Thanks

As I mentioned last week, we are spending a little bit of time walking through some specific practices that will help us grow and deepen as a community.  This comes on the heels of our conversations about membership and belonging and being the body of Christ.  For these messages, I will be using the four practices that are identified in Christine Pohl’s excellent new book, Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us. This week’s focus: Gratitude as the cornerstone of a healthy community.  

Our Scriptures included I Chronicles 16:8-25 and Hebrews 12:18-28

Every now and then a person rises to a certain level of prominence and seems to be more or less “destined” for a certain vocation.  Other family members join in the pursuit, and before you know it, there’s a dynasty.  And when that happens, people want to know how that family got into that position, and so the authors get busy.  Waltz on over to Amazon.com and you can see Alfred I Du Pont: The Man and His Family, or The Kennedys: Portrait of a Family, or The Fords of Dearborn.  Each of these books is written to tell you how a particular family came to prominence in their fields, and to give you insight into the ways that various family members contributed to – or detracted from – the enterprise.

The Bible has that, too.  I Chronicles is basically a story – an inspired story, and an authoritative one, but a story nevertheless – about how David and his family went from the business of sheepherding to becoming the celebrated royal line of Israel.  I Chronicles talks about how it is that this young man established his throne: his military decisions, his economic policies, the decision to build a capital, and the worship practices he instituted. David was making cabinet-level appointments.  Joab was the secretary of the Army.  Shallum was the chief gate-keeper – Homeland Security, if you will.  Jehoshaphat was David’s chief of staff.  One of the key decisions that David – a musician himself –  made was to appoint a songleader named Asaph as worship leader.  You heard a song – really, a psalm – that was written by Asaph a moment ago.  Here are the verses that precede that psalm:

He appointed certain of the Levites as ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel. Asaph was the chief, and second to him Zechariah, Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel, with harps and lyres; Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and the priests Benaiah and Jahaziel were to blow trumpets regularly, before the ark of the covenant of God.[1]

The Choristers by James Tissot

Asaph’s job was to regularly call Israel to the practice of gratitude.  We discover later in I Chronicles that Asaph remained on the job for more than four decades, writing psalms, leading worship, and every day calling people to give thanks to God.

Why, when setting up his empire, did David think it was so important to keep Asaph on the payroll?  Because gratitude is the bedrock of community.  When a people chooses to be grateful, and decides to embrace life as a gift, then that community is shaped and molded in specific ways.  David – and the God whom he loved and served – knew that.  And so Asaph and his colleagues, day in and day out, led the people of Israel in giving thanks.

Thousands of years later, the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was establishing a series of communities in Germany that would provide a glimpse of truth in the time of Hitler.  When he laid down the rules for this community, he said this about being thankful:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we enter into that common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients…Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things…We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts…If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed…then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow…[2]

We long for the experience of community.  We want to know and be known.  We desire friends and connections.  We want to be a part of something larger than ourselves…and therefore, our first word ought to be one of gratitude and joy.  Look at where we have been placed!  Look at what we have to start with!

Now I understand – believe me, I understand! – that there are some days when we look around at the community we’ve been given and we sense that all is right with the world!  There is an alleluia waiting to be shouted!  I do not deserve this, I think, but it is a gift!

And, of course, there are days when we see challenges in the community and my friend in Christ is being a royal pain in the rear end.  My instinct may still be to think that I don’t deserve this, but my inflection might be different… however, my first word can still be one of gratitude, because I have so much to work with!

Last week, we mentioned that we’d be taking an in depth look at four spiritual practices that sustain communities for the long haul.  This morning, we want to consider the practice of gratitude.

The foundation of gratitude is memory.  Did you hear that over and over again in I Chronicles?  “Remember the covenant!  Remember what God did! Remember where you were!”

In the life of community, some of that “remembering” is prior to our own experience.  We, who were born at some point in the last century, are called to remember that God is a covenant keeper and a promise maker. We, who were not even born yet, can remember that God brought our ancestors through the desert and the sea.  These memories, in which I am included, will give to me a sense of gratitude.

And there are, of course, many memories that are within our experience.  Today, for instance, is a day of deep memory for me and for many of you.  My daughter has come home after six months of traveling abroad.  Our friends Kelly and Jason are getting married.  How can we look at them this day and NOT remember times of shared joy?  How can I look at them and NOT think of walking the dog or riding the boat or going on a mission trip together?  And because we’re an honest community, we remember, too, times of pain and brokenness and failure – but even as we think about those deeply painful times, we affirm that God makes a way!

In our life together as a community, the first part of gratitude is remembering where we’ve been, who we are, and whose we are.

As we seek to be a community that practices gratitude, there are enemies in our midst. There are attitudes and behaviors that are as grave a threat to gratitude as kryptonite is to Superman.

One of these barriers to gratitude is the thought that we are all autonomous.  The Greek roots of that word mean “self” and “law”.  To say that we act in autonomy is to say that we each decide what is right, what is important, and what is worthy.  One way of understanding how autonomy is an enemy of gratitude is to consider the number of people who believe that somehow they are “self-made” – that is, they didn’t come from anywhere, they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and that they alone determine their fate.  The eminent theologian Bart Simpson championed this view when, as his family sat down for a meal and he was asked to say the blessing, he said,  “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”[3]  Bart is so convinced that he alone is responsible for his place in life that there is no room for the presence of God or the community.

Similar to the cancer of autonomy is the curse of entitlement.  So often we fail to be grateful because we see the good things in our lives as our right, not as gifts. One of the defining moments of my life came in 1995 when I sat down for breakfast in the little village of Mangochi in the African nation of Malawi.  Our host began the meal with prayer, and as he prayed, he said “Lord, we thank you that we have gotten through the night.  Not one of us has died.  And not only that, but there is food on the table and tea in the pot for us to drink.  And not only that, but there are friends here to share these gifts.  Our house is still standing, our family is still alive, and we have the promise of a new day. And we thank you for all these things.”  Later that morning, I commented in awe to my wife: “Did you hear him?  He prayed that prayer like he meant it!”  And I realized that I had been stuck in a web of entitlement thinking – because every day I get out of bed thinking that I deserve to rise happy and healthy. I take for granted the fact that nobody is going to die in their sleep on Cumberland Street, and I better have food and tea, because, like Bart Simpson – I paid for it!  What a gift that host gave me, as now I can approach each day with a realization that the things I receive, I am given.  I am not entitled to them – I am blessed with them.

It’s not by accident, I think, that we are able to overcome these enemies of autonomy and entitlement in the presence of community – we participate fully in each other’s lives and we name the blessings that we see.  In our corporate memory, we claim that we are formed by God’s blessing and giving, not solely by our own actions.

As we move forward, it seems important to emphasize that gratitude is a practice.  It’s not simply a feeling that is engendered on Thanksgiving Day, or when we cry at a wedding.  It is a concrete behavior that we can seek to cultivate.  Let me close by offering three simple things that you can do to grow in your ability to practice gratitude.

First, be fully aware that each day is a small resurrection.[4]  You open your eyes on the bed and you have come back from the closest experience to death that you will ever have.  For five, six, or eight hours, you have been unconscious and oblivious. You have not worked, or earned, or thought, or spent.  You have lain there, helpless.  And God brought you out of that.  As your waking energy returns, you move from that world of passivity and rest into one of doing and making and feeding and touching.  Before you leave the tomb of your bed – give thanks to God for seeing you through!  As you arise to face the gifts and challenges of a new day, breathe a prayer of gratitude for the consciousness you enjoy.  This day is a gift.  You have come through!  And you will be sent to places throughout this day that are in need of that conviction.  Own it before you rise.

Secondly, in addition to expressing your gratitude to God for the gift of the day, make being grateful to others a key part of your day.  Look for opportunities to name for others the ways that their behavior has been a help to you.  When I was in college, a friend of mine would walk down to the campus mail center every day with three small envelopes.  She would stuff them into the mailboxes of classmates.  After seeing her do this for a couple of months, one day I found a little envelope in Geneva College box 149.  And inside was a brief note from my friend, expressing her gratitude for a comment I’d made the previous day – a comment I’d forgotten overnight.  But thirty years later, I remember that thank you.  Because she practiced gratitude.

And thirdly, look for ways to speak directly to people about the ways that they have been agents of God’s grace in your life.  So often, we hear amazing things about the people in our community at their funerals.  What if you took the time to talk to the people who matter to you before they are dead?  I thought about this recently when my friend Joe entered hospice care in another state.  Some friends told me that time was short.  At their encouragement, I sat down and wrote Joe a three-page letter thanking him for some lessons he had taught me.  And I will confess – as I wrote that letter, I found myself thinking, “Do you know what?  This would have been an awesome funeral sermon.  These stories could bring down the house – in the best possible Christian way, of course.”  But I didn’t preach a sermon about Joe to a room full of his friends after he died.  I sent him a letter.  And I was told that he received that letter as a blessing and a gift.  Think about the people to whom you are close, and the things that you might want to say about them at their funerals.  Now, look for a way to say that to them this week, and invite them into your gratitude.

Early in his ministry, Henry Nouwen went to South America for six months.  He was unsure what he should do with his life, where God wanted him to be, and what job he should take.  He thought that he was there to discover a plan. In fact, he never lived in South America again – but his entire life was shaped by that experience.  He wrote in his journal,

What I claim as a right, my friends . . . received as a gift; what is obvious to me was a joyful surprise to them; what I take for granted, they celebrate in thanksgiving; what for me goes by unnoticed became for them a new occasion to say thanks.

And slowly I learned. I learned what I must have forgotten somewhere in my busy, well-planned, and very “useful” life. I learned that everything that is, is freely given by the God of love. All is grace. Light and water, shelter and food, work and free time, children, parents and grandparents, birth and death — it is all given to us. Why? So that we can say gracias, thanks: thanks to God, thanks to each other, thanks to all and everyone.[5]

As we continue to experiment with this community known as the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, may we receive the gifts of God, and the people of God, with gratitude and thanksgiving.  In so doing, we will become truer reflections of the One who called and who sends us in His name.  Amen.


[1] I Chronicles 16:4-6 NRSV

[2] Life Together (Harper 1954), pp. 28-29.

[3] The Gospel According to the Simpsons, Mark Pinsky (WJK, 2001) p. 27.

[4] This term is used and defined more fully by Christine Pohl in Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2012) p. 51.

[5] Gracias! A Latin American Journal (Maryknoll Books, 1993) p. 187.

Together – For What?

In the weeks leading up to Easter, our congregation had a lot of conversation about what it meant to be a church that had “members”.  Now, we will take several weeks to look at some specific practices that sustain communities in their common life.  As we do so, however, we name the nature and the purpose of our life – that is, to live into our calling as the Body of Christ.  Our scriptures for April 22 included John 17:20-26 and Jeremiah 32:37-41.

Once upon a time I was in a group that met pretty regularly for study and prayer.  I had known most of the people in the group for a long time, and was glad to be connected with them.  I noticed after a while that one of my friends had simply stopped coming.  He said that he was away a lot, and didn’t feel like he was keeping the commitment.  Another friend started to miss, and said it was her work schedule – which I later found out that she actually got to choose.  In the space of four months, half the group had left for various, and to my mind, petty reasons.

I happened to be out to lunch with two of the former members of the group, and they asked how it was going.  I replied that I was frustrated because attendance had waned, and one of the people said, “Well, is so and so still there?  Because you know that’s why we all quit.”  It turns out that one member of the group was demonstrating a behavior that other members found unacceptable.  I asked them if they had spoken to the offending member, and of course, they had not.  In fact, as I polled the other former members, no one had been honest about why they left.  They covered their tracks by saying things like, “Well, someone should say something, but it’s not going to be me…I just don’t know that person well enough…”  The way that I heard that comment was, “to be frank, Dave, I don’t care about that group enough to do the hard thing of telling the truth.  That community simply isn’t that important to me.”

If I was doing something that got on your nerves, would you tell me?  If I thought that you were acting inappropriately, or had bad breath, or wore clothes that are not nearly so fashionable as mine…would you expect me to say something to you?  Who are we to each other?  How well do we know each other?  In what ways are we connected?

A few weeks ago, a number of us signed a document that said that we saw ourselves as covenanting together in the membership of this congregation.  Other people said that they were excited about this congregation and wanted to help move forward in mission.  What does all of that mean, when the rubber meets the road?  How do we view each other?

Stanley Hauerwas, who is perhaps my favorite crusty theologian, taught me that many societies have well-defined roles for relationship.  The ancient Greeks, for instance, had a strong sense of self.  To be a Greek meant, among other things, that one shared the same values, the same stories, and at various civic occasions, you could gather with other Greeks and share those values and stories and know that they would be appreciated.  When the Greeks spoke of “the stranger”, that meant someone who did not necessarily share your stories or values, but seemed capable of understanding and appreciating them in some way.  The stranger might even be invited to tell a story or two of his own.  A barbarian, however, was one who was deemed unable to even hear the stories of your people, and thus your only obligation to a barbarian was to kill him or her.  Hauerwas says that the Christian lives in a world in which there are all kinds of strangers, but no barbarians.[1]

When we gather as a community, who are we to each other?  One of the things that I would celebrate about who we are is that I’ve seen no evidence of barbarianism in our midst – no attempted assassinations because someone seems totally incapable of hearing our stories or sharing our values and therefore has got to be exorcised.  But are we truly together?  Or are we a room full of strangers who can be polite to one another, but are not truly connected in any meaningful way?

Beloved, we do not come together because we happen to live near one another.  We are not called together because we like each other, or even because we just know each other pretty well.  We, the congregation of the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, are a community because we share the baptism of Jesus Christ.  By virtue of the fact that we belong to him, we have been molded into one body.

Because that’s true, it’s important to realize that neither this congregation, nor the Presbyterian Church (USA), nor any other gathering of Christians exists to run programs, sing songs, and preach sermons.  The church exists to carry on the work of Christ – to participate in the ongoing mission of God.  And the way that we participate in that mission is by functioning as the body of Christ.  The only way to do this is to do it together.  God does not call a smattering of individuals together and say, “Well, guys, go get ‘em.  Each of you – do your best out there!  Let me know if you need anything…”

Look at the passage from Jeremiah, for instance.  God comes to these people in the midst of their disobedience and rebellion and promises to preserve the integrity of their community.  He will not allow their identity to be forgotten or their connections to be compromised.  Rather, he promises to give them an eternal identity and to keep faith with them in safety.

In John, Jesus repeats that promise of God. On the very eve when humanity would exercise our worst and most treacherous rejection of God, Jesus prays for not only continuity of the community, but for its growth.

And note that Jesus does more than simply pray for the community, he invests that community with his authority.

And note that Jesus does more than simply pray for the community and invest it with his authority, he goes so far as to stake his own credibility and his own purpose and his own mission on the behavior of that community – the community which at that moment is in the process of selling him down the river.  “Jesus risked his reputation and the credibility of his story by tying them to how his followers live and care for one another in community.”[2]  The single greatest proof that Jesus was who he said he was lies in the ways that we, his body, treat each other.

Some years ago there was a small town in the south.  For as long as anyone could remember, there had been a “black” school and a “white” school.  The town’s leaders proposed a plan to tear down the old schools and make one new school for the entire town.  The council meeting erupted in a firestorm of protests as one after another, the white residents of the town got up to speak against the plan.  After the discussion died down, the moderator asked if there was anyone left to speak to the motion.

The Presbyterian pastor, who had sat silently in the back of the room, got up and moved to the microphone.  He said, “I do not wish to comment on the motion before you, I simply wish to make an announcement.  It appears as though most of my congregation is in the room tonight, and so this is as good a place as any to tell you that after church on Sunday we’ll have a congregational meeting to vote on my resignation.  I have been the pastor in this town for thirty years.  I’ve baptized most of the children that we’re talking about.  I’ve married you and buried your dead.  And I’ve tried to tell you the truth about who you are.  But if after thirty years of hearing my sermons you are the kind of people who make a fuss about having black children and white children go to school together, then it’s obvious that I’m not as good a preacher as I thought I was, and you’re not as good a group of Christians as you think you are.”  And with that he left the room.  A few moments later, the chastened residents of that community, when they remembered who they were, voted to build the new school.  They never had that meeting after church on Sunday.

How do you get to be a community who always remembers who you are?  How do you get to the place where you live out the reality of Jesus’ ministry in ways that make sense to the world around you?

I think that the answer to that question is the same as on the day a pedestrian on 57th Street in New York stopped violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz and said, “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  “Yes!” the musical genius replied.  “Practice!”

How to we get to be a community who always remembers who we are?  A community that lives out the reality of Jesus’ ministry in the world?  Practice.  Or, more precisely, practices.

In the next few weeks, we’ll be examining ways in which our community of faith can practice the faith.  I hope to identify specific behaviors that we can adopt or grow into that allow us to more effectively represent Jesus and to act as his body in the world. These practices include gratitude, promise keeping, truth telling, and hospitality.

I think it’s important to note that I’m not simply pulling these disciplines out of a hat.  In 2002, the Lilly Endowments (the same group of people that funded our Sabbatical experience in 2010) brought together a group of more than a dozen ministry leaders.  For four years, this group met regularly to study communities that were functioning well and search the scriptures as well as their own hearts for what God was teaching them.  The result of those conversations was that these people named gratitude, promise keeping, truth telling, and hospitality as core practices that sustain and strengthen communities for life together.[3]

But before we look at those practices, however, we need to name and to claim the fact that we are a community!  We belong together.  We are not, nor are we interested in becoming “strangers”.  We share the identity that has been given to us by God.

An old man went back to the village in Tennessee where he had grown up.  He walked into the tiny church where he’d attended every week as a boy, before he left town to go to university and then move to the big city.  He noticed that the church had brand new stained glass windows.  As he looked over the beautiful windows with the names of the donors etched into the glass, he realized that he didn’t recognize a single name.  He commented to the pastor, “Wow, you must have had quite a bit of growth over the years.  I don’t know any of these people.”

The pastor smiled and said, “No, in fact, this town has only gotten smaller since you left.  We bought those windows from a church in St. Louis.  They ordered them from a company in Italy, but when they arrived, they wouldn’t fit.  The manufacturer said that they’d replace the windows, and told the church in St. Louis to do what they liked with the ones that were the wrong size.  We bought them.”

The old man said, “I’m surprised you didn’t remove the names.”

The pastor responded, “Well, we talked about it.  But since this community is so little, we thought it was nice to be surrounded by a the names of people other than ourselves.”[4]

You are surrounded by names, my friends.  By people.  There are no barbarians.  There are some strangers, who need to hear your stories and who have some interesting ones of their own to tell.  And we are being formed into this community of faith, hope, and love; we are given life by Jesus and promised a future by God – as we together we practice living the faith in this place and at this time.  Amen.


[1] Preaching to Strangers, William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas (Westminster/JKP 1992) pp. 5-6

[2] Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, Christine D. Pohl (Eerdman’s, 2012), p. 2

[3] These thoughts are collected in Living Into Community, above.

[4] Preaching to Strangers, pp. 73-74

The Gift of Doubt

God’s people in Crafton Heights gathered for worship the week after Easter and considered the story of Thomas – and his journey of doubt and faith.  The scriptures included John 20:19-31 and I Peter 1:3-9.

The crew of the Starship Enterprise had bravely gone where no man had gone before, and as the great vessel orbited the lovely planet, a small shuttle carried Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Spock’s half-brother Sybock to the planet’s surface.  Under the visionary and charismatic leadership of Sybock, they had passed through the great barrier and were on a course to heaven, where they would meet with the one that Sybock believed was God.  After they landed, they met an apparition – could it be?  The characters entered into dialogue and discovered that “God” wanted the Enterprise.

Fortunately for the Trekkies among us, Kirk and the rest of the gang learned the truth about that so-called “god” and lived to make a few more movies.

What do you think?  Is doubt a bad thing?  Is it a sin?  Does it irritate the Lord?

I hope not.  It seems as if the people of God have always included those who doubt.  For instance, in today’s scripture, we read about how Jesus’ friend Thomas came to be known as “Doubting Thomas”.  But I think that Thomas gets a bad rap.

For instance, take a look at what happens in the upper room on that first Easter Sunday.  Most of Jesus’ friends are locked inside and Jesus shows up.  Did any of them rush across the room and say, “Holy smokes, Lord, it’s great to see you!  I knew you’d be back!”?  No, not exactly. In fact, they pretty much just stood there.  He said, “Peace”, and he showed them his wounds.  And THEN, after he took the initiative, the disciples rejoiced.

No wonder that none of the original disciples was busting Thomas’ chops for his doubting later that week – they knew that they were all first-class doubters.  It would appear that believing in and living out the resurrection of the Lord was as a real challenge 2000 years ago as it is today.

Is doubt opposed to faith?  Theologian Paul Tillich didn’t think so.  He said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”  Frederick Buechner agreed, saying that “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith: they keep it awake and moving.”

And really, in most of our lives, doubt can be a great asset, right?  When you look at the “classic” car for sale on Craigslist for $1500 and the poster says, “a real gem! 35 mpg, no problems, runs great!”, you wonder.  When your doctor tells you that you need to amputate that leg, you’ll get a second opinion.  In these and a dozen other situations, doubt can make your life better.

What about doubt in terms of your faith in God?

Listen, I’m not advocating a wholesale abandonment of the faith and a desire to question everything that you’ve ever learned.  But the reality is that twice in today’s gospel reading, Jesus had to break into a locked room in order to speak the truth to his friends.  And that has me wondering, is there any place in your life or in mine that is locked so tightly that even Jesus has trouble getting in?  Are there any opinions you have, any “facts” you “know”, that are so deeply rooted in your psyche that you’ll never consider any alternatives?

The late Charles Schultz, himself a follower of Jesus, poked fun at some of us in what became one of my favorite Peanuts comic strips.

The first disciples didn’t have all the answers, and so they locked themselves in a room until they could figure out what to do. Jesus came and showed himself to them, and said, “Look: you can’t stay here.  As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” And then look at what he offers them as a part of his commission: extending the gift of forgiveness as a hallmark of the presence of the risen Christ.  He doesn’t send them out of that room with a list of commandments; he doesn’t give them a set of “isms” or dogmas.  He says, “Offer forgiveness…that’s how I was sent, and that’s how I’m sending you.”

But, as we’ve noted, Thomas wasn’t there that night.  So a week later, Jesus shows up again, and just as he did on Easter, he’s got to trot out his wounds and show Thomas who he really is.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1601-02)

And do you know what?  Thomas got it – especially the “as the Father sent me, so I send you” part.  This exchange with Jesus lit a fire under Thomas the likes of which are rarely seen!  He is so convinced of the commissioning and sending of Jesus that he winds up becoming the only one of the original disciples to leave the Roman Empire talking about Jesus.  In 52 AD Thomas sailed to India, where he lived and taught for several decades and was eventually killed as he gave witness to the transforming power of Jesus in his life.  He didn’t have all the answers, but he knew what he had seen, where he had been, and who had sent him on his life’s journey.

Our walk with Jesus is similar to that of the followers of Jesus to whom Peter was writing: we have not seen him; we do not see him now; we know something of struggle and trial and pain (in fact he says that we suffer “various” trials, and the word for “various” can mean “many-colored”: we have a rainbow of difficulties).  Yet like those first followers of Jesus, we know something of hope, of joy, and of resurrection.  And like those people to whom Peter wrote, we are blessed by Jesus as being those who believe without having seen the wounds with our own eyes.

Still, do you ever wonder?  Do you have doubts about life, the universe, and everything?  Here’s my studied opinion on that: I bet that God is not losing any sleep over it.  I mean, really, can you picture a scene in heaven wherein the Almighty is tossing and turning, thinking to himself, “Oh, no!  What am I going to do now?  I think that Mel’s gone a little soft on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth!”

What do we do when our walk of faith is peppered with doubt?  Let me suggest that we would be wise to follow the example of our older brothers and sisters in the faith.  When Thomas wasn’t sure, he asked to see more of Jesus.  When I am not sure, I can do the same thing.  “Lord, show me yourself.  Show me where you are at work; where you are moving; where you are alive.”

Listen: I’m not suggesting that we follow the lead of Herod and ask Jesus to perform a parlor trick or a quickie miracle for our own amusement.  No, I’m saying that if we sense that our view of Jesus is faltering, that we can ask him to show more of himself – more of his heart – to us.

But if we do that, we’d best be careful.  Because what aspects of Jesus did Thomas ask to see?  His wounds.  Thomas, in looking for truth, said, “Jesus, show me your suffering.  Invite me more deeply into your death.  Show me your broken body and your broken heart…”

By all means, beloved, ask God to reveal more of God’s self to you.  But be ready for what God shows you.  Be ready to go, then, where God sends you once you get a clearer picture of who God is and what God is doing in Jesus.

The world is full of the stories of people who have been hungry for God – who have been unsure of who God is or what God is about, and then who have followed God into some pretty strange places.

St. Thomas' Mount, Chennai India

Thomas, for instance, who most likely grew up in a little Jewish village in Palestine, yet ended up being run through by a spear near what is now known as Chennai, India.  In fact, just outside that city is a small hill known as “St. Thomas’ Mount” where tradition says that the apostle was killed with a lance.

Peter found himself hanging upside down on a Roman Cross.

William Tyndale believed that the Bible should be available in the local language, and when he translated his Bible into English and shared it with his neighbors, he was arrested.  He was choked, impaled, and finally burnt at the stake – by the church – in 1536.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who stood up to Adolph Hitler in World War II.  He was hanged for this witness in the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945.

My friend Sue asked God what to do with her gifts of compassion and medicine, and ended up serving in the heart of Africa for more than twenty years before moving to Korea.

Our friend Saleem was born in Lebanon, and fled to Iowa after that country’s civil war.  He began a ministry to some of the most broken parts of our city and now leads an organization that helps provide a college education to those who have fewer options.

My friend Roland has known his share of trials and difficulties, and now spends most of his days helping the poorest of the poor in Texas find safe and adequate housing.

None of these people would say, “Do you know, since I asked to see more of God, my life has really stunk.”  Yet each of them has been led to some incredibly challenging places.  Because each of them asked to see more of God.  And each of them would stand here and tell us, “You know, it’s nothing special.  I asked to see more of God.  I wanted to know where God was already moving.  And I went where I was sent.  None of the things that I do have anything to do with how great I might be.  Anything that you see is because the message of Christ is life-changing.”

So, my friends.  Doubt away.  Ask God to show you more of his hands, his feet, his side, and his heart.  But as you do, make sure that you’re packed and ready to move, at least on the inside.  Because I don’t doubt that you’ll be sent to some pretty amazing places.  In fact, you can count on it.  Amen.

A Real Cliff-Hanger

The second service on Easter Sunday 2012 allowed us the opportunity to delve more deeply into the mysteries of the death and resurrection of Christ.  Our scriptures included Mark 16:1-8 and a portion of Peter’s sermon to Cornelius in Acts 10:34-43.

About a hundred years ago, movie-goers would flock to the cinema each week to see the latest installment of The Perils of Pauline – a movie adventure that, along with (I’m not making this up) The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen featured a character who found herself in tremendous distress at the hands of villains or rogues and facing dire consequences at the end of the episode.  Each week, however, she was rescued and lived to make another adventure.  In one episode, Pauline was left literally hanging from a cliff near the New Jersey Palisades about to fall…and thus the term “cliff-hanger” was born.

You know what a cliff-hanger is, I expect – a story that stops in the middle and leaves you in suspense, wondering what will happen next.  It seems to me that there are two reasons for using this device.

The first and most obvious reason, is to sell more stories.  Charles Dickens was the publisher of a magazine that was about to go bankrupt…until he released his novel Hard Times two chapters each week, and the magazine was saved.  If you’ve ever watched “Lost”, you know that you’ve sat through a lot of commercials in order to see how the conflicts are resolved.  And every night, the newscasters break into your hockey game or television program to promise “breaking news at 11”.  Sometimes we tell each other a little bit just to make sure that you’ll come back the next time.

Of course, there is another reason why you would only tell half of the story.  That would be because the story isn’t finished yet.  You get a telephone call informing you that your mother is in the hospital and she’s undergoing surgery.  What?  When? What for?  These questions can’t be answered yet because the answers aren’t known.  Someone tells you what they know, and you’ve got to figure out what to do next as we wait for the rest of the story to unfold.

My favorite cliff-hanger of all time is the Gospel of Mark.  It is the briefest of all the accounts of Jesus’ life – just over 660 verses.  This account of Jesus’ life features the events.  What he did.  Where he went.  There aren’t very many long teaching segments here.  Not much theology – he did this, he went there, and then this happened.  Just the facts, ma’am. 

And this Gospel ends with an account of the women who loved Jesus going to the tomb to prepare his body for permanent burial.  As you heard, they encounter an angel, who announces the resurrection.  The final scene in this gospel of action and decisiveness is one of fear and confusion.  In fact, the final sentence of Mark, in the original Greek language, ends with the preposition “for”.  “No one nothing they told, afraid they were for.”  Sounds a bit like Yoda, but that’s how he ends it.

Why?  That seems like a strange way to publicize a religion to me.  In fact, the early church was so uncomfortable with this ending that it cooked up not one, but two different endings that would look a little better in the bibles they were starting to copy.  But Mark didn’t end the story – he just left it there.  Why?

Well, it could have been that he was working on a sequel, and wanted to make sure that it would have an audience.  The problem with that theory is that most of the apostles didn’t live long enough to write one gospel, let alone two.  I doubt that was Mark’s intent.

The other possibility, of course, is that the story simply hadn’t finished yet.  Jesus has risen.  Got it.  So what?  What will happen now?  It has become clear to me that Mark’s intent was not merely to provide the most up-to-the-minute news so that you’d be able to go to bed knowing the entire story of the Jesus Event.  I believe that what Mark is trying to do here is to thrust your head into the empty grave and say, “Look at this!  The grave is empty!  Do you realize what this could mean?  Do you know the possibilities that exist?”

Saint Peter and Saint John Run To The Sepulchre by James J Tissot

One of the men who heard about the events of that morning was Peter.  He’d followed Jesus for at least three years.  At one point, he was sure that Jesus was the conquering King of the Jews, the son of God who had come to release Israel from the harsh realities of Roman rule.  That narrative ended for Peter the afternoon that Jesus died a criminal’s death, and Peter had to consider the question, “If he wasn’t a military hero sent to save us from political oppression, then who was he?”

Peter stuck his head in that tomb and saw the emptiness there and continued to dwell with and live with that story of the resurrected Jesus. As he contemplated that story and allowed it to shape him, it led him some months or years later to the home of a gentile Roman army officer named Cornelius – a man who some time earlier Peter may have seen as a sworn enemy, now his host.  And Peter welcomes this former adversary as a brother; when he speaks of Jesus, he refers to him not as a Jewish hero, but as “the Lord of all”.  He says that Jesus is “the one ordained by God to judge the living and the dead” (in other words, “it’s not my job to judge you”).  Jesus is the one from whom God’s forgiveness flows.

Peter was there on the day that Jesus was raised to life.  He knew all of that part of the story – but he refused to treat it merely as an historical event that happened and then was done.  Instead, he allowed that day to change his life so much that he was available to be used by God to shape Cornelius’ life.

Did you see that?  Peter was so convinced not only of the reality of the resurrection, but of its implications, that he was able to bring that resurrection into Cornelius’ life.  Cornelius was not present in the garden, but he experienced the newness of life that is offered in Jesus.  He did this because Peter refused to allow the story to die – but rather, he kept it alive and moving in his own life.

That, my friends, is the task of the preacher – and the church – today.  You see, I assume that you’ve got some familiarity with the basics of the story as Mark and the other writers of the Bible told it.  Jesus was killed.  Jesus was raised.  If you want more details on that, then grab me after the service and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.

But it seems to me that my job this morning is to invite you to consider just where you fit into the story.  Like Mark, I have the privilege of shoving your head into that empty tomb and asking you what you’ll do next.

Resurrection Morning by James Martin. Used by permission of the artist. Visit him, and encourage him, at http://www.jrcmartin.blogspot.com

Neither I nor the church are particularly interested in walking around the Garden Tomb, looking for fresh clues, and trying to convince you of some historical fact.  You know, thinking, “Well, if only I could find some new shred of evidence for a literal resurrection, then you’d HAVE to believe me and once you believe me, then you’ll be fine…”

No, the task for today is to consider the places in your own life where you are already familiar with emptiness and death.  Where do you know loss?  Grief?  What in your life has not worked out the way that you thought that it would?  Where are you empty and dying, if not already dead?

And will you have the courage to hope that emptiness and death and grief and loss and pain and dis-ease are NOT the last words?

Mark, and then Peter, and then Cornelius, make it clear that the resurrection was not a singular event reserved for a particular person, or race, or even some “in group” of enlightened folks.  After all, if the resurrection was only intended for Jesus, it would be kind of pointless, right?  If the empty tomb was Jesus’ “get out of jail free” card, then it would have been meaningless for God to send Jesus at all.  Why not just remain in heaven, look at humanity, and say, “Wow, it sure stinks to be you folks.  No hope at all in escaping that mess.”

But what if we consider, and remember, and act as if Jesus’ resurrection is not an isolated event confined to the pages of a shadowy history in a dark corner of the world, but rather the first domino to fall – an occurrence that started a chain reaction of events that led through Mark’s life, through Peter’s and Cornelius’ and who knows how many other billions of lives and now brings us to today?  What if the resurrection isn’t over???

You see – it’s a cliff-hanger of the most wonderful sort.  As your pastor, it is my privilege to tell you that any death, sin, isolation, depression, despair, dis-ease, or brokenness that you and I experience is not the sum total.  None of these are the last words.  I get to tell you that life and forgiveness and joy are the last words.  The tomb is empty.  The story isn’t over!  What are you going to do about it?

Amen.

Not An Innocent Victim

As Easter Sunday began in Crafton Heights, we looked at the things that Jesus said and did in the days that led up to his death.  Our scripture reading included Isaiah 25:1-9 and selected verses from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.

Perhaps my conclusions will inspire you.  Maybe they’ll irritate you or get you praying for me.  I hope that they make you think.

“He didn’t do anything!  He was an innocent victim!”

Have you heard anyone say that about Jesus in the last couple of days?  I hear it all the time.  I probably have said it, in fact.

But the thing is, well, I’m not so sure that it’s accurate.  Usually, an “innocent victim” is a bystander who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A woman is out walking her dog and gets struck and killed by a drunk driver.  A patient in the hospital receives the wrong medication and reacts violently.  A child is bullied at school because of some aspect of his physical appearance.  An “innocent victim” is someone who has done nothing to deserve the outcome that befalls him or her – someone who experiences a negative event that is totally unrelated to his or her behavior.  That’s an “innocent victim”, right?

I’m not so sure we can say that about Jesus.  In a recent article, Greg Carey, a professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary, suggests that far from being an “innocent victim”, Jesus actually got himself killed.  Jesus’ death, Carey suggests, was a direct consequence of actions of which Jesus was the instigator.  To put it another way, Jesus was not the “wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time”.  What happened to Jesus could not necessarily “have happened to anyone…”  Far from “not doing anything”, Jesus actively participated in a system in such a way so as to result in his death.

Thursday night at the Tenebrae service, we read the account in the Gospel of Luke.  We heard that those in power incited the crowds, that there was a kangaroo court, and that Jesus was convicted on trumped-up charges.

The Triumphant Entry, by Milburn Cherian. Used by permission of the artist. Visit her at http://milburncherian.net/index.html

And that happened.  But the truth is, that’s not all that happened.  The reality is that the charges leveled against Jesus had some real substance to them.  Jesus came into Jerusalem and he took on the two biggest powers of his day: the religious establishment and the Roman Empire.  And not surprisingly, he was charged with blasphemy and treason.  And he was convicted of both the religious and the political offenses.

Blasphemy is “the crime of assuming to oneself the rights or qualities of God.”  Well, my friends, Jesus did that.  Every time he forgave a sinner, healed a blind person, or looked into the heart of one who was lost, Jesus was assuming the qualities of God.

“Well that’s no fair”, Christians will say.  “He did all of that stuff because he was God!”  Jesus is the Son of God!

Well, you may say that, and I surely believe it, but the religious establishment of Jerusalem in the first part of the first century clearly did not believe that to have been the case.  And so he was found guilty of blasphemy, and punished as a blasphemer.  For things that he did.

Treason is “a violation of allegiance to one’s sovereign or to one’s state”.  Jesus lived his entire life in occupied territory.  He, like the rest of Israel, was governed by Rome.  As tyrants and empires went, Rome was definitely not the worst, but they did have standards for allegiance.  Among these requirements were to accept the fact that the Roman Empire was a legitimate government and to be willing to at least pay lip service to the notion that the Emperor Caesar is a god.  As long as you paid your taxes and were willing to burn a pinch of incense every now and then at the shrine to the Emperor, you were in good shape according to the Romans.

But Jesus rolls into town at Passover – a religious festival that declares God’s intentions for freedom, that commemorates the delivery of God’s people from bondage, and mentions the triumph of Jews over an evil foreign king – and he gets the crowds worked into a frenzy.  Remember that parade we talked about last week?  Palm Sunday?  They were there because they had political aspirations, and they thought that Jesus would help them to realize those goals.

And later that week, when he was confronted in the temple – the center of religious life – with a question as to whether or not one was obligated to pay taxes, he makes it clear in that in his mind, Caesar and God are most definitely not the same person.  In the same conversation, Jesus manages to accuse the religious leaders of idolatry while walking around forgiving people and acting like he’s God – or at least the Son of God.

When he’s arrested, he’s sent to one of the most sympathetic judges in history, really.  Pontius Pilate seemed to be looking for a way to let Jesus go free, but at the end of the day, even this soft judge has to find Jesus guilty.  The reality is that in the case of blasphemy and treason, according to the laws in force at the time, Jesus was anything but an innocent victim.

Jesus spent at least three years of his life in situations where he spoke truth to those who were willing to live in lies.  He was defiantly oppositional to those who were willing to use lies to control other people.  And so they killed him.  It’s important to point out, I think, that neither Jesus nor the religious or political leaders seemed surprised by his death.  They would say that he had it coming.  He said that it “must” take place.  No, nobody reading the Jerusalem papers two thousand years ago would have been surprised that Jesus finally managed to get himself killed.

The real surprise, of course, came three days later when he refused to stay dead.  While no one may have been surprised when he died, you can bet your bottom dollar that his resurrection caught people off guard!

Jesus, while he may have been guilty of blasphemy and treason, at least as understood by the people of that time and place, was sinless.  He was righteous.  He was all about God’s purposes for his life and for this world. His friend Peter points this out to the people of Jerusalem in a sermon he preached a couple of months after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when he said that it was impossible for death to hold Jesus.  It was impossible, says Peter, because the penalty for sin (death) did not apply to Jesus.  Since he was sinless, death could not keep him.

Author C.S. Lewis illustrates this concept very well in his story The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, when the great lion Aslan is apparently murdered by the White Witch, only to come back to life three days later. Listen:

At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise—a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.

“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”

“Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane…stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad….

“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”[1]

Noli me Tangere by Hans The Younger Holbein, 1524

Here’s my point: if we wanted to, we could turn Easter in a wonderful memorial wherein we talk about what a great guy Jesus was and how he really got jacked up by a corrupt system.  If we’re not careful, we could lay out all kinds of flowers and stuffed animals and wreaths, just like they do by the side of the road when someone is killed by a drunk driver.  If we wanted to, we could work really hard to turn Easter into a sentimental reflection on a series of very unfortunate events.  That is to say that if we are not careful, we will wind up taming or neutering Easter.

OR, we can choose to follow the lead of the first disciples and point to the resurrection of Jesus as proof that sin, slavery, and injustice are not God’s intentions for his children or his creation.  We can testify, if we so choose, to the fact that following Jesus is not merely showing up every now and then, looking religious, singing a few hymns, and maybe throwing a couple of bucks into the offering plate.  Following Jesus is not merely a matter of maintaining the posture of an “innocent bystander” while other folks take action – following Jesus is a decision to embrace a willingness to be passionate about the things that he did – even the things that he did that wound up getting him killed.

If we want to engage the real meaning of Easter, we can remember and rededicate ourselves to the passionate pursuit of the justice that Isaiah pictures.  We can recognize the radical embrace of God’s call on our lives.  We can demonstrate a willingness to follow Jesus into some messy and even painful places in order to discover and reveal the eternal intentions of God.

Beloved in Christ, today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, not only because he was a great guy and we’re glad to have him back, etc. etc. etc.

We celebrate because the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth demonstrates for us the truth that he really was who he said he was: the Son of the Father, to whom all authority is given on earth and in heaven.  And because we can count on him being who he said he was, we can believe that we are who he says we are: forgiven, called, sent.  We are agents of his love and grace.  We are not innocent.  We are not sinless.  But we are His.  And as we discover and live into that identity, may we have the courage to refuse to tame our witness to the ways that he has come to redefine all our allegiances and all our values.  He has risen.  He has risen indeed.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


[1] The Chronicles of Narnia (Harper Collins, 2004) pp. 184-185.

Fit to Be Untied

We welcomed Palm Sunday (04/01/2012) in Crafton Heights by reading through Mark 11:1-11.  This was the conclusion to a month of conscious exploration of questions of membership in the church and connection with each other.  In addition to hearing the scripture and sermon, the congregation was invited to sign on to a large reproduction of the covenant as a means of displaying our connection with each other in Christ.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (between 1884-1896)

What do you suppose happened to the colt?  It appears to be one of the unanswered questions of scripture.  Mark tells us that Jesus’ followers went into town and took the animal, saying that Jesus said he’d bring it back when he was finished with it.

Do you think that he did?  I mean, things got pretty busy pretty fast that week.  Do you think that Jesus arranged for the little fella to get back to its mother?  Or was that a detail that got overlooked in the cleansing of the temple, the last round of teachings, and then the trial and crucifixion?

We don’t know what happened to the colt.  What we do know is that at the beginning of chapter 11, the colt is tied up.  We know that because in the space of the first five verses, there are five references to tying or untying that beast.

It was tied.  Do you suppose that the Jerusalem chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested on behalf of this colt?  Why should that animal be tied up, anyway?  What if the source of water was just out of reach?  What if there were no shade or shelter from the intense Middle Eastern sun?  Why should that colt have to remain tethered there – or anywhere – subject to being pestered by dogs, children, or insects?  Colts are created for freedom!  To run, to leap, to play in the meadows of the world!  Untie that colt!

Yes, but…what if that colt was tied for its own protection?  After all, it was out of traffic.  Tying it there, under the vigilance of the neighborhood watch group, would keep the colt from being separated from its mother.  A tied colt is a secure, unflustered colt.

Why was it tied up?  It could have been any of those reasons, but I suppose that there was a simpler response to that question: the colt was tied there so that it would be ready when it was needed.

The gospel writer doesn’t reflect very long on how or why the colt was tethered.  All we know is that it was tied, and then it was untied and led to the place where Jesus used it.

I’m not really talking about colts, you know.

I wonder about you.  To what are you tied, and why?

Do you feel locked into your job?  Your relationship?  Your mortgage?

Some of us are tethered to a sense of self.  “I’m the guy who always has to ask ‘why?’”, someone told me the other day.  Maybe you see yourself as the life of the party or the “good” child or the caregiver.

We’re tied by our habits.  A friend of mine told me that he was unavailable for anything on Thursdays because it was bowling day.  You wash the car every Saturday.  Good habits can pin us down.  Of course, bad habits can, too: you keep twisting the truth as you try to finagle your way out of a situation at work and discover that you can’t remember what really is true…you think that maybe you could cut back on the amount of time you waste on your computer, but it’s so easy to just turn it on and get lost in the world of gaming…

As you think about your own life, do you prefer to be tied or untied?  For us, unlike that colt, it is essentially a matter of choice, after all.  We can decide to accept a job or buy a house or remain in a relationship or continue to play the games or whatever…

I believe that most of us, most of the time, prefer to be tied in to some areas of our lives.  We want something that is steady, and predictable.  We want a routine.  A friend told me recently that she hoped to develop the kind of relationship where she could go into a restaurant and have “the usual”.

I know that is not what our culture says that we want.  From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Fight Club, from Thelma and Louise to the Hunger Games, we learn that humans want to be free from the shackles that confine us; we talk about breaking free from conformity and obedience and sameness… and yet we so often choose to be tethered to something.

My question for today, then, is this: do the things to which I tie myself interfere with Jesus’ ability to use me?

Giotto di Bondone, fresco, created between 1304-06

Jesus’ instruction, after all, was not merely to untie the colt.  He said, “Untie it, and bring it to me.”  At the risk of over-investing meaning in a sentence or two that Jesus said, it seems to me that we can infer that both tying and untying have a place and a purpose.  We are not created for slavery or drudgery or a dull grey monotonous existence.  “Untie that colt!” Yet neither are we sent into the wilderness of this world with no structure, no relationships, and no identity.  “And bring it to me!”

Like that colt, you and I are called to be in the place where we are most useful to God.  Sometimes, that is in a place where I am rooted or anchored, bound to structures and relationships that sustain and define me.

And sometimes, I need to be loosened from those places and led somewhere else.

Much of the time, the place to which I’m currently tied prepares me for life that is on the way.  Marriage prepared me for fatherhood, for instance.  Showing up at work allows me to practice keeping promises and to anticipate the situations I encounter once I am there.  And being in a special relationship with the group of people known as the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights helps me to see what is important through eyes that are like, but not identical, to my own.

In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to consider whether you are able and willing to sign a document that reads as follows:

We, the undersigned, in response to the grace of God, desire to be constituted and organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to be known as The First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights.  We promise and covenant to live together in unity and to work together in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ, bound to him and to one another as a part of the body of Christ in this place according to the principles of faith, mission, and order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This covenant involves a lot of tethering – to live in unity; to work in ministry; to join together as followers of Jesus.  In the covenant, we are tied to each other in faith, in mission, and in an order that comes from Christ.  That covenant implies mutual submission.  In signing that document, I am making a choice.

It’s important for us to realize that when I sign this covenant, I am binding myself not only to the Lord, but to you – for His sake and for the sake of the world, in addition to whatever joy I might receive from maintaining a connection with you.

The first Palm Sunday gave the people in Jerusalem the opportunity to acclaim Jesus as Lord and savior.  In the events of the week that followed, his closest friends re-evaluated what exactly it meant to say that Jesus is “savior” and “lord”.  They were already tied to Jesus, of course, but in that first Holy Week they had to untie themselves from the notion of Savior as that of a conquering hero or military presence.  When they were free from those notions, then the earliest church was able to follow Jesus into the world, loving and serving in his name.

Being a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has historically been, in some places at least, a pretty smart move.  You came into town and you signed a covenant like this and you could expect certain payoffs.  The Presbyterian Church was full of contacts that would be useful for your career.  The Presbyterians were known to have a lot of doctors and lawyers and bankers, so when you needed some advice, it was nice to know that those folks were playing on your team.  The Presbyterian Church was full of “our kind” of people, and you could go there, as did my parents, to meet a prospective spouse and then some babysitters.  Being Presbyterian carried with it a certain level of credibility and prestige – at least in many places.

And, for all I know, that’s still true in some corner of the globe.  But for the most part, we live in a culture in which church is irrelevant.  It’s seen as, at best, an idealistic gesture wherein we can gather to attempt to hold on to memories from the past. Bill Gates
, the founder of Microsoft, has summed up this view of the church by saying: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”  At its worst, of course, the church is now seen as a destructive influence that perpetuates bigotry and hatred and ought to be done away with.

And yet, here we are, committed to one another in love.  Here we are, sitting next to people who not only are NOT Doctors and Lawyers ready to give out free advice, or business tycoons who are prepared to advance our careers – heck, the people we are sitting with can’t even be trusted to like our music, or to vote the way that they ought to in November, or to make decisions that we always agree with.

And yet God is calling us to tie ourselves to each other in the belief that we as a body will be of use to him in this time and in this place.  Not because we are so smart or well connected or attractive or even right all of the time, but because there is something here that we cannot make, we can only receive; there is something here that is given, not taken; there is something here that is for healing, not for cursing.  There is the body of Christ.

This day, I hope that you will join me in promising ourselves to each other because we trust that Jesus Christ is still at the front of this parade, and he will take us where we ought to go.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.