A Taste of the Border

This is about as close as you can get to Mexico without getting wet.

The team of seven adults from the Crafton Heights Church spent Tuesday a little differently.  We were invited to the U.S. Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas – the largest such facility in the nation.  While here, we spent several hours meeting with a Border Patrol agent who sought to give us a deeper understanding of some of the issues arising from the 1,951 mile border that the US and Mexico share.  We heard stories of and saw video about the struggles of poor people who are trying to find a better life for their families in the USA; of drug cartels who treat life cheaply; of agents who are forced to make quick decisions in trying situations; of communication successes and failures among various governmental entities; and more.  Today (Wednesday) marks the end of  a long deployment of National Guard troops at the border, and we witnessed several of those troops preparing to step down and return to their homes.

McAllen Station, US Border Patrol, the largest and busiest in the nation.

In contrast to last year’s trip, this year our team spent our entire time with the border patrol inside the building.  Our host indicated that the security tensions along the border were such that the Border Patrol was unwilling and/or unable to assume the liability for transporting a group of us to the  river and giving us a tour of the fence.

So, we tried to drive there ourselves after the presentation ended.  We went as far south as we could, and eventually, we saw water.  And we saw Mexico.  It was a real oxymoron:  we were standing in a campground – a park for “Winter Texans” full of fancy RV’s and campers. There were five or six US Border Patrol vehicles (including at least two boat trailers and a “sky box”).  Heavily armed agents sat guard…while retirees scurried around on golf carts…and a hundred yards away, the Mexican side seemed awfully quiet.  The peaceful, even idyllic scene, was a marked contrast to what we knew to be true based on our morning’s conversation.

This turtle doesn't seem to know, or care, whether he's Mexican or American...he's just glad for the sunshine!

We took a picnic lunch by the river and then headed over to our work site for the afternoon.  In spite of a shortened day, we made some pretty remarkable progress.  We actually ran out of drywall to hang, leaving one room unfinished.  The electrical work was just about finished, and our insulation crew entered the attic (the temperature outside was about 85°) and completed that task as well.  Most importantly, we were able to spend a little more time with Gustavo, Julia, and their family.

Tuesday was Gabe’s birthday, and we marked the occasion with a visit to Rudy’s, a BBQ establishment that is an amazing taste treat for this group of northerners.  Smoked turkey, beef brisket, smoked sausage, ribs, cole slaw, green chili stew, corn on the cob…it was a wonderful treat.  And then, as we were having our evening devotions, a couple from the church here in Mission delivered two home made Buttermilk Pies.  We had never tasted anything quite like it before, but Lindsay did a good job at capturing the flavor – imagine a “snickerdoodle pie”.  And be jealous.

This group has really jelled well – we are working and playing and learning together in remarkable ways.  Our devotions, based on Walter Wangerin’s Reliving the Passion, are a trove of insight and sharing.  And even our singing isn’t half bad!

As we begin Wednesday, we’re going to try something that the CHUP teams have not tried before: we’re going split the team into two different work sites.  Steve, Gabe, and Jeff will begin at Gustavo’s home and work on taping and finishing the drywall and a few electrical jobs, while Dave, Bob, Stacey, and Lindsay head to another home a mile or so away.  This family, who we have not yet met, had suffered a devastating fire and lost their home. They scrounged together some funds and moved into a trailer.  A month later, Hurricane Dolly hit and things went from bad to worse.  A crew of volunteers has been helping them to build a new, fully accessible home (their daughter has spina bifida), and while the shell of the building is up, the inside is bare.  Our hope is to get a real start on insulation and drywall in these next few days.  Please pray for us as we go our separate ways today.  In addition, be aware that the forecast is for “record high” temperatures – about 90°.  We’re not complaining, but want to be aware of this as we begin what will be our longest and potentially most challenging day of the week so far.

It's called a screw gun...

Is this an attic? Or the underground railroad? Whatever you call it, it's warm!

Gabe and a special friend: Gustavo's brother, Damien

"Eyes on the job, buddy..."

Bob finishes the insulation in the laundry room

A Texas-sized Project

In July 2008, Hurricane Dolly made landfall in southern Texas, dropping up to 16 inches of rain in isolated areas and causing more than a billion dollars of damage.

The path of Hurricane Dolly

Among the affected were our new friends Gustavo and Julia.  They lost everything – their home was totally destroyed.  In the aftermath of the storm they found shelter in a FEMA trailer, but have longed to get back into a home of their own.  With the help of a number of well-wishers and relief agencies, they have managed to rebuild the shell of a simple home.  Not long ago, they were accepted into the program administered through Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery, and now we, along with some tools from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, are seeking to make a difference for this family of five.

The home as we arrived on Monday

The exterior of the home

Gabe, Bob, and Steve start to work on the walls...you are standing in the bathroom, looking through the bedroom into the laundry room.

Bob finishes a little framing in the bedroom

Jeff cuts insulation in the attic. It was "only" about 80° outside, so...

Do you think Gabe is having a good trip so far?

An alert photographer captures a rare site...Dave working!

Some of the walls were already drywalled, leaving us to start the mudding

In Texas, we say "Go big or go home". Stax shows us how the insulation gets done.

Seems like we spend a lot of time cutting little pieces to fill in the gaps...

At the end of the day, Jeff treated us to a visit from the Goody Bar Man!

Some Time in the Lab…

The gardens at FPC Mission are lush after near-record rainfall in February

Greetings from Mission, Texas!  I’m here in this community in the Rio Grande valley with a team of seven adults from the First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights (aka CHUP) participating in our third annual adult mission trip.  This part of the country, centered on the town of McAllen, TX was recently designated as the poorest region of the USA by the US Census.  Our primary work task will be to help with housing rehabilitation after several recent natural disasters (including Hurricane Dolly in 2008).
A couple of days prior to getting on the plane, I happened to pick up Bob Lupton’s recent book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How To Reverse It).  The chapter of which I am in the midst now details the ways that short term mission trips are most often unproductive experiences.  By this, Lupton means that in many, if not most cases, such trips involve massive expenditures of money, time, and energy that produce little, if any, positive change in either the sending or receiving communities.  He points to ways that idealistic and well-meaning people visit other communities and wind up creating cultures of dependency and paternalism.

Yeah, welcome to a mission trip.

Our host, Pastor Dave Diercksen

Jeff shares our prayer concerns with the congregation

That, of course, is not my experience, by and large.  We have seen some wonderful fruit as a result of short-term mission trips.  That was the theme of our visit to the 8:30 and 10:30 worship services at the First Presbyterian Church of Mission.  Our hosts, including Pastor Dave Diercksen (who, along with his wife Nadine, I got to know on a short-term mission trip to Malawi in 2003) had asked us to share the ways in which such trips, particularly the ones we’ve made to Mission.  The hope was that we could encourage the congregation in their ministry of hospitality and perhaps invite them to think about sending a team into a mission experience.

The Congregation of FIrst Presbyterian Church of Mission Texas

The congregation of about 400 listened attentively as I shared about some of the ideas that lay behind our mission trips.  Stacey then addressed some of the ways that these experiences have affected the congregation and community in Crafton Heights, including the ways that the entire church has gotten behind the mission teams through funding and prayer.  She pointed to indicators that these trips have borne fruit in other areas of our congregational life.  Lindsay then offered a very personal testimony as to the impact of these trips on her life.  This is Lindsay’s third trip to the Rio Grande Valley, and she shared the ways in which the Lord has gotten her attention and helped to re-orient her life in specific ways.

Lindsay, along with Dave and Stacey, sharing the impact of mission trips

Gabe greets the saints at Mission Pres

I have nothing but respect for Bob Lupton and his ministry, and I will not comment on his book until I’ve read the entire thing.  But my experience is that a well-done mission trip is like spending time in a laboratory.  When a researcher or a scientist wants to learn something that’s going to affect life in the real world, he or she will set up a controlled environment, away from the “real world”, in which specific ideas can be tested.  After spending some time with these ideas in the lab, the researcher will then go back into every day life and see which of those notions wind up bearing fruit.

 

Our construction supervisor, Roland Pecina, worshiped with us at First Pres Mission

On a short term mission trip, we have the chance to remove ourselves from many of the pressures of daily life and be attentive to some key aspects of God’s calling to us.  We spend time in worship, in prayer, in study, and yes, in service to others – with the hopes that these experiences will shape us for the rest of our lives.

 

After the worship services at FPC Mission, we went to lunch, along with Dave, Roland, and John (one of the leaders of FPC) and then took most of the afternoon visiting a HUGE flea market that evidently serves as both a shopping and cultural hub for the local Mexican community.  We walked for what seemed like miles past stall after stall of merchants offering everything from used clothing and tools to electronic equipment to fresh fruit and vegetables to pets to tasty food to live chickens, rabbits, and more.  Mariachi music was wafting through the air from several live bands, and a variety of smells filled our nostrils.  It was a wonderful introduction to the community and culture here.

Visiting the Mexican Flea Market

 

Worship at The Bridge, a youth-oriented contemporary service

Our afternoon out concluded with a visit to The Bridge, a worshipping community being established by the local United Methodist churches that is geared to the young Hispanic population of the Valley.  It was a very different experience than that with which we began the day – yet equally rewarding.  The musicians were superb and Pastor Danny’s message was spot on – the grace of God that reveals us to be “the apples of God’s eye”.  As an added bonus, we all got fruit for our lunch today!  It’s a win-win, for sure.  We are grateful to Roland for having invited us.

 

Our construction supervisor, Roland, indicated to us that we’ll be spending most of our time this week hanging drywall in the home of a poor homeowner here in Texas.  That’s great.  But if that’s all we came to do, then we’re wasting a lot of time and money, because there are plenty of people who already live here who can do that far better than the seven of us.  But if the drywall, along with the other experiences, becomes for us a laboratory that invites us to consider the realities of God’s calling on our lives as a community and as individuals – well, then we might just learn something that will change us…and the world.  Here’s to the journey!  Thanks for your prayers.

Lime Wash, Refracted Lenses, Water…and Me

February 19 2012 was Transfiguration Sunday.  We approached our worship by reading Mark’s account in Mark 9:2-9.  We also considered Paul’s words to his friends in Corinth in II Corinthians 4:1-6

The disciples have had their suspicions about Jesus – who he is, what he is about, and where he is heading.  They’ve whispered among themselves that maybe he is God’s anointed one – the savior of the world.  But any time in the last two years they’ve spoken these thoughts aloud, well, Jesus puts the kibosh on them in a hurry.  “Shhhh!  Don’t tell anyone!”

The Transfiguration of Christ, Giovanni Bellini, 1487

And then, on the mountaintop, Peter, James and John are able to see clearly that he is the one to whom the law and the prophets point.  They KNOW!  This is now not a matter of opinion!  But for the last time in his life, Jesus looks at them and says, “Don’t say anything about this – not until after it’s all over.”

They had, literally, seen the light!  But they were charged not to say anything about it until they knew the whole story…  I’m sure it was frustrating to keep it a secret, but it must have been a relief to have such a demonstrable sign of Jesus’ divinity.

A couple of years later, Paul is on his way to the town of Damascus.  Maybe you know the story – he, too, saw the light.  As he was riding, he was struck by a blinding flash that revealed to him that the same Jesus whom Paul was attacking was in fact the Lord of Life.  This Jesus spoke to Paul from the midst of the glare and commissioned Paul for mission, ministry, and service.  And Paul spent the rest of his life traipsing across the known world telling anyone who would listen about the ways that Jesus had come to be with and for God’s people.

Conversion of St Paul, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1675

Like the first disciples, Paul knew.  And like them, eventually, Paul told what he knew.  And like them, his life was rearranged by a blinding flash of light – in an instant, he knew who he was and what he was to do.

But not everyone in Paul’s world was happy with this arrangement.  He started a church in the town of Corinth, and as he spoke to and with those folks, he caused a few ripples.  People began to push back at his preaching, asking, “Who do you think you are?  What makes you think you’re the boss of us?  Why should we listen to you?”

Beloved: have you ever been rejected by someone that you are trying to help?  How badly does it hurt when you are trying to do something nice for someone and they turn to you with a sneer and say, “What are you doing here, anyway?”  I can imagine what Paul was feeling as he heard those accusatory questions from the people he’d come to be with in Corinth.

He wrote them a letter, and much of the beginning of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s defense of his ministry.  He reminds them of their shared history, and points to the ways that God has spoken through scripture as well as the grace that has been revealed in Jesus Christ.  And then, he reminds the people in Corinth as well as himself that this ministry was not his idea.  “God began this in me,” says Paul.  “I can only trust that God will finish it.”  He goes on to say that if there’s an agenda, it’s not his agenda.  He says, “I do not proclaim myself – I proclaim Jesus as Lord.”

That’s an important point.  It was not uncommon for citizens of the Roman Empire to greet each other during the first century by saying “Caesar is Lord”, and they were required to show up at shrines annually and burn a pinch of incense while making the same affirmation.  So when Paul says, that Jesus is Lord, he’s saying that Caesar is not.  And equally important to those who were Jewish, Paul’s statement that Jesus is Lord is his way of saying that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Paul continues – because Jesus is Lord, then I am your slave for his sake.  He could have simply said, “Jesus is Lord, and I am Jesus’ slave.”  But that’s not what he writes to these people who are questioning his ministry, his motives, and his credentials.  He says, “I am your slave for the sake of Jesus.”  Instead of claiming his rights as a leader in the church, or pointing to the things that the Corinthians “owed” him, Paul simply refers to himself as their slave, for the sake of Christ.

How can he do that?  How can he look at these people who are disregarding and distrusting him and describe himself in that way?

Because he’s seen the light.  He can never, ever forget the day that his life was pierced by the light of Christ’s presence.

Can you?

Think of a time when you were made aware of your own sinfulness.  A time when you saw, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were not who you wanted to be, or thought you were, or wanted someone else to believe that you were – a time when you were broken by this kind of awareness.

It may be been the day that you realized you were addicted.

Or the day that you took credit for work that was not yours, and were caught in it.

Perhaps it was when you were caught having an affair, or the shame you felt when you raised your hand to your child.

Look, I don’t know exactly when it was for most of you, but I’m betting that I don’t have to convince you that you’ve had days where you realized that you’ve blown it.  Do you remember that day?  That pain? That shame?

That was the light of Christ shining down in your life.  It was illuminating a part of your world that had been dark, revealing the truth that you’d been hiding from others and perhaps yourself for a long time.

Stay in that pain for a moment.

Now, I want you to remember a time when you experienced great grace.  A sense of your life being something that you did not deserve – a gift that came to you and you knew it was not the result of your own charm, wittiness, or rakish good looks.

Maybe it was the time he told you he loved you, or the birth of your child.

It could be that time she stuck with you after you both knew you’d screwed up.

Maybe it was the day you heard about that amazing scholarship, or saw that relative who had written you off for dead, or somehow felt accepted in spite of your brokenness.

Can you remember a day like that?

That, too is light – coming from outside of you and revealing truth by illuminating the reality of your life.  You have seen the light – no less than the apostles did on the mount of transfiguration.   I know you have.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday – the day when the church remembers the time when Jesus’ face was set ablaze by the presence of the holy on top of the mountain.  It reminds us of how Moses’ face was radiant following his conversations with the Lord.

On the day of Transfiguration, the disciples were enveloped by the light that came from heaven and shone forth from Jesus.  When Paul was converted, he was thrust to the ground by the force of that truth-revealing light in his own world.

None of those men produced that light.  They did not invent it or manufacture it or manipulate it.  They simply stayed in it.  They allowed it to change them.  The light shone on them, and they stood in the light.

If I’m right about your best day and your worst day, you know something about standing in the light, too.  So let me ask you, what happens when you stand in the light?  Do you soak it in?  Or block it?  Or reflect it?  What happens when that truth of God shines into your life?

Those questions bring me to the title for today’s message: Lime Wash, Refractured Lenses, Water, and Me.

Lime wash is one of those things that everyone has seen, but that few people would recognize.  Back in Tom Sawyer’s day we called it “whitewash”.  It’s a wall covering, or paint, that’s made from slaked limestone and chalk.  It’s been used for thousands of years, and I saw many examples of it when I traveled through Greece and Turkey.  The limestone crystals have a way of intensifying the light and reflecting it back into the surrounding environment, which results in an appearance that can be shimmering and breathtaking.  It is a brilliant use of simple technology to radically affect the outside surface of a building.  Of course, such treatment of the outside of a building may have little or no relationship to what is going on inside.  You will recall that Jesus reserved some harsh words for the professional religious people of his day, saying that they were like “whitewashed tombs”: they glimmered on the outside while they rotted on the inside.

It’s possible for people to realize something of the love of God and accept it on the outside, but not allow it to get through to the core of their being.  I bet that most of the people in this room know someone who is totally convinced of the fact that God has loved them…but is not in the least bit interested in allowing God to change any part of their lives.  They soak up God’s love, but do not allow it to really affect their day to day lives.

On the other hand, you have all seen commercials for Lasik eye surgery.  They are based on the reality that your eye, like all lenses, works by bending light – by refracting it – in such a way so that it produces clear images.  The light passes through the lens and is reflected inward so that your optic nerve can use the data to produce the image that tells you that yes, indeed, that really is a beautiful woman standing over there. 

I am way out of my league when I talk about the science of refraction, but my point is simply this: that just as there are people who realize that God is love, grace, and forgiveness but don’t allow it to penetrate their own hearts, so there are those who are so enraptured by the Holy that they assume that the sole function of all the light in the universe is to penetrate their own hearts and lives.  They soak up all the light and grace and joy that they can…and yet have a hard time reflecting into the world around them.

Sunrise over Raystown Lake

But water!  Well, water is an amazing thing.  Because like Lime Wash, water is an excellent reflector.  Some of the most amazing photographs you have ever seen exist because water allows the light to bounce right off it.  Depending on the angle of the light and the viewer, water can be very clear, and yet you cannot see into it at all because of the ways that the light is reflected.

Yet you have also seen some incredibly beautiful images that are made possible because water permits light to enter it and illumine the world within.  Biologists will tell you that life is possible on our planet because the relationship between light and water allows organisms to take in energy from the sun in an environment that will support their existence.

Did you know that your body is about 60% water?

What if somehow, you were able to allow the light of God’s presence and love to both reflect from you and enter deep within you?

A few moments ago I suggested that the times when you were most profoundly aware of your own sin as well as the times when you were most profoundly aware of God’s blessing on your life were both instances of God’s light shining on you.  What I really want to know is this:  what if you were able to live in the deep awareness of the light of God penetrating your life – both your deepest sin and greatest brokenness and your ultimate joy and amazement at the undeserved grace that God has put in your life?  What if you walked around every day convinced that you were terribly flawed, a great sinner in need of a great saving while every day being absolutely sure that you were receiving some unmerited favor, some great gift that you did not deserve but clearly enjoy?

What if you had the self-awareness every day to say, and to believe, that “I am a great sinner whose life has been marked by grave misjudgments and boneheaded mistakes.  And I am also a child of God whose life is filled with blessing that does not originate in me, and whose sin and mistakes cannot define.”

If you or I had the presence of mind to live like that, well, we’d be living like Paul.  We’d be walking in the transfiguration every blessed day.

Listen: if you are sure that you’ve been broken by sin, then how in the world will you judge your neighbor?

And if you are convinced that God’s grace has been brought into your life, and that you are aware of the power of God’s life, light, and peace – how will you hold that in, and think it only applies to you?

Oh, that the church might be full of those who, like Paul are so grateful for what they’ve received that they are sold out for others!  That we might join him in saying that we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for his sake!

My prayer for this day of Transfiguration is that God will reveal to each of us who we are, and where we are.  That we will claim that identity and dwell in it.  And that the love of God might flow freely in and through us in ways that allow our neighbors to see the grace and forgiveness of Christ, whom we love and serve by loving and serving those amongst whom he has placed us. Amen.


[1] The Transfiguration of Christ, Giovanni Bellini, 1487.

[2] Conversion of St Paul, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1675

More Than Candy and Hearts

On February 12, the church in Crafton Heights met in the basement…not exactly the catacombs, and no one was persecuting us.  Nope, they are simply repainting the sanctuary, and we needed another place to meet.  But that got me thinking about the generations of our forbears who were forced to meet in secret…and why that’s not the case any more.

Our texts for the day included Romans 5:6-11 and John 15:12-17.

I’d like to take you back to Rome in the last part of the 3rdcentury.  The Imperial City is, as usual, full of tourists and business folks from all over the Empire.

Emperor Claudius II, a.k.a. Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius

The Emperor, Claudius II, has just won a stirring victory against the Goths at the Battle of Naissus.  The local population has settled down after the New Year’s Festival and is now preparing for the spring ritual known as Lupercalia.  This event, celebrated during the Ides of February (the 13th – 15th) is a testimony to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were supposedly nursed by a she-wolf.  It’s a ritual of blood that seeks to appease evil spirits and purify the city as well as releasing fertility and health throughout the district.

The priests lead a group of young men to one of the hills outside the city, where they sacrifice two goats and a dog.  The young men are sprinkled with blood.  They cut thongs, or whips, from the skins of these animals – such thongs are called februa – from whence we get February.  The whips are drenched in blood, and the young men, also covered in blood, run naked through the streets of Rome.  As they run, women line up to be hit by the bloody skins in the hopes of bringing fertility to the barren and easy childbirth to the pregnant.

Some versions of the celebration also involve the young men drawing names from a bowl.  These names would indicate their sexual partners in a carnival of eroticism that would serve as a sexual release for the youth of the city.  Lupercalia served the Emperor well for two reasons.  First, by hearkening back to Romulus and Remus, this rite spurred patriotism and pride in the city’s heritage.  And secondly, since the Emperor had banned marriage for young men so as not to distract them from their duty to serve in the armies of Rome, the emphasis on recreational sex kept some from thinking of marriage as their best option.

In the midst of this, a young pastor in the local church of Jesus Christ – perhaps after reading the letter that Paul sent to the believers in Rome a couple of centuries earlier – made some observations.

“Yes,” he might have said.  “You are absolutely correct.  We are at risk.  There are evils in the world, and things are not right.  We need to deal with, and be protected from, evil.”

“But no,” he would have continued, “the blood of goats and dogs is not the way to healing.  If Rome is to be saved and cleansed, it’s not because a bunch of naked, bloodied teenagers are running through the streets and then spending the night in wild sexuality.  If Rome is indeed to be protected, it will be because Rome looks to God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”

“The way to become right with God – to seek wholeness and health – is to turn to God, who gave us his son.  The suffering and death of Jesus revealed the depths to which God will go to bring about reconciliation – that is, the right and appropriate relationships between God and humanity and amongst humans of all races and nationalities.”

The young pastor looked for ways to help his flock seek true reconciliation.  He met with couples who did not want to be a part of that system, and he helped them marry. He encouraged other Christians at a time when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with Emperor Claudius, who didn’t want anyone raining on his Lupercalian parade.

Claudius sent his troops to arrest this Christian leader, and then they beat him with clubs and stoned him.  Amazingly, the pastor was not killed, so he was finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate of the city.

The name of the young pastor, according to the early church, was Valentinus.  And, not surprisingly, his story was told and re-told throughout the church and in the retelling, the legends grew.  And, not surprisingly, when people in church tell stories, they tend to get juicier and “better” all the time.  In fact, one Catholic writer puts it this way: “Saints are not supposed to rest in peace; they’re expected to keep busy: to perform miracles, to intercede. Being in jail or dead is no excuse for non-performance of the supernatural. One legend says, while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. Another legend says, on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to the jailer’s daughter, signing it, ‘From your Valentine.’”[1] You may know something of how this story has shifted from the bold and courageous act of a single person to schmaltzy holiday where we will send a billion cards to each other on Tuesday.

Bu for now let’s leave third century Rome and go to another time and place.  Separated from the time of Valentinus by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, imagine a place that looks very similar, in some ways.

In this other place we see a world that denies the depths of the pain and isolation of the people who live in it.  Jesus talked about becoming friends in ways that would lead to great fruitfulness; Paul reminded the church that the call of God in Christ Jesus was to be reconciled, but those kinds of relationships are hard to develop and maintain.  It’s easier, in this other world, to simply blow off a little steam every now and then.  The people in this world are not running naked and bloodied through the streets, but they have other ways of avoiding the real problems that confront them and their relationships.  They spend hours and hours each week hanging out together, but nothing of their true self is revealed in what passes for conversation.  A great deal of money is spent on having lunch or sharing a beer, but people in this world are reluctant to share their deep hopes or sincere fears.  Perhaps most interestingly, residents here spend a great deal of time and energy looking at pictures of each other or reading comments from each other in what is called “the social network”, but there is very little face to face conversation about what lies behind those photos or who might be encouraged or challenged by those stories.

And like ancient Rome, this other community is one wherein a person is often defined by his or her sexuality. If you were to read the Bible for the first time, you might wonder, “This Jesus who talked about bearing fruit…was he married?  And Paul, who spoke so much about relationships…did he have a family?  What about the disciples?”  The truth is that while the Bible seems to think that it’s important for us to know many, many things about the lives of Jesus, Paul, and other key figures in the history of God’s people, we don’t have any clue what would be said in the “relational status” section of their FaceBook profiles.  That information was undoubtedly important to people, but it is clearly not the sum of who those people were in their lives.

Yet the residents of this other place think, so often, of themselves and each other by defining the kinds of sexual relationships that are or are not taking place.  A community member might be said to be “with someone” or “gay” or “straight” or “single” or “divorced” as though rather than being one attribute of a complicated life and personality, that one descriptor conveys all that is necessary about an individual’s life. As if all one needed to know about a person was whether he was gay or if she was divorced…

Perhaps worst of all, the Christians in this community believe that they can’t do anything to change the culture that surrounds them.  They have come to see personal action as ineffectual and have low expectations for the churches that they form.

Well, you are a smart group, and I think that you can guess that this other community of which I speak is our own.  While we do not have teenagers running through the streets participating in bloody rituals of fertility and protection, we live in a culture that is very much shaped by the same forces that were at play in ancient Rome.

So I wonder…where is Valentinus today?

In the third century, Valentinus knew he was not going to stop the armies of Rome from world domination.  He was not going to cancel the Lupercalian festivities.  But he helped people make meaningful promises to each other.  He supported the work of the church even when the power structure sought to mitigate that support.  He stood by his commitment to Christ, even at the cost of his own life.  Where do we see that kind of faithfulness in our world? Where is our world going to see that kind of witness to Christ?

Let me suggest that it begins here – in a church basement.  With a nondescript congregation that chooses to meet in an unremarkable neighborhood  in a city that is characterized by declining population and increasing challenges.

Tuesday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”  In the seventeen centuries since Valentinus lived, his name has come to mean, in some ways, the celebration of the kinds of “love” that he stood against – the confusion of sexuality and intimacy, of passion and commitment, of getting along and true reconciliation.  Just as chocolates and candy hearts are a poor substitute for healthy, balanced meal, so too the idea of shallow hook-ups and temporary flings are the antithesis of the kinds of love to which God calls his children.  Status updates and quick texts are not the way that life-changing relationships are built and nurtured.  Perhaps you can agree with me that our world is not all that dissimilar from the one in which young Valentinus lived.

But here’s the deal – and it’s a key difference.  The emperor recognized Valentinus and his faith as a threat, and he had him arrested and killed.  Nobody, at least not in Pittsburgh in 2012, is going to arrest you for being a Christian.  You might be seen as being irrelevant, or out of touch, or idealistic, or naïve, or quaint.  But you’re not going to get beheaded for anything.  Because whereas the emperor was afraid of Valentinus and the church, nobody in our time and place expects that much of Christians or the body we represent.  Nobody cares about the church these days.

So now is a good time for us to do something.

We’re not going to change the world overnight… But we can start by learning how to love each other.  We can claim the forgiveness we have in Jesus, and then extend that same grace to the people who are sitting next to us…and who live across the street from us.  We can admit that there is work to be done in our own relationships, and then face that work with honesty and integrity.  We can trust each other.  We can risk with each other. We can tell the truth, in love.

And if we do that…if we work to become a body of believers who are actively supporting each other in lifestyles that honor God and serve the world – well, then maybe we might actually make a difference in ways that would scare the powers that be.

Jesus looked at his disciples, and at us, and he called us his ‘friends’. Now, I don’t think for a moment that Jesus had a facebook page, but if he did, would Jesus want us to be “Facebook Friends” – that is, people who know some of the story and a little of the gossip but not enough of real life?

Or do you think that he is genuinely interested in knowing the complexities and realities, the intricacies and the passion that make you YOU?

We are his friends as we share the depths of his passion for the world.

I don’t have anything against Valentines’ day.  Confession: I have a dinner reservation for 6:30 on Tuesday evening.  It’s not a bad thing.  But I don’t want the world to think that’s what love is.  Love is a group of people helping a friend to die as the disease slowly overwhelms the body’s system.  Love is telling a friend some hard truths, and then waiting to hear how that truth is heard.  Love is accepting my neighbor for who she is, rather than for who I wish she was or who I hope she might be.  Love is forgiving the one who has harmed me as God in Christ has forgiven me.

Candy hearts are easy, and they’re kind of cool.  Love is hard.  But it is the thing by which God will once again change the world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hello, Newman

We ended our exploration of the book of Jonah by asking the question, “what if God is really like that?”  That seems to be the question that scared the heck out of the prophet…and me, too, on a lot of days.  

Our texts for Feb 5, 2012 included Jonah 4 and Matthew 5:43-48

Here’s a little question for you all to consider when you’re waiting for the Super Bowl to begin…What is the greatest television show of all time?  According to TV Guide, it’s the most popular show of the 1990’s, Seinfeld.[1]  One of the recurring themes on that show, which was never really explained, was Jerry’s hatred of his neighbor, Newman.  Do you remember scenes where Jerry would greet his nemesis with those two little words, “Hello, Newman”?

After the show ended, Seinfeld did a stand-up program in which he responded to questions from the audience.  One visitor asked him to say, “Hello, Newman”.  The comic answered by saying that he couldn’t just come out and simply say those words.  Seinfeld said that he would “stare into his beady little eyes, because if you looked into those eyes you could see all the evil that has ever taken place, and when you see that, then you say, ‘Hello, Newman’.”

I thought of that exchange last week as we listened to Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh.  He didn’t want to go there in the first place, and God finally dragged him there so that he could deliver the Word of the Lord.  After a lot of drama, Jonah utters five simple words in Hebrew, and the town goes wild.  People repent.  They turn to the Lord.  Revival comes to Nineveh!  They listen!  God saves Nineveh.

Do you remember how Jonah responded in chapter two, where God saved Jonah from the great fish?  He was ecstatic, wasn’t he?  He composed a psalm for the occasion, and he ended it by blurting out Yeshuata LeYHWH – “deliverance belongs to the Lord!”  In Jonah’s own life story, God acted in grace towards someone who was undeserving, and Jonah was delirious with thanks and liberal in his use of amazing adjectives to describe God.  But when God saves Nineveh, it’s a different story.  Jonah barely spits the words out.  “Oh, I know you, God.  That’s right.  You are so gracious…so merciful… slow to anger, abounding in love, ready to relent from punishment…”  You see, when these attributes were focused on Jonah, Jonah loved them.  But now that they are directed towards the ones for whom Jonah has learned to nurture hatred, well, he names these qualities of God as if they are flaws in the Divine character.  “Do you wanna know what’s wrong with you, God?  You are so gracious…so merciful…so abounding in love…

After throwing a tantrum in the middle of the city that God has decided to save, the prophet storms out of town, saying essentially, “Look, if God’s love includes the Ninevites, I want out.  I’d rather die than work with a God who cares about those people.”

Isn’t that so human! As if God’s love is somehow limited.  If God gives his love to you, then there is less of it for me.  Jonah sounds like an older sibling, hearing that mom is going to have another child, who fears that any change of family structure will result in less time and energy for himself.  There’s only so much love, so much attention, so much forgiveness… and if he’s giving it to them, then he might take it away from me.

What if it’s true?

What if God really does love them?  What if God loves Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers?

I’m not saying that God is ready to sign off on all the things that Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers DO, but what if he actually loves them?

What if God is bigger than I imagine or allow God to be?  Isn’t that the key question in Jonah 4?

I’d like to try something.  I know that not everyone can do this, but I’ve been professionally trained.  After all, I was an English major at college.  Let’s look at the verbs in this passage.  Verse 6: God appointed a plant to grow and give shade to Jonah as he sulked.  Verse 7: God appointed a worm to eat the root of the plant.  Verse 8: God appointed a wind to come and beat down on Jonah.  That reminds me of chapter 1 verse 17, where God appointed a great fish to come and swallow up the prophet, or even earlier in the book where God commanded the storm.

All through this little story, God’s power is evident, isn’t it?  God is in control of everything!  It’s ironic to me that God commands the sea and the storm, the fish, the wind, the worm, and the plant – but God calls to Jonah.  God seems to be in charge of everything…except the prophet who is supposed to carry God’s word to the world. God loves Jonah enough to allow Jonah his disobedience and his tantrums.  And it would appear that Jonah evidently expects that kind of love from God – Jonah expects that God will deal with him, even in the midst of his sin and his brokenness and his disobedience.

Yet it would appear as though for the life of him, Jonah cannot begin to wrap his head around the idea that God would care for them in the midst of their sin and brokenness and disobedience.

As I said, I’m an English Major.  A trained professional. So let me ask you to  leave the verbs and look at the punctuation. So far as I can tell, Jonah is one of only two books in the entire Bible that end with a question.  If you were to flip back a hundred pages or so in your bibles, you’d find the little book of Lamentations, which was written to describe the ways that God’s people felt about and dealt with the fall of Jerusalem in the 6th century BC – about 150 years before Jonah is said to have taken place.  In Lamentations, God’s people, well, lament the destruction of Jerusalem, the holy city.  They sense the loss of their very identity, and the book ends with God’s people and God’s prophet Jeremiah asking God, “Have you utterly rejected us?  Are you angry with us?”

And the answer to those questions, as asked by the people of God, is, of course, “No!  God has not rejected us.  We are God’s people still.  God loves us!”  Lamentations ends with us asking God whether God still loves us.  And we know the answer.

The book of Jonah ends with God asking us, “Can’t I love them too?”

It occurs to me that along with the Israelites, we are ready to claim with certainty that God does love us, that God will not forsake us, and that God will always be there for us.  Amen.

But what if in addition to loving us that way, God has decided to love them that way, too?

Here’s what I’d like you to do this morning.  Think about the person, or the group of people, that you’d most likely have to grit your teeth and say, “Hello, Newman” to.  Think of the person or the people who, if they walked in the room right now, you’d want to get up and walk out as quickly as possible.  I’m thinking that this is probably a person or a group who has offended, scared, angered, or stolen from you. Can you think of anyone, or any category of people, for whom you feel that kind of anger or loathing or contempt?

“Oh, great.  Now Pastor Dave wants us to love the Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers.  Pastor Dave wants me to love the man that beats me, the mother that abandoned me, or the lover that threw me under the bus.”

Relax.  Pastor Dave is not asking you to do that.  No, no, no.  Nothing of the kind. Jesus might want to speak with you about that, but I’m not saying anything about that this morning.

I am asking you to ask God for a vision in which you see that GOD might have a way to love these people.  Ask God to help you see that GOD might have a claim on their hearts and lives.

And then, I’d like to ask you to ask God for a glimpse into God’s heart – the bigness, the enormity, the immensity of God’s heart – the heart that is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

And if God lets you peek into that heart, I have a hunch that you’ll be able to see, pretty clearly, that God is crazy about you.  That God is calling to you.  That God has a claim on your life.  And if you look deeply enough into the heart of God, you will also see that God’s love for someone else cannot ever, ever, ever diminish God’s love for you.

Listen, I’m not saying that God is telling you to stay with the man who hits you or to keep taking crap from the woman whose habits are killing your children.

But I am asking you to ask God to see that one, or those people, the way that God sees them.

I have a hunch that if I can come to see the Ninevites, or Palestinians, or gays, or Republicans, or Mexicans, or welfare cheats, or investment bankers the way that God sees them, then I will find it harder to hate.  If I see that in the heart of God, I might learn something about love.

I may wind up, as did the whale, the plant, the worm, and the storm, as being useful to God and to God’s purposes.

I may wind up, as Jonah did, with some questions.

Beloved, this is the word of the Lord: God wants us to let God be God.  God is bigger than any of us can imagine.  Oh, how I know that is true.  May I – and may you – have the grace to live that way.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.