning.  Frankly, I wish she were in any church this morning. But she won’t come, and a part of the reason for her unwillingness to worship is her reaction to passages such as the one we read from Ephesians.  I can hear her now, even as I begin to speak to you about this text: “Are you for real, Dave?  Why are you even wasting your breath trying to justify the Bible’s treatment of slavery?  That’s ridiculous!  We’d be better off if those verses weren’t even in the Bible.”

Well, my friend, that’s not my call to make.  We have been given the Bible, and have found in it the Word of God.  I don’t know that I can simply toss part of it out uncritically.

These last few months, we’ve been reading through Ephesians, and I’m pretty sure that I speak for many of us in the room when I say that we’ve found some wonderful truth here.  From the very beginning of this letter, we’ve heard great news: God has called a people to himself in love; God has raised Jesus Christ as a seal of the working of his power throughout the world; God has forgiven the sin of humanity and broken down ancient walls of hostility; and God has sent the church into the world to proclaim the hope of Christ.

Moreover, we’ve heard Paul point out some practical implications of these truths.  In light of what God has done, we are called to lead lives of integrity.  Our conduct in our families ought to be characterized by grace, and our marriage relationships, as well as those between parents and children, are to be shaped by the amazing things that God has done in Jesus.

So what do we do?  Point to all of those things and say, “Yes, Paul, you tell ‘em!” and then get to these verses about the relationships between slaves and masters and say, “Nah, well, forget about it.  That doesn’t sound like anything I can learn from…”

No.  Because we have been fed by everything that has come before, we are bound to look at these verses and see what truth there is for us in them.  Is there meaning here, and if so, what is it?

The first question, of course, is “what does it say?”  The translation you heard this morning begins with the harsh word, “Slaves…”  And that’s accurate.  Some of you in the congregation have been ordained as “deacons” in the church, and you know that the Greek word for servant is diakonia.  It’s a gentler term, and implies voluntary service.  The word that we have here is doulos, and it means “slave”.

Now, having said that, I need to point out that the reality of slavery in the ancient world was much different than the African American experience of slavery.  In many cases, a person in the biblical world would enter into a form of compulsory service to another that involved some sort of plan or payment.  Jacob served Laban, for example, in the expectation that he would be married to Laban’s daughter.  Men would sell themselves to other men as payment for debts.  This is not to say that slavery in the Bible is all nicey-nice and that everyone sat around and sang “Kum Bah Yah” all day, but we need to realize that the Bible does not really know anything about the kind of chattel slavery that was practiced on this continent several hundred years ago.

So Paul is writing to the Ephesians.  And in that letter, he is writing to slaves… That is an incredibly big deal!  Paul is writing this great statement of what it means to follow Jesus and live faithfully in the world, and he assumes that there will be slaves in the room to hear what he is saying.  This represents a radical departure from the social relationships of his time.  The ancient Greeks prized freedom more than just about anything, and so they went to great lengths to disassociate themselves from slaves or servants.  The Jews looked upon slaves as inferior beings.  Yet Paul expects that the church will contain people from every walk of life – that landowners and soldiers and Jews and Gentiles and slaves and servants and free people – that all of them will be in the same room, sharing the sacraments, participating in the grace of Christ.  Do you understand how radical that would sound to the non-Christians in Paul’s world?  The church is not some privileged society, it’s not an elite group of people who “deserve” to be members, it’s not a social action network.  It is a new thing that God is doing, and it is for everyone.  Of course slaves will be there.  There is no part of the world that is untouched by God’s call to the Church.

And in this context of expecting the church to be free of barriers and segregation, Paul calls for the followers of Jesus to re-envision the economic relationships of their lives.  Just as the person and work of Jesus have had direct impact on how husbands and wives, parents and children treat each other, so too our faith in Christ will result in a transformation of the ways that we interact with each other in business and commerce.

In the past, many people have joined with my friend in pointing to this passage, and others like it, saying, “There, you see!  The Bible condones slavery.  Paul was writing to the slaves and the masters, so that must mean it’s okay by God for us to do this.”  And so this passage became the justification for the kidnap, transport, abuse, and torture of millions of human beings.

Yet the reality is just the opposite!  Albert Barnes was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in the decades prior to the American Civil war.  When he wrote about this passage, he said,

It follows from this, that a slave is not to be regarded as a “chattel,” or a “thing,” or as “property.” He is a man; a redeemed man; an immortal man. He is one for whom Christ died. But Christ did not die for “chattels” and “things”…There is something shocking to the feelings of all, and monstrous to a Christian, in the idea of holding a Christian brother in bondage. So long as the slave is regarded as a “chattel” or a mere piece of “property,” like a horse, so long men endeavour to content themselves with the feeling that he may be held in bondage. But the moment it is felt that he is a Christian brother—a redeemed fellow-traveller to eternity, a joint heir of life—that moment a Christian should feel that there is something that violates all the principles of his religion in holding him AS A SLAVE; in making a “chattel” of that for which Christ died; and in buying and selling, like a horse, an ox, or an ass, a child of God, and an heir of life. Accordingly, the prevalence of Christianity soon did away the evil of slavery in the Roman empire; and if it prevailed in its purity, it would soon banish it from the face of the earth.[1]

Do you see what is actually being said here: that humans beings, no matter what their circumstances in life, are bound to treat each other with dignity and respect.  What Paul writes here is actually an echo of that which he learned when he memorized Leviticus – that God’s people are called to act justly.  Look at that one who shares the sacrament with you, says Paul, and know that he or she is made in the image of God.

Oh, and don’t think that people didn’t “get” that.  In many places during the period of American slavery, it was illegal for slaves to hear the full Gospel – when white preachers spoke, it was usually about slaves staying in their place and being obedient; in some states it was a crime for a black person to preach at all.[2]  If a slave heard the Gospel, he might become a Christian; if he became a Christian, that might present ethical problems with my perceived “ownership” of him!

Paul’s message goes even further: he wants the bosses and the workers to know that our economic activity has consequences.  The things that we buy and use come from somewhere and usually come through someone.

We tend to forget that in our daily life, when we go to the store and find shelf after shelf stacked high with gleaming, tasty merchandise, all placed there overnight by an anonymous staff who unloaded them from a truck which came from the railway yard which was filled from the vast cargo ships that brought the things from a thousand different places.  Yet everything I buy, everything I consume – it was made somewhere. It was created by someone.  Someone with whom I am in some kind of relationship – whether I realize that or not. Someone who has done something for me.  On my behalf.

Someone beloved of God.  Someone who has been fearfully and wonderfully made, as I have been.  As you are.

That’s what this passage is about – it’s about buyers and sellers, owners and harvesters, supervisors and employees – looking each other in the eyes and knowing that we are the same.

An awareness of this reality will produce some interesting results.  In 1791, for instance, a group of Quakers published a pamphlet in which they connected the cheap sugar that was being used throughout England at the time with the practice of slavery in the “New World”.  They encouraged people to stop buying sugar that had been produced by slaves – to vote with their commerce, so to speak.  In months, an estimated 300,000 people stopped buying sugar, or switched to higher priced sugar that was grown in India without slave labor.  The sugar boycott led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

The realization that we are all connected is why when you take a drink of coffee here at the church, you’re drinking a beverage that was purchased through a fair trade broker.  These corporations – often faith-based – provide people with a chance to buy coffee that has been grown in ways that treats both the poor and the environment with respect.

And you say, “That’s nice, Dave, but it’s not the 18th century and we’re not eating slave sugar anymore and I don’t drink coffee and on top of all that, I don’t have any slaves.  This passage does not apply to me.”

But you are wrong.  Each one of us engages in a hundred different transactions a day, from eating breakfast to stopping by the market to buying a wedding present to stocking up on canned goods at the grocery store.  And each of those transactions is an opportunity to behave with grace and integrity – or to treat the other as an object.

It’s funny, because at least here in America, we make a show of trying to act as if we care about the personhood of the other.  You’ll go out to The Olive Garden and the person who brings you the food will say, “Hi, my name is Dave, and I’ll be your server…”  But this is no meaningful exchange – it’s a charade.  If it was truly a relationship, every now and then you’d say to your server, “Gee, Dave, you must be beat.  I bet it’s 90° in here.  Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you a glass of cold water.”  That’s ridiculous.  You’re not there to be nice to Dave.  You’re there to get the weekly special, with extra bread sticks.  Dave is the tool by which the owner of the restaurant delivers the food to you.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a sociologist and journalist who tried to live for three months on minimum wage.  In her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, she writes,

When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.[3]

In the Body of Christ, there are no meaningless people.  There are no wasted gifts.  There are no relationships that are unaffected by the love and grace of Jesus Christ.  In all of my getting, spending, using, and buying, I am responsible to do everything I can to ensure that the people with whom I deal are treated with justice and dignity.

And again, let me say that I are in a hundred different relationships – I am connected to the laborer in the auto plant and the farmer who grew my banana in the Honduras; I am related to the dishwasher at the restaurant and the dockworker in San Francisco; I am connected to the cleaning staff at the hotel where I stay.

To put it simply, it is not Christian to ask someone to work for less money than that person needs to survive so that I can get a good deal.  As a member of the beloved community that God is revealing in Jesus Christ, I am obliged to treat every craftsman, every vendor, every farmer, every driver with the respect that he or she is due by virtue of being made in the image of God.

Paul says that there is no partiality with the Lord.  May there be none with me, or with you, either.  If we in the church started living this way, and treated the lower-wage earners of the world this way, and fought for the dignity of every human being, then maybe people like my friend would be more interested in coming to church to hear more about the promises of Jesus.  May I live the truth, so she will be interested in hearing it.  Amen.

[1] Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament: Vol. VII (London: Blackie and Sons, No Date) p. 124.

[3] Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (Metropolitan Books, 2001) p. 221.

Who Let THEM In?

Together with the whole church, Crafton Heights Presbyterian celebrated Pentecost on Sunday, June 12.  As we gathered, we heard the Old Testament roots of Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, as narrated in Deuteronomy 16:9-12.  The early church’s experience of that day, of course, is recorded in the story that begins with Acts 2:1-13.

The crowd gathers at Thessa's house in Hamburg, Germany

Did you hear about the big party in Germany?  A girl named Thessa was celebrating her 16th birthday, and thought she’d mention it on her Facebook page.  She wasn’t paying attention to her privacy settings, and the party was listed as a public event.  Before long, there were 15,000 confirmed guests.  When Thessa’s parents found out, they made her cancel the party, alerted the police in Hamburg, and hired a security firm.  In spite of that, 1,500 people showed up and about 100 police officers – some on horseback – sought to preserve order.  By the end of the night, Thessa had gone into hiding, eleven people had been detained, dozens of party-goers and one police officer were injured, and two fires had to be extinguished.

For reasons that will become apparent, I thought about poor Thessa and her party as I read our scripture texts for this morning.  The excerpt from Deuteronomy describes the Feast of Weeks, also known as the Day of the First Fruits, the Festival of the Harvest, or Pentecost.  According to Moses, it was one of the three major festivals of the year (the others being Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles) wherein adult males were expected to come to Jerusalem for a religious observance.  In this case, it’s a thanksgiving festival.  God’s people are commanded to show gratitude to God for the provision they’ve known.

As the people of God are coming into the Promised Land after hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, they are told to remember their poverty – and to treat the poor, the landless, and the friendless with generosity and hospitality.  The Feast of Weeks was a yearly reminder that none of us has everything we need, and all that we do have comes from the Lord.

Now, let’s fast forward a thousand years or so, and we see that it’s time for this harvest festival to be celebrated in Jerusalem.  Following the commands of Deuteronomy, faithful Jews from all over the world are coming to town.  And in one corner of the ancient city, a small group of people is hiding out in a locked room.  They are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and they have had a very difficult season.  In addition to trying to process the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, they’ve dealt with the shock of betrayal and the suicide of one of their number.  Jesus, after rising from the dead, had looked this bunch in the eye and told them to preach the Gospel to the entire world, but that made about as much sense as telling a Pirate fan to go ahead and order those World Series tickets.  This bedraggled group of followers want it to happen, they hope it will happen, but, well, they’re not canceling their plans for October yet, if you know what I mean.

Giotto, "Pentecost" c. 1305 Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

And then the Holy Spirit bursts on the scene, and somehow this unlikely group of Christ-followers becomes empowered to speak to people of every nation about what God has done.  The travelers in Jerusalem for the feast are amazed – because they hear the Good News in a language that makes sense to them.  They are touched, reached, and blessed because the Spirit has enabled the disciples to cross barriers of language, race, and culture.

Church, we love the story of Pentecost, don’t we?  I mean, all over the world today, people are reading Acts 2.  In a lot of churches people are reading this text in different languages, or wearing different costumes to commemorate this amazing event.  We like to remember the day that the Holy Spirit came upon the church and brought good news to the nations, don’t we?  It was an awesome day!  Don’t you wish we were still there?  On the day of the festival that was rooted in gratitude for God’s provision, the Holy Spirit of God came and brought new members to the church!  More people, coming to church, wanting to be like us.  More people, signing up, wanting to be in the club!

Except that’s not what happened.  It may be how we like to remember it, but it’s not accurate.  What happened was that the Holy Spirit empowered the church to leave the sanctuary of the Upper Room; to leave the safety of the Aramaic or Greek language; and to leave their shared racial and social identity.  Do you see?  Pentecost was not about letting them in; it was about sending us out.

God, working through the Holy Spirit, sent followers of Christ to new places with different words and new faces to ensure that the entire world hear the news of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and new life that is available to all in Christ.

Whew.  Aren’t we glad that God’s not doing that anymore!  That’s a lot of work.  Pentecost is a scary time.  And, to be honest, it sounds like a big pain in the rear.

I think that the church in the 21st century likes to look back on the photos of ourselves on the Day of Pentecost and sigh, much like someone as ancient as me remember my High School or College days.  “Ah, yeah, I did some crazy stuff then…I was a real knucklehead all right…but that’s when I was young…”

Now, of course, we don’t act like that.  We’ve got a church to run, after all.  We’ve got responsibilities, and there are regulations, and we’ve got to keep order.  While we remember that day that the Spirit sent us spilling out into the street, it’s a lot easier for us to hang out inside our building and programs and hope that some nice people see our signs, or move in next door to us, and eventually come and join us.  Just like us.

On December 18, 1963, Martin Luther King spoke to students and faculty at Western Michigan University on the failure of the church to respond to the calling and sending of God’s Holy Spirit.  Listen:

I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have.[1]

If that situation was “tragic” when Dr. King spoke it nearly fifty years ago, what is it now?  The Body of Christ is still divided racially, economically, and by other lines in our life experiences.  Today, as the congregation celebrates the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and we remember the Day of Pentecost, your pastor is here to tell you that such division and segregation is not God’s intent.  We are missing something when we fail to follow the Holy Spirit into the world around us with the gracious, hospitable, welcoming love of God.

The question that kept coming to me this week was this: how do we, as a church, find our way to, or remain in a place where we are open to the call of the Holy Spirit?  How do we keep moving, keep growing, keep reaching? I have two ideas for you to think about this morning.  One of them will probably make you smile and pat me on the back, and the other may make you want to kick me in the pants.  I probably could use a little of both.

Can we, as individuals and as a congregation, work to proclaim the love of God in our neighborhood by working to empower and embody the Cross Trainers program?  Next week, we’ll be commissioning a staff of young leaders and asking them to work on our behalf in this significant ministry.  How will we support and encourage them – and how will we allow them to lead us?

The Cross Trainers day camp is an important ministry – not because the streets around here are crawling with little Presbyterians who need to be fed and entertained this summer, but because in the weeks to come, our community will be full of people who do not speak our language.  I’m talking here, of course, about the language of faith, not the English language.  God longs for the children and adults in this neighborhood to know grace, and healing, and hope.  How are they going to know that?  Where are they going to find that?

In God’s providence, he has put us here.  You can work to include the kids who are brave enough to show up here on a Sunday morning in the worship that we share.  Beyond that, you can support our Cross Trainer staff.  Sure, go ahead and sign up to give them a lunch.  But what if you did more than that?  What if you sat down with two or three of these young leaders and asked them to tell you what life in the camp was like?  What if you asked Jason if you could sit in on the Cross Trainers daily worship time, or ride along on a field trip?  Do you see?  It’s really easy for us to walk through this neighborhood and feel threatened by young people whose lives are different than mine.  It’s really easy to watch some kid come into worship and get irritated because he doesn’t act the way that my dad taught me to act in church.  But it’s a lot harder – and, I think, a lot more obedient – to look for ways to build a bridge between that person’s life and my own.  This summer, can you seek to be a “Pentecostal” church by learning more about the neighborhood in which we serve and many of us live?  Can you extend your prayerful presence into the lives of the people around you in ways that reflect your gratitude for what God has done in your life?

Some of the major paths of global migration in recent years.

Another idea that comes to me as we talk about ways in which we can follow the early church’s lead is for us to think hard about the issue of immigration.  What do you think about the fact that today, the population of this planet is shifting as never before?  Millions upon millions of people are leaving their homes and going somewhere else.  Are they migrants, refugees, displaced persons, or immigrants?  Yes.  All of those things.  Are they legal or illegal?  Yes.[2]

And maybe you say, “Dave, why are you talking about this now?  Pittsburgh is not a hub of immigration.  It’s not our problem.”  Maybe not.  But I’m here to tell you that the church of Jesus Christ has got to think about this issue Christianly before it becomes “our problem.”

On Thursday, the governor of Alabama signed a law that makes it a crime for a person to offer a ride to an illegal immigrant.  Next year, teachers will be required to report the immigration status of their students to the authorities.  This law is more restrictive than the laws already passed in Arizona.  Similar laws have been passed in Utah and Georgia, and there is consideration of a harshly restrictive law in PA as well.  My point is not to debate the merits of one particular law.  My point is whether or not we as Christians are thinking about the collision between the call of scripture to welcome the stranger and to feed the hungry and to care for the alien in our midst and the press of our culture which seeks to build increasingly high walls for one reason or another.  What will you do, for instance, if it becomes a crime to assist an illegal immigrant, and you show up at church and find me giving food to someone who looks browner than you?  What will you do if it becomes a crime to offer someone a ride, and yet the kid down the street from you needs to get to the doctor’s?

Remember what Dr. King said: “Now, I’m sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we have”.  How do we begin to think as Christians around the topic of immigration and immigration reform?

Really, friends, I’m not trying to make a political statement.  I’m simply trying to remind you that we, as descendants of the folks who flew out of that Upper Room and spoke to the Parthians, Medes, Elamites and the rest of them, are called to keep speaking to the people around us.

“But Dave,” you say, “if we throw open the doors of the church – if we go out looking for people like that, don’t you know what could happen?”

Sure I do.  We could end up like that party in Germany, where a family was desperate to protect their home from a marauding horde.  Things could get out of control.

But maybe, it might end up like that party in Jerusalem, where all sorts of people went home knowing the healing love and power of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know what will happen if the church listens to the direction of the Holy Spirit.  But I do know that there are people out there, and most of them are not like us.  And yet they are coming, with increasing frequency, into our lives.

The disciples rooted themselves in prayer and in commitment to the Lord.  They anchored their lives in Scripture.  They acted as people who were grateful for the gifts they had received.  Maybe the best thing that we as a congregation can do is to follow their lead.  To look at the throngs of people who are in our city, and in our street, and ask God to show us how to respond, and to maybe teach us a new language or two along the way.  Thanks be to God for giving the Church what she needs.  Amen.

I’m Gonna Live Forever

This message, #11 in a series on the ways that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians speaks to our culture, was preached on Sunday June 5 at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights.  In addition to the passage from Ephesians 6 quoted in the text, the sermon is rooted in Job 1:1-5.  

I’d like you to think for a few moments…what do you know about Job?  He was patient, tested, afflicted with all manner of awful diseases and events in his life – but he never cursed God, right?  No matter what terrible thing happened in his life, he kept going.

From a literary standpoint, what’s the “hook” of the story?  We could write or tell a thousand stories about someone who had experienced terrible things; what makes this one about Job so noteworthy?  Well, he doesn’t deserve any of it, does he?  He’s a good guy!

As the author of Job begins to tell this very long story about the man who was tested in ways that most of us would not wish upon our worst enemy, he describes Job’s life. We are told that Job is “blameless” and “upright”.  He fears God, and has turned from evil.  He is rich – wealthy beyond our imagination.  In fact, the author says, Job is “the greatest man in the East.”

Really? The greatest.  How do we know he’s the greatest?  What makes Job so great?  Did you hear what was said about him?  He’s so great…that he prays for his children.  He offers sacrifices on their behalf.

Think about that.  What was Job’s job?  How many corporate boards did Job sit on?  What kind of volunteer work did Job do? How many great books had he read? Which college did he attend?  We don’t know any of that.  But we know that he was the greatest.  Why?  Because he engaged his children spiritually.  He cared for them.  Of all the criteria the author of this book could have used, he held up Job’s dedication to his children.  It’s as if he says, “You wanna talk about greatness?  Here – look at Job’s care for his family.  That’s a great human being.”

That ties in with our study of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus.  Much of the beginning of the letter is concerned with the big picture of the Good News about what God is doing in Jesus – Paul announces cosmic truths.  But he gradually comes to the point that if the world does not see any concrete evidence of Jesus in our daily lives, then the world won’t be looking for Christ on a cosmic scale.  Last week, we discussed marriage as an arena where followers of Jesus are able to practice self-giving love, mutual submission, and learn to fear the Lord.  Today, Paul directs our attention to some other relationships within the home, beginning with a word for children:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3, RSV)

Paul makes a crucial point here when he connects obedience to and honoring of parents with our spiritual walk.  Earlier in the letter, he has announced that the person and work of Jesus has changed the nature of some of the fundamental relationships in our world (particularly between Jews and Gentiles).  Here, he reminds all of us that the ways that we act towards our parents are shaped by the ways that Christ has acted towards us.  We are to accord them respect. Grace.  Affirmation.  Love.

And as I say that, I can immediately hear two of my friends say, “But Dave…”  One of my friends grew up in a family that was, charitably speaking, dysfunctional.  By the time she was a teenager, she was spending a great deal of time living in our home.  At dinner one evening, she asked me if the Bible really said that we were supposed to honor our parents.  I assured her that it did.  She then told me that her father had quoted that verse to her, and then ordered her to help him weigh out little packets of drugs for him to sell on the street.  She was pretty sure that selling drugs to kids was bad news, but she didn’t want to break God’s command to obey her father.  She wanted to know which one was more important.

Another of my friends would look me in the eye and say, “Dave, that sounds nice from the pulpit, but we both know my mother is flat-out crazy.  She is out of touch with reality, and if I were to take her seriously, it would really harm my relationship with my own wife and child.”

I would ask each of these friends to be attentive to what Paul is and is not saying.  When he says, “Obey your parents in the Lord…” and “honor your parents”, he is not saying, “accept whatever they say as true and follow them blindly.”

“Obey in the Lord” and “honor” mean that we should seek the best for and from our parents.  And for most of us in the room today, that usually means that from time to time we’ll have to swallow our pride, accept our differences, extend ourselves creatively, and walk with humility.  In short, a lot of the time, the call is for us to act like Jesus when we are around our folks.

And sometimes, honoring your parents may mean saying “I’m sorry, but I cannot permit you to drag me to a place that is so far from God’s purposes for his world.”  If your parent is abusing you; if your parent is engaged in addictive behavior that destroys her or his ability to be real and honest; if your parent is placing you or someone else in danger, then the call of God is for you to do what you can to allow that parent to see the tragedy in his or her actions – and that includes allowing that parent to deal with the consequences of such action.  So it is not inconsistent with scripture for a child to say to her mother or father, “So long as it is apparent that you intend to treat me with violence, I am removing myself from your influence.” “Honoring” and “obeying in the Lord” mean that we help our parents to see and to do the right thing.

After calling to children, Paul turns his attention to the parents, when he writes,

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4, RSV).

Here, Paul is prescribing for parents the practices demonstrated by Job.  He tells us that we are to immerse our children in the discipline and the instruction of the Lord.  When he speaks of discipline, he’s not merely saying “spare the rod and spoil the child”, but rather speaking to a way of shaping their lives by offering them some real encouragement and formation.  My mother, for instance, sought to “discipline” me as a musician by sitting me down at the trombone and the guitar every day to practice.  Paul is asking the Christians in Ephesus to teach their children the craft of faith.  The artistry of discipleship, if you will.

I had a call from a good friend of mine not long ago. Like a lot of people, he’s been thinking about what happens if and when he dies.  And my friend – who is in full-time ministry, by the way, said this: “Look, Dave, I’m not at all sure about heaven or hell or anything right now.  But I know that life is good.  It’s supposed to be good. And so I want to live in such a way so that other people, after I die, get to experience the joy of life, love, God.  Out of gratitude I want to live that way.  If I can teach my kids to live like this, then I’m gonna live forever.”  He’s raising his children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

And right now, someone is saying, “Oh, geez, did I pick a lousy Sunday to come to worship.  I never had any kids, and my parents are both dead.  Nothing for me in this week’s sermon.

Wrong answer!

The core truth we’ve seen in many, many ways throughout Ephesians is that each of us – as individuals – is called into the Body of Christ.  We are saying that while we are our own persons, there is a unity within this group that transcends that separateness.  Every time we bring a baby to the front of the room for baptism, or as is the case this morning, for a dedication, we hear parents confess that they are unable to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord on their own.  Every time we bring a family up front, every time we offer child care, every time we run a program at The Open Door, we recognize that each of us is tied to the children who are near us.

And sometimes, that recognition is formal, as when you respond to the sacramental promises associated with the baptismal vows.  More often, that recognition is informal, as when you help the kid across the street from you put the chain back on his bicycle. Again.

In any case, Paul’s mandate in this passage of Ephesians is that we are to treasure the children in our midst; to help them learn from mistakes and grow through the challenges that they will face.  And that mandate is not only for those who reproduce.

Similarly, the word about honoring parents is not merely a biological necessity.  Paul reminds us that we are to offer respect for our elders – a command that is heightened in our day and age when so many families are divided by time and distance.  When I was in youth ministry, there was an elderly woman who worshipped here each week.  So far as I knew, she didn’t have any family in the area, although she talked about a son and some grandchildren in another state.  I had grown up in a home where my grandparents lived with us.  Now, my grandmother was living alone and I was hundreds of miles away. It was a “no brainer” for me to adopt this woman in some way.  I wasn’t heroic or anything – but each Sunday, I tried to make sure that she made it up the steps ok.  I changed the light bulbs in her home when she needed it done.  Why?  Because I hoped that there was a 22 year old in Falls City, Nebraska, showing the same kind of respect for Clara Carver when she tried to get to church or fix her lights.

We say, all the time, that we are a “church family”.  “A spiritual home”, it says on the front of the bulletin.  Let me tell you how deeply I appreciate the ways that you, as a community of faith, participate in this kind of behavior.

Not long ago we had an event off-site.  There were probably sixty or seventy members of our congregation there, and after a few hours, the staff of the facility where the event was being held came to me and said, “Pastor Dave, who are these people?  I’ve seen a lot of groups before, but the ways that this group interacts with each other is pretty remarkable.”  I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, for starters, I’ve been trying to figure out for the past hour just which kids belong to which parents or grandparents, and I don’t have a clue – other than that boy being your son, of course.”

Interesting.  If you don’t know me, you might not realize the fact that my only child is a female.

She went on, “It seems like everyone is just talking with everyone else, and the grown-ups and the kids are relating to each other so well…I don’t know – I guess what I’m trying to say is that it seems like your group really loves each other.”

You do.

Could we do better?  Of course.  But  most days, you do pretty darn well.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. led the campaign for civil rights, he spoke a great deal about what he called “the beloved community”.  As near as I can tell, that was Pastor Martin Luther King talking about the Kingdom of God – a place that was characterized by full integration and inclusion, a place wherein there were no lines between me and another drawn by characteristics such as race, age, class, income, or life experience.  In one sermon, he said,

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding and goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.[1]

As citizens of a supposedly declining city in a tight economy at the beginning of the 21st century, it is tempting for some folks to want to circle the wagons and protect our resources.  We are surrounded by the cries of those who are demanding their rights without acknowledging their responsibilities.

Yet the call of the Gospel is for each of us to shape our lives, and the lives of our children – first, the children in our own homes, and then the children of this, our spiritual home – so that people might see some grace, some hope, some truth of Christ.  When the world sees us treating our children and our elders in ways that point towards love and inclusion, then the world might be more interested in learning what it might mean for us to say that God intends us to live forever in a community characterized by that sort of relationship.  Thanks be to God for the arms that carried us into this place.  And thanks be to God for the young hands we are privileged to hold.  Amen.

[1] From “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957, as quoted at http://www.wearethebelovedcommunity.org/bcquotes.html