A Sweet Experiment

For a long time, I’ve thought about trying to find ways to grow good and nutritious food in non-traditional ways.  Last year, I experimented with a Sweet Potato Tower – thinking that it would allow people with small yards or in an urban setting to grow wonderful food.  This year, I documented the process so that others can try.

You’ll need three or four tires, a reciprocating saw (saws-all) with a hacksaw blade, some top soil (I also used peat moss and some compost), a piece of PVC plastic tubing with a number of holes drilled through it, and, of course, potato plants.  I used a dozen for three tires.

First, I took the saws-all and cut one sidewall off of two tires and both sidewalls off the third. I also “notched” the bottom and middle tires with a space for the potatoes.

Place a tire on the ground with the sidewall down.  Note the notches on the tire.

Next, insert the PVC in the center of the tire.  You’ll use this to water the potato plants from the inside out.

Fill that tire with the mixture of soil, peat, and compost.  Place the potato plants in the notches.  Then, place the middle tire (with no sidewalls, but notches) on top of the bottom tire.

As it says on your shampoo bottle – “Repeat”.  Actually, if you are using peat moss, you would really be re-peating, but I didn’t have to say that.  Anyway, fill that tire with your soil mixture and add the potato plants.

Place the top tire on, with the sidewall UP.  Place the potato plants near the outer rim of the sidewall.

Water the plants regularly – you’ll be able to tell if they are thirsty because they’ll wilt a bit.  The tires will help to retain heat as well as moisture.  After about three months, simply pull out the pvc, kick the tires over onto a tarp, harvest the potatoes, and save the dirt for next year.  In 2011, I got between 1/3 and 1/2 a bushel of delicious sweet potatoes from twelve plants in three tires.

In 2012, I ran into some trouble while I was away during June.  Turns out that my neighborhood groundhog developed a real affinity for sweet potato leaves.  I’m sure that set back the yield a bit.  However, I still ended up with nearly half a bushel.

Once I kicked the tires over, the potatoes are there to be gathered.

The sweet potato roots grow tightly nestled together.



Here’s the yield from the crop in 2012. Remember, these all grew in a “footprint” the size of a typical tire.


The Wind, The Breath, and the Bones

On Pentecost Sunday (May 27, 2012) we celebrated the birth of the church by sharing in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and receiving new members into our community.  Our scriptures for the morning included Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2:1-12

One of the girls in our youth group is always full of trick questions.  She loves to try to stump Pastor Dave and the rest of the group with zingers like these:

Larry’s father has five sons named Ten, Twenty, Thirty, Forty…Guess what would be the name of the fifth?[1]

What always goes up and down, but doesn’t move?[2]

A murderer was convicted and given 3 choices for his punishment.  He could enter a room full of raging fires, a room full of assassins with loaded guns, or a room full of lions who hadn’t eaten in 3 years.  What did he choose?[3]

Sometimes, the trick questions I get asked are a little more theological in nature: Pastor, God can do anything, right?  So, can God make a rock so big that God cannot lift it?

I bet you get some trick questions, too.  What I hate are those questions where you know that there has to be a right answer, but for the life of you, you can’t possibly figure out what that right answer is.  It’s a question, all right.  And there ought to be an answer.  But you’re darned if you know what to say.  Like when you’re filling out a job application and it asks, “What is your desired rate of hourly pay?”  On the one hand, your desired rate? Um, $500 an hour?  But in this case, you’re pretty sure that the question asker doesn’t really want to know your answer…but rather, see if you can guess what his or her answer is.

This morning’s scripture is about a time when Ezekiel faced a trick question.  Let me give you the context:

Ezekiel was a priest of the people of God.  He was called to minister to God’s people, who had really fallen on hard times in recent years.  Today’s reading comes from about ten years after the people had been dragged from their homes and sent into exile in the land of Babylon.  Jerusalem, the storied capitol of God’s people, has fallen.  The nation of Israel, at least as a political entity, has ceased to exist.  The people of God are lost, bewildered, confused, and depressed.

Matthew Brady, the Battle of Gettysburg

Victims of Cambodian Genocide in “The Killing Fields”

At this point Ezekiel, who as I have indicated was a priest called to care for the spirits of the remaining people of faith, is taken in a vision to a valley full of bones.  He is surrounded by the specter, the stench, and the reality of death.  The scene is described in graphic detail: imagine, if you will, one of the images from Matthew Brady’s civil war photos, or more recently, the Killing Fields of southeast Asia.  It is a gruesome place.  And more than that, it is a place that puts Ezekiel’s identity in crisis – because if he touches a dead body or a human bone, he’s unclean, and thereby unable to fulfill his function as a priest to the people.  So he’s already in a tight spot, and then God asks him one of those trick questions:  “Ezekiel, can these bones live?”

The Valley of the Dry Bones, a woodcut by Hans Brosamer (ca. 1500-ca. 1554) in Martin Luther’s Bible

Now, on the one hand, he’s looking at a valley of bones.  Not bodies, bones.  Dry bones.  No life at all in these bones.  But on the other hand, he’s talking to God.  And, God bless him, the priest gets this one right.  He says, “You know the answer to that one, Lord…”

And then the Lord includes Ezekiel in his work. And he commands the priest to become a prophet.  Here’s something we’ve talked about before, but I want to make sure we remember this morning.  When the Bible uses the word “prophesy”, it does not necessarily mean “foretell the future”.  Usually, “prophesy” means “tell the people what I want them to hear”.  A prophet’s job is to speak the truth of God’s word.  Sometimes, that’s a predictive word.  Sometimes, that’s a word that reflects on the past.  And sometimes, it has to do with what’s in the room right now.  And here in Ezekiel 37, the priest is told to prophesy in three different directions.

First, he is told to speak God’s word to the field that is littered with death and hopelessness and uncleanness.  “Tell the truth to those bones,” says God, “And watch what happens.”  And you know what happened: the bones click together – “the leg bone’s connected to the knee bone…the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone…” and, well, you get the point.  The bones come together and then are covered with sinews and muscle and flesh and skin – the scattered bodies are made whole.

Then Ezekiel is told to speak God’s word to the “breath”, and the breath fills the corpses that have assembled under Ezekiel’s preaching.  You should note that in some way this is a re-creation of the Genesis story of creation, as the human beings are given form, but not fully alive until the breath of heaven enters into them.

The third time Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy, he is told to speak to the bodies that have become enlivened, and now he his also told that these bodies are in fact the people of Israel – the ones who for more than a decade have felt lost, abandoned, and dead.  And Ezekiel tells these people that God’s intentions are for wholeness and justice; God’s plans are to make these scattered, dry, and weary people a living body, and to give them a place and a purpose.

This truth-telling is demonstrated in verse 10, where after the breath comes into the bones they assemble into “an exceedingly great host” (RSV).  The Hebrew word there is chayil, and it is also translated as “army” or “wealth” or “multitude”.  The sense is that there is some great strength or vast resource that has been called together for a specific purpose.  These bones come together and do not form a mob or a crowd or a horde.  No, they form a host.  They have come together with a specific purpose – to be the people of God.

And how does this happen?  By the ruah of God.  The Hebrew word ruah, like the Greek word pneuma, can be translated as wind, or breath, or spirit.  At its root, ruah means “air in motion”.  And Ezekiel, speaking to and then speaking for and with the ruah of God, demonstrates its power and might.  It is at work in secret, hidden ways, as it weaves sinews onto bones; it is at work in powerful ways, as it can open graves and send people from the darkness into the light.  Because of the wind of God, the breath of God, or the Spirit of God, those who are scattered and dried up come together and know that God will make them a people, establish them in a place, and give them a purpose.

Now, fast forward with me to the New Testament reading – about six hundred years later.  The first followers of Jesus – we can’t call them the “church” yet because they haven’t called themselves that yet – are gathered together.  There are maybe a hundred of them.  They have locked themselves in a room and the predominate emotion seems to be one of fear.

This is a bit surprising, perhaps, because it’s the day of Pentecost – the Feast of Weeks – for the people of God.  It’s a festival day, celebrating the goodness of the first harvest.  Jews have come from all over the world to worship and thank God.

But these followers of Jesus are in a tight spot.  They believe that they’ve been given a purpose – the Lord himself had said, “You shall be my witnesses” – but there was no real place, they were not really a people, and there was surely not much power in that body.  “Do we even belong here?” they must have asked.  “Can we worship? How? Where? To what end?  Should we go to the temple?  But those are the people who killed Jesus…”

And once more, the breath of God, the heavenly wind, the Holy Spirit comes upon those who are lost and lifeless.  Just as Ezekiel said the graves would come open and God’s people would come out, all of a sudden, the little room in Jerusalem can’t contain the body of Christ and they spread through the whole world telling the truth about Jesus – becoming prophets themselves in their truth-telling – as they share the Good News about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – and about his intentions for the world.

What Ezekiel saw in that valley of the dry bones happened on Pentecost in Jerusalem – the Body of Christ was sent out into the light to celebrate and proclaim hope and reconciliation for all of God’s children.

There is a word for our congregation here, church.  You’ve heard stories that were written thousands of years ago in other languages to other people, but they are your story, too.

Do you know that God’s purposes have not changed?  Do you know that God is about life, and hope, and healing, and community?  I hope you know that.

And I am sure that you know that the world is still a place that is far too often more characterized by death than by those eternal purposes of God.  On Memorial Day weekend, we confess that we live in a world that is bathed in violence – violence in our relationships with each other, as we hit or abuse or ignore or shut out or shut down the one with whom we are angry or towards whom we have hatred, and violence in the world of nations as it has become a matter of policy for countless nations throughout the earth to rain down death from the skies on other human beings.

There are too many valleys that are filled with dry bones, beloved.  Valleys of fear.  Valleys of betrayal.  Valleys of regret, or mistrust, or disease, or, well, you get the idea.  There is too much death.

And yet…and yet, I am telling you the truth today.  I will speak the words of the prophet today, and tell you that God’s breath is still here – the wind of God is still in motion and fills this room.

Some of us need to hear that this morning. For some of us, to be honest, it was all we could do to drag ourselves out of bed and into this room today.  We are dried up, dying, or hopeless.  But the good news of the Gospel is that you are not in that place forever, and you are not past God’s intentions for your lives.

And some of us are called to join the ranks of the prophets this morning and become truth-tellers in our world.  Speak the wholeness, the healing, the hope of God to those you see.  Bring the peace of God with you into the rooms you inhabit.

And you say, “Dave, how can I do this?  I’m no prophet!”  Neither was Ezekiel.  He was a pastor.  Peter was a fisherman. That doesn’t seem to be much of an impediment.  We become prophets the same way that those lost exiles did in Babylon in 570 BC.  The same way that those first followers of Jesus did in Jerusalem in 30 AD.  The people of God have always done this, and have only done this, when they are motivated and activated and sustained by the ruah of the Lord and the power of the gathered community.

Our community is enlarged today on two fronts.  First, we will receive new members.  Friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, who have sensed that God is at work in their lives and in ours and who want to stand with us and say, “I will be better able to live into God’s purposes for my life if I am surrounded by people like this…”

And we will be further enlarged this morning as we share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  The tokens of juice and bread will become for us symbols of Christ’s own body – the body that now looks every bit like you as it moves and walks through the world.

Don’t get me wrong – I hope that neither you nor I become presumptuous in any way, or arrogant.  But don’t sell yourselves short, either.

The ruah of God – the wind, the breath, the Spirit of God – is moving over the valleys of death in our world.  And it moves through lives and voices like yours.  Where are you that breath of God today?  How will you be that wind of God in your world?

Here’s what I want you to do – I want you to stand up right now, if you can, and I want you to inhale as deeply as you possibly can.  Fill your body with the breath of this room…  And then try to hold it in.  You can’t!  The breath will explode from you – maybe already – surely by the end of the first verse of the next hymn.  You were created to be filled by the breath of God.  And you were created to share that breath.  God bless you.  Be a prophet today.  Speak the truth of God’s healing and powerful and life-giving presence to those whose bones lie all around you.  Be the church!  Amen.

[1] Larry, of course…

[2] The stairs

[3] The last room.  Lions who haven’t eaten in 3 years are dead.

Making Room

We finished our examination of the practices that make for healthy congregations on Sunday May 20 with a look at the practice of hospitality.  Much of the thinking for this series is rooted in work done by Christine Pohl in her recent book Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us.  The texts for the day were Matthew 25:31-46 and I Timothy 3:2-3 and 5:9-10.

I know that it’s a tough economy these days, but there are places in which it is growing.  Can you take a guess at the sector of the US economy that created the most jobs in 2011? According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care generated more jobs than anything else.  A close second, however, was the “hospitality industry.”

Think about that for just a moment.  We say that our economy is struggling.  That, presumably, means that many of us feel as though we don’t have as much money, or as many opportunities as we wish…and yet we appear to be increasingly willing to pay people to offer food, transportation, or lodging – all categories which we could, if we really wanted to, share.

It would seem as though for whatever reason, we are less inclined to take care of these needs for ourselves and share them with others than we used to be.  Hospitality has become increasingly professional, hasn’t it?  Do you invite someone else to dinner in your home, or do you go out for a shared meal?  It’s a lot of work to host, isn’t it?  Olive Garden is just so much easier.  When you’re all heading out to the wedding, do you arrange to pick up a few folks, or do you assume we’ll all get there on our own?  Again, it’s kind of a hassle to clean out the back seat, and you might want to leave early.  And when you visit another town, do you look for relatives to stay with, or is it just easier to rent a room?

I would suggest that these are indications that personal and spontaneous hospitality is on the wane in the USA.  I find that to be unfortunate, since it’s the topic of this morning’s sermon; I find that to be dangerous, since hospitality was apparently very important to Jesus.

The Hospitality of Abraham

First, a definition.  For the sake of this morning, I might define hospitality as extending yourself for the good of another, or perhaps welcoming another into your life – your heart, your home, your church.

It would appear from Matthew 25 as though hospitality is the matrix by which Jesus will judge the nations and people of the world.  It was, as we saw in the reading from Timothy, one of the clear standards for leadership and expectations of behavior in the early church. Let’s take a look at the gospel.

The Lord says that he will separate humanity into two groups in the same way that a shepherd separates sheep and goats. I got to thinking about that earlier this week and found it to be a bit of a puzzle.  If you are raising both sheep and goats anyway, why do you even want to separate them?  In the Middle East, it’s pretty hard (at least for a layman like myself) to distinguish quickly between sheep and goats.  Why bother?

Well, the type and quality of the meat, milk, and wool that is produced, along with the techniques for harvesting those things, varies significantly. You don’t milk a sheep in the same way you milk a goat, and you don’t use the milk in the same way.  More than that, the goats have a different personality.  They are pushy, they butt anything that moves (and a lot that doesn’t), and that behavior puts the sheep off their game and makes them less likely to produce good milk or good meat.  So the good shepherd gives them a break, and separates them at the end of the day.

According to Matthew 25, the fundamental test by which the shepherd separates humanity into groups is one of hospitality.  To what extent, he wants to know, have you been willing to put yourself out for the good of another?  How hospitable are the practices of your life when it comes to sharing food, shelter, and care?

I hope that you’ve noticed that the Lord is not administering a theological examination.  Jesus is not asking for the six essential beliefs that have sustained them over the years, or how their education impacted them.  He’s not interested in the various “isms” that they professed or the “ologies” they have mastered.

I also hope you noticed that Jesus places himself, in this teaching, in a position of need and vulnerability.  He says that he is the one who needed to be visited, or healed, or fed.

Further, it’s important to note as we unpack this scripture that when the Lord commends those who have extended care in his name that they are just as surprised as those who are shut out.  Everyone looks at him blankly and says, “Really?  That was you, Lord?  I had no idea!”  The implication, of course, is that we have to be really, really careful when we decide that we know what Jesus looks like and where he’s liable to be found hanging around.  Apparently, if we go only where we are sure he can be found, we’ll miss out on meeting him in a lot of places.

But while the scripture is clear that Jesus values and apparently rewards hospitable behavior, and while it describes some pretty concrete examples of what such behavior looks like, this passage doesn’t give a lot of insight into how to actually get better at doing hospitality.  A couple of thoughts…

It seems to me as though many, if not most, of the more meaningful hospitable moments in our lives are experienced first as intrusions.  Much of what we traditionally think of as “hospitality” is eminently plan-able: you decide to host a small gathering for dinner next Saturday night, for instance.  That is gracious.  You volunteered to give a friend a ride to church this morning.  That was kind.  But those are both really easy compared to the call you get while you’re sitting down to your own dinner with your own family asking you to please take someone else to the hospital.  The friends who are planning on coming to your place next Saturday have all kinds of options open to them as to how they’ll satisfy their nutritional requirements for that day.  You are, for them, one possibility among many. But for the friend who has just been beaten and is bleeding, you are it.  One of the hardest things about praying, “Lord, please help me become a more hospitable person” is that it’s simply so darn inconvenient.

And more than inconvenient, true and open hospitality is not very efficient.  This week, my wife and I had the opportunity to see an IMAX movie for free at the science center.  We arrived and were ushered to a refreshment area, where we had our choice of beverages and hors d’oeuvres.  When it was time for the movie to begin, we were given a free box of popcorn and ushered to our seats.  Why was this hospitality extended?  Because we are members of the museum.  We give a certain amount each year, and the good people of the Carnegie Science Center want to make sure that we feel good about that membership and remember that feeling when they call again in a few weeks to see if we would like to renew, or perhaps increase, our support.  It cost them a bundle to put that event on, but I would imagine that they will actually make money in the long run.  Why?  Because they targeted “their” kind of people with the invite and they will follow up.

What do you suppose would happen if they just wandered into the West End or to a group under the Fort Duquesne Bridge and handed out tickets to that event on the street?  Would they “make” or “lose” money?  I would bet that it’d be a losing proposition.  It would be gracious, and I bet people would enjoy the show…but it would not be a particularly sound development strategy.

Similarly, churches can’t pretend to offer meals or programs as a means of being gracious if we have a hidden agenda of getting more members or increasing our financial stability.  Almost always, hospitality costs something.  The church needs to remember this:  we don’t extend ourselves so that we’ll become blessed; we become blessed in the giving of ourselves. I know that this is not what some of my brothers and sisters teach, but the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” is a lie.  Hospitality is not an economic plan…it is an invitation to participate in the things that matter to Jesus…and when we do that, we enter into the wholeness and the “blessing” of God.

Last week I mentioned that there was a definite order to these practices we’ve considered this month.  This week I would echo that.  In fact, hospitality builds on each of the core practices we have already discussed.

Hospitality is rooted in gratitude.  The most generous people you will ever meet are also the most thankful.  Those who are most likely to extend themselves on behalf of another have the keenest awareness that they, themselves, have been beneficiaries of that which they do not deserve.  What happens when hospitality is divorced from gratitude?  It becomes grudging and bitter – as unpleasant for the recipient as it is for the donor.  Yet when I wake up every day convinced of the fact that I inhabit a life I do not deserve, it’s a little easier to offer the time or money or energy I have, because people are not laying claim to that which I’ve somehow salted away for myself; they are asking to share in that which I’ve been given.

Moreover, hospitality relies on my ability to make and keep promises.  When you need a ride and I say that I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, that sets a number of things in motion.  If in the meantime I get schnookered into watching the next episode of The Bachelor, I deny my ability to welcome and serve you, and rather than extending myself on your behalf, I mislead and mistreat you.

And, of course, hospitality is about telling the truth.  When you come into my home, or my space, or my life – you see me for who I am.  I’m not going to ask for hands on this, but I would bet that we all know someone who, when visiting another’s home, simply can’t resist the temptation to open the medicine cabinet in the powder room.  Why?  Who knows!  But you know that people stand there and say, “Ooooh, what’s that for?  Gross!  Really?”  When you have someone come into your home, they see what’s hanging on your refrigerator; they hear what you listen to and see what you watch.  Inviting someone to share your space is a self-revealing act: you speak truth about yourself when you ask me into your home.

I mentioned at the beginning of this message that in our world, hospitality is thought of in increasingly economic terms.  That is, we engage in transactional hospitality: I do something for you (give you a bowl of soup), and you do something for me (pay me five dollars).  That’s the hospitality industry, but I don’t think that is really extending oneself for the benefit of another.  That is using resources to achieve mutually beneficial ends: you get fed and I get paid.

The call of the church is to root our treatment of the other in our gratitude for the ways that we ourselves have been treated, with no expectation of return.  We are called to have vision and be bold in looking beyond the external presentation a person may make and to see the image of God within that one.

Last week, I mentioned that one of the important aspects of gaining strength in any area was the ability and willingness to engage in simple and practical exercises.  Just like the physical therapist gives you little blue bands and tells you to stretch with them, I’ve been trying to give you tasks that help you become better at being grateful, at making and keeping promises, and at telling the truth to one another in love.

The homework for the next couple of weeks is apparently simple: I’d like to challenge you to look for at least one way in each of the next three weeks that you can be available to extend yourself to another person in the name of Jesus.  But here’s the catch: I don’t want you to go home and plan for that right now.  You’re not allowed to leave here and send three emails saying, “Sure, I’ll volunteer here on the 25th, and give you a ride to the doctor’s on the 2nd, and invite your mother over on the 9th.”  Instead, I want to challenge you to pay attention to the rhythm of your days so that when you are presented with an interruption that is really an opportunity to practice hospitality and extend yourself for the sake of another, that you’ll be able to say, “This is the kind of nonsense that Dave was talking about.  Sure, I can get out of bed early and take you shopping”, or “I’ll forgo my movie so that you can buy that prescription”, or something like that.

I can guarantee you that you won’t like it – no more than I like fooling around with this stretchy thing that’s supposed to help my shoulder.  But I can also guarantee that this is an area of your life wherein it is possible to grow in your strength and ability.  And as we do this, I’m here to tell you that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “Come, blessed of my Father…”  When Jesus says “blessed” he is describing a reality that has already occurred – these people are “blessed” before they get into whatever heaven looks like, because they are participating in the kinds of life that God has called blessed. As you grow in your ability to share of yourself and the gifts with which you have been blessed, you will discover that it is possible to enter into the joy of the Father on this side of eternity.  When you offer to meet people in a posture of hospitality – when you feed the hungry or clothe the sick or visit the lonely, you are doing that which Jesus calls “blessed.”  This is why you were created, my friends.  God bless you as you discover that in the weeks to come.  Amen.

If I’m Lyin’, I’m Dyin’!

We are continuing to investigate the practices that make for healthy communities.  On May 13, we considered one of the more difficult scripture texts:  the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  We also heard from Colossians 3:9-14.

To be honest, I’ve been known to pull off some corkers in the past.  I remember a couple of years ago, on the day after Christmas, I preached about King Herod killing all the babies in Bethlehem.  And I got some guff on Mother’s Day 2010, when the Gospel Reading was from Mark 13, and it was all about the end of the world, and wars, and rumors of war.

So if you happen to be here once or twice a year because you’re bringing mom to church and you remember stuff like that, and then today you get Ananias and Sapphira apparently being wiped out for lying in church, well, let me assure you that the whole Bible isn’t this scary.

We are looking at what it means for us to be a community – asking questions like, ‘how are we supposed to relate with and for each other in Crafton Heights, in 2012?’  Today, we are going to examine the third of four practices that have been found to be life-sustaining in communities like ours.  We’ve already talked about the importance of gratitude and promise-making as spiritual practices.  Today we’ll take a look at Acts chapter 5, which provides us with a clear illustration of the fact that lying can be, well, hazardous to one’s health.

Acts 4 ends with an account of a number of different people who were generous in their giving to their friends in need and to the church.  We see in those passages the church described as a place characterized by honesty, generosity, growth, gentleness, and humility.

The first word of chapter 5 is “But”.  And I’m here to tell you, it’s not a small ‘but’.  In fact, I have often thought that I might preach a sermon series entitled “The Biggest Buts In the Bible”, and if I did, this would surely be one of them.

The Death of Ananias by Raphael (1515)

The church is a community rooted in love and gratitude and honesty and integrity.  BUT Ananias, with his wife’s knowledge, pretended to bring everything to the Lord, but instead, he brought a part and claimed it was the whole.  Confronted with his lie, he dropped over as dead as a doornail.  Shortly thereafter, his wife Sapphira is brought in, and she confirms the lie.  She, too, drops dead.  And the passage ends with a pointed understatement: and great fear seized the whole church.”  Yeah, no kidding!  Can you imagine?  I mean, what if there really was the death penalty for lying?  I’d be in trouble… but then again, I’m not sure how many of you would be around for my funeral…

Before we leave this page, let’s look at what is really happening here.  Peter and the others do not appear to be concerned about their personal feelings about or role in the situation.  Peter is not asking, “Did you lie to me?”  Rather, the question is, “Are you being honest with God?  Did you lie to the Holy Spirit?”

That’s important here in Acts because Luke, the author of Acts, is developing the notion that the church is not simply another group of individuals who share a few common interests, or a voluntary organization such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Democratic Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, or the Kiwanis Club.  Luke is using this section of Acts to indicate that the church is a group of people that is called and given shape by the Lord.  In fact, in verse 11, where we read, “and great fear seized the whole church…”, we should take note that Luke is introducing a new word into the Book of Acts.  Before, when he talked about the people who followed Jesus, he referred to the disciples or the apostles or “the group” or simply “them”.  But here, for the first time, he uses the word “church” – in the Greek, it’s ekklesia, which means “the ones who have been called out”.

The Biblical understanding is that God calls a people and gives them a new identity.  He shapes and molds them towards something that they are not – at least, not yet – and helps them become what they are going to be.  God does that when he names Abraham and promises to make out of him a great nation.  He does that when he leads Moses to gather the slaves in Egypt. He does that when he calls the exiles home from Babylon – and all of those indications are just hints of what God is doing when God calls the church to be not just another group of people, but the visible, tangible, earthly body of Christ.  It looks to me like Luke is describing what happened here with Ananias and Sapphira in the same way that Joshua described what happened to a man named Achan, who violated the clear command of God and paid for it with his life.  Achan became for the early Israelite community a clear indication that God means what God says, and that there is a special responsibility to being included in the people of God.

I had a friend who, when he was trying to convince me of the truth of some statement, would swear, “Look, man – if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’!”  I think that when he said it, he thought it was cooler and more mature than saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die…”  He used that phrase to mean, “look, you have to believe me!”  He used it as an oath.

Psalm 81 by Cody F. Miller. Used by permission of the artist. See more at codyfmiller.com

But I believe that it is also a descriptive truth.  That is to say, it’s a statement of fact.  If I am lying, then I am, in fact, dying.  Listen:

When we first meet God, way back in Genesis 1, how does God show who he is?  How does God get business done in Genesis 1?  By speech, right?  Do you remember – “God said…” “and it was…”  God uses words to bring life.

When John’s Gospel was trying to tell us who Jesus was, and what Jesus was about, he didn’t know exactly how to tell us that…until he said that Jesus is the “Word”.  Echoing Genesis, John says that when God wants to bring life, Jesus is the speech that God uses.

And when the Biblical writers talk about The Holy Spirit, we have to remember that the word for “spirit” is the same as the word for “breath”.  The Spirit of God is the “Breath” of God.

And finally, when the Bible tells you and me who we are, it says that we are created in the image of God.  We are like God.  And more than that, collectively, we are the church – the Body of Christ.

So then, if I, made in the image of God and called into the Body of Christ use my breath and shape my words and form my speech so as to produce an untruth – then I am acting contrary to my created nature and against the body of Christ.  That, my friends, is dying.

If I am lying, then I am, in fact, dying.

As we seek to be a community that lives into the fullness of God’s call for us, then we must be faithful in practicing truth.

What is truth?

Well, I know what it is not.  Truth is not the bare facts.  To “tell the truth” is not necessarily the same thing as “reporting the facts.”

And, contrary to how some of my friends in the church around the world seem to feel, the truth is not a weapon that I use to prove my own righteousness. Two writers who have shaped my understanding of this concept have similar views.  Christine Pohl says that truth is really “reliability”.[1]  Walter Wangerin says that truth is lived out as “dependability”.[2]  What does that mean?

I think that it means that I am telling you the truth when I am giving you an accurate portrayal of myself and the world as I see it.  I am telling you the truth when you can rely or depend on what I say to be accurate, not just in its factual nature, but in all that it communicates about me and the world.  I tell you the truth when I don’t leave things out, and when I don’t use facts to make you feel guilty, and when I don’t highlight certain facts while ignoring others in an attempt to build my case.

How does that look as a communal practice?  I would suggest that it has two facets.

First, a part of truth telling is contained in this question: to whom are you revealing your self?  That is to say, who walks with you through the reality of your life?  To whom do you share not only the facts (my team lost the game last night), but the inner truth (my team lost the game last night and I feel terrible because I made the last out and everybody was mad at me)?

We become a community of truth-tellers when we are able to participate in this level of self-revelation.  I used to harp on a few of you about the fact that there are very few people in this world with whom you can be real – we each have a need to be honestly and authentically ourselves.  Who knows what excites, scares, worries, tempts, or distracts you?  With whom are you real?

In the community of the ekklesia, that is half of the truth-telling task – being honest with someone about the depths of your being, and hiding nothing by lying.  But – and it is a big but – there’s more to it than this.  In addition to self-revealing truth, I need someone to be honest with me about myself.  That is, I need a mirror.  I can tell you about the ways that I process and experience things from the inside, but I cannot see the whole picture.  I need someone else to describe for me how it looks from the outside – because my heart can lie to itself.

If you were here last week, you might be asking yourself, “Why did Dave talk about making and keeping promises before he talked about telling the truth?”  Isn’t making a promise rather dependent on telling the truth?

No.  Anyone can make a promise.  A faithful friend keeps promises.  This kind of truth-telling can only come after promise keeping.  Look at it this way: before you can speak truth into my life, you have to prove that you are trustworthy.  Before I can believe what you will say about me, I have to come to acknowledge that you know what you’re talking about.  You can say this or that thing about me.  Fine.  Why should I believe you?  But if in your actions of the past, you have shown yourself to a person of integrity, a person who can be relied on, then now, when you tell me the hard truth about myself, I can trust that you are, in fact, a faithful mirror.

When we talk about telling the truth to each other in the Christian community, there are certain core affirmations that we must make.  The truth is always for the good of the other person.  When you presume to tell me the truth about myself, it’s done so that I will be a stronger person.  The truth is always concerned with either the self or the other, and not a third party.  When I tell you the “facts” about who is sleeping around with whom, I’m gossiping, not sharing truth.  The truth provides a pathway to better discipleship and deeper relationships within the Body of Christ – so I can never show up at your house, dump the truth all over your porch, and then walk away.  If I presume to speak truth to you, then it’s got to be in a context where we have the opportunity to walk around inside it for a while and explore its implications and realities.  And the truth should always lead us both to healing, reconciliation, hope and justice.

Do you hear what I’m saying, church?  The truth is hard work.

And even though we are a community of believers, and a fairly small community at that, none of us can really be that invested with everyone.  But each of us needs to be that invested with someone, and together, we need to be willing to walk more deeply into truth as a community.

Not long ago I saw a community nearly destroyed by the inability or unwillingness of its members to tell the truth to each other.  We were in a room and one man spoke up with an idea, and he did so pretty forcefully.  That’s not surprising.  The people who know him know that he can state his case pretty stridently.  In this situation, however, the thing that he was asking the community to do was actually going against the core values that the community had already expressed.  Someone sensed this, and invited discussion.  There was none.  Eyes were averted.  The mumbling started.  The floor and the ceiling became very, very interesting.  The man who started pressed for a decision.  The community actually had a vote, and if you were to read any minutes that might have been kept, you’d read that the group unanimously chose to pursue this idea.  In reality, there was only one person in the room who wanted to go there.  But the other members of the community were more concerned with being polite or in ending the gathering on time than they were on telling the truth to this man who, frankly, was acting like a bully.  It was easier for the group to simply go along, rather than help the man see what was true.

I’ve been in physical therapy for a couple of weeks.  Our friend Leslie is trying to help me throw a ball without pain.  I go in twice a week and she works me out.  But mostly, she gives me little exercises that I can do at home with a rubber band or a can of beans in the hopes that I’ll get better at doing the things that allow a person to throw a ball.

Here are your exercises for the week.  I’m not asking you to stand up and spill your guts to everyone you meet today, and I’m definitely not asking you to confront the person next to you with your understanding of all the places he or she has fallen short.  But is there one person with whom you can be honest and true?  One person to whom you can and should reveal a portion of yourself?

And similarly, is there someone for whom you can hold up a mirror for a bit and say, “Do you know, when you do ________, it results in ________.”?

The world is full of lies, and flattery, and deception, and falsehood.  Who will bear the truth?  Who will be reliable and dependable?  By the grace of God, may it be we who bear his name: the church of Jesus Christ.  May we live into that identity as the ekklesia – those who are called out in order that the world may have a brighter and deeper understanding of what it means to be children of a loving Creator.  May the words that we say, and those that we hold in, be agents of life and health and healing.  The world needs that.  And we can speak that.  Let us do so.  Amen.

[1] Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Eerdmans, 2012) p. 116.

[2] As For Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last (Nelson, 1990) p. 124.

So Long, Flannel Jesus!

The saints in Crafton Heights have been spending some time looking at what it means to be a covenant community.  Now, we are examining specific behaviors & practices that keep us in community.  This week, we look at making and keeping promises.  Scriptures for Sunday the 6 of May included Psalm 15 and Matthew 5:33-37

If you’ve been around CHUP much in the last couple of years, you know that we’ve worked hard to make some changes in our building and our structure.  We have been trying to make this place more welcoming, more efficient, and more, well, beautiful.  This week, we had a meeting that signified the beginning of the end for one of my old friends.  Our friend Jenny Gallo, who made the stole I wear for most of the year, came in and showed us some designs for a new baptismal banner – a beautiful, deeply symbolic hanging that will allow us to mark the sacrament and name those with whom we share it.  Which means, of course, that Flannel Baptism Jesus Guy’s days in this room are numbered.  This poor guy may never hold another flannel lamb again.

Flannel Baptism Jesus Guy, who has stood sentinel over our font for a quarter of a century.

In spite of what many say is a striking resemblance, I don’t think I’ll miss Flannel Baptism Jesus Guy too much.  Something about him gives me the willies.  But he has been, as I have said, a friend for more than twenty-five years.  Just out of curiosity, I wonder if I could ask you to do something for me: if Flannel Baptism Jesus Guy has ever held a little lamb with YOUR name on it, or with the name of one of your children on it, will you please stand? [note: approximately half the congregation stood at this point in the message]

Well done, Flannel Baptism Jesus Guy.  Well done.

Because in spite of the whiteness of your skin tone and the blueness of your eyes – characteristics that flesh-and-blood-Jesus did not share – you have done something heroic, Flannel Baptism Jesus Guy.  For a quarter of a century, you have reminded us of the importance of the promise.

We stand here on Baptism Sundays and we quote the scriptures, which say,

And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.  (Matt 28:20)

Friends, this promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away; for everyone whom the Lord our God calls.  (Acts 2:39)

And then we look to the parents, and ask them the question:

Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach that faith to your child?

And before we reach our hands into the water, an elder of this church looks you, the congregation, in the eyes, and says,

Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture this childby word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging her to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?

Which means, beloved, that before we have a voice in this community – before we can speak, in many cases; before language is possible… – we are surrounded by promises.  The promises of God.  The promise of those who gave us birth.  The promises of the church.

Today, we continue to explore the practices that allow us to deepen and sustain our commitment to each other as a community that belongs to Jesus Christ. For some weeks, we talked about the fact that we are called together; and now we are looking at four key practices that shape us: gratitude, promise-making and promise-keeping; truth-telling; and hospitality.[1]

Think about it for a moment: how much of what we do, and who we are, is shaped by the promises that we make to each other?  We gather for baptism, as I’ve noted; but there are promises at confirmation and at ordination and at installation.  We make promises about what we can give and who we hope to be…this whole enterprise, frankly, runs on nothing but the promises of people like you…and the Promise, of course, of the One who calls us together.

What is a promise?  Well, the dictionary tells us that a promise is a declaration that something will or will not be done, or an express assurance on which expectation will be based.  One writer says that “when we make a promise, we voluntarily obligate ourselves ‘to perform some future course of action’, often for another person’s benefit.”[2]

A promise is not a contract.  In a contract, you and I each specify the things we are willing to do to achieve a desired goal, and we often specify what we will do to each other should one of us fail to live up to those terms.  I enter into a contract as a consumer: if you don’t deliver what I expect, I will take my business elsewhere.

A promise, though, begins with the things that I am offering to you or the community.  A promise, in my opinion, does more to shape a community because it is a voluntary self-offering of the one who makes it.  A promise is a gift, not a deal.  A benediction, not a threat.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says that one of the ways that we know that humans are made in the image of God is that we are people who make promises.  He writes, “If you have a ship you will not desert, if you have a people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.”[3]

As I have thought about promises and their power this week, one of the things that I have appreciated most about promises is the fact that they are pledges of future behavior – not attitudes or feelings.  When I say that I’ll make dinner tonight, I’m not promising that I’ll enjoy it.  I am, however, indicating that that particular task necessary to my family’s functioning will be taken care of.  When I say that I’ll lead the volunteer fund raiser or be an usher or become a husband or sponsor a child through World Vision, I’m not saying that any of those activities will always bring me unbridled happiness and catapult me from my bed with glee.  I’m simply saying that I will shape my behavior in such a way as to do everything within my power ensure the completion of those tasks.

In fact, there are times when promises lead us to places we’d rather not be.  It can be simple, like the time I promised to give you a ride home from work before I remembered that you work in Monroeville.  It can be painful, like when I promised to help you get through that tough time at college, and ended up driving out there at three in the morning to talk you off a ledge of self-doubt and self-destructive behavior.  The Bible refers to this in several places, not the least of which is in our Old Testament lesson today, where we heard that God blesses those “who stand by their oath even to their hurt.” (Psalm 15:4).  In fact, you can often judge the character of a person by his or her willingness to stand by what has been promised even when keeping that promise becomes inconvenient.

If the church is any kind of community, it is a community that is formed and re-formed by the promises that we have received from God and by those that we make to each other and to the rest of the world.  We can only grow as we embrace more fully the ability to trust those promises that we have received.

But as you know, promises are tricky.  There is danger connected with making promises, and with trusting them.  The most obvious of these, of course, is that a promise will be broken.  Whether it’s getting stood up for a lunch date or looking at the shambles of a ruined marriage, betrayal is the enemy of promise.  In fact, when the poet Dante talked about hell in his epic work “The Inferno”, he described a place where there were nine different levels of torment.  The lowest, and worst, circle of hell is reserved for those who are treacherous – those who consciously betray a special relationship.  For Dante, this included biblical figures like Cain, who murdered his brother; Judas, who betrayed Jesus; and Satan himself, who sits encased in ice as he contemplates his treachery against God.

You’ve heard people say things like, “there’s a special place in hell for people who…” and then they finish the sentence: for church workers who abuse children; for men who beat the women who love them; for people who steal from their grandparents.  We know betrayal is dangerous, and our community, like every other, lives in an awareness that any promise that is made is a promise that can be broken.

Oddly enough, however, I’m not sure that betrayal is the most insidious enemy of the church’s ability to make and keep promises in the 21st century.  I would suggest that the fear of a broken promise is so pervasive that we have developed a culture that is unwilling or unable to even make promises.

Think about the ways in which many Americans view marriage, for instance.  We have become so accustomed to seeing people treat that promise lightly that many of us are unwilling to make those promises at all.  We have seen so many relationships fall prey to betrayal that we conclude there is no hope, no relationship for us, and so we settle for something less than the best because we believe that the best is an ideal that is based on a lie, rather than founded on a promise.

But it’s not only those big giant ways in which we display our inability to make and keep promises. We have become so wired and so available and so interested in keeping our own options open that we limit our ability to pledge ourselves to something important.  I can’t promise to be with you on Friday evening because I might get a better invitation tomorrow.  You don’t want to ask that girl to marry you because what if she’s not perfect and then there’s someone else who comes along in two years?  Do you see? We are so used to innovation and improvement and availability that we don’t want to lock ourselves into anything because something better might be on the horizon.

This cell phone can be a barrier to me living into promises.  How often do you walk into a conversation and the person across the table – myself included – sets this device between us and says, essentially, “look, I promise you my attention…unless someone more interesting comes along.”

One of my friends is willing to show her love to another with this simple act: when she says that she’ll go to lunch with you, she leaves her phone in the car.  She lives into her promise to be with you by becoming unavailable to anyone else on her contact list.  It’s a small thing.  But I notice it every time she does it.

So how do we become people who, like Jesus, are willing to allow our “yes” to be “yes”?  How can we be those who give ourselves to the world the way that God has given himself to us in Christ?  How do we improve our promising?

First, let me suggest that we train ourselves for this in the same way that we train for most other things.  There are probably a couple of knuckleheads out there trying to run the Pittsburgh Marathon without having prepared for it.  But most of the people who are attempting to log 26.2 miles today are those who started by jogging half a mile a long time ago.  They stretched and they limbered up and they discovered that they could make it a mile…and then three…and then they began to dream about doing the whole thing…and today they are out there wearing numbers and doing it.

Likewise, we shape ourselves as a promising community by starting small.  We show up for worship, for instance.  Yes, it’s not always convenient, but you know what?  People are blessed by your presence here.  You add your “yes” to the communal “yes” at a baptism, and then you promise to take a week in the baby care room, or share communion with a shut in, or offer a ride to the doctor’s.  Make no mistake, my friends, this community is all about inviting people to make the biggest promises of all (“greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, John 15:13, NIV).  But we prepare for the marathon promise like that by running the windsprints of showing up for meetings on time and keeping confidences that are entrusted to us.  One way that we become better at keeping promises is to practice making them.

Another way that we grow in our ability to be agents of promise is to remember that almost always we are talking about behavior, not feelings.  You can’t promise me that you’ll be happy when it’s your turn to be a lay reader or fold the church newsletter, let alone when it’s time to share your offering.  I can’t promise you that I’m looking forward to the emotions that I’ll feel when I’m standing with you at the grave of the person that we both love.  But we can promise each other that we’ll be there and do that.

Each and every day, we have the ability – and I might say the responsibility – to look at the world around us and to decide how and where we are willing to participate in the promises of God.  We have the ability – or I might say the calling – to discern how we will use the tremendous gifts that we’ve been given to helping other people see that loyalty and faithfulness and truth and hope are not only words, but rather realities in which we can live.  We have the ability – or I might say the privilege – to extend ourselves to others by making promises small and large.  And as we participate in this ability, or responsibility, or calling, or privilege of making and keeping promises, we can help the world see what the heart of God looks like.

Too many people hear the word “Jesus” and they think of a tired and faded flannel image that is as worn and dated as that banner. But you know better.  Jesus doesn’t look like that anymore.

He looks like you.  Moreso every day.

I promise.  Amen.

[1] These practices are named in, and much of my thought about them comes from, Christine Pohl’s Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us (Eerdmans 2012).

[2] Pohl, p. 64.

[3] Quoted in Pohl, p. 62.